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Six authors bring to life overlapping stories of patricians and slaves, warriors and politicians, villains and heroes who cross each others' path during Pompeii's fiery end.
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Ave Historia: An irreverent look at historical fiction today: books trends, historical tidbits, and random tangents

Hollywood Does Rome: A Report Card

November 4, 2011

Tags: ben hur, cleopatra, quo vadis, caligula, spartacus, gladiator, troy, centurion, the eagle, spartacus gods of the arena, movies

With my latest book finally sent off to the presses, I've got some time on my hands – and what better way to kill it than watching movies about my favorite time period? Hollywood has churned out quite a few films with ancient Rome as a setting, far more than I can review here, but I devoted a weekend to some of the most notorious. I've already done reviews of “I, Claudius”, “Rome”, and “Spartacus: Blood and Sand”, so I left those out. Ditto anything from the fifties with Victor Mature (shudder). But here's a viewing list of ten movies that will take you back to ancient times.


Ben Hur
The Charlton Heston classic about a wealthy Jew sold into slavery, clawing his way out via chariot-racing fame to seek revenge on his enemies, and learning at the crucifixion of a certain never-quite-seen criminal that forgiveness really is the better way to go. An old movie that ages surprisingly well, despite the sometimes creaky message stuff about Christianity. Say whatever you like about his politics: Charlton Heston in his youth was a serious hunk, able to administer a single hard kiss like a badge of possession. He does an equally good job at playing hard and vengeful – see the vicious stare-down he conducts with a Roman general despite being chained to an oar. And the iconic chariot race is still just about the most thrilling sports scenes ever filmed. Watch it here for some serious shivers. B+


The only sports moment ever to beat this one is 2004 Red Sox-Yankees.


Cleopatra
An old movie that doesn't age quite so well – I admit I couldn't make it through this classic about Mark Antony and Cleopatra. Elizabeth Taylor looks stunning in cat's eye liner, but if I want to see her rough-housing with Richard Burton I'd rather watch them in “Taming of the Shrew,” which had a better script. I admit the woman knew how to make an entrance, though – both Cleopatra and Elizabeth Taylor. Watch her swan into Rome here. Otherwise, C-


Not only is "Cleopatra" a bad movie, it also gave us a generation of cat's eye liner. Ms. Taylor, you might look sensational in it, but no one else does.


Quo Vadis
I admit, I fell asleep during “Quo Vadis.” I blame the starring performance of Robert “Stick of Wood” Taylor – put him next to Michaelangelo's statue of David, and by comparison David is overacting. All I really remember was Peter Ustinov camping it up as Nero, and his wife Poppaea in some seriously fabulous jewelry. Grade: Incomplete.


I'll take the leopard and the emeralds, please.


Caligula
There are only two reasons to watch this piece of crap: to get titillated by all the orgy stuff, and to wonder how a movie this bad managed to get actors like Helen Mirren, John Gielgud, and Peter O'Toole. Technically it's a movie about the life of depraved Emperor Caligula. In reality, it's porn with a Roman setting and a lot of Oscar winning actors who look like they're counting the minutes till they can take home their paycheck and shovel this movie to the very bottom of their resumes. F


I can't post any pictures of "Caligula," because they're mostly X-rated. So here's Peter O'Toole in a much better movie called "Lawrence of Arabia." Do yourself a favor and see that one instead of "Caligula."


Spartacus
Hard to believe a movie about a gladiator revolt could be so slow-paced, and I mean that as a compliment. The Starz remake of Spartacus amped up the sex, the nudity, and the violence, but this Kubrick classic remains the gold standard: a moving story that takes time to build its characters and make you care for them. Kirk Douglas could play wounded inarticulate warriors like no one else, and he's backed by a gorgeous array of secondary characters – the greedy trainer, the sympathetic slave girl, the ruthless senator, the nameless gladiator who is the first to turn on his audience. The battle scene with the advancing checkerboard of Roman legions still brings me out in a cold sweat, and the ending always makes me choke up. A+


Kirk Douglas, effortlessly heroic as gladiator/rebel. Sigh.


Gladiator
The Oscar-winning epic that launched Russell Crowe as a superstar. I have mixed feelings about this one. Some historical inaccuracies I can take – Marcus Aurelius was not murdered by his son; Commodus died in his bath instead of the arena; the gladiator armor was all inaccurate – but ok, those are changes I can live with. The terribly hoky bit about returning Rome to a Republic, though, is where you lost me. The Republic by this point had been dead for over a hundred years, and it wasn't coming back just because Russell Crowe said so. Still, Crowe carries this movie along, making it work despite everything – he's so wounded, so silent, so effective, and his Colosseum fights will raise the hair on your neck every time. B+


No caption needed. Just a napkin to wipe off the drool.


Troy
I know, I know – “Troy” is about ancient Greece, not Rome, and a semi-mythical ancient Greece at that. But it has that same big-budget ancient-world epic-movie feel, so I included it here. On first watching, I thought “Troy” was quite good – Eric Bana is such a powerful Hector, Sean Bean such a perfect Odysseus, and a couple of shots like the panoramic view of the Greek ships with the painted eyes on their hulls winging across the sea is enough to take your breath away. On second viewing, however, I realized that “Troy” kind of sucks. The casting is good (except Diane Kruger, who might be beautiful enough to be Helen, but is far too mopey and self-deprecating to be a daughter of Zeus), but the city of Troy looks like it was decorated by Pottery Barn, and the whole plot falls apart after Hector's death. Because let's face it, there's no real way to stick a happy ending on the Iliad: Troy burns up, most of the characters die, the villains like Agamemnon get away scott-free (at least until the Oresteia) and there's no real way for Hollywood to fix that. And the Josh Groban pop song they stuck on the end of a very good soundtrack for the end credits is just unforgiveable: “Homer vs. American Idol.” Homer lost. C-


Eric Bana as a somber and studly Hector, getting ready to die. After that, the movie's pretty much all downhill.


Centurion
A lean, efficient little action movie that just happens to be set in Roman-era Britain. A ragged band of survivors from a massacred legion tries to make it back to Roman territory, getting picked off one by one by a team of blue-painted savages. The fight scenes are fun, and so is Olga Kurylenko who models an attractive line of Barbarian Chic as she leads the team hunting down the heroes. And Michael Fassbender is just as hunky in a breastplate as he is in Mr. Rochester sideburns. A solid B.


Announcing Calvin Klein's 2011 Barbarian Chic line: frosted hair and blue face paint, topped by a dead animal skin.


The Eagle
Another lean little action movie with a Roman setting – not sure if it's supposed to be related to “Centurion” or not, but it has the same gritty landscape, choppy fights, and grim grimy men. This time we see a young officer heading north of Hadrian's Wall to find the eagle standard lost there by its legion, which included his father. Jamie Bell is effective as the hero's slave; you're not quite sure where his loyalty lies, and neither is the hero. Could have used a dash of campy fun like Olga Kurylenko with her chic blue eyeliner and layered barbarian furs as designed by Calvin Klein, but the action is exciting and the final battle in the stream quite moving. I'd give it a B, but that got downgraded because a horse dies. I can watch people die in movies, but not animals. C+


If it stars a cute guy in a muscled cuirass, I'm there.


Spartacus: Gods of the Arena
Starz's prequel to the entertainingly trashy “Spartacus: Blood and Sand.” Lucy Lawless is always fun as the scheming Lucretia, and she gets not just one but several threesomes over the course of this six-parter. Dustin Clare is the gladiator hero before Spartacus is on the scene, and his cocky swagger makes him more fun than Sparty, who never really did anything but mope around being noble. Plenty of plotting, nudity and gore, and possibly the most wince-inducing sex scene ever – the moment when a gladiator is ordered to have sex with a slave girl to entertain the dinner guests, and she just happens to be the wife of his best friend. (And really, who wants to see a live sex show after dinner? Haven't these people ever heard of coffee and dessert?) The Starz Spartacus ain't Kubrick, but it's trashy good fun. A-


Orgies, poisonings, and fights to the death: all the things Starz does best.


Bottom line: if your Netflix queue is running empty and you fancy a trip to ancient Rome, there are enough flavors of movie to satisfy anything you're in the mood for. Though HBO's "Rome" and BBC's "I, Claudius" still remain the best.