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Hollywood's Ancient Worlds.

Hollywood's Ancient Worlds

Jeffrey Richards

Continuum 227pp 25 [pounds sterling]

ISBN 978 1847 250070


'The very last thing Gladiator was about was actual Roman history', writes Jeffrey Richards in his book about Hollywood's renewed interest in the ancient world. And he is right; like all big-budget cinema, Ridley Scott's film is principally entertainment, not education, driven by the need for profit rather than the quest for truth. Its inspiration is the gladiator movies of the 1960s as much as any ancient author; its Rome-scape, spectacular set-pieces with their roots in Victorian painting.

Yet if I had a pound for every time that someone asked me, with my professional classics hat on, whether Gladiator is historically accurate, I would be a professional classicist no longer. For it is this hope, vain though it may be, which fuels the film's fascination and makes the studios hire academic advisers. Sure, the chances of the real emperor Commodus resembling Joachim Phoenix are slim, but then so are the chances of him resembling his ancient marble portrait-bust from the Esquiline Hill in Rome, which shows him in the guise of Hercules, or indeed his portrayal in primary sources such as Dio Cassius, Herodian and the Augustan History. There, his inadequacies as emperor are made manifest through his slavish adherence to the gladiatorial arena, with stories so sensational as to make Scott's version believable.

Richards' eschewing of the accuracy issue gives him the luxury of putting the production and impact of films from 300 (2007) and The Ten Commandments (1956) way back to silent movies into their broader political and economic context. He is not a classicist but a historian of British, particularly Victorian, history and of cinema and as such is especially good on where these films come from, blending the history of art, theatre and cinematography with a lightness of touch that brings a serious message to the anecdotal (e.g. that Ben-Hur, made in 1926, was banned by Mussolini for being hostile to the Roman empire and by the Chinese for being Christian propaganda). Richards' wide range of examples means that he cannot engage as intensely as he might with the extensive 'classics on film' bibliography. But his book is a readable synthesis nevertheless.

By the time we reach its final page, we have a very strong sense of how these films 'have used the Ancient World as a vehicle to comment on the ideas and values of its own age'. But where does this leave authenticity? The cinema helps us expose the space between representation and reality, and the layers of response that separate us from antiquity. It is precisely because 'ancient world epics' are as Richards claims that so many Classics Departments now use them in their teaching.

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Author:Vout, Caroline
Publication:History Today
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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