Tonight is a very special opportunity to experience a screening of one of the great epics of cinema history with the ultimate in ‘special effects’, a live orchestral soundtrack, played by the RLPO. The 1925 silent film of Ben Hur was a blockbuster in its day for the newly merged MGM studios, and was the most expensive silent film ever made, next to The Artist (2011), which is only more expensive due to modern inflation.
It was the second version of the film, based on the novel, “Ben Hur: A Tale of The Christ” by Lew Wallace. The first version, in 1907 was a single reel film.
Telling the story of Prince Judah Ben-Hur, who is enslaved by his friend and rival but returns to take his revenge, its centrepiece is a spectacular and thrilling chariot race featuring a dramatic real-life crash, which is still regarded as one of the most extraordinary sequences ever recorded on film. This 20 minute sequence will see the live RLPO fastening their seatbelts as the music will be travelling in excess of 80 miles an hour!
Ben-Hur had been a great success as a novel, and also as a stage play. Stage productions had been running for twenty-five years. In 1922, two years after the play’s last tour, the Goldwyn company purchased the film rights to Ben-Hur. The play’s producer, Abraham Erlanger, put a heavy price on the screen rights. Erlanger was persuaded to accept a generous profit participation deal and total approval over every detail of the production.
Shooting began in Italy in 1923, starting two years of difficulties, accidents, and eventually a move back to Hollywood. Additional recastings (including Ramón Novarro as Ben-Hur) and a change of director caused the production’s budget to skyrocket. The studio’s publicity department was relentless in promoting the film, advertising it with lines like: “The Picture Every Christian Ought to See!”
Although audiences flocked to Ben-Hur after its premiere in 1925 and the picture grossed $9 million worldwide, its huge expenses and the deal with Erlanger made it a net financial loss for MGM. In terms of publicity and prestige however, it was a great success. It helped establish the new MGM as a major studio.
An astonishing total of 60,960 m (200,000 ft) of film was shot for the chariot race scene, which was eventually edited down to 229 m (750 ft). This scene has been much imitated. It was re-created virtually shot for shot in the 1959 remake, copied in Prince of Egypt, and more recently imitated in the pod race scene in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace which was made almost 75 years later. Some scenes in the film were in two-color Technicolor, only discovered in the 1980s in the Czech Film Archive. One of the assistant directors for this sequence was a very young William Wyler, who would direct the 1959 remake.
Carl Davis was commissioned to write an entirely new score in the 1980s screening of the film by Thames Television. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic have performed this amazing film live, before, and have recorded the music with Carl Davis conducting. The RLPO first became associated with the film with several performances in Liverpool & Cardiff in 1988.
I’ll finish this post with a quote from Richard Curtis, projectionist at Philharmonic Hall, “… I enjoyed projecting Ben-Hur for the RLPO to play along to yesterday- but it occurs to me that now I have to very carefully take all 8 reels apart again, and re-wire the projector…!”