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Listed in The Signet Book of Movie Lists by Jeff Rovin as one of the best books about film ever written
A SURVEY OF THE GENRE
Since the popularization of theatrical film in the first decade of the twentieth century, the wide-reaching world of the cinema has incorporated many different artistic genres, geographical localities, and historical eras, none of which have been any more recurrent, significant, or innovative than the genre of films set in the ancient Greco-Roman and biblical worlds.
Some four hundred feature films set in the ancient world have made familiar to many hundreds of millions of modern people an alluring, historical world well-marbled with graceful columns, gently folded togas, wine-filled goblets, racing chariots, divinely inspired prophets, golden idols of pagan gods, Christian-devouring lions, scantily clad slave girls, and brawny heroes. Classical Greece and Rome, in spite and because of their antiquity, create a popular and inimitable atmosphere on the screen, and biblical Palestine is as much a part of filmdom as it is of Western Civilization and its Judeo-Christian substructure.
Quo animo? Why has the ancient world had such appeal for the cinema? There are several reasons. Ancient warfare with its clashing chariots and hand-to-hand combat provides magnificent spectacle, as do glorious triumphal processions and fiery pagan rites. Seductive royalty like Cleopatra and Salome, powerful historical figures like Julius Caesar and the pharaohs, biblical revolutionaries like Jesus Christ and Moses, and complex mythological demigods and demimortals like Hercules and Helen of Troy are figures whose names are familiar andwhose images are impressive to almost everyone. Old Testament patriarchs and the Passion of Christ have always challenged filmmakers to re-create on the silver screen what their millions of viewers have long since created deep within their own minds. The profoundly human yet ultimately divine plays of Sophocles and Euripides have contributed their own attraction. And the fantastical surroundings of ancient myths—surroundings that belong less to us than to an extinct branch of mankind—allow adventurers, escapists, visionaries, romantics, and intellectuals to lose themselves temporarily in that lost world of classical antiquity. Humans fill the screen, yet they wear different clothes, use different utensils, ride different transportation, pronounce pithy maxims, practice primitive religions (or complex religions in their primitive forms), employ different methods of warfare, order half-naked slaves to do their bidding, and view life and even death with different attitudes: unlike our highly developed modern civilization, biblical and classical antiquity were recently civilized forms of humankind and offered humankind newly conceived approaches to divinity.
Yet after all, the ancient world was of course the very source of our own world. Our modern culture owes its very existence to antiquity. And though the ancient world, like almost every aspect of human life, looks different on the screen, viewers can still see that the ancient world was inhabited with people who acted very much like people in our own world.
Along with these visual and cultural reasons for antiquity's popularity in the cinema is a historical reason: the ancient world never really released its grasp on Western civilization. From before the Renaissance to the last quarter of the twentieth century, through all the postantiquity ages of man, Greek sculpture, philosophy, poetry, comedy, and drama, Roman architecture, language, and historiography have continued to be the roots from which their modern descendants have grown. Whether it be the mundanity of the sandal, sword, and spear or the profundity of Christianity, Judaism, and Socratic wisdom, antiquity's legacy is an inherent, perpetuating part of modern life.
One of the reasons the young cinema immediately adopted antiquity as one of its favorite subjects was that antiquity was already quite popular in the contemporary theatrical, literary, and educational worlds at the end of the nineteenth century. Ben-Hur, Quo Vadis? and The Last Days of Pompeii were already best-selling novels; Shakespeare's Julius Caesar and Sophocles' Oedipus Rex were perennial favorites on the stage; the Bible was the basic core of almost everyone's education; and Latin texts were familiar not only to the elite but to the growing middle class. When the pioneers in the cinema looked for filmable subjects and themes, the ancient world was an obvious choice. As early as 1897, Thomas Edison filmed a brief, nonnarrative Cupid and Psyche, and overseas cameras captured the theatrical Passion of Christ at Oberammergau in 1897 and Luigi Topi's religious ten tableaux in 1900. Among his early films the French director Georges Méliès filmed a charming La Sibylle de Cumes (The Sibyl of Cumae, 1898), Cléopâtra (1899), Neptune et Amphitrite (1899), Le Tonnerre de Jupiter (Jupiter's Thunderbolts, 1903), Pygmalion et Galathée (1903), and L'ile de Calypso (1905, entitled Ulysses and the Giant Polyphemus in English). Other early French films included Pathé's Samson and Delilah (1903), Belshazzar's Feast (1905), and Moses (1907). Italy produced Giudetta e Oloferne (Judith and Holofernes, 1906), A Modern Samson (1907), and The Rivals; a Love Drama of Pompeii (1907). The British director Robert William Paul offered the first film version of The Last Days of Pompeii (1900), though this was merely eighty feet of film showing a volcano erupting and people fleeing from a collapsing ceiling. A few sources also report a British The Sign of the Cross (1904), supposedly made by the same Sigmund Lubin who directed The Great Train Robbery that year.
Although this respectable number of films based on ancient characters or themes was produced in the last years of the nineteenth century and the first years of the twentieth, the virtual birth not only of the ancient world in the cinema but also of the epic cinema as we know it occurred in 1908. That year, Arturo Ambrosio, an Italian optician turned camera enthusiast, produced his first overwhelmingly successful feature film at his Turin studios, Gli Ultimi Giorni di Pompeii (The Last Days of Pompeii). With its intriguing plot, classical setting, Egyptian twists, and holocaustic Vesuvial climax, director Luigi Maggi's film became a smashing success for the fledgling industry. In the ensuing so-called Golden Age of Italian cinema, dozens of costume epics set in ancient times were filmed. Ambrosio continued with Nerone (Nero; or the Burning of Rome, 1909), directed by Maggi, as well as La Vergine di Babilonia (The Virgin of Babylon, 1910), Ero e Leandro (Hero and Leander, 1910), Lo Schiavo di Cartagine (The Slave of Carthage, 1910), The Queen of Nineveh (1911), and the partially ancient Satan (1912). Ernesto Pasquali produced or directed Teodora, Imperatrice di Bisanzio (Theodora, Empress of Byzantium, 1909), and Spartaco (Spartacus, 1913); Giuseppe De Liguoro directed Martire Pompeiana (The Martyr of Pompeii, 1909), Sardanapalo Re dell'Assiria (Sardanapalus, King of Assyria, 1910), Edipo Re (Oedipus Rex, 1910), and L'Odissea (The Odyssey, 1911); Enrico Guazzoni directed Brutus (1910), Agrippina (1910), I Maccabei (The Maccabees, 1910), Quo Vadis? (1912), Marcantonio e Cleopatra (1913), Caius Julius Caesar (1914), and Fabiola (1916); Mario Caserini directed Catilina (Catiline, 1910), Gli Ultimi Giorni di Pompeii (1913), and Nerone e Agrippina (1913); and Giovanni Pastrone directed Giulio Cesare (Julius Caesar, 1909), La Caduta di Troia (The Fall of Troy, 1911), and the immortal Cabiria (1914). Other Golden Age Italian sword-and-sandal films featured more tales based on Roman history, the Old Testament, and the passion of Christ: Cines's Amor di Schiave (Love of the Slaves, 1910), Rameses, King of Egypt (1912), Spartaco (1914, starring Antony Novelli), and Christus (1915); Itala's Una Vestale (One Vestal Virgin, 1909); Latium's Spartaco (1909) and Poppea ed Ottavia (1911); Febo Mari's Attila (1916); Savoia's The Triumph of the Emperor (1914); Pathé's Italian production of Racine's Phèdre (1910); and In Hoc Signo Vinces (1913), David (1912), and Salambo (1914).
In these works the cinema overcame the limitations of the stage, which had been so confining to early French and Italian films. They necessitated the replacement of the indoor stage with outdoor location shooting. Gigantic sets began to fill the screen, and hundreds of extras were hired to re-create realistic crowd and battle scenes. The greatest successes after Ambrosio's Gli Ultimi Giorni di Pompeii were Guazzoni's Quo Vadis? (1912) and then Pastrone's Cabiria (1914). For Cabiria, whose story concerns Rome and its second confrontation with Carthage, four cameras, one of them movable, were used to shoot thousands of feet of film on location in Rome, Sicily, and North Africa. Of all the Italian epics of the silent Golden Age, Cabiria best demonstrated to subsequent filmmakers how to make a successful, full-length, visually crowded, narratively energetic film sprinkled liberally with bits of historical detail and special effects.
With their early epics Ambrosio, Guazzoni, and Pastrone established an association between the ancient world and films of lavish, gigantic scope, impressive prototypes that subsequent directors and producers often attempted to equal or surpass even decades later. In addition, Pastrone's Cabiria inspired a clutch of popular "Maciste" films. Nearly a dozen spin-offs involving Cabiria's strongman Maciste (played by Ernesto [Bartolomeo] Pagano) were produced between 1915 and 1927. This was the first such brood of popular strongman films, the forerunner of Hercules and the dozens of sequels, imitations, and combinations that that 1957 film spawned.
American filmmakers, too, had begun making films set in antiquity or alluding to ancient subjects. In 1907 the director Sidney Olcott grabbed an armload of Metropolitan Opera costumes to outfit his limited cast at Manhattan's Battery Park for the first film version of Ben-Hur, which he followed with the ambitious From the Manger to the Cross, shot on location in the Holy Land in 1911 and released by Kalem in 1912. Soon after Olcott's neonatal version of Ben-Hur, Edison in 1908 produced The Star of Bethlehem, Aida, and, in seven scenes, Nero and the Burning of Rome. Vitagraph, an aggressive company formed in Brooklyn in 1908, immediately responded with In Cupid's Realm, Oscar Wilde's Salome, and Julius Caesar, which, with fifteen scenes, was even more luxurious than Edison's Nero. Vitagraph's Antony and Cleopatra, also made in 1908, starred such luminaries as Maurice Costello and Florence Lawrence. The next year the studio produced and released Saul and David, The Way of the Cross, in which a converted Roman and his Christian sweetheart are thrown to Nero's lions, and a five-reel, hand-tinted The Life of Moses, which the Patents Company insisted be released in serial fashion, one reel per week. Then followed Richard Strauss's Elektra (1910), The Minotaur (1910), Cain and Abel (1911), and The Deluge (1911). Most of these Vitagraph films were directed by J. Stuart Blackton, the British pioneer and a former collaborator with both Edison and Olcott.
Other early American production companies produced additional titles. In 1908 Kalem issued its David and Goliath and Jerusalem in the Time of Christ, Selig produced The Christian Martyrs (1910), with an arena sequence, and Essanay created Neptune's Daughter (1912), in which mortal Francis X. Bushman marries Undine (Martha Russell), the daughter of Neptune. Important individuals also produced "ancient" films: D. W. Griffith created the first of several entries with The Slave (1909) starring Mary Pickford and Florence Lawrence, and Helen Gardner produced and starred in Cleopatra (1912).
No early national cinema was as prolific as the French, no doubt inspired by the more than five hundred short films made by Georges Méliès from 1895 to 1913. Following the success of Ambrosio's Gli Ultimi Giorni di Pompeii in 1908, the next few years brought a spate of "ancient" films from French filmmakers who had a particular preference for mythological subjects. In rapid succession Parisians viewed Neptune and Cupid in Le Lion's Goddess of the Sea (1909), the Hydra and the divine Greco-Roman thunderer in Gaum-Kleine's Hercules and the Big Stick and Jupiter Smitten (1910), and a series of mythological struggles in Emile Cohl's animated Les Douze Travaux d'Hercule (The Twelve Labors of Hercules, 1910). At the same time Pathé released a series of films based on ancient subjects, including Hercules in the Regiment (1909), in which bullets bounce off the modernized Thebans chest, and the color-tinted The Legend of Orpheus (1909). Charles Pathé, whose lengthy, four-reel Les Miserables advanced the cause of the historical epic in Europe, also satisfied the French audiences' preference for films set amid the noble and anti-noble polarities of ancient Roman history with such releases as the color-tinted Caesar in Egypt (1910), The Justice of Claudius (1911), Nero and Britannicus (1913), and a non-Shakespearean Antony and Cleopatra (1913), as well as a farce entitled Back to Life After 2000 Years, in which an ancient Roman comes to life in modern Rome. Pathé's biblical entries included The Birth of Jesus (1909), The Slave's Revolt (1911), which takes place in Egypt under Pharaoh Rameses, the color-tinted Joseph's Trials in Egypt (1914), and The Life of Our Saviour (1914), an expanded, color version of their Life of Christ (1910). All of C.G.P.C.'s releases were biblical: Cain and Abel (1911), a color-tinted Infancy of Moses (1911), Abraham's Sacrifice (1912), and Saul and David (1912). Henri Andréani directed a series of both historical (Antony and Cleopatra, Messalina [both 1910]) and biblical (Cain et Abel  and Esther, La Mort de Saül, Rebecca, and La Reine de Saba [all 1913]) films as well.
The largest output was by Gaumont, whose productions of 1910 included Cain and Abel, Herod and the Newborn King, Esther and Mordecai, Jephthah's Daughters, The Marriage of Esther, and Pharaoh, or Israel in Egypt. In 1911 the studio released Saul and David; The Christian Martyr, which includes an arena sequence à la The Last Days of Pompeii; In Ancient Days, about an Egyptologist dreams of a Pharaoh who causes his daughter's suicide; The Son of the Shunamite, which tells the story of Elisha and his raising of the dead; In the Days of Nero, a color-tinted story of palace intrigue and poisoning; The Hour of Execution, based on a Damon and Pythias motif set during the reign of Emperor Tiberius; The Maid of Argos, in which some romantic hanky-panky gets the better of the High Priest; and another romance, A Priestess of Carthage. After 1911 Gaumont produced only one "ancient" film, Belshazzar's Feast (1913).
Other early French films include Film d'Art's The Kiss of Judas (1909), a Shakespearean Cleopatra (1910) in eight scenes, and, most notably, Charles Le Bargy's The Return of Ulysses (1908), Hecla's Oedipus Rex (1912), Eclair's The Sacking of Rome and The Resurrection of Lazarus (both 1910) and Herodias and The Prodigal Son (both 1911). Urban-Eclipse also released a scenario set in Roman occupied Gaul—The Gaul's Honor (1910)—as well as St. Paul and the Centurion (1911).
The French cinema was negatively affected by the early successes of the Italian Quo Vadis? and Cabiria: almost no "ancient" titles appeared after 1914. The same is true in England, where after a burst from Dutch director-actor Theo Frenkel in 1911-1912 (Oedipus Rex, The Modern Pygmalion and Galatea, The Lust for Gold, Esther: A Biblical Episode, Caesar's Prisoners, Telemachus, Samson and Delilah, The Fall of Babylon, Julius Caesar's Sandals, Judith, and Herod), no further titles appeared there either. The positive impact of Quo Vadis? and Cabiria on the American film industry, however, was considerable in terms of scope, even if the American predilection for biblical fare still predominated. In 1913 audiences could see such films as Vitagraph's Daniel; Eclair's The Holy City and The Crimson Cross, a twenty-scene biography of Jesus; Famous Players' The Daughter of the Hills, in which a gladiator and his wife are converted by St. Paul; Powers's In a Roman Garden, where an affluent Roman falls in love with a Christian girl; the American Film Company's drama about the Huns entitled In the Days of Trajan; Helen Gardner's The Wife of Cain, in which Cain and his wife live in the land of Nod; and Thanhouser's The Star of Bethlehem and Joseph in the Land of Egypt. In the following year Universal released Samson as well as Damon and Pythias, and the American Film Manufacturing Company released The Last Supper, directed by Lorimer Johnstone and starring Sydney Ayres, which may have been as long as two thousand feet. Paramount's first version of The Sign of the Cross appeared in 1914.
None of these films had an impact on the development of the American film industry comparable to D. W. Griffith's two "ancient" spectacles, Judith of Bethulia (1913) and Intolerance (1916). Hollywood legend has it that after seeing Guazzoni's Quo Vadis? Griffith sat in a New York hotel room thumbing through the Scriptures to find the biblical and narrative inspiration for Judith of Bethulia, and the influence of Cabiria's set decorations on Intolerance is clear. But whereas Cabiria and Quo Vadis? had been huge popular successes, Intolerance was ultimately a financial disaster, preaching untimely peace and tolerance to a bellicose world on the eve of its huge war. Only years later would the film be vindicated, even praised by a small cadre of critics as the greatest film ever made in America.
Often the zenith of a film genre's popularity invites the creation of animated imitations or satires. This period of "ancient" epics was no exception, for Windsor McCay produced his animated Centaurs in 1916.
Discouraged by the financial disappointment of Intolerance and distracted by the war in Europe, American studios produced few "ancient" films over the next few years. Notable exceptions to this period of relative dormancy include Theda Bara's Cleopatra (1917), which displayed the rolling-eyed vamp in fifty costumes, and Salome (1918). Also released in 1918 were Victory Films' The Triumph of Venus, which domesticizes the gods of Homer's Odyssey and focuses on the goddess's marriage to Vulcan and her affair with Mars, and Triangle Films' The Golden Fleece, whose protagonist Jason lives in a modern setting.
By the conclusion of the First World War the Golden Age of Italian epics set in ancient times had all but run its course. There were admirable offerings produced in 1919, including Pineschi's version of Spartaco and Fedra (Phaedra), and in 1921 Unione Cinematografica Italiana-Ambrosio filmed Victorien Sardou's Teodora. A minor resurgence took place in the 1920s, as several films displayed a brighter, more contemporary sophistication and grandeur. Guazzoni's Messalina (1922), Ambrosio's Quo Vadis? (1924), and Amleto Palermi's Gli Ultimi Giorni di Pompeii (1926) were three of the costliest and most ambitious Italian films ever made. The last of these films, Palermi's Ultimi Giorni, starring Maria Corda and Victor Varconi, was a spectacular in more than the long-running, multi-extra, history-sweeping cinematic sense. It was a spectacular financial disaster as well, and it can fairly be blamed for the demise of the "ancient" film in Italy. One last Giudetta e Oloferne appeared in 1928, but this biblical film was a mere ghost of past Italian glory and a silent film world which was soon to be forgotten almost entirely. Not until the early 1960s would the country's film industry again match the frequency with which such films had been produced in the first years of the century.
America and transalpine Europe produced more successful and artistic films in the 1920s, particularly J. Gordon Edward's Queen of Sheba (1921) and Nero (1922), the latter in turn inspiring a comical takeoff by Universal in 1925, Alla Nazimova's curious Salome (1922); Korda's biblical romance Samson and Delilah (1922) and comical romance The Private Life of Helen of Troy (1927); Fox's The Shepherd King (1923); F.B.O.'s romance about Pharaoh Tutankhamen entitled The Dancer of the Nile (1923); the fledgling MGM's Ben-Hur (1925), starring Francis X. Bushman and Ramon Novarro; and Raoul Walsh's The Wanderer (1925).
The genre now spilled over into Germany as well. Two German films—I.N.R.I. (1923) and an updated Passion Play (1924), filmed at Oberammergau and Freiburg—continued older traditions, but Germany at this time was also a training ground for a number of filmmakers who soon flocked to Hollywood. Ernst Lubitsch, for example, directed Das Weib des Pharao (1922), which was later released in the United States as The Loves of Pharaoh.
Coming to the fore in the 1920s was the "ancient" moralizing film, which included both ancient and modern sequences. Several examples of modernized ancients had been produced in the previous two decades, but now more elaborate feature films regularly employed ancient sequences to provide a moral applicable to the modern sequences. Korda's Samson and Delilah experimented with this technique, as did Queen of Sin (also known as Sodom and Gomorrah, 1923), Michael Curtiz's Austrian-produced Die Sklavenkönigin (Moon of Israel, 1924), and Robert Leonard's Circe the Enchantress (1924). Warner Brothers ventured into this style of moralizing film while introducing Michael Curtiz to America in Noah's Ark (1929). Another directorial giant had already established his unique feel for the genre with Manslaughter (1922), The Ten Commandments (1923), and Made for Love (1925). The director was Cecil Blount DeMille, the man who was to develop, dominate, and in many ways symbolize the entire corpus of ancient films. His next "ancient" film, The King of Kings (1927), was shown, if one includes Sunday morning and weekday evening church viewings, more often than any other movie in that era.
Excerpted from The Ancient World in the Cinema by Jon Solomon. Copyright © 2001 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|List of Illustrations|
|Preface to the First Edition (1978)|
|1||Mnemosyne: A Survey of the Genre||1|
|2||Clio: Greek and Roman History||37|
|3||Calliope: Greek and Roman Mythology||101|
|4||Polyhymnia: The Old Testament||133|
|5||Erato: The New Testament and Tales of the Christ||177|
|6||Euterpe: Babylon, Egypt, Persia, and the Ancient Orient||225|
|7||Melpomene: Ancient Tragedy and The Satyricon||259|
|8||Thalia: Ancient Comedy and Satirized Ancients||283|
|9||Terpsichore: The Muscleman Epic||307|
|App. 1||Chronology of Greco-Roman History in Film||327|
|App. 2||Films of the Old Testament||330|