Skip to main content

Scum of the galleys! I will grind you in the dust before all Antioch!

Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ
(1925)

(SPOILERS) The first adaptation of General Lee Wallace’s 1880 novel (if you ignore the unauthorised 1907 short), and as is often the case retrospectively with the silent era, more of a curiosity than the earth-shattering spectacle it was in the day. Which isn’t to say there’s not spectacle in spades – the $3.9m budget ($55m by today’s standards) assures that, so much so that despite making $9m worldwide ($128m), MGM recorded a financial loss, so not unlike the third version, only even more so in that case – but Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ is as notable, if not more so, for the mannered performances, stylistic quirks and anachronisms as it is for its sets and climactic chariot race.


That chariot race is pretty damn impressive, although it’s very notable how much it loses in tension without the sound effects of its 1959 namesake. Anyone thinking Chuck Heston was miscast as Judah Ben-Hur needs to take a look at Ramon Novarro (securing the plum role after George Walsh got the sack), who fails to quit being the silent screen poseur long enough to seem remotely Hur-ish. Actually, that’s not true; he’s passable when he’s a bedraggled and parched slave.


In contrast, Francis X Bushman is a huge winner as Messala. Not because he’s especially convincing either, but because he’s hamming it up a treat, like a cross between Patrick Warbuton and Mr Incredible (his winged helmet is a hoot, leaving him looking for all the world like he’s off to a frat party). The 1959 Messala’s admonitions seem positively restrained in comparison to Bushman’s every subtitle (“To be a Roman is to rule the world! To be a Jew is to crawl in the desert!”)


The pacing, despite being about 70 minutes shy of Wyler’s version, is all over the shop. There are endless Messiah scenes (the first fifteen minutes are devoted to the birth, and for the most part the Christ-orientated sequences switch to colour, which is a nice touch, as is the angelic light signifying His/Mumsie’s presence). Ben-Hur’s harping on about the Messiah from the off too, although he mischaracterises His intent, naturally. Judah’s hardships (tick the box for galley slave) seem to go by in a flash.


There are also additional interludes en route to confronting Messala entirely absent from the later version, however, such as the very vampish Iras (Carmel Myers), intent on having her way with both Judah and his arch foe. She isn’t exactly backward in beating down the former verbally (“If you are as slow in the race tomorrow as you are in love today, Messala may drive snails and win”). Notably too, as wasn’t uncommon at the time, there are spots of nudity from background characters that would have been unconscionable 34 years later.


Following Messala’s demise (although he ends up broke rather than dead), the desire of Judah’s leper sisters to get some of that good miracle healing seems even more opportunistic than in the remake, structured as a race against time before Jesus is crucified; amazingly, He stops off en route, while carrying the Cross, and lo they are restored (earlier, his presence is laughably discreet, such as practising His carpentry skills from behind a judiciously-placed tree). This being after he resurrects a dead baby. Most inappropriate is Judah whooping for joy at his familial bounty while Jesus staggers on to Calvary (he has just been inadvisably leading a one-man armed insurrection, so a spot of regrouping was in order, but not quite this way).


One of the blessings of the silent era is that they’d often know when to stop. Alas, Ben-Hur outstays its welcome, yet it isn’t without its appealing quirks and incidental pleasures.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

You're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
I’ve seen comments suggesting that John Sturges’ thriller hasn’t aged well, which I find rather mystifying. Sure, some of the characterisations border on the cardboard, but the director imbues the story with a taut, economical backbone. 

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You must find the keys for me!

Doctor Who The Keys of Marinus
Most of the criticisms levelled at The Keys of Marinus over the past 50 years have been fair play, and yet it’s a story I return to as one of the more effortlessly watchable of the Hartnell era. Consequently, the one complaint I can’t really countenance is that it’s boring. While many a foray during this fledgling period drags its heels, even ones of undeniable quality in other areas, Marinus’ shifting soils and weekly adventures-in-miniature sustain interest, however inelegant the actual construction of those narratives may be. The quest premise also makes it a winner; it’s a format I have little resistance to, even when manifested, as here, in an often overtly budget-stricken manner.

Doctor Who has dabbled with the search structure elsewhere, most notably across The Key to Time season, and ultimately Marinus’ mission is even more of a MacGuffin than in that sextology, a means to string together what would otherwise be vignettes to little overall coherence…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Have you betrayed us? Have you betrayed me?!

Blake's 7 4.13: Blake

The best you can hope for the end of a series is that it leaves you wanting more. Blake certainly does that, so much so that I lapped up Tony Attwood’s Afterlife when it came out. I recall his speculation over who survived and who didn’t in his Programme Guide (curious that he thought Tarrant was unlikely to make it and then had him turn up in his continuation). Blakefollows the template of previous season finales, piling incident upon incident until it reaches a crescendo.

There are times when I miss the darkness. It is hard to live always in the light.

Blake's 7 4.12: Warlord

The penultimate episode, and Chris Boucher seems to have suddenly remembered that the original premise for the series was a crew of rebels fighting against a totalitarian regime. The detour from this, or at least the haphazard servicing of it, during seasons Three and Four has brought many of my favourite moments in the series. So it comes as a bit of a jolt to suddenly find Avon making Blake-like advances towards the leaders of planets to unite in opposition against the Federation. 

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…

So you made contact with the French operative?

Atomic Blonde (2017)
(SPOILERS) Well, I can certainly see why Focus Features opted to change the title from The Coldest City (the name of the graphic novel from which this is adapted). The Coldest City evokes a nourish, dour, subdued tone, a movie of slow-burn intrigue in the vein of John Le Carré. Atomic Blonde, to paraphrase its introductory text, is not that movie. As such, there’s something of a mismatch here, of the kind of Cold War tale it has its roots in and the furious, pop-soaked action spectacle director David Leitch is intent on turning it into. In the main, his choices succeed, but the result isn’t quite the clean getaway of his earlier (co-directed) John Wick.

I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my "back pain", Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, part to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine... Well, because it's awesome.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Along with Pain & Gain and The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street might be viewed as the completion of a loose 2013 trilogy on the subject of success and excess; the American Dream gone awry. It’s the superior picture to its fellows, by turns enthralling, absurd, outrageous and hilarious. This is the fieriest, most deliriously vibrant picture from the director since the millennium turned. Nevertheless, stood in the company of Goodfellas, the Martin Scorsese film from which The Wolf of Wall Street consciously takes many of its cues, it is found wanting.

I was vaguely familiar with the title, not because I knew much about Jordan Belfort but because the script had been in development for such a long time (Ridley Scott was attached at one time). So part of the pleasure of the film is discovering how widely the story diverges from the Wall Street template. “The Wolf of Wall Street” suggests one who towers over the city like a behemoth, rather than a guy …

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.