The Roman Empire has long been a favourite subject for film makers, not least because it offers the opportunity to display the spectacles for which Rome is so famous in popular thought. Elena Theodorakopoulos’ book examines the portrayal of the Roman Empire and, in particular, the film maker’s use of spectacle. After an introduction, there is an initial chapter which discusses the book’s overall approach and parameters and then one chapter on each of the six films under discussion; Ben-Hur (1959), Spartacus (1960), The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), Gladiator (2000), Fellini Satyricon (1969) and Titus (1999). There is also a brief conclusion followed by notes, further reading, a bibliography, a filmography and a short index.
The introduction states the purpose of the book, which is to examine how films invent the world of ancient Rome. Theodorakopoulos discusses how films create or give the illusion of creating reality by the use of camera work and film editing. She also notes that the tension between reality and the creation of reality is highest in historical movies. As I read this chapter, I wondered what influence such phenomena as reality TV programs and televised sports have on the audience’s perception of the camera as a passive recorder of events. Another tension which constitutes a major theme of the book is the tension between spectacle and story. There is an implicit concern that the inclusion of spectacle in film will detract from the narrative. Theodorakopoulos addresses this issue in each film and finds that in each case spectacle has been intelligently used to further the narrative rather than suspend or impede it.
Each chapter is structured similarly. There is a discussion of the treatment each film will receive and then Theodorakopoulos goes through the movie, demonstrating in each case how each film offers a realistic portrayal of ancient Roman as well as if and how spectacle contributes to the narrative. The films fall into two categories; the first four are traditional spectacles of the ancient world, three from the ‘golden age’ of such movies, the fourth, Gladiator, from the recent period of revived interest in films with a Greco-Roman setting. In all four cases there was new technology available which allowed for a great display of spectacle. Theodorakopoulos, however, shows how all four use spectacle to tell a story of individuals who overcome the cold, inhuman Roman Empire. The protagonist fights against Rome on Rome’s terms (spectacularly in the arena or circus), wins and then rejects the empire by walking away from it.
The final two films are very different in their approach in creating a realistic ancient Rome. Whereas the first four films discussed try to recreate an authentic-looking Roman world, Fellini Satyricon and Titus make a conscious effort not to. Fellini is showing not the Roman Empire as it was, but as it has survived, fragmented and crumbling. The grotesque spectacle that Fellini creates is repulsive rather than attractive. Titus is based on the oldest story of the six, Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Here Taymor (director) conflates several historical periods: the setting is ancient Rome, the dialogue Shakespearean, the sets and costumes fascist Italy (but not consistently). Here the spectacle is very different from the chariot races of the circus or gladiatorial contests of the arena. Here the spectacle is the relentless violence of the chain of revenge killings, but the result is still the same. The film closes with the young grandson of Titus walking off towards a sunrise in which the spectacle of the scenery portrays another individual rejecting an ancient Roman world which has proven itself inadequate.
Within the parameters which Theodorakopoulos sets for herself, the book is very successful in arguing its points and demonstrating that (a) spectacle can be used to create narrative rather than impede it and (b) that the Roman Empire is portrayed (realistically or not) as spectacle which diverts, but is ultimately unsuccessful. Theodorakopoulos makes good use of director’s notes and interviews to provide insight into the creative process. It might have been useful to remind the reader that such comments offered ahead of a film’s release are likely to be influenced or edited with an eye to appealing to the consumer rather than creating an historical record. The one bias Theodorakopoulos herself shows is towards the ‘high end’ in terms of both film selection and audience reception. She has chosen films that have garnered great popular and/or critical accolades. It might have been useful to at least address some of the less well executed films in which the Roman Empire is portrayed less deftly and where spectacle might be said to be intrusive on the narrative.1 All in all, though, this is a very useful book for both those involved in film studies as well as classic
1. Some films ignored or only referred in passing include The Robe, Demetrius and the Gladiator, Quo Vadis, Julius Caesar, Cleopatra and Caligula. This doesn’t include other genres such as comedy.