April 20, 2008

Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925)

Two films were made of Ben Hur: this evening I went to see the earlier 1925 version, a silent film accompanied by the London Philarmonic orchestra. There is something amazingly powerful about the musical accompaniment, especially when played by an expert and profficient orchestra live- if you have the chance to see them play this, then go and see it. But turning to the film itself- made in 1925 it relies upon all the conventions of silent cinema. The style of acting is different- with more importance being placed on large gestures. You can see in some of the makeup the influence of theatre- with too much makeup being applied to an actor's face- something you would do in a theatre in order to make the actor's features visible to those sitting at the back of the theatre, but something that with close ups and all the rest is hardly needed in the cinema. These features of the film mark it out as a product of the 1920s and the silent era, in addition to the fact that there is no noise. There are moments of colour in the film- but it looks experimental- its fascinating to see the first contrast in colour in cinema that wasn't black and white, reds and blues in a black and white background.

There is more than historical curiosity though to this film. One of the most interesting features is the display of Rome as a power: Rome today is often seen as a positive thing- see for example the repeated calls from some for America to become a new Roman empire. This film demonstrates another view- whose antecedents spread back to the early Christian sources (the number of the beast in Revelation adds up to the Jewish numerical code for Nero for example) and some Roman sources (see Calgacus's speech in Tacitus, which as Mary Beard rightly points out is a critique from within the Roman system). Ben Hur embodies these critiques of Roman power- the Roman soldiers are all brutal and strong. They exploit their power over the subject Jewish population with scarcely concealed racial superiority- they are the image of imperial arrogance- and the central Roman character, Marcellus, is their archetype. Arrogant, brutish and powerful, he enjoys the rewards of imperial arrogance- sexual access, bullying condescension and an absolutely secure arrogance. All of these things ultimately doom him to destruction, as they doom in the vision of the film, the wider empire of Rome. We are left in no doubt that Rome's imperium is brutal and violent- the scenes of casual violence from the soldiers to Jews and to galley slaves make it clear, the battle with the pirates is about as violent as you could imagine with humans being spitted on pikes again the impact is profound and makes the point about Roman imperium and piratical brutality.

The other strain of the film concerns Christianity. Ben Hur is a Jewish prince whose life is destroyed by the Marcellus- and the rest of the film concerns his search for revenge against the Roman soldier (who was once his friend). That search dominates his life- but it also is not enough. For Hur hungers after the restitution of justice- in a sense his sense of justice is a mirror image of the Roman sense of entitlement- both base their senses of self on vigour and power. Both are imperial ideologies which claim an ideal of Kingship to be above anything else. But throughout the film, we get hints, sidelights of another story- like a theme of music which slowly matures from a single note to a chorus, of another approach to subjugation and loss- an approach which is deliberately counter to Hur's hunger for vindication from injustice, to Rome's claims of imperial suzereignity and that is the story of Christ. The events of Hur's life take place with the story of Christ- they only meet tangentially- but for Hur Christ is the messiah, the messiah who will restore a real Jerusalem. Throughout the film though, we are shown and eventually Hur is shown that Christ will do no such thing- that military domination, revenge and all the rest is not the mission of a true Christian, instead forbearance and a confidence in eternal justice, not to mention meekness, kindness, forgiveness no matter the slight and turning the other cheek and the emblems of Christianity. My comrades watching the film thought that was overblown- I thought the film made its point rather well- ultimately the ethic of Christianity is very different both to that of Rome but also to that of Hur, the film keeps us identifying with the Christian approach and hence we see Hur's search for revenge as justified within its own terms, but obsolete given the ethical revolution of the Nazarene.

What is interesting though is that the film shies away from making that contrast totally explicit- at the end of the film Ben Hur does indeed become a Christian, as do his family, and they embrace this new ethic. But his quest for revenge has been fulfilled- Marcellus is dead. Furthermore his family are rescued from prison and cured by Christ of their leprosy- again note that they have restitution. One of the things which is interesting here is that the director isn't able to go the whole way- isn't able to have the film finish with Marcellus alive, with Hur's family still ill and yet all having confidence in the Christian message. In a sense therefore the ending of the film surrenders its point. In part though that is too harsh- for a film's viewers the conventions of cinema require that we receive some satisfaction, the challenge of giving us satisfaction without rewarding the pagan virtues of revenge and anger is something that the story fails to acheive. In that sense, cinema would have to wait for Robert Bresson for someone who could acheive the true expression of Christ's actual message.

Overall this film though is excellent- its sequences are amazing. There was said to be a cast of 125,000 people in the film and in some sequences- the chariot race and battles at sea you can well believe it. Actors like Marion Davies and Douglas Fairbanks have uncredited roles in the crowd scenes. The acting is very good- though of its time- there is an interesting message and the music and the film chime wonderfully together. Simply put if this is on again anywhere near you, go and see it- this is one of the jewels of silent cinema and it has to be seen.


Jake said...

Ben Hur an all time favorite of mine. Was his mother and sister confined to a leper colony in this film or am I getting it mixed up with another Charlton Heston film. Would love to know.

Gracchi said...

Yeah they are- but Jake you should see this version too from 1925, its not got Charlton Heston in it!

Don said...

I've not seen the silent version myself (though I'm making amends towards that), so I can only comment on the Charlton Heston version. By having the miraculous ending, it all seemed to easy and convenient to put across what should be quite a tough message and challenge for Ben-Hur, to realize his earthly revenge was a hollow victory. The last 1/4 of the film is therefore rendered quite meaningless, and tends to drag as a result. Which is a shame in many ways, because the appearance of Christ in the film is used sparingly to maximum effect - who could forget the moment when Christ gives water to the recently enslaved Ben-Hur? A Roman soldier challenges him, and all we see is the back of Christ, in calm defiance, refusing to move.

Gracchi said...

Don unfortunately I've got the opposite problem having not seen the Heston version- all I can do therefore is reccomend this version! :)