Monday, March 07, 2011

Movie review: Ben-Hur

Ben-Hur (Four-Disc Collector's Edition)

One of my 101 Things in 1001 Days goals is to watch both the 1925 and 1959 versions of Ben-Hur.

Well, I have.

Both are strong films. The 1959 version starring Charlton Heston is a classic/epic in cinemascope. Folks in my age bracket probably remember the event-tv that was the airing of Ben-Hur every Easter season.

The actors are strong, the message is clear without banging you over the head. Stephen Boyd's Messala just doesn't have Heston's presence, but it adds a little Napoleonic conflict between the men that might otherwise not be there. And you can't talk about Ben-Hur without mentioning the chariot race; still the best action sequence, ever. My review from 2008 is here.

The 1925 version, starring Ramon Navarro as Ben-Hur and Francis X. Bushman as Messala is something of a reversal. Bushman is certainly the stronger actor here, giving Judah Ben-Hur a much higher climb from slavery to vengeance.

It's a silent film, with much of the pantomime-style acting that was necessary, but it still remains pious and thoughtful. This Ben-Hur is more a man of reflection than deeds. Nevertheless, the climactic chariot race is as good as the 1959 version. In fact, the 1959 version followed the original nearly shot-for-shot, which makes it much more impressive in terms of what they had to work with back then.

The black-and-white film of the era was colored, sometimes in a wash of sepia or blue to set the tone, but sometimes painstakingly hand-colored, as in the triumphal entry in Rome. It really makes those scenes stand out.

All things considered, I'd rather watch the 1959 Heston movie, but don't discount the 1925 version. It has plenty to offer.

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