(Note: This review is not about the 1959 version of Ben-Hur with Charlton Heston, which is a dull, bloated, overrated movie, or about the 2015 version, which nobody saw, but the original, silent epic Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, which is a masterpiece.)
On April 6 and April 7 of 1862 one of the greatest battles of the United States Civil War took place in Hardin County in Southwestern Tennessee, The Battle of Shiloh. After Shiloh, which ended up as a closely fought Union victory, came perilously close to being a career-ending disaster for Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, Grant, who was almost as good a politician as he was a general, and certainly no saint, started to look around for a scapegoat. He found his goat in the form of the 34-year-old Lew Wallace, a native of Indiana who was at the time the youngest Major General in the United States Army, but not a West Point graduate. Whether or not Wallace’s inability to get the Third Division online in time for the first day of battle on April 6 cost lives is open for debate, but there’s no question that it was Grant and Sherman’s incompetent intelligence gathering, not Wallace’s confusion, that almost led to disaster when Confederate Generals Albert Sydney Johnson and P. G. T. Beauregard came within an inch of destroying the scattered Union forces before they could consolidate near Pittsfield Landing. Wallace, who was relieved of his command, spent the rest of his life trying to redeem his damaged reputation.
Lew Wallace got the last laugh on Ulysses Grant. Grant was an excellent writer and a friend of Mark Twain who published a brilliant, but mostly forgotten autobiography in 1885. Lew Wallace wrote the best selling American novel of the latter half of the Nineteenth Century, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Ben Hur, which was as popular in 1900 as Harry Potter or Star Wars is today, not only made Lew Wallace a wealthy man, it was eventually adapted into three feature length and one short film, a mini-series, and hit Broadway play, which opened in 1899 and ran for twenty-one years. It was the play, more than the novel itself, which inspired the 1925 epic. Starring Ramon Novarro and directed by Fred Niblo, Ben-Hur: The Tale of the Christ (1925) was most expensive film made during the silent era. Overshadowed by William Wyler’s far inferior 1959 film Ben Hur, Niblo’s film has recently become a cult classic among cinophiles, but has not yet reached the general public. I only found out about it because I used to follow a film critic on Twitter — who has since blocked me because she found out I voted for Ralph Nader in 2000 — who assured me that it was nothing like Wyler’s ponderous, overrated bomb, that it was a genuine masterpiece that ranks with the best films by Griffith or Eisenstein without a boring moment in its two and a half hour running time. Hillary Clinton fan girl or not, she was right. Believe the hype. The 1925 silent epic Ben-Hur: The Tale of the Christ is a work of genius. Watch it now. Even if you hate silent film, you’ll wonder why you waited so long to see it. It may in fact even get you hooked on silent film.
These days we live in the post-film era. Most of the big budget extravaganzas that make their way to the multiplex are more like video games than films. Film, if it still exists, has moved to Netflix and cable TV, with mediocre soap operas like House of Cards and Madmen doing a bad imitation of what was once a great art form. Yet, even in 1930, I think, we lost something with the advent of sound. To compare the 1959 Ben-Hur with the 1925 Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ drives home just how much. Wyler’s film, which cost three times as much as Niblo’s, and which had the advantage of twenty four years of advances in cinematic technology gets hung up on one unfortunate thing, Charlton Heston’s bad acting. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t particularly dislike Charlton Heston – he was fine in Anthony Mann’s El Cid – but he has no talent for infusing the English language with any sense of wonder or magic. He just reads lines. When his Judah Ben-Hur sees Jesus Christ being led to his crucifixion and growls “what has he done to merit this” he could just as easily be a middle class commuter watching the NYPD beat up someone for turnstile jumping as a man watching the actual Jesus Christ go to his actual crucifixion. Sound locks up film in the prison house of language and its a rare actor – Olivier perhaps in Hamlet or Henry V – who can set it free.
In 1925, the technology of film doesn’t serve to impede a sense of wonder and magic. On the contrary, it enables us to feel a sense of wonder and magic. Film wasn’t exactly new in 1925. It had been almost ten years since Griffith’s Birth of a Nation hit the theaters accompanied by protests and burning crosses. It had grown much more sophisticated. Not only does the opening of Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ present us with a meticulously designed model of the ancient city of Jerusalem and an elaborate staging of the nativity, it’s in color, Niblo’s epic being perhaps the first major Hollywood movie to use color film. The effect is similar to what happens when an archive publishes a rare trove of color photographs from 1920s Paris or turn of the century Russia, the illusion of authenticity. Niblo’s film, which was actually the first movie they ever played in my local movie palace — which has course long been divided and subdivided into a multiplex – by its use of color in its first 12 minutes loudly declaims “this isn’t film. This isn’t art. This is in color. This is reality. This is the actual birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem 1925 years ago.” No words, which would only sound as if they came from Brooklyn, New Jersey, or the Midwest, intrude upon the illusion. On the contrary, we simply look at the actress Betty Bronson’s beautiful face and understand why the innkeeper suddenly took pit on Joseph and Mary and found them a place in the manger. He felt the same magic we do, the presence of God in the light and shadow.
That Ramon Novarro, the Mexican American actor who portrays Judah Ben-Hur, lacks Charlton Heston’s heroic build or stature, works to the film’s advantage. The emotional heart of Lew Wallace’s novel lay in Wallace’s anger over having had his reputation trampled over by the mighty Ulysses S. Grant. In Fred Niblo’s film, the underlying obsession with the eighteenth President of the United States is translated into the physical differences between the slim, olive skinned, almost feminine Novarro and Francis X. Bushman, the tall, imposing actor who plays his nemesis Messala. It really is to American cinema’s everlasting credit that in 1925, with Hitler only a few years away from power in Germany, Hollywood released a big-budget film that, Christian though it is, is also an effective protest against antisemitism. The Jews are presented as an oppressed subject people, ground down under the heel of the Roman tyrant. Anybody who thinks bodybuilding started out in the 1970s needs to watch the silent Ben Hur. Somehow Fred Niblo managed to find dozens upon dozens of big, brawny, thuggish looking actors, all of whom seem to be over six feet tall and fresh out of a session pumping iron at Gold’s Gym, and all of whom are utterly convincing as Roman legionnaires. The Romans are an arrogant, occupying army. The Jews are their soulful, oppressed slaves yearning to be free. When Judah Ben-Hur, an unintentional rebel who accidentally kills a Roman governor after he leans on a parapet and drops a heavy stone on his head, is sentenced to life in prison as a galley slave – Wallace’s exile from active duty military command at the hands of Ulysses Grant? — and his mother, sister, long time family servant and childhood sweetheart, are buried alive deep in the hell of a Roman dungeon they become the stand ins, not only for European Jews, but for the black freedman abandoned by the Republican Party in 1876. In his novel, Lew Wallace, a fierce unionist and radical Republican, repeatedly addressed the issue of slavery. Niblo’s film even manages to include black actors, one of whom mocks the pompous Roman governor as he’s carried through Jerusalem in a sedan chair by a retinue of slaves.
The sea battle, where Judah is befriended and eventually set free by a Roman commander who admires his youthful good looks and rebellious spirit, is an elaborate production — Niblo built and destroyed life sized reproductions of Roman galleys – the probably surpasses the famous chariot race. Since the 1925 film predates the Production Code by almost eight years, there are no puritanical restrictions on content. We even get to see topless women later in the film, scenes which had been edited out of the film prior to the latest restoration. The sea battle is as violent as anything in Saving Private Ryan. A pirate commander straps a Roman prisoner to the prow of his galley and executes him by ramming his head into the side of a Roman ship. “I captured you from Roman and in a sense I return you to Rome.” Another pirate decapitates a Roman sailor and raises his head high as a trophy of battle. Above all, the scene manages to convey the difference between being a terrified galley slave, chained to a ship that most likely be rammed and sent beneath the waves, and a free man like Judah Ben-Hur, whose shackles had been deliberately left unlocked by the Roman commander Arrius. Freedom, the film tells us, is not something anybody can give you, but the opportunity to take it for yourself. After their galley is sunk by pirates, Judah manages to save the life of Arrius. Floating in an open raft at sea, and believing that he lost the battle, Arrius contemplates suicide. Eventually however, much like Grant and Sherman at Shiloh, he learns that a near disaster had actually been a great victory. At Shiloh, the Union Army cleared western Tennessee of the Confederate Army. After the sea battle in Ben Hur, and Arrius learns that he has dealt a crippling blow to the pirates threatening Roman shipping in the Mediterranean, he adopts Judah as his son and gives him the privileges of Roman citizenship. A slave no longer, Judah Ben-Hur is now an honorary member of the master race.
Yet Judah decides against the idea of assimilation, of becoming one of a few Jews privileged to lead the life of a Roman aristocrat. Instead, he travels back to Judea to look for his long lost family servant, childhood sweetheart, mother and sister, both of whom contract leprosy in the Roman dungeon. Much has been written about the famous chariot race, where Judah finally vanquishes Massala in a way Lew Wallace could never get his revenge on Ulysses Grant, but the most remarkable segment in the latter half of Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ involves a chase scene. As Daniel Levine, the co-proprietor of this blog, has often argued, one of the fundamental narrative strategies of American cinema, which was invented by D.W. Griffith in The Birth of a Nation, is the cliffhanger. We are presented with two parallel narratives. As the action proceeds, the director ratchets up our interest. We know it will have a happy ending, but we still become immersed in dramatic tension. Will the Klan rescue Elsie Stoneman before she’s raped by marauding freedmen? Will Luke Skywalker blow up the Death Star before it obliterates the rebel base on Yavin 4. Will Frodo cast the ring into the fires of Mount Doom before Sauron’s dark legions overwhelm Aragorn and the brave men of the west?
In Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, the cliffhanger centers around Jesus Christ being led to his crucifixion. The dramatic tension, of course, has nothing to do with the idea of whether or not Christ will go to the cross. Of course he will. It involves Esther, Judah Ben-Hur’s childhood sweetheart, his mother and sister. Judah, who has returned to Judea not only to get his revenge on Massalla, but to find his unjustly imprisoned mother and sister, eventually resigns himself to the idea that he’s the last surviving member of his family, that his mother and sister have long since perished in a Roman dungeon. They have not. On the contrary, they’ve been freed. They know Judah has returned and they know of his whereabouts. The only problem is that they’ve both contracted leprosy and “the Princess of Hur,” Judah’s mother, is too ashamed to reveal herself. There is a scene of almost unbearable sadness where the Princess and Tirzah, her daughter, hover over her sleeping son. Each time Tirzah makes a move to wake her brother, her mother prevents her. “He’s of the living,” she says. “We’re of the dead,” recalling, in many ways, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s great story Wakefield, and the invisible wall of separation that often falls between alienated family members. The Princess has resigned herself and her daughter to living out the rest of their lives in a leper colony among the living dead, but Esther, who becomes aware of their presence, as well as the divinity of Christ, descends into hell, the leper colony, to rescue her future husband’s family members. Christ has already been sentenced to death and is in fact already on his way to his crucifixion, but Esther races against the clock, dragging Tirzah and the Princess behind her on the way to Christ’s Golgotha and what towards what she believes will be their magical cure, a brilliant variation on the classic American chase scene that, of course, ends with the condemned Jesus passing his hand over the two women, curing their leprosy, and bringing them back from the land of the dead to the land of the living. Christ has not only reunited Judah Ben-Hur with his long last mother and sister, he has liberated Judah Ben-Hur, he has liberated Lew Wallace from his desire for revenge against Ulysses Grant and the Jewish people from their Roman oppressor.
“Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ,” the original advertisements in 1925 read, “a film that every Christian must see.” See it even if you’re not a Christian. It’s a classic that deserves to be revived, not in a lame Hollywood reboot, but by a new audience.