Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925) and Ben-Hur (1959) dramatize the novel from 1880 by Lew Wallace about a wealthy Jewish prince during the time of the Roman occupation of Judea who was sent into slavery by his old friend, now a Roman soldier who aspires to political high office. Judah Ben-Hur will eventually avenge himself, sorrow and suffer, and his path will cross many times with Jesus Christ until the moment of Christ’s Passion. The story combines so many elements dear to Hollywood: a successful novel, a biblical epic wherein images of suffering, torture, a certain degree of salaciousness, are permitted because they are deemed biblical, including a showing fair degree of muscled legs and chest of our hero, and the opportunity to appear as if they are enlightening their public as much as entertaining them. We mark the annual crisscrossing of Passover and Easter with this story of Ben-Hur.
Astonishingly, however, there is much about both movies that is quite similar, including much of the chariot race and the scenes leading up to the race. The 1925 version is a little closer to the novel, but it is no less an opportunity to embrace all that is lavish and lush about an era in Hollywood where there was no CGI and those thousands of people we see in the arena and on the rocky hillsides and the lonely road to Calvary, were real people and not embedded by computer-aided graphics. One might even note that the naval battle in the 1925 version is actually a little more impressive than the 1959 version because it does not appear so much like models in the M-G-M pool.
One of the great delights of the Easter season is watching these old Hollywood epics on regular broadcast television. As we know, broadcast TV rarely shows classic films these days; they are to be found only on retro channels and on TCM, so fewer people are exposed to classic films today. And though broadcast TV does include those pesky commercials, does include edits which are extremely annoying to us old movie fans, there is still something wonderfully egalitarian about being able to see them for free, especially when one is sated after the holiday family meal and the kids are tired out from a long day of festivities and the whole family can gather in front of the TV and watch Hollywood’s ambitious take on the deeper meaning of the season.
Of course, Hollywood’s take on the deeper meaning is never all that deep, but it is entertaining and picturesque, sometimes as magnificent a feast for the eye as the old Renaissance masters’ versions of biblical events; their views were also slanted viewpoints. We could note that the scene of the Last Supper in the 1925 version of Ben-Hur looks almost exactly like the da Vinci painting. Of course, that was da Vinci’s version of the Last Supper, which probably did not happen on a long rectangular table with all twelve apostles and Christ sitting on one side of the table like the dais at a Friars roast. More likely they were all seated together on the floor, dipping pieces of their unleavened bread into a communal dish. And the lighting wasn’t as good.
The other fun aspect about watching biblical epics is that they always end up containing a dream team of players. Sometime or other we’re going to have to discuss The Ten Commandments (1956), a movie I cannot think of without recalling Edward G. Robinson in one of his most campy roles. Just hearing his gangster delivery makes me laugh. (Or was that Billy Crystal?) But that is Hollywood.
It was in The Ten Commandments that Charlton Heston first became famous for the biblical genre. He played Moses in that epic free-for-all, and he comes to the 1959 Ben-Hur with that under his belt. Sam Jaffe and Finlay Currie as well as Martha Scott are the old-timers from classic films here, but they are joined by popular actors of the day such as Stephen Boyd, and Hugh Griffith, who with great panache plays Sheik Ilderim. Newcomer Haya Harareet plays Esther in what was intended to be a dash of authenticity in this version. Ms. Harareet was herself from Israel, born before that country was established when it was still part of British Palestine. She made only a handful of films after that however. Director William Wyler cast most of the Romans with British actors and most of the Jews with American actors, because he felt the distinction in accents would help differentiate them in the minds of the viewers. It seems that most Romans in the old epics were played by Brits, which may lead many of us to assume Caesar studied at Oxford.
The 1925 version of Ben-Hur, untroubled by the need for different accents, we also have a dream team of sorts. Except for star Ramon Navarro and Francis X. Bushman, the movie features a large cast of actors who are predominantly unknown even to classic film buffs. This might give the film more of a purity in the sense that we come to the story without any preconceived notions about the actors playing the roles. However, most of us would be delightfully shocked to discover that many of the Hollywood stars of the day played uncredited bit parts in this movie, lending themselves to crowd scenes, including John and Lionel Barrymore, who supposedly were spectators at the chariot race, as was director Clarence Brown, Joan Crawford and Marion Davis, Douglas Fairbanks, John Gilbert, Dorothy and Lillian Gish, as well as producer Samuel Goldwyn. Even theater owner Sid Grauman of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre was there in the stands. Gary Cooper is supposed to have played a Roman guard, as was Clark Gable. Janet Gaynor and Myrna Loy played slave girls. I did not see them, but I promise you I’m going to watch this movie over and over again until I can find them. Let me know if you do. I don’t think there has ever been such a collection of future stars in bit parts in the same movie.
There actually is something very pure and very innocent and strikingly emotional in the 1925 silent Ben- Hur. Directed by Fred Niblo, June Mathis was the scriptwriter, and we may recall that the 1920s was a time of greater opportunity in Hollywood for women. Ramon Navarro, a really excellent actor, is handsome and very moving as Ben-Hur. Francis X. Bushman is his friend and foe Messala the Roman soldier. In the 1959 version Stephen Boyd plays the role and at first, he and Charlton Heston meet after an absence of many years and renew their childhood friendship. It is only after they discuss the political events of the day and Boyd’s request that Heston inform on fellow Jews who work against the Roman Empire that they fall out and become enemies. Though the 1925 version has Navarro welcoming Bushman after a long absence, the beefy and brash Bushman acts like a bully from his first entrance.
May McAvoy plays Esther, the daughter of Simonides who is Ben-Hur’s slave and steward. She will be his future love. Claire McDowell plays his mother and Kathleen Key plays his sister Tirzah. Mitchell Lewis plays the flamboyant Sheik Ilderim but he does not have the grandiose humor of Hugh Griffith. Charles Belcher plays Balthazar, one of the Three Kings who paid tribute to Christ at his birth and who has been seeking him these many years. Finlay Currie gets the job in the 1959 version, and also serves as narrator.
The moments where Ben-Hur’s life intersects with the life of Christ are commonly treated with a two- strip Technicolor process. We see the brightly colored robes and skin tone on the actors.
Though the grand scenes of the enormous palaces, the gigantic sets are mind blowing, we are treated to very small, intimate scenes of equal power as was common in silent film. After the impressive naval battle when Ben-Hur has rescued the Roman captain and they are brought to another ship, he climbs the outer net of rope rigging to the deck and he passes by a porthole where a fellow galley slave looks up at him mournfully. So much is said with a glance. The director gets a lot of mileage out of these kinds of scenes. One of the problems with the widescreen process as used in 1959 is, as director William Wyler himself lamented, all the space has to be used and so even when the director is focusing on two people in the scene, the audience is going to be looking elsewhere because there is so much else to look at. The director is not able to focus on a pinpoint moment.
The chariot race is perhaps the most famous element of either movie or even the book. It is stunning. The silent version gives us remarkable camera angles where both actors are seen handling the four horses that pull their chariots and I’m assuming that stunt doubles were kept to a minimum simply because of the difficulty of filming. There are those amazing shots, replicated in the 1959 version, of the chariot actually driving over the camera which has been placed into the ground. The stunning wide sweeping shots of the chariots making turns and thrusting down the straightaway, sometimes crashing into each other and overturning is breathtaking. What the silent version lacks is the sound of hoofbeats. We have a beautifully restored version of the 1925 film from 1988 scored by Carl Davis which provides a stirring backdrop to this scene, but we have no hoofbeats.
One thing that some critics remarked upon in the 1959 version was that it was a very slow, unwieldy tale, a very long movie and the parade of characters were presented with chronological diligence but with without raw emotion. The 1925 version carries all the raw emotion including several scenes that are utterly heartbreaking. We may note that this movie was remade in 2016, and it was not successful, but though I have not seen it I can imagine one reason for its lack of success among others – the heavy use of computer graphics makes a modern film more cost-effective but it removes us emotionally from the scene. It must have been extremely expensive and extremely laborious to have thousands and thousands of people rising as one, perfectly choreographed to cheer during the chariot race but it is far more effective because it is real, and because people whose emotions we understand are more interesting, and always will be, than technology we don’t understand.
Both movies deal with the representation of Christ as a silent figure and whom we see only from the back or only his arm, or his hand. Christ gives Ben-Hur a drink of water when he has been marching through the desert to become a galley slave and we see his gentle touch on Charlton Heston’s hair; the difference, however, is that the reaction toward Christ is on a more human and less spiritual manner in the 1959 version. When Charlton Heston looks up at Christ, Heston’s expression seems to tell us that he is grateful for the water and relieved he has found a sympathetic person who is helping him. He does not look as if looking into the face of the Messiah. Ironically, the Roman soldier who comes by to bark at him and tell Christ to go away suddenly stops and looks towards Christ with more of a sensation of encountering something strangely mystical. We see a more powerful reaction from the soldier than we do from Heston.
Ramon Navarro always appears as if deeply moved when The Nazarene crosses his path. Another interesting moment done with pure acting, is when his mother and sister are healed from their leprosy by their interaction with Christ. They had been told that The Nazarene performs miracles for those who believe and they arrive in time for his Passion as he drags the heavy cross through the streets. We don’t see his face; we see the cross on his shoulder and his face is behind it. They sorrow for him, and just with lighting, a white light that centers on their faces, the dark circles of their illness disappear and they immediately delight, acting as if they had been cured of their leprosy. There is no Jekyll and Hyde makeup transformation; it is all in the acting.
The 1959 version has Christ on the cross in the storm, the rain pouring down, dripping from his fingers on the hand nailed to the cross. In a nearby cave, Ben-Hur’s mother and sister discover they are cured of leprosy. The darkness of the cave masks their need to wear makeup. The 1959 version is more sweaty and dirty, but even the realism does not match the heartbreak of the 1925 mother and sister close enough to the sleeping Ben-Hur to touch him, but resisting to wake him from sleep because they want to spare him the knowledge of their leprosy.
Both films make an attempt to address the political issues of a conquered people, for the biblical events, as in current events, are always as much about politics as about faith. Ben-Hur’s quest for Christ is his militant quest for a king to lead them out of Roman bondage, but he eventually adopts Christ’s message of peace. In the 1959 version Stephen Boyd taunts Charlton Heston with the idea that he is a member of a conquered people and he needs to get used to that. “The glory of Solomon is gone... Joshua will not rise again to save you, nor David.” To which Charlton Heston replies, “Rome is evil... Rome is an affront to God.”
The story ends with Ben-Hur reunited with his mother and sister, and with his love, Esther. But there’s a big “what happens next” that is never answered. How does he live with no end to Roman occupation for the rest of his life? We are meant to assume that the early Christian followers find strength and comfort in the teachings of Christ and in their own growing numbers, but though Hollywood enjoyed platitudes as a way of staying on the good side of the public who always thought that movie capital was a Babylon among the orange groves, it did not even trouble to answer the larger questions, preferring to wallow in the spectacle.
I enjoy biblical epics, but not because I find them instructive or inspirational; rather because, like a painting by a great master, they are imaginative pictures of wondrous events brought down to a human level we are better able to relate to – and despite the temptresses, the virile warriors, and the gauzily dressed slave girls, I think the most frivolous thing about them is that they are so irresistibly commercial.
So frivolous that, unlike the more meaningful and reflective rituals of the holidays, I cannot help but equate theses movies with a handful of jelly beans and winding down a busy weekend of celebration.
May I wish a Blessed Passover and a Happy Easter to all who celebrate.
You have a chance to watch the 1959 Ben-Hur this Easter Sunday on TCM.
You have a chance to watch the 1959 Ben-Hur this Easter Sunday on TCM.
Have a look at the chariot scene from the 1925 version below.