The Film Society Scores a ‘Biblical’ Success with the Original Ben Hur

Phil Spurrell, Impressario

by Donato Totaro Volume 21, Issue 2 / February 2017 9 minutes (2199 words)

Who knows if I will ever get another chance to have a beer and popcorn while watching a religious themed film, in a church. Which is what happened on May 24, 2014 when the Film Society hosted a wonderful evening of Ben Hur: A Tale of Christ (1925, Fred Niblo) with Live Music at the Westmount Park United Church. The evening was a big success, with the church capacity of approximately 250 filled and the crowd eager to soak up a REEL film experience. The founder of the Film Society Phil Spurrell is a great ambassador of film heritage and is the first to extol the magic of the communal celluloid experience, especially a silent film with live music. Watching the film reminded me of an interview I read recently where John Turturro said that he decided to shoot The Fading Gigolo on 35mm because of the way the warmth of celluloid made the women look so much better. The copy of Ben Hur shown was an excellent 16mm print and the images were accompanied by a three piece music ensemble of piano by Guillaume Martineau, violin by Zoé Dumais and percussion by Joannie Labelle. The ensemble was nothing short of amazing, with their flowing music sticking to every single frame of the film like maple syrup to your fingers. I was surprised to learn after the screening that this was the first time these three musicians, young but all with successful careers in music, played live to a silent film. I’m used to seeing silent films with the traditional piano score, but having the variety of violin and percussion added a whole new dimension to the sound-image marriage. For example, the way the great chariot scene (directed by B-Western director Reaves Eason) was accompanied only be a driving drum, which increased and sustained the tension and excitement of the race.

Line-up outside church venue

The Musical Trio

The film, best described as a Biblical Action film, and which I had somehow managed to avoid seeing for many years, was better than I expected. The well known story (it was a hugely successful stage play before the film) concerns a wealthy Israelite, Judah Ben Hur (played ironically enough by Roman Novarro), whose accidental killing of a Roman Governor angers his former friend and now well heeled Roman soldier Messala (Francis X. Bushman), who confines Ben Hur to a slave galley and his sister Tirzah (Kathleen Key) and mother (Claire McDowell) to a dungeon. Rather than let his spirit be defeated Ben Hur soldiers on biding his time for vengeance, which comes when he saves the life of Roman nobleman Arrius (Frank Currier) in the pirate galley attack. The gesture, along with Hur’s over-all attitude, impresses Arrius so much that he takes him in as an adopted son. With money to burn Hur uses the opportunity to challenge Messala to a high stakes chariot race which, if he wins, will strip Messala of all his wealth. Hur wins, then joins the “army of Jesus Christ” in the battle to survive the Romans. Plot aside, the highlights of the film are the two main center-pieces, the brutal galley battle and the chariot race, but the lower keyed scenes were carried by good performances, especially by Roman Novarro as Ben Hur, excellent sets, and impressive locations (in Italy) and model/visual effects work (models, glass mattes, etc.).

The Chariot Race

Films made before the censorship was really enforced contained more brutality and sexuality than films made a decade later. In Ben Hur there are some brutal kills during the attack at sea. On the ship commandeered by the Romans, Ben Hur and dozens of other slaves row incessantly to the percussive beat of the burly hortator (something the percussive component of the musicians on hand were able to replicate so well). The backside of a nude man who has been punished for some offense is plainly visible hanging in the background of shots, and a reminder to the slaves of what happens when they stop rowing. One of the exhausted slaves breaks rhythm and begins to scream. Roman soldiers begin to whip him (below frame) viciously. A nearby slave yells out in a touch of gallows humour, “He is dead, but still they lash…and lash….and lash.” The pirates, who have taken hostage of another Roman ship, charge toward this larger Roman ship led by Arrius. A close-up reveals a Roman prisoner tied head first to the ship’s prow, and is sent literally ‘head first’ crashing into the ship. When the pirates mount the Roman ship a gruesome battle ensues with little held back in detail; we see men decapitated, skewered on swords, and sent flying over ship. Brownlow describes another horrifying moment: “One terrifying shot shows a wounded Roman lying helpless on deck, surrounded by the snakes the pirates have been throwing” (p. 413).

Crowd seated inside

The Holy Altar of Cinema

Messala is unaware of the identity of the “Unknown Jew” who will be manning one of the chariots in the upcoming race. Messala sends his lover Esther (May McAvoy) to try and seduce the Israelite into revealing his identity. The scene is one of the film’s best, for a host of reasons. Ben Hur’s introduction into Esther’s private quarters is hailed by a wonderful point of view shot objectifying Ben Hur which shows there are always exceptions to stated theoretical viewpoints, such as Laura Mulvey’s ‘excepted-as-truth’ notion that Hollywood cinema is guided by an all-male gaze. When Ben Hur enters the room the shot cuts to a camera shot that tilts up slowly from Hur’s feet along his well muscled thighs, up to his chest and ending on his face. The shot then cuts to the ‘looker’ of this shot, Esther with hungry, desirous eyes. Esther tries hard but is unsuccessful in either bedding Ben Hur or getting him to reveal his name, which leads to a funny exit line as Esther admits defeat: (I paraphrase based on memory): “If you are as slow in the race as you are in accepting love making, even a snail will conquer you.” For insider’s, Esther’s inability to seduce Ben Hur can be seen as an intertextual reference to actor Roman Novarro’s alleged homosexuality.

Everything leads to Rome, or at least the chariot race, which does not disappoint, even by the standard of today’s hyper kinetic aesthetic. Nothing was spared in the production of this scene, with thousands of dressed extras and arguably the largest set in film history, the Circus Maximus in ancient Antioch (modern day Rome), designed by “Cedric Gibbons and A. Arnold Gillespie and built under the direction of Andrew MacDonald” (Brownlow, p. 413). The overall design of the set was a marvel of live scale set construction combined with miniatures. According to Brownlow, there were twelve chariots, forty-eight horses, and forty two cameras primed to record from every conceivable vantage, including an innovative pit point of view where the chariots ride directly over the camera, protected in a glass ceilinged pit. Rapid fire editing is counterpointed with fast moving lateral tracking shots, camera movements that track back in front of the riders, tilting movements and hand held swaying movements that appropriate chariot crashes. For some viewers the chariot race climax may have come too soon, with another 30 or so minutes of plot to go, but I appreciated the fact that the film trusted its audience to stay with a much more somber conclusion, with Christ being killed by the Romans and the Israelite hero Ben Hur leaving the scenario on an upbeat refrain when he claims that “Christ is not dead because he lives on in the soul of everyone” (I paraphrase).

Although my memory coming into the film was that Christ had been represented in film prior to 1925, I was surprised to see that in Ben Hur we never see Christ’s face, hence the presence of Christ is restricted to a few shots of his hand as he performs a miracle or offers water to a parched slave, and a very effective tracking shot that follows his bloodied footsteps in his Walk with the Cross. The first instance of Christ is the scene where a parched Ben Hur is refused water by the Romans. By the water well we see an arm of a person sawing wood, and then giving a cup of water to the fallen Ben Hur out of view from the Romans. The second occasion sees his hand hover over a dead baby in its weeping mother’s arms, his gesture resuscitating the baby back to life; in the third instance the hand cures Ben Hur’s mother and sister of leprosy. And when director Fred Niblo stages the Last Supper, Christ’s view is blocked by an apostle seated in front of him on the other side of the table. My initial thought was that this omission was because it would have been blasphemous or considered in bad taste to show Christ on screen. But my memory that there were films that featured Jesus Christ before 1925 was confirmed when I verified after the screening that indeed this was the case; as in the 1912 early feature Jesus of Nazereth, and then again a few years later in 1927 in Cecil B. De Mille’s King of Kings. Hence the decision in Ben Hur to not show Christ’s face was as much a dramatic decision as one of taste or decorum.

The notoriously troubled production of Ben Hur is well documented in Kevin Brownlow’s indispensable The Parade’s Gone By. Much of the first cast and crew, including director Charles Brabin, were let go and replaced after MGM were unconvinced by the rushes and work rate. The decision to shoot the film on location in Italy, a luxury rarely afforded in Hollywood, was later regretted by MGM. Everything from work stoppages, strikes, political battles between Fascists and anti-Fascists, on set accidents, differing Italian work culture, and the recently minted leader Mussolini’s politically motivated interventions prolonged the production and set the budget and shooting schedule in an unfettered escalation. In the end the film took about a year to complete with a then record budget of 4 million dollars. The amount of human casualties the production suffered varies according to the source and who among the original cast or crew you ask. According the Brownlow’s interviews, some (like Roman Novarro) claim no one died. While others (Bushman, for example) claimed that one man died during the filming of the chariot race (which was filmed with 42 cameras and with a shooting ratio of 700 to 1, which Film Society President and impresario Phil Spurrell so aptly demonstrated with a 700 foot film reel) and an incident during the sea battle sequence caused many extras to drown. What is undisputed is that dozens of horses (and in some accounts as many as one hundred) were injured and put down during the shooting of the chariot race.

One of my favorite Ben Hur stories involves one of Offscreen’s cinema heroes, the late great film historian William K. Everson (interviewed for Offscreen here). Leading up to the release of the 1959 remake of Ben Hur it was thought that all that existed of the original was an abridged 1931 reissue version with music and sound effects. And M-G-M wanted to keep it that way when their new version was released. But history has its own way of making itself heard. I quote from Brownlow: “…just as the William Wyler version was premiered, they discovered the celebrated film collector William K. Everson holding a rival premiere of the Niblo original, M-G-M alerted the FBI, and Everson learned that a jail term was a threatening possibility. Being a distinguished motion-picture historian, he was saved by the last-minute intervention of Lillian Gish, who testified on his behalf” (p. 411).

Ben Hur stands as one of the great testaments AGAINST the auteur theory, or at least to the belief that a good many of the great Hollywood films were the result of team work and not a singular vision. As noted earlier, the initial director was Charles Brabin, replaced by Fred Niblo. The film’s most famous scene, the chariot race, was directed by Reaves Eason, a bit time director of B-Westerns. The Nativity scene with Betty Bronson as the Madonna (one of the few scenes that produced chuckles from the crowd) was directed by Ferdinand Pinney Earle (Niblo so hated the scene that he wanted no part of it!) (Brownlow, p. 411). On the cinematography team alone there were six people credited, including the German great Karl Struss. The aforementioned Gibbons, Gillespie, and MacDonald were behind the special visual effects. The art department included many Americans but also a notable Italian art director, and later director in his own right, Camillo Mastrocinque. Granted the amount of diversity in the production teams owes to the magnitude of the production, but nonetheless is an indication of how collaborative the Hollywood film industry was when the integrity of a film’s worth was at stake.

Offscreen scribe Dave Hanley (l) with author in line up

All photos of the event are the property of King-Wei Chu. Thanks King-Wei.


Brownlow, Kevin. The Parade Gone By. Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1968.

The Film Society Scores a ‘Biblical’ Success with the Original Ben Hur

Donato Totaro has been the editor of the online film journal Offscreen since its inception in 1997. Totaro received his PhD in Film & Television from the University of Warwick (UK), is a part-time professor in Film Studies at Concordia University (Montreal, Canada) and a longstanding member of AQCC (Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma).

Volume 21, Issue 2 / February 2017 Festival Reports   ben hur   montreal   phil spurrell   silent cinema   the film society