Sunday, 8 January 2012

Top Four (Recent) Films Set In The Ancient World

This week, I'm pretty busy with revision and other things for the start of term. However, I am pleased to present you with some films set in the ancient world that you might enjoy.


Plot, as I'm sure you're all aware, is that the Greeks vs Trojans in a fight to the death over Orlando Bloom stealing someone's wife.

It is nicely put together, I'll give it that. The armour and so on, I am reliably informed, is not particularly accurate, but then, it is based c. 1100 BCE, and our information about quite what they were wearing at that time is a bit patchy. No contemporary issues of Vogue remain. But it all looks pretty; the beaches look sandy and Troy looks suitably like a city surrounded by implausible walls. Some solid performances, though no one was required to do anything more difficult than scowl or pout, of which the favourite has to be Brian Cox as Agamemnon. He seems to get everywhere these days.

Historical accuracy? Well, Troy is based on Homer's epic poem, The Illiad, rather than on a sound historical account, and the accuracy of the events that it depicts has been debated for (literally) millennia. So... as mentioned above, costuming is probably not accurate to time period. The plot, however, doesn't really manage to stick with the plot of The Illiad. For a start, where have all the Gods gone? What about the duration of the war? Where are Priam's other sons? I'm sure any classics geeks out there would be glad to add to this list for me.


The Eagle

Fewer people have heard of this one, perhaps for good reason. Plot: The Ninth Legion mysteriously disappeared north of Hadrian's Wall, losing their Eagle standard. Now, a (slightly) crippled army officer and his British slave must get it back.

This is really quite enjoyable, as one-man-and-his-dog (or in this case, slave) films often are. The dialogue is stilted at times, particularly in the "serious" scenes, where the Roman is forced to confront Rome's brutality (Sample dialogue: "Rome is wonderful" "Rome killed my father, my mother, and all of my brothers. It was going to put me to death in an arena" "....Oh"), and the depiction of the tribes north of the wall is laughably bad. Why aren't they wearing any clothes? This is Scotland; it gets cold in Scotland. They almost seem to have wandered off the latest Cowboys-and-Indians set, where they'd still be inaccurate, but less out of place.

Any other historical inaccuracies? The whole plot, for a start, is ridiculous. The IX legio Hispania is last attested in Dacia (Eastern Europe) rather than Britain, and was probably disbanded due to ill-luck, than completely destroyed. However, since that is the plot of the book (Rosemary Sutcliffe's The Eagle of the Ninth) on which this film is based, I'm prepared to overlook it. My favourite inaccuracy is that of the crossbow brooches (see figure below). In the film, these are worn on the chest like modern brooches, with short bar pointing up, like a crucifix. The Romans themselves would have worn them the other way up (like the inverted or 'satanic' crucifix), and protruding from the top of the shoulder, like a clothes peg. It's my favourite because it means whoever designed the costumes really bothered to do their research, and then someone later mis-heard them, and now they have upside down Roman brooches in their film.


This is practically a genre classic by now, isn't it? Even if that genre is just slow-mo and cartoony blood. You can tell because Spartacus: Blood and Sand tried, and failed to replicate it.

Plot: This is SPARTA! and they send out 300 troops to hold back a Persian army of c.1,000,000. Yeah, okay guys.

Like the others, it's well put together, but unlike the others, the poor dialogue doesn't grate because it somehow fits with the ridiculous machismo of the rest of the film. It's slick, silly and with a whole lot of violence. What's not to love?

Historical inaccuracies? It'd be easier to list things that were accurate. Firstly: why aren't they wearing any clothes? Well, traditionally the Spartans went to war naked, but they'd started wearing armour by the time they fought with the Persians, so... artistic license? Really, just 300 guys? Yup. 300 Spartans, that is. About 20,000 people from other cities, but the Spartans were having a festival, and it's quite hard to spare more dancers when you need to put on a show. Fun fact: the Spartans were actually the dance champions of the Greek world. Those ridiculous one liners? From Herodotus and Diodorus we get "Tonight we dine in hell", "Then we shall fight in the shade" and "You'll find plenty of earth and water down there [the well]". Sadly, they left out the bit where the Athenians threw their own Persian envoys into The Pit.

 Score 10/10

Life of Brian

Classic, guys, classic. Plot: Monty Python comedy film about Judean Messianic figures around the time of Jesus. How could it fail?

I, and most of my friends, have seen this film so many times we could probably re-enact it ourselves with just fake beards and a gourd. And it's still funny. And, as I learn more about the history of Judea, it actually gets funnier. There's no need to go on about how great this film is: if you've seen it, you know what I'm talking about, and if you haven't do so. Immediately.

Inaccuracies? Actually, it does quite well. There were dozens, if not hundreds, of ineffective splinter resistance groups, all believing slightly different things about god. There were also dozens of chanting prophets, and dozens of people hailed as the Messiah. Jesus was either the real one, or incredibly persuasive, depending on your point of view. As a Roman citizen, you had the right to be tried by the governor, or the Emperor (a right enjoyed by both Brian and St Peter), and as I'm sure we're all aware, crucifixtion was relatively common for executions.


Hang on: what happened to Gladiator?

Sorry, but I just don't like Gladiator. I know it won all those Oscars, but I really don't think it's that good. The opening battle scenes are fantastic, as is the closing twenty minutes, but as far as I can tell nothing happens in between. Russel Crowe just felt wooden to me, and I couldn't really understand his motivavtion for any of it. Joaquin Phoenix was excellent, but made everyone else look worse by comparison. And the 'historical consultant' was forced to write letters of apology en masse to other ancient historians.

Note: I have excluded the Golden Age '50s classics (e.g. Ben Hur), because otherwise the whole list would just be those films. I have also excluded Agora, a recent film, because I haven't seen it yet, though people say it's pretty good.  

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