Directed by Fred Niblo. Screenplay by June Mathis and Carey Wilson, based on the novel by Lew Wallace. Produced by J.J. Cohn, Samuel Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer, Irving Thalberg. Photographed by Clyde De Vinna, René Guissart, Percy Hilburn, Karl Struss. Edited by Lloyd Nosler. Art direction by Horace Jackson, Harry Oliver. Starring Ramon Navarro, Francis X. Bushman, May McAvoy, Betty Bronson, Claire McDowell, Kathleen Key, Carmel Myers, Nigel De Brulier, Mitchell Lewis, Leo White, Frank Currier, Charles Belcher, Dale Fuller.
Pound for pound, movies don’t get much bigger than Ben-Hur. This elaborate production, the most expensive of its time, was seen as a potentially studio-crippling folly, but in the end was massively successful, and it’s easy to see why: every single dollar is on screen. The film is chock full of melodrama, pathos, and huge hugeness. There’s vistas and spectacular special effects, and oodles of slam-bang set pieces, like the Roman Galley sequence and the classic chariot race. And it has career-defining performances from its lead, Roman Navarro.
Wait, what? Oh. I see. You thought I was…ahhhh…so you figured… Well, the year is right up there, folks, I’m not sure how you got confused…well, no matter. So, in short, not the other one. This one. Oriented now? There we go.
Yes, William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959) is a remake, and not everyone knows that. Like so many remakes, it has utterly eclipsed its predecessor in the public consciousness, making Fred Niblo’s original silent Ben-Hur (1925) little more than a pricey footnote. But the original is worth a look, especially since it teaches such an interesting lesson in the differences between early film craft and more polished productions. Wyler’s Ben-Hur is indeed sleeker and longer, but it’s also, despite its stabs at piousness, frequently hollow and showy. The older film is just as visually ambitious than its successor, but also more restrained and intimate, and also gives fuller due to the gospel that both films claim to revere. That’s not a success because of content, mind you, but because of conviction: the original is the passion story told in an ambitious style, while the later film is wholly a technical exercise that happens to refer to the passion story. For those reasons alone, the original silent is arguably superior.
Wyler’s more familiar version is certainly lavish, but it’s also oppressive—and long. The super-widescreen framing, expansive sets and unrelenting bombast all conspire to make it very difficult to relate to the human story inside Ben-Hur, and that’s because the Wyler version, as grand as it is, is a false epic. It is good at stringing together set pieces but weak in its attempts at anything more that that. Despite the religious undertones and hinted themes of redemption, Ben-Hur 1959 is an unfocused and pretentious work, a four-color swashbuckler that goes astray when it tries to link itself to the Christ story in a fumbled stab at significance. Certainly such a film could have been made from the material of Lew Wallace’s book, but it would require thought and nuance. Notably, Wyler worked as an assistant director on the original film, so he was in a prime position to heed the lessons of the original. He did not.
The problems with the Wyler film become especially clear when you compare its central performance to that of the original silent. Heston’s performance, surprisingly, comes up short compared to Ramon Navarro. That’s not a knock on the force of nature that was Heston, but simply a reflection that perhaps he was wrong for the part. Or, perhaps Wyler was not very interested in coaxing the correct work out of him. Here is a story that spans several years, and puts its hero through several emotional turns—all of them crucial, all of them unsold by Heston, who adopts a one-note style that has little shape or thrust: a rock-hard presence lacking any iota of depth. In the Wyler film, there is no difference between Ben-Hur the prince, Ben-Hur the galley slave, Ben-Hur the good Roman son or Ben-Hur the charioteer. He’s the same man throughout, and that’s not the right strategy. Imagine a version of The Count of Monte Cristo where Edmond Dantes carried himself like royalty from the get go, and you can imagine how the Wyler film feels rudderless as it bounces between sequences.
Roman Navarro, who plays Ben-Hur in 1925, has no such deficiency. Yes, his acting is necessarily a broad mix of pantomime, but it works on the important levels, and we sense a transformation between the different story beats that Heston was unable to provide. During one scene, he even sacrifices his dignity in order to lick muddy sand, which you’d never catch Heston doing. This helps the scope of the original to exceed the boundaries of the Wyler version, and it even aids the performances that aren’t so strong, like the love interest Esther (May McAvoy), who frets so much like your standard silent queen that you expect a railroad to pop up so she can tied to the track. Yet I’ll take her over the glowering, aloof Esther (Haya Harareet) in Wyler’s film, who engages in a romance with Heston that is more than a little creepy. The only exception to the overall superior ensemble in the Niblo film is Francis X. Bushman’s turn as the Roman tribune Messala–in the Wyler film he’s an entertaining antagonist (with acknowledged hints of homoerotic anger), while in the Niblo film he’s more a standard-issue supervillain.
Both films follow the same plot structure. Prince Judah Ben-Hur is a respected merchant in Jersualem, but circumstances implicate him (incorrectly) in a plot to assassinate Judea’s new governor, and his old friend Messala is only too eager to make an example of him after the proud Jew refuses to name the names of anti-Roman extremists. His family is imprisoned. Judah, meanwhile, is sent across the desert and into the Roman galleys, where he spends years at sea before surviving a violent battle and befriending a Roman consul, becoming his adopted son and growing in stature as a charioteer in the circus of Rome. He then returns to Judea for vengeance against Messala, which involves an epic chariot race, and later becomes reunited with his family, who suffer from leprosy, but are saved by a classic dues ex machina. The original film tells this story over 143 minutes, but the Wyler version does it in 210, including an intermission…and yet, nothing of true import really seems to be added.
The older film’s ambition may pale in comparison to the newer one, but it is in many ways just as historic. It pioneered techniques just like the ’59 film did: shooting some scenes in new-fangled (two-strip) Technicolor, tried special effects that pushed the boundaries of what was possible, had a reported cast of 125,000, and even set records in its utilization of available resources, using no less than 48 cameras for a key battle sequence set on the ocean. It was also a troubled production: Niblo was a replacement hired when original director Charles Brabin went overbudget and behind schedule, and a disastrous Italian shoot led to political strife, delays, fires, an eventual relocation to California, and also several deaths that caused a rewrite of safety laws for film sets. That anything of quality resulted from such a mess is perhaps a strong statement in favor of classic Hollywood craftsmanship.
Each film has a different approach to their set pieces. Niblo gets to the heart of them, but Wyler leads into them, extends them, and then leads out with such relentlessness it almost feels like he’s making separate short films, pasted together. Each sequence is meant to be a SEQUENCE, with big neon lettering. Everything is stately and typically lethargic, and there’s no sense of pace: the chariot race is meant to be a climax, and yet the following denouement is just as lengthy and ponderous as anything else in the movie. Even talky scenes are set against huge, distracting backdrops, as if a tender scene of two people coyly admitting their love could only be improved by setting it in a tall tower that dominates a skyline view of Jerusalem. In Niblo’s version, he just puts up curtains, and lets the actors act.
The earlier film also has a much stronger religious identity, while the ‘50s film feels hypocritical in its joining of sword-and-sandal adventure with piety. Jesus has a larger presence in Niblo’s film, in sequences shot in then-cutting edge two-strip Technicolor, which help underline the narrative’s conceit of a story that parallels and resonates with that of Christ. In the Wyler film, Jesus is treated as a precious cameo, and while the intent is to give a Rosencrantz-esque viewpoint on the passion story, Jesus is instead turned into such a non-entity, he is easily pushed aside in favor of the entertainment value found in sea battles and bloodthirsty chariot races. The film tries to be religious-minded, but only after it sates itself with godless splendor, not before.
Indeed, that tendency also infects the very fulcrum of the story, Judah himself. The character of Ben-Hur in the Wyler film is problematic, because every morally questionable action he commits is balanced by the film’s desire to be crowd-pleasing. The key moral quandary is Judah’s thirst for vengeance, and although he is called on it, what point is made with it? Nothing, because the film would prefer to have its cake and eat it, too: the film suggests that vengeance is wrong, but when Judah achieves it, there are no consequences except that we, the audience, got to enjoy a fantastic action scene. Does Judah ever feel remorse over his violent ways? Does he regret the loss of his friend? These questions are addressed, I think, by Navarro’s acting in the 1925 film, but Heston (and Wyler) ignore them, causing their biblical epic to have a morally weightless center. If Judah is so unassailably heroic, so flawless, then why do we care about his so-called redemption? We don’t. Navarro, on the other hand, makes us believe he (and the story) need a savior, and isn’t that the point?
Niblo’s Ben-Hur, really, is an epic, and Wyler’s is not, because an epic must go beyond spectacle to actually be about something. In Niblo’s film, we feel the passage of time in the story, and we sense the despair and evil that threaten to consume Judah. We feel real stakes. Wyler, on the other hand, is occupied solely with stupendous effects sequences, and so the actual character of Judah gets lost in both the clutter and Heston’s uncomplicated portrayal. Perhaps an even better comparison for the ’59 film is Lawrence of Arabia, which is also a lengthy, panoramic story set in the desert, but it’s about real people who have real problems. Ben-Hur, without any such sense of character, is a comic book yoked to a gospel, and the overall effect dimishes both genres.
That is not to say that the 1925 version of Ben-Hur is a great film, simply that it is better, because the film does not feel so ethically slanted. But it’s also filled with kind of racist caricatures that close inspection of silent films sometimes reveal, and while the casting of Charlton Heston as a middle eastern Jew may seem racially curious, it is hardly remedied by watching the very white Navarro mingle with extras that are tilted towards caricature. For all its flaws, the 1959 film is better at being progressive, providing a fuller role for the shiek Illdirim (Hugh Griffith) and giving him one of the nicest acting moments in the film, when he must fake diplomacy in the face of a racist remark. And then there’s the dopey subplot where Messala enlists an Egyptian Queen to seduce Judah, which feels borrowed from an old Republic serial. So it has problems, I’ll freely admit.
Original ideas are hard to come by these days in Hollywood, and it’s worth noting that the year 2011 will have more sequels released in theaters than any other up until this point, so these are indeed dark times for those who want something more than the same old, same old. We also suffer from a glut of remakes, as proven valuable properties are the hottest commodity in these economically troubling times. But I think there is value in the inherent concept of the remake, and that is because sometimes the best way to appreciate an artistic decision is to see similar material done without it, and to realize what is missing. Ben-Hur (1925) is worth remembering, because it shows us that the remake is not a new thing, and can even be a valuable thing, because it makes us fall in love with old material in a new way. Perhaps I wouldn’t enjoy this old one at all in the ‘50s film didn’t exist, and for that reason I would be perfectly happy if another was made one day. Even a terrible remake can make us reappraise what we already have.
One scene that is present in both versions of Ben-Hur has always puzzled me. In it, a chain gang of slaves, Judah among them, arrives at a well in Nazareth, and the slaves scramble for water, but the Roman commanders are unmotivated to tend to their prisoners. So Christ, hearing the commotion, takes pity, grabs a big scoop of water and gives it to…Judah, and only Judah. A Roman comes in to object, but the (unseen) face of Jesus mollifies him into submission. This leads to questions. Why didn’t Jesus give water to the rest of the gang? Why didn’t he put the whammy on the whole garrison, and let everyone go? Could Jesus really control people just by looking at them? And if so, how did he ever get caught?
NOTES: Extras to be found in this film’s many many crowd scenes include John and Lionel Barrymore, Gary Cooper, Joan Crawford, Marion Davies, Douglas Fairbanks, Clark Gable, John Gilbert, Lilian Gish, Samuel Goldwyn, Harold Lloyd, Carole Lombard, Myrna Loy, Mary Pickford and Fay Wray.
The restored version of Ben-Hur (1925), which features an original musical score by Carl Davis and performed by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, is currently available on DVD, but only as an extra in the set that contains the more well-known 1959 film. But it is worth tracking down.
Oh, and before anyone takes me to task, I am fully aware that when I compare the “two” versions of Ben-Hur, I am ignoring the one-reel 1907 film, animated versions, that TV movie they did, etc.
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