Movie Critique - # 361: Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ

Stars: 5 / 5

Recommendation:  Don’t shove it as a silent film, watch for the drama and history that unfolds in front of your eyes with its somber silence and majestic actions.

Long before the 2016 version and a long long time before the 1959 version was released, Ben-Hur was first released as an American epic silent film in 1925. It was titled as "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ", the same title as the 1880 novel by General Lew Wallace based on which these movies were made. This was the first feature-length film adaptation of the novel. Prior to this the book was adapted into a stage play which ran successfully for 25 years. 

Ramon Novarro bagged the title character while Francis X. Bushman was cast as Ben-Hur's friend/enemy Messala while May McAvoy played the role of Esther - Ben-Hur's love interest. Three top silent era actors with exemplary performances was a definite boost for this film.

Perhaps this film is directly how the book was written cause I see it being slightly different from the future remakes. In the fact that traveling of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, birth of Jesus and Three Wise Men along with the Shepherds meeting baby Jesus is depicted in the beginning of the film which I did not see in the 1959 remake. Esther and Ben-Hur meet for the first time in the streets of Jerusalem rather than at the Hur Palace as shown in the later versions. The torture of Simonides - Hur's loyal slave - is also something I don’t remember in the later version. Messala has an Egyptian lady Iras as his girlfriend / spy, a role that is not replicated in the future movies. Messala is also not shown to be killed in the horse-race in the end conrary to the future versions.

The elaborate sea-battle between Arrius' ships and the pirates might have had needed thousands of extras for the director then. It is very elaborate with a bountiful of stunts and people. How symbolic of the director to choose white horses for the good Ben-Hur while black horses for the evil Messala. The chariot race scene is amazingly done even though it was in full black and white. It still left the same effect as the later versions. Brilliantly pictured. 

Parts of the movie is shot in two-tone technicolor - birth of Jesus, the arrival of Ben-Hur into the region of Arrius as the greatest athlete of that time, scenes showing Jesus in adulthood, his crucifixion and the closing scene. Some portions of some of the black and white scenes were tinted too.

Without dialogues with only actions, emotions, notecards and background music, the plot has been depicted in a very strong way that moved me even now. There was not a scene that I felt I missed dialogues. It must have been very hard for the actors to not speak out loud but act the lines. What a presentation, what an era, what a plot. Every bit dramatic, majestic, mythological and historical. A must watch if you get a chance. 

Spoiler Alerts:

1) Here is my take on the 1959 version of this film. I had written it as part of "Life thru the Eye of My Lens" project in 2014. Hence there are two reviews for the same. Movie Review can be found here. My Photo log can be found here.

2) In 1907 a 15 minute short silent film was made based on the book before the 1925 version ever released. The primary focus of this film was the chariot race as it was only a 15-minute film.  More about the film here.

a. And here is the film as well:

3) This short film also set precedent for copyright law. However the restored version of the film that I watched had a line about copyright being purchased by Harper & Brothers in the opening credits. Perhaps they added it after the lawsuit was lost. 

4) According to Wiki: In 1908, Harper & Brothers published a lavishly designed and illustrated book, The Chariot Race from Ben-Hur, which excerpted only the race from Lew Wallace's novel. Accompanying the text were color illustrations by Sigismond Ivanowski. I would love to own this illustrated book if I can get my hands on it.

5) Few fun facts from internet that I came across:

a. This film had an "extra" cast like no other. Many Hollywood stars showed up on set to watch the shooting and were pressed into service as extras, especially in the chariot race. In addition, many who would later become Hollywood's top stars, but who were at the time just struggling actors, were also in the crowd scenes as extras. Among well-known and soon-to-be-well-known names "working" in the film were John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Gary Cooper, Marion Davies, Myrna Loy, John Gilbert, Douglas Fairbanks, Clark Gable, Harold Lloyd, Carole Lombard, Janet Gaynor, Fay Wray, Mary Pickford, Colleen Moore, Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish, Samuel Goldwyn and Rupert Julian.

b. At $3.9 million, this was the most expensive film of the silent era.


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