Monday, 5 July 2010

The first 'Roman' film -1907 - Ben Hur - Sidney Olcott

The first cinematic adaptation of Lew Wallace’s novel Ben Hur (watch the first part above) is almost completely ruined by the abysmal quality of the film’s print. It is perhaps what those who have negative pre-conceptions of early silent film would expect from films from this era: the print is so poor that at times it is hard to decipher what action is taking place; it is the sort of copy that you might expect when you foolishly decide to buy a pirated DVD from a street vendor, only to find that the film has been recorded with a shoddy hand held camcorder.

However, given how much film has been lost from this era, we should be grateful for any surviving films, no matter how poor their quality is. Nevertheless, this is the first film that we have looked at from the forgotten decade (1904-1913) that does not appear to be of great significance (apart from one scene), from either a technical or aesthetic point of view.

The film’s greatest legacy is legal:
This movie is most notable as a precedent in copyright law. The movie was made without the permission of the author's estate, which was common practice at that time. The screenwriter, Gene Gauntier, remarked in her 1928 autobiography how the film industry at that time infringed upon everything. As a result of the production of Ben Hur, Harper & Brothers and the author's estate brought suit against Kalem Studios, the Motion Picture Patents Company, and Gauntier for copyright infringement. The United States Supreme Court ultimately ruled against the film company in 1911. This ruling established the precedent that all motion picture production companies must first secure the film rights of any previously published work still under copyright before commissioning a screenplay based on that work.
Given the recent spate of legal action being taken by the film industry taken against file-sharers, there is a certain degree of irony to the fact that the film industry was on the receiving end of legal action for copyright infringement in its infancy.

Returning to the film, even if the print were to be restored to its full glory, there is not much in the film to suggest that our perception of it would alter to a significant extent. This adaptation of Ben Hur appears to be a competent attempt at staging scenes from the film. I have seen several reviews of the film criticise its inability to follow the book’s plot, but given the fact that the film is eleven minutes long, such criticism misses the point.
We are about to look at several literary adaptations from this era (mostly from the works of Shakespeare and Dickens), and to dismiss all of these films simply because film technology has not allowed these works to be filmed unabridged would seem illogical. In fact, it is exciting to see which parts of the various works the director’s find to be the most cinematic and to what extent their decision making was correct. Limitations have never hindered great art; often, they enhance it.

On this occasion though, the film maker, a Canadian named Sidney Olcott, has emphasised the theatrical rather than the cinematic. The first half of the film feels as if it is a play is being filmed, and given the obvious fact that early films are silent and that there is a scarcity of explanatory titles, the only things on offer in this section of the film are the marvellous costumes.

The one exception to this criticism is the chariot race, which appears at the film’s denouement (watch the second part of the film above), and it is this section which warrants this film’s inclusion on this list. The speed with which the chariots fly past the camera highlights the audacious nature of the scene, nothing this daring had been attempted up until this point in cinematic history. The film successfully masks the fact that this section of the film was shot on a beach in New Jersey with fireman playing the roles of the charioteers and the horses that pulled their fire carts being used to pull the chariots.

Twelve years earlier, in the Lumiere Brothers’ Arrivee d'un train en gare a La Ciotat, a train gradually crawled its way into the centre of the shot, mesmerising and frightening contemporary audiences. Now, horses were flying past the camera at a blistering pace, symbolising the rapidity of film’s growth.

This scene alone does not justify the remainder of the film. But you cannot help admire Olcott’s attempt to create a film that may have beyond film’s capabilities at that particular point.. 
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