I almost wish Ben-Hur was shorter. Not because I want less of it, but because it is, in every other respect, the ideal entry-point for someone new to silent film. Equal parts art and excitement; immersive, visceral, and spectacular, this is Blockbuster 101—what an epic should be, and everyone should see it.
You probably already know the 1959 Ben-Hur, directed by the William Wyler, and starring Charlton Heston as Judah, Ben-Hur, last of a line of Jewish princes in Roman-occupied Jerusalem. That film is immense in every sense: from its sets, to its length, to the breadth of its star’s acting, but it is not better than this silent version. It’s just more famous.
Ben-Hur was a prestige picture for the newly-merged Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. It remains, if one adjusts for inflation, the most expensive silent film of all time. Fred Niblo, who had already helmed adventure films for Douglas Fairbanks and Rudolph Valentino, and who would go on to direct Greta Garbo in two of her better silents, here spun together what must have seemed, to audiences at the time, the ultimate mix of aesthetic and technological achievement in filmmaking. It seems that way to me, too.
Niblo wanted a world recreated, and he sought to do it by placing his actors and many, many extras within an environment of vast dimensions: gigantic buildings, walls and monuments; long vistas of desert. Not all of this was real, of course, but most of it looks seamless. And it has an immersive effect. When an intimate scene cuts to a long-shot of a city that looks as though it’s really there, your audience wastes less energy suspending its disbelief. This is a welcome thing, especially when watching a silent film.
Ben-Hur is more than just an achievement of scale. A series of full-color sequences, lasting a minute or two each, lend their own kind of spectacle. The colors chosen by Niblo will remind you of 1950s Biblical epics, but the blocking might not—in at least two cases, these sequences begin as tableaus patterned after famous paintings.
This effect might sound hokey, but it brings to Ben-Hur something that is deeply embedded already; primal in both a religious and cultural sense, which the film builds upon in other ways.
I used the word ‘visceral’ above—and so it is. Ben-Hur is primal too in its depictions of the body: muscular, beautiful, straining and sweating; underdressed and even nude; alone, or en masse in teeming crowds. The choice of stars reflects this.
Ramón Novarro plays Judah, Ben-Hur as a twenty-something in his physical prime—a lovely boy, without Heston’s commanding masculinity, perhaps, but with something more authentic in its place. Francis X. Bushman, as his friend and rival, Messala, would look at home in a wrestling ring today; we accept the pomp and goofiness of his armor because he seems worthy of nothing less than grandiose display. Betty Bronson, in her small role as the Virgin, appears literally angelic—filmed in soft focus, so that the peaceable effect she has on those around her extends outward, through the screen, to us.
But Ben-Hur is most memorable for its brutality. This is one of the bloodiest of silent films, highlighted by a seemingly full-scale naval battle with a Rambo III-worthy body count and some truly shocking dismissals of human life. The scene, lasting ten minutes, begins when a cluster of pirate vessels spot a line of rich Roman galleys, one of which carries Judah, Ben-Hur as a slave-rower.
The pirate captain is no stranger to the Romans, and we know this for two reasons. First, because he rallies his troops by waving the head of a centurion impaled on his sword—and this before the battle begins. And second, because the first pirate ship to ram and sink a Roman one has another centurion lashed to its prow. “By Zeus! From Rome I captured you! To Rome I will return you—in my own fashion!” the pirate captain tells him, and so it is.
Ben-Hur can be gruesome even in its quieter moments. We witness the newly enslaved Judah, Ben-Hur nearly die in the desert, dragged on a leash by Roman captors; skin peeling in the heat, caked in sand. When they reach a well, the soldiers cruelly pour a ladleful of water into the dust before him. Novarro collapses, licking the soaked mud like a dog. This is shown in close-up.
More ghoulish are the depictions of Judah, Ben-Hur’s mother and sister, played by Claire McDowell and Kathleen Key. When the House of Hur falls, they are confined to a dungeon, becoming lepers. It’s a theatrical leprosy, represented by dark robes, bone-white makeup and heavy mascara, but the effect is stirring anyway. When the mother says she belongs to the world of the dead, her words seem true enough.
Ben-Hur has a lot of nice little touches for a film so big. I liked the jar of venomous snakes the pirates brought aboard the Roman vessels, and the way one of their ships sailed parallel and tight against a Roman one, snapping its oars like twigs as it passed, crippling it. I liked Judah, Ben-Hur’s mother and sister happening upon him in his sleep, and, in their grief at being unable to touch him, caressing and kissing the stones he laid upon.
I like that we never see the face of Christ. We see only his arm—the tool with which he exhorts and toils. The arm is always white, but in one of the color sequences it seems more than white—as though the image of the arm were cut out, leaving a hole in that shape and revealing, through it, something glowing beneath the whole scene.
More fun, and just as good, is the trash-talk between Judah, Ben-Hur and Massala, prior to their ultra-high-stakes chariot race. I again suggest professional wrestling for a fair comparison. Try to quell your glee when Bushman utters these lines:
Scum of the galleys! I will grind you in the dust before all Antioch!...I will ride you down—wrench off your wheels—trample you into the sand! You shall race—to the death!
About the race itself, little needs to be said. The 1959 version, iconic though it is, is based on this one. In fact, Wyler, a young assistant director in 1925, helped shoot it. The intensity and velocity—the palpable sense of danger we get from watching this scene—is a product of editing more than anything else. Like the boxing sequences in Raging Bull, it pulls us uncomfortably close though cuts and changes of angle, sometimes giving us our own point of view, and other times, the views of the participants. We are thrilled, without ever wishing to partake.
I think you can tell that I loved Ben-Hur. This post reads more like a description of it than a critique, but to describe the film is also to explain why you should see it. It is spectacle, but spectacle so expertly and thoroughly rendered as to convey truth as well as excitement. Ben-Hur is a whole world, and for all its extremes, you can imagine that world as your own. This is a rare thing in movies; rarer still in silent ones.
Where to find Ben-Hur:
Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, is available on Blu-ray, part of Warner Bros.’s 50th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition Ben-Hur box-set. Warner has also distributed the film on DVD.