Classic Film Guide

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

Directed by Fred Niblo, and co-written by Bess Meredyth (A Woman of Affairs (1928)) & Carey Wilson (Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)), among others, this outstanding film is actually a remake that was later remade, winning the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1959. Though primarily a B&W film, this silent features several 2-strip Technicolor scenes (e.g. those with Jesus Christ, including his birth & the Last Supper) which help to make this a must-see classic. It was added to the National Film Registry in 1997.

Ramon Novarro plays the title role of Judah Ben-Hur, a wealthy Jew and boyhood friend of the powerful Roman, Messala (played by Francis X. Bushman). When an accident leads to the title character's arrest, Messala makes sure he and his family are jailed and separated; Ben-Hur is sent to work in the galley of a Roman warship. Along the way, he unknowingly encounters Christ, the carpenter's son who offers him water. Once aboard ship, his attitude of defiance and strength impresses a Roman Admiral, Quintus Arrius (Frank Currier), who allows him to remain unchained, unlike the other slaves powering the mighty vessel. This actually works to 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 many times over. Of course, this eventually leads to a climactic showdown with Messala in a visually spectacular, incredibly exciting chariot race, perhaps only surpassed by the later filmed version of this story.

May McAvoy plays Esther, the daughter of the Hur family's former servant Simonides (Nigel De Brulier). Though she was instructed to hide the fact of their existence from Ben-Hur earlier, she eventually leads him to his sister Tirzah (Kathleen Key) and mother (Claire McDowell) who, when they were finally released from prison, discovered they were lepers. Betty Bronson plays Mary, the mother of Christ; Winter Hall plays Joseph. Mitchell Lewis plays Sheik Ilderim, who supplies Ben-Hur with the horses he needs to race Messala. Clarence Brown, who would go on to earn seven Best Director Oscar nominations appeared uncredited as an extra in the chariot race scene, as did actors/actresses Marion Davies, Douglas Fairbanks, John Gilbert, Lillian Gish, Harold Lloyd, and Mary Pickford, and Chinese Theater owner Sid Grauman, among others. Myrna Loy also appears, uncredited, as a Hedonist!

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