Ancient Rome on Film: Part 1

Ancient Rome on Film, Part 1: From Spartacus to the Fall of the Empire

movies_RomanEmpire1With the recent announcement that Starz, a successful cable network, was promoting a new version of Spartacus, fans of the sword and sandals genre everywhere are foaming at the mouth. Not only is this latest rendition of Spartacus a modern take on the ancient legend, but it has the same thrilling and over the top graphic qualities that made 300 such a blockbuster on the big screen. What’s telling about this new version (to be released in the spring of 2010) is that it is just the latest in a recent surge of films all taking an uncensored and graphic approach to the ancient world, and Rome in particular. From the widely acclaimed Rome on HBO, to the Epic film Gladiator, which in a sense revived the genre with it’s ground breaking visualization of the Coliseum, it seems that everywhere there is a new found desire to see Ancient Rome brought back to life on both the big screen, and the increasingly popular cable television formats.

But this wasn’t always the case. In the late 60’s this genre almost died out completely, as the over budgeted films sometimes relaying on theatrical scripts of a by gone era were increasingly irrelevant to audiences wanting socially conscious movies. By the early 70’s audiences began abandoning period films in droves, preferring the noir and realism of urban psychological thrillers, over the over hyped epics that were more reminiscent of the silver screen. Perhaps the last great gasp of this genre before it’s recent revival was Stanley Kubrick version of Spartacus, which although a now considered a classic, almost sealed the directors fate when released in 1960, and the extravagant Cleopatra released two years later,  almost certainly put a final nail in the coffin of that genre for good. The following is a short history of ancient Rome on film, tracing both the triumphs and eventual disasters that befell cinemas greatest empire before it finally rose from the ashes of the new millennium.

Ben Hur (1925 Silent Film)

movies_RomanEmpire2This early silent film, directed by Fred Niblo, was based on the novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace. One of the assistant directors for this sequence was a very young William Wyler, who would direct the now more famous 1959 remake with Charlton Heston. A more detailed plot that is derived from the book is described in the section on the remake below, but it’s not the plot of this early version that lives on in people’s minds. Legends surrounding the infamous chariot race, and the  fatal accident that occurred on set are what is ultimately remembered and led to changes in rules of film safety.

When filming the chariot scene, the drivers were extremely cautious, which disappointed MGM, the studio financing it, so they offered  a hundred dollars to the winner hoping the scene would become fast paced. The resulting melee quickly got out of control and led to the horrendous crash that remains in the movie, and despite this tragic event, the scene was re-created virtually shot for shot in the 1959 remake.
Costing between 4 and 6 million dollars, Ben-Hur is the most expensive silent film ever made.  And early audiences flocked to Ben-Hur after its premiere in 1925, yet its huge expenses made MGM  unable to recoup its four million dollar investment. Despite this loss, the film started a new desire for studios to begin recreating the Ancient Roman Empire on film, that lasted well into the silver screen era.

Quo Vadis (1951)

Quo Vadis is an epic 1951 film directed by Mervyn LeRoy, adapted from the classic 1895 novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz. The subject is the conflict between Christianity and the corruption of the Roman Empire, Quo Vadis is Latin, meaning “Where are you going?” and refers to the apocryphal encounter between St. Peter and Jesus Christ on the Appian Way. This film continued to emphasize the Christian subtext that would become apparent in may of these epic films of this era. It was only against this guise that studios wanted to compare and contrast the apparent fall of Rome, within the context of a rising Christianity.

movies_RomanEmpire6The film stars Robert Taylor and Deborah Kerr, and the action takes place in Ancient Rome  during the reign of the Emperor Nero in the early 1st century after the Christian era.  Like the novel, it tells the story of a Roman military commander named Marcus Vinicius , who upon returning from the provincial wars, falls in love with a devout Christian slave girl named Lygia.  Their love story is told against the broader historical background of early Christianity and its persecution by Nero , played to devilish effect by Peter Ustinov.  Nero’s atrocities become increasingly more outrageous and his acts more insane and when he burns Rome and blames the Christians, Marcus goes off to save Lygia and her family from the impending horror to come. Marcus is to late, and Nero captures all the Christians, condemning them to be killed in the arena. In the climatic scene, Marcus is tied to the spectator’s box and forced to watches as Lygia is tied to a wooden stake in the arena. A wild bull is also placed there, perhaps a personification of paganism, and when all seems hopeless Lygia’s bodyguard, a giant named Ursus is then able to break the bull’s neck. The Roman mob, impressed by Ursus’ courage pleads for Nero to spare them, which the emperor is not willing to do. This act causes the crowd to believe that Nero, and not the Christians are responsible for the burning of Rome,which ultimately leads to Nero’s cowardly suicide.

As in the book, Christianity triumphs over paganism, and the love of the two protagonists is stronger then the cruelty of Rome. This message made it palatable for audiences, despite pushing the limits of violence, even though most of it happens off camera. A careful reading of the books details the scenes that were certainly to violent for audiences of this time, including the wrapping of Christian children in sheep skins before thy are fed to lions for entertainment. Quo Vadis was nominated for eight Academy Awards, However the movie did not win a single Academy Award.

Ben Hur (1959 remake)

movies_RomanEmpire3Director William Wyler’s film was a remake of the spectacular silent film of the same name. Wyler had been an ‘extras’ director on the set of  the original film in the silent era. It took six years to prepare for the film shoot, featuring more crew and extras than any other film before it , with fifteen thousand extras alone for the chariot race sequence.

The heroic figure of Charlton Heston, by now a star from his success as Moses in the earlier 50’s  “The Ten Commandments ” would again be commissioned to play the lead role in this film of as the Prince of Judea. In the plot, prince Judah Ben-Hur was enslaved by a Roman tribunal, but then returned years later as a freed man to seek revenge in the film’s centerpiece, a chariot race that became even more famous then it’s predecessor. Ultimately, Judah find redemption and forgiveness in the inspiring and enlightening finale. Its depiction of the Jesus Christ figure was also extremely subtle and used solely as a cameo , never actually showing Christ’s face, but focusing on the reactions of the other characters that bear his witness, culminating in the eventual Crucifixion that Judah witnesses. The chariot race in the Circus Maximus  is one of the most thrilling in film history.  The site had to be constructed on over 18 acres at Cinecitta Studios outside Rome, coincidentally enough where the HBO series Rome was filmed five  decades later. Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd did all their own chariot driving in the carefully-choreographed sequence and performed almost all of the stunts, which we be unheard of for today. It is this realism that sets this movie apart, making it the one film that has set the standard for the historical epic ever since.

Ben-Hur was the most expensive film ever made up to its time at fifteen million dollars, yet due to it’s success it ultimately saved the studio from bankruptcy. It won Best Picture as well as winning Charlton Heston his sole career Oscar, and was also the first film to win eleven Oscars. This movie was bound to make the genre live on another decade, but influencing the epic films coming out after this point became increasingly intellectualized and realistic.

Spartacus (1960)

movies_RomanEmpire4Directed by Stanley Kubrick and based on the novel  by Howard Fast about the historical life of Spartacus and the Third Servile War, a slave uprising that actually took place. The film stars Kirk Douglas as rebellious slave Spartacus and became the role he was best known for.
Rome, 73 B.C. Spartacus, a Thracian slave, is chosen for his strength and saved from certain death in north african mines, by a Roman trader  named Lentulus, played with pomposity by the late Peter Ustinov. He is assigned to the Capuan School of Gladiators, he meets Varinia, a beautiful slave from Britain and romance ensues.

One of the most dramatic incidents in Kubrick’s epic is when Roman general, Marcus Crassus, played by none other than the great Laurence Olivier, demands that two gladiators fight to the death and a battle between Spartacus  and the Ethiopian warrior Draba ensues. The white versus black contrast of the then in his prime Douglas and the African warrior, played by football star Woody Strode was not lost on the audience, and is particularly telling that after Draba is victorious, he refuses to finish Spartacus off and turns on his Roman captors instead and is killed.
Shortly after, Spartacus escapes with his companions and becomes leader of an increasingly large  army of slaves, but is unable to escape as he and his army discover that they are surrounded by three Roman armies led by Crassus. In the final battle, the slaves are routed after one of cinema’s most realistic portrayals of battle ever filmed. Most are slaughtered by the thousands, with the few thousand survivors, including Spartacus and Antoninus, played by a young Tony Curtis, are taken to Rome to be crucified.

Spartacus was one of the most violent and sexually suggestive films of up until that time.  The replacement of the original director, Anthony Mann, in exchange for Stanley Kubrick, may have been a gamble that resulted in one of the most unique if not slightly ahead of it’s time artistic vision of the 60’s. And the performances by Douglas and Olivier , or momentous action such as the battle at the banks of the Silarus, further stand the test of time. This film was perhaps the last gasp of fresh air that was breathed into the genre until Gladiator nearly five decades later.

Cleopatra (1963)

movies_RomanEmpire5Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz from a book by Carlo Mario Franzero. The film starred the sultry Elizabeth Taylor as the young Queen of Egypt that desperately tries to resist the imperialist ambitions of Rome. Mark Antony is played by none other then her onscreen partner and future husband, Richard Burton.  The film was an extravagant spectacle, and tried desperately to satisfy what was a perceived demand for over the top sets and theatrics, when in fact this was falling out of favor with audiences.

The central plot surrounds the actions of Julius Caesar, played by Rex Harrison,  during the fight for control of Republican Rome. When he defeats his enemies and they flee to Egypt he meets Cleopatra in the pivotal scene of the film where she is unrolled by a servant from a carpet where she is hidden. As in the historical account, later on the film is when Mark Antony flees to Egypt to avoid being captured by Caesar’s executioners, he meets Cleopatra, and thus begins the fateful relationship that ultimately seals both their fates.

Billed as the next great cinematic masterpiece, Fox continued to invest more and more money into the project, confident that audiences would adore it. But critics found the acting to be over the top in many scenes, despite how talented the actors may have been. The extreme length and confusing plot line of the film made it difficult for audiences to grasp . It is also interesting to note that historians criticized the inaccurate depictions of how and why Julius Caesar was killed. Cleopatra went on to a $48 million take in North America, making it the highest-grossing film of the year. Despite all this, the financial situation at Fox was so dire that the studio executives were forced to sell most of the studio’s large backlot in Hollywood to developers.

The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)

The Fall of the Roman Empire is a 1964  epic film which was the second and last of Anthony Mann’s historical epics is a smart, sprawling story spreads itself thin over a number of characters  including Lucilla, played by  Sophia Loren and Ben-Hur’s  Stephen Boyd  as Livius.

movies_RomanEmpire7Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher-emperor of Rome, is played in a stirring rendition by Alec Guinness. And it is the relationship that he has with Livius, his loyal soldier and symbolic son, with Commodus, the corrupt heir to the throne that drives the themes of this film. Like the prodigal sons, the two boyhood friends become enemies when Commodus accedes to the throne and sells out the values of his father for hedonistic  greed. The apex of the character driven plot concludes  when the beautiful Lucilla falls in love with Livius but desired by greedy Commodus  and a plethora of other heroes and villains plot to gain the upper hand. The film is  highlighted by a brutal battles in the provinces as the barbarians threaten the empire, ending with a climactic duel to decide the destiny of the Roman Empire.

The Fall of the Roman Empire remains one of the best of the last 1960s epics. Not only was it well written , but the historian Will Durant was engaged to advise on period detail and plot making it largely historically accurate. Yet regardless of being a film with strong performances and a consistently elegant style. it still was a financial failure at the box-office. And as it’s namesake describes it was the final film that sealed the fate of the Empire for over four decades…

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Herodotus was a Greek historian who was born in Halicarnassus, Caria (modern-day Bodrum, Turkey) and lived in the fifth century BC (c. 484–425 BC). Widely referred to as "The Father of History" (first conferred by Cicero), he was the first historian known to collect his materials systematically and critically, and then to arrange them into a historiographic narrative. Although some of his stories were fanciful and others inaccurate, he states he was reporting only what was told to him. Little is known of his personal history.