Ben Hur (1925)

Ben Hur (1925), directed by Fred Niblo.

From a time when "cast of thousands" really meant something. The sea battle is beyond belief, totally eclipsing that sequence in the Ben Hur (1959) remake. Some of it is models but much is full-sized mayhem. The pirates lash a Roman prisoner to the ram and plow it into the enemy galley. They also stuff poisonous snakes into glass globes and launch them with catapults. You can imagine the Roman soldiers: "Snakes from the sky. Why did it have to be snakes?"

The Star of Bethlehem begins with a big nighttime light show. The star itself has both a circular halo and cross-shaped diffraction spikes. Familiar as that image is now, I recall someone claiming it did not appear in art until after the invention of photography.

To my eyes the Virgin Mary is presented with a Pre-Raphaelite look, but that just might be the colors used. She is played by Betty Bronson, age 19, who had been the lead in Peter Pan (1924) the previous year.

We get only glimpses of Jesus, obscured by crowds or beams of light.

Famously, the chariot race in Ben Hur (1959) was closely copied, almost shot-for-shot, from this version.

Title character Ramon Novarro was a superstar of the silent era and early 1930s, but his acting career faded out after sound came in. He lived well on his investments but was murdered horrifically in 1968.

Available on DVD and often included as an extra in Ben Hur (1959) Blu-ray box sets. I don't believe the silent film itself has ever been mastered in hidef.

The Technicolor scenes were lost for many years until discovered in a Czechoslovakian film archive in the 1980s.

Carl Davis provides a new orchestral score.