BMCR 2013.09.50

Film and the Classical Epic Tradition. Classical Presences

, Film and the Classical Epic Tradition. Classical Presences. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. xii, 334. ISBN 9780199542925. $150.00.


Perhaps this entertaining volume should have been titled ‘The search for the elusive epic’. Over eight chapters, Paul looks at epics, both Greek and Latin verse compositions and modern cinematic forms. Some of the creatures tracked down have epic DNA or possess epic traits, but despite the waddle and quack would be difficult to fit to a Platonic idea of the genre. As the author acknowledges on her final page, the term is a heuristic tool and the investigation of links between modern creative forms and those of the ancient world is valuable in itself. At a time when courses on films set in antiquity are becoming common, this study may not serve as a textbook, but will certainly be a significant resource both for those creating such programmes and students within them who wish to explore their topics more widely.

Six of the eight chapters use well-known films as their point of departure. However, the aim is not so much to explicate these productions as to use them as starting points to leap off to other topics, such as the nature of heroism, the appeal of the spectacular, or how parody identifies particular motifs that reveal ideologies prevalent in an audience. There is no intention of providing a history of cinema or classical epic (non-Hollywood cinema is only briefly mentioned and Silius Italicus is as frequent a guest as Lucan), nor of investigating the nature of reception studies in itself. Yet major topics appear along the way (for instance, the nature of fame, whether it be classical kleos or reality television) and as the past illuminates the present, so modern forms may well explicate ancient literature for a world that has not been imbued with classical learning from a young age.

Chapter One, ‘Surveying the Epic Tradition in Literature and Film’, makes the difficulties of defining epic as a genre immediately clear. Arsène Wenger (Arsenal manager) can assert that ‘an epic needs its gladiators’, but of course most epics don’t feature such fighters – and gladiatorial films, a dodgy film style in itself, need not be epics. Size does matter, but are all blockbusters (or to use the German term, Kolossals) really epic? In Hollywood, the prevalence of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth and scriptwriting manuals derived from it 1 promote a certain type of film, but genre in film differs substantially from literary genres. While it is possible to use the language of film metaphorically to examine the widescreen effects of the Aeneid, or to expatiate on the enargeia of cinematic vistas, such borrowings are more valuable to shake up the critical vision than as regular analytical tools. Hence Paul’s decision to restrict her subject matter to Greek and Roman epics and a relatively small number of Hollywood films. Tradition is clearly important within these groups, although there is no clear line of connection between the two as art forms. The reader should keep in mind that a history of epic can readily be constructed, but history too has its variants: teleology leads to the invention of ‘Silver’ epic or the ‘death’ of the epic film, celebrated after Cleopatra ’s financial problems. And like the undead languages, the epic film also regularly rises from its coffin.

The second chapter, devoted to cinematic versions of Homer, takes as its starting point Robert Logue’s reception of Homer, for instance glossing Homeric battle scenes by recalling similar depictions in Western films. Since there cannot be a non-mediated reading of classical epic in the modern world, the only alternative to adaptation is silence. As the latter course is uninteresting in itself, the nature of adaptation is worth investigation. This leads to examination of Godard’s Le Mépris (1963), whose levels of mediation as a film about the artistic differences involved in making a film of Homer’s Odyssey are further complicated by Godard’s film also being an adaptation of Moravi’s novel on the same subject. Since the pudding is never produced for the eating (Lang’s film of Homer is fragmentary, possibly promising an artistic triumph, possibly failure), Paul turns to actual films: Ulisse (1954), Helen of Troy (1956), HBO’s Odyssey (1997), and Troy (2004). It is notable that the Iliad is viewed as more difficult to adapt, given the modern tendency to incorporate material from the Epic Cycle (and even, in Troy, looking toward the Aeneid). The Odyssey not only possesses greater romantic content, but also elements of fantasy that are more readily recognizable by a modern audience. The two Troy films seek to downplay the egotistical glory of Homeric Achilles, forced to fight his battles for a lesser man, by either virtually writing him out of the story (1956), or paralleling his story with that of the Trojans, Hector and Paris, to stress the tragedy of the outsider (2004). Paul then considers the significance of kleos within epic as the bard recites his tales to his audience, offering the parallel of Dilios’ retelling of Leonidas’ deeds in 300. Of course Iliadic kleos differs from the Odyssean version – and, indeed, from the fame of Everett Ulysses McGill in the Coens’ O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000).

Chapter Three, ‘The Cinematic Argonautica ’, not only compares Apollonius of Rhodes’ epic with the modern Jason and the Argonauts (1963; television, 2000), but considers Valerius Flaccus’ reception of the story in his Flavian Argonautica as well. Here the question of genre arises: Greek tragedy provides a link between Homer and his Alexandrian successor that is erased in modern recreations which emphasize the adventure elements. Paul raises the question of the resulting audience (such adaptations are often child-friendly and show close similarity to mythological films such as the Percy Jackson series). However, the main focus of this chapter is the depiction of the Olympian gods, who, while excluded from Homeric adaptations, are more welcome in fantasy contexts. The protagonist in such non-Aristotelian epics may also be part of a team, a less than dominating hero, and, for that reason, a modern audience will find it easier to identify with his travails.

The epic tradition can still be seen in non-adaptative efforts, such as Fall of the Roman Empire and Gladiator, that seek to apply an epic style to a modern narrative (it might be a revealing exercise to try to create a classical prototype for each). Topics touched upon here include the grandeur of epic film (enhanced in the 1950s and 1960s by Cinemascope) and the star factor, which is most obvious in the regular use of Charlton Heston in both classical and non-classical blockbusters. Paul rightly notes that it is impossible to create a reliable stemma for such films, as contaminatio from numerous sources confuses the family tree. It also means, as wryly noted, that the epic dynasty is never likely to die out, despite continual claims that the latest patriarch is the last of the line. Not only do cinematic productions of epic often stress Oedipal conflicts (for instance, in the relationship between Marcus Aurelius and Commodus), but the most recent version seeks to eliminate its progenitors. Thus Gladiator ‘kills off’ Fall, while Spartacus denies any claim of paternity from earlier treatments of the gladiatorial rebel. A brief discussion of the ‘anxiety of influence’ in classical epic rounds off this treatment.

Two chapters follow on perhaps the most successful of the Hollywood epics, Spartacus (1960) and Ben Hur (1959). The former is used to consider the nature of the epic hero and portrayal of his life (or rather, the crucial parts of it). Indeed the nature of heroism itself has come to be questioned in modern times: Paul quotes Tina Turner’s ambiguous song from the Mad Max trilogy, as well as the reaction to the ‘old lie’ after the First World War. Spartacus is shown to be an ambiguous figure since Roman times, a vessel for all sorts of aspirations, be they for civil rights, the resistance of workers to the brutal forces of capitalism, or the nationalist desires of oppressed minorities. Notoriously, Spartacus could be seen as a proto-Christian message of suffering that enables future salvation or (as Kirk Douglas desired) as a prefiguration of the Zionist exodus. The very ambiguity of the film’s message and the audience’s reaction to it thus reveal how the epic form can encourage debate over the nature of heroism.

With Ben Hur, the nature of spectacle itself can be explored: it can be created with minimal resources (as stage performances show), while large-scale extravaganzas may disappoint. The 1959 film sought to surpass its predecessors in scale and expense, while at the same time resiling from the label of ‘epic’. This leads laterally to a discussion of ekphrasis in epic and the spectacle of the chariot race from Homer to Vergil (who switches to a boat race), Ovid, and beyond. Lew Wallace’s description of the famous race in Ben Hur actually owes much to Sophocles’ fictitious narration of Orestes’ death in the Electra. In brief, the tropes in epic need not be restricted to that genre.

Extending the topic further, Paul next seeks to examine the epic audience across time. Rather than concentrate on the hypothetical audience for the Homeric poems, Chapter Seven offers a survey of rhapsodic performances in the classical Greek world and public recitals at Rome. Briefly mentioned, but well worth exploring further, are the pantomime performances of classical stories, an undeniable form of adaptation already popular in the ancient world. This raises the question of ‘audience’ vs. ‘audiences’, often dependent on social status. Juvenal is brought in as a witness both to ancient fandom, as when the Roman crowd lusts after Statius’ Th(eb)ais ( Sat. 7.82-6), and for the contempt for the audience summed up in ‘bread and circuses’. The nature of violence as entertainment is of concern for both Seneca and modern critics – and for modern directors, who can both condemn the pandering to elementary emotions while portraying such behaviour with great success. Maximus’ cry ‘Are you not entertained?’, like DeMille’s portrayal of pagan orgies, shows the epic’s continued ability to provide vicarious thrills.

Aside from audience response, parody may also offer a critical judgement on a work of art. Hence the final chapter is devoted to this topic. The problem is that Meet the Spartans fails as a commentary on 300, perhaps because the latter veered remarkably close to parody in the first place. Furthermore, the commonly expressed belief that comedic treatments sound the death-knell of a genre rarely holds true. Carry on Cleo, owes more to the availability of sets and props from Cleopatra than to the latter’s performance at the box office. Life of Brian makes fun of the Biblical film tradition that is outside the scope of Paul’s study and A Funny Thing Happened is an update of Plautus as much as a parody of Roman films. The results of the examination of the mockery of standard tropes are generally negative, ending the study with a suggestion of work still to be done.

Paul’s book does not seek to be comprehensive in its coverage of cinematic adaptations of epic, but rather to provide the reader with some idea of reception studies today. The study is Hollywood-centric (although aware of other treatments of the past, including the Japanese Saint Seiya) and places its emphasis on the most recent adaptations. It also approaches its subject from the perspective of classical, rather than film studies. This, however, is indicative of the framing of the question. The way classical epic is depicted in film is a topic for classicists, while a film historian might be more interested in Hollywood’s development of grandiose depictions of stories set in a range of historical contexts. In brief, the reader is encouraged both to consider the nature of reception, and to apply it within historical contexts, not only considering the present, but different eras of the Greek and Roman worlds as well.


1. Brett Rogers, ‘Heroes UnLimited: The Theory of the Hero’s Journey and the Limitation of the Superhero Myth’ in C.W. Marshall, George Kovacs eds, Classics and Comics (Oxford 2011), 73-86.