The whole movie looks unbelievably expensive, but it's really only three scenes that elevate 1925's Ben-Hur above the level of being merely a curiosity. As Howard Hawks once famously said, a movie needs "three good scenes and no bad scenes". Ben-Hur does have some bad scenes, almost entirely to do with a mostly unconvincing performance from the male lead and stiff, popular silent film mannerisms.
The most well known scene from the movie is of course the chariot race, and it is by far the best in the film. It has an energy I suspect was helped a lot by the physical requirements of the scene forcing the actors to abandon their broadly theatrical performance styles which are too often present in early cinema. The chariot race scene appears to be nothing short of a filmed actual chariot race--in fact, it must have been more than one in order to get the really great coverage it has.
The bulky, cumbersome cameras couldn't move much in the silent era which makes it all the more extraordinary the sensations of this motion intensive scene come across.
There's not even back projection on closeups of the actors--it looks like cameras were mounted in front of them while they rode. Here the wind and the whips actually force a decently naturalistic performance from the otherwise grandly phoney Ramon Novarro as Ben-Hur. But even more impressive is Francis X. Bushman as the villain Messala, who manages squinting and teeth gnashing in the middle of all this.
He really seems hell-bent on winning this thing. There are so many things going on here that look like they'd be completely impossible to-day with current safety standards. But even more dangerous looking was the sea battle scene, almost as effective as the chariot race.
It looks like at least three full scale ships and several smaller ones were built and then jammed with extras.
In addition to the massive sets and ships on display, this movie's budget must also have been increased for its use of early Technicolor photography in a few scenes, here showing a parade led by some distinctly pre-code topless dames throwing flower petals;
At this point Technicolor mainly seemed best at rendering green and red with fuzzy facsimiles of colours in between. But it definitely has its beauty, especially early scenes of the birth of Christ, particularly the ethereally beautiful lady playing the Virgin Mary.
Unfortunately, most of the colour footage is squandered on scenes related to Jesus, whose face is never shown, instead we get the dubious technique of just showing Jesus' gesticulating little white hand, which feels sort of like seeing Thing from The Addams Family playing a messiah which, you know, he might've been, who knows.
The three scenes I was referring to, in case you're wondering, are the chariot race, the sea battle, and the topless women. Technicolor 1925 topless women, that's worth a lot in my book.
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