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Swords and sandals, redux

Molly Griffin | Friday, December 2, 2005

Films based on ancient Greek and Roman culture, often referred to as swords-and-sandals films, have fluctuated in popularity throughout cinematic history. The genre is currently experiencing a resurgence thanks to the new HBO series, “Rome.”

Fascination with these ancient cultures has endured for centuries, and it has been a subject for film since the beginning of the movie industry itself. There were offerings from famous early directors like Cecil B. DeMille and D.W. Griffith, and these early films defined the genre with their lavish sets, enormous casts and intense action scenes.

The threat of television caused a resurgence in the production of these opulent dramas in the 1950s. Films like “Quo Vadis,” “The Robe,” “Spartacus” and “Ben-Hur” combined action and adventure with stars like Kirk Douglas and Charlton Heston to lure audiences away from the television and into the movie theatre.

These films were often so expensive and lavish that producing them was a huge gamble for studios that could either result in huge returns or complete financial ruin. The 1959 version of “Ben-Hur” was a huge hit, won 11 Oscars and saved MGM from the brink of bankruptcy. Twentieth Century Fox wasn’t so lucky with their version of “Cleopatra” starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. The film cost $44 million dollars, equivalent to $273 million today, and nearly destroyed the studio because it was a huge flop.

In more recent cinematic memory, “Gladiator” almost single-handedly revived the swords-and-sandals genre with its success. The film, starring Russell Crowe, cost well over $100 million dollars, but achieved the lavish effects of its predecessors using CGI effects instead of having a cast of thousands and building huge sets. In 2001, the film won five Oscars, including Best Actor and Best Picture, which naturally led to a revived interest in ancient history and a wave of movies that would try to imitate its success.

One of the first major films to follow “Gladiator” was 2004’s “Troy.” The movie featured Brad Pitt as Achilles, Orlando Bloom as Paris and Eric Bana as Hector. It was not well-received by critics, who panned the actors and the script’s attempt to adapt “The Iliad.” Nor was it embraced by audiences. The film only spent six weeks in the top 10 and grossed far less domestically than it cost to produce.

The next film that attempted to replicate the success of “Gladiator” was Oliver Stone’s “Alexander.” The film had an all-star cast that included Colin Ferrell as Alexander, Angelina Jolie as his mother Olympias, Anthony Hopkins as Ptolemy and Val Kilmer as Philip of Macedonia. The film, like “Troy” failed to find critical praise or the massive box office success it needed to recoup it budget. It spent only three weeks as one of the top 10 movies at the box office, and it failed to soar higher than number six. “Alexander,” like “Cleopatra” before it, was thought to have once again crushed the willingness of studios to take risks on films in the swords-and-sandals genre.

The latest incarnation of films that play on our culture’s fascination with ancient history is HBO’s series, “Rome.” Its nearly $100 million dollar budget, large cast and detailed sets reveal that it shares similarities with many of the films that came before it. The looser production standards that HBO retains have allowed the series to be much more graphic than many films that came before it. The fact that it is a series allows it to go into greater detail than movies normally can in with their time constraints.

Only time will tell if television will usurp cinema as the place to debut swords-and-sandals epics, but if the long legacy of the genre reveals anything, it’s that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Regardless of the medium the appear in, these epics will feature large casts, plenty of action, opulent sets and a great deal of action. Ancient Greek and Roman culture died out thousands of years ago, but our fascination with these cultures hasn’t diminished much over the centuries.