Restored by HFPA: “Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ” (1925)
In Photoplay magazine of July-December 1924, an article by A. Chester Keel appeared entitled “The Fiasco of Ben Hur.” It went into great detail about the drama unfolding on location in Italy where MGM was filming its epic Ben Hur.
“What happened in Italy when the picture started?” asks Keel. “Why was Charles Brabin, the director, sent back and Fred Niblo brought over to supplant him? Why was George Walsh, selected by the producers to play the role of Ben Hur, and given a six-months’ contract, sent back and Ramon Novarro put in to play the part? These, and the following questions, have been asked by PHOTOPLAY time and again by readers. Did Brabin fall down on the job? Was Walsh a failure in the role?”
Every film company at the time was after the rights to General Lew Wallace’s novel of Christ’s martyrdom and the Jews in Israel, but for years the theater producer who controlled them, Abraham Erlanger, whose successful stage play based on the novel ran for 25 years, held out for $1 million. He finally cut a deal with Goldwyn Pictures for 50% of the profits and is credited as a producer. The key casting of the hero role took a long time. John Bowers, Bob Fraser, Antonio Moreno, Ben Lyon, Edmund Lowe, Ramon Novarro, Bill Desmond, Allan Forrest were all tested and ultimately George Walsh was cast.
Walsh should have known trouble was brewing when he was only given second-class accommodations on the ship to Italy, and then made to sit around for four months without shooting a single scene. Tensions were rising in the background, director Brabin was drinking all day after producing a few substandard scenes, the scenarist (scriptwriter on silent films) June Mathis, who had lobbied to shoot on location, was thrown off the job and costs were rising exponentially.
Brabin had demanded that 70 galleys be built for the sea battle scenes. Finally, 30 were built at a cost of $200,000. When they were launched, they overturned. Several hundred extras, each being paid $5-7 a day, sat around while they were repaired and anchored. They never moved in the battle shots.
Then Novarro appeared, Walsh was sent home, Brabin was fired, and Niblo took over. Most already-built sets were scrapped, and new ones ordered, with delays because of political riots. Italy was under Fascist rule at the time and politics permeated everything including the filming of the sea battle near Livorno for which hundreds of Italian extras had been hired. Apparently, the fascist extras were placed on the crew of the Roman galley and the anti-fascists on the pirate ship’s crew for a touch of ‘realism,’ and the fighting turned more realistic than was necessary. Then in the climactic scene where the galley caught fire, a wind rose to spread the fire uncontrollably, and the men had to jump overboard, some in heavy armor. There are conflicting reports as to deaths.
A warehouse caught fire destroying props; their replacement added to the escalating budget. The accidental destruction of a Roman catacomb by set builders caused widespread looting of artifacts with the attendant bad publicity.
Not since the Taylor-Burton production of Cleopatra, also shot in Italy nearly forty years later, was there such a troubled production.
The drama backstage went on for a year before Louis B. Mayer ordered the production to be moved back to Culver City. As Ben Hur was in mid-production, Goldwyn Pictures had merged with Metro Pictures and Louis B. Mayer Productions in 1924 to form Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and Mayer headed the Hollywood studio.
For the famous Circus Maximus chariot race, a set was built on the corner of what is now Venice and La Cienega Boulevards. It took four months to build with eight hundred crew working round the clock. The rutted surface of the track couldn’t handle the horses and chariots, and one accident where a wheel broke caused a stuntman’s death. Another crash involving four chariots was actually captured on film and used in the final cut. At least a hundred horses were killed during the filming. Second unit director B. Reeves Eason ordered all horses injured in the chariot crashes to be shot. 200,000 feet of film was shot for the sequence, cut down to 750 in the final version by editor Lloyd Nosler. The race took two months to shoot and cost $500,000. It is amazingly sophisticated filmmaking for a film that is almost a hundred years old; 42 cameras caught all the angles – they were placed on the ground, tied to heights or hidden in pieces of the set. Closeups of Bushman and Novarro were taken by three camera cars. (In the 1959 remake starring Charlton Heston, the race was recreated shot-for-shot.)
Some sections of the film, including the scenes with Jesus (his face is never shown), were shot in two-color Technicolor using red and green filters. William Wyler was an assistant director on the film; he would direct the 1959 version.
Finally, the film was finished at a cost of $3.9 million ($60 million today). MGM’s average film cost $158,000 ($2.4 million today). It was the most expensive film of the silent era.
The film is mostly faithful to Wallace’s epic story. It starts in Jerusalem which was under the reign of Herod. The birth of Christ introduces the historical period of the film and then the film moves on to the story of Prince Judah Ben Hur. He is arrested, along with his mother and sister, by ex-friend Messala who now serves Gratus, the new Roman ruler of Jerusalem. He is forced into servitude as a slave in a Roman galley for three years, then saves the life of the ship’s commander in a battle with pirates and is adopted by him. But his mind is on revenge and finding his family.
He goes to Antioch to find Simonides, a former slave of his father, who had been tasked with hiding the family’s fortune, and falls in love with his daughter, Esther. Then he is enlisted by a sheik to drive his chariot in a race; he accepts eagerly when he learns he has to race against Messala and defeats him spectacularly by catching Messala’s chariot wheel in his own. In the meantime, Esther goes to the Valley of the Lepers to bring Ben Hur’s mother and sister to Christ to be healed just as he is made to walk to his crucifixion.
“The Picture Every Christian Ought to See!” was the tagline from MGM’s publicity department for the film. In the press notes helpfully written and disseminated for any journalist to copy and print, Novarro was hyped this way: “The thrill of adventure in many lands is presented by the story of “Ben Hur” as portrayed by Ramon Navarro, and the $4,000,000 picture of that name. This favorite star fitly represents a comely, bold and chivalrous Judean who is by turns prince, galley slave, Roman favorite, charioteer, soldier of God, and a disciple of the Master. It is indeed a taxing and many-sided role, and Navarro is adding myriads of friends to his already long list of “fans” by his beautiful acting, as well as physical comeliness.”
The Daily Variety critic hyperventilated in his January 6, 1926, review, “There will be no further reason for a future production of “Ben Hur” for the screen unless there is some tremendous change in the art of visualization of the dramatic, that is as yet unrealized. Then and only then, providing that there is some tremendous advancement in the art of direction and photography will another “Ben Hur” be necessary. As the industry today stands, so does Ben Hur stand: the greatest achievement that has been accomplished on the screen for not only the screen itself but for all motion picturedom . . . It isn’t a picture! It’s the Bible!” He carried on this way for six columns, certainly not needing the MGM publicists to prompt him.
Novarro was one of the biggest Latin stars of the day, and Ben Hur was the highlight of his career. Despite his reputation as a great screen lover, he was an alcoholic and homosexual with a weakness for young male prostitutes, a proclivity that would lead to his violent death at the hands of two hustlers in 1968. Francis X. Bushman, who was cast as Messala, was known as “the Handsomest Man in the World.” According to the book “The Fixers” by E.J. Fleming, he “wore a 20-carat violet amethyst ring and smoked handmade eight-inch, monogrammed, lavender cigarettes from a solid gold case. He passed out $100 tips to bellboys and coat check girls and drove a 20-foot-long Marmon with solid gold monogrammed doors and a spotlight that illuminated his face when he drove at night.” In the film, the slighter Novarro wore lifts built into his sandals so his height would be level with Bushman’s.
Ben Hur was a huge success with audiences and earned over $9 million at the box office, but it never made the studio a dime when it was first released because of its huge budget and royalties. However, it was a hugely prestigious picture and significantly enhanced the fledgling studio’s reputation. MGM re-released it in 1931 when it made another $1.3 million.
It is preserved in the US National Film Registry of the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
Ben Hur was fully restored by The Film Foundation with funding from the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.