by Dean Thompson

What Too Often Happens to Silent Film

More than half a century after she had appeared as Iras the Egyptian in MGM's "Ben-Hur, A Tale of the Christ" (1925), Carmel Myers appeared on "The Tonight Show." Perhaps wanting to give the audience some sense of her standing in the silent era, Johnny Carson screened a clip featuring Iras's meeting with Judah, Ben-Hur (Ramon Novarro). The scratched, washed-out scene was presented without music and began with the most unfortunate intertitle in the entire film: "By the three-horned goat of Ranor, you are welcome!" The audience howled derisively. When the lights came up again, an embarrassed Myers laughed apologetically, and the conversation quickly turned to other matters.

I remember this incident so vividly because it illustrates how silent film-like ballet - another art dependent on mime - can look ridiculous when fragmented without any context, carelessly thrown at a sniggering audience and then quickly dismissed. In these days when the moviegoing public has become desensitized by the profane and violent fare screened in diminutive multiplexes, the sympathetic presentation of a silent film is everything; and a quality silent, shown in a good print with an orchestral score responsive to and supporting the happenings onscreen, can still carry an overwhelming impact.

So it is with the Kevin Brownlow/David Gill restoration of "Ben-Hur." This diamond-sharp print is tinted and toned and interspersed with rich two-strip Technicolor sequences culled from the Czech Film Archive. It is accompanied by an alternately heart-wringing and thundering Carl Davis score played by the London Philharmonic Orchestra. It is, in short, a knockout. Don't believe me? Go to and check the eight customer reviews unanimously giving the film five stars. Still curious? Go to the bible - by which I mean not the Good Book (though that one comes highly recommended too), but Brownlow's "The Parade's Gone By . . .", still the supreme work on silent film. Read Chapter 36, the thirty-page account of the making of "Ben-Hur," to appreciate the fledgling MGM's gamble in taking on this epic. Curious still? Get hold of two episodes - "The Pioneers" and "Trick of the Light" - of Brownlow's and Gill's "Hollywood," a masterful multi-volume documentary on the silent years, to appreciate the ingenuity of the special effects that still dazzle viewers. But set those episodes aside to watch AFTER you've seen the film. Go to the mountaintop first; unplug the telephone, banish the pagers and cell phones to the bottom of the closet, load the film properly in the VCR, and crank up the volume.

A Film of Grandeur

Caveat emptor, however. Understand that "Ben-Hur, A Tale of the Christ" is an epic of sweeping narrative, and some of the acting is of equal sweep, broad of gesture and high of brow, particularly Francis X. Bushman's Messala. In addition, the film has some unevenness of tone, for director Fred Niblo lacked the strong personal imprint to bring the film totally into line, and some sequences were supervised by second-unit assistants. (To understand how a strong director could fuse the religious mysticism and action found here into a cohesive whole, see Rex Ingram's "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" (1921), also the subject of a Brownlow/Davis/Gill restoration.)

Commenting on the unevenness, Brownlow finds an apt simile:

"The picture, being the work of an organization, rather than the work of one man, is not consistent. But it is like a great art gallery, in which one or two halls have beeen emptied for redecoration. You walk through them without complaint, certain of other treasures to come. Portions of Ben-Hur, particularly some of the interior dialogue scenes, are unexciting and exist mainly to prople of narrative. But such scenes do not impair the effect of the film as a whole; Ben-Hur carries almost as powerful an impact today as it did on its release."

And the treasures are many. The Christ story that undergirds the film, beginning with a beautiful fifteen-minute prologue highlighting the Nativity, is movingly done. The Gospel episodes, such as the Last Supper, are presented only as tableaux, while those taken from Lew Wallace's novel, such as Ben-Hur's first meeting with Christ, are given vivid interactive presentation. The Gospel scenes are among those filmed in color - and here is another of "Ben-Hur's" best features, for the two-strip Technicolor is surprisingly warm and often sumptuous, giving the intertwined narratives of Christ and the house of Hur all the more immediacy.

Honorable Acting

Too, the film's impact rests on a number of gifted and committed performers, some of whom must make their effect is only a few scenes. Though she appears only in the Nativity prologue, Betty Bronson's Mary haunts the memory. It's remarkable that this actress, who recently had gamboled about as Peter Pan in the 1924 Paramount film, so beautifully embodies the serenity and grace of the Blessed Virgin. Frank Currier, at seventy-five the oldest featured player in the cast, is a subtle and restrained Quintus Arrius, the Roman general who takes Ben-Hur under his wing. As the title character, Ramon Novarro shares the rugged physique that Charlton Heston brought to the role in the sound remake thirty-five years later; but in contrast to Heston, who often seems to be straining his acting through a colander of machismo, Novarro makes Ben-Hur's longing for family and his naked intensity of belief totally plausible. When this enslaved Ben-Hur gazes in awe upon the Christ who has just dared to give him water in the midst of scowling Roman captors, you truly believe his spiritual awakening.

Yet pride of place must go to Claire McDowell, who plays Novarro's mother. Like Novarro, she is at first risible, and for the same reason: her broad mime takes some getting used to. But as the scope of the story grows more intimate, so does her acting (and you realize in retrospect that her expansive emoting early in the film was exactly right, as was Novarro's: it fit the breadth of the initial episodes). Watch for the scene when, stricken with leprosy and unable to touch her son, she kisses the stone upon which he sleeps. Like Garbo's scene with the flowers in "A Woman of Affairs" (1928) or the moment of recognition at the end of Chaplin's "City Lights" (1931), this scene illustrates the silent film's power to leave the viewer moved by the immediacy of an art form that, relying on music and mime alone, reaches across the decades to grab one's heart.

Thrills and Heart-Stopping Suspense

But there is more, much more, for few epics yield more thrills than this one. The battle between Roman and pirate vessels, filmed in Italy with full-sized ships, long ago passed into legend because of its realism (plunging swords and severed heads galore, not to mention snakes, chains, flaming timbers and last-minute rescues), and notoriety because of the extras who may well have drowned when they jumped ship. Even this exhausting sequence is child's play, however, beside the chariot race that follows nearly an hour later. Constructed in Hollywood in early 1925 after the initial shooting in Italy had been abandoned, the Circus Maximus set, awesome in size and jammed with thousands of extras, saw a marathon of twelve chariots and forty-eight horses, recorded by forty-two cameramen who shot fifty-three thousand feet of film, which editor Lloyd Nosler sculpted into seven hundred and fifty feet of possibly the most exciting sequence in film history - exciting enough, in fact, to be copied almost shot for shot in the sound remake. Pummeled by the kaleidoscopic, hell-for-leather energy of churning wheels, lunging horses' heads, roaring crowds, sweating faces, and chariots whizzing across the screen, you realize that we've learned nothing new about editing in the seventy-five years since. If the single shot of Claire McDowell kissing her sleeping son's resting place illustrates the emotional power of the silent cinema, the chariot race just as vividly illustrates its visceral impact.

This sequence, like the rest of the film, gains immeasurably from the scoring of Carl Davis. One never tires of praising him. The dramatic climaxes of the film are heightened by music of thundering intensity that leaves your speakers begging for mercy, while the underplayed, poignant sequences are cushioned by sensitive playing of strings and woodwinds. The director King Vidor once said that music was fifty percent of the silent moviegoing experience, and Davis's talent (not to mention that of the London Philharmonic) makes that music an integral complement to the talent enshrined onscreen.

Time Stands Powerless

"Ben-Hur, A Tale of the Christ" may well be the silent equivalent of "Gone With the Wind" in that it captures prewar American filmmaking - the great studio system - at its best, for MGM brought together the finest within its multi-tiered ranks to create art that three-quarters of a century has yet to diminish. Brownlow, Gill, and Davis deserve our thanks for combining the best of scholarship and modern techology to give this film the presentation it deserves. When the old and the new thus join hands, the art of film is all the richer - as are we who sit before the screen.

Copyright 2000 by Dean Thompson. All Rights Reserved.

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