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Rome, the Eternal Story: From Ben Hur to The Eagle

Slide 1: Exploring New Territory

Photo: Matt Nettheim

Kevin MacDonald’s epic The Eagle follows Marcus (Channing Tatum), a Roman solider, and Esca (Jamie Bell), a Celtic slave, beyond the known world of the Roman Empire into the terra incognita of ancient Britain in order to recover the lost Eagle of the ninth legion. In making this Roman epic, the filmmakers also explored new territory.  For one thing, MacDonald altered how the English are represented in Roman films. “There is a convention in Roman Empire films,” explains MacDonald, “that the Romans be played by Brits, and the Americans play the slaves or freedom fighters. In the 1940s and 1950s, Britain itself was more of an empire so that was likely a factor, but nowadays it made far more sense to have Americans playing the Romans because America is the empire of today.” The Eagle is, in MacDonald’s own words, an “Iraq or Afghanistan war film taking place in the second century.” Writing in TheOohTray.com, Chris McDonald observes, “The tale of the Ninth Legion—an elite cadre of Roman troops who set off north of Hadrian’s Wall to put down the Picts and never returned—seems to have a special relevance in these troubled times. [In The Eagle] the parallels between the modern day Coalition and Ancient Rome couldn’t be more striking—the world’s most powerful state ventures to the wild edge of the world to punish an enemy whom it fails to understand and badly underestimates.”

Slide 2: Rome - The Eternal, Ever-Changing City

Director Kevin MacDonald’s Rome is not the Rome found in other films. As Roland Barthes so perceptively pointed out in his 1954 essay “The Romans in Films,” “the sign is ambiguous.” Rome is both eternal and ethereal, a cultural landscape we all share but whose precise meaning continually shifts through history. In our popular imagination Rome has been at times one of history’s largest empires; a colonial power that persecuted Christ; a degenerate society in thrall to gladiatorial blood sport; a culture overseen by the magical and idiosyncratic mysticism of the pantheon of Roman goods and goddesses; the civilizing force whose soldiers bought culture to barbarians of Europe, Asia and Africa; and some or all of the above. As the following films highlight, each generation seems to re-build Rome in their own image.

Slide 3: Rome and the American Imagination

Caesar’s Palace, Las Vegas, and “Roman Orgy in the Time of the Caesars” by unnamed Chinese artist.

Oberlin professor Kirk Ormand, put it this way: “Rome is a virtual chameleon as a site of projection: at times Rome represents a tyrannical empire populated by actors with suspiciously upper-class British accents, doomed to be overthrown by plucky Christians who all have American accents. At other times Rome (especially the Republic) is America, the forerunner of our notions of law and, curiously, democracy. In still other venues Rome is characterized by excess, either negatively, as when an emperor (such as Nero) demonstrates moral failure through sexual and economic profligacy, or positively, when Caesars Palace becomes a celebration of that most American of activities, going to the mall. We can identify with Rome, or distance ourselves from it; in either case, Rome becomes a safe space in which to explore anxieties about shifting gender roles or sexual identities, or America's role as a former colony of Great Britain, or as an emerging world empire.”

Slide 4: Ben Hur, the great American/Roman Novel

Lew Wallace, author of Ben-Hur, one of the world’s most famous literary fanchises.

One of the first Roman films was based Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel Ben Hur: The Tale of Christ. This novel tells the story Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince, who has quite an adventure: after being condemned as a galley slave, he meets Jesus, is shipwrecked, wins a chariot race, comforts the crucified Christ, and goes on to Rome to set up the Christian Church. Ben Hur became the first novel to be blessed by a pope, Leo XIII (1810-1903). This opinion was not shared by the New York Times, whose critic in 1905 wrote, “Ben Hur appealed to the unsophisticated and unliterary. People who read much else of worth rarely read Ben Hur.” The book also held the honor as the best-selling novel in America until 1936 when Margaret Mitchell published Gone with the Wind.  (After the release of the 1960 film with Charlton Heston, the novel regained its “America’s best-selling novel” distinction). Since its publication the books had five film adaptations: 1907, 1925, 1959, 2004 and 2010 (a Canadian miniseries in which the “sandal and sword” swashbuckling eclipses the love of Christ.) Unfortunately the book’s author, who was serving as the Governor of New Mexico when he wrote it, died in 1905, two years before the first film.

Slide 5: Ben Hur (1907) in Silent Film

Film director Sidney Olcott and charioteers on the Jersey Shore.

This 15-minute film, directed by Canadian Sidney Olcott (1873-1949), features the chariot race in which Ben Hur defeats Messala, his childhood friend who betrayed him into slavery. This scene, filmed on a New Jersey beach, used firemen who drove chariots pulled by the horses that normally pulled their fire wagons. In addition, Olcott borrowed the costumes for his period piece from the Metropolitan Opera. The movie is most notable for instigating Kalem Co. v. Harper Bros, the case in which the Supreme Court ruled that before the film company makes a movie it must buy the rights to previously published work still under copyright.

Slide 6: Ben-Hur (1925) and the Epic Grandeur of Rome

Francis X. Bushman and Ramón Navarro in Ben-Hur.

Ben-Hur, take two, was as big and bold as the decade in which it was made, the Roaring Twenties. Released in 1925, and costing $4 to $6 million, Fred Niblo’s Ben-Hur stands as the most expensive silent film. The film’s success nearly made back twice its budget at the box office. It starred the 25-year-old, gay, Mexican-born actor Ramón Novarro (born Ramón Samaniego). Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer billed their young, oft half-clad star, as “Michaelangelo’s David with the face of an El Greco Don.” (The film, advertised as “The Picture Every Christian Ought to See!”, contained nudity, a sensuality the censors permitted since it was sanctified by the overall Christian message.) On the death of Italian-born Rudolph Valentino, Novarro became the world’s leading “Latin Lover.”  “You cannot understand the 1920s without understanding the ‘Latin Lover’ craze,” according to Antonio Rios-Bustamante, who is a professor of Mexican-American studies and history at the University of Arizona. “You cannot understand MGM without understanding Ramon Novarro. It's impossible.” During the 1930s, partially because of the anti-immigrant fervor of the Great Depression, dark-skinned actors like Novarro fell out of favor. In 1931, MGM tried to breathe new life into its expensive epic by adding a soundtrack that included sounds of galloping horses and cracking whips during the chariot race. But the film fell into obscurity nonetheless.

Slide 7: Scipio Africanus: The Defeat of Hannibal and the Fascist Italy

Italy is one of three countries (the other two being the United States and Great Britain) whose film industries have been fascinated with the Roman Empire. Fascist Italy looked to its Roman past to justify its imperial African ambitions in Africa. To that end Mussolini financed Carmine Gallone’s 1937 epic Scipio Africanus, which depicts Scipio Africanus’s defeat of Hannibal, a North African from Carthage, at the Battle of Zama in 202 B.C. The cast of thousands included Italian soldiers—many of whom were conscripts for the North African campaign. Upon its release, the film’s cinematographer, Luigi Freddi, without a hint of irony, explained the film’s purpose: “Scipione was conceived on the eve of the African undertaking [the annexation of Ethiopia] and was begun soon after the victory… It was desired to symbolize the intimate union between the past grandeur of Rome and the bold accomplishment of our era.”

Slide 8: Quo Vadis - Nero’s Rome as a Totalitarian State

Deborah Kerr and Robert Taylor

Mervyn LeRoy’s 1951 epic is based on the 1896 novel of the same name by Henryk Sienkiewicz, a devout Christian Pole who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1905, largely due to the popularity of this book. The film tells the love story of the Christian Lygia (Deborah Kerr) who wins the heart of Marcus Vinicius (Rober Taylor), a Roman noble who becomes a convert. That love affair is set against the back story of persecuted Christian minority that suffers under the pagan Romans—the Emperor Nero (Peter Ustinov)—and then arises to vanquish the despot. The film, which was in line for production ever since MGM negotiated film rights in 1925, continually shifted its historical emphasis. In 1942, in the middle of World War II, the film’s producer Arthur Hornblow, Jr. wanted the spotlight to be on Nero "both as epitaph and warning to any autocrats who might come along in the future." To hit the point home, the film used Mussolini’s actual model of Rome as the same one Nero holds up in the film. By 1951, with Mussolini long dead, the film’s indictment against totalitarianism became both more general and more specific. Chris McDonald, writing on “The Ooh Tray” website, observes, “Quo Vadis’ tale of a Christian minority’s abuse and eventual victory over a totalitarian, vast, and Godless enemy became symbolic of America’s own battle against the faceless threat of Communism in the 1950s. So effective was Quo Vadis’ allegory that the USSR banned LeRoy’s film for decades.”

Slide 9: Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1959) and the Race to Freedom

Charlton Heston as Ben-Hur

In a short intro to his 1956 epic The Ten Commandments, Cecil B. De Mille pushed his cold war politics by stressing our connection to the ancient Jews in having to fight “the whims of a dictator.”  Three years later, William Wyler’s epic remake of Ben-Hur shifted the historic meaning of the Jewish people and ancient Rome so as to touch on themes of loyalty and betrayal, concepts familiar to people living the Cold War. Wyler’s Ben-Hur features an altercation between Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) and his childhood best friend Messala (Stephen Boyd), when they meet again after years apart. Messala believes in the godly power of imperial Rome while Ben-Hur, a devoted Jew, wants freedom for his people. Messala, like a congressman at House Un-American Affairs Committee, asks Ben-Hur for names of Jews who criticize the Roman government. For his part Ben-Hur, an honorable man (like those men in Hollywood earlier that the decade who refused to advance their careers by ratting on their friends) declined to betray his friends to the authorities. For this act of rebellion, Ben-Hur earns Messala’s ire, and is subsequently enslaved (blacklisted). (Like a good citizen, however, Ben Hur advises his countrymen against revolution against the evil empire.) Not known for epics, Wyler (himself Jewish) often mentioned that the characters’ yearning for a Jewish homeland made the film relevant to him.

Slide 10: Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1959) and Making Rome Gay

Messala (Stephen Boyd) and Ben-Hur celebrate their friendship––or was it something more?

Decades after the film’s debut, the Rome portrayed in Wyler’s Ben-Hur again become a contested cultural site. In The Celluloid Closet, a documentary based on the historian Vito Russo book on gay and lesbian in Hollywood films, one of Ben-Hur’s screenwriters Gore Vidal revealed that he’d scripted the scene where Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston) and Messala (Stephen Boyd) re-meet as adults as a “lovers’ quarrel.” Even more, Vidal divulged that the director William Wyler and he had discussed adding this homoerotic element. According to Vidal, “the only way one could justify several hours of hatred between those lads––and all those horses––was to establish without saying so in words, an affair between them as boys…the Roman…wants to pick up where they left off and the Jew, Heston, spurns him.” Archconservative Heston roared back that Vidal was “out of his head,” for claiming anything of the sort. Vidal simply reiterated his point that Wyler never told Heston for fear of his reaction. The feud was played out for several weeks in the popular press, but since no one else from the production was alive, neither account could be verified or repudiated.

Slide 11: Spartacus (1960) and the Return of the Opressed

Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) fights with Draba (Woody Strode)

If Ben-Hur was mildly subversive, Stanley Kubrick’s tale of a Roman slave revolt Spartacus, was an outright attack on the American political culture that had blacklisted Howard Fast, the author of the book on which the movie was based. In his novel, Fast wrote: “A time would come when Rome would be torn down—not by the slaves alone, but by slaves and serfs and peasants and by free barbarians who joined with them. And so long as men labored, and other men took and used the fruit of those who labored, the name of Spartacus would be remembered, whispered sometimes and shouted loud and clear at other times.” The tale of a slave revolt was initiated by a different type of revolt: Kirk Douglas, angry with not having gotten the lead in Ben-Hur, fought back by not only inaugurating his own Roman epic, but by pushing for a very different type of epic. Chris McDonald, on “The Ooh Tray” website, writes, “While the Roman epics of the 50’s may have engaged with the fervent religious feeling and demagoguery that punctuated the McCarthy era, Kubrick’s 1960 tale of a slave (Kirk Douglas) who leads a rebellion against the Romans, Spartacus, openly opposed it. Birthed by two blacklisted communist sympathizers in the form of Howard Fast … and Dalton Trumbo, who wrote Spartacus for the screen, the piece openly reflects its creators’ political sympathies.” The film’s release was greeted by a right-wing boycott protesting the use of blacklisted writers. Fortunately the protest fizzled when the newly elected John F. Kennedy crossed the picket line see the film in a Washington D.C. theater. If Rome, in earlier films, was seen as an ancient analog to Fascist or Communist states, Spartacus began to position Rome as not separate from, but rather reflective of, America and its discontents. Among them was the linking of the burgeon civil rights movement with the Roman slave uprising through the casting of a Woody Strode, a celebrated African-American athlete, as Spartacus friend and fellow gladiator Draba. In Big Screen Rome, Monica Silveira Cyrino stresses that Strode “was recognizable to American viewers as a symbol of individual triumph against racial discrimination.”

Slide 12: Cleopatra and American Excess

In 1963, as the United States was busy policing the world in Vietnam and elsewhere, 20th Century Fox released Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra. In this film, Rome took center stage as the somewhat benign empire working to set the world’s warring factions right. Julius Caesar, arrives in Alexandria, to bring order to the squabbling Ptolomey siblings, Ptolomey XIII and his sister Cleopatra VII. Caesar and the buxom Cleopatra fall in love, he is betrayed by his best friend, who falls for Cleopatra, etc., etc. Budgeted at $2 million budget, this epic came in at $44 million dollars, a figure that soon began to overshadow the film itself. Indeed while the film would go on to be the highest grossing film of that year, its profits could never outshine its cost overruns. In one of the first epics that was not about the birth of Christianity, Cleopatra both and off screen soon became a mirror of American excess, from the over-top demands of its star Elizabeth Taylor, to its scandalous on-set romance between the two already married leads, Taylor and Richard Burton, to the studio’s mega-marketing of the film. Despite its running time of 194 minutes, audiences loved the showy if slow-moving biopic. Critic Christopher Null notes,  “Cleopatra ruined so many careers… it's amazing that it's still remembered mostly fondly by Hollywood insiders and movie fans.” Conventional wisdom has it that the film spelled the end of sword-and-sandal epics—at least for the next 37 years.

Slide 13: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: Rome turned Jewish

Jack Gilford, Buster Keaton (in his last film role) and Zero Mostel

While the failure of Cleopatra kept Hollywood away from making huge Roman epics, the 1966 smaller-budgeted A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum found comedy in Ancient Rome. Adapted from Stephen Sondheim’s 1962 musical of the same name, Richard Lester’s zany musical comedy infused the story with sexual innuendo, rapid fire répartie and the humor of Catskills comedians. Writing for Turner Classic Movies, Jessica Handler observes that A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is “set in ‘a less fashionable suburb of Rome’ and swirling with swinging-’60s treatments of soothsayers, public baths, and ancient Roman go-go girls.” While earlier Roman films featured Jewish slaves and characters, few picked up on the Jewish-American experience. In the essay collection, Imperial Projections: Ancient Rome in Modern Popular Culture, Margaret Malamud’s essay “Brooklyn on the Tiber: Roman Comedy on Broadway and in Film” explores this point. In his review of the book, Kirk Ormand writes about how the works of the Roman playwright Plautus (254-184 BC) “were appropriated and recast for the Broadway stage production by Jewish comics who had cut their teeth in the ‘Borscht Belt.’ This Rome is a place where the comic tradition of the clever slave becomes a venue for exploring Jewish-American identification and assimilation.”

Slide 14: Satryicon (1969), Ancient Rome through Fellini’s Eyes

Federico Fellini has never fully explained what he was trying to do with Satryicon, a film based, sort of, on the work of the Roman author Petronius Arbiter, and for which he received an Academy award nomination for best director. He once said he was trying to make an analogy between ancient Rome and contemporary society. At another time, he described his film as: “A voyage into total obscurity! An unknown planet for me to populate!” And, taking another tack, he said: “From a pre-Christian to a post-Christian one: Christ has disappeared and we've got to get along without him. This is the relevance of the film to today.” Critic Carl J. Mora writes that the film “reflects Italy's postwar status-no longer a country with imperial or military aspirations but a more prosperous society in which Fellini discerns moral and spiritual decay.”

Slide 15: Caligula (1979): Rome Goes All The Way

One of the tamer scenes in Caligula’s penthouse.

If in the 50s Rome was the center of political oppression, by the 60s and 70s, the ancient empire was more celebrated as the capital of sexual decadence. The bawdy Rome of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum evolved into the X-ratedRome of the Penthouse boss Bob Guccione-produced Caligula. Gore Vidal, who’d worked on Ben-Hur, had crafted a script about the famous emperor, and approached the infamous skin-mag publisher for funding. Vidal brought a script, his literary name, and his connection to Hollywood talent like Malcolm MacDowell and John Geilgud; Guccione brought cash and his demands that there be more sex in the film. Visually inspired by the excess of Satyricon, the cast included MacDowell as Caligula, Peter O’Tolle as Tiberius, John Geilgud as Nerva, and Helen Mirren as Caesonia, Caligula’s wife. The film co-stars, in the words Jim McBride of MrSkin.com., “112 breasts, 41 butts and 46 mounds of pubic fluff.” Mirren (who contributed her share of parts to McBride’s inventory) credits the movie for allowing her to buy her first house. Historian Gais Suetonius Paulinus (69-130 A.D.), the Kitty Kelly of Ancient Rome, documented the sexual depravity of Caligula and other Roman rulers, describing scenes that were even too much for Guccione. Speaking of the Emperor Tiberius, he writes, “He acquired a reputation for still grosser depravities that one can hardly bear to tell or be told, let alone believe.”

Slide 16: Monty Python’s The Life of Brian - Rome as Parody

John Cleese, Michael Palin and Graham Chapman

After spoofing the Middle Ages in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the British comedy troupe turned its parodic attentions to the great Roman/Christian epics, like Ben Hur, with Monty Python’s The Life of Brian. A musical number featuring a chorus line of the Mount Calvary crucified singing, “Always look on the bright side of life,” shocked the righteous, with nuns and rabbis protesting it screening in New York. Critic Carl J. Mora, writes of this Monty Python production, “[A] totally insane group of Romans, Jewish nationalists, and proto-Christians are slashed with the barbed Pythonian wit. For example, in one scene the Jewish nationalists are meeting in the stands of an all but empty arena in which a couple of forlorn gladiators chase each other around. In the seats, the few young spectators attest to this being a ‘Children's Matinee.’ In this way, the film conveys the inhumanity and moral desolation of the Roman world. And the constant bickering between rival Jewish revolutionary groups reflects the historical state of rebelliousness and conflict with the concomitant succession of ‘messiahs’ that characterized Palestine in the 1st century A.D.” Who knew?

Slide 16: Gladiator (2000), and the Return of Rome

Director Ridley Scott has said that Spartacus (1959) and Ben-Hur (1960) provided the inspiration for Gladiator. “These movies were part of my cinema-going youth,” he said. “But at the dawn of the new millennium, I though this might be the ideal time to revisit what may have been the most important period of the last two thousand years—if not all recorded history—the apex and beginning of the decline of the greatest military and political power the world has ever known.” Chris McDonald, writing in TheOohTray.com, observed, “Ridley Scott’s Gladiator in 2000 marked the only real cinematic attempt to revisit Rome in the past forty years. But, with the U.S. and her allies embroiled in two wildly unpopular and bloody wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the allegorical heft of the Roman Empire is once again being taken up by filmmakers.”

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