The Bootleg Files: Ben Hur

BOOTLEG FILES 634: “Ben Hur” (1907 short film).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube and Internet Archive.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: It has been included in anthologies of early silent films.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A groundbreaking example of copyright infringement.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It is out there, but why would you want to find it?

One of the most important films in the legal history of intellectual property is also one of the least interesting productions ever captured on camera. If anyone pays attention to this bad old movie today, it is strictly to appreciate its place in copyright protection and not to pay tribute to its artistry.

In 1907, the Kalem Company put forth a release that was billed as being “positively the most superb moving picture spectacle ever made in America.” The film in question was an adaptation of Lew Wallace’s best-selling 1880 epic “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ,” which offered a sweeping tale of betrayal, revenge and salvation set in ancient Judea and Rome. Wallace’s work had been adapted into an 1899 Broadway spectacle that included an on-stage version of the story’s chariot race, complete with horses running on treadmills against a rotating backdrop, and that show later toured the U.S. and played in London and Australia.

The Kalem Company recognized that the popularity of Wallace’s work could translate into a successful motion picture, and they set about creating their own version simply known as “Ben Hur.” There was just one itty-bitty problem: no one at the Kalem head office bothered to clear the rights to “Ben Hur” with the estate of Lew Wallace. The author had passed away in 1905, and perhaps the Kalem leadership believed that there was no need to get permission for a film version since Wallace was deceased.

And this is where “Ben Hur” gets itself into film history. Wallace’s heirs and his publisher, Harper & Brothers, argued that his estate still controlled the copyright on the original text, and Kalem had no legal right to help itself to a copyright-protected work. Even the Broadway version was created with Wallace’s contractual approval. The Wallace estate and Harper & Brothers sued Kalem, and in 1908 Judge Emile Henry Lacombe of the U.S. Circuit Court ruled that copyright law was violated if “moving pictures are thrown upon the screen” and reveal scenes lifted from a copyright-protected book. Kalem appealed the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled against the company in 1911 and forced it to pay $25,000 to the aggrieved parties.

As a result of the legal problems, Kalem barely released “Ben Hur” after it was initially completed and was forced to completely withdraw the film when a court-ordered injunction was handed down. The film was considered lost for many years, but some battered prints managed to survive.

For all of the hullabaloo surrounding the legal issues, “Ben Hur” is a rather dull film, even by the admittedly primitive standards of 1907 cinema. For starters, Kalem chose to severely truncate Wallace’s mammoth work into a compact 15-minute running time, which only gave the vaguest concept of what the story was about. Indeed, the film is little more than a series of abrupt approximations of some of Wallace’s storyline.

The film opens in old Jerusalem, where a motley crowd unhappily watches a parade heralding the arrival of the Roman Procurator. Judah Ben-Hur, a member of the Jewish royalty, joins his mother and sister in watching the procession from a rooftop balcony. When a tile from the balcony comes lose and falls on the Procurator, the family is arrested by the Romans, with the women hauled away to an unknown fate (they are never mentioned again in the film) and Judah being enslaved in the galleys – or so we are told by the florid intertitles. But no sooner is he doomed to captivity then he becomes free for saving the life of Arrias – another off-screen act. Arrias is a Roman who adopts Judah as his son, to the cheers of the crowd in Rome who look exactly like the crowd in Jersualem. Almost immediately, Judah is challenged to a chariot race by Messala, the Roman who arranged for his arrest. The race takes place and Judah triumphs.

Two men, Sidney Olcott and Frank Oakes Rose, are credited as directors on “Ben Hur,” but neither seemed to have a clue on how to make a film. The entire film is shot in static wide shots, which throngs of extras wearing costumes borrowed from the Metropolitan Opera waving their arms wildly and making obnoxious faces in an attempt to give some motion to this motion picture. The production design is unintentionally funny: The sets look like they were made from cardboard, with obvious painted backdrops used to capture the glory of Rome.

The chariot race is supposed to be the thrilling climax of “Ben Hur,” but most of the action takes place off-screen. The horses and their drivers race past the stationary camera before a clumsy cut finds them running past again. This is repeated twice more before the race is over. This could be one of the most monotonous action sequences ever devised.

Supposedly, actors Herman Rottger and William S. Hart allegedly recreated their Broadway roles of Judah and Messala for this film, but the camera is so far away from the actors and the surviving prints are in such poor shape that it is impossible to determine who was in the cast. Rottger never established a niche in films, but Hart would later gain immortality as one of the first movie cowboy stars. However, it is unlikely they were in the chariots – the producers contracted firefighters who were used to driving horse-drawn firetrucks to handle the race. (Some sources claim the race was shot in Brooklyn, others say it was shot in New Jersey.)

Anyone in search of a big screen “Ben Hur” should see the 1925 MGM masterwork or the 1959 Oscar-winning colossus. This dinky little version, which can be found on YouTube and Internet Archive in crappy duped prints, is notable for legal precedent and ignoble as an example of filmmaking.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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