Sunday, March 27, 2016

On scoring 'Ben Hur' (1925) on Easter Sunday
and also why silent film is like coin collecting

A poster for the international release of 'Ben Hur' (1925).

The great silent adaptation of 'Ben Hur' (1925) is in the rotation this year, and I'm playing for it again today (Easter Sunday) at 4:30 p.m.

The screening is at the Wilton (N.H.) Town Hall Theater and is free and open to the public. More details in the press release below.

Tackling 'Ben Hur' this time around was another chance to learn about the story and its author, Lew Wallace, who I find to be an interesting guy.

Wallace, a prominent 19th century American military officer and diplomat, serving in the U.S.-Mexican War and then as a general in Union Army during the Civil War.

Here are some things about Wallace that make him so interesting:

• As a Union commander under General U.S. Grant, Wallace was at the center of controversial troop movements leading up the Battle of Shiloh that led to higher-than-expected casualties.

• Wallace took to writing fiction to provide relief from his official duties. He wrote 'Ben Hur' as a way to more thoroughly educate himself on scripture, and to confirm his own personal commitment to Christianity.

• Having never visited the Holy Land, Wallace embarked on extensive research at the Library of Congress and other centers of learning to be able to write about life during the time of Jesus.

• Wallace served as the Territorial Governor of New Mexico from 1878 to 1881, and finished writing 'Ben Hur' in Santa Fe. While in office, he negotiated a plea bargain with Billy the Kid to testify against other outlaws, but then the Kid later escaped from jail and resumed his own murderous ways. Supporters of Kid continue to lobby New Mexico unsuccessfully for an official pardon stemming from Wallace's plea bargain, most recently in 2012.

• While later serving as U.S. Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Wallace did get to visit the Holy Land, and found he didn't have to change anything in 'Ben Hur.'

• When the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, Wallace volunteered his services as an officer. Refused due to his age, he tried unsuccessfully to volunteer as an enlisted man.

Lots more, but you get the idea. This was one colorful dude who lived an interesting and consequential life, and not only because he wrote the best-selling American novel until 'Gone With the Wind' appeared in the 1930s.

And if it weren't for silent film, I probably wouldn't know much about him at all.

So in that sense, silent film is like coin collecting. Studying the money systems in place in other places and at other times is a window into geography, history, economics, culture, and so many other subjects.

Silent film opens the same doors, I think. As removed from reality as it sometimes can seem, it's a window into so much of human experience that went into making up the world we know today.

See for yourself by attending 'Ben Hur' this afternoon at the Wilton Town Hall Theatre. More info below!

* * *

The chariot race scene: a masterpiece of editing.

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Silent film epic ‘Ben Hur’ (1925) at Town Hall Theatre on Easter Sunday, March 27

Hollywood's original Biblical-era blockbuster to be screened with live music

WILTON,N.H.—What better day than Easter Sunday to lose yourself in a big screen Biblical blockbuster from the glory days of early Hollywood?

Movie-worshipers can do just that at the Town Hall Theatre, which will screen the original epic silent film version of 'Ben Hur, A Tale of The Christ' (1925) on Sunday, March 27 at 4:30 p.m.

The program, the latest in the theater's silent film series, will be accompanied by live music performed by silent film composer Jeff Rapsis. Admission is free, with a suggested donation of $5 per person.

'Ben Hur,' starring Ramon Novarro and Francis X. Bushman, was among the first motion pictures to tell a Biblical-era story on an enormous scale.

The film, which helped establish MGM as a leading Hollywood studio, employed a cast of thousands and boasted action sequences including a large-scale sea battle. The film is highlighted by a spell-binding chariot race regarded as a masterpiece of editing and which 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 silent-era heartthrob) 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.

A poster for 'Ben Hur.'

The screening is the latest in the Town Hall Theatre's series of silent film screenings. The series aims to showcase the best of early Hollywood the way it was intended to be experienced: on the big screen, with live music, and in a theater with an audience.

"Put together those elements, and it's amazing how much power these films still have. You realize why these films caused people to first fall in love with the movies, said accompanist Jeff Rapsis, who will improvise a full score for the 2½-hour epic.

'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 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, which interwove the story of Christ's life with the Ben Hur clan, a fictional Jewish merchant family.

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. However, some critics believe the original 1925 version offers superior drama and story-telling.

MGM executives at the time, aware of the quality of the original version, attempted to destroy 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, so the film remains available today.

In creating music for silent films, Rapsis performs on a digital synthesizer that reproduces the texture of the full orchestra and creates a traditional "movie score" sound.

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' (1925) will be screened with live music on Easter Sunday, March 27 at 4:30 p.m. at the Town Hall Theatre, 40 Main St., Wilton, N.H. The program is free and open to the public, with a suggested donation of $5 per person to help defray expenses. For more information, call the theater (603) 654-3456 or visit For more info on the music, visit

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