by Jay Seaver
Though the later version starring Charlton Heston is the most well-known adaptation of Lew Wallace's hugely popular nineteenth-century novel "Ben-Hur", the ones that came before it were big deals as well: A 1907 short triggered a lawsuit establishing that copyrighted works could not be adapted without compensation, while this 1925 film was colossal for its time: The most expensive movie made during the silent period at a cost of almost four million dollars, epic in length at two and a half hours long, and featuring sequences in 2-strip Technicolor, it was a bold way for the newly-consolidated Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio to announce its presence, and remains an entertaining extravaganza.The story would have been familiar to all seeing it at the time: Judah Ben-Hur (Ramon Novarro), the prince of a wealthy Jewish family in Jerusalem in the time of Christ, is reunited with a Roman friend, Messala (Francis X. Bushman) who has returned as a soldier, only to discover that Messala is not quite the open-minded cosmopolitan as the Hur family - Judah's mother (Claire McDowell) would free their slave retainer Simonides (Nigel de Brulier) if the law allowed, and lets him keep his status secret from his daughter Esther (May McAvoy). When the new governor is injured while passing the Hurs' house, Messala imprisons Judah's mother and sister (Kathleen Key) and sentences him to work as a galley slave - although his actions during a pirate attack will set Judah on a different path, leading him to clash again with Messala in Antioch.
"Not necessarily the one you know, but still epic."
It's a grand, sweeping story that spans the ancient world from Jerusalem to Rome and back, given a little extra gravitas by how it intersects with the stories from the New Testament, from the Nativity to the crucifixion. The filmmakers tread somewhat carefully here, keeping Jesus mostly relegated to the side of the screen - at most, a hand will reach out to gesture or heal. It's a rather self-conscious convention at times, although seldom to the point where it elicits giggles. Still, it's respectful and low-key enough that him being used as a deux ex machina once or twice doesn't come off as silly and the message of peace - even though the Israelites want a warrior-king - comes through.
For all that the Biblical elements dominate part of the movie, much of it is a rip-roaring adventure as the title character falls from wealth to slavery and rises back up, seeking both his lost family and liberty for his people. There are two tremendous action sequences in the movie, and while the pirate attack is occasionally somewhat chaotic, it's big and fairly easy to follow despite having a huge number of people running around, also moving the story forward. The centerpiece, though, is the chariot race, still thrilling the better part of a century later in large part because director Fred Nilbo and company never lose sight of how the way Judah and Messala race reflects their characters - Ben-Hur is determined but never maniacal, while the Roman comes off as greedy and underhanded. It's great action storytelling - you can follow the positions of the racers throughout, feel the speed through how the charioteers must take wide corners, see the danger of an entanglement between teams.
Those great moments elevate what is sometimes a thoroughly average story, one which is frequently driven by coincidence and decisions that could use a little more explanation. Still, the directness is at times refreshing - we don't get Judah seduced by the wealth and fame he has in Rome and then reminded of his heritage, for example, and while there could be an ongoing subplot with Judah's sister Tirzah and their mother, there's not, just occasional reminders that they're still around, if not doing so hot. It may seem strange to describe a 143-minute movie from a time when the average runtime was much shorter than now as both efficient and simple, but Niblo and company keep things moving along.
The cast gets the job done, too. Don't be fooled by the number of then-unknowns listed on IMDB as guards (Clark Gable & Gary Cooper) and slave-girls (Carole Lombard & Myrna Loy), or the mountain of stars who stood in the stands during the chariot race (Harold Lloyd, Douglas Fairbanks, Lillian Gish, and the Barrymores are just a start); the main cast is rather more modest from the perspective of 2013: Ramon Novarro and Francis X. Bushman are capable enough, not quite so prone to the broad gesticulating that some of their co-stars go in for. Not bad as beefcake, either, which is good, as both tend to have shorter hemlines than most of their female co-stars - well, aside from Carmel Myers, who doesn't quite make a tiny costume on a good body translate into an irresistible seductress with her performance. May McAvoy does a fairly nice job as Esther, though, giving the part often labeled as "The Girl" some strength as well as charm.Granted, the entire cast is giving performances and acting out a script that is very much of its time, and its sometimes hard to not be a little dismissive of what was a huge movie to one's great-great-grandparents. They still nail down a lot of the basics here, and every once in a while, a bit of spectacle like the chariot race or bright Technicolor when one has grown used to simple tinting, still manages to impress.
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originally posted: 07/17/13 19:24:39