Along with Gracchi and a few others I was at the Festival Hall last Saturday to see Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ - the 1925 silent, pre-Heston version - with the London Philharmonic Orchestra providing the score.
The experience was incredible. The live music sucks you into the emotions of the story in a way that a soundtrack will always struggle to. Just like with Metropolis I found the lack of dialogue
In scale this film is hard to parallel. Gracchi suggests that the cast may number in the tens of thousands and you can well believe it. Even Hero doesn't have the same mass of humanity in crowded scenes and this is long before computer animation provided a substitute for such large numbers of extras. When you see this number of people moving about you realise how far computer graphics still have to come. CG just isn't as credible as actual people even at a distance - I think it is the reduction in variety associated with a CG crowd that does it. Despite being over eighty years old this film felt incredibly tangible compared to many modern, rendered works.
I actually think that the film conveyed its message more effectively, and with less compromise, than Gracchi suggests. He argues that because Marcellus, Ben Hur's nemesis, is killed and his family are cured of leprosy the film has not been able to entirely reconcile itself to the Christian moral message that "forbearance [...] a confidence in eternal justice, [...] meekness, kindness, forgiveness no matter the slight and turning the other cheek" are the right path instead of "the pagan virtues of revenge and anger". I think Gracchi misses the film's message in that synthesis.
While Ben Hur does achieve his revenge over Marcellus it does nothing for him. He is instantly dissatisfied and complaining that his revenge has not brought his family back. Instead, his family are brought back thanks to their "confidence in eternal justice". This is the same way the same message is put across in the Lord of the Rings - not by having someone foresake violence but by showing a character who succeeds in the pagan fashion and finds the victory pyrrhic. I see no reason why this approach compromises the message at all.