Moviemaking might makes right in Fred Niblo’s Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. It marries a rip-roaring saga of vengeance in ancient Antioch and Jerusalem to a reverent vision of Christianity bringing faith, hope, and charity to the Roman Empire. Judah Ben-Hur shares the title with the Christian Messiah, but the worldly Jewish prince is the star of the show, especially as embodied by magnetic young Ramon Novarro. Filmgoers familiar with chiseled Charlton Heston in William Wyler’s 1959 remake may be startled to see a Judah who looks vulnerable. He’s true to the character in Lew Wallace’s novel who musters armies and overflows with tears. Appealing equally to action lovers and sentimental readers, the book outsold every novel until Gone with the Wind, including Uncle Tom’s Cabin. A blockbuster and a flock-buster, it made antiquity approachable—and made romantic adventure acceptable to Bible-thumping Christians. Niblo and company sought to equal or surpass it.
Ben-Hur had been a record-breaking hit in live theaters, complete with chariot races staged on treadmills. But when the movie started life at Goldwyn Pictures, it threatened to go bust. The challenges of shooting in Italy overwhelmed the film’s first director Charles Brabin. When Goldwyn, Metro, and Louis B. Mayer Pictures merged to form MGM, executives discovered that “Brabin’s footage was terrible,” according to Mayer’s daughter, Irene. The rushes failed to showcase the spectacular sets and “what did appear looked cheesy.” Production chief Irving Thalberg swiftly corrected course. Niblo took over from Brabin; Novarro replaced George Walsh as Judah. The studio committed to making Ben-Hur the most colossal, lavish super-production ever seen. There would be eleven Technicolor scenes, including a rosy set piece of topless flower girls celebrating Judah as Rome’s star athlete and Nativity tableaux as otherworldly-colorful and quaint as antique Christmas cards (except for one epicene Greek wise man).
Niblo filmed or re-filmed everything, notably a mammoth sea battle that imperiled extras in the waters off Livorno (no deaths were ever certified). Blood, sweat, and tears permeated the production even after it moved to Los Angeles where Niblo and associate director B. Reeves Eason staged the chariot race in a Roman circus built where Venice Boulevard meets La Cienega.
With a $4 million price tag, Ben-Hur didn’t turn an immediate profit. But it became synonymous with grandeur. Kevin Brownlow, in his seminal book The Parade’s Gone By (1968), calls it a “sort of Dunkirk of the cinema: a humiliating defeat transformed, after heavy losses, into a brilliant victory.” After decades of neglect, Brownlow and his longtime partner in film restoration and production, David Gill, restored Ben-Hur in 1987, using (among other materials) MGM’s duplicate negative, a Czech Film Archive reel containing every Technicolor sequence, and a cutting continuity that cued them to the film’s many tints. They re-conjured the Glory That Was Rome—and Hollywood. No one has done more to open contemporary eyes to the beauty and power of silent movies than Brownlow, who called the chariot race “the first time that an action director, realizing the potential of the cinema, had possessed courage and skill enough to fulfill it.” So it’s wonderfully apt that Brownlow is being celebrated at a screening of Ben-Hur.
The movie begins with Betty Bronson as a Virgin Mary so pure and pretty that anyone who looks at her instantly becomes more charitable, including the innkeeper who opens his stable. The movie then jumps thirty years ahead to Judah Ben-Hur’s young manhood. All his life he’s heard that “the Nazarene” born to Mary would free the Jews from Roman rule. Judah’s pursuit of payback and his martial vision of the Messiah imbue this Roman Empire extravaganza with a momentum that only Spartacus matched, thirty-five years later.
Judah’s Jewish pride gets tested when Messala (Francis X. Bushman), his one-time bosom buddy, returns to Jerusalem as a Roman legionnaire. Has any actor cast a bolder Roman profile? Campy and charismatic, Bushman radiates the fantasy of omnipotence. Messala’s imperial arrogance unsettles Judah but doesn’t annihilate his loyalty. As Judah excitedly points out to his mother (Claire McDowell) and sister Tirzah (Kathleen Key) how well Messala looks on parade, he inadvertently knocks a roof tile onto the head of the new Roman governor. Messala briskly condemns all three as anti-Roman conspirators. He tosses the women in the clink (forgotten in a dungeon, they become lepers), and he sends Judah to his almost certain death as a galley slave for the Roman fleet.
This underdog epic dramatizes colonialism with brio. Niblo alternates high, deep shots of Jerusalem as a human hive with intimate vignettes of oppressed men and women buzzing around in it. When Judah accidentally backs into a soldier, he enrages the Roman, who sneers that it must be a Jewish custom “to walk backwards.” Niblo leavens the overall tension with bits of comedy, including a winged “meet-cute” between Judah and Esther (May McAvoy). When Esther buys a pigeon as a pet near the Joppa Gate, it flutters away, and Judah, who’s been ambling nearby, scurries between foot traffic and hoof traffic to get it back. It’s breezy visual love poetry, but no introductions are made. Ben-Hur is about missed connections, separations, and reunions across vast, arid landscapes.
Judah’s on-and-off contact with Jesus starts in his slave days when the carpenter revives him by handing him a dipperful of water. (You see only the Nazarene’s hand; to honor the spirit of a contract drawn up by Wallace’s heir, nowhere can you view the face of the “King of the Jews.”) Jesus ultimately teaches Judah nonviolence, though not before he battles pirates and comes out on top in a bone-crunching chariot race. In this movie, revenge is a dish best served hot, and it’s renounced only after it’s been relished and consumed.
Ben-Hur, at its best, is viscerally sweeping and surprisingly iconoclastic. Shortly after Roman triremes—war galleys with three banks of oars—majestically glide into view, Niblo reveals slaves rowing to a merciless drumbeat. The director intercuts one camera moving closer to the relentless drummer with ever broader views of the ship’s lower deck as a Dantean hell. Commander Quintus Arrius (Frank Currier), impressed by Judah’s defiant attitude, orders him unchained right before Arrius’s fleet clashes with ruthless pirates. The sea battle is full of nightmarish touches, like a Roman prisoner being strapped to a pirate ship’s prow before it rams a trireme.
Niblo uses details to bring you inside the action—especially when he and Eason stage the chariot race that becomes a fight to near-death between Judah and Messala. The tension escalates with each screeching wheel or frenzied whiplash; every change in the charioteers’ positions ups your adrenaline and alertness. Cameramen shot the race from all angles, including beneath the thundering hooves. But they would have toiled in vain if Bushman hadn’t registered as a gleaming-eyed competitor and if Novarro hadn’t gone for broke as an action hero.
What makes the sequence electrifying and exalting is its balance between dynamic motion and pageantry. It’s a marvel, considering that the Circus includes special-effects miniatures that added galleries with ten thousand “people.” (Assistant directors like young William Wyler, dressed in togas, received and delivered cues for live extras via semaphore.) Editor Lloyd Nosler and Niblo achieve a you-are-there quality; we in the movie audience find ourselves completing the cheers of the on-screen crowds. Ben-Hur was not an immaculate conception. It was the birthplace of great kinetic spectacle.
Presented at SFSFF 2015 with pre-recorded score by composer Carl Davis