BMCR 2008.02.31

Ancient Greece in Film and Popular Culture

, Ancient Greece in film and popular culture. Greece and Rome live. Exeter: Bristol Phoenix, 2006. xiv, 170 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm.. ISBN 9781904675419 $24.95.

In terms of popular culture and its receptions of the ancient world, the Roman cultural hegemony has been well entrenched. Throughout the twentieth century, film in particular turned to Rome far more readily than to Greece and, inevitably, early scholarship in the rapidly developing field of classical reception studies reflected this bias (e.g., Maria Wyke, Projecting the Past: Ancient Rome, Cinema and History, London 1997, or S. Joshel, M. Malamud and D. McGuire Jr, eds., Imperial Projections: Ancient Rome in Modern Popular Culture, Baltimore 2001). The first years of the twenty-first century, however, have hinted at a new ‘Greek revival’, particularly with the cinematic releases of Troy (2004), Alexander (2004), and 300 (2007), and the time is ripe for turning scholarly (and student) attention to what Greece means in modern popular culture (and why). Gideon Nisbet’s book, part of Bristol Phoenix Press’s Greece and Rome Live series, serves as a brief but punchy account of the topic, and will be of considerable value to a wide audience.

The author takes an unashamedly partial approach to his selection of material. Beginning with Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), he moves through a range of popular cultural texts, including 1960s B-movies like The Colossus of Rhodes, and the more recent Hercules: the Legendary Journeys TV series. The inclusion of material which Nisbet himself happily describes as ‘trash’ is likely to baffle or rile some, and there are times at which this strategy feels a little dangerous. Will students and teachers (a central audience of this book) feel inclined to spend time watching such films when even the more ‘prestigious’ examples of classical reception in film, such as Gladiator, are deemed unsuitable by some? And when Nisbet’s choices are partly guided by his own ‘participation in particular subcultures’ (p. xi), especially comics and sci-fi, are readers whose tendency is to shrink from such subcultures likely to feel excluded? Very quickly, though, Nisbet convinces us that taste and value judgments are of limited importance here when compared to the bigger questions of how receptions of Greece, and the classical past more generally, play out in the modern world, and the examples he uses to address this question turn out to be entirely apt, whether or not we think we could stomach a film like Roger Corman’s Atlas (1960). The provocative partiality is part of the appeal and value of Nisbet’s book, and helps it to make a distinctive contribution to current debates in reception studies. It directly confronts the elitism inherent in those who evidently feel uncomfortable with popular culture’s increasingly central role in the field;1 moreover, Nisbet challenges the practitioners of reception study who, as he sees it, betrayed its early iconoclastic promise by swapping the old Greats canon with a ‘supplementary and ersatz canon of Roman screen ‘classics” (p. xii). Perhaps most importantly, the refusal to engage in aesthetic judgments is here replaced by an emphasis on the film as cultural product, a methodological approach often surprisingly and sorely lacking in other reception studies. Too often, the process of reception is presented as if it stops dead at the modern artefact, whether film or poem or painting, with scarce attention paid to how it operates within a given culture — the reception of the reception, if you like. Throughout this book, Nisbet argues explicitly and implicitly for the limitedness of such an approach, and reminds us of what is to be gained by studying classical receptions in a cultural studies framework. Thus his own declaration of participation in a particular (sub)culture comes to be integral to his argument: he is no objective, disinterested observer (as no scholar can be), but someone who knows what it is to receive and respond to the ancient past.

Knowing what it is to receive and respond to ancient Greece, though, is not a simple task. In keeping with the tone of the book, Nisbet’s initial appraisal of his topic is terse and informal, but effective. ”Greece’ matters’, he says, ‘but it also gives people headaches’ (p. xiv). Chapter 1, ‘Socrates’ Excellent Adventure’, begins the exploration of why this might be so by toppling the ‘Plato’s cave as cinema’ analogy, beloved of many scholars, from its perch.2 It is a misguided analogy because Plato would have hated cinema, says Nisbet, and most importantly, bringing ‘self-righteous eggheads like Plato’ (p. 2) into close proximity with the medium of film in this way only underlines pop culture’s problems with their world: our idea of ‘Greece’ is hamstrung by big intellectual ideas which don’t suit mainstream cinema well. This didn’t stop filmmakers of the fifties and sixties trying to film ancient Greece — flushed with the success of ancient Rome on film, it was inevitable — but as Nisbet’s analysis of three such films shows, it was the looming dominance of Rome and Greece’s relative paucity of cinematic appeal that made these efforts so unsuccessful by comparison. Atlas (1960) and The Colossus of Rhodes (1961) suffered from both visual and narrative deficiencies, with no clear idea of how to depict ancient Greece visually or how to construct its plots without the Roman master narratives of decline and fall, or the thematic appeal of vice and decadence legitimated by a soon-to-triumph Christianity. Rome herself had appropriated Greek identity so successfully, it is argued, that she left nothing distinctively Greek that modern audiences can cling to — even the city of Athens has no impact on screen, unlike the Oscar-winning urban movie star of the Eternal City. Helen of Troy (1956) met with some success in its ‘nuanced and well-informed’ engagement with the Iliad (p. 33), but director Robert Wise was still obliged to cast the myth in terms familiar from Roman biblical epics (making the Trojans approximate to the peace-loving Christians against imperialist Achaeans/Romans.)

Chapter 2, ‘Mythconceptions’, pushes further the role of Greek mythology in popular culture by looking at two of the most prominent examples, the narratives of Heracles (though Nisbet points out that the modern world knows him by the Romanised ‘Hercules’, of course) and the Trojan War. Hercules is pursued through his mid twentieth-century career as bodybuilding icon and his later incarnation as part of the Legendary Journeys franchise, with some astute observations on the difficulties he causes audiences along the way. His mutability as hero and the struggle to identify an ‘authentic’ Hercules is one challenge (in fact successfully met by the 1990s receptions, argues Nisbet), and his relationship with Hylas (the ‘sidekick problem’) perhaps a more immediate one. The connotations of ‘Greek love’ are, as one might expect, an enduring problem (or opportunity, depending on your stance) for popular receptions. Troy provides the most recent example of how Greek sexual relationships (or perceptions of them) might be made palatable for mainstream audiences whilst at the same time provoking loud criticism of its depiction of Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship. Overall, Nisbet’s account of these two examples is engaging and lively, but it is the material covered elsewhere in this chapter — mainly the comic or graphic novel — that makes his offering most distinct. This is not, thankfully, a result of Nisbet trying to shoehorn his own favourite bits of popular culture in where they don’t belong but because, as he demonstrates concisely, comics not only offer interesting contrasts with cinema’s usual struggles with ancient Greece (so the ‘openly gay’ Achilles and Patroclus in Eric Shanower’s Age of Bronze series) but also, given their undeniable popularity (amongst certain demographics, at least), they are the unavoidable prior receptions which cinema must address, and which they are increasingly inclined to use as inspiration. Frank Miller’s graphic novel 300 plays a key role here, though in a perhaps unexpected way, and so one worth pausing to consider.

Part of Nisbet’s strategy in explaining audience’s relative disappointment with Troy is to set it in the context of two ‘failed’ film projects in preceding years which had foundered in their attempts to film a ‘manly’ Greece, free of the anxieties and camp overtones which beset earlier projects. The first is a Vin Diesel Hannibal project, the discussion of which suffers less from the fact that it has little to do with Greece (Nisbet explains this away only half-convincingly with the argument that the Carthaginian is at least non-Roman) than from the fact that the evidence for its failure is almost entirely drawn from internet fan and movie discussion sites (the argument being that a backlash against Diesel’s hypermasculine image sank the project). Utilising such evidence is an important aspect of Nisbet’s methodology, but it is not without difficulties. Though much of this material lingers in cyberspace (at the time of writing, Googling ‘Vin Diesel Hannibal’ results in approximately 120,000 hits), permanent archiving is far less likely, and we are left with a degree of uncertainty about whether this evidence can really bear the weight of interpretation placed upon it by Nisbet This is not to counsel against its use per se, nor is it within this book’s remit to fully analyse the evidence in all its complexity, but it does flag up issues that ought to concern future researchers heading in similar directions.

The second failed project is the planned cinematic adaptation of Steven Pressfield’s Thermopylae novel, Gates of Fire. That this is dead in the water still seems like a fair assumption, but one of the reasons Nisbet offers for this — the competing reception of Miller’s 300 — leads us down a tantalising path since now, of course, 300 has itself been made into a film (2007). As a very successful graphic novel, argues Nisbet, 300 managed to confront some of the issues that concerned filmmakers by playing up Spartan masculinity at the same time as letting the ‘queer subtext’ come through; its status as a ‘defining modern treatment’ (p. 77) might therefore be judged to intimidate subsequent attempts to film Thermopylae, or Greek heroic epic more generally. This may be the case, but what of the actual cinematic 300‘s success? One can hardly criticise Nisbet’s book for coming out just too early to take account of Zack Snyder’s film — an unavoidable frustration when writing about the most current examples of popular culture — and in fact, it is testament to the book’s success at thought-provocation that most readers should be left considering for themselves how Nisbet’s arguments for Greece as cinematic failure then apply to 300, without their plausibility with regard to the earlier films being in any way compromised. 300 met with massive mainstream success despite or perhaps because of the fact that it preserved the graphic novel’s mix of conservative masculinity and high camp — brutal violence and aggressive heterosexuality played out by heroes with hyperreal physiques clad in ‘fetishistic leather gear’ (p. 73) — proving that what worked in subculture could work in mainstream pop culture too. Thus for Nisbet, we might imagine, the film provides the perfect example of the claim woven throughout his book, that subcultures are not only as important as the mainstream but that if we only pay them proper attention, we can see just what capacity they have for shaping that mainstream by offering it new possibilities for its engagement with the ancient world.

The final chapter turns to the popular culture legacy of Alexander the Great and, as such, continues the strategy of the preceding chapter by devoting considerable time to the ‘non-films’ which provide useful contextual information and, in the case of Alexander, valuable evidence for the contested nature of his image. Appropriately entitled ‘Wars of the Successors’, it follows a discussion of Robert Rossen’s ‘canonical’ version ( Alexander the Great, 1956) with an account of the tortured progress of various Alexander film projects in the late 20th and early 21st centuries (with time along the way for a riveting account of an abortive sixties TV pilot starring William Shatner.) As with the fan ‘buzz’ around Vin Diesel, much of this information is still available on the Internet, but the distillation and summary of it provided here is much needed, underlining the fact that web resources may be incredibly rich but also fragmented and time-consuming for students and scholars to access. Nisbet handles the complexities of the competing projects deftly and productively, showing how the controversies and struggles each encountered in turn are not only a result of Alexander’s particular currency for certain modern interest groups (as gay icon or ethnic Macedonian, for example), but also are representative of the wider problems of filming Greece that have been explored throughout. The critique of Alexander (2004) is thus fair and reasonable (Nisbet not wishing to join the throng in ‘casual [Oliver] Stone-bashing’ (p. 127)): the film suffers, suggests Nisbet, from all the usual problems Greece causes, from male sexuality to the overwhelming influence of Rome in popular culture.

The very end of the book provides appendices which will be of some use to students and teachers. A short glossary covers terms such as ‘reception’ and cinematic concepts such as ‘auteur’ alongside the less obvious ‘camp’ and ‘slash fiction’; it is selective, but allows Nisbet space to explain concepts in a way that would have disrupted the energy of his prose elsewhere. A helpfully annotated list of further reading is supplemented by a list of websites: useful, but unfortunately also highlighting the problematic transience of such resources identified above, since at least two of those listed now appear to be defunct.

In a brief epilogue, Nisbet restates the potentially controversial position that he has adopted throughout, and argues, again vigorously and provocatively, for its validity in an appeal directed more to academic colleagues than the student audience who has been so well served throughout. Characterising himself here as ‘the scholar-fan’, and arguing against the possibility of assuming an objective stance, one might again be left feeling anxious about what Nisbet implies — popular culture ‘fandom’, lumbered with images of sci-fi conventions and obsessive fan websites, can suggest exclusivity and inaccessibility as much as the opposite, leaving us wondering whether Nisbet can really be talking to as wide an audience here as he should hope to. But this is not, I hope, the ‘sniffy review’ (p.138) that Nisbet feared getting. Rather, it is important to respond to these provocations in the spirit with which they are put forward — to recognise how, whether we share his love of comics or not, the lessons Nisbet has learnt from his own participation in pop subcultures can be applied to a wide range of reception material and, most importantly, can be used to keep reinvigorating and challenging the field before it too goes stale. For that reason, this book should be of as much interest to those working in reception study, and classics and ancient history more generally, as it is to the students and teachers at whom it is notionally aimed.


1. See Charles Martindale in his introduction to C. Martindale and R. Thomas (eds.), Classics and the Uses of Reception (Oxford 2006), who finds the trend towards studying popular culture ‘worrying’. Though he goes on to say that his aim is ‘not to criticize the study of film or even popular culture’, his perspective is fundamentally in opposition to Nisbet’s when he states that ‘we form ourselves by the company that we keep, and that in general material of high quality is better company for our intellects and hearts than the banal or the quotidian.’ (Quotations from p. 11)

2. See, for example, Jean-Louis Baudry’s 1975 article, ‘The Apparatus: Metapsychological Approaches to the Impression of Reality in Cinema’.