Friday, September 18, 2015

An alternative model for looking at classical movies

There's a common model I have encountered for the recent (i.e. in the last fifteen years) development of movies set in the worlds of Greece and Rome, and it's this: no-one was much interested in making ancient world movies in Hollywood until Gladiator came along in 2000, and after that, people have kept making ancient world movies such as Troy (2004), 300 (2007), Clash of the Titans (2010) and Pompeii (2014), with the momentum never dissipating. It's nice and simple.

And I think it's wrong.

Oh, I'm not trying to say that Gladiator isn't an important factor in what we have seen on cinema screens in the first decades of the twenty-first century. But it is simplistic to see all the subsequent Classical-set movies as solely direct consequences of Gladiator's success. It's a view that comes about, I think, from the fact that Classical Reception scholars are often only interested in those movies set in, or directly referencing, the ancient world. Which on one level is fine - one has to set limits to one's scholarly interests somewhere. But there is a danger that this approach can become very inward-looking.*

And whilst Greek and Roman movies may be the primary focus of those of us in the Classical Studies discipline who are studying them, this is not the case for the Hollywood creatives making them. Ridley Scott's previous movie before Gladiator was the modern military action movie G.I. Jane (1997); his next was Hannibal (2001), despite the ancient history-derived name a modern thriller, sequel to The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Gladiator star Russell Crowe bracketed his performance in that movie with appearances in two thrillers, The Insider (1999) and Proof of Life (2000). David Franzoni, the writer who originated the concept of Gladiator, did indeed go straight on to another Roman project, King Arthur (2004), but his previous screenplay was for the nineteenth century-set Amistad (1997). The two people who worked on subsequent drafts of the Gladiator screenplay were John Logan and William Nicholson, Logan fitted Gladiator between Any Given Sunday (1999), a sports drama, and The Time Machine (2002), science fiction based on H.G. Wells' novel. Nicholson, who is less prolific a screenwriter, had come from Grey Owl (1999), set in 1930s Canada, and went on to Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007), set in the sixteenth century.

Yes, I know that the order in which people work on movies isn't necessarily the same as the order in which those movies appear, but I think my point still stands. No-one in Hollywood works exclusively on Classical movies. So when studying those movies, we as scholars need to take account of the wider industry. Not doing so properly can at its worst lead to things like Martin Winkler's introduction to Troy: From Homer's Iliad to Hollywood Epic (2007), where he writes as if Wolfgang Petersen's entire career was leading up to directing Troy. (The fact that Petersen has only directed Poseidon [2006] since doesn't validate this view.)

Less seriously, it leads to neglecting or misunderstanding important factors in how movies are made, and what the movie-makers are doing. The beach landing sequence in (again) Troy is pretty obviously an homage to the beach landing that opens Saving Private Ryan (1998); yet the only mention of Spielberg's movie in Winkler's book is a brief comment on the visual echoes as part of an unconvincing argument for Troy as an allegory of the Normandy invasion. To take another example, I would suggest that the most significant movie in getting 300 greenlit was not Gladiator, or any other ancient world movie, but Sin City (2005). Sin City was based on a Frank Miller comics series, as was 300. Though pre-shooting work on 300 had begun before Sin City was released, it was known that the latter was in production. I suspect that the studio heads who gave the go-ahead for 300 were aware that Sin City was looking good, and expecting it to do good business (which it did), and were looking for something similar. So, rather than looking for another ancient world movie, I think that they were looking for another Frank Miller property.

The standard Reception Studies model does not just neglect the circumstances of individual movies. I'd argue that it also distorts the overall story of ancient world movies since 2000. The model ought to predict a number of Roman set movies following directly following on from Gladiator, in the tradition of the Hollywood historical Roman epics of the 1950s and 1960s. In reality, it seems to me that such movies have been few and far between, at least until recently. There is Pompeii, but as I shall argue later, there's another influence at work there. There is Agora (2009), but that emerges from a European tradition, rather than Hollywood, and is not really 'epic'. Similarly, there is Caesar, due later this year, to which Sean Bean was at one time attached, though he was absent from the IMDb 'full cast list' before that was shunted into IMDb Pro, and made unavailable to non-subscribers (but so was Julius Caesar, the role that Bean was up to play, whom one suspects cannot be excised from this movie) [ETA 08/02/17: Shortly after I posted this original article, Bean announced that he had pulled out of the project, which seems subsequently to have collapsed entirely.] - but as it is based to William Shakespeare's play, this belongs more in the tradition of British movies adapting the plays of Shakespeare than in that of the Hollywood Roman epic. In any case, while there will always be exceptions, the general trend does not seem to me to be that the model predicts.

It is true that there are often Roman historical movies supposedly in development, such as Angelina Jolie's Cleopatra project. Very often, as in this case, a sober assessment of the project being developed would suggest that it will never happen. There's been a litany of Roman movie projects that have been talked about but ended up stillborn for one reason or another, such as Roman Polanski's planned version of Robert Harris' Pompeii (Polanski lost patience when it looked like there might be a strike of the Screen Actors Guild, and went on to make The Ghost [2010] instead) or John Boorman's take on Marguerite Yourcenar's novel Memoirs of Hadrian, which again supposedly was going to be filmed in 2008, but never happened (Boorman was evidently talking up a project that he had yet to secure the money for, and which he never was able to finance). Vin Diesel continues to speak of his pet project Hannibal the Conqueror, but it's been pretty obvious for a decade that it is very unlikely that this will ever appear at a multiplex near you. Of course, it's always possible that the stars will suddenly align themselves in favour of some of these projects, but don't hold your breath.

That is the way of cinema. A great number of movie projects get talked about, and only a handful actually make it to the screen. This is why I get frustrated whenever anyone reports some announcement that a project is in development as if it will definitely happen - the truth is in all probability it won't. Scripts are commissioned all the time, and this isn't seen as a significant investment in a project (because writers are not really valued in Hollywood, partly because, as William Goldman wrote in Adventures in the Screen Trade [1983], everyone in Hollywood thinks that they could do the writer's job). As Gideon Nisbet says in Ancient Greece in Film and Popular Culture (2006), all talk about movies in development is just so much hot air until someone actually begins building sets - and even then, it's not guaranteed, as is apparent from the saga of Peter Jackson's remake of The Dam Busters (1955), where replica Lancasters and other props were built as long ago as 2009, but so far not a minute of footage has been shot.

The sort of Roman empire stories that used to be staples of 1950s Hollywood epic have instead transferred to television; so we have had Rome (2005-2007), the various STARZ Spartacus series (2010-2013), and mini-series such as Julius Caesar (2002), Imperium: Augustus (2003), Spartacus (2004), based on Howard Fast's novel, Empire (2005), and Ben-Hur (2010). It is worth noting that two of these mini-series, Spartacus and Ben-Hur, were based on novels that in the 1950s and 1960s had given rise to movies. The small screen now seems to be often viewed as a more appropriate venue for these sort of stories.

There is now, however, a cinematic remake of Ben-Hur on the way. This is a case where the stars do seem to have aligned correctly for the movie, and it has actually started principal photography, so the likelihood is that we will actually see this in cinemas in 2016. But this is so far very much an exception to the overall trend. It might possibly signal future developments, especially as there is another epic of the Roman Holy Land in post-production, Christ the King. But these might not be a sign of a revival of the Roman epic, but of the Biblical epic (a genre that is, admittedly, closely related to and intertwined with the Roman epic), a revival already seen in movies such as Noah (2014) and Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014). In any case, I must emphasize that fifteen years have passed between Gladiator and what I would consider to be a movie firmly in the Roman epic tradition that Gladiator supposedly revived.

On the big screen, movies of antiquity have been dominated by the Greek rather than the Roman - so the big ancient world movies since Gladiator have been Troy, 300, Clash of the Titans and its sequel Wrath of the Titans (2012), two Percy Jackson movies (2010 and 2013), Immortals (2011), and The Legend of Hercules and Hercules (both 2014). This is in stark contrast to the 1950s and 1960s. There were Greek movies made then, such as Helen of Troy (1956), The 300 Spartans (1962), and Jason and the Argonauts (1963). But, for reasons discussed by Nisbet, primarily a difficulty in coding Greece as notably different from Rome and escaping notions of camp, Greek movies were very much in the minority, and the first ancient world movies that people think of for this period of Hollywood history are the Roman ones.

Not only are things different in the twenty-first century, but the first Greek movie to follow Gladiator, Oliver Stone's Alexander (2004), was a perceived commercial and critical failure which ought to have done the same damage to the epic genre as was done in the 1960s by Cleopatra (1963) and Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). Why did this not happen?

I put the continuing appeal of Greek epics down to a movie that was near-contemporary with Gladiator, that was also massively successful, but is rarely spoken of in connection with ancient world movies. That movie is The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), and, of course, its two sequels. Lord of the Rings is not often mentioned by Classicists, presumably because they generally don't see it as overtly Classically-influenced. I think that's missing something - Gondor in particular as visualized by Peter Jackson seems to me to be drawing on the visual aesthetic of the Byzantine empire, and there's clearly a connection between Byzantium and Rome, however much it is sometimes played down. But more importantly, I feel that to cinema audiences who are not Classicists, the world of Lord of the Rings looks less different from the world of Gladiator than it does to Classicists. I would argue that the influence of Lord of the Rings is at least as pervasive in post-2001 ancient world cinema as that of Gladiator. And I don't just mean in endless helicopter shots of small groups of people walking over mountains. I believe it is thanks to Lord of the Rings that the ancient world movie managed to survive the failure of Alexander.

The shadow of Lord of the Rings means that creators of cinematic epics with a pre-modern setting are looking for other stories with magic or monsters. And that pushes people in the direction of Greece. At a conference on Classics in children's literature that took place in 2009, it was observed that authors in this field tended to turn to Rome when they wanted historical stories, but to Greece when they wanted mythology (it often being assumed, wrongly as it happens, that Roman mythology is no more than Greek mythology with different names for the gods). I myself have observed in print that this phenomenon can be seen in Doctor Who in the 1960s and 1970s. And now it is apparent in ancient world movies.

The influence of Lord of the Rings can be spotted as early as Troy. In some ways this is a very traditional epic treatment of the Trojan War, following a standard pattern of historicizing the material and removing the gods from the narrative, as seen in Helen of Troy, and a lot of the impetus for it being greenlit probably did come from Gladiator. But the battle scenes are clearly imitative of Lord of the Rings, and Jackson's fantasy epic particularly shapes Troy in the casting of two of the most important roles, Sean Bean as Odysseus, and Orlando Bloom as Paris.

The shadow of Lord of the Rings falls particularly heavily on 300. Frank Miller's original comic (1998) had already mythologized the story of Leonidas' last stand against the Persian invasion of Greece, but the movie takes that process considerably further, depicting the Immortals as deformed in a way that Miller does not, and which echoes the Orcs of Jackson's epics. The movie also includes an 'Uber Immortal', a near-mindless character not to be found in the comic, and which is strongly reminiscent of Fellowship's cave troll.

The influence of Lord of the Rings and the fantastic version of the ancient world that it encourages also extends to Roman-set movies. King Arthur and The Last Legion (2007) present themselves as historical movies of the end of Roman Britain, but both draw upon mythological material. The Last Legion, in particular, codes much of its action as a fantastic quest, with legendary swords and Ben Kingsley's Merlin being very much in the mould of Obi-Wan Kenobi - he never actually performs any magic, but the movie wants the viewer to believe that he is always on the verge of doing so. Centurion (2010) and The Eagle are more realistic movies, but these are dealing with a modern myth of the Roman empire, the supposed disappearance of the Ninth Legion in Scotland, a thesis advanced by Theodor Mommsen, still supported by some, and dramatised by Rosemary Sutcliff in The Eagle of the Ninth (1954), but for which there is precious little actual evidence. And aerial shots of small groups crossing wastelands, a trope that Fellowship of the Ring made its own, turn up in all of these movies. (Albeit that in The Eagle a crane seems to substitute for a helicopter as camera platform.)

Pompeii also codes itself towards the fantastic. Strictly speaking a historical movie, it is also a special effects spectacular. (One might compare James Cameron's Titanic [1997], which though lacking overt fantastic elements, through its special effects sequences looked like the science fiction movies that Cameron had made up to that point.) Pompeii is further coded towards fantasy through casting Kit Harrington, famous through his role in TV fantasy epic Game of Thrones (2011-), in the lead role.

So I strongly argue that most movies set in the ancient world need to be seen in the wider context of fantasy epic. But needing to see Classical movies in the light of other movies is not a new phenomenon. The truth is that Greek and Roman epics have always existed in wider contexts. Quo Vadis (1951), The Robe (1953) and Ben-Hur (1959) are all Roman epics, but they are also Biblical epics, tales of early Christianity. Even Spartacus (1960), set before the time of Jesus, adds a strong Biblical flavour by casting its hero as a pseudo-Christ, who ends up dying on a cross. Indeed, it is noticeable that when epics turned to subjects without an overt Christian element, they did considerably less well at the box office (though there are other reasons for the failure of Cleopatra and Fall of the Roman Empire). These Biblical Roman movies need to be discussed alongside the likes of David and Bathsheba (1951) and Solomon and Sheba (1959), but rarely are, particularly by Classicists - noble exceptions are Jon Solomon's The Ancient World in Cinema (2001) and Hollywood's Ancient Worlds (2008) by the film historian Jeffrey Richards.

Even restricting the idea of the epic to the ancient world (i.e. adding Ancient Egypt and the Ancient Near East to Greece and Rome) is too narrow. A BBC documentary in the Timeshift series, 'Epic: A Cast of Thousands!' (2011), included in the movies discussed El Cid (1961), set in eleventh-century Spain, and Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965), both set in and around the First World War. El Cid's presence in that list suggests to me that Hollywood audiences and producers draw less firm lines between the ancient and medieval periods than Classicists do, and we should be including movies such as Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010) in our discussions. I myself have made a case for considering Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans (1981) alongside Ray Harryhausen's three Sinbad movies.

It is also worth noting the date of Doctor Zhivago, 1965. There is a common narrative (indeed, one followed in the Timeshift programme) that the failure of Cleopatra in 1963 and Fall of the Roman Empire in 1964 marked the end of the epic. If Doctor Zhivago is to be considered an epic, then that view requires some modification. It is more accurate to say that Fall of the Roman Empire marked the end of the ancient epic - after this time excursions into Greek or Roman antiquity tended to be confined to comedies such as A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), or European art-house movies such as Fellini Satyricon (1969) or Iphigenia (1977). But the epic as a broader genre continued, merging with the war movie, a process that had already begun as early as The Longest Day (1962) and is exemplified in Battle of the Bulge (1965), which includes a lengthy Overture and Intermission, both of which are scored but lack filmed action - these are typical features of the epic, seen in movies such as Ben-Hur, Spartacus and El Cid. The actual end of the epic perhaps should be connected with the decline of the all-star war movie, which followed the relative commercial failure of Battle of Britain (1969) and Waterloo (1970).

Let me conclude by coming back to Ridley Scott, with whose Gladiator I began. Gladiator is not the only pre-modern epic that Scott has directed. He has also made Kingdom of Heaven (2005), Robin Hood (2010), and Exodus: Gods and Kings. There has been very little interest expressed by Classicists in the first two (unless someone is able to point me at something that I have missed), and I would argue that this is because both are set in medieval times rather than ancient history. (Kingdom of Heaven might be thought to have some interest to Classicists, being set in the twelfth century kingdom of Jerusalem, when the Byzantine Empire was still a player in the region, but the movie eliminates Byzantium entirely from its script.) Only with Exodus, set back in the ancient world, albeit Egypt rather than Greece or Rome, have I noticed Classicists paying attention. I would, however, strongly argue Scott probably does not recognize such a clear difference, and that these four movies need to be treated as a group, especially by anyone wishing to draw links between Gladiator and Exodus.

This is a rather more complex model than that which is sometimes used in discussing Classical movies. But if Reception Studies scholars are to be Film Historians rather than simply Classical dilettantes, as I feel they must be, then I wish to argue strongly for a more nuanced understanding of Hollywood, based upon awareness of wider contexts.

* At this point I could launch into a long digression about how some Classical Reception theory is intrinsically inward-looking, in a way that I think is not helpful, but I have dealt with that in the introduction to a special issue of Foundation, issue 118, that I've guest-edited. 

[ETA 23/08/16: I have realized that this post leaves out Mel Gibson's 2004 The Passion of the Christ, but that is a movie that I consider very much sui generis and outside the Hollywood system. I am no longer able to find any trace on IMDb of the movie Christ the King referred to above, and I suspect it may have been the movie actually released as Risen (2016).]

[ETA 05/12/16: I now think Christ the King is not Risen, but The Young Messiah (2016), originally titled Christ the Lord. I assume a misreading on my part.]

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

New review on FA Online

New in FA - The Comiczine: I review the first three issues of Captain Marvel and the Carol Corps - A fun, but ultimately slight coda to Kelly Sue DeConnick’s excellent Captain Marvel run.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Bakkhai at the Almeida Theatre, London

Performance seen: 7 September 2015

There was a moment in the Almeida's rather fine production of Euripides' Bakkhai (that is the transliteration that they use) where I realised that the cheeky buggers were doing this as a three-actor production, as it was originally written in the fifth century BC. And extremely effective it was too. Never again will I say that three actors require the use of masks - instead it just requires clever use of costuming, make-up, accents and lighting. Most impressive in this respect was Ben Wishaw's performance as the Messenger (a role that I suspect in the original production would actually have gone to the third actor, the one playing Cadmus and the Herdsman, rather than to the protagonist, the actor playing Dionysus and Teiresias). Through keeping his face away from the audience except when at the back of the stage, when his face was partially distorted by smoke, Wishaw almost had me believing that there was another actor in the cast - and one of my companions didn't realise that only three actors were used (besides those playing the Chorus) until only three came out for the curtain call. 

Wishaw gives an excellent performance. I had wondered whether he might have been more appropriately cast as Pentheus, but that, I think, was because I had seen him being extraordinary in the role of Richard II in The Hollow Crown on television, a role that has more than a little of Pentheus in it. He carries off Dionysus with style, in a performance that emphasises the character's divinity, rather than, as Alan Cumming did, his sexual ambivalence. Having played Richard II as Jesus, we now get Wishaw doing Dionysus as Jesus. Presumably someday he will be allowed to actually play Jesus.

As well as praising Wishaw, I must mention Bertie Carvel, excellent as Pentheus and his mother Agave. He is deliberately unconvincing as Pentheus dressed as a woman, but much more convincing as Agave.

However, what first won me over to this production was the Chorus, which is one of the best Choruses I've seen in a long while, certainly for this play. It benefitted greatly from the presence of professional singers. They all harmonise well, yet each individual can be heard clearly. And I like Anne Carson's text very much.

If there's a complaint to be made, it's that the production doesn't quite convey the full horror of the play's concluding moments. But that may partly because I've seen so many productions that I'm inured to the dismembered corpse by now.

I've been left a bit underwhelmed by a lot of the big tragedy productions of the past year - the Old Vic's Electra with Kristen Scott Thomas, the National's Medea with Helen McCrory, the Barbican's Antigone with Juliet Binoche. But the Almeida has delivered the most innovative and compelling Oresteia I've ever seen, and now a far more conventional, but still superior Bakkhai. I'm very impressed.