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.