Welcome to Ben-Hur week, as I celebrate one of my favoritest films on its 90th anniversary! Part I is a plot synopsis, Part II will look behind the scenes, and Part III will compare and contrast the 1925 masterpiece with the 1959 remake. It’s a shame the 1925 film only got a DVD release as an extra on the 50th anniversary edition of the Charlton Heston version.
Released on 31 December 1925, Ben-Hur was directed by Fred Niblo and stars Ramón Novarro (my next-favorite male actor), Francis X. Bushman (who’s awesome as villain Messala), May McAvoy (who later played Al Jolson’s love interest in The Jazz Singer), Carmel Myers, Kathleen Key, Claire McDowell, and Betty Bronson. Many big-name moviestars also appear as extras during the chariot race, including Mary Pickford, Harold Lloyd, John Gilbert, John and Lionel Barrymore, Lillian Gish, and Joan Crawford.
Ramón plays Prince Judah Ben-Hur, whose life intertwines with Jesus’s several times. The film opens with the familiar story of the birth of Jesus, and the Nativity scene is the first of a number of scenes in beautiful two-strip Technicolor. Most of the Technicolor scenes depict the life of Jesus, but some involve the other characters.
The cruel Gratus has just become the leader of Roman Judea, and the widowed Princess Ben-Hur sends her loyal slave Simonides to Antioch to hide the family fortune. Shortly afterwards, we’re introduced to Simonides’s beautiful daughter Esther (May McAvoy), who buys a dove by the market. Her new pet escapes into the crowd, and the handsome returning Judah Ben-Hur goes to rescue it and return it to its owner. This scene establishes Ben-Hur as a really good guy, with a good heart, someone we can love and root for.
Ben-Hur comes home and is joyfully greeted by his mother and sister Tirzah. When he steps outside, he runs across his old friend Messala, who’s risen to become a Tribune. Messala holds himself aloof in front of his Roman friends, but privately warmly receives his old buddy. Ben-Hur invites him into his home, and tells him to once more regard it as his own, and his mother and sister as family.
The rekindling of this old friendship is short-lived, however, as Messala has grown to feel the Jewish people are inferior to the Romans and need brought to heel. Ben-Hur stands up for himself and his people, and Messala warns him what might happen if he says such treasonous things again, even to an old friend.
The Ben-Hurs go onto their balcony to watch Gratus arriving in a parade, and a tile accidentally breaks off and hits Gratus on the head. Messala immediately blames Ben-Hur, and sends thugs after them. Ben-Hur begs for them to punish him as severely as they want, but to let his mother and sister free. His plea falls on deaf ears, and they’re all taken away.
Ben-Hur is driven through the desert on his way to becoming a galley slave, and almost dies of thirst. Wouldn’t you know it, they’re passing through Nazareth, and Jesus takes a break from carpentry to give the parched slave a generous ladle of water from a well. I mean absolutely no disrespect, but I’ve always found it kind of creepy how Jesus is only represented by a hand in this film. I’m not aware of any mainstream Christian custom of not depicting Jesus, the way it’s forbidden to give a face to Mohammad in Islamic art! If you can think of a plausible reason why the director used this device, let me know in the comments.
Ben-Hur serves as a galley slave for three years, his spirit still unbroken thanks to the lust for revenge coursing through his veins. The ship’s commander, Quintus Arrius, likes his free spirit, and orders him to be unchained when the ship is besieged by a whole fleet of pirates. Ben-Hur comes to his rescue during the attack, and they escape on a raft. When they sight a Roman ship, Arrius begs Ben-Hur to take his ring to buy his freedom and says he can’t face his people after what happened. However, Arrius is greeted like a great hero instead of a coward, and introduces Ben-Hur as his adopted son.
As Arrius’s heir, Ben-Hur becomes a celebrated athlete and the owner of a very large fortune. However, he can’t forget his mother and sister, and goes to Antioch after hearing Simonides is there. Simonides has given the family up for dead and taken over their fortune, and pretends not to know him at first. His fear is Esther will become a slave if one of his former masters is still alive, and of course they’ll lose their fortune.
While in Antioch, Sheik Ilderim recruits Ben-Hur as a replacement for a chariot driver who just deceased himself. Ben-Hur isn’t interested at first, but immediately changes his tune when he discovers he’ll be competing against Messala. The chariot race is one of the most famous scenes of silent cinema, and absolutely gripping. Though Ben-Hur emerges victorious and leaves Messala humiliated and stripped of his fortune, he still wants revenge on the Romans, and believes fighting for Jesus will accomplish this lofty goal.
This is one of the all-time greatest films of the silent era, and I’m far from the only one who considers it far superior to the Charlton Heston remake. Your film education isn’t complete if you haven’t seen this masterpiece. Though it runs almost two and a half hours, the time flies by like nothing and just pulls the viewer in. Hopefully someday it’ll have its own DVD release instead of being tacked onto another film’s coattails!