And it came to pass that when mankind invented the cinema, all many filmmakers wanted to do was make films about the ancient past. Here was a medium with an unparalleled capacity for recording the present, and for keeping up with the intensifying rush of modernity. Yet, from cinema’s very beginnings and throughout the silent era, the myths, stories and histories of antiquity were tantamount to a craze.
As filmmakers tested the limits and potential of the feature-length film, lines in the sand were drawn by massive productions like Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria (1914), set in the 3rd century BC, and D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916), with its humongous Babylonian sets. A list of ancient wonders of the silent screen should also include the original blockbuster Ben-Hur (1925) and Cecil B. DeMille’s biblical epics The Ten Commandments (1923) and The King of Kings (1927).
When TV came along and started convincing people to stay at home, movie moguls of the 1950s fought back by making everything bigger again. Bigger screens, bigger casts, bigger sets. A renaissance in epic filmmaking followed, as anything to do with ancient Rome, Greece or the Bible lands was dusted down and done again in colour. The Ten Commandments (1956) was back; so was Ben-Hur (1959). It was a time of chariots racing, seas parting and Hollywood’s in-house choirs hitting ever more hallowed high notes. The new Ben-Hur won 11 Oscars – a record yet to be beaten.
Over on the continent, Italy started spewing out sword-and-sandals movies by the dozen, while at the more highbrow end of the spectrum, arthouse cinema also saw an ancient turn. Pier Paolo Pasolini and Roberto Rossellini both made multiple films set in ancient times, and Fellini got in on the act with Satyricon (1969), his lusty fantasy set in Nero’s Rome.
The vast scale required for Hollywood’s ancient epics became too expensive as the 1960s wore on and tastes changed. But the ancient world was woken from its cinematic slumber with the invention of CGI. Suddenly those gigantic amphitheatres, casts of thousands and jaw-dropping battle scenes were affordable again. Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000) led the charge, ironically picking up the exact same history that Hollywood had left off with in The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) 36 years previously.
With costly new ancient Rome series Domina currently screening on Sky, and yet another version of Cleopatra upcoming, the ancient past is very much alive and kicking on our screens today. With a focus on the ancient civilisations of Greece, Rome, Egypt and in the Middle East, here are 10 ancient-world films worth setting in stone.
The Sign of the Cross (1932)
Director: Cecil B. DeMille
No director is more synonymous with depictions of the ancient world on screen than Cecil B. DeMille. A titanic figure in Hollywood from the silent era through to the 1950s, he found a Midas touch at the box office by telling biblical stories that trod a carefully calibrated line between the pious and the prurient, the sincere and the sensational. You could see plenty of skin in a DeMille picture but still walk away feeling godly.
1932’s The Sign of the Cross forms the end of his early biblical trilogy with The Ten Commandments and The King of Kings. It’s set in Nero’s Rome, at a time when early Christians were being persecuted and fed to the lions, and the notoriety of DeMille’s film these days is as one of the most gobsmacking examples of the licentiousness of so-called pre-Code Hollywood, before the introduction of the censorious Hays Code in 1934. So we get Claudette Colbert’s Empress Poppaea bathing naked in asses’ milk, Charles Laughton chewing through the Doric columns as a lascivious Nero, an eye-popping orgy scene and an extended climax of unholy carnage in the amphitheatre’s animal pit.
Land of the Pharaohs (1955)
Director: Howard Hawks
The arrival of widescreen cinema in the early 1950s brought about a new golden age of the ancient world epic. The very first CinemaScope production was the biblical drama The Robe (1953), and it proved a massive hit. Suddenly, swords, sandals and crucifixions became the flavour of an era in which Hollywood moguls hoped to restate the cinema’s capacity for awe in the new age of TV.
From this period of Ben-Hur and Spartacus (1960), it’s perhaps unorthodox to select Warner Bros’ Land of the Pharaohs. It had the requisite cast of thousands but failed to break even at the box office. Perhaps the shift away from Judeo-Christian subject matter made it less of an event for audiences in the American heartlands. Or was it just that the comparatively modest running time – 104 mins – failed to give proper indication of just how huge this Howard Hawks production is. Telling a fictional story behind the building of the Great Pyramid, with Jack Hawkins as Pharaoh Khufu and Joan Collins as his scheming wife Nellifer, it balances courtly intrigue with vast, almost documentary-style scenes showing the pyramid construction.
This was Martin Scorsese’s favourite film as a kid. “I’d always been addicted to historical epics,” he said, “but this one was different: it gave the sense that we were really there. This is the way people lived; this is what they believed, thought, and felt. You get it through the overall look of the picture: the low ceilings, the torchlit interiors, the shape of the pillars, the look of the extras.”
Jason and the Argonauts (1963)
Director: Don Chaffey
Hydra the water monster, Talos the automaton, flying harpies and an army of skeleton warriors are Ray Harryhausen’s immortal contributions to this cult classic. The stop-motion whizz typically plied his trade in either the dinosaur era or the pre-medieval world of Sinbad. But with Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans (1981), he also put an indelible stamp on ancient times too. When we think of Greek myths and monsters on screen, it’s often his creations that flash into the mind.
With the brawny Todd Armstrong as Jason, the sailor who embarks on an epic voyage in search of the golden fleece, it’s true that the drama of Don Chaffey’s film falls into the rather stolid trappings that afflict so many mid-century sword-and-sandals pictures. But, by Zeus, if there’s a better film to demonstrate the simple wonders of practical effects or the rousing splendour of a Bernard Herrmann score, we’ve not found it.
Simon of the Desert (1965)
Director: Luis Buñuel
A pan across a very Mexican landscape, studded with cacti, introduces Simon of the Desert. It’s Mexico standing in for Syria in the 5th century – specifically the patch of desert where Simeon Stylites lived a life of ascetic self-denial at the top of a pillar for 37 years.
This is the last of the films that surrealist troublemaker Luis Buñuel made in exile in Mexico. The stark cinematography is by the great Gabriel Figueroa. During Stylite’s time on his perch, Buñuel’s religious satire imagines a succession of encounters and temptations, including three visits from Satan in various guises. Time Out has called Simon of the Desert “a teasing bridge between the Old Testament Buñuel of Nazarin and Viridiana, and the new – Belle de Jour and Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.” Old Testament is a good way of putting it – there’s something fiery and sulphurous about the way Buñuel bites away at a life of piety here. The film came out the same year as Hollywood’s devout epic The Greatest Story Ever Told, and it’s difficult to imagine two more contrasting visions of early Christianity.
Oedipus Rex (1967)
Director: Pier Paolo Pasolini
Pier Paolo Pasolini’s ‘official’ trilogy is his ‘trilogy of life’ – three bawdy tales of the middle ages that he made in the 1970s: The Decameron (1971), The Canterbury Tales (1972) and Arabian Nights (1974). But he also has an ancient world trilogy of sorts. The Gospel according to St Matthew (1964) is his tale of Christ. Medea (1969) stars opera star Maria Callas in a stripped back imagining of Euripides’ play. And, coming between them, 1967’s Oedipus Rex is a hallucinatory account of the Sophocles tragedy, filmed in Morocco.
Pasolini’s early films Accattone (1961) and Mamma Roma (1962) had been fascinated with the lower rungs of 1960s Roman society – its pimps and prostitutes. His pungent ancient world movies have the same insistence on human life at its earthiest. He puts beauty and ugliness in front of the camera with looming close-ups on faces that gaze directly into the lens. In the case of Oedipus Rex, which might be the most elaborately hatted movie in history, he also dresses his cast in an anachronistic blend of styles drawn from African, Aztec and Sumerian influences. Together with its haunting soundtrack of Romanian folk music, the effect may rip Sophocles’ story from its Grecian moorings, but the sum is something rare in films about the distant past: the creation of a world that feels close enough to smell and touch.
Directors: Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet
For ease it’s known as Othon, but the original French title translates as ‘Eyes Do Not Want to Close at All Times or Perhaps One Day Rome Will Allow Herself to Choose in Her Turn’. This is the first of the ancient world features by husband-and-wife duo Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet. They made six in total, which is the same number as Cecil B. DeMille. Both parties are key to ancient world cinema, though to say their films are poles apart would be an understatement. Where DeMille was drawn to sentiment and spectacle, the Straubs’ output is rigorous and cerebral.
Like many of their films, Othon is based on an existing text – in this case, Pierre Corneille’s 1664 tragedy set in ancient Rome. Its tale of a Roman nobleman’s political machinations is close to impossible to follow on first viewing, however, as the Straubs have the actors deliver their lines in rapid flows of dialogue, delivered in flat tones and occasionally without subtitles. The plot assumes a similar status to the ambient sounds, the comportment of the actors or the precise draping of their togas. Othon was filmed on Rome’s Palatine Hill, among the ancient excavations and in full view of the modern city going about its business down below. In this way, the Straubs put the ancient and the modern into conversation, with the 17th century mediating.
The Eloquent Peasant (1970)
Director: Shadi Abdel Salam
With The Ten Commandments (1956) and Cleopatra (1963), Hollywood pushed the limits of feature-film duration to bring mammoth visions of ancient Egypt to the screen. It may be, however, that cinema’s most transportive depiction of the world of pharaohs and papyrus scrolls is this 20-minute short from Shadi Abdel Shalam. This Egyptian director had worked as a consultant on Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s ancient Egypt epic Pharaoh (1966) before making his directorial debut with the astonishing The Night of Counting the Years (1969), a haunting classic of Egyptian cinema that tackles the theme of tomb raiding.
Made in 1970, The Eloquent Peasant is Shalam’s only other completed film – his cherished epic on the life of Pharaoh Akhenaton was never completed. It’s based on a papyrus from the Middle Kingdom period, which the film dates from 2200 BC, and tells a simple parable about a peasant who is caught trespassing on a pharaoh’s land. Brought before the pharaoh, he proves so silver-tongued and logical in defending his case that the pharaoh stays his punishment in order to listen to his captive speak. Filmed in desert, oasis and on ancient sites, Shalam’s exquisite miniature has none of the high-camp histrionics that we associate with Hollywood’s ancient epics. It’s more like a tone poem, or a message in a bottle.
Director: Roberto Rossellini
At a press conference in 1962, Roberto Rossellini announced that cinema was dead. Nobody was taking up the medium’s potential as a force for education. Henceforth, he planned to devote himself to TV: “in order to be able to re-examine everything from the beginning in full liberty, in order to rerun mankind’s path in search of truth”.
His subsequent run of historical TV projects took on the Renaissance, Louis XIV, Pascal and Descartes alongside a number of films set in classical antiquity: Acts of the Apostles (1969), Socrates (1971), Augustine of Hippo (1972) and The Messiah (1975). Their production values are typically impoverished, their worth as educational tools not perhaps what Rossellini intended, but these films remain fascinating for their attempt to put the material trappings, structures and everyday workings of bygone times before the camera.
Socrates takes place after the overthrow of Athens by the Spartans, when Socrates found himself accused of heresy by the ruling elite. Drawing its dialogue from various Plato texts, the film eschews ancient spectacle in favour of debates on street corners or in market squares, as the condemned philosopher puts himself about town, elegantly arguing all comers into a corner. As Socrates himself puts it, he’s a midwife birthing truth into the world. But truth is too much for some, and Rossellini’s film grimly shows the wheels of fate turning against him.
Nostos: The Return (1989)
Director: Franco Piavoli
Franco Piavoli’s Nostos: The Return is a version of Homer’s Odyssey recast as a visionary film-poem. The dialogue in many ancient world epics is often so stilted that it sounds as if it had been carved into stone. Piavoli avoids that problem: Nostos features precious little speech, and what’s there is spoken in an ancient and indecipherable Mediterranean language.
With that swerve, Piavoli brings us much closer to the physical reality of Odysseus’s world. As he journeys back to Ithaca to be reunited with his wife Penelope after the Trojan war, Nostos lets us see and hear the environment as Odysseus would have done. Meditative and sublime, it’s a kind of ambient adventure film in which the creaking of a boat’s timbers, the jingling of goat bells and the dripping in a cave provide a kind of Homeric ASMR. Cloud shadows scud over fields. Moonlight refracts on the sea. A fruit bowl in a darkened room offers a glimpse of home. Worlds away from Hollywood’s imposing recreations of the ancient past, Nostos: The Return swims past us in a shimmering procession of rapturous images and sounds.
Director: Paul W.S. Anderson
Hollywood’s third big wave of ancient world epics was kicked off by Gladiator in 2000, the ancient now reproduced via ultra-modern advances in CGI. First stop for film fans looking to gen up on the Greco-Persian wars now became Zack Snyder’s 300 (2006) or, for the Trojan war, Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy (2004).
Time will tell whether these, or neo-Old Testament fare like Darren Aronofsky’s Noah (2014), will themselves go down in the history books. Flying in the face of its 27% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, however, we’re happy to raise an “I’m Spartacus!” hand in defence of the delirious pleasure that is Paul W.S. Anderson’s Pompeii. Essentially transposing the plot of Titanic (1997) to the town of Pompeii in the run up to the eruption of Mt Vesuvius in 79 AD, it pushes together a Roman governor’s daughter (Emily Browning) and a Celtic slave (Kit Harington) for a fateful romance across class lines. Whopping great clichés in its dialogue and plotting do little to unseat the thrill value as Anderson marshals a staggering 40-minute eruption sequence that replays the ancient tragedy of Pompeii as a crumbling torrent of digital 1s and 0s. The kicker is the closing shot: ancient and modern are drawn together, with humanity the connecting tissue.
- Intolerance (D.W. Griffith, 1916)
- Julius Caesar (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1953)
- Spartacus (Stanley Kubrick, 1960)
- Young Aphrodite (Nikos Koundouros, 1963)
- The Fall of the Roman Empire (Anthony Mann, 1964)
- Carry On Cleo (Gerald Thomas, 1964)
- Sebastiane (Derek Jarman, 1976)
- Monty Python’s Life of Brian (Terry Jones, 1979)
- The Last Temptation of Christ (Martin Scorsese, 1988)
- Birdsong (Albert Serra, 2008)
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