Review: 1925 Ben Hur

On Tuesday, I went to see 1925 production of Ben Hur with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Stephen Copeland, formerly of the Police. As readers of my blog know, I’m a big fan of silent films and will take any opportunity to see silent films on the large screen. It’s so much more fun that way. I was particularly keen to see Ben Hur with the CSO because many silent films had orchestras accompanying them. Most of the silent films I’ve seen have had a live organist, which was really cool. So I was curious how it would sound with the full orchestra.

Reading a bit about it beforehand, it’s a curious film. It cost $4,000,0000 in the 1920s to film, which is the equivalent of $200,000,000. Also, there were some accidents with the pirate attack scene. There are unsubstantiated rumors that actors may have drown when the fire got out of control on the ships. Also, the chariot race killed at least one person. Eventually, rules and regulations about film safety were instituted as a result of all of these problems.
The experience was not quite what I expected. Part of it was the score; the other part was the movie itself. Stephen Copeland, a percussionist and composer, actually composed the score and played along on a series of percussion instruments. As a result of this performance, I really think that full drum sets and full orchestras shouldn’t mix. It was an uneasy clash of jazzy/pop drum with a classical sounding orchestra. It really jarred me through the entire piece. Some of the orchestral music itself was poppy, which did not jive with the 1920s film in front of me. Maybe this is a sign of my age but I really disliked it. I’ll admit that there were parts when the music worked with the film. The parade scenes, the great naval battle, and the chariot race were thrilling. But the rest of the work did not work for me.
Then there is the movie itself. Now, I haven’t seen the 1959 Ben Hur with Charlton Heston yet. I’ll probably get around to it. But the plot didn’t work for me.
I thought the character of Ben Hur was dull.He didn’t have a personality aside from “good guy.” Spoilers ahead. For instance, when the slave ship he is on is attacked, he saves the commander’s life. I don’t understand why. He was working in the galley as a slave because of the Romans. I don’t get why he would turn around and save any of them. The film emphasized the brutality of the Romans on people.
There were also too many conveniences for me. This doesn’t usually bother me but it did in this film. For instance, the young slave girl happened to know to go to the Valley of the Lepers to find Ben Hur’s mother and sister. Everyone had thought they had long died. Too much Deus Ex Machina. Anyway, I will admit that I prefer silent comedies to drama. I’m not sure why this is.  Perhaps it’s because comedic characters have more of a personality. Or the film takes itself less serious. I may not have seen a really good drama yet.
Oh well. It was worth checking out but I don’t need to see this version again. I may see the 1959 version but I won’t go out of my way to do so. I’ll continue with my beloved series at the Music Box with an organist.
That’s all for now!
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