The return of swords 'n' sandals movies

When I was a child, no book was more fascinating to me than a Victorian compendium of Greek myths and legends I found on my parents’ bookshelves. The colour plates are vivid even now – the terrifying face of Medusa, scowling out from her halo of knotted snakes; Persephone making her fatal journey away from the light, with thunder-faced Hades. Here was a world of mystery and terror – and a cast of characters who seemed at once emotionally decipherable and thrillingly alien – human, yet larger, just as the Gods appeared to the Ancients.

Later came Clash of the Titans, Ray Harryhausen’s 1981 film based on the myth of Perseus and the novels of Rosemary Sutcliff. Even the comic 2000AD – with its Judge Dredd character Judge Caligula, who made his goldfish deputy chief judge – tipped its hat to the classical world.

For anyone who had a similar experience, the past few years have been an Eisteddfod of nostalgia. There has been a small wave of popular books about the classical world – Harry Mount’s Amo Amas Amat and All That, Charlotte Higgins’s It’s All Greek To Me, Robert Harris’s bestselling historical novels about Cicero, a surge in popular histories. In high politics, there’s Obama’s ostentatiously Ciceronian oratory; in low culture, the video game God Of War has introduced the PlayStation generation to classical myth – if only for the purposes of disembowelling the odd centaur.

But nowhere has the resurgence of the classics been quite so visible as on screen. These “swords ’n’ sandals” tales – the umbrella term by which films set in Greco-Roman antiquity are known – are back with a roar. The turn of the millennium brought Russell Crowe’s bellowing Gladiator (2002), hellbent on revenge against his family’s killers “in this world or the next”. This was followed by two bloated epics, Troy (2004), based albeit loosely on Homer’s Iliad, and Alexander (2004), Oliver Stone’s inadvertently camp biopic of the celebrated Macedonian hooligan. In 2007, a stylised adaptation of 300, Frank Miller’s comic book about the battle of Thermopylae, revitalised the genre.

This week sees the release – with an eye, perhaps, on the teenage classicist – of Prince of Persia, adapted from a bestselling video game series. But already this year we have seen a CGI remake of Clash of the Titans, plus Centurion – an actioner about glum Roman legionaries stationed in England fighting the Picts – and Agora, based on the true story of the female philosopher Hypatia. Still to come is a new adaptation of Rosemary Sutcliff’s 1954 novel The Eagle of the Ninth – which, like Centurion, deals with the myth of the Ninth Legion’s unaccounted-for disappearance in northern England. A new American TV miniseries Spartacus: Blood and Sand is also imminent.

The first golden age of these films ran roughly from the early 1950s to the mid-1960s, and encompassed mega-budget Hollywood blockbusters, such as Quo Vadis (1953), Ben-Hur (1959), Spartacus (1960) and, notoriously, 1963’s Cleopatra starring Elizabeth Taylor – still one of the most expensive films ever. That wave of films collapsed, like the Roman empire, under the weight of its own pomp. The spectacular failure of Cleopatra marked the turning point, nearly bankrupting MGM. But, with swords ’n’ sandals films having been popular since the early days of Hollywood, a return was inevitable. Mary Beard, professor of classics at Cambridge University, says: “What’s odd and reassuring is that every generation says to itself, ‘God, we’ve rediscovered Ancient Rome.’ But actually it’s never stopped. Rome has always been in the moviemaker’s eye.

Robin Lane Fox, longstanding Oxford university tutor in ancient history (and FT gardening writer), was a consultant on Oliver Stone’s Alexander. “He asked me what I wanted in return and I said, ‘I want to ride in the first 10 of every cavalry charge involving the Macedonians,’” Lane Fox recalls. He says: “These films are an excellent provocation. They force us to pose questions we might pass over. The Alexander film shows us, unforgettably, more than 200,000 people on a battlefield. However did an ancient society force them to be there, pay them and supply them?”

The attraction of classical antiquity to filmmakers has never been hard to fathom: it has sex (from Theda Bara’s heavy-lidded Cleopatra in 1917, the idea of the ancients being constantly At It has persisted), violence (plenty of scope for gladiatorial hurly burly and epic battles) and grand narrative. Greco-Roman antiquity offers filmmakers a giant out-of-copyright myth kitty. The Roman empire has a wide set of political resonances; slavery and early Christianity a narrative of oppression; the Greek legends a grab-bag of ready-made stories and recognisable monsters.

All these elements play well at the box office (Quo Vadis took $30m in its day; Gladiator has taken nearly half a billion dollars) but there are material – as well as cultural or financial – considerations at work too. The last great surge of sword ’n’ sandals filmmaking was associated with the emergence of a new technology. In the early 1950s Hollywood sought ever larger spectacles and the ancient world offered huge crowd scenes, epic architecture and dramatic landscapes. The 1953 epic The Robe – the story of a Roman soldier, played by Richard Burton, who commands the execution of Jesus but eventually converts to Christianity and is taken into heaven – was the first film screened to take advantage of the widescreen process Cinemascope.

Today, the emergence of computer-generated imagery (CGI) has been a similar gift to filmmakers: the mythological monsters in Clash of the Titans no longer need to be fashioned from Plasticine and painstakingly animated by hand; sets on a DeMillean scale can be built in a computer; unthinkable legions of extras set in motion for crowd scenes with a few strokes on a keyboard. Indeed, a strong tributary influence on this new wave of films, not just in subject matter but in aesthetics, is video games. The fight scenes in Centurion and 300 – speedy and stylised, with sudden lurches into slow motion to savour a climactic decapitation, say – are straight out of a console game. Prince of Persia, as befits its source, is even more explicitly game-like. As the hero attempts to infiltrate the besieged city, the camera zooms ahead of him, setting out the task in prospect.

But it’s not just technology driving the revival. It’s also that the Roman empire once again looks handy as a metaphor. The last wave of Hollywood’s swords ’n’ sandals films fought the cold war. The new generation finds different resonances. The current crop of films are, in part, a study in decline and disaffection – at the edge of empire and at the end of empire.

In an age of failed “civilising missions” and messy counterinsurgency operations far from home, the legend of the disappearance of the Ninth Legion sent to subdue the Picts in northern England resonates especially strongly. Both Neil Marshall’s slam-bang movie Centurion – “A new kind of war – a war without honour, without end” – and The Eagle of the Ninth, take on the myth. In Marshall’s story, the Ninth comes to grief after being ambushed by headbutty, woad-smeared locals rolling burning boulders at them.

Centurion does not invite you to identify with the values of the invading army; the Roman senior command is shown as first incompetent, then treacherous. Nor does it, like Braveheart, put you in the insurgents’ camp. The Picts are vicious barbarians, and the hero’s final quietus is in deserting from the army and settling down with another outsider, a Pictish woman expelled from her tribe on suspicion of witchcraft. Set on the outer edge of empire rather than in its seat, its final position is a rather ahistorical individualism.

Agora shares this perspective but offers a different ambivalence. Set in the port of Alexandria at the beginning of AD5, its heroine is the philosopher-mathematician Hypatia. The city’s bourgeois, slave-owning pagan inhabitants are pushed back by a rising cult of religious extremists: the Christians. They are swarthy, heavy-accented, dark-turbaned (subtlety isn’t always Agora’s strongest suit), socially radical, sexually confused, and run a religious police force with a great fondness for stoning people.

Tom Holland, a historian working on a book about the origins of Islam in Late Antiquity, argues that “it’s not just the Taliban that are in its [Agora’s] sights, but the religious right in America ... It’s Dawkins and Philip Pullman defending the Natural History Museum from Sarah Palin and Abu Hamza.” In its underlying shape, he says, the film is a reboot of The Robe – with Hypatia, killed by Christians, a martyr for secularism no less than Richard Burton’s character was for Christ.

Historically, he says, Agora’s premise is nonsense. “The pagan philosophers were as anti-rationalistic as the Christians. But it doesn’t matter. It has a mythical resonance, and again it suggests the way people are always looking back to the classical past in particular to validate their understanding of the present.”

Prince of Persia, a Jerry Bruckheimer kids’ movie that groans with orientalist stereotypes and evinces none of the imperial anxiety of its contemporaries, also contains some pretty overt contemporary digs: the holy city of Alamut is searched for non-existent weapons of mass-destruction; another character fears “secret government killing”. Even in the absurdest of these largely absurd films, you can see filmmakers using antiquity as a way of joking about the present.

But the representational link works both ways. Should it matter, say, that the Kraken – a creature from Norwegian myth – appears in Clash of the Titans? Or that, contrary to Agora’s plot, the Library of Alexandria had been gone for centuries by Hypatia’s time; or that, as in 300, the ancient Persian army didn’t actually have ninjas and war rhinoceroses? Or even that few of these films have found a satisfactory register for dialogue – 300 favoured Yoda-like inversions (“Long I pondered my king’s cryptic talk of victory”), while Centurion attempted gritty modern swearing (“So this is Hadrian’s big f***ing plan? A wall?”)?

Lane Fox says: “Viewers have to accept that events in films will be compressed and sometimes out of their historical order. The best of them use history as their constant springboard.” Pointing to a “sliding scale” of accuracy, he says: “Gladiator was completely detached from the world of the emperor Commodus. The scriptwriters were trying to make a point about sports stars being much more influential than an American president. Whereas Spartacus was driven by the marxism and the far leftwing viewpoint of the makers and as a result was perfect for a story about ancient slavery.”

Beard says some of the recent crop has tested her tolerance. “Troy, I thought, was so unutterably bad. There comes a point where, as a paid-up professional classicist you can take many things, but not f***ing about with the plot of the Iliad. For a professional ... there’s a boundary that once you cross you cannot take it seriously.” A Rubicon, I suggest. “A Rubicon, yes.”

As Beard concedes, though, to fetishise historical accuracy would be to miss the point. Hollywood is and always has been in the business of making myths – and the classical world offers material unusually amenable to this business.

That mythographic excitement is something that gets under even a professional’s skin. When I ask Tom Holland whether he’s pleased to see more togas on screen, he exclaims: “Of course I am! I love them. I love watching Romans being chopped to pieces by barbarians. It reawakens my 12-year-old self.” Amen to that.

‘Prince of Persia’ opens on May 28

Will the real Spartacus stand up?

One thing that can be said with confidence of Spartacus: Blood and Sand is that it will not give fans of the late Stanley Kubrick, director of the most celebrated cinematic version of the story, the slightest anxiety that his reputation will be eclipsed.

Premiered in America on the Starz channel this year, and due in Britain later this month, the TV series follows the progress of a rebellious Thracian gladiator (played by Andy Whitfield) whose wife has been sold into slavery by a scheming Roman. Fighting and fornication are the orders of the day, and even before its arrival this overheated mish-mash of impalings and amputations has run into trouble with the guardians of decency, with Mediawatch UK calling for it to be banned.

The series is the latest addition to a colossal canon of material about the leader of a two-year slave rebellion in the first century BC. Over the past century and more, dozens of books, films, plays, comics, computer games and even concept albums have lionised Spartacus.

To ancient Roman historians, though, Spartacus is far from the heroic figure of resistance that modern sensibilities have made of him. A slave rebellion was regarded as demeaning even to have to put down. It went unmentioned in most histories, and Florus, writing long after his death, complained that “the common soldiers being slaves and their leaders being gladiators ... added insult to injury”.

Later generations took a different line. Karl Marx hailed Spartacus as a hero. When George Kleine toured the Italian Spartaco round the US in 1914, his publicity material made the rebel slave a “hero of liberty”.

Kubrick’s 1960 version also acquired a political charge – though one hostile to the tone of the times. The “I am Spartacus” scene – where the defeated slaves choose to share their leader’s fate – was widely held to allegorise the solidarity of blacklisted communists under McCarthyism.

Kubrick himself said that he had been more influenced by Soviet historical films than any Hollywood representations of the classical past.

Spartacus: Blood and Sand demonstrates, at least, this old story’s vigorous openness to reinterpretation. Its producer Steven S DeKnight has said that he wants to use the series “to explore the vanishing middle class” in modern America.

‘Spartacus: Blood and Sand’ begins on May 25 on Bravo

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