One of the clear lessons of history is this: movie audiences love historical dramas. We're not so big on history itself necessarily, but that's okay because neither are most of the historical dramas that find their way to the screen. This is all the more true when the historical period in question is so remote from us in time that even the historians' knowledge about what life then was like is relatively sketchy. Like any good storytellers, filmmakers are more than happy to fill in the missing details from whole cloth.
A perennial favorite among historical settings for movies is Ancient Rome. It's been oddly absent from the screen for a while, but "Gladiator," which is currently playing at your local multiplex, has broken the drought. If you're curious to see how earlier filmmakers have handled this fascinating era, look for these titles on home video.
"The Sign of the Cross" (1932). One of the most venerable of Hollywood's historical interpreters was Cecil B. DeMille. His specialty was biblical subject matter, which he used in a very clever way. While telling, on one level, a morally uplifting tale of right triumphing over wrong, DeMille would freely lace his scenes with scantily clad women and lurid behavior. When the censors called him on it, he would argue persuasively that it was necessary to show the depths of depravity in order to celebrate the superiority of the pious. DeMille was therefore able to maintain a wholesome image while filling the screen with the kind of imagery that keeps box office receipts healthy. "The Sign of the Cross" tells the story of the persecution of early Christians by the notorious Roman emporer Nero. The inimitable Charles Laughton plays Nero with his customary gusto. The sex appeal is provided by Claudette Colbert as Nero's promiscuous wife. Two years later, Colbert would play Cleopatra for DeMille in another epic production.
"Quo Vadis?" (1951). Henryk Sienkiewicz's novel has been a favorite of filmmakers right from the beginning. It had been adapted for the screen three different times in the silent film era alone. The most elaborate screen version is this MGM epic. Produced in the grand style that was the hallmark of MGM in those days, it features a powerhouse cast and extravagant production values, fueled by a huge budget. The story revolves around a Roman general (Robert Taylor) and his love for a dispossessed young woman (Deborah Kerr) whose people have been conquered by Rome. She's a devout Christian, however, and wants nothing to do with a pagan Roman. The show is stolen by Peter Ustinov as Nero, in the only performance of the role that can seriously rival that of Laughton.
"The Fall of the Roman Empire" (1964). Focusing on the beginning of the decline of the Roman Empire following the death of Emporer Marcus Aurelius, this is primarily the story of Aurelius's son, Commodus (Christopher Plummer). Drunk with power, the egotistical Commodus makes too many enemies and steps on too many people to hold the Empire together. It is up to Aurelius's protégé, Livius (Stephen Boyd), to put a stop to the madness.
"Spartacus" (1960). This dramatic retelling of the Roman slave revolt of 73 B.C. is generally regarded as the best film yet made about Ancient Rome. With such a concentration of talent behind it, it could hardly have been otherwise. Kirk Douglas, who produced the picture and played the title role, assembled a first rate cast including Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Charles Laughton, and Peter Ustinov. The literate script was written by Dalton Trumbo, marking his return to screenwriting after having been blacklisted by the industry for alleged Communist ties. Anthony Mann was originally hired as director, but was fired by Douglas early on. Mann was replaced by Stanley Kubrick, with whom Douglas had worked on "Paths of Glory" (1957). Kubrick was never entirely satisfied with the film - he always preferred to work on a project from the very beginning, helping to shape the script - but even so the film bears the unmistakable Kubrick touch of class.
Rome, they say, wasn't built in a single day. Neither can we cover the many films set during the long epoch of its empire in a single column. Next week we'll take a look at some additional cinematic renderings of Ancient Rome.