Penelope's Weavings and Unpickings

Archive for the ‘films’ Category

Pompeii (2014), dir. Paul W.S. Anderson

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on July 22, 2014

It’s a couple of months now since I went to see Pompeii at the cinema with a very patient and generous friend, but I have been running around the place giving talks about Augustus so much since that I’ve only just had time to sit down and write about it. In fact, though, there is a lot I don’t need to say, because plenty of other Classics bloggers have already put fingers to keyboard. So I will start off by building on what they have already written.

Helen Lovatt in Pompeii: The Curious Case of the Body Casts discusses the prominence of the casts of Pompeii’s victims in the film, which begins with them and also closes with its romantic lead couple being transformed into casts as they kiss at the end. Helen notes that the casts have always been prominent in Pompeian receptions because of their apparent ability to bring us face to face with the real people of the ancient world in a way that mere artefacts, buildings and texts cannot, and cites some recent examples of the phenomenon (the British Museum exhibition, a documentary and a song). But she also says herself that she isn’t really into swords and sandals films, and I think if she had seen a few more she would have been able to slot what Pompeii (2014) does with them into a wider nexus of cinematic appearances. In fact, the device of positioning a film about Pompeii as a story about the casts ‘come to life’ is such a hoary old cliché that it is used to comic effect in the film version of Up Pompeii, where the regular characters all turn into ‘casts’ at the moment of the eruption, with some of them deliberately choosing the poses in which they wish to be preserved for posterity. Up Pompeii then ends by transitioning to the modern day, where tourists look at those same casts and wonder what the people they represent were like.

One thing which this use of the casts has in common with Pompeii (2014) is the way it plays upon, or at least does not bother to correct, the popular misconception that the Pompeian casts are like fossilised remains created naturally in the course of the eruption, rather than plaster casts made by archaeologists. This idea is so widespread that it’s a plot point in the Doctor Who episode Fires of Pompeii, where the Doctor comments that the effects of the Pyroviles mean that “The people of Pompeii are turning to stone before the volcano erupts.” And I do see why – coming to the site of Pompeii without any knowledge of how the casts were made, but with an awareness of the concept of fossilisation and a hazy idea of the difference between palaeontology and archaeology, it’s an easy mistake to make. More importantly, it is a very romantic mistake, which I think is what really gives it its staying power even when people have had the opportunity to learn the truth. The idea of the volcano itself preserving the bodies of people even as it destroys them, literally freezing them in time at the very moment of death is potent indeed – much more so, I think, than the prosaic and slightly morbid reality of cavities in the ash layer, funnels and plaster of Paris.

Peter Kruschwitz in Pompeii 3D says, yes, it’s historically inaccurate, and yes, it’s a rip-off of a whole bunch of existing ancient world and disaster movies, but more seriously it is badly acted, badly plotted and a wasted opportunity to make the most of what could have been a really exciting and engaging story. I agree wholeheartedly with this, and am particularly sorry that the almost-half-a-million people who went to see the Pompeii exhibition at the British Museum last year got nothing better than this to carry forward their interest and enthusiasm. Those who are interested in this latest film’s roots in earlier cinematic takes on the destruction of Pompeii will be well served by this page.

Virginia Campbell, who was asked to comment on how important accuracy would be for the film before it had even been released, and thus before she had the chance to see it, argues in Pompeii and circumstance that accuracy isn’t necessarily that important for most moviegoers, and that the story of Pompeii is capable of fascinating and compelling without needing to be accurate in every detail. I’m guessing that Virginia would agree with Peter that it’s all the more pity, then, that in practice this film neither fascinated nor compelled. I’d also add that while she is right that total accuracy of the kind academics tend to yearn for isn’t necessarily what most film audiences want (indeed, it would probably put them off), non-expert viewers do still seem to talk about accuracy issues a hell of a lot when they discuss films with a historical setting. The message boards, ‘goofs’ section and user reviews on this film’s IMDb page are full of it, and every single professional review I’ve seen seems to have felt obliged to discuss the film’s accuracy too. I don’t think historical accuracy would have saved this movie if the standard of acting, story-telling, directing etc had remained otherwise unchanged, but I do think it is something film audiences look for and judge movies on when they present themselves as grounded in real historical events.

As if to prove my point, Caroline Lawrence offered a list of 12 Pompeii Movie Bloopers, which evidently reflects what she felt her readership (mainly young fans of ancient Rome) would be interested in. Along similar lines, Juliette Harrisson in Pompeii (dir. Paul W.S. Anderson, 2014) found it in her heart to love the film for its utter bonkersness, but also did a great job of unpicking some of the weirdly inexplicable things it has done with the historical material, and pointing out where it has rehashed familiar clichés from a whole range of other ancient-world and fantasy films as well. Juliette’s film and TV reviews are always fantastic value, and I am very glad indeed that she has given Pompeii a good going-over so that I don’t have to!

That said, I will add comments of my own on four aspects of the film which either haven’t been covered at all in the reviews above, or have been touched on only briefly:

1. Londinium. So frustrating! What Pompeii gives us is a beautifully accurate representation of Roman Londinium, complete with CGI fly-over… exactly as it was in the third century, i.e. about two hundred years after this film is supposed to be set. That’s like doing a biopic about Queen Elizabeth I, but putting her amongst the streets and buildings of 18th-century London without any comment or explanation. I mean, don’t get me wrong – historical stories can of course be successfully translated to other periods, as e.g. the BBC’s Sherlock shows. But there is a difference between doing that carefully and knowingly, and just getting the historical setting wrong. Roman-world films have, of course, always suffered from this, with my favourite and most reliable diagnostic being the Bust Of An Emperor Who Hasn’t Reigned Yet (which Pompeii also has). It reflects a view of ancient history as all happening at once in a single anachronistic melting-pot, which I think also affects the medieval world, but which no-one would dream of applying to any period of European history after about 1500 – and it takes quite some unpicking when students arrive at University.

2. Pompeians as somehow ‘not Roman’, and under the iron thumb of nasty, brutish military generals sent from Rome to keep them under control. This is complete and utter hog-wash for anywhere in Italy in the AD 70s, and double hog-wash for any city which had had a colony of Roman citizens imposed on it at any point in its history, as Pompeii did after its defeat in the Social War. In fact, the Pompeian elite (just like that of any other Italian town) had been busy putting up buildings which directly imitated those in Rome pretty much ever since, in a sort of ‘keep up with the Joneses’ move to demonstrate how much like the inhabitants of the fashionable capital they were. The complete erasure of all this in favour of the ‘nasty imperialist Romans’ trope obviously reflects the long history of using Rome on film as a cipher for modern imperialists, and particularly the British (as demonstrated by Kiefer Sutherland’s fake British accent), which is apparently so powerful that it has to be adhered to even when historically completely out of place. It is annoying, because it perpetuates myths and misunderstandings about how the Roman empire actually operated, which again have to be unpicked at University level. But actually here it is so obviously inappropriate for this historical and geographical setting, that I wonder if the trope has to some extent managed to undermine itself by ringing false and encouraging viewers to ask questions about what being ‘Roman’ or ‘not Roman’ even means which it doesn’t normally set off when it is used in (for example) Roman Britain? Certainly, I notice that one of the commenters on Caroline Lawrence’s blog post was obviously a bit puzzled by it, and wondered if it really applied in 1st-century AD Pompeii. If other viewers also found themselves raising questions about Roman identity and the relationship between Rome and its subjects as a result of the way the trope is mis-applied in this film, that’s all to the good.

3. The idea that Cassia’s father, Severus, should be hoping to secure imperial support so that he can build aqueducts, circuses and the like at Pompeii as an ‘investment’. Lol no! Ancient urban elites built public buildings as an investment, all right, but not a financial one – that is an entirely modern, capitalist concept. Instead, they paid for the buildings out of their own money and then gave them to the local community for free in order to win prestige and political support. They did not hope to get rich out of economic rents generated by the buildings themselves, which is very definitely what is suggested here. I think this error annoys me disproportionately as an urbanist – it’s no more egregious than the many others which Juliette and Caroline have already pointed out, and only adds to their number as yet another way in which the creative team behind this film have utterly failed to understand how and why the Roman world is actually different from our own. But annoy me it does. Also, Pompeii already had a perfectly good aqueduct, which all evidence suggests was functioning nicely in the run-up to the eruption, and there is no way it would ever had acquired a circus, since the only cities in Italy which ever got one were those used as imperial capitals – Rome, Milan and Ravenna.

4. The destruction scenes at the end. Yeah, these were inaccurate too, but this time in ways I actually really liked. They built on a lot of the tropes already established in earlier versions of the destruction of Pompeii, right from the fireballs and falling masonry of Briullov’s The Last Day of Pompeii to the full spread of previous film versions, while adding some great new motifs of their own. I particularly liked the sight of ships from the harbour being washed up along Pompeii’s streets, which I’m pretty sure must have been inspired by footage of recent disasters such as the Japanese tsunami in 2011. This is the sort of blurring of the lines between ancient and modern which I think films about the ancient world should do – drawing on equivalent modern situations to humanise ancient events and make them feel immediate and relatable for the audience.

In fact, the contrast between my reactions to the inaccuracies I’ve moaned about in points 2 and 3 and the treatment of the eruption in point 4 helps me to reach a better understanding of my own position on issues of accuracy and inaccuracy in ancient-world films. I think it comes down to the difference between one-off events, where there is room for doubt on how they unfolded and they need to have dramatic potency, and the fundamental social and political structures of the culture which is being depicted. On the treatment of the eruption, I would agree with Virginia Campbell that accuracy shouldn’t get in the way of telling a good and immediate story. We’ve got no evidence that ships were dragged along the streets during the destruction of Pompeii, and indeed the evidence we do have strongly suggests that they weren’t – but the image does convey the magnitude of the catastrophe in terms that a modern audience can quickly grasp. On the other hand, the total distortions of the basic dynamics of Roman politics and society covered in my points 2 and 3 don’t do anything to improve the story, but do perpetuate stupid myths and misunderstandings – and make no mistake, historical myths can be dangerous. It is here that I have to disagree with Virginia, and say that accuracy on these sorts of points does matter, and indeed that as an academic it is part of my job to point out why and how a portrayal of the ancient world is wrong. Whether film-makers choose to listen or not, of course, is up to them.

Posted in classical receptions, films, pompeii, roman cities, roman history | 6 Comments »

Fidelis et mortem: making sense of Dracula’s family motto

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on January 25, 2014

I must apologise for neglecting this blog somewhat recently. Most of my effort at the moment is going into my Commemorating Augustus project website, which is busier than ever now that we have reached Augustus’ bimillennial year. In between matters Augustan, though, I’ve recently been having a lot of fun revisiting Hammer’s Dracula (1958).

Since the discovery in 2011 of some lost scenes from this film and the release of a new Blu-Ray / DVD edition complete with those scenes lovingly restored, it has been enjoying quite a renaissance. Late last year, I had the pleasure of seeing it on the big screen as part of Manchester’s GrimmFest 2013, and soon afterwards I bought my own restored copy and got stuck into the DVD extras.

The one I enjoyed most was a half-hour documentary with Christopher Frayling, entitled ‘The Demon Lover’, in which he explains how Hammer introduced full-blown sexuality into the Dracula story for the first time, effectively making it a metaphor for a couple (Mina and Arthur) overcoming the threat of an adulterous relationship (between Mina and Dracula). I’m a big fan of Christopher Frayling, and I think this reading is absolutely spot on. But in the course of pursuing references to the adultery theme through the story, Frayling picked up on the family crest which is visible over the fireplace in Dracula’s castle:

Dracula fidelis et mortem fireplace

Between two sea-creatures and underneath a shield surmounted by a sailing boat, the motto reads ‘Fidelis et mortem’. In case we are any doubt about what it says, the same motto is also visible on the letter which Dracula leaves out for Harker when he arrives at the castle. Here, the ‘F’ on ‘fidelis’ is just out of shot, but there is enough to see that the motto is spelt the same way:

Dracula fidelis et mortem letter

In his documentary, Frayling makes a point of saying that ‘Fidelis et mortem’ means ‘Faithful and dead’. The same translation is also repeated (presumably on the basis of Frayling’s statement) by Marcus Hearn and Jonathan Rigby on the commentary track.

However, they are all wrong.

In fact, the motto is not even good Latin in the first place. That’s no great surprise. Film and TV productions are full of mangled Latin – indeed I’ve written about a similar case in Doctor Who before. But it’s when people start offering up incorrect translations of the mangled Latin, which then in turn get treated as though they are authoritative, that the Classicist in me feels the need to step in and call a halt.

So what do we have here? First, the motto as it stands: ‘Fidelis et mortem’. ‘Fidelis’ does indeed mean ‘faithful’ (an adjective), as Frayling says. But ‘mortem’ is not an adjective – it is a noun, and thus means ‘death’ (not ‘dead’). At best, then, we have ‘Faithful and death’, which is already a bit meaningless.

But ‘mortem’ also has an accusative ending. This should normally mean it is the object of a verb, but there is no verb within this motto, or any very obvious absent verb which we can understand. The wrongness of this can’t really be conveyed very easily in English, since we use word order rather than word endings to show how the parts of a sentence relate to one another. But the best way of getting it across would be to translate the motto as something like ‘And death faithful’. That’s about how much sense the Latin makes.

So someone’s Latin was a bit shaky – probably production designer Bernard Robinson‘s. It’s likely that what he was actually aiming at was something more like ‘Fidelis ad mortem’, which is perfectly good Latin, and means ‘Faithful unto death’. This is the motto of (amongst many others) the NYC Police Department.

But to my mind, that still doesn’t suit the Dracula story, or its main character, very well. After all, Dracula is immortal and undead, so nothing needs to stop with death for him – not even fidelity. And in fact, part of the reason why Frayling mistranslates the motto in the first place is that this is the point he’s making about the Dracula character – that even in death, Dracula is attempting to pursue his own tragically-distorted form of fidelity.

The film begins after all with him in what might well be the vampire equivalent of settled domesticity – he has a(n unnamed) vampire bride, and possibly even wears a wedding ring (though it may just be a signet ring) on the little finger of his left hand. We might surmise that all is not well chez Dracula, since at the first available opportunity the vampire bride begs Jonathan Harker to help her escape, tells him how awful Dracula is, and then bites Harker, very obviously against Dracula’s wishes. But it’s reasonable to assume that at least at one time, Dracula liked having her around. Certainly once she has gone his entire motivation for the rest of the film is the attempt to replace her – first with Lucy, and then, when that is scotched by Van Helsing, with Mina.

So that’s why amending the motto to ‘Fidelis ad mortem’ doesn’t work for me. Dracula is not merely ‘faithful unto death’. In his own way he is ‘faithful and dead’, just as Frayling says. But that still isn’t what the Latin over his fireplace says.

Thinking this over, I came up with another solution. It’s obvious that there’s an error here, but what if it isn’t the substitution of an ‘et’ for an ‘ad’? What if instead we knock the final ‘m’ off ‘mortem’ to get ‘Fidelis et morte’? Once we’ve done that, it puts ‘morte’ in the ablative case, and this allows it to mean ‘in death’. Meanwhile, the Latin word ‘et’ is actually quite flexible. It doesn’t just have to mean ‘and’, but can equally cover ‘also’ or ‘even’. So we can translate ‘Fidelis et morte’ as either ‘Faithful also in death’ or ‘Faithful even in death’ (both are essentially the same).

That works for me as a Classicist, and I’m ready to guess it would work for Frayling as a film critic, too. Maybe it’s even what Bernard Robinson actually intended?

This is as far as I got with the motto under my own steam, anyway. But when I asked a few friends on Facebook about it, the brilliant Peter Olive (who is available for Latin tutoring) came up with an even better solution. Remember how I said that the ‘mortem’ in ‘Fidelis et mortem’ has no good reason for being in the accusative case, since this is normally used to mark out the object of a verb? Well, Peter pointed out that there is another rather specialist use of the accusative known as the accusative of respect (no, really!), which allows a word to be translated as meaning ‘with respect to’.

If we apply this to ‘Fidelis et mortem’, we can now translate it as ‘Faithful even with respect to death’. Suddenly, everything falls into place! It has the merit of preserving the motto as we actually see it on screen, which is something I’m definitely in favour of. Otherwise, we have to assume that Dracula isn’t very good at Latin, which is at odds with what we know about his historical counterpart. It also suits the character of the Hammer Dracula perfectly, preserving Frayling’s idea of the lonely immortal who is really just after a vampire bride to call his own – doggedly faithful to the pursuit even in death.

In the end, Frayling is still wrong to translate ‘Fidelis et mortem’ as ‘Faithful and dead’; and I also very much doubt that Bernard Robinson knew about the accusative of respect when he designed the props and sets for the film. But by applying the collective talents of a few Classicists, it’s turned out that we can smooth over the gap, and get the Latin as it appears on the screen to make sense grammatically, as well as to work in service of the story. Now that is satisfying indeed.

Posted in films, horror, latin | 2 Comments »

Myth and legends at the Knaresborough bed race

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on June 16, 2013

Last Saturday I met up with some friends in Knaresborough to watch the 48th annual Great Bed Race. This is the type of utterly mad local event which small English communities seem to specialise in, and it involves teams of six runners pushing a passenger around the town on what is called a ‘bed’, but is really more like a sort of wheeled trolley.

The course starts out in a lovely park by the river, and this was where we sat on a grassy bank in glorious sunshine drinking beer and eating burgers and candy-floss. As the teams ran past us, the terrain was relatively level, but they soon had to slog up a steep slope through the town, along the High Street and back down the valley again, before finally plunging into the River Nidd (trolley, passenger and all) to swim along for several metres pulling the trolley, before hauling it out again onto the opposite bank and reaching the finishing line. The race rules, of which we were handed a copy when we arrived, state:

“Each bed must have a built-in buoyancy aid capable of supporting the bed and the passenger for not less than five minutes, and have an aperture large enough to allow the passenger to escape quickly if required.”

And well they might!

All of that is entertaining enough, but for extra fun the teams also take part in a parade before the race begins. For this, they decorate their beds and dress up themselves according to a theme, which this year was ‘Myths & Legends’. We got a great view of this from our bank in the park, with all sorts of imaginative tableaux parading past us involving the Loch Ness Monster, leprechauns, fairies, the Knights of the Round Table, vampires, Roswell / Area 51, various sporting legends, pirates, samurai warriors and so forth.

What really made my day, though, was the fact that out of 91 teams in total, fifteen had drawn their inspiration from the myths and legends of the Classical world. That’s nearly one in six, maths fans – and a great testament to how important Classical stories still are in the imaginative landscape of modern Britain. So I leapt into action with my phone-camera, and managed to capture pretty decent images of every single one of these teams. The photographs follow below, grouped roughly according to when the legends which they depict were supposed to have taken place, and accompanied by some comments on what I think the teams’ choices tell us about how Classical stories are perceived today, and how people tend to learn about them.

Older than time itself, of course, are the gods. Two teams went with this theme, as follows (click on either picture for a closer look):

01 Ripon Runners gods of Olympus 06 Welly Wheelers temple 2

I can’t be certain whether either team was thinking of the Greek or the Roman pantheon, though my guess would be Greek. Certainly, most of the teams in this race were drawing on Greek rather than Roman myths, and I’ll say a bit more about why later. Also, the racing context may well have encouraged people to think about the Olympic games, Mount Olympus itself and hence the (Greek) Olympic gods. But in any case, both sets of gods map very closely onto one another. On the left-hand team I can identify Zeus / Jupiter (beard and thunderbolt), Poseidon / Neptune (tripod) and Helios / Sol (radiate crown), but I must admit I’m stumped by the fellow in what looks like a yellow Christmas hat and the round-topped sceptre held by the young person carrying the charity collection bucket. Two more team-members just seem to be wearing generic togas / chitons and laurel wreaths. Perhaps they are meant to be Olympic victors?

The right-hand team have gone to the trouble of spraying themselves gold – a great way to signify divine status, which was done with literal gold-plating on ancient statues, and I think is also what the glowing CGI appearance of the Greek gods in the 2010 version of the film Clash of the Titans was trying to achieve. They have built a model of Zeus / Jupiter with his thunderbolt in front of the temple, and although I am not sure about the lion face on the front of the trolley, I wonder if it is meant to go alongside the red dragon-looking face on the far side and the possibly-a-snake on the near side to make up some kind of Chimera? If so, we are definitely in the Greek world. Meanwhile, amongst the team I can see Mercury at the back with his winged helmet and staff, and assume the fellow with the inflatable globe is Atlas (strictly a Titan rather than a god, but near enough). But the other person at the front doesn’t have any identifying attributes, and already I can’t remember what the fourth person who must be at the far corner looked like.

Next on the mythological schedule is the winged horse Pegasus. In ancient literature, Pegasus is associated with both Bellerophon and (later) Perseus, but both of these heroes belong to roughly the same era in the fictional world of Greek mythology – a time before both the Labours of Hercules and the Trojan war.

07 Brooks Blockheads 51 The Charvers pegasus 1 75 Meadowside Maidens pegasus 1 75 Meadowside Maidens pegasus 2

The wings on the first horse aren’t as obvious as the others, but they are there, represented by feathers along the side of the trolley. The second horse has a young lady in a fairy-princess costume riding inside it, while the close-up of the third horse in the final picture shows beautiful decorative details in rainbow colours and glitter. I think there is a definite note of magical fairy-lands about these latter two pegasi, reflecting the way that winged horses have found their way into all sorts of post-Classical fantasy stories – these days especially My Little Pony. But the overall aesthetic of all three teams is definitely Classical. Besides, the worlds of magical princesses and the Classical Pegasus were memorably brought together by Ray Harryhausen and Desmond Davis in the 1981 version of Clash of the Titans, what with its distinctly magical fairy-princess version of Andromeda being rescued by Perseus astride Pegasus. So I think these teams are picking up on that merged heritage.

Next comes the hydra, defeated by Hercules as one of his Labours:

28 Saint John's Juggernauts hydra 3

The hydra was a terrible creature with multiple heads, all alive and moving independently, and I love the way this has been captured by the model. Some of the heads are static, others are on sticks allowing them to be moved around by the team, while several of the team-mates also wear caps with the same monster-head design, all adding to the impression of lots and lots of horrible scary heads moving around and trying to eat you! And if you look carefully just behind the head of the girl carrying the charity bucket, you will see that one of them has obviously been successful – there is a trouser-leg with a shoes hanging from the end of it dangling from its jaws. Brilliant!

The hydra crops up in lots of modern tellings of the Hercules story, such as Disney’s Hercules (1997), and we’ll doubtless be hearing a lot about it at the conference on receptions of Hercules which my colleague Emma Stafford is running later this month. But Ray Harryhausen and Don Chaffey also added it to the story of Jason and the Argonauts – which brings me neatly on to the next two teams:

39 Knaresborough Scouts Argonauts 1 87 Scotton Lingerfield Argonauts 2

The designs here are quite different. The first team has referenced the Jason story directly by including the golden ram’s head on their ship’s sail. I presume the fellow with the breast-plate and shield is Jason himself, apparently on his return journey since one of his team-mates can be seen holding the fabled golden fleece. The second team have gone for more of a sirens theme, shown in the costumes of the runners and a large stuffed mermaid figure on their ship’s stern (of which only the tail is visible in my picture). But their design scheme too is definitely Greek, and what makes me think above all that they are referencing the story of Jason and the Argonauts is the big blue eye on the front of their ship, which the first team have also included on theirs. In fact, of course, this appears on the Argo in the iconic modern telling of the Jason myth – Ray Harryhausen / Don Chaffey’s Jason and the Argonauts (1963):

jason-and-the-argonauts-argo Jason Argo

So between these ships and the fairy-land Pegasi, Ray Harryhausen’s vision of Classical mythology has clearly had a pretty bit influence on these teams – a real tribute to the enduring power of his films which I have also discussed elsewhere on this blog.

Moving a little further forward in mythological time, we enter the period of the Trojan war and its great hero, Achilles, who was immune to weapons over his whole body except for one heel:

15 Castle Clinic Achilles heel

These people are osteopaths whose trolley proclaims that they don’t just treat backs – presumably, Achilles’ tendons are on the agenda too. A clever move from them to use the mythological reference in promoting their business, and a good example of how Classical references are transmitted through our culture. According to Wikipedia, the practice of describing the tendon at the back of the human foot with reference the story of Achilles grew up amongst anatomists in the early modern period (it’s recorded as an established practice in 1693). This was a time when learned people were well-steeped in Classical texts – in fact, anatomists were still making substantial use of ancient medical writers like Galen and Hippocrates. So it’s not surprising that they reached for Classical stories like the Achilles legend to name human body-parts. Now that name has stuck, and it helps in turn to keep the story alive. I’m sure many people now hear of an Achilles tendon before they know the story behind it, and I hope it inspires some people to discover the story itself.

After the death of Achilles, the Greeks finally turned the war in their favour by building the Trojan horse, filling it with soldiers, and leaving the unsuspecting Trojans to drag it inside their city walls. Two teams had a go at making their own version:

25 P&G The Grads Trojan horse 50 Orion Trojan horse 1

I am not sure you could fit very many soldiers inside the first horse, but the second one is pretty epic! To my eye, it also looks quite similar to the horse featured in Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy (2004):

trojan-horse

They’re not exactly the same, for sure – the Petersen one has a much ‘rougher’ look, capturing the feel of something cobbled together out of bits of broken-up ships. But there’s something about the use of individual planks of wood in this horse, as opposed to smooth panels like the other one, which gives it a similar feel.

Moving out of the realms of outright myths and into recorded history (which can still generate stories of legendary heroism, of course) it’s time to meet the Spartans:

35 Knaresborough Rugby Club Spartans 1

I think the combination of the shield designs, the helmets and the scanty tunics make it pretty clear that we are not just meeting any old Spartans here, but specifically the ones envisaged in Zack Snyder’s 300 (2007):

300 Spartans shields

So we’ve now seen designs which are quite definitely influenced by 300 and Jason and the Argonauts, and probably also others influenced a little more indirectly by Clash of the Titans and Troy. Most Classicists today are already very well aware that one of the main routes by which non-specialists come into contact with Classical stories today is film and TV – indeed, my survey of which Roman emperors people in Leeds were familiar with showed much the same thing. But I think the choices made by these teams are one more proof of that, if anyone needs it.

Finally, we’ve not heard much from the Romans yet. That’s no big surprise. As Gideon Nisbet has shown, Greek mythology is big news in popular culture today, whereas the modern image of the Roman world is all about marching legions and gladiatorial games. So when people are dressing up to a ‘myths and legends’ theme, of course Greek stories are going to predominate. Nonetheless, three teams did lean in a Roman direction:

57 Commercial Estates ship 1

To be fair, this ship is quite multi-cultural. The overall design could be Greek or Roman, and alhough they’re not visible in this picture, it also had some quite Celtic-looking designs on the prow. If I could identify the picture of the female head on the stern, I might be clearer about where this team got their inspiration – but although I’m sure I’ve seen it before, I can’t pin it down now.

38 HACS Mythical Legends Boudicca 14 HPL Flyers chariot 2

These two are definitely Roman, though. The lady in the first chariot is clearly Boudicca, because she had the famous knives on her chariot wheels (not visible in the picture above, but see below right behind the two singers). I’m not so sure about the second lot – perhaps they were thinking of Boudicca too (especially since they are an all-female team), but decided to omit the knives? Or perhaps it’s a more general reference to Roman chariot-racing as seen in films such as Ben Hur? In any case, the net result is that the only identifiable story from the Roman period represented at the bed race was the story of Boudicca, who of course crucially wasn’t a Roman at all, and indeed stands in the popular imagination as a symbol of Celtic resistance to Roman imperialism. The many myths and legends which the Romans did actually have continue to languish in obscurity today, just as Wiseman has discussed.

For the sake of completeness, I should add that there was also a Roman rock band in the middle of the parade, featuring three dudes on guitars and drums in the back of a van, followed by two ladies on foot singing:

Roman rock band Roman rock band singers

Obviously they weren’t referencing any particular myth, but I’m sure their performances are legendary…

I’ll finish by saying that although I have concentrated on the Classically-themed teams here, because that’s my area of interest, the whole parade was brilliant, and the race itself was a thing to behold! There is a great video of this year’s race here, which shows some of the other teams and really captures the experience of the day as a whole, and I can really recommend going along to experience it for yourself if you get the chance:

Posted in classical receptions, films, greek mythology, ray harryhausen, rituals and festivals | 2 Comments »

Publication: ‘I am Master of Nothing’: Imperium: Augustus and the Story of Augustus on Screen

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on November 2, 2012

I got an email late last night to say that an article about screen portrayals of the emperor Augustus which I wrote last Christmas has now been published. It’s always great to see another publication finally emerging into the daylight, but this one is particularly satisfying because it has been published in an online journal, so that anyone with internet access can read it for free!

The paper is entitled ”I am Master of Nothing’: Imperium: Augustus and the Story of Augustus on Screen’, and its official abstract runs as follows

The story of Octavian / Augustus’ life follows a rather problematic narrative trajectory. Reduced to its basic elements, it is the tale of a man who overthrew the Roman Republic and installed himself as an absolute monarch, yet enjoyed widespread contemporary acclaim and died peacefully in his bed. Lacking the moral complexity of Julius Caesar’s story, or the prurient thrills offered by proper ‘bad’ emperors, this narrative has rarely been tackled in full by western story-tellers. Instead, in the 20th century, Octavian / Augustus appeared most frequently on screen as a secondary character in the stories of others – particularly as a villainous foil to Antony and Cleopatra – while only a handful of novelists attempted a fuller biographical approach. Nonetheless, a popular appetite for screen portrayals of Roman history in the early 21st century has kept producers and screenwriters returning to his story, and one TV mini-series, Imperium: Augustus (2003), has now offered the first ever screen biopic of this contradictory character. This paper examines the narrative strategies used in this production and their degree of success in making the story of Octavian / Augustus palatable to contemporary western audiences. Making strong claims to historical accuracy, Imperium: Augustus builds on approaches already established in biographical novels, but also deploys characteristically filmic devices such as the flashback to help create a compelling drama. Audience responses suggest that it was only a partial success, but Augustus’ story still offers ample opportunities for exploring modern concerns such as the crafting of political personas or the relationship between security and civil liberties. These could perhaps be better satisfied in the medium of the documentary, and we can fully expect such treatments to appear in connection with the bimillennium of his death on 19th August 2014.

If you’d like to read more, you can find the full paper at New Voices in Classical Reception Studies 7: see the second item in the table of contents.

Posted in augustus, classical receptions, films, roman emperors, television | 2 Comments »

Jason and the Argonauts (1963), dir. Don Chaffey

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on December 22, 2011

This was the other Harryhausen film which I watched (actually rewatched, in this case) in the run-up to our conference in November. Last time I saw this film, I had not yet seen Clash of the Titans, so one of the main things which struck me this time was how much of Jason anticipates things which are later reworked or built upon in Clash – and indeed which I’ve commented on from a Clash perspective in my review of that film.

The meta-referentiality in the portrayal of the gods is one obvious overlap, since both films depict the gods controlling little figurines which represent the mortal characters and their monstrous adversaries – just, of course, as Harryhausen controlled his models on the animator’s table. But where Clash emphasised the link with dramatic story-telling by having its Zeus place his figures specifically in a theatre, Jason instead casts the gods as game-players on an epic scale, who move pieces around on a board. This board is nothing less than the world itself, complete with seas and continents, and it reminded me very much of Risk – which was apparently released in 1957, so could potentially have been a direct influence. Certainly, the adversarial nature of the game, in which Zeus and Hera are competing with one another for dominance over mortal affairs through the figure of Jason, matches up quite nicely with the goals of the players in Risk.

At our conference, Stephen Trzaskoma showed in a brilliant paper how the theme of game-playing extends well beyond the board of the gods, casting Jason too as an active player (as when he holds games of his own to select his Argonauts, or ‘plays’ his Triton amulet in order to pass safely through the Clashing Rocks), and using the metaphor to explore the nature of the gods and their relationship with mortals. I’m really looking forward to the final version of Stephen’s paper for the full write-up of his thinking on this theme.

Clash‘s portrayals of epiphanic encounters with the gods have their origins in Jason, too. Clash showed us Thetis inhabiting her own statue in the temple at Joppa, just as Hera had earlier spoken through her figurehead in Jason. In fact, direct encounters between mortals and deities are frequent in Jason, with Hera also appearing as a mysterious veiled figure within her temple at Thessaly, and Mercury in the guise of an old man in the ruins of his own – to say nothing of the scene in which Jason is actually taken to Olympus and speaks directly to Zeus and Hera. As I noted when writing about Clash, all of this draws profoundly on ancient conceptions of the gods and their interactions with mortals, as understood in religious ceremonies, depicted on vase-paintings and described in mythological stories. And it is perhaps a little meta-referential too, reflecting Harryhausen’s ability to breathe a sort of divine life into his models just as the gods animate their own statues.

Then there are ruins as ruins – something I’ve noted now not only in Clash, but also in 20 Million Miles to Earth. Ruins in Jason do much the same job as in Clash of giving the world we are experiencing its own temporal depth, suggesting that centuries and centuries worth of struggles between mortals, gods and fantastical creatures have occurred before we even came in. In fact, the very same half-ruined temples at Paestum which helped to lend Medusa an air of the ancient and dreadful in Clash also crop up in Jason, where they set the stage for the attacks of the harpies on the blind king-in-exile Phineas. Here, they are cleverly worked into the action of the story by forming a ‘cage’ which allows the Argonauts to trap the harpies. But I also felt that they added an extra dimension to the figure of Phineas, echoing his ruined eyes and hunger-ravaged body, and perhaps also the ruinous relationship with Zeus which led to his exile and punishment. Certainly, the ruined temple where Jason encounters Mercury earlier in the film definitely does signal a dysfunctional relationship between negligent mortals and gods whose temples are left untended. And in this case, its ruinous state is definitely a conscious choice, rather than a necessity imposed by the use of real surviving remains, since although modelled on the temple of Athena at Delphi, it is clearly a set – so could have been reconstructed whole if that had suited the story better.

And there is the feeling that, like Clash, Jason is essentially an SF film. The quest format goes a long way towards creating that feeling, simply because it so closely mirrors the conventions of the ‘voyage into space’-style SF story. To the modern viewer, Jason’s visits to various islands and kingdoms, complete with fantastical creatures to battle, princesses to rescue and hardships to overcome, feel a great deal like (for example) a series of Star Trek episodes in which the islands are simply replaced by planets. I felt that Medea’s outfit in particular, with her sparkly technicolor make-up and shiny futuristic-looking dress, really added to this impression, making her look for all the world like a Space Princess.

But of course SF stories themselves regularly draw on the rich heritage of Greek mythological voyages, and even in antiquity Lucian of Samosata’s True Story was already demonstrating that a fantastical voyage could as easily take in a trip to the moon as it could the strange islands already visited by travellers like Odysseus. It’s a mistake to insist too hard on the distinction between mythological stories (Greek or otherwise) and SF, when both can be better understood as mutually-enriching branches of the wider fantasy genre – and indeed this was very much the theme of Tony Keen‘s paper at our conference

As for differences, the most striking one for me was the costume and set design. As I’ve said before, the design of Clash is very eclectic, with costumes and architecture from a range of places and periods mingled together, creating a sort of Otherworld feeling and emphasising the fantastical-mythological nature of the story. In Jason, the emphasis seems to be more on designing each setting fairly consistently, so that the contrasts between them convey the changes of location clearly. Thus, Jason’s homeland Thessaly is characterised by Archaic and Classical (i.e. roughly 7th to 4th centuries BC) Greek design, with the male characters wearing armour like that seen on black-figure vases, and various Classical-style temples dotted about the plcae. But Colchis, where the Golden Fleece is located and where Medea lives, is all Persian-Babylonian, with the men in ringleted curls, reliefs of winged lions and columns painted in bright oriental designs. This has some historical rationale behind it, given that Colchis did operate under Persian control for a while, but more importantly it lends a properly epic feel to Jason’s voyage, carrying him beyond the confines of the familiar Greek world and into a visibly different exotic eastern realm.

The model-work is, of course, enchanting throughout, and again all of the papers at our conference very much demonstrated the incredible influence that Harryhausen’s creations have had over the popular imagination. Everyone remembers Talos and the fighting skeletons, although I must confess to feeling a little underwhelmed by the Hydra. I get how difficult and impressive it is to animate a creature with nine heads and two tails – but the unique selling point of a Hydra is that if you cut off one of its heads, another one grows back in its place. Jason doesn’t cut off a single head, simply stabbing it in the heart instead, which felt like a bit of a cheat. In the end, though, my absolute favourite creature in the film is not an animated model, but the giant Triton who holds apart the Clashing Rocks so that Jason and his crew can sail between them.

I simply can’t imagine a better depiction of a sea-god than this. I love the rivers of water cascading from his greying hair; his chubby yet supernaturally strong body; his slow-motion movements; the sheer elemental power with which he wrenches back the rocks; and the real feeling of weight as he plunges back down beneath the waves afterwards. He conveys the raw, unpolished, untameable power of the sea really effectively – and I think it adds a great deal to this impression that he doesn’t talk like the other gods, but simply turns up, demonstrates his brute strength, nods and vanishes again. Rather sadly, I found while looking for images of him that the actor who turned in this brilliant performance is not only uncredited in the final film, but now not even reliably identified. But whoever you are or were, Triton man, thank you for your most fantastic sea-god.

Posted in classical receptions, films, greek mythology, ray harryhausen, reviews | 4 Comments »

20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), dir. Nathan Juran

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on November 27, 2011

Two weeks ago, I helped to run a conference entitled Animating Antiquity on the interplay between the Classical tradition and the films of Ray Harryhausen. In order to get myself in the right mood beforehand, I watched or rewatched a couple of his films in the days before the conference. 20 Million Miles to Earth was one I hadn’t seen before, but was recommended to me by a couple of people on the grounds that it features an enormous alien creature on the rampage in Rome. Fantastic!

In basic terms, it’s a ‘monster on the loose’ film, of which Harryhausen had already done a few – e.g. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and It Came from Beneath the Sea. He clearly enjoyed them, as they gave him the chance both to pay tribute to one of his major inspirations, the 1933 King Kong, and to indulge a passion for destroying things in spectacular fashion on-screen which he often talks about in his interviews. But this one developed in a new direction by using a European setting – something which Tony Keen has rightly pointed out to me was clearly very popular in this period, and apparently also a reflection of Harryhausen’s growing personal interest in the European film industry, cemented by a move to the UK in 1960.

The ‘monster’ in this particular case is from Venus, and gets a very sympathetic treatment, entirely in line with Harryhausen’s consistent statement that he actually thinks of his models as ‘creatures’ rather than ‘monsters’. It has been brought to Earth against its will from Venus (hence the ’20 Million Miles to Earth’ of the title), only becomes ‘monstrous’ (in the sense of incredibly large) because of the effects of Earth’s atmosphere on its physiology, and is portrayed as merely curious about its surroundings and trying to survive amongst them until it is provoked into violence by people attacking it. Much as with King Kong, we are encouraged to feel sympathy for it, and this makes the whole film a great deal more captivating than it would otherwise have been.

Nonetheless, by the end of the film the creature has grown to something like 30 feet tall, is thoroughly enraged, and is having a jolly good rampage around the city of Rome. Here, Harryhausen’s love of destruction comes into full play, as we watch it fighting an elephant, causing havoc in the Tiber, knocking down temples in the forum and finally climbing up to the top of the Colosseum, where it is eventually shot and falls dead to the ground. My absolute favourite moment in all this was the Tiber sequence, which showed the creature breaking through the middle of the Ponte Sant’Angelo, followed directly by a shot of it standing in front of the Ponte Rotto:

This struck me as a very good example of how clever Harryhausen’s use of ancient ruins always was – something I also noticed and commented on regarding Medusa’s temple in my review of Clash of the Titans. Already in 1957 he was doing exactly the same thing I’d spotted in 1981 – using ruins for their value as ruins, rather than trying to hide their brokenness. The genuinely ruined Ponte Rotto comes into its own by playing the ‘after’ role in the bridge destruction scene, helping to add to the magic by looking like a real bridge which actually has been destroyed, and saving Harryhausen the trouble of having to model the destroyed Ponte Sant’Angelo into the bargain. You’d have to know the topography of Rome fairly well to make that kind of connection, and it’s abundantly clear that Harryhausen did – as I could also see from the generally very logical path followed by the creature through the city from the Giardino Zoologico to the Castel Sant-Angelo and onwards to the Forum and Colosseum. The final scenes in the last two settings are absolutely infused with the same love of ruinous structures, too, either in their real-life guises or (when they’re being torn down by the creature) lovingly modelled in miniature form.

Meanwhile, the European setting and largely American main cast throw up some contrasts which reveal a lot about American self-perception in this period. The echoes of the Second World War resonate pretty strongly in the final sequences, what with Rome’s iconic monuments being attacked and American tanks and military cars racing around the city to liberate them once again. The American characters, and particularly the heroic leading man, are also cast throughout as dynamic, brave, intelligent and scientifically competent, against Italian characters who come across as useless, corrupt and foolish. It’s an Italian kid after a few lire who sets the creature free in the first place, and Italian farmers, police authorities and soldiers who variously enrage it by attacking it with pitch-forks, guns and flame-throwers. Meanwhile, the all-American hero insists on trying to capture the creature alive so that it can be studied for the Advancement of Science!, has the technical know-how to do so by stunning it with an electric shock, and leads a successful capture operation that rests on radio communications, helicopters and smooth teamwork. Interestingly, there is also one Japanese scientist amongst the Americans, showing that the image of the Japanese as masters of technology was already well-established. And Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart might have been pleased to know that amongst all the sciencey-science stuff, we actually get an on-screen explanation of why the creature is immune to bullets – apparently because it breathes via a network of tubes throughout its whole body, rather than a heart and lungs which might be fatally damaged by the bullets.

As for the male-female dynamics, they are much what you would expect for the period. There is one full-developed female character, with other women appearing only occasionally in crowd-scenes, and not generally getting any dialogue. To be fair, two of the crowd-scene women are professionals working as journalists, and indeed the main female character herself is training to be a doctor, and gets some fairly snappy, sassy dialogue which makes it clear that she has a real intelligence of her own. But for all that, her main role as the plot unfolds is to become a love-interest for the all-American hero, who rushes straight forward to ‘claim’ her as his well-deserved prize once he has defeated the creature. I’d love to be able to say, “Ah, but that was the 1950s – things are better for women now”, but sadly this is still all too common – and that reflects rather more poorly on us than it does this film.

Posted in classical receptions, films, ray harryhausen, rome | 1 Comment »

Neville Longbottom as Horatius Cocles

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on August 16, 2011

Last week, I joined the ranks of those who have marked the end of the Harry Potter era by watching The Deathly Hallows Part 2. I enjoyed seeing the characters I’ve known for so long, grown to full maturity and able to defeat Voldemort at last; loved the cinematic realisation of the Battle of Hogwarts; and shed a quiet tear when Harry described Snape as one of the bravest men he’d ever known in the final scene. But what caught my attention most of all was a short little scene featuring Neville Longbottom which had powerful Classical resonances.

It comes during the Battle of Hogwarts, just before and after the shield of protection around the school breaks down. The rickety wooden covered bridge has already been primed with explosives, ready to be set off by the right spell, and Neville is stationed at the end, waiting for Voldemort’s hordes to attack:

As the clip shows, he stands taunting them for as long as the shield holds, knowing that once it gives way, they won’t lose a moment in rushing forward to attack him. As soon as that happens, he turns and flees – but this was all part of the plan. Neville then chucks a spell over his shoulder to ignite the explosives, bringing the entire thing tumbling down behind him, and plunging the pursuing Snatchers to some unspecified fate:

For a horrible moment, it looks as though Neville himself has fallen with them. But somehow he manages to cling on, and emerges over the broken edge of the bridge – much to the relief of his friends.

And that, in a nutshell, is the Roman legend of Horatius on the Bridge. It is told most famously by Livy, whose version (along with some contextual explanation) can be read here. Neville is Horatius Cocles, the Hogwarts bridge is the Pons Sublicius, and the Snatchers charging down the hill are the Etruscans, trying to capture Rome on behalf of the cruel king Tarquinius the Proud, whom the Romans had kicked out. Why, even Neville’s rather implausible escape matches neatly with Horatius’ swim across the Tiber to safety while the Etruscans hurl missiles at him. In fact, I must say that my reaction to this scene in the film was rather like Livy’s reaction to Horatius’ miraculous escape. Clearly, there was no way Neville could possibly have survived as the bridge collapsed beneath him – and yet somehow, he did. Similarly, Livy describes Horatius’ swim to safety as “an act of daring more famous than credible with posterity” (rem ausus plus famae habituram ad posteros quam fidei) – his polite way of saying that he doesn’t personally believe a word of it.

Neville’s personal brand of heroism isn’t quite identical to Horatius’. Neville is a hero, and he showed the early signs of this right back in the first book / film, when he was brave enough to try to stop Harry, Ron and Hermione sneaking illegally out of the Gryffindor common room. But it’s hard to read Horatius’ story without imagining him standing there with his chest puffed out, supremely self-confident as he booms out orders to his men and taunts towards the enemy. Horatius is a full-blown traditional hero-figure with quasi-supernatural powers of swordsmanship, resourcefulness and daring – but the whole point about Neville Longbottom is that he is brave and good, but also scared and ordinary at the same time. So it is appropriate that even Neville’s taunts are quite tentative, and that he lures the Snatchers to their doom by running away in apparent terror, rather than holding them bravely off in hand-to-hand combat.

All of the Harry Potter films are ripe with Classical resonances, many of which Juliette Harrison has chronicled. For the most part, these originate in the books, where they can of course be attributed directly to J.K. Rowling’s background in Classics. But this one doesn’t – perhaps partly for the very good reason that the wooden bridge isn’t in the books! (It appeared for the first time in the film of Prisoner of Azkaban). This means that I can’t be sure whether or not Steve Kloves, the script-writer for the later films, deliberately wrote Neville’s bridge scene as a version of the Horatius legend or not. But the match is very close, and the story is certainly pretty firmly embedded in western culture – see e.g. Macaulay’s poem, a whole bunch of works of art, or nice accessible kids’ versions like this one. So it would be surprising if Kloves didn’t know it, and that means I feel reasonably confident that Neville’s scene in The Deathly Hallows Part 2 is consciously Classically-inspired.

The final climax of Neville’s development into a real (though still ordinary) hero comes when Voldemort enters the castle with Harry’s (apparently) dead body – and now that I’ve seen the film, I find that Neville’s behaviour at this point in the book as well is more Horatian than I’d previously realised. Neville may not be standing on a bridge at this point, but he is the only person who dares to come forward and challenge Voldemort, while everyone else cowers in fear. The essential motif of a lone hero standing firm is in place – so perhaps JKR did have Horatius in mind when she wrote this scene, after all? In that case, Kloves’ contribution would have been to recognise the basic elements of the Horatius legend in JKR’s account of the stand-off between Neville and Voldemort, and then to expand on this by adding an extra scene a little bit earlier featuring Neville on an actual bridge.

Certainly, in Kloves’ hands, Neville gets an incredible rising trio of heroic moments in quick succession, each of which takes him closer and closer to the full-blown hero model which Horatius represents. From his tentative taunts on the bridge he progresses quickly to very real defiance of Voldemort in the courtyard – this time without the protection of a magical shield. And from there, it is but a short step to his magnificent beheading of Nagini:

Neville Beheads Nagini

By that stage, he has become a proper traditional hero-figure – steadfast, proud and entirely uncompromising as he swings the fatal blow (though still, of course, wearing a cardigan clearly knitted by his gran). It’s very much the heroic climax to his story that Neville has always deserved, and I’m not surprised that so many people have raved about his role in the film. I am thrilled, though, to see a Classical story playing a small part in that. :-)

Posted in classical receptions, films, harry potter, reviews, roman history, roman literature | 3 Comments »

Clash of the Titans (2010), dir. Louis Leterrier

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on January 28, 2011

I actually watched this film in October, in preparation for the day-long colloquium on Clash of the Titans which we held at Leeds at the end of that month. It’s taken me a while to write it up, partly because I’ve been busy, but also because it was clearly going to be a bit of an epic review. Not only did I already have a lot to say about the film myself by the time I’d finished watching it, but I then attended three excellent papers about it during the colloquium which gave me a whole swathe of interesting new perspectives on it. What follows is now a combination of my own original responses and further ideas which I picked up from the three papers presented on the day. I’ve tried to give the appropriate credit wherever it is due, but apologies if there is some bleeding between my own ideas and other people’s.

Overview

Like the 1981 film (in fact, I’d say rather more so), on one level the 2010 version is a bit pants. So let’s get that out of the way first. The dialogue is laboured, the story is unengaging and rather nonsensical (partly because important plot-development scenes were edited out during the production process), and I personally find brutish, macho heroes of the kind presented here alienating and uninteresting. So this just isn’t destined for my top ten favourite films list – or indeed my top one hundred, for that matter.

But then again, it very obviously isn’t aimed at me. It follows Gladiator, 300 and (as Gideon Nisbet and Dunstan Lowe‘s papers made clear) a bunch of video games which I have never played, and have no desire to play, in focussing on action adventure and manly heroics. And I guess that’s what some people go to the cinema for. It’s not really my bag – but all the same, there is still plenty of interest for me to pick over here about the use of the Classical past and the concerns of modern audiences.

Then and now: 1981 and 2010

The 2010 film positions itself quite explicitly in relation to the 1981 version, but usually in a ways designed to create a sense of difference and distance between the two. It starts where the 1981 film left off – out amongst the stars, with a narrative voice-over setting the scene – as if to say that it intends to move forwards from that point, rather than going back to re-tread old ground. And although my friend and I both cheered when Bubo, the mechanical owl from the first film, put in a cameo appearance in the palace armoury, he turned out to be there only so that he could be rejected, and proper ‘serious’ weapons chosen instead – again, a sign that the new film wanted to present itself as taking a different approach to the story.

All the same, the plot structure of the two films is broadly similar (though nothing like entirely so). I also spotted an interesting example of parallel casting with Cassiopeia, the mother of Andromeda. Back in 1981, she was played by Siân Philips, who had recently starred as Livia in I Clavdivs, while in 2010 she was Polly Walker – recently famous for playing the very similar role of Atia in HBO’s Rome.

Her daughter Andromeda’s role has been almost entirely reimagined, though, and indeed largely pushed aside in favour of the ageless (yet not immortal) Io. As my colleague Steve Green pointed out in his paper at the colloquium, this is a really important change which helps the film to bring out what is clearly meant to be one of its main themes – Perseus’ struggle to come to terms with his split identity as a half-man, half-god. Io with her curse of agelessness occupies a similar position, and this means that she can a) act as a more appropriate romantic match for Perseus, and b) gradually guide him towards embracing both sides of his parentage. As Io tells him, “You’re not just part man, part god. You’re the best of both.”

Io’s role outside the story

But Io isn’t merely a character within the story. She also stands outside it in a number of ways. It is she who provides the film’s narrative voice-overs, and in this role she seems to enjoy a long-term perspective on the film’s events. Given that she is ageless, perhaps we are meant to understand that she has lived long past the period covered in the film, and is looking back on it from several centuries later – possibly even from our own time? If so, that makes her role rather similar to that of the director, who has the same overview of the story which he is telling.

Certainly, within the film itself, she does play a directorial role. It is Io who gives Perseus his ‘mission’ by telling him, “You were born to kill the Kraken”, and helps to train him up for his fight with Medusa by sparring with him on Charon’s boat. She also provides explanation and backstory where necessary – for example saying that the Stygian witches will know how to kill the Kraken, or explaining Medusa’s history. With relation to the previous film, this means that she seems to have absorbed the role of the playwright Ammon, who struck me there as a kind of in-story director-figure, and who has otherwise more or less disappeared from the 2010 version of the film.

The visual aesthetic

The visual aesthetic is also different from the 1981 film, moving from bright costumes and big hair to grungey grime and crew-cuts. But I think it is still operating within the same tradition – it’s just that that tradition in itself has altered radically in the past 30 years. As I said in my review of the 1981 film, its visual aesthetic helps to signal its links with the SF/Fantasy genre – but at that time, this was a genre full of films like Flash Gordon and Star Wars, and the costumes and model-work for Clash 1981 reflect that.

Now, SF/Fantasy visualisations are all about dark colour-palettes and CGI effects – and that’s what we have in Clash 2010. I certainly spotted multiple visual references to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, anyway – the appearance of Argos; treks through forests and desolate mountains; and perhaps also Io’s rather Elfin look. But Gideon Nisbet and Dunstan Lowe’s papers also opened my eyes to a whole world of further visual resonances which I hadn’t been aware of because I don’t play video games. There are characters, architectural designs, spatial layouts and even action sequences in Clash 2010 which relate directly to games like Titan Quest and God of War – and of course the cycle continues via a Clash of the Titans spin-off game.

Meanwhile, on the cultural-historical front, the settings for Clash 2010 were not quite such a bizarre mish-mash as they had been in the 1981 version. The mise-en-scène is predominantly Greek – and OK, so it’s Classical Greek rather than Bronze Age, as shown by the Attic red-figure vase paintings and gilded caryatids in the palace at Argos, but that seems reasonable enough for a mythological story which has no real historical setting. At least it’s broadly the right culture. But I also noticed quite a hefty dose of Roman-looking art and architecture, too, including embossed silver drinking-cups, a statue of a bearded Roman emperor in one corner of the palace and a recognisable arched aqueduct supplying water to the city of Argos.

Three father figures

At our colloquium, Steve Green’s paper touched on some of the similarities between Clash of the Titans and another mythologically-inspired 2010 film – Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief. Like Perseus, Percy Jackson is the son of a god, and much of the emphasis in his story lies with the theme of broken homes, split identities, and not knowing your real father – also prominent themes in the 2010 Clash. In fact, in our discussion session, we realised that Clash of the Titans features no less than three father figures, each occupying distinctly different points on the spectrum of possible father-son relationships.

At the ‘nasty‘ end is Acrisius, Perseus’ (unwilling) step-father, who hates Perseus because he is a reminder of his wife, Danae’s, rape by Zeus. (I will note as an aside here that I find the trope of one man (Zeus) raping a woman (Danae) as a means of punishing another man (Acrisius) utterly abhorrent, and I would have liked to see that being commented on and challenged within the film. But it wasn’t, which is another reason why this just isn’t the sort of film I’m ever going to really enjoy.)

Acrisius is portrayed as an out-and-out villain, and as part of his villainy he also absorbs the role of Calibos from the previous film. After being struck with lighting and deformed by Zeus, he literally changes his name to ‘Calibos’, and becomes a crazed killer, bent on vengeance against Perseus. Although Hades ropes him into his own vendetta against Zeus by giving him special powers, Acrisius-Calibos’ own jealous motives remain clear – as, for example, when he encounters Perseus in the forest, and hisses, “You reek of your father” (i.e. Zeus).

In the ‘nice‘ corner is Spyros, Perseus’ adoptive father (played by the now-deceased Pete Postlethwaite), who brings him up from babyhood. Like Acrisius, Spyros has no blood relationship with Perseus, but the contrast between the two characters serves to signal that this doesn’t mean there can’t be a loving family bond. Spyros, and indeed Perseus’ whole adoptive family, is portrayed as loving and kind – they meet our expectations of what a ‘proper’ family should be, even without any blood link. As Spyros tells Perseus, “I am your father, Perseus. Marmara is your mother. And you will always be our son. The bond between us is… it’s much more than flesh and bone.”

And in the middle there is Zeus, Perseus’ biological father. Part of the story-arc of the film is the gradual development of a meaningful bond between Perseus and Zeus, despite their initial indifference (Zeus) or even hatred (Perseus) towards one another. When Hades first tells Zeus that Perseus is in Argos, he doesn’t care, simply saying that he hasn’t heard his prayers, and that he is no different from any other mortal. By half-way through the film, he has begun trying to create a relationship with Perseus, but at this stage it offered on his terms only – he invites Perseus to live on Olympus, and is angry and offended when Perseus rejects him. Finally, at the end, Zeus accepts that Perseus needs to live his own life, Perseus accepts Zeus’ help, and the two are reconciled.

Between the three figures, then, father-son relationships are explored from every possible angle, with a fairly clear conclusion that it is the emotional bonds between the two parties that matter, rather than the biological ones. In the absence of biological ties, the relationship can be either highly functional, as with Spyros, or completely disastrous, as with Acrisius. And Perseus’ final reconciliation with Zeus happens because they have developed an emotional bond, not because they are actually related. It’s a very twenty-first century view of how family relationships are defined and what they mean – and, incidentally, much the same story as plays out between the Doctor and Jenny in The Doctor’s Daughter.

Religious tensions

Another major concern of the 2010 film lies with the nature and impact of religion. The 1981 version did depict rivalries between the gods – particularly Zeus and Thetis. It also ended with Thetis asking Zeus whether mortals should be allowed to get away with obstructing the gods’ plans, as Perseus had done to her:

THETIS: What a dangerous precedent. What if there more heroes like him? What if courage and imagination became everyday mortal qualities? What will become of us?
ZEUS: We would no longer be needed. But, for the moment, there is sufficient cowardice, sloth and mendacity down there on Earth to last forever.

But for the most part, the 1981 film chose not to engage with the relationship between mankind and the gods in any great detail. Indeed, the challenge to divine authority which Thetis complained about was not the real aim of the 1981 Perseus. He had simply intended to win the hand of the lovely Andromeda, and killing Calibos and the Kraken were secondary outcomes of this quest.

In the 2010 version, the religious dimensions of the story are much more central, and much more complex. The fraught relationship between mankind and the gods is central to the film, and personalised in Perseus’ uncomfortable position between the two. But we also see tensions within both camps, as different individual humans disagree with one another on how best to respond to the power of the gods, and different individual gods struggle with one another for supremacy.

The human response to the gods mainly reflects 21st-century scepticism of authority-figures. Belief as such is not in question, since the gods are entirely real within the terms of the story. But characters like Spyros and Perseus forcefully question whether humanity should be worshipping the gods while they behave arrogantly and are indifferent to mortal suffering. “One day,” Spyros grumbles, “somebody’s gonna have to make a stand. One day, somebody’s gonna have to say – enough!”

Yet we also see some humans responding to godly misdeeds with renewed religious fervour. This attitude is characterised in particular by Prokopion, the loin-clothed, top-knotted religious fanatic in Argos, who reacts to the anger of the gods by calling for greater heights of devotion – seeking to placate the gods, rather than reject them. He responds to Hades’ curse on Argos by proclaiming, “We must turn our hearts to Hades – it is the only way!”, and eagerly leads the movement to sacrifice Andromeda in order to save the rest of the city.

This is of course rather closer to the typical authentic ancient response when people suspected that the gods might be angry with them – root out any possible religious deviants and redouble the sacrifices. But we’re clearly not supposed to admire it. Our top-knotted fanatic bays for blood, commits extremist acts like burning his own hand to make a point, and appears to take sexual pleasure in the sacrifice of Andromeda. He can be mapped onto almost any modern religious extremist movement of our choosing, and appears very much characteristic of the concerns of this post-9/11 world. Interestingly, he is eventually killed by the falling hand of the Kraken after it has been turned into stone, which seemed to me like an ironic twist on Old Testament-style stories about people being struck down for worshipping false idols – except this time with the fanatic being killed directly by the idol itself.

Meanwhile, up on Mount Olympus, there is a direct rivalry between Zeus and Hades which makes them look a lot like the Judeo-Christian God and Satan. Certainly, we are explicitly told in the opening credits that Zeus is a creator-god (“It was Zeus who created man…”), while Hades’ black robes, his murderous bat-like harpies and his attempts to trick Zeus all map quite nicely onto traditional ideas about the Devil (not to mention drawing fruitfully on Ralph Fiennes’ star image as the actor associated with Voldemort in the Potterverse). But Zeus’ own childish, impulsive behaviour makes him far from a paragon of virtue, and indeed this Zeus is a much more morally ambiguous figure than his equivalent in the 1981 film. If he’s a proxy for God, then he starts the film as the Old Testament God of plagues and vengeance. By the end though, of course, his link with Perseus has forced him to become more human and more forgiving. If that’s the case, then another element to Perseus’ role in the film is to echo the story of Jesus establishing the New Testament, and re-harmonising the relationship between mankind and the divine.

Posted in birds, christianity, classical receptions, computer games, films, greek mythology, reviews | 5 Comments »

Doctor Who and the plastic plastic Roman

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on November 21, 2010

One of the things I liked best about the last season of Doctor Who were the Roman soldiers from The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang. Obviously, as a Classicist, my default position is to be happy when anything from the ancient world shows up in a modern medium – and that goes double when it’s happening specifically in the context of my favourite TV programme. :-) But these soldiers went one step further for me. By encouraging us to accept them at first as ‘real’ human beings, but then gradually revealing that, even within the terms of the story, they were in fact fakes (plastic Auton replicas, to be precise), Steven Moffat whisked us off into the realm of the meta-referential – yet another thing which I absolutely love. The suspension of disbelief is all well and good, but better still is an author who occasionally draws attention to the fictional nature of his or her narrative, reminding the audience with a nod and a wink that what we are actually doing is indulging in the pleasure of a really good story. Yay!

A good meta-reference should say rather more than just “Oh, by the way: none of this is real”, though – and I thought that Moffat’s Roman Autons lived up to this. In the context of his story, they made a major contribution to the very important plot-development task of establishing the power of Amy’s memory, since their whole existence turns out to have been extrapolated from the picture books which she read as a child, and the costume which Rory wore to a fancy dress party:

The denouement of this story, and of the entire season, depends on this concept, so it really does need to be properly established in advance. Meanwhile, beyond the story, the Roman Autons also worked for me as a great piece of commentary on the way that we in the present relate to the Romans of the past – and particularly the role Roman soldiers usually play in screen portrayals of the ancient world. We cannot ever encounter real Roman soldiers directly – much as time-travelling fantasy shows such as Doctor Who would like to pretend that we can. So all they can ever be to us are words and pictures in books which we bring to life with our minds – just as Amy does here. And one of the contexts in which we have collectively done that is in our screen portrayals of the Roman war-machine marching off to conquer and subdue – just like thousands of little battlefield miniatures:

Every director who has ever master-minded a Roman battle scene has known that he (or she) is fundamentally playing with life-sized toy soldiers. And now here is Steven Moffat, making that gloriously explicit.

Anyway, with all that swirling around in my head, you can imagine my delight when this little fellow appeared as part of this season’s line of Whovian merchandise:

This takes what was already a fantastic joke to a whole new level. Now instead of watching human actors playing plastic Roman soldiers on my television, I have my very own model of one of those soldiers which is actually made of plastic. A plastic plastic Roman. What could possibly be cooler than that?

That’s not all, either. Because while my new toy was still in his packet, it was perfectly clear what he was. It says so on the front: “Roman Auton”. But out of the packet – well, what is he now? Stripped of his label, he suddenly looks exactly like any other plastic Roman – the very toys that Moffat’s whole clever joke was based on in the first place. It’s only my subjective experience of having seen him in the packet first that makes him remain a plastic plastic Roman for me, as opposed to just an ordinary plastic Roman. I am constantly endowing him with a whole extra level of identity just through the power of my mind – much like Amy in The Pandorica Opens, in fact. :-)

In all fairness, I should probably add here that my little legionary is not the first plastic plastic Roman on this planet, and nor was Moffat the first person to put living toy Romans on television. That path had already been carved by Night at the Museum (2006) and its sequel (2009). In those films, the character of Octavius is a miniature museum display figure who comes to life every night – and he was released as a plastic toy figure in 2009 by none other than McDonalds:

Mind you, I think there’s no contest over which is the higher-quality figure, there.

It’s also worth noting that Character Options, who make the Doctor Who toys, have a track record of releasing somewhat tongue-in-cheek products. These are the people who offered up not only a Cassandra action figure to go alongside the season 1 episode The End of the World, but also a ‘Destroyed Cassandra’ for the season 2 episode New Earth. Yes, that’s right – an empty plastic frame sold in a packet with the words ‘Poseable Action Figure’ printed on the front:

They have, in fact, also released an ‘Underhenge Stone Roman Auton’, from the scene when those alien entities standing near to the Pandorica become fossilised as their home planets wink out of existence all around the Earth:

This time, he isn’t actually made of stone – what a swizz! But then again, should we expect him to be? Maybe when an Auton turns to stone, it takes on the appearance and consistency of stone while still remaining fundamentally plastic at a molecular level: just as it does when it takes the shape of a human being? And in any case, like his equivalent in the original TV episode, he does still constitute yet another lovely comment on the nature of our relationship with the ancient Roman world. Because of course another way in which we’re used to interacting with the remnants of the Roman past is via surviving stone images of soldiers and generals:

These are quite literally “after-images – fossils in time”, which is also what the Doctor calls the stone aliens in the Underhenge.

I’ve managed to resist actually purchasing a plastic stone Roman for the time being. I’m happy enough with the plastic plastic one for now. But I’ll also be keeping half an eye out for the day when Character release an empty packet with the words ‘Dematerialised TARDIS’ written on the front. You know they’re thinking about it…

Posted in classical receptions, doctor who, films, television, toys | 7 Comments »

Clash of the Titans (1981), dir. Desmond Davis

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on October 29, 2010

Today in Leeds, our department will be hosting a colloquium on Clash of the Titans. Our event will focus on the 2010 remake, but part of the inspiration for it was the news that an archive collection of the work of Ray Harryhausen, who produced and did the model work for the 1981 film, has recently been pledged to the National Media Museum in nearby Bradford. So I decided to take this as a prompt to sit down and watch the 1981 film properly.

Although I’ve seen substantial chunks of it before during random channel-hopping escapades on Bank Holiday weekends, this was the first time that I had watched Clash of the Titans from start to finish. And while on one level obviously it is cheesy and nonsensical and burdened with some truly terrible dialogue, I found a lot to enjoy here as well. Clash comes very much from the same stable as Jason and the Argonauts, with both using not only Ray Harryhausen’s model-work but also a screen-play written by Beverley Cross. So it is no great surprise to find that the basic structure of the heroic adventure at the centre of each film is very similar, or that they share particular characteristic motifs such as the direct portrayal of the Olympian gods playing games with the lives of men.

The story for Clash of the Titans is based on the legends of Perseus, but as has been pointed out elsewhere, it has a pretty strained relationship with any of the known ancient versions of Perseus’ story. That’s perfectly OK with me, though, because of course the entire point of mythological stories is that they are fantastical. There is no such thing as an ‘accurate’ telling of an ancient myth – poets and playwrights changed them constantly to suit the needs and interests of their audiences, and there is no reason why modern script-writers and directors shouldn’t do exactly the same. Indeed, Clash of the Titans actively revels in those creative possibilities, treating Greek mythology as an infinitely-flexible fantasy otherworld in which anything and everything can happen.

The visual aesthetic makes this very clear. The conventional approach to Greek mythology is to try to set it in a context which looks at least vaguely in keeping with a Bronze Age Aegean setting: that is what Troy (2004) did, for example, though they missed the mark on some points. But the world of Clash of the Titans is an unashamedly multi-period, multi-cultural fantasy-world, drawing freely on whatever takes its fancy. Even within the broad cultural parameters of the Greek world, it roams wildly though time: Minoan paintings from Akrotiri decorate the royal palace at Joppa, while a Classical-period theatre lies on the outskirts of the city. But that is as nothing next to the Egyptian obelisk outside the witches’ lair, the Assyrian winged bulls in the town of Joppa, and a modified version of the Roman Ara Pacis relief in the temple of Thetis:

Meanwhile, the market scenes in Joppa featured a lot of generically oriental (part Turkish, part Indian) costumes and characters, and the ferry-man Charon was a straight-forwardly medieval cloaked skeleton Death. I found that the whole mish-mash suddenly cast a whole new light for me on one of my favourite ’90s fantasy TV shows, Hercules: the Legendary Journeys, which operates in much the same sort of blurry, culturally-plural otherworld. Hercules rubbed shoulders with Greek heroes one week and Julius Caesar the next: to say nothing of Druids, Sultans and the infant Christ. And it isn’t just the aesthetic that the two have in common, either. The behaviour of the gods in Clash of the Titans is so similar to the ones found in Hercules that you only have to change the names for the portentous opening narration from the Hercules series to apply just as well to this movie:

“This is the story of a time long ago – a time of myth and legend, when the ancient gods were petty and cruel, and they plagued mankind with suffering. Only one man dared to challenge their power: Hercules. Hercules possessed a strength the world had never seen. A strength surpassed only by the power of his heart. He journeyed the Earth battling the minions of his wicked stepmother, Hera, the all-powerful Queen of the gods. But wherever there was evil, wherever an innocent would suffer, there would be: HERCULES.”

In fact, there are quite a few signs that the producers of Clash of the Titans thought of it as an SF/Fantasy film much more than a Classical epic: the hey-day of which had already passed two decades earlier, anyway. The use of stop-motion animation obviously does recall one earlier epic – that is, Jason and the Argonauts. But it has a much more firmly-established pedigree in the SF/Fantasy genre, through films like King Kong, the Godzilla movies or most of Ray Harryhausen’s other films. The climactic scene in which the Kraken rises up out of the sea to devour the princess Andromeda even contains direct nods to King Kong: not only do we have the basic device of an enormous monster menacing an attractive young woman, but he also bats at Perseus flying around him on the back of Pegasus, just like the giant gorilla had batted at the aeroplanes buzzing around him on top of the Empire State Building. I am not the first person to notice the striking resemblance between Bubo, the mechanical owl who communicates in clicks and whirrs that only Perseus can understand, and R2-D2 from Star Wars, either – whether coincidental (as Harryhausen claimed) or otherwise.

It is also a distinctly meta-referential film. We see Zeus directing the affairs of mortals by placing clay figurines in a scale model of a theatre, like a director masterminding his scenes – or, in this case, like Ray Harryhausen placing his own models. Meanwhile, in the ‘real’-world equivalent of the same theatre, Perseus meets a poet-cum-playwright, Ammon, who has already written a poem about his miraculous escape from a watery death as a tiny baby – scenes which we as the audience have witnessed at the beginning of the film. It is Ammon, too, who gives Perseus his ‘mission’ for the rest of the film (itself a classic SF/Fantasy trope) by telling him about the beautiful princess Andromeda and her plight – thus providing in-story direction for the main character. And when Perseus has finally fought off all the monsters and got the girl, Ammon happily comments, “This would make a fine heroic poem, you know. Or perhaps a play.” Or, indeed, perhaps a film. It’s too long since I have watched Jason and the Argonauts for me to remember how prominent this sort of content was in that film – although I certainly do remember its famous scenes of the gods playing games on Mount Olympus which are then enacted for real on Earth. It’s interesting, though, and perhaps something which the film’s rather tongue-in-cheek fantastical character provides extra room to play around with.

A couple of other clever features which rather tickled my fancy included the use of real ancient sites, merged with set-dressing and long shots of scale models to create an appropriate setting for the action. I was especially impressed by the use of one of the temples from Paestum to serve as the home of Medusa on the Isle of the Dead. Here, the ruined state of the temple becomes not a flaw to be hidden with clever camera-work, but something that is positively apt for the isolated, crumbling lair of a terrifying monster. So for once we have ruins as ruins, rather than seeing them trying to masquerade as recently constructed, yet inexplicably poorly-maintained, contemporary buildings.

I also thought that the scene where the statue of Thetis in her temple at Joppa comes to life and begins speaking directly to the terrified crowds was a great way of conveying how people understood and interacted with cult statues in the ancient world – very much as avatars of the deities whom they represented, with the god or goddess inherently present within them. It reminded me, too, of a rather similar scene with a statue of Zeus in Disney’s Hercules (1997) – so that’s another version of the Hercules story which may very well be drawing on the legacy of Clash.

Then again, there were things to be disappointed about, too. I couldn’t help but notice that Perseus’ great quest essentially consists of him stomping about the place vanquishing women (the Stygian witches, Medusa), people with deformities or disabilities (Calibos, the Stygian witches) or animals (a budget Cerberus with only two heads, Medusa, the scorpions, the Kraken). And OK, so most of that is just imported directly from Greek mythology. Greek men do seem to have spent an awful lot of time inventing Others whom they could then loathe, fear and condemn – and if you try to rule that out of modern re-workings of their stories altogether, you end up with precious little left. But in the case of Calibos in particular, I felt that there was some distinctly unpleasant contemporary politics-of-otherness going on as well. Because his monstrosity is not represented not just via horns, a tail and a stooped posture, but also through dark skin and tight curly hair.

In other words, this particular monster is distinctly Afro-Caribbean-looking. So the heroic white man gets to be racist as well as misogynistic and ableist. Fun times! :-( Realistically, I don’t ask cheesy entertainment-fests like Clash of the Titans to actively challenge and tackle attitudes like that. But it would be nice at least if they could manage not to add gratuitous new negative stereotypes where they aren’t already inherent in the source material.

Posted in classical receptions, films, greek mythology, ray harryhausen, reviews, roman art, television | 7 Comments »

 
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