|Andy Whitfield stars in “Spartacus: Blood and Sand’’ (2010). (Kirsty Griffin/ Starz)|
Do as the Romans did, then overdo it again
With “Centurion’’ slashing its way into select cinemas nationwide, now is as good a time as any to revisit some movies and TV shows set in ancient Rome and examine the recently energized, post-“Gladiator’’ wave.
The 1,100-year empire has inspired great works of entertainment from Britain, Italy, and the United States. These include costly, overblown epics; Fellini fantasies; and, arguably, a few of the finest television series ever made. Rome is the go-to era for stories of crime, debauchery, and power, for films that push the technical boundaries of the art. But the most intriguing movies and television shows set in ancient Rome tend to be those that attempt less historical accuracy and use the era as a dark mirror to our own times. In “Titus Andronicus,’’ written around 1590, Shakespeare likened the political atmosphere of old Rome to “a wilderness of tigers.’’ But the line could also describe Shakespeare’s era, or Washington’s political churn.
When TV’s new Spartacus hears that he’s destined for “great and unfortunate things,’’ he wonders — as Kirk Douglas’s forceful, forthright 1960 hero never did — if he is strong enough to face his future. He is wise to look over his shoulder before he sets out.
Gaudy, gloriously overdressed, and underwhelming, this leaden spectacle, directed by Joseph K. Mankiewicz, helped bankrupt its studio, 20th Century Fox, and sink the sword-and-sandal genre for more than 30 years. Production costs soared to $44 million and stretched over four years, but give the studio credit for a witty sales pitch: “The movie the world has been waiting for!’’ Starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, the 243-minute spectacle became more notable as gossip-column and cinema-studies fodder than as great entertainment. Despite the Taylor-Burton real-life romance (both were married to other people at the time), the spectacle unfolds with a disappointing lack of passion; only Rex Harrison, as the spurned Julius Caesar, conveys the full impact of Cleopatra’s fatal allure. Earlier Cleopatras — Claudette Colbert, Vivien Leigh — reveled more convincingly in their power to build and bring down nations.
I, CLAUDIUS (1976)
Rude, racy, and raw, this 13-episode BBC miniseries, first shown on public television here in 1978, invented a secret history for Rome’s first four emperors: Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius. Historical dramas and nighttime soap operas haven’t been the same since. The star of the show: Empress Livia (Sian Phillips), who stage-managed Augustus’s reign and paved the way for her favorite son’s succession by murdering all rivals, sometimes in the cradle. Though historian Edward Gibbon described Claudius as one of Rome’s stupidest and most destructive rulers, novelist Robert Graves, whose works inspired “I, Claudius,’’ creates him as the unsung hero of the empire, a shy scholar who hides behind his birth injury (he’s lame) and stammer to avoid the malice within his own horrible family. Derek Jacobi (Claudius) and John Hurt (as creepy Caligula) made their careers here. The 2008 special-edition DVD includes “The Epic That Never Was,’’ a 1965 BBC documentary on the making of Josef von Sternberg’s unfinished film version of “I, Claudius,’’ with 25 minutes of footage shot by cinematographer Curt Siodmak. Graves himself had adapted his novel for the screen; the cast included Flora Robson, Merle Oberon, and a very young Emlyn Williams as Caligula. As Claudius, Charles Laughton appears uneasy, even shaky, as he delivers his lines. He was said to be suffering from a lack of confidence in his acting. The film was called off when Oberon was injured in an automobile accident.
Ridley Scott’s rousing and hugely successful (worldwide gross of $457 million) epic reinvigorated the genre and went on to earn five Academy Awards, including best picture and best actor. The film’s opening sequence, a thrilling winter battle set in second-century Germania, introduced the tough yet soulful hero, military man Maximus (Russell Crowe, at his brutal best). The film’s portrait of Marcus Aurelius (a regal Richard Harris), contemplating both his own death and the fragile state of the empire, promises a more thoughtful story than the arena-rock, gladiator fights that follow. “How will the world speak my name in years to come,’’ asks the emperor, the leader of the world’s only superpower. “Will I be known as the philosopher? The warrior? The tyrant?’’ Good questions, apparently forgotten while Crowe slays tigers and hacks off people’s heads.
ROME (HBO, 2005-08)
Think of this highly fictionalized, gorgeously detailed HBO series as the hidden life of Rome before “I, Claudius.’’ Key players include general-turned-dictator Julius Caesar (Ciarán Hinds) and his she-wolf of a niece Atia (Polly Walker). Season 2, curtailed by network budget cuts, still managed to capture an eccentric, otherworldly Cleopatra (Lyndsey Marshal) and the battle for power between Mark Anthony (James Purefoy) and Atia’s well-coached son, Octavian (Simon Woods). Even better was the human drama of two legionnaires (Kevin McKidd and Ray Stevenson), veterans of Caesar’s northern campaigns. Rewarded for outstanding service, they find that their families cannot cope with wealth, high status, or the lies they’ve told while their soldiers were away. (Available on DVD and Blu-ray)
SPARTACUS: BLOOD AND SAND (Starz, 2010)
A Post-it-sized pitch (“Spartacus done like ‘300’ ’’) sold this cheerfully over-the-top, fictionalized reimagining of the Spartacus legend. As the rebel hero (a soldier turned gladiator in this version), Welsh-born Andy Whitfield has a Clint Eastwood squint, a slow-burning fuse, and a bad bargain with his hated owner, Batiatus (John Hannah). When he isn’t swearing a blue streak, Batiatus promises Spartacus a chance to be reunited with his wife, who also has been enslaved. The producers — including Sam Raimi — break new ground by focusing on how the anxious, striving middle class (Batiatus and his adoring, scheming wife, played by Lucy Lawless) lose sleep over debts, social status, and fertility issues, yet are thoughtlessly cruel to their slaves. And those slaves aren’t the faceless, nameless background players of previous epics; they’re the resentful, beaten-down, terrorized majority who finally realize that “the dream that was Rome’’ doesn’t include them. (Season 1 will be available on DVD and Blu-ray Sept. 21. A six-part prequel is expected to air in January.)
THE EAGLE (2011)
Coming from Focus Features, this one is based on Rosemary Sutcliffe’s young adult novel series, “The Eagle of the Ninth,’’ first published in 1955. It’s based on archeological evidence suggesting that Rome’s Ninth Legion disappeared after a perilous march into northern Britain. (And yes, the same Ninth Legion is at the center of Neil Marshall’s new film, “Centurion.’’) In the 1977 BBC series titled “The Eagle of the Ninth’’ (still unavailable on VHS or DVD), Anthony Higgins played Marcus Flavius Aquila, the soldier son of the lost legion’s commander. Wounded in battle, tortured by rumors of his father’s fate, Marcus and his British slave undertake a journey north, seeking to solve the mystery of the Ninth and retake the symbol of Roman power: a golden eagle. Don’t worry, there’s action, too — the book, a coming-of-age story, has sword fights, explosions, wild chases on horseback about every 10 pages — the hero’s even got a trained wolf to help him. Producers of the BBC series made analogies between the aggrieved, unconquerable Roman-era Caledonians — always a hot historical subject there — and Native Americans. “The Eagle,’’ filmed on location in Scotland and Hungary, is due out in February from director Kevin Macdonald (“The Last King of Scotland’’) and producer Duncan Kenworthy, who both say they thrilled to Sutcliffe’s novels as boys. Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell, and Mark Strong star.
Ralph Fiennes makes his directorial debut with a modern-dress version of Shakespeare’s tragedy of a Roman general, a one-man war machine rejected by his countrymen in peacetime. Big mistake, Rome. Coriolanus seeks refuge with his former enemy, Aufidius, and plots revenge against the city — until Coriolanus’s formidable mother, Volumnia, hatches her own plan to stop him. Filmed in Bosnia, the movie outfits its cast with contemporary combat gear and weapons. Fiennes, as the prideful title hero, reprises a role he played onstage in London and New York. Vanessa Redgrave is Volumnia and Gerard Butler, no stranger to action roles, plays Aufidius. A 1995 film adaptation of Shakespeare’s most brutal Roman play, “Titus Andronicus,’’ directed by Julie Taymor, earned critical praise and an Academy Award for best original score. Fiennes’s project, too, has aroused intense interest, but the movie won’t debut until the Belgrade International Film Festival next March, and no US release has yet been set.
Justine Elias can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this article misstated the first name of historian Edward Gibbon.