So a “featurette” focusing largely on the chariot race has been released to promote the upcoming Ben-Hur movie. I’ll admit I’m looking forward to this, largely because I’m curious how Hollywood is going to handle this kind of epic historical film today.
Of course, a big part of what this preview does is make me want to take a look back at some of the earlier incarnations of this film and compare them not only with the new one coming out, but with each other.
For instance, the first adaptation of the novel was released in 1907, runs 10-15 minutes (depending on the cut) and definitely centers around the climax. What makes this version especially interesting is that it was the film that established the concept that movie makers had to pay the original creators for the material they were adapting.
Then there’s the 1925 (or 1926) version which ever so slightly expands the film to a running time of 143 minutes. This still silent version was produced by MGM, directed by Fred Niblo, and stars Ramon Novarro and Francis X. Bushman. Interestingly, though for the most part, the movie is in tinted black and white, there are some scenes (especially those featuring Christ) that were shot in two-color Technicolor, and though those color scenes were considered “lost” for a long time, they were recovered in the 80s and have since been restored to most restoration prints.
Then, of course, there is the most famous adaptation of Lew Wallace’s novel, 1959’s Charlton Heston starring version. Directed by William Wyler, the film garnered 12 Academy Award nominations and took home 11. Shot in CinemaScope, the movie had the largest budget ($15.175 million) as well as the largest sets built of any film produced at the time and reportedly employed more than 10,000 extras. With a running time of 212 minutes, it made over $146 million upon its initial release, against a budget of 15.2 million, and of course has gone on to reach a certain legendary status.
So the question facing the release of the latest version of this classic is actually, I suppose, two-fold: Can Hollywood actually make this kind of epic without resorting to multiple explosions and CGI creatures threatening everyone, and will modern American audiences actually turn out to see such a movie in the kind of numbers that will make it profitable? For my part, I’m hoping the answer to both questions is “yes”.