Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ</strong> (1925)

(On Cable TV, February 2019) I’m not a very forgiving viewer when it comes to dramatic silent movies. Still, spectacle is spectacle no matter which decade you hail from, and so Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ is still worth a quick look today, and as more than the film that led to the much better known 1959 version (or the already-almost-unknown 2016 one). It’s silent, it’s epic and it’s spectacular. Never mind the well-used special effects (Bethlehem star! Earthquake! Jesus-featuring scenes shot in two colours!): despite a much heavier emphasis on the nativity compared to later versions (it’s in the title!), the point of the movie are the epic action sequences: the sea galley battles are quite good and measure up to much later films. The chariot race is overlong but thrilling: action-packed, featuring thousands of extras and innovative camera angles for the time. Trivia tells us that this Ben Hur was the most expensive silent movie ever made and one of the highest-grossing ones as well. All that money can be seen on-screen, and that’s the kind of blockbuster moviemaking that endures well—the film reportedly went quite a bit over budget, but made MGM’s reputation as a major studio. Deeply influential over the 1959 version, and thrilling in its own right, this 1925 version of Ben Hur is surprisingly fun to watch … although you may want to skip over some of the quieter drama moments.

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