Film review by Jason Day of the second silent film adaptation of Ben-Hur, the Lew Wallace bestselling novel about a Jewish Prince (Roman Novarro) who is deceived by his childhood friend (Francis X. Bushman) and made into a galley ship rowing slave. Directed by Fred Niblo.
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Judah Ben-Hur (Ramon Novarro) is a privileged and romantic boy; the heir to one of the richest families in Judea, he is adored by his mother and sister. When his childhood friend Messala (Francis X. Bushman) returns, he hopes their relationship will pick up where they left off, but Messala is a changed man and bluntly tells him their friendship will assume a changed nature too. Judah and his parents are imprisoned after a loose roofing tile smashes and almost kills the new governor of Judea during a processional route. Judah must now battle to return home and seek revenge on Messala.
Review, by Jason Day
Ancient Rome’s empire building saw it gobble up a number of cultures.
And ancient Hollywood’s epic accounts of this era of history could be equally impactful on the Los Angeles film community and resources.
Ben-Hur, the second big screen version of Lew Wallace’s mammoth best-seller, is a good example. It required so many people for the crowd scenes that almost every big star in Hollywood turned up to work as extras, with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Lillian Gish all checked-in for duty.
Even the costume creation had to be outsourced to Germany.
Four cinematographers are credited, including pioneer Karl Struss, to man just some of the 42 cameras used during the chariot race sequence. Cameras through which an incredible 200,000 feet of celluloid passed.
Thankfully for audiences then as now, a whole team of editing staff worked to whittle this down to a more manageable 750 feet, which results in a 13 minute long sequence which is as imaginatively and elaborately staged as the 1959 version. It still retains a thunderous pace. Indeed, the William Wyler 1959 remake is almost shot-for-shot the same (Wyler would well remember too; he was an assistant director on this film back in his youth).
This scale is carried throughout with a mighty running time of 2 hours 23 minutes (but brief compared with 1959’s). Perhaps it is due to the restrictions of silent cinema that the duration of this version of Lew Wallace’s mega-novel (620 pages in the hardback version) results in a shorter film; no dialogue, so no waffle.
It also means the film comes across as brusque. Messala is revealed in the Wyler version being overjoyed to see the Hur family again and then gradually revealing his distaste for Judea’s desire for independence. Francis X. Bushman‘s Messala instead looks down his nose at Judah and proceeds to patronise him from there on in.
It’s panto cinema villainy but with skill, as he under-plays to effect. Messala is a smiling assassin, a viper in the nest waiting to strike. Bushman’s blue eyes, difficult to photograph in black and white in early cinema, appear whited out giving him an extra shading of chilling badness.
Ramon Novarro, whose name is spelt out in larger font on the credits card, became a box-office superstar after this film. It’s a sweet and touching performance, with some great silent movie acting (his wild, arm flailing call for water after his epic desert walk to the galley ship is wonderful. Unnecessarily over the top, but he his delirious from dehydration). Novarro’s Judah is more results driven than Charlton Heston’s and comes across all Spartacus when he leads a rebellion against Rome.
It helps that his micro-skirts show off finely toned legs, but then Ben-Hur is a film which likes to flash the flesh.
All over in fact; there is a completely nude man chained up in the galley sequence, bare buttocks for all to see.
Perhaps this gave Novarro and any other gay men in the cast some inspiration to row a bit harder.
There are also bare breasted women throwing petals to honour Judah when he returns home and sequences of torture and whipping that would never have made the final cut after official, national cinema censorship came into force less than a decade later.
A splendidly bewigged Carmel Myers, then a sexy star, is an enjoyably unbridled Egyptian temptress, scanning Novarro’s body appreciatively when she first meets him.
There is a greater emphasis on the religious elements of the story as opposed to the theme of destiny, the producers even going so far as to use two-tone technicolour for the scenes directly involving Jesus. But even Wyler’s version was more effective here because the script had the blessing of excellent dialogue. Director Fred Niblo’s decision to use shots of Christ’s hands and arms to increase the ‘holiness’ of his presence looks comical, especially when you see in Wyler’s film how easy he could have tackled not revealing his face (filming him in full, but from behind).
There are further instances when credibility strains at the seams (a Jack Russell terrier in ancient Judea. Judah returning home and no one recognises him, despite the fact he looks exactly the same as when he left. The ‘realistic’ wording of the inter title cards that sound grammatically incorrect), but one always needs to view silent films with a pinch of patience.
The odd droll one-liner does escape the film, a prescient inter-title declaring “Will women ever cease to paint their faces”. This guy would hate watching TOWIE.
Reissued in 1987 following a sprucing up by film historians Kevin Brownlow and David Gill, Carl Davis provides a throbbingly rich score, which almost out Rozsa’s Miklos Rozsa’s imperialistic, thumping music for the 1959 film. This is more mystical, with heavenly, swooning chords.
Cast & credits
Director: Fred Niblo. 143 mins. MGM.
Producers: J.J. Cohn, Samuel Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer, Irving Thalberg. 1987 restoration: Kevin Brownlow, David Gill.
Writer: June Mathis.
Camera: Clyde DeVinna, Rene Guissart, Percy Hilburn, Karl Struss.
Music: William Axt, David Mendoza. 1987 restoration: Carl Davis.
Sets: Horace Jackson, Harry Oliver.
Ramon Novarro, Francis X. Bushman, May McAvoy, Betty Bronson, Claire McDowell, Kathleen Key, Carmel Meyers, Nigel De Brulier, Mitchell Lewis, Frank Currier, Dale Fuller.