The Sunday Intertitle: Apocrypha and Marginalia


Fiona and I thoroughly enjoyed our Easter viewing of the silent BEN-HUR (subtitled A TALE OF THE CHRIST) directed by Fred Niblo, though I suspect some good bits are by Charles Brabin, before he was removed. Brabin also did the best bits of RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS and again didn’t get a credit. Not a good politician, it seems, but a very good filmmaker.

All through this I was comparing it to the Wyler version and generally thinking “This isn’t obviously inferior in any way.” Radically different from Charlton Heston in every way, Ramon Novarro is still a good lead. There are a lot of spectacular sets and miniatures and matte paintings. There’s even a tracking shot with a foreground miniature in the build-up to the chariot race. The race itself is very exciting, but I get the impression they massacred horses to make it, whereas Wyler and Andrew Marton and Yakima Canutt looked after their horses well — the one injured steed was nursed back to health over a period of months and was able to rejoin the race before the finish, so long was the shoot on that one sequence.


The bit of the silent film that’s clearly superior is the battle at sea, with full-scale galley ships in a real sea with lots of real extras who pretended they could swim to get the job, and then found themselves bailing out of a burning vessel with every prospect of a watery death. Supposedly nobody perished, but the production was hauled back from Italy to Hollywood and Brabin was removed. Still, the scale and conviction of the scene is hugely impressive, and it benefits from not relying on miniatures and a studio tank. The good stuff in the Wyler is all basically real, as I think it should be in an epic.

But Wyler’s ending (not sure which of the various credited and uncredited screenwriters came up with it — it’s not in the novel) beats the Niblo, hands down. It’s all about how the films weave their narratives in and out of the New Testament. In the silent film, Jesus cures Ben-Hur’s mother and sister of leprosy while on his way to Golgotha, AND resurrects a baby to boot. “How can they crucify him after that?” asked Fiona. In the remake, the film’s recurring motif of water comes into play again, as rain falling on the bloody body of the crucified Christ flows to the lepers and heals them, which is an almost science-fictional speculation on how miraculous Christ actually was, but in keeping with the Catholic church’s bizarre, idolatrous fetish for holy relics (pieces of the cross, saints’ bones, etc). It’s cheeky, but it works — it allows for a stronger all-is-lost moment when the crucifixion occurs before “Cheston,” as Fiona calls him, can obtain a miracle cure for his family.


The silent movie accompanies the crucifixion with some impressive but slightly irrelevant disaster-movie special effects, which we enjoyed. The effects team use the expanding cloud of dust to softly wipe between the slow-motion miniature and the full-scale crowd. It works even better than the flooding in the silent NOAH’S ARK.

Right after watching it, we re-watched the 1959 version of the chariot race, then I told Fiona that Stephen Boyd has the most agonizing death scene in film history, so of course she wanted to see that. It really is fantastic — very smartly written and played to the hilt by Boyd, always a very enthusiastic actor. It’s a shame THE OSCAR is so damned enjoyable because one should really remember Boyd (he of the Klingon forehead) for his many extremely good movie moments, not for his unconscious foray into campy trash.

12 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Apocrypha and Marginalia”

  1. Sometimes extremely good movie moments come in campy trash. Love Boyd here and in The Best of Everything. During production on Fantastic Voyage Raquel Welch made a play for Boyd. But he turned her down telling her he was gay.

    No wonder he took so well to the Gore Vidal’s script for Ben-Hur

    I much prefer Ramon to Chuck. He’s a highly underrated actor. AND he could sing.

    Ben-Hur is bloated baloney no matter how you slice it.

    Love for some intrepid moviemaking soul to have a go at Eugene’s Live From Golgotha His Jesus is quite fat and with a very high-pitched voice.

  2. “Jesus waddled up, as broad as he was tall.” one of the great blasphemous sentences of modern times.

    You know, I’ve never seen The Best of Everything.

    Heston credited Christopher Fry with Ben-Hur‘s script, but having just watched The Bible I suspect Vidal probably did contribute the more informal dialogue. Fry’s work in that is very… biblical. Heston was disinclined to give Vidal credit after being mocked by him, while Fry was a (brilliant) specialist in verse and stylised speech. But I plan to check out his work on Barabbas

  3. Randy Cook Says:

    I have to agree w/ David E that BEN-HURis bloated baloney, and Campy Trash to boot… but it’s such SLICK campy trash. I enjoy it almost as much I do THE OSCAR. In a regrettable instance of spousal abuse, I forced my wife to watch BEN-HUR this Easter. Our seven year old, a stranger to the Church and its teachings, was perplexed by the Star of Bethlehem. “Looks like a flying’ eyeball”, was her assessment. She also had trouble processing the fact that Judah’s old slave was the same actor who’d played GUNGA DIN, which she had seen several nights before. But she’s learning. And “Cheston” is just fine in the film, so long as you haven’t seen him in anything else… because he is giving the same stalwart performance that he gave in every picture before and after.

  4. Randy Cook Says:

    BTW. I think Cheston might’ve been good as JOHN CARTER. Could’ve been fun, seeing how John Carter was Cheston’s birth name.

  5. The movie was never intended as anything other than grand kitsch — Wyler knew what he was doing. “It takes a Jew to make this kind of crap.”

    There’s a good story about him hiring a particular actor to play the Roman captain who i cowed by the majesty of an offscreen Christ. When a different actor showed up on the day, because Wyler’s guy had asked for too much money, Wyler downed tools until his first choice was located and hired. He knew that the thing had to be done with total conviction or it was sunk.

  6. David you simply MUST see The Best of Everything. It’s the mulch from which Mad Man came from but a lot more.

    Jerry Wald had been reading articles about what used to be known as “career girls” He collected a whole passel of them and gave them to his friend Rona Jaffe, telling her she could fashion a great novel out of this. And so she did. it was a big best-seller and Jerry bought it for the screen. Great cast with Hope Lange (who was having an affair with Everybody’s Favorite Naughty Bisexual John Cheever at the time), Diane Baker — who told me about what fun it was and how it jumpstarted her friendship with Joan Crawford. Crawford was cast for the first time in a supporting role. But it was a very very special one. She was given her own solo credit card and the part couldn’t have been handled by anyone else — a successful “Career Woman” who had to give up a lot to reach the top ad is wryly resentful of the young woman following in her footsteps.

    All this plus Suzy Parker driven up the wall by boyfriend Louis Jourdan — who had promised her a part in a play but then didn’t give it to her, the rat! And then there’s the other rat played by Robert Evans (perfect typecasting) who gets Dian Baker pregnant. But she ‘loses the baby” in an auto accident (this no back alley abortion scene.)

    And Johnny Mathis sings the title song!

  7. Jim Cobb Says:

    I think the silent BEN-HUR is more cinematic and imaginative. But as a fan of the wide screen road show films of the 50’s and 60’s I still like the Wyler version—if only as a pretext to listen to over three hours of Miklós Rózsa in glorious stereophonic sound. I especially like the music cues every time someone mentions the lepers. It is not a subtle show nor is Mr. Heston—though I am not sure in somewhat this big a nuanced performance would work at all.

  8. Ben-Hur is the closer for this year’s SF Silent Film Festival, preceded by a “conversation” between Kevin Brownlow and Serge Bromberg.

    SPEAKING OF WHICH, Monte Cristo went down an absolute treat yesterday at the SF Film Festival. It was preceded by a Q&A with Lenny Borger, so that’s the which of which I was speaking. Borger also did live audio subtitles for the film (occasionally inaudible when he spoke at the same time that the excellent score was getting busy).

  9. I’m glad that was a hit! Now if we could just arrange US distribution… the French rights holder doesn’t seem too bothered, which is a shame.

    I bet Ben-Hur will be fantastic on the big screen. Those colour sequences… the effects… the giant crowds and spectacles…

  10. The only time I felt impatient during the four-hour movie was when one of the characters had to do an easily accomplishable task by 11:00 in order to keep her father alive. Stop pausing for silent-movie thought when there’s nothing to think about and get your shit along!

    I was impressed by the actor who played Caderousse, the sailor-turned-innkeeper who keeps popping up again after you think the movie’s done with him (and you’re always glad when he does). Henri Debain, according to IMDB, who died in 1983. A better run than poor Jean Angelo. He was also an assistant director, and Lenny Borger said something about him being a pioneer in his own right in the area of dubbing and subtitling.

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