Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ movie review: Sumptuous silent era mega-spectacle stars Ramon Novarro at his best
I am not a fan of action-adventure pictures, but the 1925 version of Ben-Hur – a.k.a. Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ – is an exception. That’s 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 fact, right in the opening outdoor scenes we see beautiful white doves flitting around an ancient Judaea marketplace filled with sumptuous structures and people wearing opulent costumes.
That scene is telling us, “This is something special.” And indeed it is.
The plot, from Lew Wallace’s bestselling 1880 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, the Princess of Hur (Claire McDowell), and his sister, Tirzah (Kathleen Key).
His childhood friend, Messala (Francis X. Bushman), now a dreaded Roman soldier, comes back into his life when Tirzah accidentally knocks a tile off her family’s magnificent terrace down onto the soldiers parading in the streets below. And so the adventure begins.
Following a confrontation, Ben-Hur is sold into slavery, while his mother and sister are imprisoned and eventually banished to the local leper colony to live out their lives in exile.
Later on, our hero finds himself chained to an oar in a Roman war galley. With the other slaves, he rows the ship to the incessant beat of a drum. A male prisoner is shown with his naked backside in view – a reminder to what will happen to those who disobey.
Iconic chariot race
When the galley is seized by pirates, Ben-Hur saves both 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 Circus Maximus chariot race.
It should be noted that Fred Niblo was the official director of Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, but he had plenty of help. In point of fact, B. Reeves Eason, whose credits include the burning of Atlanta in Gone with the Wind, was responsible for 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,” which involves Jesus doing some miraculous healings.
All-around classy production
Although Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ was mostly shot in black and white, two-strip Technicolor was used for the Nativity sequence (featuring silent era star Betty Bronson as the Virgin Mary), for some of the Jesus scenes, and for the glorious parade through the streets of Rome. The process never looked better.
As for Ramon Novarro, he is at his best despite the fact that he was a small guy whose masculinity was 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 much bigger and stronger – 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 moviemaking.
Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925)
Director: Fred Niblo.
Directorial Associates: Alfred L. Raboch & B. Reeves Eason (in addition to Christy Cabanne, uncredited).
Screenplay: Carey Wilson & Bess Meredyth; adaptation by June Mathis.
Titles: Katherine Hilliker & H.H. Caldwell.
From Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel.
Cast: Ramon Novarro. May McAvoy. Francis X. Bushman. Betty Bronson. Carmel Myers. Claire McDowell. Kathleen Key. Frank Currier. Nigel De Brulier. Mitchell Lewis. Leo White. Charles Belcher. Dale Fuller. Winter Hall.
“Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925): Biggest Silent Blockbuster” review text © Danny Fortune; excerpt, image captions, bullet point introduction, and notes/endnotes © Alt Film Guide.
“Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925) Movie Review” notes
Costly + convoluted production
 Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ was initially to have been a Goldwyn Pictures production – by then, the company was no longer associated with founder Samuel Goldwyn – under the supervision of June Mathis, with Charles J. Brabin in the director’s chair, and starring George Walsh (brother of High Sierra and White Heat filmmaker Raoul Walsh), Francis X. Bushman, and Gertrude Olmstead.
Assorted difficulties and skyrocketing costs during filming in Italy led to the demise of Goldwyn as an independent studio and to the eventual formation of Metro-Goldwyn (later Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer), under the command of studio head Louis B. Mayer.
In 1924 production on Ben-Hur was temporarily halted and most of its key talent replaced: June Mathis was fired – Metro-Goldwyn’s second-in-command Irving G. Thalberg became the official supervisor – along with Brabin (replaced by Fred Niblo) and George Walsh (replaced by fast-rising Metro Pictures star-in-the-making Ramon Novarro).
At a cost of $3,967 million, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ turned out to be the most expensive motion picture ever made. It would remain so until producer David O. Selznick’s and director Victor Fleming’s Gone with the Wind 14 years later.
Extra Myrna Loy + celebrity chariot race attendees
Although several Hollywood stars – among them Colleen Moore, Betty Bronson, Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks – attended the filming of the chariot race in the Los Angeles area, they, like extra Myrna Loy, cannot be spotted in the film.
“Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925)” endnotes
Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ budget and box office rentals via the Eddie Mannix Ledger, found at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Margaret Herrick Library.
Francis X. Bushman and Ramon Novarro Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ movie images: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
“Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925): Biggest Silent Blockbuster” last updated in October 2021.