Cast & Crew
Francis X. Bushman
Because Rome has decreed that each man in the empire must be counted by returning to his birth place, Joseph of Nazareth and his wife Mary, who is about to give birth, try to reach Bethlehem by nightfall. Meanwhile, from the south, three wise men travel north on a holy quest. When Joseph and Mary reach Bethlehem, they cannot find rooms and are forced to stay in a cave. During the night, the wise men see a bright star in the heavens and are guided to the cave where Mary has given birth. The wise men and shepherds hail the baby as the king foretold in the prophesies. As the years pass and Roman oppression against the Jews increases, it is keenly felt in the princely household of Hur. Fearing for her family's wealth, Princess Miriam, a widow, entrusts her loyal steward, the slave Simonides with hiding their money. Miriam's son, Judah Ben-Hur, is attracted to gentle Simonides' daughter Esther, but she must leave with her father. That same day, Judah renews his boyhood friendship with Messala, a Roman officer who has returned to Jerusalem after a long absence. As the two men talk, Judah realizes that Messala has changed and is no longer an understanding friend but an oppressor who wants Judah to forget he is a Jew. Knowing that their friendship is now impossible, the men part. That afternoon, during a parade to welcome Gratus, the new commander of Jerusalem, Judah, Miriam and Judah's sister Tirzah watch the procession from their balcony. As the procession passes, Judah accidentally loosens a tile that falls onto Gratus' head, knocking him unconscious. Roman soldiers, headed by Messala, rush into the house and seize the family. Although Messala knows that the incident was an accident, Judah is sentenced to life as a galley slave and not told the fate of Miriam and Tirzah. Forced to walk with other prisoners across the desert to the sea, Judah is dragged through Nazareth, where his increasing thirst drives him to ask if there is no God in Israel. A moment later, Judah is given water by a young Nazarene carpenter, the son of Mary and Joseph, and resolves to live and fight for the king foretold in the prophesies. In Jerusalem, Simonides is viciously tortured by Gratus' men, but refuses to reveal where he has hidden the Hur money. Some years later, Judah is one of hundreds of men forced to row Roman ships. One day, Quintas Arrius, the new fleet commander, goes below decks and is impressed by Judah's strength and will. Later, during a battle with pirates, the slaves are shackled to their positions, except for Judah, who Arrius says has the spirit of a free man. During the battle, the ship is rammed and the Romans are seemingly defeated. When Judah escapes from below decks, he sees Arrius in hand-to-hand combat and rescues him as the ship is sinking. Judah and Arrius are adrift at sea for two days when a Roman ship rescues them. Certain that his defeat has disgraced him, Arrius decides to kill himself but first gives Judah his ring to buy his freedom. Judah stops Arrius from killing himself and when they board the Roman ship, they learn that the battle was won. Judah fears returning to the ship's hole, until Arrius announces that Judah is his adopted son. Within a few years, Judah, now known as Arrius the Younger, is hailed as the greatest athlete in Rome for his victories in the chariot arena. Although he loves his adoptive father, his heart yearns to return to Jerusalem and learn the fate of Miriam and Tirzah. When Judah learns about a mysterious miser in Antioch who is presumed to be Simonides, he reluctantly leaves Arrius and travels to Antioch. Unknown to Judah, his mother and sister have languished in a Roman dungeon in Jerusalem, isolated form other prisoners and forgotten by their jailers. At the same time, people throughout Israel talk of the Nazarene who preaches love and understanding. In Antioch, Judah goes to Simonides' house to reveal his true identity, but Simonides refuses to acknowledge him, saying that Judah, like his mother and sister is dead. Esther, though, recognizes Judah and gives him a bracelet that Miriam had once given to her. A few moments later, Sheik Ilderim, an Arab who races chariot teams, asks Judah to drive his team in a great race to be held the next day in Antioch's great Circus. Although initially uninterested, when Ilderim says that Messala is favored to win the race, Judah agrees, on condition that he race as an unknown Jew. After Judah leaves, Simonides reveals to Esther that although he recognized Judah he was afraid to acknowledge him because she, like himself, would be Judah's slave. When word of the race spreads, Messala asks his mistress, the Egyptian Iras, to solve the mystery of the unknown Jew. She then goes to Ilderim's encampment to seduce Judah, who is tempted by her but does not reveal his identity. Later, Simonides and Esther arrive and acknowledge him and their servitude. Simonides gives him an accounting of the Hur fortune, which he has multiplied, making Judah the wealthiest man in the world. Iras overhears this and goes to Messala to tell him everything, but Messala laughs, saying that Judah is dead. The next day, the Circus is filled with those eager to bet against the unknown Jew. While Ilderim is trying to arrange a large wager with Messala, Judah presents himself. Messala is shocked but takes the wager and vows that only one of them will leave the course alive. In the race, Messala's ruthless pursuit of Judah causes many accidents, but despite his attempts to wreck Judah's chariot, his efforts turn against himself and he is mortally injured. After winning the race, Judah has countless riches but cannot rejoice because his mother and sister are dead and the Jews are still enslaved by Rome. When Balthazar, one of the wise men and a friend of Ilderim, reveals that the child from Bethlehem, now called the Nazarene, is the king who will free the Jews, Judah becomes inspired and determines to use all his resources to aid him. While Judah raises an army near Antioch, in Jerusalem, the Nazarene preaches words of love, forgiveness and peace, inspiring thousands of followers. When Pontius Pilot is appointed the new governor of Jerusalem, he decrees that all prisoners whose crimes have not been recorded should be released. Miriam and Tirzah are freed by a jailor, but because the women now have leprosy, they are ordered to the valley of the lepers outside the city. That night, Judah returns to Jerusalem, goes to his deserted house and falls asleep outside the doors just before Miriam and Tirzah arrive. When Judah whispers "Mother" in his sleep, the women see him but do not awaken him, knowing that they are "unclean." Miriam and Tirzah depart without saying anything, and when Judah awakens, Simonides and Esther arrive. As an old family servant lets them into the house, a horseman rides up to announce that they have seized the Nazarene. When Judah then rides off, Miriam, who has hidden nearby, yells out in despair, attracting Esther's attention. Miriam will not allow Esther to embrace her and begs her to keep her secret from Judah. Now the Nazarene comes before Pilot as the crowds begin to turn on the man they once hailed as a king. When a servant tells Esther that the Nazarene can heal the sick if they have faith, she rushes to the valley of the lepers and convinces Tirzah and Miriam to come back to Jerusalem. As the Nazarene goes through the streets carrying the cross on which he will be crucified, Judah approaches to tell him that he has legions waiting outside the city, but the Nazarene says his kingdom is not of this world. Touched, Judah drops his sword. As the Nazarene continues, he brings a dead child back to life and cures Miriam and Tirzah. Judah sees this and is tearfully reunited with his mother and sister. After the Nazarene is crucified, Judah, Miriam, Tirzah, Esther and Simonides are together, content that the message of the Nazarene will live forever.
Francis X. Bushman
Nigel De Brulier
H. H. Caldwell
Charles B. Dillingham
Ferdinand P. Earle
Ferdinand P. Earle
Abraham L. Erlanger
Hermann J. Kaufmann
D. W. Martinelli
Louis B. Mayer
Robert B. Mcintyre
Alfred L. Raboch
E. Burton Steene
Frank D. Williams
Florenz Ziegfeld Jr.
Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925) - Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925)
Thalberg turned potential disaster into a personal triumph, partly by lavishing $300,000 on a single sequence - the all-important chariot race. The filming of this sequence, on a specially built replica of the Circus Maximus, became the talk of Hollywood. An accidental crash, when the wheel of one chariot smashed into another vehicle and created a pileup of four chariots, horses and stuntmen, was captured on film to become one of the most stunning episodes yet seen in movies. Thalberg's masterly handling of Ben-Hur appeared to justify his assertion that a producer should maintain both financial and artistic control over studio directors.
The final production cost of Ben-Hur was $3.9 million, a fortune in 1925. The film was a sensation with audiences and grossed $9,386,000, but royalties and distribution costs were so high that MGM came up $850,000 short. The prestige the film brought to the new studio, however, left its executives feeling that Ben-Hur was well worth it. More than any other single production, this film laid the foundation for the studio's reputation as the producer of elite entertainment. The Oscar-winning remake of Ben-Hur (1959) would herald the end of MGM's Golden Era, just as this silent version had begun it.
Producer: Irving G. Thalberg (uncredited), Louis B. Mayer, Charles B. Dillingham, Abraham Erlanger, Florenz Ziegfeld Jr., Samuel Goldwyn (uncredited)
Director: Fred Niblo, Alfred Raboch (associate)
Screenplay: June Mathis (adaptation), Katherine Hilliker (titles), Bess Meredyth, Carey Wilson, from novel by Lew Wallace
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Horace Jackson
Cinematography: Clyde De Vinna, Rene Guissart, Percy Hilburn, Karl Struss
Costume Design: Hermann J. Kaufmann
Editing: Lloyd Nosler
Original Music: Carl Davis (new score)
Principal Cast: Ramon Novarro (Ben-Hur), Francis X. Bushman (Messala), May McAvoy (Esther), Betty Bronson (Mary), Claire McDowell (Princess of Hur), Kathleen Key (Tirzah).
BW & C-144m.
by Roger Fristoe
Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925) - Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925)
The sea battle was filmed near Livorno, Italy. Many extras apparently lied about being able to swim, and tension between Fascists and their opponents was evident.
A record 48 cameras were used to film the sea battle, a record for a single scene.
A staged fire on one of the ships got out of control. Armor-clad extras had to jump in the water. There is conflicting information as to whether any of them were killed.
The first attempt to film the chariot race was on a set in Rome, but there were problems with shadows and the racetrack surface. Then one of the chariots' wheels came apart and the stuntman driving it was thrown in the air and killed. See also Ben-Hur (1959).
The set was abandoned and a new one built in Culver City. 42 cameras were used to film the race and 50,000 feet of film consumed. Second unit director B. Reeves Eason offered a bonus to the winning driver. The final pile-up was filmed later. No humans were seriously injured during the US production, but several horses were killed.
The opening title card reads: "Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer presents Ben-Hur A Tale of the Christ by General Lew Wallace." The next title card reads: "Produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in arrangement with Abraham L. Erlanger, Charles B. Dillingham and Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. from the novel published and copyrighted by Harper and Brothers."
Wallace (1827-1905), a general who fought in the Mexican and Civil Wars and was territorial governor of New Mexico, wrote several historical novels. Ben-Hur was his most famous book and an international bestseller for many years. Although the film follows the basic storyline of the novel, the novel continues beyond the death of Christ until the reign of the Roman Emperor Nero (37-68 a.d.).
In the novel, "Judah Ben-Hur" and his family, including "Esther," whom he marries, and "Simonides," become Christians. Judah goes to Rome to help build the catacombs used by Christians escaping Nero's persecution. Another difference between the novel and the film adaptations is that in the novel, "Messala" survives the chariot race, although he is crippled for life. In the 1925 film, it is implied that Messala dies after the race.
Noted film and stage impresario Mark Klaw, partner of Erlanger, produced a theatrical adaptation of Wallace's novel that opened on Broadway on November 29, 1899, dramatized by William Young and starring Edward Morgan as Judah and William S. Hart as Messala. Klaw and Erlanger financed several other productions, including a popular revival that opened on November 6, 1916. Although the film's credits acknowledge theatrical producers Erlanger, Dillingham and Ziegfeld, it was based on Wallace's novel rather than the play.
Contemporary news items, press releases and the film's pressbook reveal the following information about the production: In 1922 and early 1923, when the film was in development, Erich von Stroheim and Marshall Neilan were initially considered as the film's director, as was Rex Ingram. Rudolph Valentino was frequently mentioned as the leading candidate for the title role. Thomas Meighan was also mentioned as a possible star in some news items, as was Gertrude Olmstead for the role of "Esther." By mid-1923, Charles Brabin was signed to direct the film, with George Walsh, brother of director Raoul Walsh, as the star.
When the film was in the early planning stages in 1922 and 1923, it was to be a production of the Goldwyn Company and was spearheaded by Goldwyn story editor June Mathis. By 1924, Goldwyn merged with Metro Pictures and Louis B. Mayer Pictures to become Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Following the arrival of Brabin and other members of the company in Italy in early October 1923, filming commenced by early 1924, with Brabin directing Mathis' scenario. According to news items, problems beset the company from the beginning, with delays, weather and language problems compounded by difficulties of the already large-scale production and disagreements between Brabin and Mathis. By early June 1924, the production was called to a halt and a new director, writers and lead actor were being dispatched to Rome. According to a June 22, 1924 Los Angeles Times article, Fred Niblo had left for Europe accompanied by writers Carey Wilson and Bess Meredyth and actor Ramon Novarro. Niblo began directing scenes in Italy on 12 August 1924.
A August 3, 1924 New York Morning Telegraph article reported that Mathis had severed all connections to the production, which was now headed by Niblo. Mathis was quoted as saying: "After six months of hard work in Rome, Vienna, Berlin and the edge of the desert and other places, I do not feel that the ideals I have had for "Ben-Hur" ever since I began work on the script two years ago can be realized..." Despite leaving the production, Mathis received screen credit for "adaptation," while Wilson received credit for the scenario and he and Meredyth with credited with the continuity. Brabin received no credit onscreen or in press materials, although it is likely that at least some of the footage he directed remained in the released film.
Niblo continued directing the production in Rome for several months. The Quadraro section of Rome was the site of the massive Joppa Gate and Jerusalem sets. The battle scene was filmed off Livorno on the Italian coast, although an elaborate set of miniatures was also built on the M-G-M lot in Culver City, CA to enhance the location filming. Other news items note that filming of the brief desert scenes took place in North Africa. The production returned to the Culver City lot by spring of 1925, with filming continuing into the autumn of that year.
The film's spectacular chariot race was filmed under the supervision of second unit director Reeves Eason, who was known for his skillful battle scene direction. Although sets were constructed near Rome for Antioch's great Circus, plans to shoot the chariot race there were scrapped and a new stadium was built in Southern California. Modern sources note that the actual set was constructed on the intersection of what is now La Cienega and Venice Blvds. in Los Angeles, about two miles from the M-G-M lot. According to various contemporary sources, the race took two months to shoot at a cost of $500,000, required several thousand extras and forty cameras to complete. An inter-office M-G-M memo reproduced in a modern source, as well as news items, indicate that the chariot race was filmed from June to August 1925.
The first part of the film, which establishes the historical period and dramatizes the birth of Christ, is a prologue to the main story. The Nativity sequence, as well as several other sequences throughout the film, were shown in two-strip Technicolor. Many other scenes throughout the film were tinted in various colors. The face of Christ, who is referred to only as "The king" or "the Nazarene," is never seen in the film. Several title cards used to describe or quote him were quotations of passages from the Gospels. As noted in reviews, some showings of the film included synchronized sound effects with a musical score written by William Axt and David Mendoza. According to the premiere program, Major Edward Bowes presented a stage program for the New York premiere.
Reviews for Ben-Hur highly praised the picture, many calling the picture the greatest film ever made. The Variety review stated: "There will be no further reason for a future production of "Ben-Hur" for the screen..."Ben-Hur" is a picture for all times. The New York Times included it in its list of the top ten films of 1925. New York Times critic Mordant Hall wrote, "The film version of General Lew Wallace's story shows the advance in picture artistry and also in production technique. It causes one to think that nothing much is beyond the ken of the cameraman. "
Actor Francis X. Bushman, a popular leading man of the late 1910s, had not made a film for two years, and reviews praised his performance as a villain. Betty Bronson, who portrayed "Mary," was also singled out for her acting. Although reviewers did not condemn Novarro's performance and praised his energy in the title role, several pointed out his lack of dramatic depth. Some modern sources indicate that Novarro was new to films, but he had acted in increasingly larger roles since 1917. Judah was, however, his most famous role.
According to information from M-G-M financial data ledger in the Eddie Mannix collection at the AMPAS Library, the total production cost of Ben-Hur was $3,967,000, far more than any film made to that time. The domestic and foreign earnings total for the film's initial release was $9,386.000, also a huge sum for the time, but was logged as a $698,000 loss for the studio for the 1924-25 season. When the film was reissued in the 1931-32 season, the film earned another $1,352,000, bringing the total theatrical earnings to $10,738,000, but only yielding an $81,000 profit. In terms of overall earnings, however, it took in more money at the box office than any film produced by M-G-M until the late 1940s.
Modern sources include Myrna Loy and Tom Tyler as bit players in the cast, but they could not be identified in the viewed print. Some modern sources include the names of a number of well-known actors and directors as extras in the chariot race sequence. Although M-G-M publicity for the film mentioned notable names such as Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Harold Lloyd and Charles Chaplin as visitors to the set while filming took place, the actual appearance of any of those notables in the released film is unlikely.
Modern sources also add the following names to the crew: Henry Hathaway (Assistant Director), Andrew MacDonald (Set const), Camillo Mastrocinque (Art dir, Italy), Kenneth Gordon MacLean (Miniatures), Christy Cabanne (Dir, screen tests), Silvano Balboni (Camera Operator), Renata Bernabei and Irene Coletta (Assistant Editor), Dave Friedman (Unit Production Manager), Harold Grieve (Costume Design) and David Nolan (Conductor).
Ben-Hur was reissued in 1931 in an abbreviated version with synchronized music. According to modern sources, a few scenes were cut by censors at that time, including a close-up of Christ's hand, brief shots of bare-breasted women in a procession and a medium close-up of a nude man shackled to the wall in the ship's galley. In 1987, a restoration of the film was produced by David Gill and Kevin Brownlow under the auspices of Thames Television in Britain. The restoration included deleted scenes as well as the original two-strip Technicolor sequences. Composer Carl Davis wrote a new score for the restoration.
Other film adaptations of Wallace's novel include the 1907 one-reel Kalem Co. production directed by Sidney Olcott and Frank O. Rose, and the multiple Academy Award-winning 1959 M-G-M production directed by William Wyler (who worked as an assistant director on the 1925 production) and starring Charlton Heston as the title character and Stephen Boyd as Messala.
Voted Best Picture of the Year by the 1959 New York Film Critics Association.
Voted Best Supporting Actor (Griffith) and One of the Year's Ten Best Films by the 1959 National Board of Review.
Voted One of the Year's Ten Best Films by the 1959 New York Times Film Critics.
Released in United States 1925
Released in United States on Video November 8, 1988
Selected in 2004 for inclusion in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry.
Released in USA on video.
The film's eleven Oscars is tied with director James Cameron's "Titanic" (USA/1997) for most wins in Academy Award history.
Released in United States on Video November 8, 1988
Selected in 1997 for inclusion in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry.
Winner of a Special Citation for Andrew Morton and Yakima Canutt by the 1959 National Board of Review for their direction of the chariot sequence.
Henry Hathaway appears in a long shot in the chariot race scene. Myrna Loy has a bit part in the film.
Released in United States 1925