Although I am not a fan of action-adventure pictures, the 1925 version of Ben-Hur (a.k.a. Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ) is an exception because it stars Ramon Novarro in the title role. As a plus, Horace Jackson’s art direction and Edwin B. Willis’ sets are superb. In the opening outdoor scenes we see beautiful white doves flitting around the market place filled with sumptuous structures and costumes that say “this is something special.” And indeed it is.
The plot, from Lew Wallace’s bestselling novel, is a tad complex. Judah Ben-Hur is a Jewish aristocrat in Palestine during the Roman occupation in the first century C.E. We know Ben-Hur is a good boy because he lives with his mother (Claire McDowell) and his sister (Kathleen Key). His childhood friend, Messala (Francis X. Bushman), now a dreaded Roman soldier, comes back into his life when Ben-Hur accidentally knocks a tile off his magnificent terrace down onto the soldiers parading in the streets below. That’s when the adventure begins.
Ben-Hur is sold into slavery, while his mother and sister are banished to the local leper colony to live out their lives in exile. Later on, our hero finds himself chained to an oar in the galley of a Roman ship. With the other slaves, he rows the boat to the incessant beat of a drum. A naked male prisoner is seen with his backside in view, as a threat to what will happen to those who disobey.
When the ship is taken by pirates, Ben-Hur saves himself and a Roman General (Frank Currier) who eventually adopts him. Some time thereafter, he is free to search for his family. But first he is pitted against his old nemesis, Messala, in that granddaddy spectacle of them all: the chariot race. (Fred Niblo was the film’s official director, though he had plenty of help; B. Reeves Eason shot the chariot race.)
As the hero of the story, Ben-Hur wins the race and returns home to the backdrop of the “Tale of the Christ.” Jesus heals Ben-Hur’s mother and sister of their leprosy, and they are all tearfully reunited.
Though mostly shot in black and white, two-strip Technicolor was used for the Nativity sequence (with silent film star Betty Bronson as the Virgin Mary), the glorious parade through the streets of Rome, and for some of the Jesus scenes. And the process never looked better.
As for Ramon Novarro, he is at his best even though he is a small guy whose masculinity is soft and gentle. (He was a gay man in real life, which only adds to his appeal for me.) Francis X Bushman, a superstar in the 1910s, is where all the beef can be found. Next to Novarro, he looks big and strong – but he is defeated nevertheless.
Something else worth pointing out: on the Warner DVD release, Carl Davis’ 1987 score, performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, greatly contributes to the mood of this masterpiece of movie making.
© Danny Fortune
Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925).
Director: Fred Niblo. Directorial Associates: Alfred L. Raboch and B. Reeves Eason (and Christy Cabanne, uncredited).
Screenplay: Carey Wilson and Bess Meredyth, based on June Mathis’ adaptation of General Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel. Titles: Katherine Hilliker and H. H. Caldwell.
Cast: Ramon Novarro, May McAvoy, Francis X. Bushman, Betty Bronson, Carmel Myers, Claire McDowell, Frank Currier, Nigel De Brulier, Kathleen Key, Mitchell Lewis.