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Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925 film)

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Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ
Theatrical release poster
Directed by
Screenplay by
Based onBen-Hur: A Tale of the Christ
1880 novel
by General Lew Wallace
Produced by
Edited by
Music by
Distributed byMetro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Release dates
Running time
141 minutes
CountryUnited States
LanguageSilent (English intertitles)
Budget$4 million[1][2]
Box office$10.7 million[1][2]

Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ is a 1925 American silent epic adventure-drama film directed by Fred Niblo and written by June Mathis based on the 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by General Lew Wallace. Starring Ramon Novarro as the title character, the film is the first feature-length adaptation of the novel and second overall, following the 1907 short.

In 1997, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."[3][4]


Ramon Novarro as Ben-Hur

At the Joppa Gate in Jerusalem, Mary and Joseph pass through on their way from Nazareth to Bethlehem. They stop at the inn at the entrance to the city, but they have no available room. Mary is pregnant and, as labor begins, they settle in a nearby a cave where a baby is born in Bethlehem among the shepherds and visited by the Magi.

Judah Ben-Hur, a wealthy Jewish prince, returns from Antioch and reconnects with his Roman childhood friend, Messala. Judah invites him to his palace with his mother, Miriam, and younger sister, Tirzah. Messala fully embraces Rome's glory and imperial power over the Jewish people while Judah remains devoted to the Jewish people's freedom.

Valerius Gratus, the new Roman governor of Judaea, and his procession enter the city, as Judah and Tirzah watch from the upper terrace. Loose roof tiles fall, spooking the governor's horse and throwing him off. Messala condemns Judah to the galleys and imprisons Miriam and Tirzah. Judah vows revenge upon Messala. As he and other slaves are marched to the galleys, they stop in Nazareth. Denied water, Judah collapses but is revived when Jesus, the carpenter's son, offers him water.

Judah is sentenced to slave labor in a Roman war galley. Once aboard ship, his attitude of defiance and strength impresses a Roman admiral, Quintus Arrius, who allows him to remain unchained. Soon, his ship is attacked and sunk by pirates, and Judah saves him from drowning. Arrius then adopts Judah as his son, and over the years, Ben-Hur becomes a victorious chariot racer. He receives permission from Arrius to travel to Antioch, where he meets with Simonides, a former merchant for the Hur family. Judah remeets with Esther, Simonides's daughter, whom he encountered years earlier. He is told by Simonides that Miriam and Tirzah are dead. Meanwhile, Sheik Ilderim is competing in a chariot race and selects Judah to drive his horses. He refuses at first until he learns Messala will compete in the race.

At the arena, Judah has a flirtatious romance with Iras, who then tells Messala that Judah is alive. Before the chariot race, Ben-Hur and Messala confront each other, in which Judah wages fifty-thousand pieces of gold if he wins. During the race, Messala wrecks his chariot when it comes too close to Judah's. He is trampled by another chariot while Judah wins the race. However, Messala does not die.

In Ilderim's tent, he is visited by Balthazar who states the Messiah is an adult man. Judah pledges to give Jesus his wealth in hopes he will overthrow the Romans. Judah and Balthazar head back to Judea where Judah finances two legions. Pontius Pilate is the new governor of Judea who releases prisoners held without a documented crime record. Miriam and Tirzah, who have developed leprosy, are freed and venture into the Valley of the Lepers. On their way, they see Judah sleeping outside of the Hur palace. Judah and Esther reunite, but he leaves when he learns Jesus has been arrested. Esther eventually spots Miriam and Tirzah and conceals their whereabouts from Judah.

The next day, convinced that Jesus can heal them, Esther takes Miriam and Tirzah to meet him. During the crucifixion, Judah hears Jesus's voice, stating his kingdom is not of this world and to put away his sword. Jesus later revives a dead child and miraculously cures Miriam and Tirzah. Judah sees his healed mother and sister and reunites with them. Jesus dies and an earthquake erupts. Balthazar informs the legion armies of Jesus's death and disperses them, telling them to forgive their enemies and love one another.

Reunited with his family, Judah states Jesus is not dead but he will live forever in the hearts of men.


Promotional still of the chariot race in Ben-Hur


Some notable crowd extras during chariot race


Full film; runtime 02:20:52

Ben-Hur: A Tale of The Christ had been a great success as a novel, and was adapted into a stage play which ran for twenty-five years. In 1922, two years after the play's last tour, the Goldwyn company purchased the film rights to Ben-Hur. The play's producer, Abraham Erlanger, put a heavy price on the screen rights. Erlanger was persuaded to accept a generous profit participation deal and total approval over every detail of the production.

Choosing the title role was difficult for June Mathis. Rudolph Valentino and dancer Paul Swan were considered until George Walsh was chosen. When asked why she chose him, she answered it was because of his eyes and his body. Gertrude Olmstead was cast as Esther.[6][7] While on location in Italy, Walsh was fired and replaced by Ramon Novarro.[5] The role of Esther went to May McAvoy.

Technicolor frames from the film's trailer.

Shooting began in Rome, Italy in October 1923 under the direction of Charles Brabin who was replaced shortly after filming began. Other re-castings (apart from Ramon Novarro as Ben-Hur) and a change of director caused the production's budget to skyrocket. After two years of difficulties and accidents, the production was eventually moved back to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in Culver City, California and production resumed in the spring of 1925. B. Reeves Eason and Christy Cabanne directed the second unit footage.[8]

Production costs eventually rose to $3,900,000 ($67,760,000 today) compared to MGM's average for the season of $158,000 ($2,750,000 today),[2] making Ben-Hur the most expensive film of the silent era.[9]

A total of 200,000 feet (61,000 m) of film was shot for the chariot race sequence, which led editor Lloyd Nosler eventually cut to 750 feet (230 m) for the released print.[10] Film historian and critic Kevin Brownlow has described the race sequence as "breathtakingly exciting, and as creative a piece of cinema as the Odessa Steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin", the Soviet film also released in 1925, directed by Sergei Eisenstein who introduced many modern concepts of editing and montage composition to motion-picture production.[11] Visual elements of the chariot race have been much imitated. The race's opening sequence was re-created shot-for-shot in the 1959 remake, copied in the 1998 animated film The Prince of Egypt, and imitated in the pod race scene in the 1999 film Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.[12][13]

Some of the scenes in the 1925 film were shot in two-color Technicolor, most notably the sequences involving Jesus. One of the assistant directors for this sequence was a young William Wyler, who would direct the 1959 MGM remake. The black-and-white footage was color tinted and toned in the film's original release print. MGM released a second remake of Ben-Hur in 2016.[8]


Messala's winged helmet, worn by Francis X. Bushman in Ben-Hur, sold at the Debbie Reynolds auction of film memorabilia (2011)

The studio's publicity department was relentless in promoting the film, advertising it with lines like: "The Picture Every Christian Ought to See!" and "The Supreme Motion Picture Masterpiece of All Time". Ben Hur went on to become MGM's highest-grossing film, with rentals of $9 million worldwide. Its foreign earnings of $5 million were not surpassed at MGM for at least 25 years. Despite the large revenues, its huge expenses and the deal with Erlanger made it a net financial loss for MGM. It recorded an overall loss of $698,000.[2]

In terms of publicity and prestige however, it was a great success. "The screen has yet to reveal anything more exquisitely moving than the scenes at Bethlehem, the blazing of the star in the heavens, the shepherds and the Wise Men watching. The gentle, radiant Madonna of Betty Bronson's is a masterpiece," wrote a reviewer for Photoplay. "No one," they concluded, "no matter what his age or religion, should miss it. And take the children."[14] It helped establish the new MGM as a major studio.[15][16]

The film was re-released in 1931 with an added musical score, by the original composers William Axt and David Mendoza, and sound effects. As the decades passed, the original two-color Technicolor segments were replaced by alternative black-and-white takes. Ben-Hur earned $1,352,000 during its re-release, including $1,153,000 of foreign earnings, and made a profit of $779,000 meaning it had an overall profit of $81,000.[2] The review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reported that 96% of critics have given the film a positive review based on 23 reviews, with an average rating of 7.8/10.[17]

The film became controversial after its release for the harm to animals involved in the filming. A reported one hundred horses were tripped and killed merely to produce the set piece footage of the major chariot race. Animal advocates especially criticized the use of the "running W" on set, a wire device that could trip a galloping horse. It would take a decade before such devices lost favor in Hollywood.[18]

The movie was banned in the 1930s in China under the category of "superstitious films" due to its religious subject matter involving gods and deities.[19]



The Technicolor scenes were considered lost until the 1980s when Turner Entertainment (who by then had acquired the rights to the MGM film library) found the crucial sequences in the Czechoslovak Film Archive (now the Czech National Film Archive). Current prints of the 1925 version are from the Turner-supervised restoration which includes the color tints and Technicolor sections set to resemble the original theatrical release. There is an addition of a newly recorded stereo orchestral soundtrack by Carl Davis with the London Philharmonic Orchestra which was originally recorded for a Thames Television screening of the movie.

Home media


Ben-Hur was released on DVD, complete with the Technicolor segments, in the four-disc collector's edition of the 1959 version starring Charlton Heston, as well as in the 2011 "Fiftieth Anniversary Edition" Blu-ray Collector's Edition three-disc box set.

See also




Explanatory notes


  1. ^ a b "Ben-Hur (1925)". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved January 7, 2012.
  2. ^ a b c d e H. Mark Glancy, 'MGM Film Grosses, 1924–28: The Eddie Mannix Ledger', Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol 12 No. 2 1992 pp. 127–44 at p. 129
  3. ^ "New to the National Film Registry (December 1997) - Library of Congress Information Bulletin". Library of Congress. Retrieved May 18, 2020.
  4. ^ "Complete National Film Registry Listing". Library of Congress. Retrieved August 12, 2021.
  5. ^ a b Keel, A. Chester (November 1924). "The Fiasco of Ben Hur". Photoplay. 26 (6). Chicago, Illinois: Photoplay Magazine Publishing Company: 32–33, 101.
  6. ^ Marshall, Eunice (April 1924). "What Will Happen to Ben-Hur?". Screenland. New York. Retrieved January 31, 2016.
  7. ^ Marshall, Eunice (April 1924). "What Will Happen to Ben-Hur? (Continued)". Screenland. New York. Retrieved January 31, 2016.
  8. ^ a b "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ". silentera.com. Retrieved May 26, 2013.
  9. ^ Hall, Sheldon; Neale, Stephen (April 15, 2010). Epics, Spectacles, and Blockbusters: A Hollywood History. Wayne State University Press. p. 163. ISBN 978-0-8143-3008-1.
  10. ^ Brownlow, Kevin (1968). The Parade's Gone By... New York: Bonanza Books. p. 409. ISBN 978-0-5200-3068-8.
  11. ^ Brownlow, p. 413.
  12. ^ Bowman, James (1998). "Prince of Egypt, The", article published 1 December 1998, online journal of the Ethics and Public Policy Center (EPPC), Washington, D.C. Retrieved 13 August 2021.
  13. ^ MrRazNZ (2021). The Pod Race: How George Lucas copied, transformed and combined" on YouTube, scene-by-scene video comparison of race in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace with the races in Ben Hur and in the 1975 Norwegian stop-motion animated feature The Pinchcliffe Grand Prix; uploaded 12 August 2021 to YouTube (San Bruno, California). Retrieved 13 August 2021.
  14. ^ "The Shadow Stage". Photoplay. New York. March 1926. Retrieved August 26, 2015.
  15. ^ Hoffman, Scott W. (2002). "The Making and Release of Ben-Hur". St. James Encyclopedia of Pop Culture. Archived from the original on May 5, 2009. Retrieved August 12, 2021 – via BNET.
  16. ^ Hagopian, Kevin. "Film Notes: Ben-Hur". New York State Writers Institute. Archived from the original on December 5, 2006. Retrieved August 12, 2021.
  17. ^ "Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1926)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved November 16, 2021.
  18. ^ "8 troubling tales of animal abuse on film shoots". The Week. November 19, 2012. Retrieved August 12, 2021.
  19. ^ Yingjin, Zhang (1999). Cinema and Urban Culture in Shanghai, 1922–1943. Stanford University Press. p. 190. ISBN 978-0-8047-3572-8.

Further reading

  • Keel, A. Chester, "The Fiasco of 'Ben Hur'," Photoplay, November 1924, p. 32.