BMCR 1992.04.15

Classics and Cinema

, Classics and cinema. Bucknell review 35, no. 1. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1991. 285 pages : illustrations. ISBN 9780838751985

In the year 1888, G. Méliès produced La Sibylle de Cumae and inaugurated cinematic interest in Classical themes which would continue to the present with such films as The Clash of the Titans (1981) and more recently Hercules (1983) and Hercules II (19 85) starring Lou Ferrigno, better known for his performances as the Incredible Hulk. In between hundreds of films focusing on various aspects of Classical antiquity—mythological and historical—have appeared. Given this remarkable interest shown by the many celebrated and not-so-celebrated directors from Cine Città to Hollywood, it should appear surprising that so few studies of so rich a body of material exist. The first important work on Classical topics in film to appear is the very handy encyclopedic study by Jon Solomon, The Ancient World in Cinema (New York 1978), which provides an annotated overview of the various types of films on ancient topics that have been shown throughout the past century. This was followed in the mid-eighties by two books that approach the topic from a narrower perspective: M. McDonald, Euripides in Cinema: The Heart Made Visible (Philadelphia 1983) and K. McKinnon, Greek Tragedy in Film (Rutherford 1986). These books aside, and apart from the appearance of a few articles specifically on Classical themes in film or of books and articles which touch upon such films in passing, no wide ranging, interpretational study devoted to a general understanding and appreciation of the articulation of Classical themes in film has come forth until the recent publication of Martin Winkler’s collection of 12 essays under the title Classics and Cinema. In his brief introduction (pp. 9-13) Winkler protests too much in his apologia for the existence of such a book when he argues for the interdisciplinarity of classical studies and asserts that “… classics is a versatile and exciting discipline, capable of combining methods of traditional scholarship with an openness to modern critical thought in its approaches to the ancient cultures and to the classical tradition” (11). I see no need to avert accusations of “selling out” by Departments of Classics in the offering of courses in translations.

The first essay by Peter W. Rose, “Teaching Greek Myth and Confronting Contemporary Myths,” takes on the pedagogical issue of using film in the teaching of mythology. The author argues for the use of popular culture, in particular films, to reach the younger audience, which from experience tends to be alert and sensitive to video performance, and intends in part to counter the appropriation by the New Right of the Classics as “immutable reservoirs of fixed truth about a fixed human nature, a fixed human condition” (18). Rose insists on the “otherness” of Greek myth and offers its study as a liberating experience. His approach is as follows: after having his students read the bare bones of numerous myths in Tripp’s Handbook and study a variety of critical approaches, with a special focus on Slater’s The Glory of Hera, he shows four films: Clash of the Titans, Jason and the Argonauts, Superman, and Return of the Jedi. The ultimate goal is to have the students “explore the ideological implications of the most blatant omissions and additions in the film with a view to gaining some historical perspective on their own society’s cultural production by contrasting it with that of ancient Greece” (26). The final assessment of the Clash of the Titans provides an example of the results he tries to achieve: “… the film celebrates traditional heterosexual romance in terms which totally objectify the nubile female while denigrating adult women. It celebrates American fatherhood under conditions which little justify it. It reinforces the fetishism of mechanical gimmicks as the solution to all problems and indulges in blatant racism by adding the embodiment of evil in the only black character in the film (Calibos)” (28). The agenda of Rose’s course is lofty: “… the responsibility to contribute to the formation of citizens capable of full participation in a true democracy requires that we take every opportunity to engage our students in an ongoing critical dialogue with the received conglomerate of ideas, beliefs, and ideological practices into which they are born and which are constantly reinforced and adjusted both in most of their schooling and in all forms of popular culture” (35).

While I laud Rose’s commitment to the intellectual, socio-political, and moral development of our next generation, his methodology and “characteristic disappointment” with students for “their relative lack of critical distance” (28) makes him appear overly dogmatic and unnecessarily restrictive. With regard to the latter, by focusing so narrowly on the psychological and sociological, Rose misses other important aspects of the films he studies, inter alia, the literary and mythological. I found the mythological contaminatio of the Clash of the Titans very suggestive. For example, because the celluloid Perseus rides Pegasus he is accordingly envisaged as a conflation of the mythic Perseus and Bellerophon, an interestingly confusing association since the former succeeded in making it to heaven through catasterism (with which the movie ends) while the latter was ultimately destroyed in his attempt to fly into the sky. Thetis’ devotion to her son, Calibos, and her willingness to act on his behalf, recalls her comparable role in the Iliad on behalf of Achilles; both of her sons are ultimately destroyed on account of their anger over the loss of a girl. The competition for the hand of Andromeda through the answering of a riddle is an eerie conflation of the story of Atalanta and Oedipus. Perseus’ crossing of the river Styx on Charon’s skiff to get to Medusa, where he also encounters a two-headed Cerberus, is not merely a nod to the audience’s familiarity with ancient Greek eschatology, but also a clever commentary on the mythic significance that the killing of the Gorgon bears.

In “Classical Gods and the Demonic in Film,” Frederick Ahl looks at the presence and absence of the gods and the demonic in non-classical and classical films (in that order). The essay proceeds in three parts: The Demonic and the Magician, Tragic Gods, and The Epic Gods. In the first, Ahl shows how often directors explore the “god question” through the devil; the discussion takes up several Bergman films and focuses on Larry Cohen’s Demon (1982). The second part (Tragic Gods) is not really about, but rather concludes with a very brief statement about, the gods who we learn are not present in filmed tragedies, with the exception of two Greek films which he does not discuss. In the third part (The Epic Gods), Ahl discusses two films on classical themes, Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and Clash of the Titans (1981), both of which feature portraits of the Olympians. He observes that, while in the earlier film humans choose their own destinies in the face of gods who are aloof, except when it comes to punishing those who violate their sanctuaries, in the later movie men are “almost entirely at the mercy of the gods and the destinies they devise for [them]” (p. 53). According to Ahl, screenwriter Beverley Cross’s familiarity with myth and Ray Harryhausen’s special effects in both films conspire to “touch on the most neglected aspect of the ‘god question’ or, better, the ‘god questions'” (p. 56) and to “recreate the gods … and bring the epic nature of myth before our eyes …” (p. 57). I noted a few minor errors: Acrisius is identified as Jason’s grandfather (p. 51); Calibos is called Hera’s son when he is Thetis’ (p. 54 ); and Ahl states that Zeus gave Jason the small clay model of a god which will later turn into the marine god who helps the Argo through the Symplegades (p. 52) when in fact it is Phineus.

E.B. Holtsmark’s essay, “The katabasis Theme in Modern Cinema,” is a typological study of the descent to and ascent from a variety of hells. After a brief but thorough description of the katabasis theme, Holtsmark looks at 10 movies, none on classical topics ( Cherry 2000, 100 Rifles, The Wild Bunch, The Professionals, The Long Riders, Shane, Ulzana’s Raid, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now). All show the pattern, in part or in toto, straightforward or inverse, of a hero or heroes passing into another world, often accompanied by a Hermes or Charon figure, in order to obtain something (spiritual or material) or rescue someone (friend or foe) and with the result that the hero/heroes gain in stature. Holtzmark concludes that the pattern “speaks to something deeply human” (p. 77) and “endures because it has been our own since Gilgamesh first went in search of immortality in the fourth or third millenium B.C. …” (p. 78). The observation that Apocalypse Now combines the katabasis theme with Frazer’s King of the Wood is of particular note.

The fourth paper, “The Classical Amazon in Contemporary Cinema” by Kristina M. Passman, is another typological study, this time focusing on the figure of the Amazon. Passman demonstrates that in antiquity Amazons can represent either “others” who are dangerous (as seen in fifth century B.C. Athenian political ideology) or noble warriors who fought on behalf of their children (e.g., Camilla or Boudicca). Passman then finds manifestations of these “good” and “bad” Amazons in four films: Conan the Barbarian, Red Sonja, The Terminator, and Aliens. About the “good” type she concludes that “The Amazon figure, closely connected with the heroic code, is increasingly represented in film and may well be a response to the increased participation of women in the public sphere… Many women are raising their children alone today and face great economic and social challenges as they do so. Amazon films which emphasize motherhood and the future of the human race subliminally respond to this situation, in a sense valuing the heroic effort involved in motherhood under such circumstances” (101).

The next piece, “Greek Poetics and Eisenstein’s Films” by J.K. Newman, is divided into two parts. In the first, Newman begins with brief analyses of the opening of the Iliad, Nemean 1, and Pythian 4 and argues that ancient writers required the cooperation of their audience to fill in the blanks. In the second part, he turns to Sergei Eisenstein whom he calls “the greatest of the modern theoreticians of film” (115). After identifying seven aspects of Eisenstein’s theory and practice and comparing these with statements in Aristotle’s Poetics and examples from Classical works, he concludes that both Greek poets and theorists and the Russian director are in agreement as to the best mode of presentation; i.e., the offering of “a few significant details by the principle of pars pro toto [so that] the viewer or listener will be drawn into working these details into a total picture” (123) and that picture allows the audience to “leap into another dimension of consciousness which raises the spectator beyond himself” (124).

There follows a three-part segment that focuses on the cinematic interpretation of ancient mythology by the celebrated Greek director Michael Cacoyannis: a paper entitled “Cacoyannis’s and Euripides’Iphigenia : The Dialectic of Power,” a photo essay consisting of 15 stills from Iphigenia chosen by the director, and an interview with Cacoyannis and Irene Pappas, who stars in all of Cacoyannis’ mythological films. The paper was written and the interview conducted by Marianne McDonald. In the paper, McDonald gives a close comparison between the play and the film and argues that, like Euripides, Cacoyannis uses the story of Iphigenia to express a political message shaped by his own experiences in Greece, in particular the chaos after the Second World War and the dictatorship of the military junta between 1967 and 1974. Several dimensions of the film—the changes from the Euripidean play, close-ups of eyes, camera perspectives, costumes, sets, colors, and the music of Theodorakis—all contribute to a more humane and very compelling version of the myth which points up, like the original, “the weakness of power and the power of the otherwise powerless” (140). The interviews with Cacoyannis and Pappas, interesting in themselves, reflect McDonald’s interest in Euripides in Greek cinema, but not necessarily a central issue she espoused in her essay. For both director (167-168) and actress (176-177), in response to McDonald’s questions about the political messages of the films, underscore the universal significance of their films and refuse to associate them with particular historical situations.

By far the best paper in the collection to my mind is that by the editor, Martin Winkler, “Tragic Features in John Ford’s The Searchers.” After summarizing Aristotle’s view of the tragic figure who is both represented as guilty and innocent, Winkler turns to the Westerner, whose moral ambiguity makes him a “modern reincarnation of the archetypal mythic and tragic hero” (188). Our attention is then turned to Ethan Edwards, the protagonist of The Searchers. What follows is a splendid analysis of a very complex character who “exists on the borderline between savagery and civilization” (191). In a moving and lucid account, Winkler shows how Ethan comes to want to destroy the niece he is searching for, because she has been violated by the Indian Scar (he had raped his brother’s wife, with whom Ethan had been secretly in love for many years, and her oldest daughter and then killed them in addition to Ethan’s brother). Like Achilles in the Iliad, Ethan commits a senseless act of brutality—the scalping of Scar—before he finally comes to terms with his anger. This moment is brilliantly executed by Ford who has Ethan chase the young girl toward a cave and instead of killing her, as we think he will, lifts her up and brings her back to white society.

With “An American Tragedy: Chinatown” by Mary-Kay Gamel we move from the western to film noir, from a focus on the hero to genre and the canon. Gamel takes issue with “the defense of the established literary canon because of its ‘timeless’ or ‘universal’ values” (210) as articulated by T. Sobchack ( Literature/Film Quarterly 3 (1975) 196-204). Her response is an in-depth analysis of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. After showing the many features of the film which parallel both Aristotelian criteria in general and the Oedipus story in particular, Gamel argues that “it is Chinatown‘s ‘classic’ elements which most clearly establish its connections to the historical, political, and aesthetic circumstances of its own production” (219). She goes on to show how this epigonous film noir entails a dialectical relationship between the 30’s and 70’s and thus “problematizes the relation between present and past” (224) which has the effect of critiquing “traditional masculine behavior and individualism … celebrated during the decade previous to the film’s production” (223). Gamel concludes that “genre, like an individual work, is located within history” (226).

We leave tragedy behind with James R. Baron’s “9 to 5 as Aristophanic Comedy.” Baron argues first that 9 to 5 has the typical features that one finds in Old Comedy in general and secondly that its three main female characters correspond specifically to the three heroines of Lysistrata (Violet Newstead = Lysistrata, Judy Bernly = Myrrhine, and Doralee Rhodes = Lampito). Although the various comparisons and equations are more than slightly forced, Baron does not insist on direct influence. Rather in his conclusion he veers suddenly away from where his thesis seemed to lead and observes that “the Aristophanic spirit is alive and well on the late-night television reruns and in video rental centers throughout the land” (247).

J.P. Sullivan follows with “The Social Ambience of Petronius’Satyricon and Fellini Satyricon.” Observing that the original Satyricon was an “open” text consisting of disjointed episodes and perforated with massive lacunae, Sullivan begins with the proposition that Fellini was fully justified in his creative transformation of the Roman novel. While importing scenes from a variety of other sources, Fellini is shown to have remained nonetheless true to the atmosphere of the model and its focus on that “longing for degradation, not uncommon in ages when material luxury and artistic sophistication seem to breed a certain decadence and a keen desire for thrills to tickle jaded palates” (256). Sullivan observes that, like Petronius, Fellini has “an amused tolerance and acceptance of life as it is lived, a willingness to face his perceived reality an an impatience with false solutions…” (260). The film is seen to be a deconstruction of the Neronian novel that has become a part of the Satyricon‘s “literary history” (2 61).

In the last article of the collection, “The Sounds of Cinematic Antiquity,” Jon Solomon begins with a brief overview of the rediscovery of ancient music and proceeds to its use, adaptation, and eschewal in cinema. A pivotal figure in this story is Miklos Rozsa who attempted to recreate ancient music in Quo Vadis ? “His solution was to alter normal orchestrations by concentration on brass, to employ the same authentic ancient modal constructions ( tonoi) used less than a decade before by Stravinsky and Jolivet, to avoid triads and counterpoint as much as possible, and to adapt authentic melodies from the extant fragments of ancient Greco-Roman music.” For example, “The piece he adapted for Nero’s cithara is that from the Seikilos Inscription, a funerary monument found in Aydin (Turkey) a century ago on which is inscribed a dirge with a well-balanced four-line melody” (270). Rozsa’s synthesis of “ancient musical fragments, theory and instrumentation with melodic harmonies suitable to modern ears” was both imitated (e.g., The Robe and Jason and the Argonauts) and adapted (e.g., Spartacus and The Fall of the Roman Empire) and finally abandoned ( Fellini Satyricon and Pasolini’s Medea). Solomon concludes his very informative article by stating that authenticity in music is not as important as the ability to provoke martial, pious and romantic responses in the audience, which emerges from a combination of music, setting, and costumes.

I found this book both engaging in general and in particular helpful in developing a course on Classical Mythology in Film which I offered for the first time this year (Spring 1992). From the experience gained in that course I would note two minor deficiencies in an otherwise excellent book. First, I would like to have seen a paper which looked at the periods in the history of cinema when films on mythological topics were especially popular (e.g., what impetus led studios to produce and audiences to flock to all those Hercules movies in the late 50’s and early 60’s, Hercules against the Mongols and Hercules against the Moon Men to mention only two of the more bizarre?). Secondly, on a more practical note, a bibliography of the articles and books cited in the notes would have been appreciated. All in all, I hope this collection of interesting and informative papers will inspire further books and articles devoted to Classics and Cinema.