To be sure, BEN-HUR had been filmed before. In 1907, the Kalem Company made a 20 minute version of General Lew Wallace's sprawling Biblical epic by stealing some shots of a mock chariot race at a fireworks show at Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, and adding some interiors. But this was not the prestige production that the brand-new Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer movie combine had in mind to announce itself as a major producer in 1925. Yet the announcement of MGM's arrival was almost a herald of disaster.
Ben-Hur was a huge success as a novel, and also as a stage play. Stage productions had been running for twenty-five years when MGM got into the act. The play's vast scenes and giant cast required treadmills, a sea battle, eight horses, and a Roman legion of technicians. In spite of its costs (only the largest theaters in the land could stage it) the play Ben-Hur became the most profitable theatrical production in American history. Now, in the wake of such imported cinematic epics as the Italian films CABIRIA (1914) and QUO VADIS (1915), and the success of the distinctively American THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915), Hollywood felt up to the task of screening this most famous of properties. It wouldn't be easy, and everything about BEN-HUR took on the scope of epic drama.
To begin with, the play's producer, Abraham Erlanger, put a heavy tariff on the screen rights, in which everyone from D.W. Griffith to Adolph Zukor of Paramount had expressed an interest. The initial asking price? One million dollars. Eventually, Erlanger was persuaded to accept a generous profit participation deal and total approval over every detail of the production. Negotiations began in 1919, and wound their way through several studios. Every major director in Hollywood was considered, including Erich von Stroheim, and Rex Ingram of FOUR HORSEMAN OF THE APOCALYPSE fame, before Charles Brabin, a noted director of the day, was settled upon. By the time Metro Pictures, MGM's predecessor, was finally chosen, a crucial element had been added to the project: in an age when 'going on location' usually meant a trip to White Plains or Santa Monica, BEN-HUR would be shot in Italy, for maximum authenticity.
Immediately, the production was beset with delays. When historian Kevin Brownlow interviewed members of the cast forty years later, he found them still shaking their heads in disbelief. Star Francis X. Bushman, who was to play Messala, was told on his arrival that his scenes wouldn't be shot "until next August." Bushman availed himself of a trip around Europe so leisurely that he had time to visit twenty-five countries before he was called back. The building of BEN-HUR's sets by Italian craftsmen was slowed by labor disputes, and foot-dragging on the part of the country's new leader, Benito Mussolini, who saw a lovely opportunity to embarrass the Americans. The film's sea battle, which was intended to rival the trademark chariot race, proved nearly impossible to mount. When Bushman returned to the sun-baked set at Anzio, he found that the relaxed Italian climate and attitude had proved infectious. Production was completely stalled, Brabin's work ethic having melted under the Italian sun. Of Brabin, Bushman recalled that "all the time he was telling stories and drinking wine. I didn't realize that out on the beach he had hundreds of extras roasting and doing nothing."
Shipyards had completed only twelve mock-ships of the planned 70-vessel fleet, but Brabin decided to go ahead with the sea battle. What resulted was laughable, and MGM revamped the entire production after seeing the rushes. Many of the leading roles were recast; Ramon Navarro was now to play Ben-Hur, and Fred Niblo replaced Brabin, who must have been grateful. Months went by. The sea battle sequence was readied again, this time at Livorno, but now, new problems loomed. Niblo discovered that some of the prop swords had been sharpened, and that extras had divided themselves into fascist and anti-fascist contingents. The battle went off as planned, but, during the ramming and burning of the Roman flagship, some of the terrified Italian extras began jumping overboard in fear. Weighted down by armor, many of them unable to swim, several extras could not be accounted for when a head count of the soaked survivors was taken on shore. When Bushman asked a wardrobe assistant what had happened, the man could only say, "Ah, Mister Bushman, many costumes missing. . . " An international incident seemed in the offing, and one assistant director volunteered to row out to sea with enough chains to permanently sink any bodies that might bob up.
The missing extras turned up, but the rest of the shoot was nearly as agonizing. The raft scenes took days to shoot, and Navarro was only able to keep the elderly actor playing Quintus alert by slapping his face and pouring brandy into him. Excavation for a set revealed Roman catacombs filled with valuable antiquities, which were looted. Politics kept the carpenters divided into warring factions. (Bushman believed that the strikes which constantly bedeviled the company were orchestrated by Mussolini.) When the workers discovered that the production might actually end, they slowed construction of the huge Circus Maximus set to a crawl; after all, some of them had now made a career out of BEN-HUR.
The worst agonies were reserved for the film's climax, the chariot race. Legendary second unit director B. Reeves Eason's nickname "Breezy" was certainly not earned by his work on the BEN-HUR set, for his merciless pace cost the lives of over a hundred horses. As Bushman said sadly, "If it limped, they shot it." A stunt man was killed in a chariot crash, and Navarro himself only narrowly escaped death. The madness ended for a while. The company had spent a year in Italy, and there was still material to be shot, or reshot, in the case of the entire chariot race, with which MGM leadership was still not satisfied. The crowd scenes and master shots for the race were done in a single day, with forty-two cameras covering the action. (One of the thousands of extras was a bewildered William Wyler, who would direct the 1959 remake of the film.) Shooting continued for weeks, until Eason, heedless of danger, had gotten exactly the detail shots he wanted to make the chariot race one of the most exciting action sequences ever filmed. Quietly, out of sight of the ASPCA, the toll among horses continued to rise.
Finally, it was over. BEN-HUR opened in late 1925 to tepid reviews and a torrid box-office. Although the picture grossed nine million dollars, its huge expenses and the deal with Erlanger made it a loser for MGM, in spite of the brilliant shamelessness of the studio's publicity department, which advertised the film with lines like, "The Picture Every Christian Ought to See!" Mussolini banned the film in Italy when he discovered that the Roman Messala hadn't been able to cover the spread on the chariot race. No matter. BEN-HUR had done exactly what the new company asked of it, and for another quarter century, the name MGM was to signify quality at any expense. But Hollywood had learned a lesson about location work, and for that same quarter century, it preferred to build everything from the Vatican to the Alamo on its own backlots, where life wasn't quite so harrowing, and the swords weren't quite so sharp.
—Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University
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