Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925) Director: Fred Niblo
After watching William Wyler’s masterful 1959 epic starring Charlton Heston, it is easy to forget that there was an earlier silent version of the film. Fred Niblo’s silent Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ is a massive film in the vein of Intolerance (1916). Ben-Hur is undoubtedly Fred Niblo’s greatest film, however other notable silent films he made included The Mark of Zorro (1920), and The Three Musketeers (1921).
Ben-Hur stars Ramon Novarro, a Mexican-American actor who briefly became a sex symbol in Hollywood after the death of Rudy Valentino. From what I have found, Ben-Hur is generally regarded as Navarro’s top film. It was shot in Italy after Goldwyn purchased the film rights to the book. The most famous scene in the film is, of course, the tense chariot race. Interestingly enough, the 1959 remake recreated a virtual shot-for-shot of this original silent chariot scene. It was such an influential scene that other modern films borrowed it, including The Prince of Egypt and also Star Wars.
The film tells the story of Judah Ben-Hur, a wealthy Jew from Roman 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 famously races against Messala, his boyhood nemesis, and Judah wins in the ene. In the original silent film, Messala does not die (he is killed in the 1959 version).
The novel by Lew Wallace 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 this silent version of Ben-Hur. He later directed the Academy Award winning 1959 remake of Ben-Hur, a film which broke many records after winning 11 Academy Awards.