This month marks the release of the third version of BEN-HUR, using all the technical and computer wizardry of 2016. However this new version is received, the property has a long and successful history. It began as a novel written by General Lew Wallace in the 1880s. The book became a blockbuster bestseller and was no flash in the pan. It remained a top seller for many years thereafter. By 1899 the story was adapted into a hit play and featured live horses on stage for the chariot race. A one-reel film version (about ten minutes long) was made in 1907 that became famous but for a reason that had nothing to do with its popularity. The film company, Kalem, neglected to obtain permission from the book publisher and was sued for copyright infringement. The publisher, Harper Bros., won and the lawsuit became a landmark decision: the first time that a film company was sued for intellectual property violations. But the first feature-length production was made by MGM and released in 1925 at the height of the silent film era. After many problems, it too lived up to its heritage and became another huge blockbuster.
The film was riddled with production problems mainly due to the decision to make the picture in Italy. Although the Italian government promised its full cooperation, repeated labor strikes crippled the filming and finally the production was shut down and returned to California. BEN-HUR was completed in the good ol’ USA. Ultimately, the title role was played by Mexican actor Ramon Novarro. His treacherous friend Messala was played by veteran Francis X. Bushman who had been a film star since 1912!
Messala falsely accuses Judah of attempting to kill the Roman governor and he is sentenced to be a galley slave for life. The famous sea battle was filmed with full-sized ships on the Mediterranean. Novarro with Frank Currier playing the Roman general whose life he saved during the sea battle:
Lovely May McAvoy played Esther, the romantic interest of Judah Ben-Hur:
Idris, the slinky siren who helps Messala, was played by Carmel Myers:
Idras attempts to seduce Judah before the great chariot race:
Messala believes that Judah died as a galley slave and is shocked to find him alive and his chief rival in the chariot race. Talk about a grudge match!
The chariot race took three weeks to film and employed 42 cameramen.
A behind-the-scenes photo:
Intertwined with the fictional story of Ben-Hur was the Biblical story of Jesus Christ and how the two men met at crucial times in Judah’s life. Betty Bronson played the Blessed Virgin Mary:
A magazine ad for the film (color added):
When sound films replaced the silents, BEN-HUR was re-issued in 1931 with a soundtrack of music and effects – and made another fortune!
A number of artifacts from the film survive such as Messala’s helmet that Bushman wore for the chariot race:
Watch the trailer (as enhanced by your blogmeister with music from the 1931 re-issue):
Best of all, the 1925 BEN-HUR is available on DVD today, complete with original Technicolor sequences, and is shown frequently on Turner Classic Movies. Here is an original glass slide that was projected onto movie screens to advertise the film: