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Jeffrey Richards: Hollywood's Ancient Worlds.

Jeffrey Richards

Hollywood's Ancient Worlds

London: Continuum, 2008

Illustrated. x+227 pp. ISBN 1847250076; 978-1847250070


Thanks to the unexpected success of Gladiator (2000), antiquity, whether classical (if not always classy), biblical, Egyptian, or imaginary, is back on our screens. Books by film historians and classicists alike have attempted to assess the portrayals of the ancient past in the cinema, primarily in studies of individual films but also in general surveys. To the latter, Richards, founder-editor of and contributor to "Cinema and Society," a highly regarded series of monographs, now adds his own concise but informative overview of the subject. Using the term "Hollywood" loosely enough to include British films and some American-European co-productions, Richards surveys epic and not-so-epic cinema and television from Intolerance (1916) to Rome (2005, 2007). As a self-confessed melancholic (ix), he omits comedies and, more justifiably, several biblical and other U.S.-Italian co-productions. There is no mention of the 1897 and 1898 passion-play films by Walter Freeman, produced by Klaw and Erlanger of soon-to-follow Ben-Hur fame, and by Rich Hollaman, although these are the origin of narrative cinema about antiquity. The omission of all classic and modern Mummy films or, e.g., The Scorpion King may be a disappointment to some. The Last Legion presumably came too late to be included.

The first and introductory of Richards' six chapters deals with the cultural and artistic background of historical cinema: nineteenth-century novels, plays, and paintings. This chapter is the book's strongest, and eager readers may wish that it--and the whole book, whose main text comes in at under 200 pages--had been more detailed. Richards returns to this aspect of film history in subsequent chapters by identifying particular paintings as inspirations of specific settings or buildings that film audiences could admire or recognize. His second chapter covers the silent era and the 1930s. It is followed by the heart of the book, three chapters on the 1950s and 1960s, the time when epic filmmaking reached its height with color and widescreen cinematography, giant sets, huge casts, stereophonic sound for symphonic scores, extreme running times, and, in retrospect, self-destructive costs. Richards' emphasis on film music is especially welcome here. One chapter each deals with the Romans and the Bible; ancient Greece and Egypt sensibly share a chapter. Richards brings things up to date in his last chapter, the revival of ancient epics on our screen with and after Gladiator. This chapter's first part offers a useful history of antiquity on the small screen since the mid-1960s.

Throughout, Richards provides a judicious balance of information about plots and production histories and of his own analysis, although he devotes too much space to quotations from early critical reactions, chiefly in British newspapers. Time has made most of these superfluous, and they become rather tedious in their toffy predictability. Richards, by contrast, rides to the rescue of many, even less than stellar, films and usually reaches positive assessments that are well-founded but may surprise jaded readers or viewers. Only rarely, but quite rightly, is he severe in his judgments, as with Caligula ("this tawdry effort had the effrontery to appropriate Prokofiev ... and Khachaturian ... scores for its soundtrack," 158), The Passion of the Christ ("a technically accomplished but hideous and virtually unwatchable sadomasochistic fantasy," 173), and 300 ("probably the most Fascistic film to come out in cinemas since the fall of the Third Reich," 184). His low opinion of The Fall of the Roman Empire, however, is particularly regrettable to this reviewer, editor of a collection of essays on this underappreciated film (The Fall of the Roman Empire: Film and History [Oxford: Blackwell, 2009]). The film was not the "disaster" (157) or "total box-office failure" that brought about the demise of Samuel Bronston's studio (93). Bronston's financial problems were considerably more complex. (Cf. Mel Martin, The Magnificent Showman: The Epic Films of Samuel Bronston [Albany, Ga.: Bear Manor Media, 2007], 185-190.) The film's ending, which Richards strongly dislikes (92), is best understood as dramatically necessary within the melancholic spirit of the entire film. (Cf. my comments in The Fall of the Roman Empire: Film and History, 11-16, in a chapter called "A Critical Appreciation of The Fall of the Roman Empire.")

A few inaccuracies concerning antiquity on the one hand and filmic details on the other detract somewhat from the value of Richards' book. Some of these create a new fiction out of the fiction that film plots invariably create out of history. The Last Days of Pompeii (1908) was not "feature-length," while Cabiria was, and in its nearly complete recent restoration is, significantly longer than two hours (25). In Spartacus, Varinia does not kneel before the crucified Spartacus (83), and Crassus does not kill Draba (86). In The Fall of the Roman Empire, Marcus Aurelius, not Commodus, marries Lucilla off to the king of Armenia (91). The curtain from behind which DeMille emerges in The Ten Commandments is not red (107), hardly the color an extreme right-winger would have chosen to associate himself with. For "Hercules Unchained" (120) read "Hercules," a more astonishing box-office success in the U.S. than its sequel. In classical literature, Medea does not dismember her children (139) but her brother, as she does in Pasolini's Medea. The sealing of the pyramid in Land of the Pharaohs should be credited less to Alexandre Trauner (147) and more, if not exclusively, to Howard Hawks. (Cf. Todd McCarthy, Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood [New York, Grove Press, 1997], 519-520, a book Richards lists.) The monumental arch in Cleopatra (1963) is modeled on, but not an exact copy of, the Arch of Constantine (155). More importantly, Richards' statements about Greek sexuality are likely to mislead non-experts, as when he speaks, without any clarifying comment, of "Alexander's homosexuality" (134, on Rossen's Alexander the Great) and then mentions Alexander's "bisexuality" (181, on Stone's Alexander). He claims that the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus is "carefully de-sexualized" (137, on Wise's Helen of Troy) or "heterosexualized" (178, on Troy). Since both films are primarily indebted for their plots to Homer's Iliad, in which Achilles and Patroclus are not lovers, there is no reason for any of this. The heroes' sexual relationship is first attested in a fragment from Aeschylus' lost tragedy The Myrmidons, composed roughly two centuries after the Iliad. As Richards rightly says (181), Stone can justify his inclusion of Alexander's male lovers in his film by the example of Achilles and Patroclus as explained by Aristotle. Since Alexander was born about a century after Aeschylus' death, Stone's view of Achilles and Patroclus fits chronologically.

Richards employs an idiosyncratic, not to say erroneous, mode of punctuation where relative clauses are concerned; cumulatively, this has a rather irritating effect. The book is free of jargon. Typographical errors are rare and negligible, but correct "insert" (16) to "inert" and "Mount Idah" (186) to "Ida." Instead of "where" (178), read "although" or "whereas" for greater clarity. The index could have been prepared with greater care, and the inclusion of just ten (attractive) illustrations, some in color, may cause readers to long for more.

Martin M. Winkler

George Mason University
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Author:Winkler, Martin M.
Publication:Film & History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2011
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