The advertising tag "four years in the making" is usually so much press-agent puffery. In the case of the 1926 silent version of Ben Hur, it was the unvarnished truth--and the filmmakers had the scars to prove it. The story behind the film is now part of Hollywood folklore: the cast and production crew changes (star George Walsh summarily dumped in favor of Roman Novarro, director Charles J. Brabin replaced by Fred Niblo, writer-supervisor June Mathis-who'd spearheaded the project in the first place-abruptly fired); the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on the troublesome location shooting in Italy--money that was lost when most of the footage proved unusable; the extra expenditure of refilming in Hollywood; and the huge chunk of the film's profits eaten up by the 50% royalty deal set up with theatrical producers Klaw and Erlanger, who controlled the rights to General Lew Wallace's novel. The end result reflected the turbulent production conditions: Ben Hur is an extraordinarily uneven experience, with moments of cinematic brilliance and pulse-pounding thrills alternating with long stretches of stagey boredom. The film follows the original Wallace story to the letter: Judah Ben-Hur (Novarro), a wealthy Jew living under the reign of the Caesars, is betrayed by his best friend, ambitious Roman centurion Messala (Francis X. Bushman). Ben-Hur's family is sent to prison, while he himself is condemned to the galleys. During a violent sea battle, Ben-Hur saves the life of galleon commander Quintus Arrius (Frank Currier). The grateful commander adopts Ben-Hur as his son and bankrolls his desire to become a champion charioteer. Thirsting for revenge, Ben-Hur agrees to race against his old nemesis Messala. The latter is fatally injured during the race; with his dying breath, Messala reveals that Ben-Hur's family, previously reported dead, are actually alive--but living as lepers. The story is subtitled A Tale of the Christ because, at various junctures in his life, Ben-Hur has been touched by the hand of Jesus. Ben-Hur must totally embrace Christ's edict of love and forgiveness before he can be reunited with his family. As Jesus is crucified in Jerusalem, Ben-Hur's mother (Claire McDowell) and sister (Kathleen Key), having also embraced the Christian philosophy, are miraculously cured of their leprosy. Most of these plot elements, together with the romance between Ben-Hur and the lovely Esther (May McAvoy), reappeared in the 1959 remake of Ben-Hur--which, fortunately, did not include the ridiculous subplot involving the alluring Iras (Carmel Myers), who attempts to seduce Ben-Hur just before the big race. The film's highlights--the sea battle, the now-legendary chariot race--were produced on a far grander scale than in the 1959 version; unfortunately, both highlights took place in the first half of the picture, leaving the viewers with a rather dreary, drawn out denouement (the remake wisely placed the sea battle in part one, and the race in part two). The Technicolor Nativity sequences were condemned in 1926 as being in poor taste, but when seen today are beautifully handled and restful on the eye (oddly, no one complained about the nude female revellers during a later Technicolor pageant scene!) Ben Hur cost $4 million and grossed $9 million on its first release. The aforementioned royalty arrangement left MGM with only a $1 million take.
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