Monica Silveira Cyrino, Big Screen Rome. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005. Pp. xiv + 274. ISBN 1-4051-1684-6. UK£19.99.
Classics, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban
Since film courses that focus on screen representations of Classical antiquity seem to be becoming such a staple of Classical Civilisation programmes everywhere, Monica Silveira Cyrino’s Big Screen Rome comes as a welcome and timely addition to the growing store of secondary literature in this rapidly expanding area of Classical studies. Well-organised and appropriately illustrated, Cyrino’s lively contribution suggests itself as a suitable textbook to prescribe for such courses. This is not to say, however, that there are no problems with the work. As the title implies, Cyrino’s book concentrates on the Roman side of things and excludes the Greek portion of Classically themed films –- recent films such as Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy (2004) and Oliver Stone’s Alexander (2004) are noteworthy omissions dictated by the study’s exclusively Roman bias.[] Even within the Roman film universe, the work is far from exhaustive; Cyrino focuses on a relatively small selection of films in the book. These, she explains, are the films she has tried and tested in her own film course at the University of New Mexico (p. 3). Unfortunately, the restrictions of the academic year mean that every lecturer or course co- ordinator designing a film studies module has inevitably to decide what to include and what to leave out. Nevertheless Big Screen Rome treats all the major and most famous Classically themed films of yesteryear and provides a solid, useful starting point for the Classics in the Movies student, who should be encouraged to build upon the basic information imparted by the study.
What gives Cyrino’s work such potential as a textbook is the meticulously organised manner in which information about a number of Classically themed films is imparted. Indeed, it is clear that it is precisely as a textbook that Cyrino’s book has been composed. Every chapter deals with just one film, thus avoiding unnecessary confusion, although there is some discussion of previous versions or direct predecessors of the film in question. Within each chapter the same structured organisational approach is taken. Cyrino arranges each chapter under a number of headings that are always the same and in the same order. This predictability makes the book easy to use. For example, on the first page of each chapter, one finds important information about the film’s production studio, director, screenplay, cast and so on. This provides a useful reference point to turn to if one has, for example, forgotten the name of an actor or the year in which a film was released. Cyrino follows this, in each case, with an equally useful ‘Plot Outline’, which is detailed summary of the plot of each film. Cyrino anticipates that this will help students and lecturers place significant scenes and clear up confusion about the sequence of the narrative (p. 5). Cynics may comment that the plot summary will be of great help to those incorrigible students who, as incredible as it may seem, have failed to watch the film itself.
Next in every chapter comes a section entitled ‘Ancient Background’ which describes the ancient sources or the historical background that inspired the film. In these sections, Cyrino usually delves into some recorded history of ancient Rome, concerning which the modern films can be extraordinarily cavalier. The exception to the historical approach is in Chapter 6 (pp. 159-75), on A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), where the ‘Ancient Background’ section focuses instead on the background to Roman comedy, the genre on which this purely imaginary film is based. The section ‘Background to the Film’ in each case discusses the more recent background to the movie, with, as Cyrino explains, ‘an examination of other appropriations, literary or figurative, of the story or its major characters since antiquity, and in particular the use of the story or characters in other media such as novels, stage plays, and other cinematic versions’ (p. 5). This section explains, in addition, the manner in which the film project came to be assigned to a particular director and provides a brief summary of the particular director’s career (p. 5). Cyrino’s credentials as a film buff and her impressively broad knowledge of Hollywood (after all, she grew up in the neighbourhood)[] enable her to impart interesting and often very revealing information about other films on non-Classical themes made by the directors in question.
The next section, ‘Making the Movie’, in each case highlights the actual production of the film under discussion, frequently involving intrigues, struggles, and expenses of such proportions that they rival the epic itself. This section also examines technical issues such as ‘the development of the screenplay, directorial decisions about the shooting location and casting of actors, the film’s artistic design, musical score, exceptional set-piece scenes, special effects and new cinematic technologies’ (p. 5). The final major section, ‘Themes and Interpretations’, provides in each case an in- depth analysis of the major themes of the film, as well as situating the movie in the broader social, political, and cultural context of the time of its production and release. Cyrino evaluates each film’s degree of critical and commercial success, and she also looks for reasons for this. Each chapter concludes with a potentially useful list of ‘Core Issues’ (take note, students!), a set of important themes and issues that Cyrino has identified as arising out of each film. One can almost see already the garishly coloured highlighter pens coming out to underline or otherwise mutilate these questions, helpfully posed in point-form.
Many of the films Cyrino discusses tell us more about the attitudes and trends in American society than about the ancient world. Cyrino is particularly good at contextualising each movie in the American society of the particular era in which it was made. She examines perceptively the degree to which each film she analyses captures its Zeitgeist, and her book as a whole is set out chronologically so as to follow the evolution of the ‘swords and sandals’ epic from its heyday in the early 1950s to its sudden resurrection with the success of Gladiator in the year 2000. Big Screen Rome in effect tracks the changes in American political, religious, sexual, and cultural attitudes during the second half of the twentieth century. Cyrino’s first three chapters treat three religious-themed American epics from the 1950s, Quo Vadis (1951), The Robe (1953), and Ben-Hur (1959). As Cyrino remarks (p. 3), these post-War religious epics all inherit as well as perpetuate similar mythologies about Rome. Their presentations of gender, race, and class are limited by the prejudices of that era. One of the problems faced by the lecturer today is how to make these pious films, which sometimes look like walking Christmas cards, accessible to the contemporary secularly-minded and often agnostic student. Yet it is important that students are familiar with this sub-genre of epic film in order for them to appreciate the subsequent parodies of it, in films like Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979). On the political front, Cyrino takes care to situate these films within the tense cultural and political climate of the United States during the Cold War period, another scenario that is entirely foreign to the modern eighteen- to twenty-year-old student. The next two chapters examine secular films about Rome made during the early 1960s, Spartacus (1960) and Cleopatra (1963). Few film courses about the ancient world would ignore these two highly significant movies. Cyrino follows this with three chapters treating comedies, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979), and Mel Brooks’ History of the World, Part 1: The Roman Empire Sequence (1981). Cyrino finishes off with a very well- written chapter on Gladiator (2000), the film which launched the return of the Classically themed epic film.
In her introduction (pp. 1-6), Cyrino observes that there is both an attraction to the power and spectacle of Rome, as well as a simultaneous abhorrence felt towards what are perceived as the excesses of this ancient civilisation: ‘Contemporary audiences readily relate to and even define themselves by the on-screen portrayal of the ancient Romans whose provocative combination of dignity and decadence both fascinates and disturbs’ (pp. 1f.). Traditionally, however, American audiences do not seem to have been encouraged to identify themselves with the Romans. In the movies on the ancient world, until fairly recently, the American actors (or actors with American accents) never played the evil, oppressive Romans, but rather appeared as slaves, Christians, and other innocent victims of Rome’s abuse of power. According to the Hollywood ‘linguistic paradigm’, actors with British accents that were ‘posh’-sounding to American audiences played the evil, corrupt and oppressive Romans. This all changed, as Cyrino observes (p. 232), with Gladiator (2000), when Australian Russell Crowe adopted a gruff but refined English accent (‘Royal Shakespeare Company two pints after lunch’) in order to play the hero Maximus. However, the villain Commodus, played by American Joaquin Phoenix, also adopted an accent that veers occasionally into Cockney (‘ . . . busy likkle bee . . . ’). On America’s shoulders, it seems, the mantle of Rome rests uneasily. Issues of power and empire suggested by the paradigm of ancient Rome have never been more significant for contemporary society, and to the rest of the world today, America is clearly Rome. Only certain recent films, however, have made a direct link between the ancient Roman empire and its most striking contemporary parallel.[] By treating mostly earlier American-made movies,[] however, which subscribe to the conventional paradigm, Cyrino has narrowed our perspective of ancient Rome.
In Cyrino’s selection there are not enough recent films under discussion, and thus the entire focus of her book is on early material which, one anticipates, will eventually largely be replaced by later portrayals of the ancient world. Much of the more recent film material has been about Greece rather than about Rome. But even on the Roman side of things there have been many made-for-television spectacles (admittedly mostly British) that merit attention. These television series have often been less flashy but more historically accurate than the Hollywood blockbusters, and in the past I have found it useful to have students compare small and large screen presentations of the same historical figure. The nature of a television series allows the scriptwriters to go into greater detail on minor background issues that of necessity are swept under the carpet in the Hollywood blockbuster. If, for example, the 1963 Cleopatra film had been a television series as opposed to a lengthy movie, there may have been a chance to show aspects of Mark Antony’s early career and his relationship to Julius Caesar that had to be edited out of the film version and which may have helped explain some of his later behaviour.[] Cyrino has severely limited her choice of films by being strictly ‘Big Screen’ and ‘Rome’ (and almost exclusively American).
While a post-modernist analysis of the multi-layered meanings of the films and their reflections on antiquity may be instructive, on a more practical level, as Cyrino herself suggests (p. 2), we need to question why we teach these films at all in the context of the Classics classroom. What bothers me, however, is that on the whole Cyrino’s attitude towards the films she has selected (clearly her favourites) is more approving than critical. While there is nothing wrong with enjoying the spectacles, often it is necessary to focus on the movies’ faults rather than their good points in order to enable our students to learn something about the ancient world from them. Do these films as artistic representations make any attempt at historical accuracy? To what extent could inaccuracies in these movies cause confusion or misconceptions in the minds of some of our students? How far-fetched must a film be before it loses any relevance to a study of the ancient world?[] While it is true that most of our impressions of the ancient world are mediated by some previous representation, that there is no modern representation of antiquity that can be truly objective, and that all films about the ancient world are really about the modern one, it would be hard to justify giving up all attempts at historical accuracy in films that are, after all, promoted as historical ‘period pieces’. Historical accuracy is what the lay person always wants to know about: I think it would be condescending and dismissive to suggest that the ordinary film-going public does not care about this. By failing to tackle the thorny question of historical accuracy head-on, Big Screen Rome ultimately is unable to raise itself out of the limited level of a class textbook to the status of a more rewarding and abiding contribution to scholarship.
When it comes to the visual recreation of the movie set, it has been observed, historical accuracy resides in the details of that recreation.[] What I miss in Cyrino’s book is a discussion of the historical anachronisms of each film, some of which are petty, others irritating, and still others dangerously misleading. I am not overly concerned about such legendary alleged slip-ups as the automobile in the arena or the wristwatch on the arm of a Roman soldier, amusing as these things may be to spot. Somewhat more insidious, however, is Judah’s elderly servant Simonides (Esther’s father) bumbling about in Ben-Hur with a yarmulke (skullcap) on his head centuries before this became the practice in Jewish communities.[] Again, Judah’s experience as a slave has him rowing a galley as a dire form of punishment, while in practice being an oarsman was a highly paid and respected profession. In battle, after all, it was better to depend on free men rather than on slaves.[] In Cleopatra (1963), Cleopatra and Antony sit upright to eat their banquet on the queen’s boat afloat on the River Cydnus. They look ridiculous: why aren’t they reclining? Cyrino’s book could have been made more useful if she had compiled a list of these anomalies. Even the minor infringements are worth noting, so that these can be brought to the students’ attention.
A more serious dilemma, in my view, is whether Spartacus dies on a cross, as in Stanley Kubrick’s movie, or in battle, as Plutarch tells us.[] At a push, an anonymous Spartacus could indeed have been among his numerous followers crucified between Capua and Rome as a reprisal for antiquity’s most successful slave uprising, but this is not what Plutarch says. As Classicists and Ancient Historians we need to ask why sometimes deliberate alterations to historical events and phenomena are made in modern films about the ancient world, and what effect this has on our students’ understanding of the ancient world. Having Spartacus die on the cross,[] for example, is useful in dramatic terms, as it gives Kirk Douglas a Christ-like profile and a chance to have some dialogue with Jean Simmons, but knowledge of the ancient world reveals that dying in battle as a warrior and not on the cross like a slave would be the path that Spartacus himself (and any other ancient with an ounce of self- respect) would undoubtedly have preferred. It is important that we use the opportunities for discussion afforded by the films’ inaccuracies to engage with our students, and to introduce them to the real challenges of the ancient world, in which the issues of right and wrong were not always as clear-cut as in a Hollywood movie.
[] With the release of 300 (2007), a dramatisation of the battle of Thermopylae, might it not soon be time for a companion volume entitled Big Screen Greece?
[] See ‘Acknowledgments’, p. viii.
[] According to Lou Marinoff, ‘America is Rome reincarnate. Like the Roman empire, the American empire is vastly powerful and unfathomably corrupt. Like Rome, America imposes her civilisation upon an ungrateful world. Like Rome, America needs bread, circuses and philosopher- statesmen to forestall and yet to hasten her demise’ (The Philosopher’s Magazine, Summer 1998 -- I owe this reference to Susan Haskins.) Gladiator (2000), prior to the disaster of 9/11 and all the propaganda that has followed it its wake, was in my view a high point in the United States’ cultural biography at which point America could look at herself and admit that she was Rome.
[] An exception to this is, of course, Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979), which Cyrino ably treats in her seventh chapter (pp. 176-93).
[] Cyrino notes this problem with the editing of Burton’s portayal of Mark Antony at p. 145. However, she dismisses the 1999 BBC mini-series Cleopatra as ‘feeble’ (p. 151). An excellent example of a recent mini- series, perhaps too recent for Cyrino’s book, to be fair, is the series Rome created by John Milius, William J. Macdonald, and Bruno Heller (London 2006).
[] Kathleen Coleman, herself an academic consultant to the movie Gladiator (2000), raises many questions regarding the issue of historical accuracy and the role of the academic consultant in her chapter ‘The Pedant Goes to Hollywood: The Role of the Academic Consultant’ in Martin M. Winkler (ed.), Gladiator: Film and History (Oxford 2004) 45-52. She concludes (p. 52) that historical accuracy need not be sacrificed to artistic sensibility provided that there is a sophisticated working relationship between the academic consultant and the filmmakers.
[] Coleman  49 observes that while scholars are often accused of being too focused on the minutiae, which may be a problem for an academic consultant working on a film set, nevertheless, it should be remembered that ‘detail is the repository of authenticity’.
[] Covering the head before God is very ancient practice in Judaism, but any form of head-covering is acceptable in terms of Jewish law. A wide variety of head- coverings has been worn by Jewish men from ancient times to the present, and many regional differences used to exist. It seems that the yarmulke as we know it dates from Medieval times. The word is Yiddish and the practice of wearing this cap probably comes from Poland. It has even been suggested that ‘the so-called Jewish garb of Poland, including even the ‘jarmulka’ (undercap), is simply the old Polish costume which the Jews retained after the Poles had adopted the German form of dress’ (JewishEncyclopedia.com – COSTUME, p. 20; accessed on 11/5/07).
[] Ancient warship designs required that each oarsman be responsible for one oar, and therefore rowing was a skilled job, performed by trained personnel. J.G. Landels in his work Engineering in the Ancient World (London 1980) notes that however well designed a warship may have been, ‘it was only one half of a partnership, the other being a fit, well trained crew whose morale was high’ (p. 149). Where slaves were used on ancient galleys, they were apparently freed and trained first. Later designs, however, required three to seven men handling one oar, so individual skill mattered less, and from about the sixteenth century A.D., European powers started using condemned criminals and prisoners-of-war to man their galleys. From there the commonplace of a condemned ‘galley slave’ made its way into literature, and what eventually became a literary tradition seems to have influenced the portrayal of Ben-Hur.
[] Plutarch Life of Crassus 11.6-7. Plutarch (id. 8.3) also suggests that Spartacus the Thracian was in fact not born into slavery at all, as in the movie, but was enslaved through capture. I think that this is significant; the attitudes instilled in Spartacus by his free birth may explain the indomitable spirit that enabled him to lead the slave rebellion in the first place. It is not accidental that the Roman slave-owning classes preferred the home-born slave, the verna, to formerly free individuals captured in warfare.
[] As far as I can tell, this is an innovation of the screenplay. Both the novel on which the film is loosely based, Howard Fast’s Spartacus (London 1952), as well as Arthur Koestler’s The Gladiators (London 1939), have Spartacus dying in battle.