20 April 2014

A Remarkable Remake of Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (Part 1)

The six of us went Saturday night to watch the silent version of the 1925 classic Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. I had seen the 1959 "talkie" starring Charlton Heston on television as a child but until recently I hadn't known about the silent version, which was the greatest spectacle of its day (and for many years later).

We saw the premier of a remastered and edited version of the silent film at Norfolk's Chrysler Hall together with a live symphony performance of a score created by Stewart Copeland, drummer for the 80s rock group The Police. In a word, the production was magnificent. Fred Niblo's direction of the vastly over-budget ($200 million in today's dollars) film adaptation of Lew Wallace's best-selling 1880 novel by the same name was a box-office hit that took nearly 20 years to recoup its investment. The reality of the staged naval battle and chariot race (in which several performers died) created an emotional intensity that the CGI era of special effects, no matter how spectacular in themselves, cannot match.

Copeland's score was exceptional. It was well-adapted for the film and well-performed the Virginia Arts Festival symphony orchestra. Go here to read an interview with him about the process of composing and working with MGM to get the rights to re-edit the film and show it with a live orchestra. Copeland demonstrated his percussion virtuosity by moving from his drum set to use all sorts of chimes, blocks, and other instruments I couldn't identify. His intensity was evident and the folks in the orchestra told us they had greatly enjoyed working with him. They also were proud to have performed the premier of Copeland's work.

I don't know when or where you can next see the film and musical performance but highly encourage you to take it if you can.

(Part 2: some comparisons of Ben-Hur and Noah.)

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