Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ


I’d recently seen the one you’ve probably seen, starring Charlton Heston as Judah Ben-Hur, and I wanted to look at this one to see how it compared. The answer is: a lot better than you might expect. Yes, you do have to make allowances for the wild overacting by all the actors, but remember, they had little choice in the matter. A silent movie actor had to convey everything with gestures, body language, raised eyebrows, curled lips, widened eyes. Like Norma Desmond says in Sunset Boulevard: “We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!” And in the end, the stultifying reverence of the whole enterprise killed it for me … but you can say the same thing about the remake. About all they did differently was to remove “A Tale of the Christ” from the title. If you just snooze through the parts about Jesus, there is much to enjoy here.
I have to mention how grateful I am to the film conservators and restorers of the world. Back when I was first seeing these old silents at the Michigan State Film Society or film study classes, we had to be content with flickery 16mm prints from Blackhawk Films and places like that. There was no sound, and often we watched films shot at 16 frames per second (the standard for a long time) at 24 FPS, which, as you can imagine, made things rather herky-jerky. In the last few weeks I’ve watched The Birth of a Nation, Hell’s Angels, and now this, in beautifully restored, orchestrated, and hand-tinted versions, as they were originally shown. Hell’s Angels and this one also include sequences in two-strip Technicolor. Back then it was very expensive to shoot, and took enormous amounts of light, but the results are spectacular. It’s amazing how well you can get along without the color blue. The reds in these scenes are wonderfully vivid, and the greens aren’t too shabby, either.
I had previously seen only short takes from the chariot race, and those were unimpressive, as they usually showed only Francis X. Bushman as the evil Massala, shouting, gesticulating, and endlessly talking—during a noisy chariot race?—in true Snidely Whiplash villain fashion. When you draw back and see the whole thing, it’s a whole different story. For one thing, the arena is enormous, almost the size of the Rose Bowl. I’m not kidding, it may have been bigger than the one they built in Rome for the remake. (This one was in Culver City, where the corner of La Cienega and Venice Boulevard is today.) It was filled with screaming extras. The race is almost as brutal as the remake—more brutal in some ways, as several horses were killed in the collisions, which were not faked. There were sixty-two assistant directors for the race and they shot 200,000 feet of film, of which they used 750 feet! All the sets in this picture were enormous, and filled with 125,000 extras. I didn’t know there were 125,000 people in Los Angeles in 1925! Somewhere in that vast crowd were Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Joan Crawford, Myrna Loy, and Carole Lombard. This was the most expensive silent movie ever made: $3.9 million, which in today’s money is almost the national debt.
Odd fact: There is a color scene with eight or nine girls strewing flowers in the path of the hero of the day, Rebbe Hur, and they aren’t wearing shirts. This was before the Hays Office made prudery the standard in Hollywood, but still … the inexplicable (to me) reason the censors allowed this scene is because it was Biblical. Huh?