Sunday, July 21, 2013

Triple Ben-Hur Extravaganza!

Up until recently I had never seen any film version of Ben-Hur. Last Sunday I watched three in one day! Am I crazy? Maybe a little. But I thrive on challenges especially fun ones like this.

 It all started with the screening of Ben-Hur (1925) at the Somerville Theatre in Somerville, MA. I went with my good friend Kevin.

Silent Film Accompanist Jeff Rapsis performed. (Read my previous interview with him here). Before Ben-Hur (1925) was screened, they brought out a projector and showed a rare 16mm print of Ben-Hur (1907). Yes 1907!  A gentleman (I didn't catch his name) came out to introduce the film to us. He made it very clear that he thought the film was silly and gave us permission to laugh. I take film history a bit more seriously and let's just say I wasn't amused.

Ben-Hur (1907) is a 9 minute long one-reeler. How did they get the entire plot of Ben-Hur into a 9 minute film? They didn't. This short film only shows a few key scenes from the story for example the tile falling on the governor and the chariot race. It was filmed on a very small budget and on Coney Island. Jeff Rapsis explained later on that the story of Ben-Hur had been so wildly popular that audiences then already knew the story very well. It's a landmark film because it was the first time filmmakers were sued for copyright infringement. Movies were so new that there wasn't any language in copyright law about adapting copyrighted works into movies. The publisher (Harper) and the estate of Ben-Hur author Lew Wallace sued the filmmakers and won. Filmmakers have had to pay for film rights for adaptations ever since!

Not knowing much about the story of Ben-Hur, I was a bit lost watching the 1907 version. I definitely appreciated being able to see a piece of history on the big screen like that!

After Ben-Hur (1907), Jeff Rapsis gave an introduction to Ben-Hur (1925), which was shown on 35mm. Rapsis pointed out that by comparing the 1907 and 1925 versions of Ben-Hur we can see
how rapidly the technology of making movies developed during that time. The 1925 version still stands up well today in terms of cinematography and story telling. The novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace was first published in 1880. It became a cultural phenomenon and a best-seller and one of the reasons it was such a hit was because it took a fictional story and placed it in the familiar context of the Bible and story of Jesus Christ. Before the movie adaptations, Ben-Hur was a hit on stage and theater productions of the story were common.

Rapsis also made note that filmmakers very gingerly approached showing Jesus. In the 1925 version, you only see Jesus' hand or in one see his outline at the Last Supper. He didn't mention this but the 1959 version obscures Jesus' face but the 1927 version of The King of Kings does not attempt to obscure Jesus at all. Director William Wyler decided to obscure Jesus' face in the 1959 version. Perhaps he was influenced by the 1925 version that he worked on as a young assistant director?

It took 2 years to make Ben-Hur (1925) and it is considered to be the most expensive silent film ever made. It was shot in black-and-white and in two-strip Technicolor. There are also some tinted scenes. Rapsis mentioned that during that era it was very difficult to shoot movies at night. Nighttime was often shown with a dark blue tint to give the sense that it was late in the evening.

I was quite impressed with the 1925 version of Ben-Hur. It clocks in at around 2-1/2 hours which is about an hour less than the 1959 version but I didn't feel anything was rushed or left out. I very much enjoyed watching Ramon Novarro in the role of Judah Ben-Hur. The audience at the Somerville Theatre was respectful and they only laughed at a couple of the romantic scenes. Jeff Rapsis did a tremendous job playing for 2-1/2 straight hours without stopping.

Later that evening, I decided to watch Ben-Hur (1959) at home. I had a copy of the Blu-Ray which was part of a larger boxed set of Blu-Rays that I own. The quality of the visuals on the Blu-Ray were so stunning. It may not have been fair to watch the 1959 version immediately after watching the previous one because I kept comparing them both to each other. In fact, I enjoyed the 1925 version so much that I kept trying to hold the 1959 to it's standards.

Both films were excellent feats of cinematography especially the chariot race scenes. The 1925 version seemed to be more focused on sharing the entire story of Ben-Hur while the 1959 version cut out several plot points in order to linger more on other ones. I thought the difference between how the two films portrayed Jesus was particularly interesting. As I mentioned before, Jesus' face was obscured in both films and in the 1925 version you only get a hand and one instance of a silhouette and in the 1959 version you see more of Jesus' form. There isn't much time spent on the Passion of Jesus and his crucifixion in the 1925 version but it's explored a lot more thoroughly in the 1959. I always, ALWAYS cry watching depictions of Passion and the Crucifixion. The King of Kings (1927) and (1961) both make me weep and I definitely found myself teary-eyed watching Ben-Hur (1959). Both Ben-Hurs depicted Jesus in slightly different ways but drove home the same essentials of his story. (Editor's note: I'm not religious nor am I pushing any religion here. These are just my observations of the story lines!)

I enjoyed both Ramon Novarro and Charlton Heston in their roles as Judah Ben-Hur. I can't pick a favorite out of the two, they both played their roles adeptly.

Watching three Ben-Hurs in one day was tiring but a worthy endeavor. I'm glad I tackled these classics and now have at least two new favorite epic movies!

The 1925 version is on DVD but might not be for sale individually. You can rent it on Netflix and TCM will be showing it on August 8th which is the Summer Under the Stars day for Ramon Novarro. Ben-Hur (1959) is available on DVD and Blu-Ray. There is a 4-Disc Collector's Set which has Ben-Hur (1959) which has the 1925 version.


  1. I'd love to watch Ben-Hur in the big screen, especially the silent version! You were very lucky to be able to attend this event. I love the 1959 version and, since it is on TV every Easter, I always catch a glimpse of my favorite scenes.

  2. I have the same bluray boxed set of the 1959 version but I haven't gotten around to watching it yet :( I think I ordered it off of amazon a couple months ago and it's been languishing on my movie shelf since then, unloved. Poor thing. Your blog post has just convinced me to get off my ass and watch the damn thing already :D Thanks for that Raquel!

  3. Wow, what a feat of endurance. I am lucky if I can watch one film a day! I love the 1959 version and see it regularly when it often crops up on tv, now with widescreen and HD these kind of films still look good, and with real people and sets - not just CGI. I also have the 1925 silent version, which is included in a dvd pack I bought some years back, I really must watch it.

    There is though ANOTHER Ben Hur - a made for tv film in 2010, IMDB will have all the details. It is a very inferior version, without the spectacle of course, but interesting to see and compare with the others. The only 'names' in it are Ray Winston, a mumbling Quintus Arrius, and Alex Kingston as Mrs Hur. It focuses mainly on the boys (Ben and Massala) when they were young, and then as adults. Esther barely gets a look in!

  4. wow kudos to you for 3 Hurs in a day! i dont think i could handle it! i prefer the Novarro version overall but the Chariot race and Heston's performance in the 59 version are certainly worthy. Seeing the silent version on the big screen must have been awesome!


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