Friday, August 9, 2013

BEN-HUR (1925)

Because of all the movies that I've seen in my life, it's a very rare thing these days for me to watch a famous film for the very first time. But that's what happened last night when the Turner Classic Movies channel showed the 1925 version of BEN-HUR. The print TCM showed looked spectacular and featured a fine musical score by Carl Davis.

The 1959 version of BEN-HUR is the more renowned one, due to its several Oscar wins and constant TV showings. The '59 HUR is no doubt a great movie, but it's so gigantic and lumbering the viewer almost gets lost in it. The '59 Hur clocks in at 3 and a half hours....the '25 one lasts about an hour less. The silent HUR is also a massive epic--apparently it was the most expensive film ever made at the time--but I thought it had a more personal quality to it.

The '25 HUR went through major production problems, but the film doesn't show it. The plot is relatively the same as the sound HUR, with a few differences. The silent HUR has a far more elaborate sea battle, one that I think is one of the greatest action set-pieces I've ever seen in a silent film. There is also the chariot race, which is just as exciting and breathtaking as the one in the sound version (hard as that may be to believe).

The silent film stars 1920s matinee idol Ramon Navarro as the Jewish Prince, Judah Ben-Hur. He's certainly no Charlton Heston...his Ben-Hur is not a larger-than-life figure. Navarro's Hur is more of a ladies man (due to the fact that Navarro was a contemporary and rival to Rudolph Valentino). Navarro gives, in my opinion, a more down-to-earth quality to Hur than Heston. I'm a big Charlton Heston fan, but the actor's screen presence was so powerful that it had a tendency to overshadow just about every role he played. You fully expect Heston to overcome any obstacle put in front of him....with Navarro, you're not so sure he can triumph.

Francis X. Bushman plays Ben-Hur's Roman rival, Messala. In the silent version Messala is an out-and-out villain all the way, where as in the sound version Stephen Boyd gives the character a more complex rendering. This was Bushman's most famous role, but I thought he was a bit too florid.

The '25 BEN-HUR has quite a few surprises for those who have only seen the '59 version. One example is that the silent version is a far grimmer film. The violence and desperation of the times is one of the silent film's main themes. The slave galley in the silent HUR is even more of a hellhole than the '59 one. Most people would assume that the older movie is less graphic....but that's not the case. The '25 film has an expressionistic tone to the cinematography that I think works quite well. And...believe it or not, there's even a few brief glimpses of nudity--the decadence of the Roman Empire is presented throughout the story.

There's also a number of two-color Technicolor sequences in the silent version. Most of these are made up of Biblical recreations, such as the Nativity, the Last Supper, and the Crucifixion. The early color process gives these scenes an unusual and striking style, like something out of a storybook.

All in all, I think the 1925 BEN-HUR holds up very well to it's more illustrious predecessor. It's another reminder of how amazing the art of silent cinema was at its highest form.

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