January 6, 2008
Reflections of Ben-Hur:
It is likely that when Ben-Hur was released in 1959, it played to audiences that had not seen the original 1925 version, as silent films were mostly forgotten after the advent of sound in 1927. For the audience, the 1959 version of Ben-Hur must have been an entirely new experience. For me, however, it was not, having watched them in the order in which they were made. As I watched the 1959 version of Ben-Hur, I felt a detachment from it that I had not felt while watching the original film. Perhaps it was because I already knew the basic story. Whatever the reason is, I seem to prefer the silent 1925 version over the much-heralded William Wyler version. Here is why.
1. In the 1925 version, Judah is an angry individual. Messala threatens him and then is directly responsible for Judah’s family being imprisoned. That casts Messala as the villain quickly and makes Judah’s thirst for revenge understandable. In the 1959 version, Messala is not the one that gives the order for Judah’s sister and mother to be arrested.
2. In the 1925 version, Judah tells another prisoner on the galley ship to live for revenge. The speech gives the audience a clear understanding of what is motivating Judah to survive in an environment in which many physically strong men died. In the 1959 version, the speech is delivered by Arries, not Judah. Instead of revenge, Judah’s motivation for staying alive appears to be to find out what happened to his mother and sister.
3. In the 1925 version, Arries, upon hearing that his troops were victorious in battle, makes the split-second decision to declare to the Roman fleet that Judah is his adopted son. It seems an appropriate way to thank Judah for saving his life. In the 1959 version, Judah is given to Arries as his slave, and it is several years before Judah is finally adopted. This made the bond between Arries and Judah hard for me to completely accept.
4. In the 1925 version, Judah is unaware that Esther and her father Simonides are his slaves. That makes their acknowledgement of Judah all the more emotional, for it will mean a return to the life of a slave for Simonides and make Esther both the object of Judah’s affection and his slave. In the later version, Simonides and Judah are close, and Esther is freed prior to Judah’s arrest, thereby eliminating this emotional subtext.
5. In the 1925 version, Messala dies in the chariot race; Judah has gotten his revenge. Judah then raises an army to fight for Jesus. He clearly accepts violence as an acceptable means to an end. In the later version, Messala survives, and he and Judah reconcile.
6. In the 1925 version, Judah is prepared to begin a war to save Jesus. However, he is stopped by a voice in his head that leads him to tearfully accept that the sword is not the way of Jesus. Judah, from that point on, is a different person. In the 1959 version, Judah tries to bring his mother and sister to hear Jesus’ words so that, as Esther says, they will know that life is everlasting.
7. In the 1925 version, Judah’s mother and sister are healed by Jesus as he passes by them while being led to his death. Judah is then reunited with his sister, his mother, and Esther. He later says that Jesus will live on in his heart and mind. In the later version, they are healed after the storm lets up presumably because they recognized that Jesus’s execution was a tragedy. Judah later says that he felt Jesus take the sword from his hand.
For me, these differences make the original version of Ben-Hur a better movie, and one that I could watch again. I cannot say the same for the later version.