Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Film Review: BEN-HUR (1925)

Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925)


Director: Fred Niblo
Producer: Louis B. Mayer
Story/Screenplay: June Mathis (adaptation), Carey Wilson (scenario and continuity), Bess Meredyth (continuity), Katharine Hilliker (titles), H. H. Caldwell (titles); based on Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace
Music: William Axt; Carl Davis and London Philharmonic Orchestra (Thames Television/Turner Entertainment restoration)
Cinematography: Clyde De Vinna, René Guissart, Percy Hilburn, Karl Strauss, Glenn Kurshner
Editing: Lloyd Nosler
Cast: Ramón Novarro, Francis X. Bushman, May McAvoy, Betty Bronson, Carmel Myers, Nigel de Brulier, Frank Currier, Mitchell Lewis, Charles Belcher, Winter Hall
MPAA Rating: NR

Run Time: 143 minutes

Distributor: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (theatrical); Warner Bros./Turner Entertainment (home video); Thames Television (restoration)

Before the masterpiece that was William Wyler's 1959 adaptation of Lew Wallace's classic potboiler epic Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, there was this brilliant 1925 silent version directed by Fred Niblo (The Mask of Zorro) starring Ramón Novarro and Francis Bushman as Judah Ben-Hur and Messala made thirty-four years ago. That movie was a two and a half hours long, and it was black-and-white interchanged with two-strip Technicolor sequences, which were changed to black-and-white in the original theatrical release of the film/

Unlike the more famous and iconic 1959 classic, when it came out, it opened to lukewarm box-office returns and tepid reviews. And while its reputation has increased over the years (it has a 100% critical rating score at Rotten Tomatoes, one of the few movies to do so, other than The Birth of a Nation, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, Bride of Frankenstein, Citizen Kane, Mary Poppins, Jaws, North by Northwest, On the Waterfront, The Seven Samurai, the first two Toy Story movies, the original Godfather, and many more, in contrast to the 89% rating of the 1959 epic), it is still not as remembered. Even while it was a box-office hit when it was first released, the huge expenses and the deal with Abraham Erlanger (who adopted the Lew Wallace novel into a stage play before) led MGM to lose a total of $698,000, even though it ultimately led MGM to be known as one of the most prestigious studios of all time (before it fell from glory due to the leadership of Kirk Kevorkian and other financial struggles).

But how does it hold up to the 1959 classic? Is it a tad better? Is it just as good? Or is the film inferior to the 1959 version? I hold that it is just as excellent, if not more so, than the iconic 1959 version.

The story, at its most basic level, is the same as the original novel and the 1959 version, so I feel no need to repeat the plot summary. However, there will be some differences from the 1959 movie, so I will note those later on.

As this is my first silent movie, it's actually quite wonderful, and it is by no means boring. While it is at times over-the-top, and the fact that it doesn't always show dialogue cards for every dialogue spoken, as that would have been too expensive at the time. However, it does a good job in communicating dialogue through the cards and through the actions of our characters.

The Mexican actor Ramón Novarro does a fine job as the Jewish prince, just as wonderful as Heston's portrayal of the Jewish prince thirty-four years later. He even touches upon a characteristic of the prince that was in the original Lew Wallace character but only extremely lightly touched in the Heston portrayal. That aspect was the revolutionary character. Here, Ben-Hur is gathering many legions in an attempt to prepare for a revolution with the Messiah supposed to lead. This, however, is in stark contrast to the true mission of the Messiah.

Francis Bushman does a fairly good job as Messala, though he is not as brilliant as Stephen Boyd's depiction of the character. And while he is definitely more anti-Semitic, he definitely doesn't show as much a desire for glory and power as he does in the Boyd portrayal (as the 1950s was a grand era in which Messala was depicted as a grander villain).

The other actors do a good job in portraying the other characters. And may I note that there is one character that, while existent in the original novel, is nowhere to be seen in the 1959 version. Her name is Iras the Egyptian (played by Carmel Myers). She is used by Messala to solve the mystery of the Jewish racer in the arena, and she tries to seduce Ben-Hur, who is the racer, while he is in the tent of Shiek Ilderim (Frank Currier).

And the chariot race is as good as the more famous 1959 version, though not as epic and suspenseful, as that one relied only on the suspense and epic-ness to grab you in. The 1925 version, while adequate, is weaker in this area, as that had music. (However, I would like to note that most every shot in the film had music from William Axt and Carl Davis to compensate for lack of dialogue and sound.)

The sea battle, on the other hand, is one area in which the 1925 original is superior to the 1959 epic. Whereas the attempted escape by the slaves in the latter movie was suspenseful and frantic in its own right, the 1925 film had a more chaotic, panicky and devastating atmosphere. And in the silent version, we are allowed to have a small connection with Golthar the Terrible, the pirate leader who is raiding the Roman fleets. We didn't see this in the 1959 version, whose sea battle was epic and brilliant in its own way.

Now, on to the differences between this version and the 1959 version. I have kept a note on several of them on my phone, but I will list only a few crucial ones here.

1. The tale of the Christ: In the silent original, the first fifteen minutes are focused on the story of Jesus, whereas in the color version less time is spent, but that is just as powerful. And there is more focus on Mary in this film than in the 1959 version. In one scene, where one woman tries to keep her baby away from Mary (as it was commonly thought then that Mary was impregnated through sexual immorality), the warm smile of the virgin consoles the woman. While I like the 1959 version as much as the new one, I would have to choose this 1925 silent version over the newer one, though I have to admit that the 1959 version communicates as much possible with as little dialogue, which serves as a significant advantage over the 1925 version.

2. The conflict between Ben-Hur and Messala: Ben-Hur and Messala's conflict, while similar to the 1959 version, is more abstract than in this version. In this version, the conflict is more general, a conflict of ideals and principles and cultures. However, in the 1959 version, while the conflict is indeed general, it is not abstract, and it is applied to something very specific: Messala's pressuring Ben-Hur to reveal and expose Jewish dissidents against the Roman Empire. And Messala is more anti-Semitic in the 1925 version than in the 1959 version, where he is more power-oriented than racist.

And there is another crucial difference between the 1925 and 1959 versions in this respect: in the former, Ben-Hur attempts to reconcile with Messala after the break out; however, in the latter, Ben-Hur decides that there could be no reconciliation and separates from Messala, thus becoming his enemy.

While I consider the 1925 version to be good in its own right, I will have to consider the 1959 version superior, as that touches on the issue of friendship vs. enmity in a more radical, compelling and daring way than the silent version.

3. Arrius's relationship with Ben-Hur: In the classic 1959 version, Arrius first meets Ben-Hur as a mostly silent yet strong galley slaves and recognizes immediately that Ben-Hur is made strong by revenge, thus giving us the famous line: "Your eyes are full of hate, Forty-One. That's good. Hate keeps a man alive. It gives him strength."

However, in the 1925 version, Arrius finds Ben-Hur crying out for life while rebuking a fellow galley slave for begging for death, and unlike in the 1959 version, he doesn't whip Ben-Hur to test his patience. And there is no private conversation between Arrius and Ben-Hur in this version, like there was in the 1959 version.

In the silent original, after discovering that the Romans were victorious over the pirates, Arrius decides to adopt Ben-Hur as his son immediately. However, in the 1959 version, Ben-Hur is adopted as his son only several years later.

The 1925 and 1959 versions are a draw for me; both of them communicate the complex relationship between Quintus Arrius and Judah Ben-Hur quite well, in their own way.

4. The Christianity of Ben-Hur: While the 1959 version has undoubtedly Christian themes, they are much more subtle and less explicit than in the 1925 version, which is explicitly Christian despite some risqué content (in one scene, when Ben-Hur is being celebrated, there are topless women leading the parade, which is only clearly visible when one looks closely; I just gave a fair warning to Christians who are considering watching this movie; for more information, see the IMDb's Parent Guide on this). Christian film critic Peter Chattaway, in his review of the DVD edition of the 1959 classic, says of this version: "the silent version is the more Christian film, but it is also the more risqué." Also, the movie "toes the line between piety and exhibitionism that was common to other Bible epics produced during the 1920s. There are one or two other moments of partial nudity in this film, but nothing serious. More significant is the way the film brings its two parallel storylines together—the one about Christ, and the one about Judah Ben-Hur—by portraying Judah as a man who eagerly awaits the Messiah, and who is prepared to use his wealth and social status to raise entire legions to help the Messiah fight against the Romans." However, despite the more explicitly Christian message of the silent version, I would have to go for the 1959 version because, despite the more humanistic bent in that version, we see the power that Jesus Christ exerts on others more clearly (even though we don't see his face) than in the 1925 version (though we do get to see Jesus performing miracles even while he is led to Calvary in the silent version). However, I would also like to critique the last statement made in the silent version: "He is not dead. He will live forever in the hearts of man." While this is true, it failed to touch on the physical resurrection of Christ, in which the Christian's hope is truly in. I can understand that the filmmakers took a more theologically liberal, politically correct bent here. And on the 1959 version's Christian themes, while it is Christian, it is not perfectly so. As T. Gene Hatcher notes in his commentary on the film (which is available on the later DVD and Blu-ray editions), Tirzah and her mother were healed more because they pitied Christ's sufferings than they did confess faith in him. And as Chattaway notes in his review, "Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) proudly identifies himself as a Jew, but never professes belief in a Messiah of any sort His opposition to Rome is fueled more by personal feelings of vengeance than by any sense that he could help to fulfill prophecy, so he never quite becomes a Christian." While I do disagree with Chattaway on the last note that Judah doesn't become a Christian (I see that he does both in the original novel and the 1959 version, though the latter is more subtle.), I do agree with him that Heston's Ben-Hur opposes Rome not so much to fulfill on messianic prophecy but rather to satisfy his hatred, similar to the desires of many characters in epic movies following the 1959 version of Ben-Hur

Still, the Christian message in both films is communicated well without being preachy or sanctimonious. I particularly liked how the 1959 version dealt with the Christian themes in a most subtle way, seeing it as a lesson for today's Christian filmmakers to communicate the Gospel message without being too bombastic, saccharine, or sanctimonious.

So I hold that both are tied.

Conclusion: Overall, I give this rendition 4.5 out of 5 stars rather than the 5 stars I gave to the more famous 1959 classic, only because it is slightly superior in quality and epic-ness than the silent original. 

If you want to introduce a friend or relative to the world of silent cinema, then this is the film to show them. As this is my first silent movie, I will start my journey in exploring the world of silent cinema. Highly recommended.

No comments:

Post a Comment