Saturday, February 20, 2021

Modern Adaptation of the Trojan War Tropes

I gave a paper on Thursday at the Historical Fictions Research Network's annual conference; my paper was on 'Trojan Catastrophe: The Fall of Ilium on Screen'. As part of that, I listed my Modern Adaptation of the Trojan War Tropes, something that I developed when doing Troy (2004) as a #ClassicsTwitterMovie, and refined in connection with another project that has, for the time being, been set aside. Some interest was expressed in these tropes, so I thought I would make more widely available the full list. I should emphasise that not every modern retelling of the Trojan War, or aspects of it, ticks off every trope, though there are some (e.g. Troy) that get the full set.

1. The Trojan War is treated as a historical event. 
    This has two sub-tropes:
a. The gods do not play an active part in events, and almost all elements of the fantastic are removed. 
b. There is a serious political/military/economic reason for the Trojan War, and Helen is just an excuse.

2. The whole story of the Trojan War shall be told. 

3. Helen of Troy is blond. 

4. Helen must have a good reason for leaving Menelaus. 

5. The design of the Late Bronze Age is historically eclectic. 

6. Achilles and Patroclus are Not Gay. 

7. We don't talk about Iphigenia. 

8. The Greeks are the bad guys.

At some point I shall write this up as a proper article, but for now, have this on me.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Things read and seen in 2021, #2

Oops! I have let this get away from me again (* indicates something watched/read for the first time).


3. Ben-Hur (USA, dir. William Wyler, scr. Karl Tunberg, starring Charlton Heston and Jack Hawkins, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1959)

A rewatch, in connection with it being both a set text for my Ancient Greece and Rome on the Big Screen course, and a #ClassicsTwitterMovie. To quote myself, from my course materials, 'Ben-Hur is not only the best version of the original source novel (though the 1925 silent version runs it a close second), it is generally considered the best of the Roman epics of the 1950s and 1960s. This position is deserved. It is genuinely a good movie, made by talent that was very much at the top of their game.' Part one of the #ClassicsTwitterMovie thread is here, and part two is here.

† According to the Writers' Guild of America; others, such as William Wyler and Charlton Heston, thought that Christopher Fry deserved a credit, and the script as finally seen is the product of input from over a dozen writers, producers, and others.

4. Live and Let Die (UK/USA, dir. Guy Hamilton, scr. Tom Mankiewicz, starring Roger Moore, Eon Productions, 1973)

The first Bond movie I ever saw in the cinema. I've always had an affection for it—Moore is still finding his way into the role, and so hasn't fallen into the bad habits that mar his later performances, the speedboat chase is great, and George Martin's score is the only Bond music to match John Barry until David Arnold came along. But what struck me this time is how horrifically racist this movie is. Inevitable, I suppose, with it being the 'blaxpolitation' Bond, but it really marred the experience this viewing.

5. Ben Hur (USA, dir. William R. Kowalchuk, Jr., scr. Abi Estrin Cunningham, GoodTimes Entertainment, 2003)*

An animated version of the classic tale, watched because I'd never seen it and thought it was about time I did. Charlton Heston introduces the movie from a comfortable study, narrates it and voices Judah Ben-Hur, and signs off as himself at the end. His final words are 'I'm Charlton Heston. Thanks for watching.' As this was the last movie he ever made, those words become an epitaph for his entire career, and a pretty appropriate one, I think. The movie itself is quite a compressed version of the original novel. There is a much stronger Christian message here than in either the 1925 silent version of the 1959 classic, and the screenplay draws upon the Four Gospels directly as well as upon Lew Wallace's novel, including things like the Massacre of the Innocents that Wallace omitted. Messala is also redeemed by the end, something that the 2016 remake also does. Overall, it's okay, but not better than the 1959 version. 

6. The Brother from Another Planet (USA, dir. & scr. John Sayles, starring Joe Morton, Cinecom Pictures, 1984)*

Watched, for the first time, with the London Science Fiction Research Community. This is an interesting low-budget sf movie, from a time when a lot of similar movies were being made. The only Sayles movie I'd previously seen was The Return of the Secaucus 7 (1980), which actually feels as if it's been made on a larger budget, though it very definitely wasn't. Brother is about an alien who has been smuggled out from interstellar slavery (it's strongly hinted by an equivalent of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad), who then has to adjust to life in Harlem. New York of the 1980s is quite an alien place, especially to whites; there's a striking moment on the New York Subway where all the white people get off the train, to be replaced by blacks. This was definitely worth watching. It's slightly weird, has a social conscience without ever really preaching, and is in places quite funny. Sayles says it was about the immigrant experience, which is why it begins on Ellis Island.

7. Wonder Woman 1984 (USA, dir. Patty Jenkins, scr. Patty Jenkins & Geoff Johns & Dave Callaham, starring Gal Gadot, DC Films/Atlas Entertainment/The Stone Quarry, 2020)*

I had been really looking forward to this, obviously. The first Wonder Woman remains the best of the DCEU movies (not that there is a lot of competition there). This was a bit, well, so-so. I thought killing off Steve Trevor was a bold move in Wonder Woman, and if they were going to bring him back, it would have to be in a way that didn't invalidate his sacrifice, i.e. Diana would have to give him up again. Apart from one horrible aspect, which Will Morgan has well detailed, I thought this was got right. Apart from that, there are two delightful moments, right at the beginning and right at the end, which warmed my fanboy heart, and the rest was standard superhero fare. It does all get a bit excessive at times (Geoff Johns' influence, I feel). And the 1984 setting doesn't entirely work; the movie is going for the strong sense of place that Captain Marvel managed so effortlessly, but it doesn't quite achieve it. Definitely not the breath of fresh air that the first movie was.

8. Julius Caesar (USA, dir. & scr. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, starring Marlon Brando, James Mason, John Gielgud, Louis Calhern, Edmond O’Brien, Greer Garson, and Deborah Kerr, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1953)

A rewatch for #ClassicsTwitterMovie. My Twitter thread is here. An excellent version of Shakespeare's play, with superb performances by Marlon Brando and John Gielgud, and pretty good ones by James Mason and Deborah Kerr. All productions of Julius Caesar are either Brutus plays or Antony plays, depending on directorial choice and actors' performances. Here, thanks to Brando, who is extraordinary, it's an Antony play. The movie is very studio-bound, and in consequence feels rather like a television production at times, except that no television production could have assembled a cast of this quality. Ten years later, director Mankiewicz tackled the same event in Cleopatra. More needs to be done, I think, in comparing his two Roman movies. Unfortunately, movies of Shakespeare's Roman plays are something of a neglected area of classical reception studies, which I'd like to see more people working on. 

9. Noises Off (USA, dir. Peter Bogdanovich, scr. Marty Kaplan, starring Carol Burnett, Michael Caine, Denholm Elliott, Julie Hagerty, Marilu Henner, Mark Linn-Baker, Christopher Reeve, John Ritter, and Nicolette Sheridan, Touchwood Pacific Partners 1, 1992)*

Apparently the critics were lukewarm to hostile about this adaptation of Michael Frayn's stage farce. I can't think why. Frayn himself liked it. And actually, it's pretty funny. Act Two, where backstage descends into slapstick chaos while on stage the play proceeds apparently smoothly, is done particularly well; it requires expert timing, and here that is delivered by a set of comic actors right at the very top of their game. John Ritter deserves special mention. He never got the recognition he deserved, probably due to snobbery about the fact that he spent much of his career in television sitcoms. But here he's excellent, right up there with screen comedy greats such as Peter Sellers. And the relocation of the setting from England to the US allows jokes to be made about the excruciating English accents everyone puts on. Even Denholm Elliott, basically dying of AIDS by this point (this was his last movie), is great in the role of somebody who's meant to be not as good as they once were.

10. Away From It All (UK, 1979)

As part of my prep for watching Life of Brian again, I decided to revisit the two supporting features that accompanied the movie on its initial release. Away From It All is a parody of the dreadful travelogues that accompanied movies in British cinemas in the 1970s. Indeed, so successful is this in capturing the style that, when I first saw it, I was entirely taken in until five minutes had passed, when there is a line about leaving Venice 'slowly sinking in the west', and was only certain it was a piss-take when I got to the section on Bulgaria: 'take one photograph of the wrong building here, and they're taping electrodes to your reproductive organs'. Also, as this opens with Rome, there's lots of material for the Classical Reception scholar.

11. The Christmas Card (UK, dir. Terry Gilliam, London Weekend Television, 1968)

This animated short was created by Gilliam for the 1968 Christmas special of Do Not Adjust Your Set, a children's comedy series for which Gilliam did animated material, and which was written by and starred Terry Jones, Michael Palin and Eric Idle (also starring David Jason and Denise Coffey). As you might expect, it is a sequence of traditional Christmas card images, brought to life in a typical Gilliamesque format. It accompanied Life of Brian, and set up a joke in the opening credits of that movie.

Monty Python's Life of Brian (UK, dir. Terry Jones, scr. & starring Graham Chapman & John Cleese & Terry Gilliam & Eric Idle & Terry Jones & Michael Palin, Python (Monty) Pictures/Handmade Films, 1979)

Another movie on my ancient world movies course, and a #ClassicsTwitterMovie; my Twitter thread is here. I think, apart from a few moments (the Stan/Loretta gags being most obvious), this still stands up after over forty years. Everyone is at the top of their game (a phrase I grossly overuse), and there's hardly a moment wasted, which is more than can be said for a lot of Python product. Standout scenes remain the haggling, the stoning, Spike Milligan upstaging everyone else, 'What have the Romans ever done for us?', and pretty much all of it, really. Very controversial at the time, but these days it all seems rather tame. This has possibly robbed the movie of some of its power to make its audience think again about their attitudes to religion, and in particular group think. 'You don't have to follow anybody' is a message we could still do with paying attention to. 

13. Fellini Satyricon (Italy, dir. Federico Fellini, scr. Federico Fellini & Bernardino Zapponi, starring Martin Potter, Hiram Heller, Max Born, Salvo Randone, and Magali Noël, Produzioni Europee Associati/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1969)

Another movie from my ancient world movies course, and another #ClassicsTwitterMovie. The thread is here. Fellini Satyricon is a movie that I always found 18-21-year-old undergraduates had a problem with. I can understand that; it's a difficult movie. Even I'm not sure whether I actually like it. And I suspect Fellini didn't mean me to know. What I will say is that this was the first time I had actually watched it through in a while, and I certainly find it a rewarding experience, and there are new subtleties that emerge with each viewing. And I will also reiterate my feeling that Fellini intends a lot of what he puts on screen to be funny, sometimes, I think, laugh-out-loud funny. I really must watch more of his work, as it would no doubt provide a better context. And it's a movie that I think deserves to be in any course on antiquity and cinema, because it has influenced so much that follows (Gladiator, in particular, has Fellini's fingerprints all over it).

14. Star Trek: Beyond (USA, dir. Justin Linn, scr. Simon Pegg & Doug Jung, starring John Cho, Simon Pegg, Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Anton Yelchin, and Idris Elba, Bad Robot/Sneaky Shark Productions/Perfect Storm Entertainment, 2016)*

I'd rather let this slip by on first release. I'd not been that impressed by the first two reboots, especially Into Darkness, and so I had low expectations for this. But it was free on Prime, so I thought, 'why not?' And I found that it's a lot better than the two Abrams-directed examples. For the first time, I found I could actually believe in Chris Pine as Jim Kirk. And I admire the movie's chutzpah; there are some things (e.g. the use of The Beastie Boys' 'Sabotage') that it just shouldn't be allowed to get away with, and yet it does. 

15. Alexander (USA/UK/Germany/Netherlands/France/Italy/Morocco/Thailand, dir. Oliver Stone, scr. Oliver Stone and Christopher Kyle and Laeta Kalogridis, starring Colin Farrell, Angelina Jolie, Val Kilmer, Jared Leto, Rosario Dawson, and Anthony Hopkins, Warner Bros./Intermedia Films/Pacifica Film, 2004)

And yet another #ClassicsTwitterMovie. My Twitter thread is here. There's no arguing that this movie isn't a mess. Stone took ages to find a structure he was happy with, long after the movie's official release. I think a lot of the problem is that the shape of Alexander's life defeats dramatic structure. But there's also no denying that the movie is a thoughtful one, and I think a lot of critics had difficulty with it because they weren't prepared for this level of thoughtfulness, or simply couldn't cope with the way Alexander's sexuality refuses to fit into the neat boxes they would prefer. This killed off a rival movie version that would have been directed by Baz Luhrmann and produced by Dino de Laurentiis. Some claim that this version would have been more restrained and tasteful than Stone's version, which I find very odd. 


1. Ben Hur (USA, TV miniseries, dir. Steve Shill, scr. Alan Sharp, starring Joseph Morgan, Stephen Campbell Moore, and Emily VanCamp, Akkord Film Produktion GmbH/Drimtim Entertainment/FishCorb Films, 2 episodes, 2010)*

Again, watched in connection with my class on the 1959 movie, and because I had never seen it and thought I ought to. If you've never seen it either, don't bother. This is the toxic masculinity version of Ben-Hur, with both Judah and Messala behaving like arses throughout. It is notable for several cameos from actors who are better than the material, such as Alex Kingston as Judah's mother (here named Ruth), Ray Winstone as Quintus Arrius, and Art Malik, an actual Muslim playing Sheik Ilderim! Also features the most rubbish version of the chariot race; they couldn't afford a proper circus, and so the race is done cross-country, like an ancient Roman rally-cross. This is the only version of the story, apart from the 1959 movie, in which Messala dies of wounds received in the race, though here he an Judah are reconciled before he dies. Emily VanCamp makes the best of what little she is given.

2. Hilda (UK/Canada/USA, TV, created by Luke Pearson, season 1, 13 episodes, 2018)*

I saw most of this last year, but finished off the last couple of episodes last month. And oh, it's a delight. Based on Luke Pearson's Hildafolk graphic novels, which I haven't read but get good write-ups, Hilda is about the adventures of a young girl in a Nordic land where fantastic elements such as trolls, giants, elfs, and other magical creatures are all treated as part of everyday life. I particularly like the woffs, big balls of fur with tails that fly through the air in large groups, and are just treated as something that needs no particular explanation. There's good characterisation for Hilda, her mother Johanna, her friends David and Frida, and various other recurring figures, such as the Wood Man, a man made of wood who casually walks into anyone's home like he owns the place. It's intended  as a children's series, of course, but I recommend it to anyone who likes the mythology of Scandinavia, presented in a nice, homely fashion. The second season has now dropped, and I'm looking forward to that.

3. Star Trek: Lower Deck (USA, TV, created by Mike McMahan, season 1, 10 episodes, 2020)*

Well, here's something that has really divided my friends. Half of them really like it, and the other half really don't. I am in the former group. I like the characters. I like the way the show pokes fun at Trek tropes whilst nevertheless remaining Star Trek. I like the way that all the races that appeared in one episode and were then never seen again are back—look there's an Edoan! I think it's worth persisting with, as it gets better as it goes along; the last episode in particular goes places I really was not expecting it to go.

4. Hamlet at Elsinore (UK/Denmark, dir. Philip Saville, starring Christopher Plummer, BBC, 1964)*

Made to mark the four hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare's birth, an ambitious version of Hamlet, shot at Elsinore castle itself. That might seem like a gimmick, but what a cast they assembled! Christopher Plummer as the Prince, delivering a performance reminiscent of his later Wellington, but very effective. Michael Caine as Horatio! Robert Shaw as Claudius! Donald Sutherland as Fortinbras (okay, so Sutherland's accent is ridiculous). When this was shot in September 1963, Shaw had made From Russia With Love, but it wouldn't be released until October, Caine had made Zulu, but it wouldn't be released until January 1964, and Plummer had made The Fall of the Roman Empire, but this wouldn't be released until March. When this was broadcast, all three had big Hollywood movies to their names (albeit Fall of the Roman Empire was a flop, and Plummer would have to wait until The Sound of Music to have a hit). The cast is captured at the one point when it would be possible to have all these three in a BBC Shakespeare. Well worth tracking down.


2. Eternals by Neil Gaiman and John Romita, Jr. (Marvel, 2007)

I reread this prior to reading the first issue of Kieron Gillen's new Eternals series, which I recently reviewed for FA. Some years back, I reviewed Gaiman's version for The Slings and Arrows Graphic Novel Guide. I now think that review was rather ungenerous; I was probably in a grumpy mood, and overcompensating for those who sometimes say 'It's Gaiman, so it must be brilliant' (I agree Gaiman has done some brilliant things—Stardust, most of Sandman, the Fairyland issue of Books of Magic—but I judge each piece of writing on its merits). I appreciated the writing rather more on a second read through, and the characterisation is pretty strong. And John Romita Jr's art is nice. Gaiman's Eternals works quite well as a not-bad piece of superhero storytelling. However, I'm still not convinced it's Gaiman's best writing in the genre, and I'm still not sure that Gaiman manages to make the Eternals work in the Marvel Universe. But then I'm not sure anyone ever managed that, including Jack Kirby.

3. The Sensational She-Hulk by John Byrne Omnibus, Marvel, 2020*

Who doesn't like She-Hulk? Bruce Banner's fun-loving, angst-free, superheroically-confident cousin. I read this to do a review of the Omnibus (and its constituent volumes, The Sensational She-Hulk by John Byrne and The Sensational She-Hulk: The Return) for Slings and Arrows, so I'm afraid you'll have to wait till those reviews come out to find out what I actually thought. Actually, part of this was a reread, as another constituent part is a 1985 Marvel Graphic Novel, and that I already reviewed, so you can get a bit of an idea of my views. I will say that I think these stories are significantly better than the pervious run of She-Hulk, reviews of which are also on their way from Slings and Arrows.

Virtual theatre

2. Swingin' the Dream, starring Alfred Clay, Kemi-Bo Jacobs, Georgia Landers, Zara McFarlane, Andrew French, Cornell S. John, Mogali Masuku, Baker Mukasa, and Anne Odeke, Royal Shakespeare Company, 2021* 

Swingin' the Dream was a jazz adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream, staged in 1939, directed by Erik Charell, and featuring Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman, among other luminaries. It ought to have been a massive hit. Instead, it was a huge flop. The RSC are attempting to recreate the play, which is not an easy task. Only a few torn pages of the script have survived, and the rest needs to be reconstructed from photos, the playbill, the known cast and songs that were included, and what was written about the production at the time. This is an early go at that, mostly consisting of the songs, and commentary to cover the gaps between them. Perfectly pleasant jazz numbers, but one feels a great loss at what might have been restaged, if only we knew more.

3. Uncle Vanya, by Anton Chekhov, directed by Ian Rickson, starring Toby Jones and Richard Armitage, Harold Pinter Theatre, 2020*

I put this here, because it was a stage production filmed on the stage of the Harold Pinter in London, and initially shown in cinemas, though I saw it on BBC4 (well, on the iPlayer actually, where you can still watch it). My this is a cheery piece and no mistake! We are all doomed to unhappiness in this life, but that's fine, we can be happy in the afterlife (if we believe in that). One of the tragedies of Uncle Vanya is that it's clear that everyone has been having these conversations over and over again, and can't escape them. Still, superb performances by an exceptional cast.

4. The Winter's Tale, by William Shakespeare, directed by Declan Donellan, Cheek by Jowl, 2016*

Aside from the stage direction 'Exit, pursued by a bear', The Winter's Tale is not a Shakespeare play I'm familiar with. I really should be, as it is set in the world of ancient Greece, or at least Shakespeare's version of that, complete with sending a message to the Oracle at Delphi. I have to say, this production did not win me over. I think it is not the Bard at his best, and one of those 'comedies' that remind us that The Merchant of Venice is also among the comedies. In the first half, an increasingly paranoid Leontes destroys his life, losing his son and wife, culminating in a scene that is played as if it is the origin for a Batman villain. In the second half, we get a Bohemia that is characterised as Ireland, and an Ireland that largely resembles the Ireland of Father Ted. I found the changes of tone threw me out of the production somewhat. I'd like to see another production of this some time, to see if my problems are with this production in particular, or with the play in general.

Saturday, February 06, 2021

Five Christopher Plummer performances worthy of your attention.

The actor Christopher Plummer has died at the age of 91. He was a talented and versatile actor, often to be seen in the 1960s and 1970s in second-lead roles, yet never quite becoming the enormous star that he deserved to be. Here are five of my favourite performances.

The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)

Immediately before he was lovable Austrian Georg von Trapp, Plummer played this very different figure in Anthony Mann's epic movie, his first big-screen appearance in six years (though he had built up a formidable reputation as a stage and television actor). Whilst thoughtful, the movie is too long. But Plummer's performance. atypical for him, is commandinga mercurial, complex psychopath. I am undecided as to whether I prefer Plummer's Commodus to that of Joaquin Phoenix in Gladiator. The movie was a massive box-office flop, and so did nothing for his career. Fortunately the singing von Trapps came to his rescue.

Battle of Britain (1969) 

I confess that I always have and always will love Battle of Britain. Plummer plays no-nonsense Squadron Leader Colin Harvey, one of four roles, along with Robert Shaw's unnamed Squadron Leader, Laurence Olivier's Air Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding and Trevor Howard's Air Vice-Marshall Keith Park, that give the movie its spine. Plummer also has to carry the main romantic subplot, as the pressures of the battle tear apart his marriage to Susannah York's Maggie. I don't know for certain, but I presume Plummer's is the role originally earmarked for Michael Caine, before scheduling conflicts forced Caine to take a smaller part. A testament to Plummer's success is that it's very hard to imagine Caine in the role. Instead, we end up wishing there was more Plummer.

Waterloo (1970)

Another sprawling epic, Sergei Bondarchuk brings Russian sensibilities to the multi-star war movie, and the result is all the better for it, in my view. Plummer is second lead again, as the Duke of Wellington, and he doesn't appear on screen until nearly forty minutes have passed. But once he strolls through into the Duchess of Richmond's ball, he absolutely steals the movie from Rod Steiger's Napoleon. No-one has encapsulated the essence of the Iron Duke the way Plummer does here. (Stephen Fry's Wellington is a great tour de force, but an entirely different approach.) Plummer's finest performance.

The Return of the Pink Panther (1975)

It's a brave man who steps into the shoes of David Niven, but this is precisely what Plummer does here, as retired gentleman thief Sir Charles Litton. Blake Edwards' '70s Panther movies are messy, and in some ways the best one can say about Return is that it's the least messy, but it does boast two great performances, from Catherine Schell as Lady Litton, and from Plummer. Plummer eschews any impersonation of Niven, and instead plays Litton as if he is a version of the Saintand not Roger Moore's Simon Templar, but Leslie Charteris'. Why did no-one ever let him play that role for real?

Murder by Decree (1979)

Plummer's second go at Holmes has him investigating the Jack the Ripper murders, with a plot drawn from Stephen Knight's Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution. In my view, it's a lesser entry in the Holmes canon. James Mason's Watson seems too old for Plummer's Holmes, though Frank Finlay's Lestrade is perfect. In the pantheon of Holmes portrayals, I wouldn't place Plummer with the greats, Rathbone, Cushing, or Brett. But he's up there with other interesting interpretations such as Nicol Williamson and Robert Stephens, and far above the 'could you nots' of the likes of Richard Roxburgh and Rupert Everett. (I omit Douglas Wilmer from the greats only because I have not seen enough of his work in the role, and leave out Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller because, for all the merits of their performances, neither is really playing Conan Doyle's detective.)

Honourable mentions go to Plummer's role as Rudyard Kipling in The Man Who Would Be King (1975), in which he's easily overlooked, as he's not in it very much, and the movie is so dominated by Connery and Caine; and from his seventies and eighties, when he developed a fine line in character parts, his Doctor Parnassus in Terry Gilliam's flawed but interesting The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Indeed, I can't remember seeing a performance by Plummer that was actively bad, which is more than I can say of a lot of actors. Even in Star Trek VI, where he is unapologetically chewing the scenery, he gives us a better class of chewing the scenery.