It seems like there’s a cadre of filmmakers out there scrambling not only to adapt the ancient Graeco-Roman world to film, but to do it as poorly as possible. If you’re watching these films, and I’ve seen my fair share, then common patterns, tropes and visual elements are expected. I’m not exactly sure where all this began, but my suspicion is was with Troy, the 2004 Brad Pitt vehicle which provided a fanciful vision of antiquity’s “world war.” Later the same year, Oliver Stone’s plodding epic Alexander descended on theaters. It was intended to be a more “authentic” depiction of antiquity, a claim which wasn’t borne out by the director’s numerous liberties with the life story of one of history’s most famous men.
But if these two moviegoing events proved anything, it was that audiences did not require literary or historical authenticity as long as movies about the ancient world were appropriately ramped up for modern movie-goers who seem to often mistake pandemonium for true drama.y the mid-2000s, our collective image of the Graeco-Roman universe had become even more skewed. Zack Snyder’s 300 provided an indelible visual palette which has been emulated ad nauseam ever since. A dark, lifeless landscape set beneath perpetually stormy sky is the Greece most American movie-goers now expect – a far cry from the thick forests, grassy steppes and wide sandy beaches of the real country.
Similarly, the actors playing Greeks seem to be cast more for their abs and ability to bellow than anything else. They battle each other in flying, wire-assisted leaps, slashing open necks with a font of slow-motion blood set to pounding electronica music. They fight hard and love harder, as the laughable who-gets-to-be-on-top sex brawl between Themistocles and Artemisia demonstrates in the recent 300: Rise of an Empire. And yet, for all the blood and rape, paranoid Hollywood producers still see the need tweak many basic facts about ancient culture, presumably to make it more relatable to modern Americans. The ancient Greek’s tolerant views on sexuality are often toned down or invisible – which is why Patrocles was Achilles’s “cousin” in Troy and Hephastion was little more than Alexander’s “general” in Alexander. Likewise, Greek conflicts with foreign powers have begun to look a lot like modern geopolitical conflicts, particularly where people from the Near East are concerned. This is perhaps no more obvious than in the Persian aqua-suicide-terrorists scene from Rise of an Empire. Last year’s Pompeii tapped into our collective fear of natural disaster in an era of expanding climate change. On the other side of things, films like Clash of the Titans and its sequel made no pretense at being culturally relevant… or relevant at all. In some ways, I enjoy them more because these films aren’t trying to be anything but what they are – 90 minutes of visual pablum.