#65) Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925)
OR “I Got a Friend in Jesus”
Directed by Fred Niblo (and a whole bunch of uncredited directors)
Written by June Mathis and Carey Wilson. Based on the novel by General Lew Wallace
Class of 1997
The Plot: Set in the same time period/location as Jesus, Judah Ben-Hur (Ramón Novarro) is a Jewish prince falsely accused of murder by Roman soldier/childhood friend Messala (Francis X. Bushman). Judah is forced into slavery and separated from his mother and sister (Claire McDowell & Kathleen Key). After encountering young Jesus (Claude Payton), Judah’s faith gets him through his imprisonment and eventually into a chariot race against Messala. With a cast of thousands!
Why It Matters: The NFR points out the film’s spectacular chariot race and Technicolor sequences, and mentions that this is the film that put Hollywood studio MGM on the map. An essay by silent film expert Fritzi Kramer goes into detail about just how epic this whole thing was in its day.
But Does It Really?: Absolutely. This is one of those fabled Hollywood epics that needs to be on the Registry to accurately tell the story of American film. It’s still quite an impressive feat of filmmaking to watch over 90 years later.
Everybody Gets One: Ramón Novarro was a matinée idol and “Latin Lover” in the vein of Rudolph Valentino. He is unfortunately one of those Hollywood stars whose untimely murder has eclipsed his actual film achievements. Francis X. Bushman* was also a leading man of the silent era, but his career ended when he lost his fortune in the 1929 Stock Market Crash. He managed to reemerge in the ‘50s and ‘60s as an older character actor. I remember him best from “The Phantom Planet”. And special mention to Claude Payton as Jesus. Those are some of the best hands in the business.
Wow, That’s Dated: I’m just going to assume that no one in this film is actually Jewish or Italian or Middle-Eastern.
- I have to say that the novel/film’s subtitle is misleading. I would argue it’s more of “A Tale in Which the Christ Shows Up Sometimes”.
- Author Lew Wallace was an actual General; he served in the Union Army during the Civil War. He began writing stories as a distraction while he was supposed to be studying law with his father.
- That’s Betty Bronson from the silent “Peter Pan” as Mary. The Mother of Christ is The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up.
- Cool, parts of this film are in early Technicolor! Does that mean they’re in Oz?
- Judah and Esther’s meet-cute involves a diseased pigeon. Great.
- Gratus is the Archduke Ferdinand of this story.
- As a reward for sitting through a 2 ½ hour silent film, “Ben-Hur” contains occasional pre-Code nudity.
- The galley attack is pretty amazing to watch. Blink and you’ll miss an extra get impaled with a spear!
- Jesus is photographed in this film exactly like The Onceler.
- Antioch is described as “colorful”, yet isn’t in Technicolor. What gives?
- “By the three-horned goat of Ranor” is my favorite intertitle. The internet has yet to tell me what the hell that means.
- Iras has a sort-of Mae West thing going on. Mae East?
- Judah competes in the chariot race as “The Unknown Jew”. Does that mean he has to wear a paper bag over his head and appear on “The Gong Show”?
- What can I say? That chariot race is still exciting to watch. But don’t think I didn’t notice the occasional under cranking going on.
- If the stories are true, the extras in the chariot race include current and future MGM stars. Among them; Joan Crawford, Mary Pickford, Harold Lloyd, John & Lionel Barrymore, Dorothy & Lillian Gish, and Marion Davies.
- Hey, down in front, guy sitting on the other side of the Last Supper!
- The people of Ancient Jerusalem should not think they’re better than lepers. I don’t see any of them with indoor plumbing or any basic hygiene skills.
- I guess Judah Ben-Hur was the first Born-Again Christian. Can you convert to a religion that hasn’t yet established itself?
- The novel has been adapted into film many times over the years, most notably the 1959 remake by this film’s assistant director; William Wyler. It’s longer and even more epic, and went on to win all the Oscars and find its own place on the NFR.
- The most recent screen version of Ben-Hur came in 2016 and I guess makes Judah and Messala brothers? By all accounts it’s terrible.
- Messala survived the chariot race, and gave us this delicious chicken and curry dish.
* CORRECTION: Francis X. Bushman also has a brief uncredited appearance in “The Bad and the Beautiful“.