Sunday, April 24, 2011

Celebrate Easter with 'Ben Hur' (1925)

Okay, here's a plug for a big biblical blockbuster: the original 'Ben Hur' (1925), which we're screening today (Easter Sunday!) at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theatre. Should be good one -- beautiful restored print, live music, a big crowd (I hope) -- so hope you can make it!

Note: I did check with the Diocese of Manchester and the screening does not count as Mass, so you have to take care of that on your own.

In case you're looking here for info about the film or the screening, I'm posting the press release below. As for the music, I'm looking forward to helping bring this big, sprawling historical epic to life. I have several themes in mind, and we'll see where inspiration takes me once the film starts up. Happy Easter, and see you there!


Silent epic ‘Ben Hur’ (1925) in Wilton, N.H. on Sunday, April 24

Biblical blockbuster to be screened with live music at Town Hall Theatre

WILTON, N.H.—One of early Hollywood's great epics returns to the big screen with a showing of 'Ben Hur, A Tale of The Christ' (1925) on Sunday, April 24 at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre in Wilton, N.H. The screening, accompanied by live music, starts at 4:30 p.m. Admission is free; donations are welcome to help defray costs.

'Ben Hur' will be accompanied by live music by local composer Jeff Rapsis. For more information, call (603) 654-3456 or visit

'Ben Hur,' starring Ramon Novarro and Francis X. Bushman, was among the first pictures to tell a Biblical-era story on a gigantic scale. The film, which helped establish MGM as a leading Hollywood studio, employed a cast of thousands and boasted action sequences that included a large-scale sea battle and a spell-binding chariot race that still leaves audiences breathless.

Set in the Holy Land at the time of Christ's birth, 'Ben Hur' tells the story of a Jewish family in Jerusalem whose fortune is confiscated by the Romans and its members jailed. The enslaved family heir, Judah Ben Hur (played by Novarro, a leading heartthrob of the silent era) is inspired by encounters with Christ to pursue justice, which leads him to a series of epic adventures in his quest to find his mother and sister and restore his family fortune.

'Ben Hur,' directed by Fred Niblo, was among the most expensive films of the silent era, taking two years to make and costing between $4 million and $6 million. When released in 1925, it became a huge hit for the newly formed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio. The film proved so popular, it was successfully re-released in 1931 with a soundtrack, long after talkies had swept away silent film. One reason the film was so expensive to make is because it was partly shot in Italy, where a sea battle scene led to a fire that endangered the many extras on board. No one was hurt, but MGM moved the delay-prone picture back to Hollywood to be finished.

The chariot race scene in 'Ben Hur,' with Novarro and other cast members driving teams of horses at high speed on a mammoth dirt racetrack in a gigantic replica of a Roman stadium, was among the most complicated and dangerous sequences filmed in the silent era. It remains noted for its tight editing, dramatic sweep, and sheer cinematic excitement. The chariot race was re-created virtually shot for shot in MGM's 1959 remake, and more recently imitated in the pod race scene in 'Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.'

Besides Novarro in the title role, the film stars Francis X. Bushman as Messala, the Roman soldier who imprisons the Hur family; Betty Bronson as Mary, mother of Jesus; May McAvoy as Ben Hur's sister Esther; and Claire McDowell as Ben Hur's mother. 'Ben Hur' was based on the best-selling 1880 novel by General Lew Wallace. Celebrity "extras" in the chariot race scene included stars such as Douglas Fairbanks, Harold Lloyd, Lionel Barrymore, John Gilbert, Joan Crawford, Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford, and a very young Clark Gable.

The film was remade by MGM in the 1950s in a color and wide-screen version starring Charleston Heston that garnered 11 Academy Awards. Some critics, however, believe the original 1925 version offers superior drama and story-telling. MGM executives at the time, aware of the superiority of the original version, attempted to destroy or confiscate all prints of the 1925 'Ben Hur,' sending the FBI out to confiscate collector copies in the 1950s. However, the studio did preserve the negative of the 1925 version.

The original release of 'Ben Hur' included several early technicolor sequences that were converted to black and white for the 1930 re-release. However, an original 1925 print with the color sequences was discovered in the Czech Republic in the 1980s, and these have been incorporated in the restoration being screened at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre.

'Ben Hur' is the latest in a series of monthly silent film screenings at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre. The series aims to recreate the lost magic of early cinema by reviving the elements needed for silent film to be seen at its best: superior films in best available prints; projection on the big screen; live musical accompaniment; and a live audience.

“These films are still exciting experiences if you show them as they were designed to be screened,” said Rapsis, accompanist for the screenings. “There’s a reason people first fell in love with the movies, and we hope to recreate that experience. At their best, silent films were communal experience very different from today’s movies—one in which the presence of a large audience intensifies everyone’s reactions.”

For each film, Rapsis improvises a music score using original themes created beforehand. None of the the music is written down; instead, the score evolves in real time based on audience reaction and the overall mood as the movie is screened.

‘Ben Hur’ will be shown on Sunday, April 24 at 4:30 p.m. at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre, Main Street, Wilton, N.H. Admission is free; donations are welcome to help defray costs. For more information, call (603) 654-3456 or visit

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