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. It starred Ramon Novarro, a Mexican-American actor who became known as a sex symbol of cinema after the death of Rudy Valentino, however his greatest success was Ben-Hur.
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, and other modern films including The Prince of Egypt and also Star Wars remade the concept of the chariot race battle. Several scenes were filmed in technicolor, mainly the scenes including Jesus.
The film tells the story of Judah Ben-Hur, a wealthy Jew from occupied Judea, whose boyhood friend Messala betrays him. As Messala grew up, he became a Roman centurion and grew to despise the Jews. He blames an accident that happens against the local magistrate on Judah Ben-Hur and his family -he orders that Judah be sold into slavery to work on a galley ship while his mother and sister are imprisoned in Rome. In a tale that mirrors the story of Joseph, under the backdrop of the rise of Jesus, Ben-Hur saves the life of the head of his galley when they are attacked by pirates. He and the head are saved as they drift at sea 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 and winds up famously racing against Messala, his boyhood nemesis, and defeats his chariot. Although in the original Messala does not die, he is killed in the 1959 version.
As a novel by Lew Wallace, Ben-Hur remained at the top of the U.S. bestseller charts for years until the release of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind. William Wyler assistant directed several scenes, and he later directed the Academy Award winning 1959 remake -breaking records by winning 11 Academy Awards.
Ben-Hur is an excellent film and is a rare example of a precursor to a remake that is even better than the original. It is a high quality silent epic film and should be viewed by all lovers of classic films.