Filmmakers repeatedly revisit ancient history. From slaves rising to become masters of their own fate, to a royal striving for what is right, they reel audiences in with their portrayal of liberation against tyranny, love, sex, and violence in a historical setting that seems neither too fantastical or alien.
Filmmakers recreate ancient history with new visual realities. Regardless of the moral messaging layered throughout, the visual sphere remains a major pull for audiences; the glorious temples, the gladiatorial ring, and the military attire. Ancient historical films are visually rich and awe-inspiring, while the human plights of freedom and love make their appeal even stronger. Although these films often feature protagonists with very limited worldviews, the genre is continually being refreshed and reimagined by those behind the camera. Below are just some of those films that embody these efforts in their dealings with the ancient world.
dir. Wolfgang Peterson
Troy follows the events of The Iliad, depicting the tenth and final year of the Trojan War. Troy captures the visual richness of the huge combat sequences, accompanied with shots strikingly depicting an ancient city’s grandeur and ruin during its siege. Although thrilling to look at, Troy loosens its ability to ignite anguish with its lessening romantic arcs (such as Achilles and Patroclus), failing to ignite emotional fires burning underneath its epic battle sequences. Nevertheless, tose fantastical battle sequences, violence, and familiar bonds ensure an epic window into the ancient past.
Brad Pitt’s striking portrayal of the god-like Achilles, along with Eric Bana’s stoic performance as Hector, mark this film as unparalleled in the audiences’ engagement with these opposing sides. There is a more ambiguous moral righteousness than the clear-cut nature of the anti-Empire/Republic messaging that consumes the likes of Gladiator. There remains no centred villain (Agamemnon and Menelaus move to the wayside with their outrage), whereas Achilles and Hector are seen as exceptional fighters whom incite eagerness to witness their inevitable battle whilst inspiring a peaceful reconciliation. It is an epic in every sense.
dir. Ridley Scott
Gladiator sees Russell Crowe journeying from being a Roman general to an anonymous slave and then finally a gladiator. All the while, he seeks vengeance for his family. Although fictional, Gladiator manages to compel through its visual historicity, the violence and gore of the gladiatorial ring, and Maximus’ fight to restore order to the Republic. A fantastical journey of one man striving for revenge in the pits of slavery recalls Spartacus, yet Gladiator manages to feel distinctive, with the formidable Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) starring as the tyrannical villain.
Gladiator showcases the brutal, unbelievable violence of the gladiatorial ring and the power of the Roman elite, whilst showing the tyranny and brutality endorsing it. It contains those typical tropes for sword-and-sandal films, whilst observing core ancient values of family an honour. Gladiator is credited as the film that reinvigorated interest in the historical epic, and understandably so.
The Prince of Egypt (1998)
dir. Brenda Chapman, Simon Wells & Steve Hickner
The Prince of Egypt revels in ancient Egyptian grandeur while guiding the audiences on a moral journey of one man—Moses. Following the Book of Exodus, Prince of Egypt depicts two tight-knit brothers whose journeys fork and come into conflict. As mass enslavement of Jewish people occurs, Moses and Rameses showcase different types of leadership that parallel their entirely different beginnings (one being born a slave and the other born into royalty).
The Prince of Egypt illustrates the fantastical nature of ancient Egypt, but doesn’t shy away from the brutality that is foundational to this world. Pulling on the original story, the family-to-enemies theme ignites clear moral messaging (the right, and the wrong), and depicts the classicism that the ancient world is known for.
The Prince of Egypt shines for its retelling of the biblical tale in a format accessible to all, without shadowing those darker elements that consume the visual language of the ancient past. As a musical, it is completely different to the romanticised account in Pompeii or the suffering shown in The Trojan Woman. Yet it remains a dramatic enough retelling to seat itself within the must-sees for films depicting ancient history.
The Eagle (2011)
dir. Kevin Macdonald
Roman history recalls grand temples, gladiatorial rings, and swaths of red. Yet, Roman Britain is something entirely different. A new visuality for Roman history on screen, it showcases the edge of Roman occupation; think British wetland, dense forestry encroached by military attire, and the Roman eagle motif.
The Eagle follows Channing Tatum as a Roman soldier attempting to find an eagle emblem lost in the depths of Roman Britain, where his father’s Legion mysteriously went missing. Tatum proves to be a compelling figure, whose family values and desire for an honourable legacy lead him to the edges of the Empire, beyond the Scottish border. It follows the same formula of many sword-and-sandal films before it, with a central protagonist enduring a journey along with a side character who helps to soften them (in this case, Jamie Bell). However, thanks largely to its setting and aesthetic, The Eagle proves itself unique.
The Trojan Women (1971)
dir. Michael Cacoyannis
Based upon Euripides’ tragedy of the same name, The Trojan Women focuses on women awaiting their fate after the siege of Troy. Primarily following Queen Hecuba of Troy (Vanessa Redgrave), it remains a rarity for centering multiple women within the ancient past. Depicting one day on the beaches of Troy, The Trojan Women is a raw and brutal expression of the women behind-the-scenes of the glorified battle sequences and quests–the ones left behind. Hence, The Trojan Women rightfully adds necessary variety in portraying the ancient past, one that removes itself from the realm of male-dominated historical fantasy. The film is little more than edited close ups and medium shots of dramatic dialogue on different settings of the beach (by the shore, the caves, and so on), yet the performance and mass of veiled women instil an inescapable feeling of being bound by the whims of higher men, like Emperors or Kings. Suffering is seemingly unavoidable for protagonists in all of these stories.
These films continue to showcase new stories of individuals of ancient history and finding their voices, while vividly bringing antiquity to life. The source materials and previous works of film and TV are being developed on to create more diverse and varied stories of these civilisations. In continuing these films and their fantastical appeal, integrating new voices seems inevitable to maintain the appeal of these ancient stories and the visual expanse that comes with it.
Words by Annabel Smith
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