Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ (Fred Niblo, 1925)

by Douglas Buck March 13, 2020 3 minutes (738 words) 16mm Salle Bourgie Hall/Museum of Fine Arts, part of the Cinéclub/The Film Society program

Wealthy Jewish prince Ben-Hur (Ramon Navarro) is forced into prison labor on a war ship after a false accusation, where, through sheer courage and force of will, he rises magnificently above his station as a slave to become a beloved champion chariot racer, eventually leading to that forever classic race sequence, with our virtuous hero taking on his greatest of betrayers, the Roman admiral Messala (Francis X. Bushman), with the possibility of a reunion with his long-lost family not far behind… and all the while, loitering about on the edges, occasionally intersecting in moments of cinematic reverence, unfolds the equally (well, perhaps a bit more) mythic tale of the Son of God himself, with his and our Mister Hur’s tales ready to fully merge by the end…

With its creation of larger than life allegorical characters performing in that theatrical silent film manner that works with such sublime perfection, creating that wondrous sense of being granted a brief vision of myth unfolding, in an epic world much larger than ours could ever be (including that of the Big Kahuna himself, Chay-zus), across epic landscapes and into breathtaking battles, Ben Hur was a pure inspired joy to experience.

From the massive parade of Romans marching down the Jerusalem streets with their new leader through the throngs of peasants and street urchins, to the wildly exciting galley ship battle in which extras appear (okay, they actually were) to be risking life and limb as they jump the chasm over the water far below between ships, dodge cannonball fire and dangerously hang from the sails, and of course, on into the pure classic wonder of the white knuckle chariot race which — with all of it done with real stunts, in-camera, using thousands of extras, and none of the onslaught of CGI that would eventually stimulate the eye, yet muffle the awe and wonder – has gained, rather than lost, in its breathtaking quality, it’s hard not to repeat the old adage that they certainly don’t make ‘em like this anymore (of course, the production isn’t allowed to willy-nilly kill both human extras and horses, as was unconscionably done quite a bit during the making of the film, so perhaps that isn’t entirely a bad thing… but, wow, man… the cinema achieved!).

With plebeian nature revealed, I admit I had actually never seen either version of Ben Hur (not this one, nor the 1959 version, starring that towering technicolor vision of pure masculine heroism, in all his glowing cinemascope glory, in the midst of his Hollywood biblical epic period, Chuck Heston, which seemed to be on television every other day back when I was growing up, and which I’ve since learned apparently almost exactly replicated the spectacular original chariot race from the silent film – sans killing hundreds of horses, however – I hope anyway – which now has me itching to catch up with it).

So… all to say… somehow the subtitle of the silent version had escaped me. I had no idea that the story of the Christ (geez, what’s up with these filmmakers — including Mel with his torture-porn film – always throwing in that ownership determiner before the Son of God’s name?) was right there in the backdrop, constantly intersecting (with things like stumbling through with his disciples offering water to the dying of thirst Ben-Hur, or later curing his loved ones of leprosy) and, I admit, as soon as I realized how it was gonna play out? I loved the idea, especially as I kinda have a fondness for not only the specific tale of that ol’ status quo disrupting rabble-rouser himself, but just about any good bible tale (I mean, can things get any more cinematic, with all the miracles and presentations of supernatural wonders – and horrors, naturally – than that of a good allegorical biblical epic? Hell no, I say… though pardon my blasphemy).

While I’ve attended many a live musical presentation to a silent film (including a slew at the Cinéclub), the inspired and intense four-instrument accompaniment for Ben Hur brought the entire experience to genuinely new heights of inspiration (and that’s saying something, as Cinéclub show-runner Phil Spurrell always works hard to get these things right), with the wonderfully driving Middle Eastern-tinged percussion solo over the entire chariot race, with the musician perfectly shifting in tone and tempo throughout the long scene, being the supreme standout.

Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ (Fred Niblo, 1925)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

Buck A Review   biblical epic   montreal film society   phil spurrell   silent cinema