“There will be no further reason for a future production of Ben-Hur for the screen… Ben-Hur is a picture for all times!” Variety, 1925
It’s hard to think of the name Ben-Hur without thinking of the two accompanying names Charlton! and Heston! Even as Paramount Pictures and MGM are about to hurl another incarnation of Lew Wallace’s novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1880) at us (now the fifth adaptation of the book to be made into a feature film) it is still very hard not to think about that tall, blond haired, big jawed, gun loving American superstar.
But that gives you some idea of the importance Ben-Hur has had on the history of cinema and how much the 1950s’ version is burnt into our cultural consciousness. After all, every Bank Holiday we get the opportunity to see it on our television screens (that or The Great Escape (1963), The Sound of Music (1965), or Zulu (1964) – it was always Zulu in my house to be honest.)
But forget about those Bank Holiday TV schedules because when it comes to the history of film, Ben-Hur has always been there; Ben-Hur systematically appeared at every changing moment of cinema’s history, all the way back to the birth of cinema (the unofficial 1907 version, At the height of the silent era there was the faithfully titled Ben-Hur a Tale of Christ (1925), and at the peak of the Hollywood Studio system there was William Wyler’s version (1959) – through the ages the words BEN HUR were always there.
This is why the new adaptation has been a long time coming; you would have thought that a new 21st Century Ben-Hur would have been announced straight after the success of Gladiator (1999). On the band wagon films like Troy (2004), Alexander (2004), King Arthur: Director’s Cut (2004) and even Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven (2005) went into rapid production, shortly after the release of Gladiator, and yet, Ben-Hur didn’t.
Maybe the 2003 animated version of Ben-Hur (Heston’s final acting role; he voiced Judah) which was already in production stalled all possibility of making another live action version for quite some time. Whatever the story Ben-Hur is back on the big screen this August (2016) and from the look of the trailer it most certainly has the hint of a 21st Century adaptation; it’s loud, screaming-in-your-face and seems to have even more animation than the actual animated film from 2003.
And yet, when watching the trailer for Timur Bekmambetov’s all-screaming and all-chariot-racing Ben-Hur, you can almost hear that old saying in your head, “Well, they don’t make ’em like they used to!” But, to be honest, it’s more than likely people would have said the same thing about William Wyler’s 1959 version had they seen Fred Niblo’s earlier silent version from 1925.
There are slight differences in both versions when it comes to the storytelling; the 1925 version gives far more screen time to the connections between Judah and Jesus than in the later Wyler version, which is understandable as Niblo very much stuck to Wallace’s book, unlike the later adaptations. But, alas, this particular element slows down the 1925 version at certain points, particularly in the scenes just after the sea battle – it has to be said that the sea battle and the infamous chariot race are extraordinary! Truly extraordinary in fact!
This is what I really want to flag when it comes to talking Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Many have asked us over the years what makes the silent film era different from any other in the history of cinema? While obviously the classic quote from Gloria Swanson, “We didn’t need dialogue, we had faces!” from Sunset Boulevard (1950), springs to mind, but one other major factor makes the silent era different from any other era in cinema: they built everything for real!
Cabiria (1914), Intolerance (1916), Robin Hood (1922) and Napoleon (1927) are titles that secure the legend that when it came to money, they threw it in front of the camera. If anything, Ben Hur is another classic example of this. Nothing is left out.
When watching the 1925 silent version of the sea battle it seems far more extensive than the later Wyler version, after all, the silent version has real boats to crash and burn! These real size Galleys and Roman Trireme were completely seaworthy and very capable of reacting to a full-on sea battle that would include plenty of local Italian extras armed to the teeth and all in suited up in armour. In the end, the filming that took place included smashing one of the galleys into the Roman Trireme and setting the Trireme alight (which is all in the book). But the action got out of hand on the shoot and the production lost control of the fire and lost the entire Trireme before they could finish shooting. All the extras had to throw themselves into the sea to escape being burned. The 1959 film can’t touch that – understandably, they ended up using model boats!
But what about Ben-Hur’s famous chariot race? Surely the 1959 film wins hands down. Well, possibly. It’s incredibly exciting but have you seen the 1925 version? What can I say? The 1925 production had already built one Circus Maximus in Rome, a set which was later abandoned due to spiraling production costs. The production then expanded on original plans and a bigger version of the Circus Maximus was built set just outside Hollywood. They prepared for one of the biggest shooting days in Hollywood’s history.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
A call out was made for (if studio publicity is correct) 7,000 extras for a single day’s filming. Almost all of Hollywood left the city on Saturday 7th October 1925 to see what all the fuss was about. They arrived at the Circus Maximus set (which had apparently cost the studio $500,000) and were given a full day’s entertainment of chariot racing. The likes of John and Lionel Barrymore, Harold Lloyd, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, John Gilbert, Colleen Moore, Marion Davies, Sam Goldwyn, and Lillian Gish were all noted being as in the crowds, as well as celebrated directors such as Henry King, Reginald Barker, Clarence Brown and George Fitzmaurice. They, like the rest of the crowds who had arrived to be part of the auction, were stunned by the sheer size of the set. Someone else stunned was assistant director, William Wyler, who, 34 years later, would end up directing the 1959 version. In 1963 Wyler explain to film historian Kevin Brownlow,
“I was given a toga and a set of signals…. The signals were a sort of semaphore, and I got my section of the crowd to stand up and cheer to sit down again, or whatever was called for. There must have been thirty other assistant doing the same job.”
At the end of the day, 42 camera operators had filmed roughly 53,000 feet of film. Filming continued on the Maximus set for another month, filming close-ups as well as stunt work. In the end, Editor Lloyd Nosler had to compete with 200,000 feet of film for the chariot sequence alone. But what a job Nosler did when it came to the completed sequence. In the end he did such a good job that it influenced framing and editing of the later adaptations for not only Wyler’s version but also for the animated 2003 version. Let’s see if it influenced this newest adaptation!
At a cost of $3.96 million the 1925 version of Ben-Hur claims to be the most expensive silent film ever made. If it is the most expensive film of the silent era, it most certainly shows it.
So if you want to see the REAL Ben-Hur! Look no further than Fred Niblo’s 1925 Ben-Hur: A Tale of Christ. You won’t be disappointed!
The Parade’s Gone By: Kevin Brownlow
Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer: Scott Eyman
Written by James Harrison of South West Silents for 20th Century Flicks