The first film adaptation of Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. This 15 minute long short film blazes through the story much faster than the more famous 1959 version, starring Charlton Heston. While it lacks the substance required to engage an audience in the 21st Century, it does still show a serious effort to mimic the story’s setting. Perhaps too well as Ben-Hur (1907) is also an example of copyright infringement, resulting in costly litigation and the film being pulled from public viewings.
The film’s director, Sidney Olcott, was one of the first major film director’s in film history. His films on location in Ireland and his determination to make the first five-reel film, From the Manger to the Cross, influenced up and coming filmmakers like DW Griffith and Cecile B. DeMille. Curiously though, early posters list Frank Oakes Rose as the lead director on the film. Apparently he had limited, to no, experience in films (but really who did back in 1907) and Olcott was there to provide guidance and “suggestions”.
Arrangements had been made for Mr. Frank Oakes Rose, stage manager for Pain’s Fireworks, to stage the spectacle. Olcott was to be on hand merely to offer suggestions… When I arrived a little before noon they were shivering in their thin Roman costumes and nothing had been accomplished. Not a scene had been taken. Chaos reigned and Mr. Rose was like a madman. He had never even seen a motion picture taken, knew nothing of technique or camera limitations, and had reduced Max Schneider, our cameraman, to despair with his impossible suggestions.1 – Gauntier, Gene.
Olcott and the Kalem company were used to making a one reel movie in a week. I am sure the vision was to use Olcott’s experience to train up others in the outfit, but the learning curve may have been too much for Rose. Who knows… Either way, he earned his way onto the front billing on the credits.
It is not difficult to see that the film was made in a weeks time. The shots are quick hard to follow, unless you know the story already. Major events are cut and we are left with many shots with people running around or crowding one another. Overall the story and execution are a bore, although this is with today’s standards in mind. At the time the film was apparently a success and made on a modest budget.
Written by: Gene Gauntier
Based on the novel “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ” by: Lew Wallace
Distributed by: Kalem Company
Link to Video Below:
1 – Gauntier, Gene. “Blazing the Trail.” Woman’s Home Companion, Oct. 1928, pp. 186–186.