I first saw Fred Niblo’s silent version of Ben-Hur 34 years ago — a battered 16mm bootleg print courtesy of a film professor at the University of South Florida. The film was projected at silent speed (an error that made the film take what seemed like three days), looking very scratchy, with obviously missing footage, and accompanied by the professor himself on the piano. Yet I was still aware that this version had merits not found in William Wyler’s Oscar-laden 1959 remake. Seeing it again in a fully restored print complete with the Technicolor sequences — and at the proper speed and with a rousing Carl Davis musical score — I’m even more aware of the superiority of the silent.
There are many reasons it’s better, I think. They range from Ramon Novarro’s portrayal of the title character (far more appealing and charismatic than the stone-faced Charlton Heston) to the tighter running time and less special-effects-reliant scope of the production. However, a central reason is that the story is both old-fashioned and a bit naive, which works better in this less-realistic form.
Director Niblo, who stepped in to save the project from disaster, made sure that all the money he spent on the film would show on the screen — and it does. The chariot race is as good or better than the one in Wyler’s film (which pretty much copies this one), while the full-sized naval battle is leagues ahead of anything in the remake.
Unfortunately, Niblo is little remembered today, his career not much surviving the advent of sound. (Considering he was handed two turkeys with John Gilbert and William Haines — actors Louis B. Mayer seems to have been bent on destroying — one wonders if Niblo’s fall was engineered, too.) Seeing Ben Hur, with its epic stature and good pacing (not to mention his intelligent use of nudity, homoeroticism and gay subtext), makes the shame of this even greater.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke