The 1924 Ben Hur aired on TCM last night. For the past year or so I’ve been shunning TCM for no other reason that I prefer to watch pictures when I want to watch them, and not at the behest of some programmer in California — but this Ben Hur seemed worth making an exception for: it’s a picture I’ve wanted to see for a long while now. Yes, it’s included on the big four-disk DVD set of William Wyler’s version that was issued several years back… but I just couldn’t picture myself sitting through the Wyler again. Charlton Heston was always a bit of an eye-roller for me (although Planet of the Apes was pretty much perfectly suited to his style), and particularly after he “came out” as a whore for the National Rifle Association I have put up with the SOB only when I absolutely must.
But here’s a funny thing: who would have thought that Ramon Novarro would turn out to be an even more overwrought, scenery-chewing poseur than Charley Heston? Egad… his performance as the title character could have been telegraphed in from a thousand miles away! This is a little bit to do with silent-movie style… but only a little bit.
And he’s not alone! Oh My God, Betty Bronson as the Virgin Mary is not required to do anything but sit there on the damn donkey and look radiant — her “performance” is more a Monty Python parody of radiance. Instead of Carl Davis’s wonderful score one expects to hear a choir of heavenly voices accompany her every moist, uber-serene closeup. I last saw Ms. Bronson as the star of Universal’s silent version of Peter Pan (also reviewed somewhere on this site), and her Peter was similarly overwrought as she bounced, pranced, strutted, preened and galumphed her way through J.M. Barrie’s story. The woman is the human equivalent of a Klieg spotlight.
Putting aside the spectacle for half a mo’, when the 1925 Ben Hur works, it works very well indeed. There are times when that transcendent quality common to the best silent films comes shining wonderfully through. Frances X. Bushman’s Messala is nicely evil without ever descending into the comical: he brings a lot of genuine force to the part. I was entranced, as I was meant to be, by Carmel Myers as Eras the Egyptian. The early two-strip technicolor scenes are marvelously effective, adding highlight to the picture. And even more so than in the Wyler version, the studious avoidance of showing anything more than the hands of Christ really works here.
When the movie doesn’t work, which is pretty much whenever Novarro is onscreen, it evokes chortles of laughter.
But Oh My Word, the spectacle is truly, madly, deeply spectacular. When silent movies went big, as in Griffith’s Intolerance, they went B-I-G, and the 1925 Ben Hur has sequences (plural) in it that boggle the mind even today. Perhaps especially today, because all those folks leaping about and falling on the screen are real people, not CGI creations. The chariot race is not the only example of this, although it’s the most memorable. So spectacular is the chariot race that the best Wyler could do years later was copy it shot for shot. It is, hands down, one of the greatest bits of movie-making I have ever seen, and one wonders how it was accomplished without the versatility of modern equipment.
The raid on the Roman slave ship is pretty danged spectacular, yes, but here’s the thing: the chariot race is such a marvel of movie making that you actually feel honored to have seen it.
On the other hand — I imagine the ASPCA would have something to say about it today… and there’s still a part of me crossing my fingers and hoping that all those dead horses on the field weren’t real dead horses.