We have the good film fans of Czechoslovakia to thank for the survival of this, the monster silent epic that established MGM's reputation for good and all after nearly foundering during the production phase. Upon the release of the Charlton Heston remake in 1959, MGM -- by that time, well past its prime period and with its continued existence as a going studio hitched to the latter picture -- did its best to bury any traces of its earlier stab at adapting the 19th-century Lew Wallace best-seller. For years, anyone in the U.S. who wanted to watch the '25 Ben-Hur had to make do with a dog-eared 90-minute stump of what had once been a 2 1/2-hour picture. Happily, a full print, complete with the film's brief but memorable Technicolor sequences, surfaced in Czechoslovakia in the 1980s and was restored by Turner Entertainment. Now, you can buy the '25 version as part of a four-disc set that brings it and the '59 blockbuster together in a belated but happy marriage. And this May-December pairing is not merely a case of taking pity on what would otherwise have been a forgotten, inferior effort: when compared to the justly admired Heston classic, the '25 Hur holds up very well indeed.
Those who know something about the Wallace novel say that MGM's first adaptation was a lot more faithful than the second to Wallace's plot. For sure, the subtitle was treated much more seriously in the former, as witness the '25 film's tagline: "The Picture Every Christian Ought to See!" The Technicolor sequences are almost entirely reserved for scenes involving Christ (whose face, as in '59, never appears on camera) and are treated with appropriate reverence. Strangely enough, the other major color-splurge, the scene in which Judah Ben-Hur (Ramon Novarro) and his adoptive father Quintus Arrius ride through the streets of Rome to celebrate his feats as a charioteer, features a conga line of bare-breasted women (though they're only seen in a fairly long shot -- not allowing the mammaries to linger on, you might say). The rest of the film is in sepia tone, including the sea battle and the chariot race, both of which are fairly remarkable given the technology available to filmmakers at the time. There are a couple of hammy performances and one rather unfortunate lurch into 1920s fashion -- Massala's (Francis X. Bushman) sexy squeeze, Iras the Egyptian, romances Ben-Hur (Massala's friend-become-enemy and rival during the chariot race) while bearing a bobbed hairdo that F. Scott Fitzgerald's Bernice herself might have envied -- but the players trace the gnarled, just-this-side-of-hokey plot with aplomb. Especially memorable are the scenes in which Ben-Hur's leprous mother and sister first see and sorrow over their "untouchable" Judah and later are cured by Christ.
Numerous histories of silent movies have described how MGM's attempts to film the silent Ben-Hur in Italy proved to be a disastrous failure. Scott Eyman's biography of L.B. Mayer includes a brief but good summary of the particulars. With costs quickly spiraling out of control, Francis X. Bushman attempting to blackmail the studio by demanding a raise before he would consent to continue playing Massala, and the technological challenges daunting enough to begin with, it took all of Mayer's legendary organizational skills to get everyone back "on task" and bring the film to completion in time for a Christmas 1925 limited release. (The film went into general release in 1927.) Thanks to a gargantuan $3.9 million budget, the film made only a modest profit in its initial release, but quality told and Ben-Hur ultimately returned a nice profit to the studio. For better or worse -- usually the former -- Ben-Hur's troubled history also forged in steel MGM's longstanding commitment to keep as tight a rein on its films' production as possible.
Having just recently seen Intolerance -- the 1910s idea of a mammoth epic -- it's pretty amazing to me how quickly the art of epic storytelling had advanced by the time of Ben-Hur. Apart from the stagey style of acting favored by some of the players, Ben-Hur looks and moves like a movie any modern filmgoer who hasn't been shocked into insensibility by "shaky cams" and "two-by-four-to-the-head SFX" can easily recognize as "modern." Don't be fooled by the release date: if you liked the Heston Hur, you should like this one as well.