The next film up on the Great Movies – 100 Years of Film list of recommendations following my screening of Intolerance is this tale of Ben Hur (Ramon Navarro), a young Jewish prince intent on vengeance for the ruin of his family at the hands of the Romans, interwoven around the tale of Christ (Claude Payton – we never actually see his face onscreen), that occurred at the same time.
He finds himself at odds, pretty early on, after a prologue featuring the traditional retelling of the birth of Christ, with his childhood friend, and now committed Roman, Messala (Francis X. Bushman).
Ben’s tale illustrates a fairly violent life, counterpointed by the peaceful preaching of Christ, as he’s taken prison, put to work on a Roman galley, which in turn, is attacked by pirates in a fantastic, and violent, sequence. From there, he finds himself adopted by a Roman general after he saves the man’s life during the battle, and is raised as a prince of Rome, but that doesn’t stop his driving need to avenge the ruination brought on his family by the Roman Empire.
He romances Esther (May McAvoy), who learns that Ben’s mother and sister yet live, though his mother is deathly ill. Hearing that this Christ fellow can heal the sick, and has even resurrected the dead, she convinces them to travel with her to see him, while in an intricately crafted and executed sequence, Messala and Ben square off in a brilliant, and again, incredibly violent, chariot race.
The messages of peace and war volley back and forth throughout the film, until its climax, Christ’s journey to his crucifixion, when Ben shouts to him that he has legions of men arriving to help free him, to fight for him. But the message of peace prevails, and this time, finally reaches Ben, as he is reunited with love and family.
The sea battle and chariot race are incredibly impressive set pieces, the set designs, and crowd scenes add a scope and reality to the film, like sideways looks at life in the times pop up around the narrative, creating a breathing world. The thing that threw me a bit was the rather interesting costume design choices, honestly, in a number of sequences, it looked like Ben’s costumes would lead directly to the costumes made for the Flash Gordon serials that would start showing up with the talkies.
However, like the best of the silent films, this one flies along, and you practically forget you’re watching a film without dialogue, and become completely involved in it. The action sequences make this one shine, and the way the film is put together is exemplary.
Some of the film, usually dealing with Christ, is color tinted to make it stand out, and give it more power, and the images look great that way; making their point, and adding some magic to the story.
Finally, there’s a wonderful dolly shot early in the film, ending with a tilt up to reveal the glory that is the city… and it just works. There’s a wonderful combination of practical effects, and mattes, some model work, but most of all, the stunts and the action sequences make this one shine.
Have a look!