BMCR 2009.07.63

Hellas on Screen: Cinematic Receptions of Ancient History, Literature and Myth. Heidelberger althistorische Beiträge und epigraphische Studien; Bd. 45

, , Hellas on Screen: Cinematic Receptions of Ancient History, Literature and Myth. Heidelberger althistorische Beiträge und epigraphische Studien; Bd. 45. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2008. 266; 16 p. of plates. ISBN 97835150092234. €48.00 (pb).

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Anglophone scholarship sometimes seems to pay scant attention to research published in other languages. For reception studies of films depicting the ancient world, the effect is doubled: Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra (1963) has almost completely obscured Cottafavi’s Le legioni di Cleopatra (1959) and Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960) overshadows Vidali’s Spartaco (1913) and Freda’s 1952 depiction of the great slave uprising ( Spartaco, also known in English as Sins of Rome). Only in the case of peplum films involving Hercules do English-speaking scholars display close attention to Italian publications on the subject, while continuing to ignore other forms of philology from that country, as Luigi Spina laments in his contribution to the volume under review. The collection of articles in Hellas on screen appears intended to remedy both forms of neglect: it is the work of thirteen scholars of continental origin, and many of the papers analyse films that had only limited distribution in English-speaking countries and are sometimes only available in original language editions. All the papers, however, are in English, thus providing accessible material for study in classes on film and the classics that are burgeoning in North America and elsewhere in the Anglophone world. Perhaps because the enterprise originated in a course at the University of Heidelberg in 2005, Oliver Stone’s then recently released Alexander (2004) looms large. The historical advisor for, as well as occasional actor in that film, Robin Lane Fox, contributes a preface (pp. 5-8) that portrays his participation in Stone’s enterprise as his road to Damascus: he now enthusiastically embraces ‘history films’ for the light they may shed on the methods of classical authors. He may be a late convert (film studies have been using his example of Plato’s cave as a philosophical underpinning for its investigations for decades), but his participation shows that not all encounters between the film world and classicists need end in tears.

Berti and Morcillo offer a brief introduction (pp. 9-20) that, in addition to the customary summary of the papers in the collection, raises the question of whether ‘films about ancient Greece’ are a unified corpus for study. Their answer in the affirmative, however, seems to confuse Siclier’s initial rather limited definition of the peplum genre as a recent style of European action film set in the ancient world, designed to compete with Tarzan and other superhero movies being produced by Hollywood with Aziza’s more recent extension of the term to all films depicting events prior to the fall of Constantinople in 1453.1 Here scholars will need to examine more closely the use of the term ‘genre’ (or perhaps better, filoni — ‘trends’) to label cinematic styles in contrast with more traditional literary genres (e.g. mythological or historical) to which classicists are accustomed. A further question is what is ‘Greek’ (in particular, in relation to ‘Roman’) in films about ancient Greece. The answer that Greece is epic and mythological in contrast with ‘historical’ Rome may offer a rough guide and is supported by some of the papers in this volume. But, as Gideon Nisbet has shown,2 the nature of ‘Greek-ness’ deserves continued investigation.

Nacho García offers one solution to the question by investigating the mise-en-scène of a number of films from the last fifty years portraying the Trojan War, the Odyssey, mythology ( Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans), Greek drama, and various ‘historical’ themes, from La battaglia di Maratona by Tourneur and Bava to 300 (pp. 21-38). The sets of these films, generally built in the great studios of London and Rome (a significant Spanish contribution is also noted) show some common features, such as unpainted marble as an indicator of antiquity, and a fusion of Bronze Age, Near Eastern, and Greek styles. This is a valuable start on this topic: García notes that a similar study is needed for costuming. An investigation of the soundscapes of such films may also be very revealing and is an area that is presently almost untouched.

Martin Lindner, who has done valuable work on films set in the Roman world,3 turns his attention to versions of the deeds of Hercules and Odysseus in children’s animation films (pp. 39-55). Here, the term ‘film’ embraces television and direct-to-dvd product, indicative of the growing hybridity of visual material with which those studying the ancient world in popular culture need to come to terms. Lindner catalogues a number of examples originating from studios in various countries, noting variation from traditional mythology and suggesting reasons for these modifications based on production style or rearrangement of the story to fit more familiar narratives (e.g. fantasy adventures involving magic or simple romances). While some changes may be attributed to the youthful target audience, in other cases (e.g. Disney’s Hercules) attempts are made to please two different audiences simultaneously, namely adult parents and their children. Here, in a reception studies perspective, it would be interesting to expand the investigation to see if there was any difference between the adaptation of classical material and that of other literary sources in such productions.

Comic depictions of Heracles in satyr plays and Hercules in Italian sandaloni of the 1950s and 1960s are Luigi Spina’s topic (pp. 57-64). While only touching on aspects of a large subject, Spina suggests that peplum films were initially essentially serious, intended for an audience expecting a populist hero, but became more fantastic and parodic as time went by. The gentle giant characters played by Bud Spencer (Carlo Pedersoli) in Italian westerns may be Hercules’ descendants, as Spina suggests, but only as a parody of the mainly American body-builders that starred in the peplums. Here there is much work to be done, as also in tracing the depiction of Odysseus, whose development Herbert Verreth follows by looking at portrayals of Odysseus both in a supporting role to mythological stars, such as Hercules, and as leading man in various versions of the Odyssey (pp. 65-73). Although this paper draws our attention to the popularity of the hero, the question of what makes Hercules such a cinematic attraction (yet less popular than Nero or Cleopatra) remains open.

The 1912 silent film, The Legend of Oedipus, is reconstructed by Pantelis Michelakis from stills, posters, and a brief film extract (pp. 75-87). The author’s combination of archival research and analysis that takes into account film theory should serve as a model for future efforts. Michelakis concentrates on a still that shows Oedipus’ and the palace maids’ reaction to discovering the hanging corpse of Jocasta: the actual depiction of the queen’s death, in contrast with Sophocles’ narration of her suicide off-stage, would have been shocking for the audience then (and did in fact draw the ire of the censors in Germany and Austria), and it still remains disturbing today. Mounet-Sully’s performance as Oedipus, while often described as excessively ‘theatrical’, is shown to be intended to discomfort the audience through a process that shows the growing confidence of film-makers in their new art.

Half a century later, Pier Paolo Pasolini would again use ancient Greek drama for purposes of shock and awe. Filippo Carlà explicates Pasolini’s ideology in exemplary fashion, showing how Aeschylus’ depiction of the change of the Erinyes into the Eumenides is treated by the Italian writer as a myth describing the necessity of reconciling the life in accord with nature of pre-industrial societies and the rationalism of modern capitalism (pp. 89-115). Pasolini deliberately sets his Greek tragedies in the third world to underline the conflicts that will arise in post-colonial settings, but he combines this with Freudian psychology. By adding harrowing images of violence and cruelty to produce Aristotelian fear and pity, he produces a very heady brew indeed. Carlà’s examination of the complex interfaces between cinema and classical drama requires careful reading, but deserves a wide audience as a model of interdisciplinary research at its best.

Before 300, The 300 Spartans (1961) provided a cold war myth that inspired Frank Miller to create his graphic novel. Fernando Lillo Redonet sets the film in its historical context—the ‘intellectual’ Athenians are played by English actors, the Spartans by Americans who provide the film’s actual muscle—and notes considerable borrowings from Diodorus and Plutarch to add clear moral themes to Herodotus’ narrative (pp. 117-130). The didactic message of the film was reinforced by the accompanying pressbook for North America, that, among other things, suggested discussing whether ‘the adoption of more Spartan customs’ might be a solution to America’s domestic problems. A comparison with Miller’s 300, with its own peculiar ideological agenda, would be instructive.

The perfect friendship of Damon and Pythias as shown by the readiness of each to die for the other is recounted in various moralising ancient sources (for instance, Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations). Irene Berti traces the tale through the Renaissance (where it becomes a model for homoerotic relationships) to Schiller’s ballad of 1799 and more recent adaptations (pp. 131-145). In 1914, Universal produced a highly successful six-reel film version of the myth. A 1962 joint American-Italian version, starring Guy Williams (of Zorro fame) as Damon and combining action scenes typical of action adventures, with persecuted Pythagoreans standing in for Christians, is the story’s latest cinematic reincarnation. I am not persuaded by Berti’s suggestions that the story appealed first to a cultivated audience in 1914, then to the counter-culture of the 1960s. Nevertheless, her observation that the portrayal of a homosocial, but definitely not homosexual, relationship between the leading male characters now seems dated is well made.

Oliver Stone’s Alexander features in no less than three papers. Anja Wieber offers an overview of Alexander films from Rossen’s post-HUAC version in 1956 to Stone’s Alexander of 2004, where Colin Farrell’s Macedonian monarch channels the Lizard King from the director’s biopic of Jim Morrison; the discussion includes Angelopoulos’s Megalexandros (1980), although the director has publicly stated that his film is definitely not about Alexander the Great, and the Indian national epic, Sikandar (1941) (pp. 147-162). Ivana Petrovic highlights the considerable influence of Plutarch’s exemplary biography on Stone’s character-driven treatment of the Macedonian king (pp. 163-183). Stone, unlike Plutarch, seeks to create coherency in Alexander’s actions via a mixture of Freudian psychology and Greek mythology imported into the historical narrative. This cinematic necessity unfortunately also failed to satisfy wide sections of a global audience. Finally, Angelos Chaniotis explores the distancing provided by using Ptolemy as the film’s unreliable narrator, the necessity of strong emotional themes to unify such a lengthy story, and the impossibility of avoiding contemporary parallels between Macedonian and American power (pp. 185-201). For all this, the cinematic Alexander on the whole lacks convincing qualities as a great leader. All these papers make good points, but, just like Stone’s film, fail to offer an entirely satisfying interpretation. Perhaps time will provide the distancing necessary for the evaluation of Stone’s work or confirm that the enterprise was simply too disparate for a coherent viewpoint to emerge.

Eleonora Cavallini carefully analyses the ancient evidence for the life of the 4th-century Greek courtesan Phryne, and traces the reception of Hyperides’ famous courtroom stunt when he tore his client’s tunic and exposed her breasts to the judges, changing their indignation at a foreign woman’s brazen actions into pity and an acquittal (pp. 203-218). In modern times, neo-classicist painters found a congenial subject in the model for Praxiteles’ Venus, culminating in Gérôme’s Phryne before the Areopagus (1861), where the courtesan’s action in hiding her face as her body is uncovered produces an effect that is more erotic than designed to invoke sympathy. While Mario Bonnard, with the assistance of a youthful Sergio Leone, created a romantic revenge drama about a wronged woman in his 1953 film Frine, cortigiana d’Oriente, the strongest modern recreations of Phryne’s sexuality are provided by Gina Lollobrigida—playing the defendant to Vittorio De Sica’s Hyperides in Blasetti’s Altri Tempi (1952)—and by Laura Antonelli in Claude Chabrol’s Docteur Popaul (1976).

The collection concludes with the twilight of the Hellenic world, as Marta García Morcillo considers Greeks in Roman cinematic settings (pp. 219-235). While the Romans saw themselves as heirs to the cultural glories of classical Greece, modern cinema prefers to establish a contrast between Roman military might and Greek intellectualism (that will in turn be replaced by Christian thought), as in the depiction of Timagenes in Anthony Mann’s Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). When Greeks attempt to usurp the Roman skill of ruling in Francisci’s L’assedio di Siracusa ( Archimede) (1960) and Costa’s Il conquistatore di Corinto (1961), an account of Mummius’ victory over the Achaean League in 146 BC, their leaders are shown as fickle or even villainous, unable to come to terms with the new world order. As with The 300 Spartans, the Cold War subtext is obvious.

Over the last decade, the general parameters of films (and television productions) set in the ancient world have been laid out in a growing number of individual and collaborative studies. This collection adds to our knowledge of the frequency of certain themes and brings some less-known films back into the limelight. In the future, however, treatments of such cinema should become more sophisticated, moving from general description to complex investigations of the creation of the wide-screen past. Here, in particular, Carlà’s and Michelakis’s papers show the way.

The volume includes 29 black and white plates, mainly film stills, ranging from essential support to textual arguments to generic indications of cinematic style.

Various small flaws in the text (e.g., superscripts for edition numbers being added to the publication dates) and some oddities of English expression occur, but are unlikely to distract the reader.

Robin Lane Fox, Preface

Irene Berti and Marta García Morcillo, ‘Does Greece—and the Cinema—need another Alexander?’

Nacho García, ‘Classic Sceneries: Setting Ancient Greece in Film Architecture’

Martin Lindner, ‘Colourful Heroes: Ancient Greece and the Children’s Animation Film’

Luigi Spina, ‘By Heracles! From Satyr-Play to Peplum

Herbert Verreth, ‘Odysseus’ Journey Through Film’

Pantelis Michelakis, ‘ The Legend of Oedipus : Silent Cinema, Theatre, Photography’

Filippo Carlà, ‘Pasolini, Aristotle and Freud: Filmed Drama between Psychoanalysis and “Neoclassicism”‘

Fernando Lillo Redonet, ‘Sparta and Ancient Greece in The 300 Spartans

Irene Berti, ‘”A rare ensample of Friendship true”: the story of Damon and Pythias

Anja Wieber, ‘Celluloid Alexander(s): A Hero from the Past as Role Model for the Present?’

Ivana Petrovic, ‘Plutarch’s and Stone’s Alexander

Angelos Chaniotis, ‘Making Alexander Fit for the Twenty-first Century: Oliver Stone’s Alexander

Eleonora Cavallini, ‘Phryne: from Knidian Venus to Movie Star’

Marta García Morcillo, ‘ Graeca capta ? Depictions of Greeks and Hellas in “Roman films”‘


1. J. Siclier, ‘L’âge du peplum’, Cahiers du cinéma 131 (1962) 26-38; C. Aziza, ed. Le péplum. L’antiquité au cinéma (Paris, 1998).

2. G. Nisbet, Ancient Greece in Film and Popular Culture (Exeter 2006; 2nd ed. 2008).

3. M. Lindner, Rom und seiner Kaiser in Historienfilm (Frankfurt am Main, 2007).