Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

Ugly Americans in Togas: Imperial Anxiety in the Cold War Hollywood Epic

Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

Ugly Americans in Togas: Imperial Anxiety in the Cold War Hollywood Epic

Article excerpt

GROWING UP IN THE 1950S, my first encounters with the classics of Western civilization were mediated by Hollywood. Just as Disney sanitized the Brothers Grimm for us, so we boomers encountered the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome on the wide screen before we were assigned Edith Hamilton's Greek Mythology and before we knew "amo, amas, amat." Before many of us read the Bible, even, we knew that it was The Greatest Story Ever Told, and that in the beginning there was Technicolor, CinemaScope, and Cecil B. DeMille.

The cinema has mined the ancient world for subjects since its inception, and recent "neoepics" such as Gladiator (2000) and Troy (2004) suggest that the fascination continues; nevertheless, the 19505 and early 19605 were unarguably the golden age of the wide-screen Hollywood epic. The conventional explanation for this efflorescence of "toga films" is that television was drawing away the filmgoing audience and that only such massive spectacles could coax viewers out of their paneled dens and back into movie theaters. But the thematics of this subgenre are not inconsequential. My own interest is in the cultural work of the Hollywood epics. Since they flourished in the age of containment, it is reasonable to assume that cold war themes will be refracted in them, and indeed critics have noted that they play out cold war narratives of freedom versus tyranny through the struggle of Christians against Romans or Jews against Egyptians. This geopolitical subtext is barely disguised in The Robe (1953). for example, when Marcellus (Richard Burton), a recent convert to Christianity, issues a warning to Caligula in the tones of John Foster Dulles:

If the Empire desires peace and brotherhood among all men, my King will be on the side of Rome and her Emperor. But if the Empire and Emperorwish to pursue the course of aggression and slavery that have brought agony and terror and despair to the world . . . then my King will march forward to right these wrongs.

There is a danger, however, in attending exclusively to the cold war analogy, for the Romans (or the Egyptians) are not always tyrants of the Soviet stripe. It is hard to imagine Stalin writing poetry or picking out delectable slave girls, as Nero (Peter Ustinov) does in Quo Vadis (1951). The Soviets, at least in the popular imagination, are Stoic, as the Romans are not. With their baths, banquets, and boys, many Hollywood Romans have too much fun to be Communists. They are corrupt, decadent, and hedonistic-in a word, Western. This, I think, brings us closer to another important subtext of the toga films: while they allude to the master narrative of the cold war-the global binary of East and West, the struggle between totalitarianism and the free world-they also register tensions within the Western bloc between the old imperial powers, particularly Great Britain, and the new American superpower. The toga films, in other words, express the American anxiety of empire.1

The casting of the epics bears out this assertion. As Michael Wood observed many years ago, the heroic underdog-the persecuted Jew, or Christian, or slave-is usually American. Charlton Heston, Victor Mature, Kirk Douglas, and Robert Taylor are among the stars who circulate in these roles. The ruling class, on the other hand, is usually British: George Sanders, James Mason, Laurence Olivier, and Richard Burton play the imperialist whose sandaled foot is on the neck of the lower orders (Wood 182-84). It could be argued, of course, that this American-British confrontation has little to do with imperialism. The "international theme," although typically associated with the work of Henry James, is at least as old as Royall Tyler's eighteenth-century drama The Contrast, which counterposes American innocence and homespun republicanism to English hypocrisy and class hierarchy. The hypercivilized, epicene Romans are simply a cinematic representation of "culture," while the American/Judeo-Christians are "nature. …

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