Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925) Director: Fred Niblo
Ben-Hur is an incredible epic silent film, later remade in 1959 starring Charlton Heston. The grandeur of the scenes and the brilliance of the cinematography hearken back to other great silent epic films, such as Intolerance. It was Fred Niblo’s greatest film, however other notable silent films he made were The Mark of Zorro, and The Three Musketeers.
Ben-Hur stars Ramon Novarro, a Mexican-American actor who briefly became a sex symbol in Hollywood after the death of the first notable icon, Rudy Valentino, however Novarro’s greatest success was in Ben-Hur.
Ben-Hur is an excellent film and a rare example of a top notch silent film that was later remade, and shockingly the remake is even better. Admittedly they are both excellent films. Ben-Hur is a high quality silent epic film worthy of its place among silent film legends.
The film was shot in Italy and it was made only after Goldwyn purchased the screen rights to the book. The most famous scene in the film is, of course, the chariot race. The 1959 remake created a virtual shot-for-shot remake of the original chariot scene, and other modern films including The Prince of Egypt and also Star Wars remade the concept of the chariot race battle from Ben-Hur. Several scenes were filmed in technicolor, mainly the scenes featuring Jesus.
The film tells the story of Judah Ben-Hur, a wealthy Jew from occupied Judea, whose boyhood friend Messala betrays him. As Messala grows up, he becomes a Roman centurion and he grows to despise the Jews. He blames an accident that happens to the local magistrate on Judah Ben-Hur and his family. The magistrate then sells Judah into slavery, condemning him to work on a galley ship while his mother and sister are imprisoned in Rome. In a tale that mirrors the Biblical story of Joseph, Ben-Hur gradually rises from enslavement. He saves the life of his galley head when the ship is attacked by pirates. Judah and the galley head are cast adrift at sea, but hey are saved by a Roman ship and, as a result of his good deeds, Ben-Hur is adopted as the son of his Roman shipmaster. Back in Rome, he becomes a celebrated athlete. He is famously races against Messala, his boyhood nemesis, and Judah defeats his chariot. In the original silent film, Messala does not die (he is killed in the 1959 version).
The novel by Lew Wallace, Ben-Hur, remained at the top of the U.S. bestseller charts for years until it was unseated by the release of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind. Interestingly enough, William Wyler directed several scenes as an assistant for the silent Ben-Hur. He later directed the Academy Award winning 1959 remake of Ben-Hur -a film which broke many records by winning 11 Academy Awards.