Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, General Lew Wallace’s sprawling, red-blooded, reverent 1880 historical novel of a first-century Jewish prince’s changing fortunes and chance encounters with Jesus Christ was a runaway bestseller in its day, for decades outselling every other American novel until the 1936 release of Gone With the Wind.
According to Wikipedia, the novel spawned a number of stage adaptations, including one that replicated the famous chariot race with live horses, full-size chariots, and a series of treadmills! But it was the newer medium of cinema that would best dramatize Wallace’s novel, perpetuating its blend of spectacle, melodrama, and piety to later generations after the original work’s length and archaic style would make it inaccessible to later generations.
The best-known version, of course, is William Wyler’s classic 1959 version starring Charlton Heston, which won an unprecedented 11 Academy Awards and is the only US film honored for religious significance on the 1995 Vatican film list.
Arguably the best version, though, is the 1925 silent version directed by Fred Niblo (The Mark of Zorro) and starring silent screen heartthrob Ramon Novarro. At nearly 2½ hours long, the 1925 version is still an hour shorter than the 1959 version, yet the story is essentially the same, and the scale similarly impressive.
The set piece everyone remembers from the 1959 version, of course, is the chariot race. The 1925 version is at least comparable here — but it excels in the story’s other key action sequence, the epic sea battle in which the title character escapes his fate as a galley slave.
The 1925 version also arranges some events differently from the 1959 version, to superior dramatic effect. For example, the escape of Ben-Hur’s mother and sister from prison, and Esther’s discovery of their condition, is postponed until as late as possible, avoiding the dramatic inertia of the 1959 version, which leaves us too long with a “problem” whose eventual solution is all too obvious. The events leading to the chariot race make more sense here, too.
Both versions bring the same reverent reticence to depicting Christ, never showing his face (or, in the sound version, making his voice audible). The silent version additionally uses two-strip Technicolor for the religious scenes, as Cecil B. DeMille did his resurrection sequence in the silent 1927 King of Kings, giving them a special aura of significance.
While this hyper-reverent approach would never work for a whole biblical film, the style of melodramatic spectacle Hollywood cheerfully applied to such biblical subjects as The Ten Commandments is also problematic, and certainly neither approach would do for a life of Christ film. The story of Ben-Hur gets around this dilemma by keeping the Gospel story in the background and making another more appropriate tale the subject of its melodrama.
The recent four-disc collector’s edition of the 1959 Ben-Hur includes a beautiful transfer of the 1925 silent version on Disc 3. For this reason alone this set is the must-have version of Ben-Hur.
In 2003, Charlton Heston reprised his greatest role, if in voice only, in an animated made-for-TV version of Ben-Hur from the director and producers of the animated Greatest Heroes and Legends of the Bible series.
The grandest of Hollywood’s classic biblical epics, William Wyler’s Ben-Hur doesn’t transcend its genre, with its emphasis on spectacle and melodrama, but it does these things about as well as they could possibly be done.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.