Academic journal article CineAction

Or, Rome Finishes What Gladiator Started: Rehabilitating Imperial Glory

Academic journal article CineAction

Or, Rome Finishes What Gladiator Started: Rehabilitating Imperial Glory

Article excerpt

On the jacket of Robert Harris's 2003 novel Pompeii, the summary says of its aqueduct-engineer hero that "as he heads out towards Vesuvius he is about to discover there are forces that even the world's only superpower can't control." This brief statement contains within it a key reason for Ancient Rome's discernible shift in status in Western popular culture in recent decades. The Biblically*themed "ancient world" epics of the 1950s and early 1960s tended to treat Rome and Ancient Egypt, almost interchangeably, as sublimated master metaphors for the Soviet Union--the menace of a godless imperium which would brazenly flaunt its capricious power over its people. In a live introduction to The Ten Commandments (dir. Cecil B. DeMille, 1956), Cecil B. DeMille made this blatantly overt by declaring that:

   The theme of this picture is whether man ought
   to be ruled by God's law, or whether they are to
   be ruled by the whims of a dictator, like Rameses.
   Are men the property of the state or are they free
   souls under God? This same battle continues
   throughout the world today. (1)

With the box office debacle of Cleopatra (dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz) in 1963--the ancient world, or "sword and sandal," epic went into eclipse in Hollywood for more than a generation. Then abruptly, in 2000, it was resurrected by the immense critical and commercial success of Gladiator (dir. Ridley Scott). Since then Ancient Rome, as well as Ancient Greece, have begun to reappear in films more frequently. The year 2004 brought both Troy (dir. Wolfgang Peterson) and Alexander (dir. Oliver Stone), as well as the undeservedly lesser-known King Arthur (dir. Antoine Fuqua); 2007 saw 300 (dir. Zack Snyder) as well as The Last Legion (dir. Doug Lefler), and a succession of films since, such as Centurion (dir. Neil Marshall, 2010), Clash of the Titans (dir. Louis Leterrier, 2010) and its sequel Wrath of the Titans (dir. Jonathan Liebesman, 2012), The Eagle (dir. Kevin Macdonald, 2011), Immortals (dir. Tarsem Singh, 2011), Pompeii (dir. Paul W.S. Anderson, 2014), and 2014's 300 sequel, Rise of an Empire (dir. Noam Murro), have all combined to keep up the renewed familiarity.

Of far greater interest than any of these, however, is the HBO/BBC collaboration that was the television series Rome (2005-2007). Whereas the aforementioned feature films chiefly offered spectacle, with any socio-political import seeming secondary at best, Rome capitalized on the structural advantage of long-form television drama--the ability to let its story and themes "breathe" over the course of numerous hour-long episodes, rather than having to address every single aspect of its worldview in the course of a two-hour running time. And in doing so, it embodied to a far greater extent Gladiator's chief cultural interest: its reformulation of Ancient Rome as an unambiguously positive force for civilization, rather than a hegemonic, ancient world "evil empire". Rome only ran for two seasons, or twenty-two episodes--a sadly brief and attenuated run by HBO drama standards, where True Blood can run for six seasons to 70 episodes, and Boardwalk Empire for four seasons, or 48 episodes, as of this writing. Nonetheless, during its brief existence, it made its cultural point vividly: that while the demonization of Rome in the Biblically-themed epics of the earlier generation had never been terribly convincing, with the fall of Soviet Communism throughout Europe, even the pretext for the conceit was removed. Giving Ancient Rome a fresh look from the new position of "world's only superpower", American culture could finally appreciate just how much their civilizations had in common. Consumerist hedonism and secular pluralism have simply advanced so far that the pious invocation of God and Christian purity, in earlier films such as Quo Vadis (dir. Mervyn LeRoy, 1951), The Robe, (dir. Henry Koster, 1953), Ben-Hur (dir. William Wyler, 1959), and Spartacus (dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1960), is no longer even the theoretical rallying cry it used to be. …

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