Never mind the later Charlton Heston 1959 sound version. To me the silent version (1925/26) is considerably more powerful, more moving and clearly more original - a fact which did not escape those involved in the Heston version which steals from the original silent at every possible turn. It represents a classic of the great silent era that can hold its own with the also great 1959 remake!
I simply can't believe that this cinematic masterpiece, sumptuously photographed, faithful to Lew Wallace's novel, was made in 1925/26. My god, it's so stunning. The dialogues and action are more powerful than any actor's voice will ever be. The director Fred NIBLO and his junior directors Henry HATHAWAY and William WYLER (director of the 1959 remake) carved a marvellous film that is at times charming, so exciting and so moving.
This diamond-sharp print ("silent movie") - presented here with a live epic memorable and soaring stereo score performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra (1987 by Carl Davis) - remains a monument to Hollywood's glory days. Now, this mammoth spectacle has been lovingly and beautifully restored, with the original tinted and rich two-stripe Technicolor sequences (mostly depicting Jesus Christ) culled from the Czech Film Archive.
Unforgettable images abound (examples):
1.) the Christ Story
Though she appears only in the Nativity prologue, Betty Bronson (Mary, mother of Jesus) haunts the memory. It is remarkable that this actress so beautifully embodies the serenity and grace of the Blessed Virgin.!
The young and nice-looking Novarro makes Ben Hur's longing for family and his naked intensity of belief totally plausible. When this enslaved Ben Hur gazes in awe upon the Christ who has just dared to give him water (Carpenter) in the midst of scowling Roman captors, you truly believe his spiritual awakening.
2.) the Love Stories
For myself, the real attractions are the two female leads.
May McAvoy (Esther, the daughter of Simonides) is as beautiful as Lillian Gish (Orphans in the Storm, USA 1921). May McAvoy is dainty, tender, sensitive and compassionate, graceful, trustful and worthy! Enjoy the wonderful love scenes between the "Princess of the heart" and Ben Hur !
The "evil" Carmel Myers plays the unbelievable glamorous Iras the Egyptian. She shows us a sexual quality not seen in the Heston version (1959). Look for the scene as she tries to seduce as "femme fatale" the noble Ben Hur :
"Flashing eyes and milk- white bodies! Beauty to be tamed! Does it not thrill you?"
3.) the Roman Slave Galleys
You can really feel the great suffering of the poor slaves, sit three in a row, desperate and hopeless : "Merciful Gods! I can bear no more! Give me the boon of death!". You see the wide opened and furious eyes of Ben Hur, who has now been three years at the oars (to him three centuries): "Pray not for death, you coward, while your enemies live! Pray for life! I live for revenge!"
4.) the Sea Battle
The torrid sea battle between Roman and pirate vessels filmed in Italy with full-sized ships, long ago passed into legend because of its realism: plunging swords, severed heads galore, snakes, chains, flaming timbers and last minute rescues...
The sea battle ("Death to Arrius!") is very alive and terrible. One can definitely "grab" the fear the slaves are feeling during the combat.
There are no special effects. Everything you see is real! The boats actually caught on fire, the slaves who jump into the water!
5.) the Chariot Race
The Circus Maximus saw a marathon of 12 chariots and 48 horses, recorded by 52 cameramen.
The colossal chariot race sequence is intense, marvellous, exciting and epic - the climax of the film and a masterpiece! If you look into the eyes of Ben Hur and Messala, you can really feel the hatred that both men (Ben Hur and Messala) feel for each other:
"Scum of the galleys! I will grind you in the dust! I will ride you down, trample you into the sand!" (Messala)
There are no special effects! When Messala's chariot looses a wheel he is hit by three other drivers (death of Messala) which made quite an impressive stunt...
Ramon Novarro as Ben Hur and Francis X. Bushman as Messala are a pleasure to watch. They are brilliant in their acting. Francis X. Bushman's performance belongs to the "old style" of silent film acting. Ramon Navarro gives the role of a lifetime. Navarro's performance - the honesty he brings to every emotion - is as modern as tomorrow. He gives us a youthful, handsome, innocent, vulnerable and heroic portrait of Judah Ben Hur. He sustains a long and gruelling role with grace, charm and considerable force.
6.) The Melodrama of the Mother (Princess of Hur) and the Sister (Tirzah)
Although the second half (after the chariot race) is slower, there is a very touching part when Ben Hur (Ramon Novarro) falls asleep outside his home, and his mother Princess of Hur (Claire McDowell) and his sister Tirzah (Kathleen Kay), now lepers, approach him. Claire McDowell plays the part of the mother very intimately and expressively. Watch out for the scene when, stricken with leprosy and unable to touch her son ("Unclean! Not a sound! He belongs to the living - we to the dead!"), she kisses the stone upon which her son sleeps. She shows her expansive emoting ("O Judah! My son! I have seen you for the last time on earth!"). Like Greta Garbo's scene in "Queen Christina" (1933) in which the "Divine" embraces the things in her bedroom because she thinks of her lover (John Gilbert). This stone-scene illustrates the silent film's power to leave the viewer moved by the immediacy of an art that, relying on music and mime alone, reaches across the decades to grab one's heart!
To me, Ben Hur, A Tale of the Christ, is a must-see silent masterpiece!
Stefan-Felix Winkler (Torgau/Elbe, Germany), September 2005