In 1997, Ben-Hur was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
Ben-Hur is a wealthy young Jewish prince and boyhood friend of the powerful Roman tribune, Messala. When an accident and a false accusation leads to Ben-Hur’s arrest, Messala, who has become corrupt and arrogant, makes sure Ben-Hur and his family are jailed and separated.
Ben-Hur is sentenced to slave labor in a Roman war galley. Along the way, he unknowingly encounters Jesus, the carpenter’s son who offers him water. Once aboard ship, his attitude of defiance and strength impresses a Roman admiral, Quintus Arrius, who allows him to remain unchained. This actually works in the admiral’s favor because when his ship is attacked and sunk by pirates, Ben-Hur saves him from drowning.
Arrius then treats Ben-Hur as a son, and over the years the young man grows strong and becomes a victorious chariot racer. This eventually leads to a climactic showdown with Messala in a chariot race, in which Ben-Hur is the victor. However, Messala does not die, as he does in the more famous 1959 remake of the film.
Ben-Hur is eventually reunited with his mother and sister, who are suffering from leprosy but are miraculously cured by Jesus Christ.
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. While on location in Italy, Walsh was fired and replaced by Ramon Novarro. The role of Esther went to May McAvoy.
Shooting began in Rome, Italy in October 1923 under the direction of Charles Brabin who was replaced shortly after filming began. Additional recastings (including 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.
Costs eventually rose to $3.9 million compared to MGM’s average for the season of $158,000, making Ben-Hur the most expensive film of the silent era.
A total of 60,960 m (200,000 ft) of film was shot for the chariot race scene, which was eventually edited down to 229 m (750 ft). Film critic Kevin Brownlow has called the chariot race sequence as creative and influential a piece of cinema as the famous Odessa Steps sequence in Sergei Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin, which introduced modern concepts of film editing and montage to cinema. This scene has been much imitated. Its opening sequence was re-created shot for shot in the 1959 remake, copied in the 1998 animated film The Prince of Egypt, and more recently imitated in the pod race scene in the 1999 film Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace which was made almost 75 years later.
The Chariot Race, a painting by Alexander von Wagner (c. 1882), depicts a similar scene and may have been inspired by the original novel.
Some of the scenes in the 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 remake. The black-and-white footage was color tinted and toned in the film’s original release print.
Fred Niblo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons