‘Roma victor’: Rome’s cinematic dominance over ancient Greece
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The Greeks have a word for it: 'second'...
Greece’s ancient historical past is full of great and terrible deeds, wars and battles, heroes and villains; to most students of the period it seems packed with ideas for movies, but for some reason Hollywood frequently neglects ancient Greece in favour of its successor; Ancient Rome.
The reasons for this are multiple, but in large part they fall to the studio’s desires to create films with maximum audience appeal. While it would be easy to blame this cinematic shortcoming entirely on the studios, the audience too is to blame, as when we approach different genres we do so with pre-conceived ideas and expectations that we expect to be met, but which also create a barrier that can prevent us from approaching a certain film if we have had a negative experience of it.
The problem with films set in ancient Greece is that they come with connotations that are frequently problematic to audiences, or certain audiences. However, Rome usually avoids or alters these problem-areas, and has continually equipped itself with a greater arsenal of characteristics with which to entice and enthrall the western cinema-going audience.
To begin with, Greece lacks an easily identifiable visual appearance. We may think of the Parthenon in Athens, but there are few other truly memorable Greek sites, especially ones we have seen in films before. In contrast, Rome has the marble senate, great circuses made famous by the iconic Ben-Hur chariot race, and huge arenas where gladiators fight wild animals and each other, and Christian martyrs are put to death. To western eyes, Rome - or Roman cities - connotes action, violence and sports; in short, entertainment.
As such, it is far easier for writers to adapt this setting to suit a storyline that will appeal to our western sensibilities, especially as our modern society bears a closer resemblance to this vision of the past. Sites such as the Coliseum are hugely successful tourist sites today, and are even more iconic due to the parallels often drawn to modern sporting events. Indeed, Ridley Scott drew on these connections by mimicking the camera angles and style of shooting sports events for the filming of the gladiatorial battles in Gladiator (2000).
Greece does have a sports culture, but the running, wrestling, discus and so on that we associate with ancient Greece do not have the danger and excitement that gladiatorial brutality or speeding, scythed chariots have on audiences. Another downfall of Greece is its association of being ‘intellectual’; the domain of bearded philosophers who sit and lecture each other, which for most would not make enthralling viewing. Scholar Gideon Nisbet makes the interesting point that the representation of Socrates in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (a bearded philosopher in a dry, dusty temple lecturing others) personifies the common (mis-)conception of ancient Greece, and argues that the character only really comes to life when taken out of Greece, riding a Wild West wagon like the Roman cinematic heroes ride their chariots.
When presented with a vision of the past, it can be easy for an audience to feel alienated or confused by a world not their own. Rome, more so than Greece, can give audiences that vision, but provide enough visual cues for the audience to feel suitably comfortable therein.
Greece also suffers from the problematical issue of sexuality. Although modern terminology would call some ancient Greeks ‘bi-sexual’, male same-sex love remains an awkward subject for mainstream Hollywood, especially for conservative America. Cinematic Rome has its dancing girls and orgiastic scenes (taken to the extreme in Tinto Brass’s Caligula and HBO’s Rome), setting popular opinion of Rome as heterosexual regardless of historical fact.
An important element within representations of sexuality in ancient Greco-Roman-set films is Christianity. The majority of Roman-set films take place during or after the life of Christ, while some set beforehand, like Spartacus, have overriding Christian sentiments, morality and imagery. These films were released in post-war America, and so the Christian morality emphasised throughout was meant to reinforce moral values in its American audiences, along with examples of democracy defeating tyrannical emperors which resonated following the fall of the Nazi regime. Most story-lines in these films see the Roman Empire and its emperor as a symbol of oppression and decadence, while a Roman soldier or similar character finds salvation through his love for a Christian girl (as in The Robe) or through converting to Christianity. The target of conservative, family audiences, along with the Christian restraint and morality, meant that the heterosexual protagonists avoided the debauched sexual activities of the Romans, and affirmed the idea of marriage.
"Hollywood has long marginalised homo-(or bi-)sexuality in its ancient epics"
Hollywood has long marginalised homo-(or bi-)sexuality in its ancient epics; it was absent from The 300 Spartans, Richard Burton’s portrayal of Alexander the Great remained heterosexual, and hints at Crassus’ homosexuality in Spartacus were employed to degrade his character in the infamous ‘snails and oysters’ scene (that was cut from the original release), where Lawrence Olivier’s character tries to seduce his new slave, played by Tony Curtis. More recently we saw the controversy surrounding Oliver Stone’s Alexander, where some critics complained about the clarity regarding Alexander’s sexuality or the filmmaker’s confidence in depicting Alexander as outwardly bi-sexual (something I believe is made clear), but either way the film was a commercial failure. Stone was simply trying to remain true to history while making the film as accessible to a wide audience as possible, but in his attempt to keep everyone happy it seemed he pleased no-one.
Greek politics also present a major problem for western audiences. The geography of the city states (polis) and the complex political structures within the cities are troublesome to understand even for students, but especially for mass audiences within the confines of a plot-driven two-hour film. The Roman Republic could be construed as similarly complex, but for the few films set during this period political manoeuvrings are generally symbolised by two or three main politicians with different allegiances, making it easier for an audience to follow. For example, in Spartacus the senate and its activities are boiled down to our villain, Crassus, and the liberal-hearted Gracchus.
The majority of Roman epics employ the figure of the emperor to reduce political complexities and create a single antagonist for the hero; one that usually symbolises Rome, its corruption, vice and cruelty. Roman politics also draws the nearest parallels to America’s government, with its senators, popular and conservative politicians, and a single ruler (although not elected) who acts as a figurehead. Adhering to this creates a familiarity between the western audience and the otherwise complex or alien governments of antiquity, allowing them to engage with the films more.
The Myth-ing Link?
The exceptions to these points appear to be mythological movies, such as Jason and the Argonauts and Troy; the latter utilising its Hollywood star-power and the influential success of Gladiator. During the ‘golden age’ of the ancient historical epic in the 1950s and 1960s, there were arguably only two major historical Greek films, The 300 Spartans and Alexander the Great. The rest were based in myth and legend, including the aforementioned Jason, as well as Helen of Troy and the many Hercules films that blossomed following the success of the Steve Reeves-starring smash and its sequel, Hercules Unchained. Huge numbers of low budget films, mainly made in Italy and set in Greece or Rome, were produced, usually with the motif of muscular men clad in brightly coloured, high-hemmed tunics. These films, know as ‘pepla’, may have inadvertently contributed to the negative connotations of ancient Greece on screen, as most were camp, cheesy, badly made and dubbed, and borrowed heavily from ancient Rome for their look and content, further damaging the idea of Greece’s visual appearance.
Zack Snyder’s 300, however, is an interesting case study. Although it was based in Greek history, it was nevertheless an impressive commercial success, and a prequel is now in the making. Although the film does not radically alter or disprove the points I have discussed above, it instead succeeded by playing to them. A lot of the imagery and score recall that of Gladiator, using that film’s triumph to appeal to the same audiences, and its protagonist seems to be a copy of Maximus; dark haired, bearded, loving to his wife and son but vicious in combat. As well as proudly borrowing from Rome on film, it also toys with the issue of homosexuality, by wallowing in the camp quality of the Spartans and their appearance, while simultaneously courting the Hollywood ideal of the body-beautiful and aggressive masculinity. Furthermore, arriving after the influential hit Sin City, 300’s comic-book sensibility meant it felt and looked more like a mythological film than one based in history.
In short, Greece has too many problematical connotations – its visual look, its cultural recreations, politics and sexuality – for easy incorporation into mainstream cinema, although some films have adapted or altered these points in order to succeed. However, Rome, with its visual style, heterosexual connotations, political system, Christian connections and blood-sports culture make it far easier for western audiences to engage with, and has proven throughout cinematic history that it has a greater audience appeal.
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