Friday, 15 June 2012

Ben Hur (1925), Carl Davis and Philharmonia Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall, London

Roman Novarro

Guest blogger:
In a departure for ithankyou, we welcome film historian Dr Sylvia Hardy as guest commentator...

Watching the 1925 silent film, Ben Hur at the Royal Festival Hall on Saturday evening was an extraordinary experience. The remastered print was accompanied by a new score, written and conducted by Carl Davis and the combined effect was magnificent. At the end of the two and a half hour performance the orchestra was given four standing ovations.

Roman Novarro and Francis X Bushman square up
Would the film have been as impressive without the accompaniment? Almost certainly not. Because the music both reflected and augmented the actions and emotions of the characters and the events of the story it was hard to realise that this was a silent film. As Kevin Brownlow points out, although film editing became more complicated mechanically with the introduction of sound, ‘it was never more challenging aesthetically than at the height of the silent era’; he cites the chariot race from Ben Hur as an example.

The greatest spectacle in cinematic history?
Equally impressive is the huge action sequence earlier in the film when the pirate ships ram the Roman fleet and Ben Hur is freed from his shackles as a galley-slave. Both these episodes were enormously enhanced by recurrent musical themes which reach a triumphant conclusion.

48 cameras were used to film the sea battle
The religious, semi-mystical aspects of the film – an important aspect of the film - were also brought out and developed by the musical accompaniment. Possible traces of sentimentality – after all, conventions of representation in such areas have changed considerably since the 1920s - were expunged, and unlikely incidents became genuinely moving.

Betty Bronson as Mary
Dr Sylvia Hardy is an academic specialising in Edwardian Literature and British Film. She is a former secretary of the Wellsian Society and author of H.G. Wells and British Silent Cinema: The War of the Worlds (published in Young And Innocent? The Cinema in Britain, 1896-1930).

She attended the screening of Ben Hur because her son-in-law was up a soggy mountain in Scotland...

I've only watched the film on DVD and the full spectacle of live orchestra and big screen sounds something else. Superb action and powerful performances from Novarro, Bushman, Bronson et al. Encore Mr Davis!!

1 comment:

  1. This post sums up the experience succinctly. The film was enlivened and the emotional depths of the story enhanced by the heart felt music. Encore Mr Davis!