No one ever claimed that originality was Hollywood’s strong point, and one topic which screenwriters, directors, and producers have returned to time and time again is the ancient world. Like other types of movies, ancient world epics have been more favored in some years than others, but they’ve been a recurring presence in the movies from the earliest days right into the 21st Century with Ridley Scott’s Oscar-winning Gladiator in 2000 and the HBO/BBC series Rome (2005-2007).
In Hollywood’s Ancient Worlds, Jeffrey Richards examines how the ancient world has been presented in the movies, placing particular emphasis on Hollywood films but also including some European films and television productions. He excludes comedies for reasons of space and authorial preference, but otherwise Hollywood’s Ancient Worlds includes consideration of every epic film set in the ancient world which was created between 1916 and 2006.
Why the enduring appeal of these “historical” epics, which frequently aren’t very historical at all? One obvious reason, particularly in the early days of film, was the opportunity they offered directors to present actresses wearing next to nothing. This attitude was exemplified by Joseph von Sternberg’s disregard for historical authenticity in the never-produced 1930s version of I, Claudius: when notified that Vestal Virgins in Ancient Rome were chastely attired and always six in number, he reportedly replied “I want 60, and I want them naked”. Portraying the fleshy evils of the ancient world as a cautionary tale for the modern was an often-exploited device in the pre-Code era, and a regular specialty of Cecil B. De Mille. His Manslaughter (1922) likens the sins of a contemporary flapper to the decadence of ancient Roman orgies, while both Adam’s Rib (1922) and the silent The Ten Commandments (1923) feature parallel stories of immorality in the ancient and modern worlds.
Ancient world films also appealed to early directors as a logical continuation of a type of entertainment popular in Victorian Britain and America: the ancient world stage epic. Several of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novels were adapted for the theatre before becoming films: for instance The Last Days of Pompeii, source of the first ancient world movie epic, was produced three times on the London stage in the 19th Century. Similarly, D.W. Griffith’s 1913 Judith of Bethulia, one of the first feature films produced in the United States, was based on a play by Thomas Bailey Aldrich. This borrowing was further encouraged by the fact that many early directors worked in the theatre before coming to film: Griffith was familiar with the play of Judith because he had appeared in it.
A third reason for the appeal of the ancient world was the opportunity it presented to comment on contemporary politics in an undercover fashion, thus avoiding censorship and charges of overt propagandizing. It’s a truism that period movies are never about the time in which they were set, but about the time in which they were made, and Richards finds this particularly true of the ancient world epic. Or as he more bluntly puts it with regard to Ridley Scott’s 2000 film, “The very last thing that Gladiator was about was actual Roman history”. Instead, he (along with many other critics) finds Scott’s film to be a commentary on Clintonian America and the problems faced by the flagging American empire. Similarly, Mervyn LeRoy’s Quo Vadis (1951) creates obvious parallels between Nero’s Rome and Hitler’s Germany (including imagery modeled on Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will), while the story of goals of the title character in Spartacus (1960) have clear parallels with Zionism.
Hollywood’s Ancient Worlds is the first serious scholarly treatment of its topic. It’s packed with information, as befits the product of a Professor of Cultural History at the University of Lancaster who specializes in Victorian theatre and 20th Century cinema. However, Richards has also produced a jargon-free book which is fun to read and maintains a sense of proportion about the films he discusses. He enjoys pointing out their absurdities, from the miracle of Elizabeth’s Taylor’s Cleopatra entering Rome through the Arch of Constantine (constructed over 300 years after her death) to Victor Mature’s struggles with an obviously stuffed lion in De Mille’s 1949 Samson and Delilah, but also communicates the pleasure he takes in them. That makes him odd man out among critics, who like to disparage these films as much as the general public likes to buy tickets to see them.
The ancient world epic is enjoying a current revival, ushered in by the critical and popular success of Gladiator. It’s too soon to declare a new golden age (for every Gladiator there’s a 300 and an Alexander), but Richards predicts that the ancient world will remain a popular topic for film and television. His reasoning? The “combination of spectacle, action, conflict, inspiration, and larger than life characters will simply be too potent and appealing for future film-makers to resist”.