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  Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ Your Chariot Awaits
Year: 1925
Director: Fred Niblo, various
Stars: Ramon Novarro, Francis X. Bushman, May McAvoy, Betty Bronson, Claire McDowell, Kathleen Key, Carmel Myers, Nigel De Brulier, Mitchell Lewis, Leo White, Frank Currier, Charles Belcher, Dale Fuller, Winter Hall
Genre: Drama, Action, Historical, AdventureBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Almost two millennia ago, around December, the Roman Empire ordered that a census must be taken and everyone in their command had to return to the place of their birth and register for their taxes. Among those regions where this order came through was Israel, and its fallen city Jerusalem, where Mary and Joseph travelled to Bethlehem to bring the Messiah into the world. They were visited by shepherds and three wise men at the birth to commemorate it, but someone else in that area, then just a little boy, was to encounter this Jesus Christ at key moments in his life. He was the Jewish Prince Judah Ben-Hur (Ramon Novarro), and the Romans were to take everything from him...

The biggest silent movie of them all was "The Picture Every Christian Ought To See!" according to the publicity, which was fair enough as it was based on the blockbusting religious novel by General Lew Wallace, a work that became the biggest-selling book ever twice, once in the late nineteenth century when it was published and once again when the 1959 Charlton Heston epic was released and cleaned up at the box office. But back in 1925, it was by no means a sure thing, and had suffered many setbacks in its journey to the big screen, including such a long production full of death and destruction across two nations (Italy and the United States) that many expected a disaster.

Yet the appeal of the widely read book and the publicity that resulted were too much for the world's public to resist, though the movie would not turn a profit until the re-edited 1931 re-release which added a soundtrack of music and effects. The version you can see now is the 1987 restoration, complete with a number of scenes in Two-Strip Technicolor and a Carl Davis score that's suitably respectful, for this was a very respectful adaptation, almost as if Wallace's invented plot had been drawn from the pages of the Bible itself. Not that the details were any more historically accurate: Christ's arrival on Earth did not date to December, and there was no Roman census of this kind anyway.

But the faithful did not watch these holy artefacts in motion picture form for history lessons, they watched them to give that faith a boost, and just as millions would tune into Jesus of Nazareth on television in the nineteen-seventies, or obsess over Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ right after the turn of the Millennium, Ben-Hur was a winner any way you looked at it. But that was not down to its religious qualities, it was thanks to its relentless spectacle and equally relentless sentimentality, a combination audiences found irresistible as Navarro emoted mightily when his Prince's family are split up, he is sold into slavery, but is redeemed when he saves a Roman General and his privilege is restored. However, all is still not well as he burns for revenge and aches to see his mother and sister again.

Every so often, somebody's hand would hove into view as that of Christ's and, for instance, give Ben-Hur some water when he was parched by the evil Romans, to remind us of the Biblical context. But there were two extended sequences that had everyone talking: the sea battle and the chariot race. The former was staged as an actual battle inasmuch as it caused extras to die, so lax were the health and safety parameters on the shoot in Italy (one reason it was relocated to Hollywood), and watching huge ships ramming each other you're not surprised. The latter is rightfully one of the most celebrated and famous in all silent cinema, recreated in '59 but not bettered, a white knuckle ride around a Coliseum as our hero and his one-time best friend, now bitter rival Messala (Francis X. Bushman, then "King of the Movies") compete to the death amidst the whiplashes and thundering hooves. This Ben-Hur would be the pinnacle of the careers of most of the credited stars, now-forgotten, many were huge in their day, but smaller and smaller roles awaited - Navarro was infamously murdered in a post-Manson Family sadistic assault, tragically. Remember them this way, as part of the most popular silent success ever.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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