Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.07.07
Alastair J. L. Blanshard, Kim Shahabudin, Classics on Screen: Ancient Greece and Rome on Film. London: Bristol Classical Press, 2011. Pp. viii, 264. ISBN 9780715637241. $29.95 (pb).
Reviewed by Clayton Miles Lehmann, University of South Dakota (firstname.lastname@example.org)
In 2011 the American Philological Association’s Committee on the Classical Tradition renamed itself the Committee on Classical Tradition and Reception. The new name “more accurately represents the range of research, teaching, and professional activity focused on responses by later cultures to texts and materials from Greek and Roman antiquity.”1 Movies about the ancient world represent the most ambitious and widely disseminated class of such responses, and in the last generation we have seen a great deal of scholarship on them. The book under review belongs to one of the distinctive genres of studies about the ancient world in film, the collection of case studies. The other genres include the catalog-like general survey—Jon Solomon’s The Ancient World in the Cinema,2 remains the standard textbook on the subject—and, most numerous, the volume of collected essays. All these sorts of studies aid us who teach movies that feature the history, literature, or mythology of antiquity. But we still lack a unified treatment of cine-antiquity (Blanshard and Shahabudin’s term, which they mercifully use very little in their book), explaining why and how antiquity has for over a century inspired movie-makers and movie-viewers and how viewing a movie affects our reception of antiquity.3 In recognition of the current wave of interest in reception studies, Blanshard and Shahabudin explicitly direct their work to scholars of classical reception, as well as to scholars of popular culture and undergraduates in a film course (13). They aim to give one-half of their attention to the production of each film they study and the other half to its reception.
In a wide-ranging introduction too compressed for a stand-alone textbook, Blanshard and Shahabudin situate the cinematic representation of the ancient world in the short history of film and the long history of appropriating and adapting the classics. Their advice about how to watch a movie will also need much professorial intervention. In their ten chapters the authors turn to a series of case studies of ten films. For each one they give its context in the history of film. Then they study the production and reception and summarize the plot. Finally they select and treat at some length three key themes with reference to key scenes summarized in boxes in the text and sometimes illustrated. At the end of each chapter they recommend three or four other films for comparison.
The first chapter, “Establishing the Conventions: Cleopatra (1934),” treats DeMille’s version of the exotic, erotic Egyptian queen in the context of the first generation of movies, the shift to sound, the emergence of the production code, and treatment of gender roles. After summarizing the plot, Blanshard and Shahabudin discuss the movie’s anachronistic social content, the seduction of spectacle within the theater as well as within the plot (here a box describes the dazzling, seductive barge scene), and gender games.
For the next chapter, “The Roman Epics of Classical Hollywood: Quo Vadis (1951),” Blanshard and Shahabudin turn to the post- war era and the heavy hitters Quo Vadis (1951), The Robe (1953), Ben- Hur (1959), Cleopatra (1963), and Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), the handful of epic films that (with chapter four’s Spartacus) dominated the perception of ancient Rome in pre-Gladiator popular culture. After discussing the background, production, and plot and explaining classical Hollywood continuity, the authors turn to their three key themes: the decadence of spectacle in Nero’s court, Christian freedom vs Roman tyranny, and Petronius as spokesman for the Hollywood blacklist and the principal of ars gratia artis.
In chapter three, “Peplum Traditions: Hercules (1958),” Blanshard and Shahabudin turn from the blockbuster to the peplum, the cheap Italian sword-and-sandal muscle-builder vehicles of the late fifties and early sixties. Joseph E. Levine’s project Hercules, starring Steve Reeves, represents this genre perfectly. Here the authors analyze the striking difference in the visual cultures of simple and rural Greece as opposed to spectacular and urban Rome, bodybuilding the beautiful male body, and the contrast between helpless virginal women who need a man to rescue them and sexy depraved vamps who need a man to control them.
Chapter four,” Roman History on Screen: Spartacus (1960),” features Kirk Douglas’s and Stanley Kubrick’s “thinking man’s peplum” about a cinematically challenged world: a pre-Christian, pre-imperial Rome. In their discussion of the background to the production, Blanshard and Shahabudin return to the McCarthyite context. Then they treat their key themes. One of the more interesting in the book, “Between Athlete and Animal: Making Sense of Gladiators,” discusses the marginality of the gladiator, a well-trained lump of meat at once “revolting and alluring” (90). Second the authors point out how Spartacus invites a two- fold focus of criticism: as a gladiator he exemplifies Roman spectacle and as a slave he suffers from and revolts against Roman oppression. Finally, and unusually in a Hollywood film, Spartacus includes a veiled treatment of ancient sexual complexity.
Chapter five, “Greek History on Screen: The 300 Spartans (1962),” returns to Greece and the particular problems of making Greek history appealing to moviegoers. As the chapters on Hercules and Jason and the Argonauts point out, film makers have found Greek mythology a fertile source for striking stories and visual ideas. But Greek history suffers from an anti-cinematic complexity and unfamiliarity. The Persian Wars serve as a good example of this problem, and choosing The 300 Spartans also lets Blanshard and Shahabudin draw comparisons to a very different solution, Zach Snyder’s 300. Therefore strategies to make a profoundly alien Sparta accessible and appealing to a modern audience dominate the discussion of key themes. We also have a careful consideration of the historiographical problem of Leonidas’s alleged night attack on Xerxes’ camp: the director, Rudolph Maté, disguised conflicts among sources and chose to follow the less authoritative but more dramatic account.
Chapter six, “Myth and the Fantastic: Jason and the Argonauts (1963),” stars Ray Harryhousen’s Dynamation, as we return to myth as a source for the ancient epic and reflect on the relationships between myth and fantasy. Hollywood’s preference for realism makes representing the gods problematic, but the relationship between men and the gods seems no less problematic. Fortunately we have the god-like animators and other special-effects artists to mediate “reality and fantasy, live action and animation” (143).
With “Art Cinema: Fellini-Satyricon (1969),” Blanshard and Shahabudin present their longest and most interesting chapter. Simply defining the term art film takes considerable space as the authors make an excursion through auteur theory and ancient drama via the great names of modern cinema—Pasolini, Cacoyannis, Cocteau, and Fellini. We get an unusually rich study of the background to the production of Fellini-Satyricon, and then the key themes: fragmentation of plot that resembles vividly and frustratingly the state of our sources; the grittiness of a Rome so unlike the splendid shining city of the epic films; and the strangeness of ancient paganism to a modern audience familiar with Christianity. Fellini not only gives us a remarkable vision of Rome; he also forces us read Petronius in a new way. This chapter shows that the nuance and sophistication of art cinema may offer greater potential for reception studies than the blockbusters that receive most of the scholarship.
Chapter eight, “Satirising Cine-Antiquity: Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979),” considers the various ways comedy can appear in movies about the ancient world, from revisiting ancient comedy (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) to juxtaposing ancient and modern (Mighty Aphrodite) and satirizing genres such as the peplum (Carry on Cleo). By featuring Life of Brian, Blanshard and Shahabudin can discuss not only the film’s comedy (satirizing epic films, social class, and religious fanaticism), but also the shifting social values in terms of censorship and religious attitudes that affected its reception. Our UK authors provide much background on the Monty Python phenomenon that this USAmerican reader appreciated.
Chapter nine, “The Disney Version: Hercules (1997),” turns to the animated children’s movie and its domination by the Disney corporation. Here a formula-driven aesthetic prevails, so that the source of the story matters little. We have a hero who has to figure out how to define heroism in modern terms, a production design that rejects ponderous classicism in favor of flippant metatextuality, and a sanitized mythology that renders ancient ethics unrecognizable. When the chorus of Muses takes over the prologue of the movie we get a dazzling review of mythological prehistory, but the “Gospel truth” they promise turns out to reveal a lot more about the postmodern world than the ancient world.
In their final chapter, “The Return of the Epic?: Gladiator (2000),” Blanshard and Shahabudin ask whether the flood of movies about the ancient world we have seen since 2000 does in fact represent a revival of the ancient epic. The situation from such a near perspective seems chaotic, but they emphasize the role of cinema in a general revival of interest in the classical world that manifests itself not only in the movies but also in the choices students make about university courses, videogames, and television programs. The authors choose as their key themes the ambiguous and shifting moral quality of violence that Maximus and Commodus exhibit for a range of motives; the response of observers of the violence projected onto the response of the viewer of the movie, and the situation of the family as the source for morality rather than religion as in the mid-century epics.
The book ends with a chapter-by-chapter list of sources, an up-to-date bibliography that reflects the discipline’s Anglophone orientation, and a full and accurate index. It suffers from occasional lapses in editing. One to three black-and-white illustrations per film appear large and clear enough to aid the discussion of key themes.
Blanshard and Shahabudin have produced a book I highly recommend for instructors and students as well as for scholars of reception studies and popular culture. The organization and choice of films and key themes serve their purpose well. It seems unlikely, however, that instructors would select it as a textbook and teach to its particular set of films. The authors made their selections in order to provide variety of theme and style, and they succeed in that aim, as they succeed in highlighting important and interesting themes, summarizing the scholarship on those themes, and adding their own readings. But those of us who teach film courses will inevitably find essential films inexplicably omitted from Classics on Screen (not a single mention of the late Theo Angelopoulos, let alone analysis of any of his densely layered, profoundly meditative movies) while it recommends truly rotten tomatoes (Hercules in New York, because of Arnold “Strong” Schwarzenegger’s fight with a man in a bear suit).4
1. APA Newsletter 34.3-4 (2011): 24.
2. Rev ed (New Haven and London: Yale Univ Press, 2001), BMCR 2002.01.08.
3. Martin M Winkler’s collection of essays, Cinema and Classical Texts: Apollo’s New Light (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ Press, 2009) points the way to such a unified treatment. For a review of the relevant literature and suggestions for directions of research see Joanna Paul, “Working with Film: Theories and Methodologies,” in A Companion to Classical Reception, ed Lorna Hardwick and Christopher Stray (Malden, Oxford, and Carlton: Blackwell, 2008), 303-314; BMCR 2008.08.38. Classics on Screen does not have the strictly pedagogical focus of Monica Silveira Cyrino, Big Screen Rome (Maden, Oxford, and Carlton: Blackwell Publishing, 2005; BMCR 2006.06.12) but neither does it have a unified thesis such as we have in Maria Wyke, Projecting the Past: Ancient Rome, Cinema, and History (New York and London: Routhledge, 1997; BMCR 97.11.16) and Elena Theodorakopoulos, Ancient Rome and the Cinema: Story and Spectacle in Hollywood and Rome (Exeter: Bristol Phoenix Press, 2010; BMCR 2011.04.03).
4. I wish to thank Christian Lehmann for greatly improving this review.