Ben Hur is a 1907 American silent drama film set in ancient Rome, the first screen adaptation of Lew Wallace’s popular 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.
With an original total running time of just 15 minutes, Kalem’s “Roman Spectacle” only highlights some of the principal events described in the novel, although notably excluding Judah Ben-Hur’s encounters with Jesus Christ or his presence at Christ’s crucifixion. The film company in its advertising in 1907 describes the release being composed of “Sixteen Magnificent Scenes” with intertitles introducing screen presentations such as “Jerusalem Rebels Against Roman Mis-rule”, “The Family of Hur”, “Ben Hur in Chains to the Galleys”, and “Ben Hur and Messala – The Challenge”.
A significant portion of the film’s latter content is devoted to portraying the story’s chariot race. Just four chariots, including those driven by Ben-Hur and Messala, are depicted, with each being drawn by teams of four black horses. Virtually all of the contest’s action is implied visually, occurring off-camera, and not shown to viewers of the film. Roman spectators on screen cheer as they pretend to watch the charioteers racing three laps around the track of the Circus Maximus. Only brief footage shows the contestants speeding by the static camera as their vehicles are supposedly completing each of the laps. After Judah wins the race against Messala and the two other competitors, the intertitle “Ben Hur Victor” appears. The film then ends with spectators continuing to cheer and Judah being awarded a laurel wreath by the emperor.
- Herman Rottjer as “Chief Chariotier” and possibly as Judah Ben-Hur
- William S. Hart as Messala (uncredited and unverified involvement in film).
- Gene Gauntier in unverified role.
- Harry T. Morey in unverified role
- Beal (or Peal), Sheridan, and Matler as .other “Drivers” in chariot race.
- Scenes, including the climactic chariot race, were filmed in New York city’s borough of Brooklyn.
- While this film is significant for being the first motion-picture adaptation of Wallace’s novel, its production also served as a landmark case of copyright infringement by an early American film studio.
- In 1908 Kalem was successfully sued for representing parts of Wallace’s book on screen without obtaining permission from the author’s estate.
- Copies of the film, which survive, are now in the public domain and are readily available for free viewing online in the collections of various digital archives and on streaming services.
- Ben Hur (1907) (Film).
- Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925) (Film).
- Ben-Hur (1959) (Film).
- Ben Hur (2003) (Film).
- Ben Hur (2010) (Miniseries).
- Ben-Hur (2016) (Film).
- In the Name of Ben Hur (2016).
Production & Filming Details
- Director(s): Sidney Olcott and Frank Oakes Rose.
- Producer(s): Frank J. Marion, George Kleine, and Samuel Long.
- Writer(s): Gene Gauntier.
- Music: Edgar Stillman Kelley (accompanying sheet music for film).
- Cinematography: Max Schneider.
- Production: Kalem Company.
- Distributor(s): Kalem Company.
- Release Date: 07 December 1907.
- Running time: 15 minutes.
- Country: US.
- Language: Silent (English intertitles).