February 4th, 2019

Ben Hur 1925

I watched the 1925 production of Ben Hur on a whim. I was noodling about on Wikimedia Commons and there it was in front of me- minus any kind of soundtrack but with its colour sequences intact. I wasn't sure I'd stick with it, but I did.

It's not a great film. It was old fashioned even for its time. The camera mostly doesn't know what to do with itself apart from sit still as if in the stalls of a theatre and observe the action from a distance. The characterisation is basic, the acting demonstrative, the facial hair glued on and the costumes unlived-in. The Romans wear shiny armour with enormous plumes and mostly look like off-duty Irish cops.  Ramon Novarro wears mini-skirts and in the latter part of the movie a helmet like Joxer the Mighty's which he never takes off- not even to sleep. The sets are sometimes stupendous and sometimes just drapes.  The convention- not broken until the second half of the 20th century- that Jesus cannot be portrayed by a human actor results in scenes of uplift in which someone stands or sits directly in front of him, blocking our view, or his disembodied arm appears waving about beatifically at the edge of the screen. There is intermittent spectacle: parades, crowd scenes, an impressive sea battle- with two full-sized, working galleys. The most impressive performance comes from Nigel de Brulier as Simonides, who has an interesting face and knows that the best thing you can do when acting for the camera is not very much. 

And then there's the chariot race.

And suddenly the camera discovers that it can look down from a great height and ride in wheeled vehicles looking back at the actors or keeping pace with their horses heads or bury itself in the sand and have them drive over it. There is fast cutting. The sets are enormous, the glass shots seamless, there are no back projections. And when you're seeing Ramon Novarro and Francis Bushman racing in their chariots what you're seeing is the real actors in real chariots going really fast.  In his pioneering book about silent cinema The Parade's Gone By Kevin Brownlow says it's better than the 1959 version (which stole from it liberally) and I think he's right.