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Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ - stunning silent epic


Toto
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I recently viewed the amazing silent film epic "Ben Hur:  A Tale of the Christ".  I was totally engrossed and stunned that this movie was released in 1925!  That's almost 100 years ago before any modern movie making technology existed yet you feel the suspense and excitement of the chariot race.   The racing chariots looked like actual chariots in a high speed race.  Where was the camera to film the closeups?  There is a big crash involving several chariots.  The chariots get broken apart and horses and chariot drivers tumble down into a pile.  This scene looks like actual footage of a crash.  Was it?  Particularly effective were the shots underneath the racing chariots.  They must have dug a hole for the camera.  It looks very dangerous to  film like this.   The overhead shots showing the whole chariot racing track are amazing.  In addition, I appreciated the creative costume design and impressive sets.  The scene wear Christ gives Ben Hur water when he is dying of thirst is one of the most powerful scenes.  Christ's hand is shown but not his whole figure.  Interestingly, this scene is filmed in a similar way with just showing Christ's hand in the more recent version of "Ben Hur" starring Charleston Heston (also an amazing film!).

Any thoughts or reactions of this film?  Or, any great films you would recommend from the silent era?  I'm thankful that TCM showed this film.

Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ (Fred Niblo, 1925) – Offscreen   Author Lew Wallace's exploration of faith resulted in bigger than Ben-Hur  success | Daily Telegraph

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1 hour ago, Toto said:

I recently viewed the amazing silent film epic "Ben Hur:  A Tale of the Christ".  I was totally engrossed and stunned that this movie was released in 1925!  That's almost 100 years ago before any modern movie making technology existed yet you feel the suspense and excitement of the chariot race.   The racing chariots looked like actual chariots in a high speed race.  Where was the camera to film the closeups?  There is a big crash involving several chariots.  The chariots get broken apart and horses and chariot drivers tumble down into a pile.  This scene looks like actual footage of a crash.  Was it?  Particularly effective were the shots underneath the racing chariots.  They must have dug a hole for the camera.  It looks very dangerous to  film like this.   The overhead shots showing the whole chariot racing track are amazing.  In addition, I appreciated the creative costume design and impressive sets.  The scene wear Christ gives Ben Hur water when he is dying of thirst is one of the most powerful scenes.  Christ's hand is shown but not his whole figure.  Interestingly, this scene is filmed in a similar way with just showing Christ's hand in the more recent version of "Ben Hur" starring Charleston Heston (also an amazing film!).

Any thoughts or reactions of this film?  Or, any great films you would recommend from the silent era?  I'm thankful that TCM showed this film.

Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ (Fred Niblo, 1925) – Offscreen   Author Lew Wallace's exploration of faith resulted in bigger than Ben-Hur  success | Daily Telegraph

Am A Body Paint Fan (at least in my mind) of Both Versions.

 

   

 

   (Simply) Amazing.

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"It looks very dangerous to film like this". From what I've heard over the years there were some very dangerous elements to the filming which resulted in some loss of life. Not only the chariot race, but the naval battle as well. There was apparently no strict attention paid to who was on those boats and who went into the water, leading some to speculate that non-swimmer extras as well as some who may have been accomplished swimmers may have been put into situations they didn't anticipate when they signed on. MGM supposedly wasn't interested in pursuing it very far so no true accounting exists. But, yes, it's a remarkable film to watch.

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20 hours ago, Toto said:

  There is a big crash involving several chariots.  The chariots get broken apart and horses and chariot drivers tumble down into a pile.  This scene looks like actual footage of a crash.  Was it? 

It's been some time since I've seen the film, but there was a real crash involving 5 chariots, their drivers, and twenty horses. it  occurred when a chariot driven by stuntman "Spike" Spackman lost a wheel in the first turn. This started a chain reaction, with four other chariots behind him crashing into the pile. Bill Wilson, who was driving the white horses (Ben-Hur's team) managed to avoid the wreck. Contemporaneous reports indicated that there were no serious injuries (which I find hard to believe). Supposedly, although this sequence was filmed, it was not shown. 

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57 minutes ago, scsu1975 said:

It's been some time since I've seen the film, but there was a real crash involving 5 chariots, their drivers, and twenty horses. it  occurred when a chariot driven by stuntman "Spike" Spackman lost a wheel in the first turn. This started a chain reaction, with four other chariots behind him crashing into the pile. Bill Wilson, who was driving the white horses (Ben-Hur's team) managed to avoid the wreck. Contemporaneous reports indicated that there were no serious injuries (which I find hard to believe). Supposedly, although this sequence was filmed, it was not shown. 

I'm sure the "no serious injuries" part applied only to humans because there were horses which didn't get up and weren't moving. Those were the wild west days of moviemaking when animal abuse wasn't a "thing".

I'm wishing I'd read the book because there were differences between the two movies. After he won the chariot race Judah went off to raise a legion to defend the Messiah, which went nowhere really except it allowed for another big crowd shot. And I found Messala's Egyptian mistress really interesting; she was given quite a lot to do, worming his real identity out of Judah and rooting for Messala in the chariot race. In her first scene with that blonde pageboy wig I couldn't help chuckling about how much she reminded me of Bella Darvi in The Egyptian, with all the crazy glitter wigs. Anyway, in spite of all the "theatrical" (literally) gesturing and posturing it was a fun watch. And it wasn't burdened with some kind of "modern" counterpart section the way other early historical silents were, like Intiolerance and The Ten Commandments. It was all Ben-Hur all the time.

Oh, and not to be too irreverent hopefully, with regard to the "hand only" shots of Jesus which Toto mentioned, the device was used in a quick Sermon on the Mount sequence and I swear the hand, bobbing up and down with a finger extended, looked exactly like the hand at Svengoolie's door at the end of every episode.

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I loved your comments DougieB and appreciated the information that you shared.  I noticed that the horses did not get up after the chariot crash as well and felt quite concerned that real horses were injured or killed during filming.  I agree too that Messala's Egyptian mistress was something to behold.  Loved her costumes!  Your comment about Jesus "hand only" shot is funny.  Have to check out Svengoolie tonight.

Annex%20-%20Myers,%20Carmel%20(Ben%20Hur,%20A%20Tale%20of%20the%20Christ)_NRFPT_01.jpg

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19 hours ago, DougieB said:

"It looks every dangerous to film like this". From what I've heard over the years there were some very dangerous elements to the filming which resulted in some loss of life. Not only the chariot race, but the naval battle as well. There was apparently no strict attention paid to who was on those boats and who went into the water, leading some to speculate that non-swimmer extras as well as some who may have been accomplished swimmers may have been put into situations they didn't anticipate when they signed on. MGM supposedly wasn't interested in pursuing it very far so no true accounting exists. But, yes, it's a remarkable film to watch.

This is very disturbing about the loss of life while filming this movie.  Hiring non-swimmer extras was awful.  I'm curious to investigate the history of labor law in movies.  I feel very sad that this happened.

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24 minutes ago, Toto said:

This is very disturbing about the loss of life while filming this movie.  Hiring non-swimmer extras was awful.  I'm curious to investigate the history of labor law in movies.  I feel very sad that this happened.

As I recall, the major action sequences and large-scale crowd shots were filmed in Rome before the mounting costs forced MGM to bring the shoot back to Hollywood for interiors and second unit stuff. So it's likely that it was Italian law which applied (or didn't, possibly). As for the horses, it wasn't until sometime in the 1930's that trip wires were banned, though I swear you can see their use in films well after that, particularly in westerns. In Europe it may have been another story. Those foreign sword-and-sandal epics from the 1950's and 1960's clearly still used them in action sequences involving horses.

P.S. Loved the picture of Messala's mistress. That was the costume she wore at the races and, since she was seated in the stands, we never got to see the whole thing. The costuming overall was excellent.

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