by Allan Fish
(USA 1925 148m) DVD1/2
Lion of the tribe of Judah
p/d Fred Niblo w June Mathis, Carey Wilson, Bess Meredith novel Gen.Lew Wallace ph Karl Struss (and René Guissart, Percy Hilbum, Paul E.Eagler) ed Lloyd Nosler m Carl Davis (modern score) art Cedric Gibbons, A.Arnold Gillespie, Horace Jackson, Camillo Mastrocinique cos Hermann J.Kaufman models and miniatures Kenneth Gordon McLean 2nd unit d. B.Reeves Eason tech.d. Col Braden
Ramon Novarro (Judah Ben-Hur), Francis X.Bushman (Messala), Carmel Myers (Iras), May McAvoy (Esther), Betty Bronson (The Virgin Mary), Claire McDowell (Miriam, princess of Hur), Nigel de Brulier (Simonedes), Dale Fuller (Amrah), Mitchell Lewis (Sheik Ilderim), Frank Currier (Quintus Arrius), Leo White (Sanballat), Charles Belcher (Balthazar), Winter Hall (Joseph), Myrna Loy (Hedonist Mistress),
William Wyler’s Ben Hur swept the board at the academy awards for 1959 winning eleven Oscars, including best picture and director. The record was only matched by James Cameron’s Titanic 38 years later. And if an ancient Roman religious epic and a grossly inferior saga of a doomed megatonne ocean liner may have nothing in common narratively speaking, but in terms of film history they are very similar. If either had failed at the box office it would have spelt ruin for the production companies, in the case of Ben Hur, MGM, in the case of Titanic, Paramount and TCF.
Neither film was of course great, but there is an irony here. Over thirty years prior to the release of Wyler’s epic, MGM had made a film of the same story for the silent era and it was seemingly doomed from the start. It ran way over budget, saw its original star and director fired, seemingly insanely rejected the requests of their best director Rex Ingram to direct it (who got so miffed he promptly left for Europe and never returned) and stood by Francis X.Bushman as Messala in spite of the fact that he was generally seen as a has-been amongst the Hollywood fraternity. Add this to a few fatalities amongst the extras in the sea battle sequence and the film being delayed nearly two years from its premiere in December 1925 to its general international release in 1927 (in much the same way as Von Stroheim’s Greed would suffer) and the film was always going to be a recipe for financial disaster. But now it can be seen for what it is, a supreme example of silent movie opulent decadence and craftsmanship on a truly epic scale. It may not have quite the ambition of Griffith’s Intolerance, but it remains probably the greatest epic ever made in Hollywood, not only better than the overbloated remake, but better than the more iconic Roman epics from Spartacus to Gladiator.
For years the film went unseen, but its restoration in the eighties by Kevin Brownlow’s priceless Photoplay Productions reintroduced the world to one of the grandest follies of silent cinema, if not in its full length (the 170m original cut is lost), at least to its original brilliance. The photography of Karl Struss (as well as his trick work with regard to the curing of the lepers which influenced his later work on Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde) is gleaming, the costumes and sets truly awe-inspiring and the editing of the set pieces truly superb. Indeed, for anyone who thinks the 1959 chariot race was something, they should check out the original. The performances are suitably epic; Novarro and Bushman were never better and Betty Bronson (fresh from playing Peter Pan of all things) was truly iconic as the Holy Virgin, a picture in colour straight out of Giotto. I haven’t even mentioned the gorgeousness of the two tone Technicolor sequences, the tinting and the wonderful new score of the great Carl Davis, in addition to which Fred Niblo’s direction was a revelation. Perhaps MGM realised that they needed someone who was going to control the film and bring energy to it more than art (he had directed Fairbanks in The Mark of Zorro and The Three Musketeers), which is what Ingram would have aimed for. Sit back, empty your mind of any preconceptions and just enjoy the sort of classic they just don’t make any more, even if to do so at home means purchasing the remake, on which it is merely an extra. As sad a comment on our times as could be made.