Thursday, June 2, 2011

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

Ramon Navarro as Ben-Hur
In 1925, Ben-Hur was the biggest and most dazzling thing anyone had ever seen, with its jaw-dropping special effects, enormous action sequences, death-defying stunts, glorious two-strip Technicolor and a six digit cast of extras. It was the most expensive movie ever made, coming in at just under $4 million, and the death toll of its famed chariot race prompted a rewrite of film safety standards. All too often, big special effects blockbusters lose their shine after a few years, as improved effects technology makes them seem dated, even comical. Not so with Ben-Hur: although it is clearly dated, I nonetheless find myself watching it with an overwhelming sense of wonder. Just as 1925 audiences must have done, I keep repeating, "Can they do that?!"

The action sequences positively scream authenticity. The sea battle was filmed with actual ships on actual water, with actual extras who only pretended they knew how to swim to get the job actually turning up missing (they all drifted in eventually). The first round of footage of the chariot race, which was filmed in Italy, claimed the life of a stunt man and over a hundred horses. Ultimately, the Italian chariot race footage was thrown out and the whole thing was re-shot in California. Although no humans were killed in the California chariot race, there were many injuries, and the loss of horses remained high. Director Fred Niblo offered a prize to the stunt driver who won the "race," prompting a degree of urgency and recklessness in the driving that is very real indeed, and the pile-up in the final lap was a genuine accident. In the earthquake that follows the crucifixion, hundred-foot walls crumble down and crush the people fleeing below, and I'll be damned if I'm not half convinced that's real too.

The collapse of the temple walls.

The acting in Ben-Hur is not without its share of melodrama, but for the most part it is effective and powerful. Ramon Navarro (Ben-Hur) was one of the finest actors of the silent era, who managed to combine subtlety and expressiveness to create a genuinely powerful and surprisingly understated performance. In Navarro's hands, Ben-Hur's emotional journey is poignant and believable, as he moves from Jewish prince, to rebellious galley slave, to dutiful Roman son, leading to his quest for personal vengeance and the deliverance of his people. Many of the supporting players were equally impressive, most notably Claire McDowell as Ben-Hur's mother. In a truly masterful touch, the mother is reunited with her son after having been separated for several years. He is sleeping on a bench, and she does not want to wake him, as she wants to spare him the knowledge that she is now a leper. She weeps at the reunion, crouching by his side while he sleeps, and caresses the stone bench rather than touch him directly. It is a shockingly intimate moment, which remains deeply moving in spite of changing tastes which don't tolerate the excess of sentiment that was standard fare in the 20's. Other performances are less inspired. Francis X. Bushman is positively demonic as Ben-Hur's nemesis Messala. He has this crazed look in his eyes that makes me wonder how Ben-Hur ever trusted him at the beginning of the film.

The real magic in this film, however, is the part that audiences didn't see for several generations. Portions of the film were originally shot in early two-strip Technicolor, but later distribution used an edited down black and white version. That's quite a loss. Among other functions, the color segments highlight the portions of the story that intersect with the Gospel narrative, and help to bolt down the film's thematic focus. This is far more than a mere nod to piousness as an excuse for a big budget action film. All the spectacle of the film is really secondary to these smaller, more intimate scenes. The promise of a deliverer haunts Ben-Hur's actions throughout, sparked by a few chance encounters or rumors of a Messiah. This creates the emotional resonance in which we read his early salvation from slavery and death at the sea battle, and the moral struggle he undergoes over his need for revenge. By putting the Gospel scenes in color, it makes them even more awe-inspiring than the big action scenes.

The color sequences are nothing short of spectacular. Early attempts at color are not generally impressive in hindsight. The color portions of The Phantom of the Opera and even The Black Pirate, which was filmed entirely in color, differ little in effect from the full-frame color tinting that was standard practice at the time. This tinting could be quite sophisticated, ranging from simple effects like differentiating daylight and artificial light, or they could be used for more complex artistic means, as in the expressive dream visions of The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The color segments of Ben-Hur, however, are just plain beautiful, and the limited range of color available appears as much an artistic decision as a technical constraint. I've never seen two-strip Technicolor produce shades of blue (albeit blue-green) or realistic flesh tones like that before. It has that same pop that you see in later three-strip Technicolor, where Dorothy's blue dress and ruby slippers seem to jump out of the screen. However, the limited color pallet in use here gives the sequences a painterly look that later Technicolor does not possess. It reminds me of medieval illuminated manuscripts, stylized but ornate illustrations of religious texts. The wise men's cloaks sparkle, and Mary's face shines with beatific radiance.

Betty Bronson (uncredited) as Mary in two-strip Technicolor.
Although it resembles an action film on the surface, Ben-Hur is haunted by a deep awe of the religious mysteries it portrays that is far from superficial. In spite of this, it does not proselytize; this is no call to arms, but a vision of what its creators saw as simple, religious truths. It is also very much a product of its times, in love with its own medium. The grandness of the spectacle bears witness to the incredible popularity of film itself, that the industry could support a project of such magnitude. The technical innovations throughout champion film's versatility, as the cameras seem to shoot from every angle imaginable, even under the racing chariots. As such Ben-Hur is very much a historical film, embodying simultaneously the lush vision of history in its story, seen through the lens of its creators, and the historical moment of its own birth, full of the optimistic grandeur of works yet to come.


  1. Excellent look at this one, Allex. Thanks.

  2. Having just watched the 1925 "Ben-Hur", my jaw dropping lower and lower, I fully appreciate the glory that was silent cinema at its zenith. The sea battle is way better than in the 1959 version, and the ground-level shots of the chariots streaking overhead must have been incredible on the big screen. Real extras, not CGI people! I love the 1959 version, which has a powerful emotional tug (I always cry when Christ offers water to Judah and vice-versa later on) and more graphic violence. Nothing being made today in movies is better or more sophisticated than the two "Ben-Hur"s, and I hate the strobe effects in the action scenes in "Gladiator" and other films. Long live silent cinema! And long live Ramon Novarro, whose name inspired my mother when I was born!

  3. Yeah, as much as my co-author and I differ in our taste in films, we can always agree on our appreciation of any movie whose notion of how to film a sea battle means, 'let's build some ships and shoot cannons at them.'

    Ramon Novarro is wonderful in this (as always). It just makes me sick to read about how he was pushed out of movies in the 30s--especially since he had such a lovely voice, and filmed so well in sound films. I caught him on TCM a few months ago in a pre-code operetta with Jeannette MacDonald that was just wonderful--The Cat and the Fiddle. I wish his sound films were a bit easier to find!