". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Sandals, Togas, Swords: Progenitors of *Gladiator,* *Rome* and *Spartacus - Blood and Sand*

The Decline of the Roman Empire (1964) will bring to mind Gladiator (2000), because not only does it tell the same story of the successor to Marcus Aurelius, but it also plays as loosely with political history.  Despite William Durant as the historical advisor, The Fall of the Roman Empire had no evident effect upon Fall's historic accuracy.  Since that is the case its plod, thud and dud is even less forgiveable.

The movie's design looks more like a mad combination of Byzantium, the early Roman Church and the early European middle ages than it does the later Roman Empire. Is this due to it being shot on location in Spain?

Samuel Bronston produced this, with Anthony Mann as director, and Sophia Loren as leading lady (and the only lady in Fall), all them repeating for El Cid. A very young Omar Sharif plays a not so good guy, the Armenian king and husband of Lucilla, who, of course, is passionate for Livius.

You will never see so many reaction shots of two people turning their heads to look at each other to note each other's reaction to something someone else says – sets of couples, doing this, in sequence in the same scene. 3 hours long with intermission and overture, these were some of most drawn out talky scenes you'll ever find this side of the BBC I, Claudius (1976). The first part is Marcus Aurelius philosophizing with Timodes and Livius and with Charon. Not even Sophia Loren cheers up the monochromatic dreariness of the snow and smoke and forests of Germania. Many fights, many battles, much posturing, blow-harding and processing. The last hour, though equally plodding, is more colorful, as we at last get to Rome.

Never will you see so many restive horses on screen, particularly the chariot horses. It was as though the equines kept trying get you to look at them instead of those people talking. The horses are right; they are more interesting to watch.

Did The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) put an end the sequence of Hollywood's big budget spectacles, the movies that were more than movies, but Grand Public Events, the development, casting and filming  of which were followed in national magazines and newspapers around the world?
  • The Ten Commandments (1956);
  • Ben Hur (1959) – there's a chariot race in The Fall too, outdoors, not in a stadium, i.e. not really a race, and pointless in terms of the movie's plot;
  • Spartacus (1960);
  • El Cid (1961);
  • Cleopatra (1963)
The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) tanked financially, while the others made big profits – well, Cleo didn't, despite its grand world-wide global box office – the highest grossing film ever, up to that time - because it cost so much. The Fall's cost and box office failure bankrupted Samuel Bronston, ending his movie and production career.

The big historical spectacle seemed pretty much bankrupted too for the big screen.  It's interesting to see this genre revived with the rise of cable television.  However, looking at  Spartacus: Blood and Sand, this hasn't been a happy development.

In contrast however, Rome (2005 - 2007, HBO, BBC),  was the perfection of trash entertainment: its political events and historically named characters had little reltionship to what we study as history in hopes of learning more about our own times. But Rome's historical detail in the clothes and armor, the street life and the graffiti, all of it was as exact as they could make it.  That it looked so wonderful played no small role in the show's splendid entertainment value.  I was sorry there were no more seasons of Rome. No blue screens and cgi for them. Which, of course made it very expensive, whereas Blood and Sand is very cheap, and looks cheap on every level. They don't even spend any money on the male characters, who are naked mostly except for ball & penii pouches and weaponry.  Instead of entertainment you have grisly brutal endless sequences of violent confrontation.  Sensation, not entertainment.  Eye-ball aversion but not any story, nor any characters.

But hey!  Look-ee, look-ee!  Shot almost entirely against blue screen and done via cgi -- it's like the politically and historically stupid on every level, 300. Much, Much, MUCH showing bare flesh, full frontals even of the guys -- the gladiators all have like triple sixpacked abs, their muscles have muscles -- and the penises -- penii? -- of the hermaphrodites, and of course naked breasts every where all the time. Much simulation of sex everywhere all the time. And even more brutality and fake blood gouting everywhere from many shorn body parts. It's extreme violence, set to -- yes! -- heavy metal sound track, and the crowds crowding at the fighting events also act like they're at a rock concert or a soccer game, with the women, why yes, they do BARE THEIR BREASTS when their favorite comes out to waves of heavy metal, or kills someone in a specially bloody manner.
How far we've come from The Ten Commandments' Deborah Carr's slave girl, Lilia, shrinking from Edward G. Robinson as Dathan, and his oily command as to the placement of the Nile lotus in her hair.  This command  stands in for what in Blood and Sand would be many minutes of naked, sweaty grinding of abdomens, grabbing of bruised breast flesh and then, probably, many more minutes of  bloody brutal death.  Guess which one provokes authentic fear, pity and anger in the viewer?


K. said...

I find Fall unwatchable. I've tried 2-3 times and my restless leg syndrome acted up within minute.

The Ten Commandments is great fun, especially the first half. The epigram-heavy dialog is a riot (my favorite is when a shepherd girl mistakes John Derek for a "wolf amongst the sheep) and the bondage-fetish scenes of Chuck H. in chains and Derek spread-eagled before getting whipped must have had the writers in stitches. Pauline Kael called it "hokum, but highly palatable hokum." Anne Francis steals the show, and you start feel sorry for a rational guy like Ramses who can't get anything to go his way.

Ben-Hur is equally great fun, especially once you've heard Gore Vidal explain the gay subtext. Kael: "It has everything: Even lepers."

As for Gladiatior, I couldn't tell what the hell was going on during the action sequences, and I can't believe that anyone else could, either. It was nice to see Oliver Reed one last time, though. I doubt that anyone ever got more serious acting out of a grumpy countenance than he did.

I'm in complete concurrence with you re Rome. Now, if I can only get Premium T. to Netflix it...

K. said...

Fave line from The Ten C. comes when Vincent (Master Butcher) Price say to Lillia that "The lotus blossom blooms in the mud of the Nile." This is a just before he tells John Derek that Lillia will be returned "more worthy."

Foxessa said...

As Ben-Hur was one of my childhood's favorite novels, the film was deeply disappointing -- Iras, the mysterious, selfish, beautiful camal-riding seductress was mia. I was shocked and upset and hurt, yes, I was hurt. If they were going to cut a character, I thought, why didn't they cut Jesus? He had such small role, after all; hardly any lines either ...

Yeah, Gladiator was incoherent. The best parts were the shots of the horse latifundia in Spain and the Moroccan stadium.

Mad for castles as I am, and particularly for castles in Spain and Portugal, I recently re-watche El Cid again. Alas that I know so much now of the historical Rodrigo that Charleton Heston's role was even more unbearable than Charleton Heston always is anyway. I never realized until this last re-watch that the Moors were actually godless commies. Good sword fights though.

Love, C.

Foxessa said...

Btw, dear K -- why is that the male partner complains and complains about the female's netflix queu, and yet won't even allow aforementioned female partner to even set him up with HIS OWN GODDAMN NETFLIX ACCOUNT?

I have been pondering this question for some years now.

Love, C.

K. said...

No complaints about the queue -- we just like to have it full of things that we both want to see.

Have you see The Celluloid Closet?

Gore Vidal's discussion of Ben-Hur goes a long way toward clarifying why the screenplay minimizes the temptress factor. If you haven't seen Closet, it's a must for film fans. One of my favorite documentaries.

Foxessa said...

I haven't seen the Celluloid Closet. I shall have to, since Gore Vidal on movies is priceless.

I probably get the gay subtext of these movies very well, however.

Just like the druggie subtext of late 50's and early 60's sophisticated comedies. In By By Birdie they made a comedy out of the drugs, period! Well, that was one part of BBB anyway. :)

Love, C.

Foxessa said...

Talk about escapism. This conversation has been a welcome diversion from the constant pressure of the hell that now is the Gulf, and the fears for it in general and our friends specifically -- what happens when / if a hurricane explodes? When the wind's right the stink of the oil covers NO.

Not to mention the other constant of fear and agony -- the I political-military complex and what it does.

Love, C.

K. said...

I worry too much myself.

Don't miss Doonesbury today. If you haven't been following it, the context is a discussion between a CIA agent and a village leader in Afghanistan:

Don't miss Celluloid Closet. It's funny, moving, and perceptive. Vidal's discussion of Ben-Hur is the highlight, but outtakes from Spartacus are a close second. Let me know when you watch it, and I'll tell you more about Ben-Hur that isn't in the movie.

Foxessa said...

I read Doonesbury every day. Well almost. Sometimes he has threads that are not interesting so I give up that week.

Love, C.

Foxessa said...

We have many, many gay friends, who are in the arts, scholarship, academe, technology. So it's hard to miss gay subtexts to anything. They don't allow it.

Also, recall, I am married to the person who created "Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly ...."

Love, C.