Hollywood's Ancient Worlds

Article excerpt

Jeffrey Richards Hollywood's Ancient Worlds London: Continuum, 2008 Illustrated, x+227 pp. ISBN 1847250076; 978-1847250070

Thanks to the unexpected success of Gladiator (2000), antiquity, whether classical (if not always classy), biblical, Egyptian, or imaginary, is back on our screens. Books by film historians and classicists alike have attempted to assess the portrayals of the ancient past in the cinema, primarily in studies of individual films but also in general surveys. To the latter, Richards, foundereditor of and contributor to "Cinema and Society," a highly regarded series of monographs, now adds his own concise but informative overview of the subject. Using the term "Hollywood" loosely enough to include British films and some American-European co-productions, Richards surveys epic and notso-epic cinema and television from Intolerance (1916) to Rome (2005, 2007). As a self-confessed melancholic (ix), he omits comedies and, more justifiably, several biblical and other U.S.-ltalian co-productions. There is no mention of the 1897 and 1898 passion-play films by Walter Freeman, produced by Klaw and Erlanger of soon-to-follow Ben-Hur fame, and by Rich Hollaman, although these are the origin of narrative cinema about antiquity. The omission of all classic and modern Mummy films or, e.g., The Scorpion King may be a disappointment to some. The Last Legion presumably came too late to be included.

The first and introductory of Richards' six chapters deals with the cultural and artistic background of historical cinema: nineteenth-century novels, plays, and paintings. This chapter is the book's strongest, and eager readers may wish that it - and the whole book, whose main text comes in at under 200 pages - had been more detailed. Richards returns to this aspect of film history in subsequent chapters by identifying particular paintings as inspirations of specific settings or buildings that film audiences could admire or recognize. His second chapter covers the silent era and the 1930s. It is followed by the heart of the book, three chapters on the 1950s and 1960s, the time when epic filmmaking reached its height with color and widescreen cinematography, giant sets, huge casts, stereophonic sound for symphonic scores, extreme running times, and, in retrospect, self-destructive costs. Richards' emphasis on film music is especially welcome here. One chapter each deals with the Romans and the Bible; ancient Greece and Egypt sensibly share a chapter. Richards brings things up to date in his last chapter, the revival of ancient epics on our screen with and after Gladiator. This chapter's first part offers a useful history of antiquity on the small screen since the mid-1960s.

Throughout, Richards provides a judicious balance of information about plots and production histories and of his own analysis, although he devotes too much space to quotations from early critical reactions, chiefly in British newspapers. Time has made most of these superfluous, and they become rather tedious in their toffy predictability. Richards, by contrast, rides to the rescue of many, even less than stellar, films and usually reaches positive assessments that are well-founded but may surprise jaded readers or viewers. Only rarely, but quite rightly, is he severe in his judgments, as with Caligula ("this tawdry effort had the effrontery to appropriate Prokofiev ... and Khachaturian ... scores for its soundtrack," 158), The Passion of the Christ ("a technically accomplished but hideous and virtually unwatchable sadomasochistic fantasy," 173), and 300 ("probably the most Fascistic film to come out in cinemas since the fall of the Third Reich," 184). His low opinion of The Fall of the Roman Empire, however, is particularly regrettable to this reviewer, editor of a collection of essays on this underappreciated film (The Fall of the Roman Empire: Film and History [Oxford: Blackwell, 2009]). …