Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ
Action / Adventure / Epic / Classics / Silent
Directed by Fred Niblo
Ramon Novarro as Judah Ben-Hur
Francis X. Bushman as Messala
May McAvoy as Esther
Betty Bronson as Mary
Claire McDowell as Princess of Hur
Kathleen Key as Tirzah
Carmel Myers as Iras
Nigel De Brulier as Simonides
Mitchell Lewis as Sheik Ilderim
Leo White as Sanballat
Frank Currier as Arrius
Charles Belcher as Balthazar
Dale Fuller as Amrah
Winter Hall as Joseph
“Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ” is a 1925 silent film, and one of the most expensive and elaborate silent films ever made. Production costs reached about $4 million (the equivalent to nearly a hundred million dollars today), making it the second most pricey silent feature in film history. However, the picture’s gross income ($5,500,000) became the third highest for any silent film. It set attendance records and served as a turning point for the newly created Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. In 1997, the Library of Congress selected the movie for preservation in the United States National Film Registry .
The blockbuster hit was based off of Lew Wallace’s novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1880), the best selling American novel during its time and often regarded as “the most influential Christian book of the nineteenth century”. The 1925 film was the second silent film, and the first full length version, to be adapted from Wallace’s novel. It was advertised as “The Picture Every Christian Ought to See!”
This epic film tells of the trials and tribulations of Israelite Judah Ben-Hur, his experiences as a slave and then as an exalted Roman athlete, and his quest for vengeance on his enemies. The characters in the movie are portrayed by Ramon Novarro as Ben-Hur, Francis X. Bushman as his enemy, Messala, and May McAvoy as Esther.
This film tells the conventional story of the Nativity of Jesus Christ. It is set in AD 26, where Prince Judah Ben-Hur is a rich vendor in Jerusalem. Messala, his friend from childhood returns as the new commanding officer of the Roman fortification. They are thrilled to be back in each other’s live, but politics separate them. Messala is devoted to Rome and believes in its domineering strength, whereas Ben-Hur is dedicated to his religion and the independence of the Jewish people.
As years pass, oppression against Jews in Rome increases, and we are introduced to two former childhood friends, Judah Ben-Hur (the wealthy son of widowed Princess Miriam) and Messala (a Roman officer who has returned to Jerusalem following a time of absence). As the two reconnect, Judah begins to realize that Messala is not the same person he once was, but rather an oppressor that wants him to leave behind his Jewish ways.
Messala wants Ben-Hur to reveal any names that scrutinize the Roman government. Ben-Hur refuses to name any names, yet advices his people to not rebel.
Ben-Hur, along with his mother and sister help their trustworthy slave Zaimonides and his daughter Esther, who is in line to get married. As a wedding present, Ben-Hur gives Esther her independence and discover their love for one another.
While a large procession for the new governor of Judea, Valerius Gratus is going on, a tile comes down from Ben-Hur’s house, scaring the governor’s horse, causing to overthrow Gratus, almost killing him. Messala sentences Ben-Hur to the galleys, his mother, and sister to prison, even though he knows it was all an accident. He does this to dishearten the obstinate Jewish people, for he knows they will be surprised at him for sending someone like Ben-Hur to prison.
While serving as one of the hundreds of men forced to row Roman ships, one day while in a sea battle, the fleet commander, Quintas Arrius, notices and is impressed by Judah’s strength and will. Once they are rescued, Arrius introduces him as his son to the rescue crew. Judah becomes a champion chariot racer thanks to the bankroll of his adopted father, and is hailed by Rome as the greatest athlete. Wanting revenge, Judah agrees to race against Messala. His enemy makes every attempt to injure Judah and foil his attempts to win, but ends up fatally hurting himself. The chariot scene is considered one of the most lavish and exciting action sequences in motion picture history, employing three thousand extras and forty two cameras. With his last breaths, Messla reveals to Judah that his mother and sister are not dead like he thought, but alive and living as lepers.
Ben-Hur promises he will come back and has revenge on his mind. During his trip to sea, he is not given water and faints. A carpenter sees this and provides him with water. This is Jesus, for his face is hidden and he gives him the ammunition to keep going. He goes on to learn things he never thought he would ever learn and witnesses the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
Judah then decides to use his great wealth to defend and support Jesus, a man who had been hailed as the king that would liberate the Jews from Roman control. He forms an army with help from his former servant (who has a daughter named Esther that Judah is in love with). In his conquest to protect Christ, he learns he must embrace the love and forgiveness that the prophet preaches before he can be reunited with his family.
The end features the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. As Christ is carrying his cross through the streets, Judah makes his way through the crowd to tell him that he has an army lined up for protection. Jesus tells him not to take up arms, but practice forgiveness. Judah drops his weapons, and remembers his words. As Jesus continues to his death, he brings a dead child back to life, and cures Meriam and Tirzah of their leprosy. Judah reunites with his family and his love interest in the film, Esther. They all shed tears together after Christ is crucified, content that his message will live on for eternity.