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Tansy Rayner Roberts

Men of Yore

December 6th, 2009 at 9:10

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This article about a decade of shitty films based on classical legends (ie failing to capitalise on the awesomeness that was Gladiator) entertained me greatly, and got me thinking. I was still a Classics postgrad when the first wave of post-Gladiator films (Troy! Alexander!) were due out, and I remember the excitement and the buzz we felt about them, looking up pre-publicity (ooh Brad Pitt, okay that’s weird, Sean Bean as Odysseus, that’s awesome, Orlando Bloom as Paris, PERFECT, omg what did they do to Colin Farrell’s hair…?) and so on.

But then the movies came out and… yes. Disappointing. Not because of a lack of production values, but because the script took them too far from the actual story. Messing with the myths, retelling them in new images, is a wonderful and perfectly authentic thing to do – my favourite Trojan story is Euripides’ Helen which posits the theory she never went to Troy but hopped off the ship in Egypt en route and spent 10 years hiding out there – but if you’re going to claim to make a movie of the Iliad (not the Trojan cycle, the ILIAD) then you’d better have a bloody good reason for letting Agamemnon and Menelaus die, and Paris live.

Some of us were only in that cinema to see Paris die, dudes.

Also, if you’re going to portray Achilles as a mighty shiny hero type instead of a whiny little psychopath, you are missing out on the interesting part of the story!

The thing that most amused me about the article was the constant search for a collective term for pre-medieval historical adventure movies. Men of Yore, Men in Skirts… really, has ‘sword and sandal’ fallen out of our cultural language? Really?

What the article did remind me of was a blog project have been sort-of planning for a long time. Back in the day, I did a travelling lecture on trashy Roman imperial women, sort of the pop culture version of my PhD thesis, which was quite entertaining and popular. One of the elements I used was to talk about how the historical characters were portrayed in 20th century film – Messalina, Agrippina and Poppaea in particular appeared in many movies, often only in a fleeting appearance as a representation of Roman decadence vs Christian morality.

At least I think that’s how they appeared. Because I haven’t actually seen any of those movies. I am sadly lacking in a proper sword and sandal education – well, when it comes to those epics set in and around Ancient Rome, anyway.

The Roman movies I have seen are mostly the comedies of the 1960′s and 70′s – like Up Pompeii, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and Carry on Cleo. And something I always noticed about those is that there are a lot of odd myths about Roman women that got picked up and repeated in various films/tv shows with no historical basis. The one that always bugs me is the one about eunuchs guarding the Vestal Virgins. Seriously. They weren’t an Arabian harem! The Romans did have a few eunuchs, but they were only associated with that weird foreign women’s cult, not the main focal point of state religion for women…

Ahem.

My point is that I know quite a lot about Roman women, and I’ve always wanted to research and write a series of observances about how they are portrayed in 20th century cinema. Those crazy Romans, you know? In the old days when I thought I could be the next Maria Wyke I thought of it as a book or thesis, but now I think it’s likely to be a series of blog posts. I’ve even started hunting the local library catalogue to see which ones they might have. Tracking down the more obscure films might challenge my Amazon.com kinda-boycott, but I’m bouncing at the thought of educating myself enough that I can actually have Opinions on the body of work that is “Ancient Rome in Hollywood.”

The fact that they are basically ‘men of yore’ movies only makes me more interested in the portrayal of the Roman women in those films (possibly with a counterpoint of ‘foreign’ aka non-Roman women, though it’s the chicks in stolas that I really care about).

So yes, there might be a few more crazy Romans in my blog posts this summer. And now I have told you about it, I actually have to do it. Hooray!

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2 Responses to “Men of Yore”

  1. SK Says:

    I don’t think it’s just women in classical films, I think there’s very few very strong women in films “period”.

  2. tansyrr Says:

    SK: this is very true, though far too large a topic for one woman’s blog to cover.

    What interests me about the portrayal of ancient Roman women in film is not the lack of strong roles (after all Roman women are just as marginalised in history itself) but the way that they exist in the stories and what they represent. I think that Roman women are mostly used in biblical epic to represent decadence and “sin”, which is ironic because in Roman culture itself, it was non-Roman women that represented the same things.

    But yes I can’t really justify my pet theories until I watch the actual films…

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