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The opening title card reads: "Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer presents Ben-Hur A Tale of the Christ by General Lew Wallace." The next title card reads: "Produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in arrangement with Abraham L. Erlanger, Charles B. Dillingham and Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. from the novel published and copyrighted by Harper and Brothers."
Wallace (1827-1905), a general who fought in the Mexican and Civil Wars and was territorial governor of New Mexico, wrote several historical novels. Ben-Hur was his most famous book and an international bestseller for many years. Although the film follows the basic storyline of the novel, the novel continues beyond the death of Christ until the reign of the Roman Emperor Nero (37-68 a.d.).
In the novel, "Judah Ben-Hur" and his family, including "Esther," whom he marries, and "Simonides," become Christians. Judah goes to Rome to help build the catacombs used by Christians escaping Nero's persecution. Another difference between the novel and the film adaptations is that in the novel, "Messala" survives the chariot race, although he is crippled for life. In the 1925 film, it is implied that Messala dies after the race.
Noted film and stage impresario Mark Klaw, partner of Erlanger, produced a theatrical adaptation of Wallace's novel that opened on Broadway on November 29, 1899, dramatized by William Young and starring Edward Morgan as Judah and William S. Hart as Messala. Klaw and Erlanger financed several other productions, including a popular revival that opened on November 6, 1916. Although the film's credits acknowledge theatrical producers Erlanger, Dillingham and Ziegfeld, it was based on Wallace's novel rather than the play.
Contemporary news items, press releases and the film's pressbook reveal the following information about the production: In 1922 and early 1923, when the film was in development, Erich von Stroheim and Marshall Neilan were initially considered as the film's director, as was Rex Ingram. Rudolph Valentino was frequently mentioned as the leading candidate for the title role. Thomas Meighan was also mentioned as a possible star in some news items, as was Gertrude Olmstead for the role of "Esther." By mid-1923, Charles Brabin was signed to direct the film, with George Walsh, brother of director Raoul Walsh, as the star.
When the film was in the early planning stages in 1922 and 1923, it was to be a production of the Goldwyn Company and was spearheaded by Goldwyn story editor June Mathis. By 1924, Goldwyn merged with Metro Pictures and Louis B. Mayer Pictures to become Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Following the arrival of Brabin and other members of the company in Italy in early October 1923, filming commenced by early 1924, with Brabin directing Mathis' scenario. According to news items, problems beset the company from the beginning, with delays, weather and language problems compounded by difficulties of the already large-scale production and disagreements between Brabin and Mathis. By early June 1924, the production was called to a halt and a new director, writers and lead actor were being dispatched to Rome. According to a June 22, 1924 Los Angeles Times article, Fred Niblo had left for Europe accompanied by writers Carey Wilson and Bess Meredyth and actor Ramon Novarro. Niblo began directing scenes in Italy on 12 August 1924.
A August 3, 1924 New York Morning Telegraph article reported that Mathis had severed all connections to the production, which was now headed by Niblo. Mathis was quoted as saying: "After six months of hard work in Rome, Vienna, Berlin and the edge of the desert and other places, I do not feel that the ideals I have had for "Ben-Hur" ever since I began work on the script two years ago can be realized..." Despite leaving the production, Mathis received screen credit for "adaptation," while Wilson received credit for the scenario and he and Meredyth with credited with the continuity. Brabin received no credit onscreen or in press materials, although it is likely that at least some of the footage he directed remained in the released film.
Niblo continued directing the production in Rome for several months. The Quadraro section of Rome was the site of the massive Joppa Gate and Jerusalem sets. The battle scene was filmed off Livorno on the Italian coast, although an elaborate set of miniatures was also built on the M-G-M lot in Culver City, CA to enhance the location filming. Other news items note that filming of the brief desert scenes took place in North Africa. The production returned to the Culver City lot by spring of 1925, with filming continuing into the autumn of that year.
The film's spectacular chariot race was filmed under the supervision of second unit director Reeves Eason, who was known for his skillful battle scene direction. Although sets were constructed near Rome for Antioch's great Circus, plans to shoot the chariot race there were scrapped and a new stadium was built in Southern California. Modern sources note that the actual set was constructed on the intersection of what is now La Cienega and Venice Blvds. in Los Angeles, about two miles from the M-G-M lot. According to various contemporary sources, the race took two months to shoot at a cost of $500,000, required several thousand extras and forty cameras to complete. An inter-office M-G-M memo reproduced in a modern source, as well as news items, indicate that the chariot race was filmed from June to August 1925.
The first part of the film, which establishes the historical period and dramatizes the birth of Christ, is a prologue to the main story. The Nativity sequence, as well as several other sequences throughout the film, were shown in two-strip Technicolor. Many other scenes throughout the film were tinted in various colors. The face of Christ, who is referred to only as "The king" or "the Nazarene," is never seen in the film. Several title cards used to describe or quote him were quotations of passages from the Gospels. As noted in reviews, some showings of the film included synchronized sound effects with a musical score written by William Axt and David Mendoza. According to the premiere program, Major Edward Bowes presented a stage program for the New York premiere.
Reviews for Ben-Hur highly praised the picture, many calling the picture the greatest film ever made. The Variety review stated: "There will be no further reason for a future production of "Ben-Hur" for the screen..."Ben-Hur" is a picture for all times. The New York Times included it in its list of the top ten films of 1925. New York Times critic Mordant Hall wrote, "The film version of General Lew Wallace's story shows the advance in picture artistry and also in production technique. It causes one to think that nothing much is beyond the ken of the cameraman. "
Actor Francis X. Bushman, a popular leading man of the late 1910s, had not made a film for two years, and reviews praised his performance as a villain. Betty Bronson, who portrayed "Mary," was also singled out for her acting. Although reviewers did not condemn Novarro's performance and praised his energy in the title role, several pointed out his lack of dramatic depth. Some modern sources indicate that Novarro was new to films, but he had acted in increasingly larger roles since 1917. Judah was, however, his most famous role.
According to information from M-G-M financial data ledger in the Eddie Mannix collection at the AMPAS Library, the total production cost of Ben-Hur was $3,967,000, far more than any film made to that time. The domestic and foreign earnings total for the film's initial release was $9,386.000, also a huge sum for the time, but was logged as a $698,000 loss for the studio for the 1924-25 season. When the film was reissued in the 1931-32 season, the film earned another $1,352,000, bringing the total theatrical earnings to $10,738,000, but only yielding an $81,000 profit. In terms of overall earnings, however, it took in more money at the box office than any film produced by M-G-M until the late 1940s.
Modern sources include Myrna Loy and Tom Tyler as bit players in the cast, but they could not be identified in the viewed print. Some modern sources include the names of a number of well-known actors and directors as extras in the chariot race sequence. Although M-G-M publicity for the film mentioned notable names such as Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Harold Lloyd and Charles Chaplin as visitors to the set while filming took place, the actual appearance of any of those notables in the released film is unlikely.
Modern sources also add the following names to the crew: Henry Hathaway (Assistant Director), Andrew MacDonald (Set const), Camillo Mastrocinque (Art dir, Italy), Kenneth Gordon MacLean (Miniatures), Christy Cabanne (Dir, screen tests), Silvano Balboni (Camera Operator), Renata Bernabei and Irene Coletta (Assistant Editor), Dave Friedman (Unit Production Manager), Harold Grieve (Costume Design) and David Nolan (Conductor).
Ben-Hur was reissued in 1931 in an abbreviated version with synchronized music. According to modern sources, a few scenes were cut by censors at that time, including a close-up of Christ's hand, brief shots of bare-breasted women in a procession and a medium close-up of a nude man shackled to the wall in the ship's galley. In 1987, a restoration of the film was produced by David Gill and Kevin Brownlow under the auspices of Thames Television in Britain. The restoration included deleted scenes as well as the original two-strip Technicolor sequences. Composer Carl Davis wrote a new score for the restoration.
Other film adaptations of Wallace's novel include the 1907 one-reel Kalem Co. production directed by Sidney Olcott and Frank O. Rose, and the multiple Academy Award-winning 1959 M-G-M production directed by William Wyler (who worked as an assistant director on the 1925 production) and starring Charlton Heston as the title character and Stephen Boyd as Messala.