9 November 2004 | cariart
Spectacular Silent Version of Wallace Classic!
With the record number of Oscars won by the William Wyler 1959 version of BEN-HUR, there is a tendency to overlook the monumental 1925 production, which established MGM as a studio to be reckoned with. Well, if you've never seen the earlier version, you may be in for a surprise...it is superior in nearly every way!
Certainly, some of the performances (particularly Francis X. Bushman's scenery-chewing Messala) are cartoonish, the film lacks the widescreen splendor and scope of it's successor, and the 'Wyler Touch', the infinite care the legendary director poured over every detail, is sorely missed. But there is an energy and sense of intimacy in Fred Niblo's version that is sorely lacking in the later version; the film, as a whole, is far closer in spirit to General Lew Wallace's novel; and young leading man Ramon Novarro (with a sexy intensity reminiscent of Tyrone Power), makes a far more charismatic and sympathetic Ben-Hur than Charlton Heston.
The 1959 version is remembered today almost exclusively for the chariot race, one of the most spectacular action sequences ever filmed. But what of the other 'set piece', the gigantic sea battle between the Roman and pirate fleets? The scene is completely artificial, obviously comprised of models and rear projections (watch the toy seamen jiggle as ships collide!) The 1925 version's chariot race is equally as exciting, and the sea battle used full-sized ships and hundreds of extras (shot in Italy, where a fire broke out on the ships during the shooting...the extras' panic on screen was NOT acting!)
With two-strip Technicolor to emphasize key scenes (the Nativity, the new Roman Consul's arrival in Jerusalem...yes, those ARE topless women leading the procession!), and a wonderful, stirring new musical score by Carl Davis, Fred Niblo's BEN-HUR is a treasure, a film you'll want to see again and again...Can you honestly say THAT about the '59 version?