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Film / Ben-Hur (1925)

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Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ is a 1925 MGM silent film starring Ramón Novarro as Jufah Ben-Hur and Francis X. Bushman as Messala. It was based on the Lew Wallace novel.

It was the most expensive movie of its time and a prominent early example of Epic Movie before it got dethroned in popular consciousness by the more famous 1959 version with Charlton Heston. It was added to the National Film Registry in 1997, seven years before the 1959 version.

See also the 1907 and 2016 versions of the story.

This film has the examples of:

  • Abled in the Adaptation: Despite being tortured by the Romans (which is portrayed in the film), the 1925 film Simonidies can still walk on his two legs.
  • Brainwashing for the Greater Good: A look at Mary's face is able to win over wary people, like an overprotective mother and the Bethlehem Innkeeper.
  • Collapsing Lair: The Roman Praetorium collapses from an earthquake during the Crucifixion.
  • Compressed Adaptation: Excluding the Nativity prologue and the Neronian Epilogue, the main narrative of the novel spans eleven years, although most of those years are diluted by time-skips like the three years between Judah's arrest and the Sea Battle that saves him, the five years between Judah's adoption by Arrius to his return to Judea, and the three years between Judah joining Jesus and the Passion. This version compresses the timeline to about four years.
  • Cool Helmet: The leather helmet with small Mercury's Wings Messala wears during the Chariot Race.
  • Dead-Hand Shot: Jesus' last scene is a close-up of his nailed hand going limp during the Crucifixion. (This scene only exists in earlier videos of the film like the MGM/UA VHS and Laserdisc. The recent Warner DVD and Blu-Ray omits this scene.)
  • Demoted to Extra: Amrah, the Hur maid. In the novel, she is keeper of the abandoned Hur Palace, becomes Secret-Keeper about the Hur Women being Lepers and becomes their caregiver, and persuades the women to see Jesus for their healing. This version demotes Amrah to a cameo and gives her actions to Esther, although it does still feature Amrah living in the Palace and telling Esther about Jesus' healing powers, inspiring her to get the women.
  • Downer Beginning: The film begins with Jerusalem under Roman Oppression (Soldiers manhandling travelers, stealing, abusing women). The situation after the Prologue (and the 25-plus years Time Skip) is no different.
  • Eating the Eye Candy: When Iras the Egyptian meets Judah, she is quite appreciative of his looks.
  • Epic Movie: It was the most expensive movie ever made at the time, and one of the most expensive silent movies ever made.
  • The Faceless: Jesus's face is never seen. This actually dates back to the 19th century stage adaptation of the novel, in which he was simply a beam of light.
  • Fanservice Extra: A lot of nudity for a 1925 silent film. The Galley has a manacled whipped slave exposing his full naked backside. Ben-Hur's triumphant procession in Rome shows our hero and Arrius escorted by a group of bare-breasted women.
  • Filching Food for Fun: Roman soldiers steal apples from a peddler. The peddler is righteously angered when he thinks an old man stole the fruit, but once he learns the identity of the true thieves, he backs off and plays nice to the armed oppressors.
  • Footprints of Muck: Jesus' coda in the Calvary sequence is his bloody footprints.
  • Forgotten First Meeting: Judah and Esther meet in the street before Gratus makes his procession into Jerusalem. They are smitten with each other, unaware of their connection (Esther's father Simonidies is Steward- and secretly Bond Slave- to Hur Family). About four years later, they meet again as Judah goes to Simonidies' house to learn about his mother and sister's whereabouts. They seem to have forgotten their first meeting, although they both sense some familiarity with the other.
  • Friendship Denial: Doubly Subverted. Messala shuns Judah in the public company of his Roman friends...but once they are alone he emotionally embraces Judah as a long-missed friend. This does not last.
  • Girls Behind Bars: The underground prison where the Hur women are kept appears to be female-only.
  • In-Camera Effects: Jesus healing the Hur Women is done by color filters removing the color-contrasting red make-up.
  • Innocently Insensitive: Doubly Subverted. Although he admits no offense to Judah, Messala insultingly gloats that Judah's "stiff-necked" race (that "crawls in the dust") must understand and submit to their better Roman masters. His words hurt Judah, making him realize how different his best friend has become since last they met.
  • Ironic Echo: Messala gloats about Roman superiority, dismissing the Jews. He tells Judah to forget he is a Jew. Years later, Messala is hesitant about betting against the wager for the race which Judah's fortune can afford to lose but his own fortune cannot. Judah smugly repeats their previous conversation: has Messala forgotten he is a Roman and he is a Jew? Goaded by this, Messala signs on.
  • Kill It with Fire: When the prison guard realizes he has touched a cell inhabited by lepers, he puts his hand over a burning torch to remove any possible contagion.
  • La Résistance: During the Holy Week, Judah organizes two legions to fight for the King. However, they arrive too late to prevent the Crucifixion. Balthasar tells them to disband and go in peace as the King would have wanted.
  • "Last Supper" Steal: The film recreates the painting — but since Jesus must remain The Faceless, the shot has Judas Iscariot, separated from the rest, sitting directly in front of him.
    • Several medieval depictions of the event would put Judas Iscariot to the other side of the table, isolating him away from the other disciples because of his future betrayal. Leonardo da Vinci's painting was actually a subversion to this tradition.
  • Monochrome to Color: Most of the film is shot in black and white, but most of the scenes that deal with Christ are colorized, as is Ben-Hur's triumph and the final scene.
  • No One Gets Left Behind: Averted. Judah and a group of condemned men walk through the humid and treacherous wilderness on their way to the Galleys. One of them collapses dead. The corpse gets walked on and abandoned.
  • Oh, Crap!:
    • The shipwrecked Judah climbs aboard the Roman Trireme, happy to be rescued...until he spots a porthole showing the soul-dead face of a Galley Slave. Judah realizes rescue will mean a return to Galley slavery. Fortunately, Arrius saves him.
    • Messala does this several times. When he meets Judah for the first time before the company of his cool Roman friends. When he hesitates about signing on the expensive wager for the race, knowing losing will bankrupt him. During the race, when he sees Judah's chariot gaining on him.
  • Pummeling the Corpse: A Galley slave freaks out, but two guards whip him into submission and death. A fellow slave notes that the man is already dead but the guards continue their lashing regardless.
  • Property of Love: Esther is deemed to be Judah's slave, since her father was. She even makes a pose of submission before him. They declare their love for each other, but he never actually frees her, unlike what he does in the 1959 film.
  • Secret Legacy: Simonidies keeps secret the fact that he and his daughter Esther are bond slaves of the Hur Family. He denies Judah's legitimacy as the long-lost Prince of Hur because it will lead to revealing his daughter's slave status (with its ramifications). Learning the truth, Esther convinces her father to recognize Judah and assist him.
  • Spared by the Adaptation:
    • Although Messala disappears after the chariot race, he is said to have survived and lost his fortune to Judah after betting on himself to win the race.
    • This version spares Quintus Arrius. Drowned at Sea in the novel (in a later, unrelated incident), this film makes his final appearance a heartfelt goodbye to Judah before he leaves Rome to locate his family.
  • Unnamed Parent: Judah's mother is not named at all. Her only title is Princess of Hur.
  • The Vamp: Iras the Egyptian is portrayed as such in this adaptation. She is Messala's mistress, sent to seduce and learn the identity of the rival charioteer 'The Unknown Jew' (Judah's Alias). She fails in the seduction but learns his identity, the info to which Messala denies.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Messala is shown being taken away from the chariot race injured but alive, and is described as "broken" after losing his fortune to Judah. He is never mentioned again.
  • Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?: The Pirates use snakes as part of their artillery in the Sea Battle. There is a scene of a wounded Roman Soldier writhing helplessly as snakes slither upon him.
  • Would Hit a Girl: The Prologue shows a Roman soldier menacing a Jewish Maiden; he surprises her, grabs her by the hair, menacing her for some slight (probably made-up to better frighten her), and throws her away. In the introduction to the present storyline, some soldiers tear open a girl's garment.