CD Review: Ben-Hur (1925)

Long before Charlton Heston chariot-raced his way to Oscar glory, MGM filmed BEN-HUR as a silent film in 1925, starring Ramón Navarro as Judah and Francis X. Bushman as Messala. At nearly $4 million, the film was the most expensive silent film ever made. With exhortations of “The Picture Every Christian Ought to See,” audiences flocked to see the film. Though the film ultimately operated at a loss, it turned the newly merged MGM into a major force in Hollywood.

In the 1980s, the Technicolor scenes were found in a Czech film archive and Turner Entertainment, who now owned the rights, set out to restore the film, adding the newly found scenes and color tints. In addition, a new score was commissioned from Carl Davis for a 1989 Thames Television screening of the film. The 1989 soundtrack was recently reissued on Davis’s own label and what a glorious score it is.

For the most part, Davis wisely steers away from the Hebraic influences found in Miklós Rózsa’s 1959 Oscar-winning classic. Instead, the score finds his own spirituality and grandeur with a more traditional symphonic sound from the early part of the 20th century.

Because of the tableau nature of Christ’s presence in the film, Davis decided to treat this aspect of the music with “immense seriousness.” The album begins with a lengthy, 48-second crescendo that builds up to a dramatic brass fanfare in the main titles that serves as the biblical main theme of the score. With its Also Sprach Zarathustra-like lead-in, Davis quotes the liturgical-based “Natur Tema” whenever Christ appears, whether as a hand offering water to a thirsty slave, as a ghostly presence at the Sermon on the Mount, or most impressively through the shooting star signaling His miraculous birth in a manger.

Ben-Hur – Star of Bethlehem
Click Track: Star of Bethlehem

The ghost of Richard Strauss hovers over the entire score, especially in the harmonic language and orchestrations. As such, the music has an early century late Romanticism that still feels contemporary yet never seems out of place alongside the 60-year-old images it was written for. Ben-Hur (Navarro) and Esther’s (May McAvoy) love theme is voiced in a tender violin and cello duet. The slinky music for Iras the Egyptian (Carmel Myers) has a sultry, Salome bent, in which the Straussian orchestrations ooze desert and sexual heat.

For the 1959 remake, director William Wyler filmed the famous chariot race nearly shot-for-shot from the 1925 original. However, the scene plays without music, focusing instead on the cheers of the spectators and the sounds of the race itself. Davis’s cue for the silent film version is a 10-minute orchestral tour de force that captures all the excitement of this legendary scene. Heroic trumpet statements of Ben-Hur’s theme battle with the lower brass of Messala (Bushman), while dueling forces in the double sets of timpanis underscore the rousing race theme.

Ben-Hur – The Race
Click Track: The Race

Davis gives Ben-Hur’s scenes belowdecks as a galley slave a monotonous, pounding intensity and the subsequent pirate battle a syncopated, percussive ferociousness. Further highlights include Gratus’ ominous entry into Jerusalem and the majestic “Gathering of the Chariots.” In addition to the significant orchestral forces, the judicious use of organ gives the score depth and gravitas.

Davis has wisely selected the cues for the album, providing a thorough—and thoroughly enjoyable—listen that captures all the drama and majesty of the story. The reissue features a stellar performance by Davis and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and engineering that is sonically vibrant and rich.

Davis knows a thing or two about scoring silent films, and his score for BEN-HUR is music of epic, biblical proportions. If watching silent films isn’t your thing, don’t deny yourself the pleasure of this marvelous score on CD. BEN-HUR is as close to a religious experience as you’re likely to find in silent film music.

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