Actor Ramon Navarro (Ben-Hur) with a camera man.
In an earlier post, I focused on facts concerning the most famous film version of Ben-Hur, the 1959 blockbuster starring Charlton Heston in the title role.
Today’s article concerns action scenes in the 1925 silent version of Ben-Hur. Why would this be of interest to us? Because the technicians’ achievements in shooting these scenes teach us about inventiveness and creativity in an era when conveniences like computer enhancement did not exist.
By 1900, Lew Wallace’s novel Ben-Hur was one of the best-sellers of the 19th century. It was an epic written on a grand scale, and included plots and subplots replete with murder, romance, lust, betrayal, chariot races, and a full-scale sea battle.
Anyone wishing to produce a faithful visual rendition of the novel had their hands full. The first stage production in 1899 featured a chariot race with horses running on treadmills while a painted Circus Maximus rotated behind them. With the addition of crowd scenes, choruses, complicated lighting effects and the like, production costs totaled $71,000 before the first performance. Nevertheless, Ben-Hur on stage proved to be a hit, and made lots of money on the road for several years.
Poster of 1899 stage production of “Ben-Hur”
The next step was to film the story, and the first version was completed in 1907. It was a relatively slender production, composed of 16 scenes. The chariot race was filmed at a racetrack at Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn.
By the 1920’s, Hollywood had produced several epics, including Intolerance, Birth of a Nation, and Quo Vadis. All were eaten up by the public…and the public wanted more! In 1922, the Goldwyn company bought the rights to Ben-Hur. Ramon Navarro and Francis X. Bushman were cast as Judah Ben-Hur and archrival Messala, respectively. After some deliberation, it was decided that the two big action sequences, the sea battle and the chariot race, would be filmed in Italy.
The sea battle. This sequence can be summarized as follows: Ben-Hur is a galley slave on one of a flotilla of Roman ships. The flotilla is attacked by pirates, who ram the Romans with their own ships. The enemy take the vessels, hand-to-hand combat ensues, and finally the Roman ships are set on fire.
The filming of the 1925 Ben-Hur sea battle could itself provide the basis of an exciting documentary. Several full-sized sea vessels were built over a span of several months under the supervision of director Charles Brabin. After attempts to film the sea battle proved to be unsuccessful, Brabin was replaced by Fred Niblo, who ultimately finished the picture. Niblo felt the ships were all too small…so he had a separate group of full-sized vessels built. Construction and filming of the battle were completed in Italy.
One of the most impressive segments involves the pirates’ ramming of the Roman ships. This was accomplished by attaching the enemy vessels to off-camera motor boats which sent the prows hurtling into the sides of the Roman battleships. In the finished film, the camera immediately cuts to the interior of the galley, where a large chunk of wood meant to depict the enemy prow comes through the galley wall. The effect is quite startling.
A 30-foot deep swimming pool was built underneath the slave galley. When it came time to film the interior filling up with sea water as the vessel sank, tons of water were poured over the extras. The water flowed into the unseen pool below.
The hand-to-hand combat in this sequence is exciting. Because full-sized ships were used (unlike the 1959 version, where models were used), both long- and medium-shots could be focused on the bloody fighting on deck.
At the end of the battle, ships are set on fire and we see people jumping into the sea. This was how the scene was meant to be executed, except that several Italian extras failed to notify the management that they did not know how to swim! To this day, no one knows how many casualties there were on account of the Ben-Hur sea battle. All that is known for sure is that some of the costumes came up missing from inventory.
The potential drowning of some extras, as well as several other legal issues, forced the producers to return to America and film the chariot race in Culver City.
The chariot race. Although many remember the thrilling footage from the 1959 movie, the sequence shot in 1925 was in its own way just as exciting. Second unit director Reese Eason, who oversaw the filming of the race, utilized 42 cameramen. They were placed in statues on or near the racetrack, on derricks above the track, and on mobile platforms for moving shots. During one exciting scene, chariots dash over a camera buried in a pit below the track.
Ben Hur, directed by Fred Niblo in 1925 Starring Ramon Novarro Production Still Camera car filming Messala’s chariot
As in 1959, the 1925 filming of the chariot race was not without mishap. The most serious accident occurred when a couple of chariots piled up at a turn in the racetrack. Despite an assistant director’s attempts to warn the rest of the drivers, a few more chariots collided with the wreckage, thus adding to the pile.
Goldwyn Studios did not have the funds to build a full-sized Circus Maximus complete with upper tiers. So the directors hit upon an ingenious solution: They created a “hanging miniature” of the upper bleachers which they placed a few feet from the camera, just above the full-sized lower tier which was hundreds of feet away. From the len’s point of view, the two sections looked like one uninterrupted piece.
Small dolls were attached to wooden dowels slipped underneath the “benches” of the hanging miniature. When a scene called for people to stand up and cheer, the dowels were moved up and down, simulating crowd movement.
The finished result can be seen below. It is almost impossible to discern the dividing line between the full-sized lower tier and track, and the miniature section above it.
The directors’ efforts were rewarded on December 30, 1925, when the first audience to see Ben-Hur cheered wildly during the chariot race. In general, audiences loved the film, and American and foreign reviews were very positive. This was no doubt edifying to Goldwyn Studios, which had spent over four million dollars in production costs.
With the advent of talking pictures a few years later, Ben-Hur became an anachronism as far as Hollywood and the audiences were concerned. However, it is still considered by film aficionados to be a milestone in the history of film technique.
Incidently, one of the assistant directors assigned to the chariot sequence was William Wyler. Wyler went on to direct several celebrated movies, including 1959’s Ben-Hur.
The 1925 version can be rented or purchased on amazon.com. It is also sometimes shown on Turner Classic Movies. I would also highly recommend the Brownlow sources listed below for further information on 1925’s Ben-Hur.
Wallace, Lew. Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Harper & Brothers. 1880.
Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Prod. Samuel Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer, Irving Thalberg. Dir. Fred Niblo. Perf. Ramon Navarro, Francis X. Bushman, May McAvoy. Goldwyn Studios. Film. 1925.
“Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 27 August 2016. Web. 31 August 2016.
Brownlow, Kevin. The Parade’s Gone By. Alfred A. Knopf. 1968.
Hollywood: A Celebration of the American Silent Film. Prod. Thames Television. Dir. Kevin Brownlow, David Gill. Narr. James Mason. Thames Television. TV documentary. 1980.
All images obtained through Bing Public Domain or Wikimedia.