Lost in the Movies: Ben-Hur


Ben-Hur, 1925 incarnation, is an enjoyable adventure film, somewhat overburdened by a sense of dutiful religiosity and a letdown after its climactic chariot race. That race, however, is still exciting 80 years later and many of its moments equal those of the more famous remake. One shot in particular, of the horses' hooves pounding into the camera from a low angle, is as dynamic as anything I can recall from the 1959 Ben-Hur. Indeed, given the limitations (read, frequent strengths) of silent cinema, this Ben-Hur is more visually spry and inventive than the later film, unburdened as it is by stirringly grandiose but also intimately inappropriate widescreen and Technicolor.

If I find it hard to speak of 1925's Ben-Hur in isolation, that's not just because the Charlton Heston version is more famous, but because I've always had a special regard for it. Yes, despite my sniping at '59 Ben-Hur's pretensions, my feelings towards it are generally warm. I can't quite defend the film objectively, and can understand how some would find it wooden, overbearing, and pretentious. But it reminds me of a boyish sort of Catholicism, one as taken with the desert vistas and adventure stories and architectural grandeur as with any more subtle spiritual or ethical elements of the Christian story. I've always had a weakness for epics, for films you can get lost in; the experience is something like losing your way in a cavernous museum, wandering from room to room calling out your friends' names but half-hoping you don't find them. (The sense of adventure within comfortable bounds is the same - while you can get lost in epics, they're peculiarly nonthreatening.)

As I've indicated, many of this Ben-Hur's charms lie elsewhere. It's a more intimate and economical "tale of the Christ"; however, it still contains scenes of breathtaking spectacle. Among them are the battle between pirates and Romans in which a Roman hostage is bound to the front of the pirates' ship and used as a battering ram to attack his own fleet. There are parades filled with exotica of the Roman Empire, marching through Jerusalem, echoed later in the film by Jesus entering through the city's gates on the back of a donkey. And also, of course, there's the chariot race filled with mayhem but interestingly, not as bloodthirsty as the later Ben-Hur (my friends and I, sick bastards that we were, would hit the slo-mo button on the VCR remote to watch the stretcher-bearers get trampled when they couldn't make it off the racetrack in time). Nonetheless, even this time around several charioteers wind up as welcome mats for the stomping hooves behind them.

The chariot race is, for those of you who don't know (but have for some reason stuck with me here), Judah Ben-Hur's attempt at revenge against ex-friend, now mortal enemy Messala, a Roman soldier who betrayed him, sending the Jewish prince into a life in exile and presumably killing Judah's mother and sister. This Ben-Hur follows the same general contours as the later one, though it deviates in many of the details, including what happens to the Hur family's slaves, and also Judah's actions after the chariot race. The latter instance is actually one place where the 1959 Ben-Hur tops the 1925 version in intimate, personal detail. Here we see Judah form an army of Jews to fight for their "Messiah" but, when told of Jesus' death and wish for peace, they lay down their arms. This storyline is silly and anticlimactic (I don't know if it's in Lew Wallace's novel), and I prefer it when, in the later movie, Judah has achieved revenge but still feels lost, before reuniting with his family (now lepers) and encountering Jesus at the crucifixion. It connects more effectively with the story's message of redemption.

Actually, here the religious elements exist in an odd balance with the adventure story. Though it usually gets knocked as Sunday-school nonsense, the later movie actually balances the two elements off of each other rather nicely. In both versions, we never see Jesus' face, but in the later film this conceit is handled more subtly, whereas in 1925 the filmmakers create all sort of elaborate hide-and-seek games, like restaging the Last Supper but placing a random additional disciple in the foreground so that he just perfectly blocks Jesus' face (though we still get to see the holy ring of light emanating around the edges of the disciple's profile). Also, the earlier film, despite having an altogether shorter running time, lavishes a lot more attention on the first Christmas, which serves as a prologue in both versions. Actually, much of its recreation is charming - I particularly enjoyed the crude "shooting/shifting star" special effect - but it does seem like a distraction from the story's main arc.

Oh, and one more thing, particularly pertinent given all the Prop 8 talk circulating in the blogosphere. Gore Vidal has infamously claimed that, in doctoring the 1959 screenplay, he added a homosexual subtext. Supposedly Stephen Boyd was informed, and played this element (a supposed gay tryst in the background of reunited friends Judah and Messala) to the hilt; but director William Wyler warned against telling Charlton Heston, who would be horrified. It's a humorous anecdote, but ironically the homoerotic overtones are even more pronounced in the 1925 version. Messala pretends not to know who Judah is when approached in pubic, then they sneak off behind an arch somewhere and embrace. And when Judah grabs Messala's meaty bicep (this Messala is about twice the size of Boyd and looks like he could crush the rather waifish Roman Navarro with one fist)...well, I defy you to eschew Vidal's interpretation.


Anonymous said...

I keep forgetting that this in our school library. I should get that out over the weekend.

Joel Bocko said...

Let me know what you think.

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks for the great observations, hokahey. I saw Ben-Hur at about the same age, and it's stuck with me too. (I suspected the army was in the book - kudos to the '59 screenwriters for leaving it out.)

I will definitely check out that review...

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