When a civilization is as remote in time as that of Ancient Rome, there is a limit to how much we can actually know about its people. One thing we do believe we know, however, is that they thought big. This is evidenced not only in the fact that they managed to conquer the known world, but also in the sheer size of the edifices they left behind to mark their passing.
The Roman Empire, in short, was spectacular, and there are few things that filmmakers love more than spectacle. As we saw last week, the currently playing "Gladiator" is only the most recent in a long line of movies to fill the screen with the gaudy pageant that was Ancient Rome. Here are some additional Roman spectacles to look for on home video.
"Julius Caesar" (1953). One way of conceptualizing just how long ago these events happened is to realize that they were already ancient history when William Shakespeare wrote about them in the Elizabethan Era. Shakespeare's immortal drama about the intrigues leading up to the assassination of Caesar and the fallout from it remains one of the most penetrating examinations of political hardball and the price of power ever written. The definitive movie adaptation is writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz's lavish production. The casting of John Gielgud, one of the theater's great Shakespeare interpreters, as Cassius was a safe move, but producer John Houseman shook up the theatrical world by also casting Marlon Brando as Marc Antony. Brando had been so convincing as the inarticulate Stanley Kowalski in "A Streetcar Named Desire" that many believed him incapable of the elevated diction required by Shakespearean dialogue. Brando came through like a champ, however, vindicating Houseman and Mankiewicz's instincts.
"Ben-Hur" (1959). We can't ignore the fact that the period of the Roman Empire coincides, in part, with the lifetime of Jesus Christ. Certainly filmmakers have not ignored it. Films that center entirely on the life of Jesus constitute, in my mind, a whole separate category unto themselves, but there are also a number of films that focus primarily on Roman culture while making tangential references to the significance of Jesus. Of these, the most famous is undoubtedly "Ben-Hur." Although Lew Wallace referred to his original novel as "A Tale of the Christ," the main character is Judah Ben-Hur, the heir of a wealthy Jewish family, who is enslaved by the Romans after being falsely accused of attempting to assassinate a high Roman official. Although much of the story is shaped by Ben-Hur's gradual understanding of the meaning of Jesus's life, the Nazarene himself appears only fleetingly in the film. By the way, although the later version starring Charlton Heston is more familiar, keep in mind that the 1926 silent version, also available on video, is well worth seeing as well. In some ways, it's even more spectacular than the remake.
"Fellini Satyricon" (1969). One of the most shocking of all films about Ancient Rome is actually based on a work written at that time. It is believed that the "Satyricon" of Gaius Petronius Arbiter was an attempt to satirize the debaucheries of Roman society during the reign of Nero. Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini chose to dramatize this work as a way of indirectly satirizing what he saw as the corrupt excesses of his own time. In particular, Fellini seems to have been expressing his revulsion at the youth culture so prevalent in the late Sixties and early Seventies. Fellini makes no particular effort to stick to the contents of the original work, which exists only in fragmentary form in any case. What he does present us with is an absolutely unflinching look at the appalling saturnalian excesses of which Nero's Rome was capable. His characters plumb the depths of licentiousness and sexual promiscuity with a casualness that leaves most viewers numb by the time Fellini unfolds his incredible conclusion. Obviously, this film is not for all viewers, and certainly not for children.
The films we've looked at so far present Ancient Rome in a more or less straightforwardly dramatic manner. It should come as no surprise, however, that comic filmmakers have also been attracted to the pomp and spectacle of the period. Next week we'll look at the movies' portrayal of the lighter side of the Roman Empire.