The Cinematic Ancient World
Irene Berti and Marta García Mortillo (edd.), Hellas on Screen: Cinematic Representations of Ancient History, Literature, and Myth. Habes Band 45. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2009. Pp. 267, incl. 29 black-and-white illustrations. ISBN 978-3-515-09223-4. €48.00.
Ruth Scodel and Anja Bettenworth, Whither Quo Vadis? Sienkiewicz's Novel in Film and Television. Malden, Oxford, Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, 2009. Pp. x + 292, incl. 18 black-and-white illustrations. ISBN 978- 1-4051-8385-7. UK£50.00.
Arthur J. Pomeroy,
Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington, New Zealand
The world of Greece and Rome was one of the earliest cinematic subjects, reflecting a desire to appropriate high cultural values into what quickly became a mass medium. Still, it took nearly a century for classicists to show much interest in these photo dramas. Jon Solomon’s Ancient World in the Cinema (1978) led the way, but only in the 1990s -- with the publication of Martin Winkler’s edited collection, Classics and the Cinema (1991) and especially Maria Wyke’s Projecting the Past (1997) -- did the reception of the ancient world on film cautiously begin to be regarded as worthy of scholarship. In the last decade, the trickle has become a spate.
The reasons for this are several: the rise of media and cultural studies in addition to more established film studies in academia; the need to offer classes that will attract student numbers (is Film the new Mythology?); the search for fields unexplored (in similar fashion, the meadow of post-Vergilian epic has suddenly become quite crowded) and perhaps a more tolerant attitude in the profession to non-canonical material. The two books under review are very much to be welcomed as broadening the focus away from well-known Hollywood blockbusters. At the same time, they raise questions about methodology that need to be faced if the study of the cinematic reception of the past is to mature.
Hellas on Screen developed out of a course on ‘Antiquity in Film’ at the University of Heidelberg in 2005. The contributors all originate in mainland Europe (three presently working in the United Kingdom) and so offer a different perspective from the Anglophone studies that have predominated till now. The decision to publish all the papers in English could be seen as a response to the lack of attention paid to foreign language material in previous studies, although the cause of that neglect, rather than linguistic incompetence, may be that European reception studies have been later out of the gate compared to their North American and British counterparts. There are occasional indications that the writers are non-native speakers, but these are rarely confusing and sometimes even charming (‘Greek freedoms-thought’ (p. 221), for example). The odd man out is Robin Lane Fox, whose preface, with its studied English eccentricity à la P.G. Wodehouse, enthusiastically embraces the whole project.
Nacho Garcia leads off with a discussion of the mise-en- scène of around twenty films portraying ancient Greece, from Robert Wise’s Helen of Troy (1956) to Zack Schneider’s 300 (2006) (‘Classic Sceneries: Setting Ancient Greece in Film Architecture’, pp. 21-38). He rightly stresses that cinema-goers’ conceptions of Greece do not derive from the vision of any of the Hollywood studios, but from Pinewood and Shepperton in London and Cinecittà and Palatino in Rome. Examining the visual styles of these films reveals some readily recognizable trends (the use of Near Eastern and Minoan styles to characterize Troy in contrast with the harsher Doric style of mainland Greece); others are less obvious, such as the use of the Ionic order to signify the more luxurious Roman world rather than classical Greece. This is an important contribution, stressing the visual element of production design that is often given short shrift in comparison with narrative themes.
Martin Lindner (‘Colourful Heroes: Ancient Greece and the Children’s Animation Film’, pp. 39-56) examines ten animated films or series mainly from the 1990s that recreate the adventures of Hercules and Odysseus and other tales from Greek mythology. This interesting collection of videos from around the world -- unusually labelled by their European Article Number (EAN) barcode rather than the traditional identification by director and date -- is examined for variations from canonical versions. In line with the target audience, these versions remove sexual content and tone down violence; other alterations may reflect the brevity of the productions and their didactic purposes. Clearly much more can be done with such material (for instance, looking for localized content in product that is often aimed at a global market, or comparing recent approaches with older examples of children’s film and literature), but this is a valuable introduction to a type of production that, as both derivative and juvenile- directed, is often undervalued.
The use of classical philology to explicate Heracles films is the subject of Luigi Spina’s light-hearted ‘By Heracles! From Satyr-play to Peplum’ (pp. 57-64). Wryly noting that English-speaking scholars are better acquainted with studies of the peplum film than with other Italian research, Spina discusses the comic treatment of Heracles since ancient times. His call for serious study of the depiction of Heracles in the peplum, given the genre’s appeal to an Italian working-class audience, is sensible. It also strengthens the case for reserving the term for such films produced in Italy in 1958-65, a time that also saw considerable internal migration of southern workers to the north. While he argues that parodic treatments reveal the exhaustion of the genre (a similar development occurs in Italian westerns), comic elements, a trademark of scriptwriter Ennio de Concini, are certainly already present in Le fatiche di Ercole (1958), the film that initiated the peplum flood.
Herbert Verreth (‘Odysseus’ Journey Through Film’, pp. 65- 74) briefly discusses variations in the approximately 80 versions of the Odyssey that exist in his database of films on ancient topics. Would the hero be impressed to discover that his kleos is not as great as that of (unsurprisingly) Jesus, Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, or Nero?
Particularly impressive is Pantelis Michelakis’ ‘The Legend of Oedipus: Silent Cinema, Theatre, Photography’ (pp. 75-88). The 1912 French version of Oedipus Rex, starring Jean Mounet-Sully, is now lost, but production stills show the growing independence of cinema from stage. The film’s depiction of a hanged Jocasta in contrast to the off-stage violence of ancient drama was a shocking innovation that might attract spectators, but also incurred the censors’ wrath. Michelakis shows the gains that can accrue from exposure to film theory. His analysis of the ‘gaze’ goes well beyond the familiar ‘male gaze’ associated with Laura Mulvey’s famous article and offers considerable opportunities for development.
While Pier Paolo Pasolini’s cinematic versions of Greek tragedy are well-known, Filippo Carlà’s ‘Pasolini, Aristotle and Freud: Filmed Drama between Psychoanalysis and “Neoclassicism”’ (pp. 89-116), is, to the best of my knowledge, the first detailed treatment in English of the poet-director’s interpretation of the ancient world in the light of his own classical education, Freudian psychoanalysis, and post-colonial theories of the 1960s and 1970s. Pasolini’s ideas of ritualized drama and the relationship between pre-industrial and capitalist societies, as well as his sexual politics, are complex and very much of their time. Carlà’s explication, drawing on Pasolini’s own writings and other Italian scholarship, clarifies his thought considerably. This is clearly the place to start any investigation of post-war European cinematic depiction of ancient drama. Fernando Lillo Redonet offers an analysis of Rudolph Maté’s The 300 Spartans from 1961 (pp. 117-30). While the Cold War parallels are well-known, the didactic use of Sparta as a model for American society is well- illustrated from the film’s pressbook. Perhaps the film’s greatest significance has been to inspire Frank Miller’s comic and its cinematic representation by Zack Snyder in 2006.
Irene Berti (‘“A rare ensample of Friendship true”: the story of Damon and Pythias’, pp. 131-46) uses the Italo- American co-production Il tiranno di Siracusa (1962) to explore this tale of male-bonding to the exclusion of all else. The study ranges from silent screen films to Thorsten Becker’s novel, Die Bürgschaft (1985), that alludes to Schiller’s 1799 ballad of the same name. There are some misinterpretations (for example, that in 1962 free-love and extra-marital sex were regarded as acceptable) and more might be made of the casting of Disney’s Zorro, Guy Williams, as a gentleman-thief Damon. But Berti well documents the tale’s importance as a model for homosociality (and sometimes homosexuality) from the Renaissance to the American fraternal order of the Knights of Pythias (1864-). It would be worth investigating why this story has almost slipped into oblivion over the last fifty years: is the decline of male homosocial values in the face of feminism and gay pride the explanation?
Three papers by Anja Wieber (‘Celluloid Alexander(s)’, pp. 147-162), Ivana Petrovic (‘Plutarch’s and Stone’s Alexander’, pp. 163-184), and Angelos Chaniotis (‘Making Alexander Fit for the Twenty-First Century’, pp. 185-202) treat Rossen’s 1956 film and Oliver Stone’s ambitious, but often infuriating 2004 version. Wieber contrasts Hollywood treatments with other versions, while Petrovic points out that Plutarch, a favourite source for dramatists such as Shakespeare, is a model for Stone. More ambitiously, Chaniotis examines Stone’s framing of his story by the unreliable narration of the aged Ptolemy to incorporate multiple subtexts that may appeal to a variety of modern audiences. Of course, they may also stir up controversy, as the much-discussed subject of Alexander’s sexuality did amidst nationalist, religiously fundamentalist, and gay factions internationally.
The Athenian courtesan Phryne is best known for the coup de théâtre during her trial when Hyperides exposed her breasts in an appeal to the jurors for mercy. Eleonora Cavallini, ‘Phryne: from Knidian Venus to Movie Star’ (pp. 203-218), explores the evidence about Phryne’s life and the representation of her court scene in modern art, culminating in Gérôme’s Phryne before the Areopagus (1861). Perhaps the most iconic modern depiction is Gina Lollobrigida’s version of the heroine in the last segment of Blasetti’s Altri Tempi (1952), although Mario Bonnard’s Frine, cortigiana d’Oriente (1953) has its charms, changing the story into a wronged heroine’s revenge drama.
The volume is concluded by Marta García Morcillo’s study of ‘Depictions of Greeks and Hellas in “Roman Films”’ (pp. 219-236). If the Greeks had culture, philosophy, and inventiveness, the Romans were destined to rule. Greek rulers such as Hiero of Syracuse (substituted for his less famous son, Hieronymus) and the Corinthian politicians Critolaus and Diaeus in Francisci’s Archimede (1960) and Costa’s Il conquistatore di Corinto (1961) are depicted as mired in the past, no match for the Roman commanders Marcellus and Mummius. The Greeks may dream of freedom and universal citizenship (as does Timagenes in The Fall of the Roman Empire), but others must put these ideas into practice.
While Hellas on Screen discusses various kolossals, spectacolari, mitologici, and peplums, Ruth Scodel and Anja Bettenworth concentrate their efforts on the transfer of Sienkiewicz’s 1895-6 novel to the screen in Enrico Guazzoni’s 1912 Italian epic, the Italian/German version of D’Annunzio and Jacoby (1925), Mervyn LeRoy’s 1951 film, Franco Rossi’s Italian mini-series of 1985, and Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s 2001 film and extended mini-series. Their subject is well-chosen since it represents the last survival of the once-popular theme of conflict between Christianity and paganism that can be examined across time and national cinemas. The love between a pagan Roman soldier and a beautiful foreign hostage who is also a Christian, played out amid the Great Fire of Rome and Nero’s persecution, has all the elements for a blockbuster, but, like the romance of Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, seems dated these days.
Scodel and Bettenworth prefer not to prejudge their material, but instead analyse it narratologically, based on a comparison of the novel, chapter by chapter, with film versions to indicate what material has been transferred or omitted (Chapter 1, ‘Novel and Film’, pp. 1-15). This works well enough for most versions, particularly highlighting Kawalerowicz’s ‘faithfulness’ to his text, but breaks down in the case of Rossi’s reimagining of the novel. Furthermore the reading of film as text reduces the important role of the visual elements. The authors offer interesting asides, such as remarks on the influence of Alma Tadema on Kawalerowicz’s mise-en- scène. But more can be said. The English painter’s ‘Roses and Heliogabalus’ (1888) is clearly the inspiration for the Polish film’s depiction of Nero’s banquet. The choice to use predominantly pastel hues throughout is also likely to be a deliberate stylistic choice that recalls paintings of Sienkiewicz’s contemporaries (a point briefly touched on at p.9).
In Chapter Two, ‘Adapting the Narrative’ (pp. 16-54), the authors make good remarks on Sienkiewicz’s use of his characters as focalizers and the reader’s identification (or not) with their views. But the example of the opening of Rossi’s version shows very clearly the disconnect between narrative voice and the focus of the camera. This discussion also highlights a weakness of the book’s structure: by constantly comparing all six versions, the most interesting features of any version tend to be obscured and repetition from one chapter to another is unavoidable.
Chapter Three on gender and ethnicity (pp. 55-87), clarifies the different expectations at the time of the versions’ production for male and female protagonists. Here the authors’ classical training comes to the fore with apposite citations of parallels from classical literature. I miss any reference to the problems of mixed marriages in a Christian setting either here or in the later chapter on religion.
The clash between totalitarian power and individual conscience makes for good drama. This is explored in Chapter Four (‘Political Institutions, Political Subtexts’, pp. 88-138). Although the silent films steer clear of close parallels with contemporary events, later versions can compare Nero’s tyranny with Fascist or Communist totalitarian rule. The most complex nexus of parallels occurs in Rossi’s 1985 version where the viewer can make connections with the murky politics of contemporary Italy as well as of earlier periods. Perhaps the most revealing moment in this series is Tigellinus’ self-exculpation when Christianity (in the form of Ursus) triumphs of Nero’s brute force (as represented by the bull the Polish giant fights): ‘No one will understand that we were only trying to defend ourselves.’
A chapter on the Roman people (pp. 139-72), indicates different possible presentations of the crowd, whether as a blood-thirsty mob or a democratic element in opposition to aristocratic power. This can be traced in reactions to the Fire of Rome or the persecution of Christians (especially in the arena). While events of the twentieth century are adduced to explain the different ways of handling these scenes in the film versions, it would also have been useful to consider similar cinematic representations (for instance in the works of Cecil B. De Mille).
Chapter Six (‘Religion and Religious Authority in Quo Vadis?’, pp. 173-218) examines the portrayal of paganism (most interestingly portrayed in Rossi’s version as even more exotic than the new teachings from Palestine), the novel’s anti-Semitic elements and the way they are toned down or excluded in later versions, and the development of the early Christian movement. Particularly contentious will be the relationship between Christianity and Judaism, but the depiction of the Christians as a unified or disparate group reflects the views of the films’ creators and their expected audiences.
A brief conclusion sums up the study (pp. 219-222): the most recent versions of the story are the most self- conscious, but stand at opposite ends of the spectrum in fidelity to the novel. The 1985 version stands out and this is not simply because of its length (the 2001 film is more readily available in its longer mini-series version which is equivalent in length to the 1985 production). Rather, Rossi’s vision appears more ‘modern’ than that of his Polish counterpart. Sienkiewicz’s novel openly displayed his Polish nationalist feelings, taking its title from the tale of Peter’s return to Rome and martyrdom, a foundation story for Roman Catholicism. Kawalerowicz’s version of 2001, despite its high budget, failed to make the list of nominees for an Academy Award as Best Foreign Film. Is the religious epic, like gladiator movies, still capable of being revived? The authors answer in the affirmative, but without great conviction. Indeed, they state: ‘For classicists, these movies are a mixed blessing.’ Perhaps greater interest will in the future come from film and cultural studies.
The plates are well-chosen, although only offering grayscale reproductions of scenes from the latest versions; one hopes that in future editions the publisher will more carefully adjust the contrast—in a number of cases it is difficult to see what is portrayed in the image. There are few misprints, but on p. 88 ‘Arctium’ for ‘Antium’ may well confuse the reader.