DIRECTOR: Harry T. Morey, Sidney Olcott & Frank Rose
109 years ago, the first adaptation of General Lew Wallace’s novel was committed to celluloid. But this is not the epic of 1925, nor the better known Oscar winning MGM classic from 1959. In this year, of the latest theatrical remake, the first Ben Hur to be shot in 3-D, we are looking back at the this early 15 minute silent version, one whcih was unauthorised and resulted in the producers being successful sued for copyright infringement. Bear in mind that after the novel published in the 1880’s, Ben-Hur went on to become a successful stage play which ran for approximately 20 years.
But this was 1907, just 13 years after the very first recognised films began, what you might loosely refer too as productions, were being produced. This was a time where the craft of film-making was being forged and it would not be until 1916’s Birth Of Nation that the Epic would be born in earnest. Here, with a whopping $500 budget, the camera was fixed, the scenes play out for several minutes at a time and the narrative movie as we would understand today, was still a way off.
That is not to say that it had not been successfully done before though, as story telling and primitive special effects were being developed and used even by 1907 so I have to wonder what I was watching here?
In a story which looks into the effects of Jesus Christ on a Jew who is prepared to wage war on Rome after his family is betrayed, we are only treated to about seven scenes, most of which focus on the incident which would lead him to the galley yet we never see any of this, instead turning this in to a betrayal which is resolved solely by the chariot race.
No real effort to was made to tell the story, in fact this was simply an exercise in novelty, setting up the race which was not badly shot considering the whole thing was filmed in one go from one position.
Maybe I am being too harsh and I will concede that as a early film at a time in which the medium was seen as a novelty, this works well, but considering that Georges Méliès was managing to craft a short but clearly defined his stories with his innovative movies, this is far from that standard.
But still, I am pleased to have seen such an early example of this is film, one which at the very least is a curio, but if you want to watch Ben-Hur, both the 1925 and 1959 versions will serve the story much better. As for latest 2016 effect, only time will tell…