Sunday, 12 April 2020

Ben Hur - A Tale Of The Christ (1925)

Ju-Dah Man!

Ben Hur - A Tale Of The Christ
USA 1925
Directed by Fred Niblo
MGM  Blu Ray Box Zone A/B

I’ve been meaning to watch the 1925 version of Ben Hur for a while now and this recent-ish Thames Television restoration, which includes the original two strip technicolour sequences which were rediscovered... not to mention topless slave girls (many of whom, I suspect, went on to become famous Hollywood actresses but this was when they were extras)... is included as a bonus feature in the 2009 50th Anniversary box set celebrating the 1959 remake by William Wyler, which starred Charlton Heston and is reviewed by me here. If you look carefully in the chariot race, you’ll see one of many assistant cameramen racing towards camera in one shot trying to warn another camera crew to get out of the way of an approaching chariot which was going too fast... that man was future remake director William Wyler.

Costing a whopping 3.9 million dollars to make, this was the most expensive picture of the ‘silent’ era of cinema and I’m glad I finally caught up to it. It’s also the first ‘feature length film’ to be based on Lew Wallace’s best selling novel although, there was a short, 15 min version shot in 1907.

Now, I’ve read the book in a nice edition from Wordsworth Classics (you can see details of their latest imprint of this here) but it’s been a couple of decades now and I don’t remember it all that well. However, I do remember it’s quite different to the 1959 film which I was more familiar with and, although the 1959 version obviously harkens back to this version, I would say this 1925 go at the material is just a little closer to the book.

For instance, the books subtitle, A Tale Of The Christ is much more highlighted than on the 1959 version and the religious back drop which frames main protagonist Judah Ben Hur’s story, from Jesus’ birth at the start of the picture to his death at the end, is quite a bit more prominent in this version, I think. Also, the whole bit about Ben Hur building an army of warriors to fight for Jesus against the Romans, which was quite a dominant theme in the original story, also makes it into this version and is explored a little more after the outcome of the famous chariot race. In the 1959 version it doesn’t turn up as a sub-plot at all.

There’s much more made of the birth of Christ at the start with a big build up as Joseph and Mary look for somewhere to stay. This and pretty much all the main religious sequences are shot in two strip technicolour. At first, people’s reactions to Mary are hostile or indifferent but a casual look of her features touched by a holy spirit are all the swooning people need to be complicit to her wishes, it appears. It seems a bit much at first but that’s nothing compared to the first encounter between Judah (played by Ramon Novarro) and love interest Esther (played by May McAvoy). Here, he returns a lost pigeon to her after chasing it around Judea and, as they talk, their eyes and gestures are telling you a lot more about how sexified up they are as opposed to the words they are saying on the inter-titles.

There seems to be a lot of this style of acting in this one, where everything in the subtext is quite blatantly spelled out by the performers using eyes, hand gestures and expressions. It’s a little over the top and it’s what I always used to think silent movie acting was, as opposed to what I’ve actually seen of it in other movies of the era, which often have a more naturalistic approach to the performances. So this was kind of interesting to me. Indeed, during the galley sequence, where Judah is rowing with all the other slaves, Ramon Novarro looks like a complete maniac all the way through the scene... there’s no way I’d want to be pulling an oar anywhere near this guy, that’s for sure.

The film also stars leading screen actor Francis X. Bushman as the main antagonist Messala and Nigel De Brulier as Simonides, who would later go on to give Billy Batson his magical powers as the wizard SHAZAM in The Adventures Of Captain Marvel (reviewed by me here).

The film starts off with a very strong opening shot of a figure looking down into a valley at the town of Judea and, indeed, it does a lot of nice things along the same skeleton of the story differently than the 1959 version, although, I would have to say that the later version does improve a fair few of the scenes, especially in terms of what motivates various characters, than this 1925 version... for the most part. Although, here, it’s much more easy to see the accident which propels the story, where a loose tile comes crashing down when the new chief Roman is riding into Judea in a welcome procession, as something which could, actually, be seen as the assassination attempt Messala uses as an excuse to be rid of Judah at the start of the picture. In this version, the tile quite definitely bonks the head Roman in the head and causes him some serious damage.

The other main set pieces of the film such as the battle between the Roman galley and the pirate ships or that infamous chariot race which killed a lot of horses, apparently, is all pretty spectacular for the time. I didn’t expect to see pirates filling glass globes with poisonous snakes to throw at their enemy, for example. I also loved that, during the battle, for one shot inside the galley slaves deck, the camera operators were moving the camera very violently this way and that to give a sense of chaos and unease, much like you’d see when modern directors apply camera shake for the same reason. Bearing in mind how big, heavy and unwieldy those cameras were back then... this is no mean feat.

Another thing I enjoyed was Messala’s sexed up love spy Iras, played by Carmel Myers, who wasn’t in the 1959 version at all but here is played as some kind of Egyptian sex worker for hire and who wears this big, bejeweled lizard in her hair. She’s pretty cool.

I also got a kick out of the way that, like the 1959 version, we never see the face of the actor playing Jesus Christ but, since he has a more prominent role here... not too mention mostly being shot in two strip technicolour for his scenes... it’s quite enthralling to see what distances the director goes to placing objects or people in front of his face to keep him hidden. There’s one scene where he is on trial before Pontius Pilate where he’s the centre of the shot and the light from outside the building is creating a big shining, holy spirited beam to light him with... only to have the silhouette of a watching Roman centurion standing in front of him. Honestly, it all gets quite strange as the picture goes on.

At the end of the chariot race, the director focuses in on the victor, Judah Ben Hur, by placing him in a circle in the centre of the screen, just in case the audience were in any doubt that this is the big hero moment of the picture. Also, towards the end of the film, where his mother and sister are cured of leprosy by Christ, in a much more direct and ‘hands on’ way than in the Golgotha sequence at the end of the 1959 version, the director has obviously applied the same colour filter trick to change their appearance that Rouben Mamoulian used in his 1931 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. A trick that Mario Bava would later use in his ‘official’ directorial debut Black Sunday (which I reviewed here).

This presentation of the film has a contemporary score written by modern ‘silents’ composer Carl Davis which is not bad and quite appropriate to the on screen shenanigans, although I was surprised by the amount of ‘Mickey Mousing’ in some of it and especially disliked the way he uses the non-diegetic score to suddenly jump and fill in for diegetic moments on screen such as the sound of a horn, trumpet, whip cracks or the drum beats on the galley. Indeed, although Miklos Rozsa’s glorious score for the 1959 version of the galley slave sequence can hardly be called subtle, it seems a lot more sophisticated in comparison to what Davis does here. Still, an interesting piece of scoring and I think I’ll try and pick up the CD at some point so I can hear it through a set of decent speakers and get to know it a little better.

So, yeah, I finally got to see the 1925 version of Ben Hur - A Tale Of The Christ and it was never once dull and, regarding some of the shots the various cameramen managed to get away with (and mostly live to tell the tale), often quite spectacular. Definitely something film lovers should probably take the time to check out but, I have to say, the 1959 version of Ben Hur is still my favourite of the ones I’ve seen, although that one’s a little further from the content of the book compared with this one. Pleased I finally got around to this and a good film to see Easter in with this year, I believe.

Ben Hur At NUTS4R2

Ben Hur - A Tale Of The Christ

Ben Hur (1959)

Ben Hur (2016)

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