From Here to Antiquity: Mythical Settings and Modern Sufferings in Contemporary Hollywood's Historical Epics

Article excerpt

Scholars dedicated to the study of gender relations frequently consider 1968 as a watershed year which marks the beginning of a period of crisis for the traditional models of white masculinity1 in the United States.2 Arguably as a consequence of this challenge to the white male paradigm, since the mid-1970s film studies has been able to relate the prevailing ideals of masculinity in Hollywood Cinema to the political, social and economic contexts in which they were produced and consumed. In addition, and concurrent with the study of masculinity, film studies began to consider the idea of hyper-masculinity, a representation that appeared to compensate for perceived white male victimization. The hyper-masculine identity has for instance been considered in light of the upsets endured by the codes of masculinity, whether as an aftermath of the Vietnam War, the Feminist movement, the rise of multi-culturalism, the Cold War, and the advent of multinational capitalism.3

My essay considers a more specific perspective of identity formation in film, the representation of hegemonic masculinity4 as evidenced in recent historical epics such as Gladiator (2000), Troy (2004), Alexander (2004) and 300 (2007). The first successful peplums since Spartacus (1960), these four films signal the return to the forefront of a geme based in Antiquity and of atemporal masculine characters. In this respect, it seems necessary to situate the analysis of their heroes' representation in the wake of the traditionally antagonistic relationship that American masculine identity maintains with modernity5 ever since the final decades of the 19th century. In agreement with this view, the lack in legitimacy from which hegemonic masculinity currently suffers results as much from the change in the social, political and ideological paradigms of the post World War II era, as from the feelings of decentering, of society Y growing inauthenticity, and of moral disorder caused by the economy of technological innovation since the Second Industrial Revolution.6

My work will examine the specificity of staged codes, practices and values that allow the hero to reach a predominant place in gender relations. To question the gendered identity of a historical epic's hero, in his relationship to modernity, is to identify the way gender is defined, in association on one hand with culture7 and on the other with nature, within the signifying practices that structure the figure's access to hegemonic masculinity. In this context, the essay will pay particular attention to the narrative and aesthetics choices of the films being critiqued, as well as the way the historical figures, therein represented, are characterized by the spaces they inhabit. As I will demonstrate, each film begins with the hero's social, political or symbolic marginalization, a starting point that sets off the reaffirmation of his physical and moral superiority. However, this process invariably culminates in death and a transcendental deification, through which the character insures his posthumous position at the pinnacle of the social hierarchy. My arguments are based on the assumption that in order to impose his persona as a masculine ideal, the hero must manage to re-establish the subordinate relationships upset by intrigue, while maintaining, through "authentic experiences," the character of his essentially spiritual and atemporal gendered identity.8

Between city and wilderness

Gladiator bases its intrigue on a fraternal rivalry between two men, with dramatic tension instigated by the prospect of succeeding their paternal figure, who happens to be the Emperor of Rome. The trio of characters is composed of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), Army General Maximus (Russell Crowe), who is the spiritual son of Marcus Aurelius, and Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), the megalomaniacal biological son of the Emperor. Introduced at the conclusion of what is a decisive victory by the Roman army over Germanian barbarians, Marcus Aurelius is represented at the beginning of the film as an old but wise leader who has become disillusioned by years of conquests and the technological supremacy of his Empire. …