Gladiator-epic fans give genre a fighting chance

[10 February 2011]

By Cary Darling

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

FORT WORTH, Texas — While sleek, futuristic science fiction continues to have massive appeal — “TRON: Legacy” alone has raked in nearly $400 million worldwide — there’s a contingent of moviegoers out there who prefer to keep their action-adventure old school. Really old school.

Like papyrus-is-the-new-iPad old school.

And they’re going to be lining up this weekend to see “The Eagle,” starring Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell as a Roman soldier and his slave in 120 A.D. being chased across the Scottish Highlands by wildly painted tribal warriors. Of course, that’s after they’ve checked out the latest episode of Friday night’s “Spartacus: Gods of the Arena,” the follow-up (and actually prequel) to last year’s “Spartacus: Blood and Sand,” the violent, sexed-up foreplay-and-swordplay gladiator saga that was a big hit for the pay-cable network Starz.

From the biblical epics of the ‘50s to the toga dramas of the ‘60s through more recent hits such as “300,” “Gladiator,” “Braveheart” and TV series such as “Hercules,” “Xena: Warrior Princess,” “Rome” and I, Claudius,” it seems there is always an audience out there that is as equally entranced by the ancient world as the modern — even if the genre is often dismissed as sword-and-sandal or toga trash.

But Tatum says he knows why such stories always appealed to him. “There’s a certain mystique and mystery in that age,” he says during a recent Dallas visit. “I don’t know if we can conceive of how people (lived like) that. Even though the Romans were very sophisticated, there’s only so much fire can do at a certain point. ... Because there wasn’t the Internet or cars, you couldn’t get away. People really valued how people close to them saw them. All you had was your word and your honor.”

“(These films) are visceral and primal,” says Paul Dergarabedian of, a film site that tracks box-office trends. “That era holds a fascination for a lot of moviegoers.”

But Dergarabedian concedes movies and TV shows like these do run a gauntlet of derision from some film fans and critics. “It’s the Rodney Dangerfield of movie genres,” he says. “It can’t get no respect.”

No one knows that better than those who teach the classics for a living. They understand why some view movies/TV shows about the eras with which they are fascinated with a jaundiced eye.

“That’s a legacy of the ‘50s, those great Roman biblical epics that were so serious. ... but there were fake beards and visible smallpox vaccinations,” says Matthew Brosamer, an associate professor of English at Los Angeles’ Mount St. Mary’s College, who specializes in the literature of Roman, Middle Ages and Renaissance eras. “Literate moviegoers didn’t respect them.”

Richard Armstrong, associate professor of classical studies at the University of Houston who has taught a course on how Rome is perceived in cinema called “Epic Masculinity,” says in an e-mail response that the accents also get in the way. “Part of it is that we have these odd conventions that the Romans had British accents, while all the Christians sound like they’re from Kansas.”

(Actually, in “The Eagle,” Scottish director Kevin Macdonald flipped the script and wanted American actors to portray Romans and British actors to play their slaves and occupied peoples. “He wanted to make a bit of a political statement,” Tatum says.)

Of course, there’s the undercurrent of homo-eroticism which was most famously lampooned in “Airplane!” with the line from the late Peter Graves: “Joey, do you like movies about gladiators?”

Not to mention sex in general which, in Hollywood’s eyes, Romans seemed to be having all the time with anyone, anywhere.

Armstrong thinks that Starz’ “Spartacus” series is aping the worst aspects of “Caligula,” the 1979 Roman Empire-era film produced by Penthouse magazine’s Bob Guccione that was derided at the time for being pornographic.

“‘Spartacus’ aspires to that level of transgression,” says Armstrong. “I think the constant juxtaposition of sex and utter brutality oversimplifies whatever it wants to say about the ancient world, and reflects more the worlds of cage fighting and the Playboy Channel than Rome, or Capua where it’s actually set. ... Pretty boring unless you’ve never seen naked people before.”

That sense that the ancient world strutted to a different moral drummer is why some think that so many are intrigued by that time period. We can live vicariously through these characters and accept behavior from heroes and villains that we would be repulsed by if set in the contemporary world.

“Why can we be titillated by sexual situations involving Roman slaves but would perhaps object to modern pornography about sex slaves? Putting those actions among those ‘decadent Romans’ lets us turn our fantasies to 11 while displacing all, or almost all, the guilt,” sums up Ricardo Apostol, assistant professor of classics at Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University in an e-mail. He teaches a course called “Sword and Sandal: The Classics in Film.”

“Some people can consume it that way, as straight ‘awesome.’ Others, needing a little more distance, ironize it into a guilty pleasure or camp,” he continues. “But it all comes down to the same thing, and our projections onto the Romans say a whole lot more about us than they ever could about them.”

Yet, for all of that, they feel there is also an upside to all this Hollywood revisionism. “The best of the genre, as in the case of HBO’s ‘Rome,’ can help give a sense of the texture of ancient life — not so much the ‘facts,’” says Armstrong.

Sums up Apostol, “Spectacles like these not only get students in the door, they offer ready starting points for discussions. ... And, for students, it’s much more exciting and rewarding to hear that, no, Spartacus was not fighting against the institution of slavery, than it ever could be to hear random facts about a bunch of dead people that they never heard about. ... I can only say to Hollywood: Keep ‘em coming.”

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