Scholia Reviews ns 16 (2008) 20.
Martin M. Winkler, Spartacus: Film and History. Malden, Oxford, Victoria: Blackwell Publishing, 2007. Pp. x + 267, incl. 23 back-and-white illustrations. ISBN 978-1405-1318-10. US$29.95, UK£19.99, AUS$48.95.
Australian National University, Canberra, Australia
Martin Winkler (who has already produced in 2004 Gladiator: Film and History) edits here a series of essays about a film which, the back cover proclaims, 'has enjoyed iconic status in cinema history and strongly influenced modern perspectives on ancient Rome.' A recommendation by Paul Murgatroyd states that 'Nobody teaching a Classics film course and no Classics library can afford to be without this book. It is a major contribution to our understanding of one of the most popular and important films on the ancient world.'
And Spartacus -- the film -- does indeed have iconic status, albeit only at the sword and sandal level. The story of its making does indeed offer interesting insights into Hollywood politics. These are dealt with in two contributions by Duncan Cooper ('Who Killed the Legend of Spartacus? Production, Censorship, and Reconstruction of Stanley Kubrick's Epic Film', pp. 14-55, and 'Dalton Trumbo vs. Stanley Kubrick: The Historical Meaning of Spartacus', pp. 56-64,), which deal with Trumbo, the blacklist, and so on. Some of the other contributions stick close to the topic of the film (Allen M. Ward, 'Spartacus: History and Histrionics', pp. 87-111; diagrams of Roman battle tactics, pp. 124-27, from the souvenir program; and C. A. Robinson Jr., 'Spartacus, Rebel Against Rome', pp. 112-23, from the same source). Others explain the ancient context for ideas such as slavery and sacrifice (W. Jeffrey Tatum, 'The Character of Marcus Licinius Crassus', pp. 128-43; Michael Parenti, 'Roman Slavery and the Class Divide: Why Spartacus Lost', pp. 144-53, and Francisco Javier Tovar Paz, 'Spartacus and the Stoic Ideal of Death', pp. 189-97), while another group looks at connotations for contemporary America (Frederick Ahl, 'Spartacus, Exodus, and Dalton Trumbo: Managing Ideologies of War', pp. 65-86, and Martin Winkler, 'The Holy Cause of Freedom: American Ideals in Spartacus', pp. 154-88). The editor wraps up the series with what amounts to a plea for the film to be taken seriously, with '”Culturally significant and not just simple entertainment”: history and the marketing of Spartacus,' pp. 198-232. But this is not quite the wrap-up because, in the final fifteen pages of text of the volume, are reprinted in English the principal ancient sources (Plutarch, Appian, Florus, Livy and others) for those who believe the film has anything in particular to do with the historical record.
And here’s the rub. A film which the reading of this book would demonstrate to have but a tenuous connection with what might actually have happened is used as a seductively attractive entrée into the classical world. The unstated implication is that no longer do students need to plough through all that Tacitus or Plutarch (let alone in Latin). Just sit in a darkened room and enjoy the blood, battles, and human sympathy, then read essays of the nature and reach of those presented in Winkler’s book. Is the study of classics films a suitable academic pursuit? Yes, for students who have the background and breadth of knowledge gained through reading the ancient authors to balance what they depict -- project -- against the evidence. Is the study of the Hollywood film industry equally suitable? Yes, for students studying popular culture or the economics of capitalism, and well-read in these areas. But books such as Spartacus: Film and History seem to suggest to students that studying such films is a key offering entry to knowledge of the classical world -- whereas surely no serious classicist would see such films as anything other than a light and inevitably distorted diversion. Or would they? The reception of the classical past (really a new name for the study of the classical tradition) is growing in interest and offers, especially to the linguistically challenged, a different way of studying the past -- that is, via popular culture.[] But this decidedly should not mean that reception studies necessarily offer insights into original meanings or world-views. So by all means let us study the reception of Spartacus in the 1960s; but let us be clear what such an approach can and cannot deliver.
Instead, to view the slave revolt through the eyes of Plutarch and his fellow authors offers us something about the historical past. To do so through Spartacus inevitably misleads, because the requirements of film- making and the conventions used by the medium are not, and are not intended to be, historically truthful. So why use them in classics courses? Because, as B.L. Ullman wrote in 1915 (Winkler quotes him, p. 202) 'Moving pictures are an excellent means of showing that the Classics are not dead.' Nearly a century later, with the need to keep up enrolments in classics courses (naturally without Latin -- who needs Latin?) we may assume that the same desire motivates teachers, and this has lead to a profusion of supporting books.[] Indeed, we scarcely need 'straight' history any more, since we have George Macdonald Fraser’s The Hollywood History of the World: From One Million Years B.C. to Apocalypse Now (London 1988). Given the popularity of viewing reality through television, it is but a short chariot-ride to view the classical world through films, and to discuss the context with solemnity and critical apparatus. Proof that it is the tail that is wagging the dog is seen in the plethora of books and TV pieces spun off -- the term is surely appropriate -- from the popularity of Gladiator. Distortion continues, with 300 (Leonidas and Thermopylae) derived very closely from a comic, not from ancient accounts; the gap with the real past may be measured here in the clothing, but we may confidently look forward to learned disquisitions on those dinky black leather jockstraps that all the Spartans therein wear.
So for this reviewer books such as Spartacus: Film and History may offer interesting insights into the period in which the film(s) treated were made, because we can all accept that cinema is sometimes a mirror of society and its preoccupations and prejudices. But the notion that 'historical' films offer more than a diversion, indeed a serious window on the past, should be resisted in favour of the documents, whether these be texts, surviving buildings, or material retrieved through archaeology. As a study of a particular age and country in cinema history, the book does indeed make a contribution; but educators and their students who think such films are worthy of study as keys to the ancient world should be locked in a room without TV or DVD, and be given Plutarch and Livy and the others to read, in the original Greek and Latin.
[] Cf. Charles Martindale and Richard F. Thomas (edd.), Classics and the Uses of Reception (Oxford 2006).
[] Cf. Maria Wyke, Projecting the Past: Ancient Rome, Cinema and History (London and New York 1997); Winkler’s own Classical Myth and Culture in Cinema (Oxford 2001); J. Solomon’s The Ancient World in the Cinema (New Haven 2001), Josher, Malamud, and McGuire (edd.), Imperial Projections: Ancient Rome in Modern Popular Culture (Baltimore 2001); or Monica Cyrino’s Big Screen Rome (Oxford 2005).