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Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ Movie Review

silent roman set scenes

1926 – Fred Niblo –

When the famous 1959 remake of Ben-Hur was passing through the many hands that worked on the script, someone (perhaps director William Wyler) had the sense to call in British playwright Christopher Fry to work during the shooting and to doctor the dialogue so that contemporary-sounding lines (“Did you like your dinner?”) took on a more classic sound (“Was the food to your liking?”). Charlton Heston credits Fry with ridding the script of what Heston called the “MGM medieval” sound. The problem with films set in ancient times, however, is that even with such adjustments the mere presence of sound—ambient sound effects as well as the dialogue—can still impede the illusion of antiquity.

This earlier film version of Lew Wallace's novel benefits greatly from the larger-than-life quality of silent dramas. The stylized nature of silent films, resembling in some ways the grand emotions of opera, allows a story set in the ancient world to gain in verisimilitude. A simple scene like the one where Judah Ben-Hur (Ramon Navarro) catches a pigeon and gives it to Esther (May McAvoy) assumes great tenderness by acquiring the nature of a tableau in its silent presentation. The acting of Roman Navarro is also effectively understated as Ben-Hur, the Jew separated from his family, who must toil as a galley slave on a Roman trireme before impressing his captors with his bravery. When the ship is attacked by pirates, Ben-Hur saves the life of Arrius, the commander of the ship and even prevents him from ending his disgrace in “the Roman way” by committing suicide. Francis X. Bushman as Messala, the Roman commander and rival of Ben-Hur, indulges in the declamatory gestures associated with earlier styles of acting. His moments are the most dated. After Arrius adopts Ben-Hur, Messala and his former childhood friend meet again as opponents in the famous chariot race. It is a measure of this film's power that in the remake the opening sequence of the chariot race echoes shot by shot the development of that scene in the original.

The sea battle with the pirates and the chariot race are the great set pieces, and they still look impressive today. The later scenes arrange a number of memorable smaller moments: Esther finding Ben-Hur's family in the valley of the lepers, the healings on the way to Calvary. The lavish production was one of the big gambles of the silent era. MGM sent a crew for months to Italy while some of the parts were still being cast. Thousands of extras were hired for the maritime scenes, and rumors have persisted ever since that at least three of them drowned when one of the ships caught fire too quickly and the crew had to jump overboard wearing heavy costumes. The two-strip Technicolor sequences (in the restored version with the stereo score performed by the London Philharmonic) for the scenes depicting events from the gospels are beautiful. Their rarity truly enlivens this compelling and often powerful film.

Cast: Ramon Novarro (Ben-Hur), Francis X. Bushman (Messala), May McAvoy (Esther), Betty Bronson (Mary), Claire McDowell (Princess of Hur), Kathleen Key (Tirzah), Carmel Myers (Iras), Nigel De Brulier (Simonides), Mitchell Lewis (Sheik Ilderim), Leo White (Sanballat), Frank Currier (Quintus Arrius), Charles Belcher (Balthazar), Dale Fuller (Amrah), Winter Hall (Joseph), Myrna Loy (spectator in crowd) Screenwriter: June Mathis, Bess Meredyth, Carey Wilson Cinematographer: Clyde De Vinna, Rene Guissart, Percy Hilburn, Karl Struss Composer: Carl Davis (restored version) Producer: Charles B. Dillangham, Abraham L. Erlanger, and Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., for MGM Running Time: 148 minutes Format: VHS, LV Box Office: $9M.

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