BMCR 2006.06.12

Big Screen Rome

, Big screen Rome. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub, 2005. ix, 274 pages : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm. ISBN 1405116838. $32.95 (pb).

Table of Contents

Big Screen Rome is an enjoyable and informative book of interest and accessible to a wide readership. Its author does not assume an in depth acquaintance with the Roman world or a background in film history, but the level of detail she commands and conveys in both areas assume an attentive reader. Cyrino offers her book as a contribution to the continuing enterprise of merging classics and cinema, ‘not only to facilitate teaching and scholarly research in the field, but also to enhance the viewing pleasure of the individual spectator.’ (‘Acknowledgements’, p. viii.).

C. presents the reader with nine films in chronological order, starting with Quo Vadis (1951) and finishing with Gladiator (2000.) She has selected these partly from personal preference, but the main driver of her choices is the success she has had with her selection in the teaching environment. C. makes a well-researched contribution to the study of ancient Rome on film and follows a firmly established focus, namely the contemporary resonances, cultural and political, that permeate films set in the foreign country of the past.

Each chapter is divided into subheaded sections. C. keeps to a formula of ‘production and cast credits’, ‘plot outline’, ‘ancient background’, ‘background to the film’, ‘making the movie’, and ‘themes and interpretations’. Her ‘core issues’ list at the end of each chapter could easily double for essay questions, and it is clear from the amount of detail she delivers in her more descriptive sections that her pedagogical goals are always in view.

C. acknowledges her debt to established critiques of the Roman world on film. She draws upon Maria Wyke’s seminal book, Projecting the Past: Ancient Rome, Cinema and History (New York and London: Routledge, 1997) and relevant essays in Imperial Projections, S.R. Joshel, M. Malamud, D.T.McGuire, Jr. edd (Baltimore and London: John Hopkins University Press, 2001.) However, she organises the material into a user-friendly and less overtly interpretative discourse and brings a refreshing jeu d’esprit in her approach to all the films under scrutiny.

In the first three chapters C. has selected films that demonstrate the impact of the epic screen of the 1950s, which had been enlarged and enhanced by technological innovations such as the advent of Cinemascope. From a sociological perspective, Quo Vadis, The Robe, and Ben Hur are seen as significant for their focus upon the Christian-pagan polarisation and the implicit modern parallels that could be drawn between pious America and a godless Soviet Union during the Cold War era. However, C. reminds the reader that these blockbusters of their time combined condemnation of the corruption in Rome under the emperors with the guilty pleasures of enjoying the thrills and spills of spectacle that big screen epic was able to offer.

Chapters Four and Five take a close look at Spartacus and the 1963 Cleopatra. C. charts the anxieties lurking within the mid-century epic film. A critique of authoritarian tendencies within democratic societies is an important subtext in Spartacus and the film consciously confronts, albeit in an ideological uneven way, the continuing suppression of political freedoms and the McCarthy-driven persecutions of the Left and progressive movements in early 1960s America. Cleopatra reflects a different aspect of anti-authoritarianism as it moves into the territory of sexual liberation (paralleling developments in feminist movements and gender awareness) with its portrayal of a noble and potentially enlightened female leader who manipulates the men around her with a mixture of erotic allure and the pull of political power.

C.’s moves into the genre of comedy with critiques of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Monty Python’s Life of Brian, and the Roman scenes in History of the World, Part 1, Chapters Six, Seven and Eight. She demonstrates that these films share a tendency to deconstruct the plausible celluloid picture of antiquity earlier epics had presented to their audiences. They exuberantly lampoon the big screen cinematic conventions and satirise their stock scenes, from chariot races to gladiator combat. The comedies lend themselves readily to comparisons with Roman texts, especially the plays of Plautus. These chapters touch upon the potential of the energetic, near manic, vaudeville and slapstick to revive the tradition of ancient comic inventiveness. Margaret Malamud’s ‘Brooklyn-on-the Tiber’ essay in Imperial Projections is an acknowledged source for C.’s ‘themes and interpretations’ section of Chapter Six.

Finally, in Chapter Nine, C. looks in detail at Gladiator and locates its cinematic style and particular preoccupations as a film on the cusp of the 21st century. This film exploited digital computer technology to give graphic visualisations of the amphitheatre in all its shimmering heat and horror. Instead of the clearly defined panoramic battle scenes of films such as Spartacus, Ridley Scott directs a messy confrontation between the Roman army and the Celtic hordes in the gloomy forests. Gladiator was conceived in a post-Cold War world in which America was and is virtually unassailably centre-stage in terms of economic, military and economic power. C.’s use of Muschamp’s judgement on the film ( New York Times, April 30th 2000) is apposite: ‘a meditation on the perplexity of the world’s sole surviving superpower.’

This book is indeed a data-rich resource for those of us engaged in using film to identify key and historically determined features in the post classical representation of Rome. C.’s love of the movies and the movie experience permeates her text; this reassures the reader that film is not simply being viewed as an enticement into classical studies: ‘introducing popular culture into education as an opportunist strategy that effectively sustains traditional distinctions between high and popular culture.’ (Maria Wyke, Arion 3, series 6, n.1 (1998), 124-136, p.127.

On the other hand, it is well established amongst those researching into the reception of Rome that the modern media’s moving image is a problematic and frequently distorting lens on life in ancient Rome. Films about empire and emperors, paganism and Christianity, whether solemn or satirical in their perspectives, invariably function as a fascinating and probing eye on the socio-political realities of the 20th and 21st centuries. C.’s book is a more in depth study of the latter phenomenon. This is an observation rather than a criticism, as Classics teachers and lecturers can readily supply critiques of historical (in)authenticity and are much more in need of C’s expertise on the cinema.

C. values the cinematic text as an aesthetic experience and celebrates the achievement of the films on their own artistic terms. The level of detail in C.’s analyses is impressive and the many narratives (including anecdotal) surrounding the films are rightly included as part of their historical gestation and development. C.’s persuasive celebration of Quo Vadis in her first chapter has more piquancy when we (or those of us old enough!) recall the lacklustre reviews the film received at the time from the critics.

We have to remember that these movies (and even the most recent, Gladiator is now history in cinematic terms) must appear like ancient artefacts to many students and interested readers of the book. Thus, the ideological and artistic agendas of the directors and the careers of the principal stars are all part of the picture. C. has a real sense of and sensitivity towards the many factors that combine to make these films significant in the portrayal of Rome on screen.

For instance, she buys into the spirit of stardom, making generous statements about the violet-eyed beauty and grace of Elizabeth Taylor as a visual screen presence in Cleopatra, and reminding us of her proven acting talents in a variety of other roles.

The fact that Cleopatra was a Macedonian Greek is invariably marginalised in film and television productions, and Taylor’s costumes and cosmetics were in the Hollywood oriental tradition. C. does not go into such specifics but does allude to Octavian’s propaganda campaign against Antony and Cleopatra, which very much centred upon the Roman commander’s shameful adoption of exotic and outlandish Eastern deities in place of the Greco-Roman pantheon. Cleopatra was portrayed as quintessentially oriental for Octavian’s purposes.

As the above illustrates, C.’s ancient background sections are sound historical surveys. When two films are grounded in the same period of Roman history she allows some necessary overlap in the contextual information, but her critiques are nuanced to differentiate the accounts (for instance, she covers similar territory in her summaries of Ben Hur and Monty Python’s Life of Brian.) On the other hand, C. does not dwell upon the issue of how closely or how loosely the films portray famous figures and significant events in the Roman Empire. Teachers of Classics could, of course, direct their students to compare and contrast the film plot lines with the ancient historical background C. provides.

It would also be possible to supplement the surveys. For instance, Howard Fast’s Spartacus was not just sanitised for the screen in terms of its Marxist reading of the slave revolt, but the character of Varinia was feminised and civilised out of recognition. In the book Varinia’s capacity for cruelty in torturing the captured Roman soldiers takes the hardened slave gladiators by surprise. It could be argued that Fast’s sense of realism about the infectious violence of the Roman world was sacrificed for the ‘family values’ message C. has identified within the film.

Ultimately, I have very few quibbles about this excellent book. I would demur from C.’s uniformly positive reaction to Gladiator although it was a great box office success and clearly hit upon a winning formula. Again, questions of authenticity, from the idealised notion of a restored republic to totally wacky historically composite costumes, could be brought into any teaching seminars on the film. In cinematic terms it was possibly intentional but more likely a sign of our times that the emotional interplay did not achieve the standard of agony and ecstasy set by epics like Ben Hur and Spartacus.

There were moments of unforgivable banality that made one long for a return to the blood and guts of the amphitheatre. Was Richard Harris on the verge of bursting into a song from Camelot (his screen role as King Arthur) when he spoke the lines: ‘There was a dream that was Rome’ etc. However, cinema audiences certainly found the total experience compelling and subsequent films sometimes incongruously introduced arena scenes in a conscious (and crowd pleasing?) imitation of the magical digital moments created by Ridley Scott. I am thinking of the amphitheatres of aliens and cyborgs in Star Wars: Phantom Menace and Artificial Intelligence: AI.

I am not an advocate of undermining students’ confidence about the solid base of knowledge we do have of the Roman world, but constant reminders of the problematic nature of the ancient literary evidence embedded in historical summaries can be salutary. After all, Greek and Roman authors were perfectly capable of accessing the anecdotes that captured their imaginations in order to spice up lessons from history. Roman historians themselves produced ‘performative’ narratives. The reign of Nero has been explored as an age of actually violating the theatrical and the blurring of boundaries between image and referent in the process of watching in Shadi Bartsch’s study, Actors in the Audience: Theatricality and Double Speak from Nero to Hadrian (Cambridge, Mass, 1994). There are further interesting alignments one could make between authorial agendas influencing ancient accounts and the motivations behind the modern movie makers’ visualisations.

Ideally, the classics teacher/lecturer is hoping to enthuse students towards further and deeper study of the Roman world, and to develop in them a working historical methodology so that such a study can be enriched and anchored in academic rigour. Using the cinema to hone appropriate skills to this end is a challenge we should embrace. C.’s approaches to ‘reading’ as well as viewing films about the ancient world can be applied to the dramatic portrayals we find in the Greek and Roman writers and the visual representations of the time. A critical study of the ancient world through primary and secondary sources is bread and butter to a classical cultural history course. C.’s book could be a stimulating companion on a number of counts to a traditionally structured pedagogical approach to Roman history.