Scholia Reviews ns 18 (2009) 12.
Arthur J. Pomeroy, 'Then it was Destroyed by the Volcano' The Ancient World in Film and on Television. London: Duckworth, 2008. Pp. viii + 152, incl. 10 black- and-white illustrations. ISBN 978-07156-3026-6. UK£14.99.
Classics, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa
‘It’s like the Roman Empire. Wasn’t everybody running around just covered in syphilis? And then it was destroyed by the volcano.’ Such was a statement made by actress Joan Collins in a 1984 interview published in Playboy magazine to support the idea that the punishment of sins of a minority group (to Collins, the promiscuity of the homosexual community in 1980s America) was afflicting the majority (the heterosexual community) in the form of the HIV/AIDS virus (p. 7f.). Apart from providing this book with its title, this statement serves to demonstrate how screen representations of Greece and Rome in popular culture inform society’s common perceptions about ancient history, sometimes positively, and sometimes negatively. With this book, composed of an introduction, six chapters, a very useful filmography and a comprehensive bibliography, Arthur Pomeroy intends to ‘show why the ancient world has been and continues to be important to the modern by studying different themes in its film and television presentations’ (p.1), and to place these depictions of the past in their social and cultural contexts. Pomeroy does note the tendency amongst classicists in previous years to focus solely on ‘high’ art receptions of the ancient world, and yet justifies his own interest with the more popular or ‘low’ art receptions of film and television by the fact that these media often receive greater international recognition than their ‘high’ art counterparts who cater largely for an educated elite.
Chapter 1: ‘The Actress and the Playwright’(pp. 7-12), continues Pomeroy’s discussion by turning to the Collins quote already mentioned above in this review. Collins’ perception of the ancient world becomes a pars pro toto for American views of Greece and Rome, filtered mainly through films like Mervyn LeRoy’s Quo Vadis (1952) and Steven Reeves’ The Last Days of Pompeii (1959). America in general is characterised as having a somewhat sketchy understanding of the ancient world, with a definite bias towards the religious Christian sect, who invariably win the day over the decadence and immoral sexuality (usually in the form of orgies) of pagan Rome. This lack of education, Pomeroy proposes, can be countered in a number of ways. Firstly by condemning such ignorance and striving to improve public education through the input of experts. This, he suggests (p.9), is not the best way to go about the situation and lists previous ‘failures’ to coax film producers into more historically accurate films such as Kathleen Coleman with Gladiator (2000) and Robin Lane Fox with Alexander (2004). A second option he provides is through documentaries, but dismisses it quickly as a form that is already likely to be preaching to the choir (p. 9). Alternatively he suggests that academics admit defeat in these culture wars, and instead play the ‘cultural tourist, slumming it with media and cultural studies’ (p. 9).[] The only fear he raises with regards to the limitations of this approach is the trend to avoid what is foreign or difficult (p.9). In contrast to the general American audience, Pomeroy turns his attention to the audience of nineteenth-century France, who enjoyed Alexandre Dumas’ novel The Count of Monte Cristo (Le Comte de Monte-Cristo). Despite this novel being pre-cinema, its dramatic features are a precursor to many silent films. This story, like the films instrumental in American ‘education’ also received widespread public interest and yet turned out something quite different to the simplistic view held by many Americans: ‘Nero as persecutor of good Christians’ (p.10). Pomeroy is left to conclude that contrasting accounts of antiquity reveal to the social historian that Greece and Rome are not static points of reference to the public, but dynamic, and are presented often according to the context from within which they are produced, be it either; classically trained nineteenth century France or the religiously educated United States of America.
Chapter 2: ‘Hymns to the Ancient World in (the) Buffyverse’ (pp. 13-28) expands the discussion to the popular television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997- 2003). Intertextual references, particularly to Greek and Roman culture, literature and language, create a sense of arcane mystique in the story, and sometimes are used simply to cue a certain plot development to the more discerning audience.[] These references in Buffy the Vampire Slayer beg the question whether the classical world is still, as it has previously been demonstrated to be, a privileged source of cultural capital or whether now it is, democratically, just one of many options in a multicultural world (p.28).
The third chapter, ‘The Peplum and Other Animals’ (pp. 29-59), seeks to map out the terrain of the sword-and-sandal film genre within the history of the Italian movie industry by focusing on depictions of Spartacus up to the 1950s, as well as discussing cinematic adaptations of Bulwer-Lytton’s novel, The Last Days of Pompeii (1834). Pomeroy then spends the majority of the rest of the chapter defining the term ‘peplum’ and concludes the chapter with a discussion of two 1961 films: Cottafavi’s Hercules Conquers Atlantis (Ercole alla conquista di Atlantide) and Bava’s Hercules at the Centre of the Earth (Ercole al centro della terra). In so doing, Pomeroy examines all of these film adaptations in their historical and national settings (p. 29). Believing that there is as much of a tradition based on the distortion of history as there is for its faithful recreations, he surmises that the opportunity presents itself to ‘read back through Western (and even Eastern) responses to the past, not to discover an original narrative but rather to recover an ‘authentic’ multiplicity of stories in the Classical tradition.’ (p. 32). And also concludes that study of such ‘bad taste’ or ‘tasteless’ genres as the peplum will free the study of antiquity from its aura of high culture and good taste (p. 32).
Chapter 4: ‘The Odyssey, High and Low’ (pp. 61-93), examines in detail six film versions of the Odyssey. These include, the 1954 Ulysses (dir. Mario Camerini) staring Kirk Douglas, the RAI-De Laurentiis television production L’Odissea (dir. Franco Rossi & Mario Bava, 1968), The Return of Ringo (Il ritorno di Ringo, dir. Duccio Tessari, 1965), the Coen brothers’ O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000), as well as two art film versions Jean- Luc Godard’s Contempt (Le Mépris, 1964) and Theo Angelopoulos’ Ulysses’ Gaze (1995). There are assorted problems associated with filming the epic; Pomeroy touches on a few examples, such as the difficulty of adapting a long oral poem into a visual medium, as well as simplifying complex narrative structures into a reasonable length film. Dialogue and staging problems are also discussed. Creating believable staging within budget often proved problematic too in earlier film versions of the epic, while later ones benefited from computer generated CGI effects. More successful attempts at adapting the epic to the visual media has been achieved by recasting the Odyssey in another guise, this is achieved in the films of Tessari, the Coen brothers, Godard and Angelopoulos.[] Rather than simply retell Homer’s narrative, each of these films has succeeded in approaching the Odyssey in a unique and original manner. Retellings based on localities also prove to be successful in recasting the epic, for example, Angelopoulos’ films represent a specific national response to the Odyssey, however these approaches are often faced with lack of government support due mainly to the fact that these projects, while being culturally significant, are commercially unattractive (p.93). Ultimately, though, the Odyssey, as a precursor to the original road movie, continues to prove popular in screen adaptations.
Alexander the Great’s place in the screen traditions of the West and East is picked up in Chapter 5, ‘Alexander the Hero’ (pp. 95-111). After a brief overview of Alexander’s life (p.95-96) Pomeroy states that the reason no-one attempted to film the Alexander story before Rossen’s 1956 Alexander the Great is due to the difficulty of including all the details of his life -- both political and romantic -- into a reasonable length of time. His discussion of Alexander in the twenty-first century focuses primarily on Oliver Stone’s Alexander (2004) in relation to other big-budget Hollywood blockbusters like Gladiator (2000), Troy (2004) and 300 (2006). More interesting is the section of this chapter entitled ‘Alexander goes East’, where Pomeroy maps out the reception of the Alexander story in various Eastern contexts. He begins his discussion by stating: ‘Although, in a post-imperialist world, Alexander can no longer function as an international symbol, the tale of the great king may still resonate locally.’ (p. 103) This statement is proven true by his examination of its presence on the Indian subcontinent in Sohrab Modi’s Urdu language feature Sikandar (1941). This film resonated locally, Pomeroy believes, particularly due to its praise of heroic Indian resistance, as well as basing some of the dialogue on the style of Parsee theater, making it a success at the local box-office (p. 105). The final screen presentation of Alexander that Pomeroy includes is a Japanese animated television series: Reign: the Conqueror (Arekusanda Senki, dir. Yoshinori Kanemori, 1999). This series, based on the popular novels of Hiroshi Aramata, was also shown on the ‘cartoon’ networks of America. What is interesting about this version of the Alexander tale -- one that is usually told in forms like opera, historical writing and epic film – is that it now appears in a genre of relatively ‘low status’ and in fact an adolescent medium. This begs the question: what is it about the Alexander story that appeals to this Asian audience? (p.106). Pomeroy does not provide an adequate answer, but instead, after a detailed discussion of the series, concludes: ‘the modern world remembrance of the ancient Greek and Roman worlds need not simply function as a warning, but suggests the possibility of fresh creation, locally and globally.’ (p.111).
Chapter 6: ‘”It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World” -- except for Xena and Buffy’ (pp. 113f.), concludes Pomeroy’s discussion of the ancient world in film and television. Apart from providing some concluding remarks in general about the state of appropriations of Greece and Rome in modern world cinema and television, he seeks also to point; tentatively, the way forward in this field of study.
The success of Pomeroy’s book lies in his choice to examine lesser known adaptations of the ancient world on screen. This not only widens the handful of film productions that up until now have provided the ‘canon’ of ‘classics in film’ studies but also pushes classicists even further into debates about high and low culture receptions of the classical world. In 2006 Charles Martindale expressed some anxiety over classicists choosing to study texts from popular culture over those prescribed in their own canon, fearing the quality of such studies.[] Arthur Pomeroy’s book surely must go some way in laying these fears to rest.[]
[] He cites Gideon Nisbet’s recent Ancient Greece in Film and Popular Culture (Exeter 2006) as a good example of this approach.
[] For example the filmmaker’s use of Sappho Ode 1 to cue the audience to two of the characters’ lesbian relationship.
[] For example in the past Shakespearean dialogue was opted for to recreate the grandeur of epic language; however this often created a barrier between the audience and the film.
[] Pomeroy includes discussion of a number of Angelopoulos’ films, including: Reconstruction (Anaparastasis 1970), Travelling Players (O Thiasos 1975), Megalexandros (1980), Voyage to Cythera (Taxidi Sta Kithira 1983), The Beekeeper (O Melissokomos 1986), Landscape in the Mist (Topo Stin Omichli 1988), The Suspended Step of the Stork (To Meteoro Vima Tou Pelagrou 1991), Eternity and a Day (Mia Eoniotita Ke Mia Mera 1998), The Weeping Meadow (2004).
[] Charles Martindale, in Classics and the Uses of its Reception (Oxford 2006) 11.
[] The book is neatly presented, however, the use of numerous endnotes was a source of small frustration. I found only one typographical error: a sentence on p. 93 should read: ‘ . . . that retold the Medea based [on] a scenario by . . . ’