Ben-Hur – The 1925 film version directed by Fred Niblo with music by Carl Davis [Philharmonia Orchestra: Review B]


A screening of Fred Niblo’s 1925 silent-film Ben-Hur with music by Carl Davis [orchestrated by Colin and David Matthews]

Philharmonia Orchestra
Carl Davis

Reviewed by: Edward Clark

Reviewed: 9 June, 2012
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

“There is no such thing as silent film. The music was one half of it” – the words of the great silent-film star, Lillian Gish. To prove this enduring point the recent The Artist won Best Oscar for the score. No truer words were made in terms of the mighty epic, Ben-Hur, accompanied by the splendid score by Carl Davis. This film was so expensive that it never recovered its costs. But, ever since the first screening in 1925, it has provided huge pleasure to each passing generation of movie goers.

Carl DavisCarl Davis embarked on his third such score in 1987 (the first two were Napoléan and Intolerance). Ben-Hur offered a different challenge in that the story is truly Biblical, requiring an element of religious spirituality. Davis hit on the brilliant idea to incorporate the ‘Dresden Amen’, famously quoted by Mendelssohn and Wagner, for those moments in the film where purely religious figures are depicted. Otherwise the music is new so as to fit the drama of the story. Davis did need some help in the scoring of the biggest portion of the score, the Chariot Race, soliciting the assistance of Colin and David Matthews, both highly esteemed composers.

In many ways the score to Ben-Hur is as strong and resplendent as the movie itself. Written for a large orchestra – beautifully played by the Philharmonia Orchestra in full flow – it is fun to spot the influences that permeate Davis’s music. There are too many to list but the integrity of the score shines forth.

Davis does a wonderful job in capturing the feelings inherent in each scene; tenderness, exoticism, fury, excitement, grandeur. The film itself has all these requirements to fulfil. Today we smile at the overdone facial make-up heaped upon the actors but this merely emphasises the cinematic drama. We can also delight in the ‘camp’ nature in the telling of the story, the Robin Hood-style tights of our hero, Ben-Hur; the manipulation of Alias, his would-be lover; and his dastardly rival, the scowling Messala; and not forgetting the fear of catching leprosy. All grossly over-acted but what good fun.

'Ben Hur'. Director Fred Niblo, the cameraman and camera, and a stuffed camel in the centre. The lady is May McAvoy and the gentleman to the right of her, with the squared flower pattern on his robes, is Francis George Packer.The two big action scenes cover the sea-fight between the Romans and the pirates and, of course, the famous Chariot Race. Both are notable events in the history of the cinema. Indeed has there ever been such a realistic and gory pictorial representation of human endeavour captured so brilliantly by the 42 cameras needed by director Fred Niblo in the truly epic struggle between Ben-Hur and Messala in the contest – and all done before the special effects people intervened to create great waves of comic disbelief that greets modern epics.

Davis depicts the action with such polish and professional pride that Lillian Gish would be heartbroken to see the film today without music. Above all Carl Davis’s work assists the movie’s ambition to stir the mind and the heart. What a film, what a score!

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