Brit flicks go epic

A fresh slew of sword-and-sandal epics shows that cinema's appetite for a toga or two never seems to fade, says Geoffrey Macnab
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The Independent Culture

The togas are back! In the coming months there will be several new sword-and-sandal films released in British cinemas. First, Warner Bros will be whisking us back to the world of Zeus, Perseus, Poseidon, Apollo and Medusa with a remake of Clash of the Titans starring Avatar's Sam Worthington. Neil Marshall's Centurion (out later in the spring and starring Dominic West and Michael Fassbender) is about the travails of the Roman Ninth Legion at the hands of the hairy and ferocious Pict warriors. Due for release in the early autumn is Kevin Macdonald's similarly themed Eagle of the Ninth (based on the children's novel by Rosemary Sutcliff). This is about a young Roman centurion's attempts to discover what happened to the Ninth Legion, which went missing 20 years before. Meanwhile, the egregious Tinto Brass is preparing Who Killed Caligula?, which is being billed as "the first erotic comedy in stereoscopic 3D."

There shouldn't be any surprise about the new flurry of epics. This is a form of film-making that is almost as old as cinema itself and has never gone away. The latest upsurge comes only a few years after Ridley Scott's Gladiator, Wolfgang Petersen's Troy, Oliver Stone's Alexander, Zack Snyder's 300 and Doug Lefler's The Last Legion.

There are certain sword-and-sandal stories that have been made into films again and again. Quo Vadis was first brought to the screen in 1902. The earliest Ben-Hur movie was made way back in 1907 by the Kalem Company, who staged the famous chariot race on a New Jersey beach. Available to watch online in a very grainy and jerky print, this is a notable film on several levels. Not only is it one of the first Roman "epics" (albeit only a quarter-of-an-hour long), it also provoked what some claim was the first ever lawsuit over motion picture rights. The film had been made without the permission of either the Ben-Hur author General Lew Wallace or of the Broadway impresarios Mark Klaw and Abraham Erlanger, who had brought Wallace to the stage. Kalem lost the case for copyright violation and were ordered to pay $25,000 in damages.

Even 100 years ago, the attraction of the toga movie was self-evident. Over the last century, toga films have offered spectacle, political and religious allegory, action, eroticism, humour and a way to show off new widescreen technology. B-movie directors and revered, big-name directors alike have experimented with the form.

Not surprisingly, the Italians were the first to bring Roman history to the screen in truly epic fashion. Enrico Guazzoni's version of Quo Vadis (1912), Mario Caserini's The Last Days of Pompeii (1913) and Giovanni Pastrone's Cabiria (1914) set the benchmark. These were films on a grandiose scale with elaborate production design and huge armies of extras. They offered volcanic explosions and burning cities, lions and tortured Christians. These films were the Avatars of their day, drawing huge audiences. They had an immense influence on D W Griffith, the pioneering American director of The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916). There was also a strong strain of nationalism running through them – a celebration of Roman imperialism and military might.

"The association of the historical costume film with Italian nationalism is very suggestive," writes the historian Steven Ricci in Cinema and Fascism: Italian film and society, 1922-1943. "The political rhetoric of expansionism, which called for the aggressive establishment of new colonial empires, was represented as nothing less than the enactment of a manifest destiny inaugurated by the "Italian" experience of the Roman Empire."

In post-fascist Italy, the toga movie had a very different resonance. Alessandro Blasetti's Fabiola (1948), about the illicit love affair between a senator's daughter and a Christian gladiator, was regarded by Italian audiences as an allegory about the Second World War. Just as the Christians were persecuted by the Romans, so were those in the Italian resistance.

Initially, at least, toga-and-tunic movies were all about scale and spectacle. That was what MGM tried to provide with its big-budget version of Ben-Hur (1925), a wildly extravagant affair initially shot in Rome. The project was behind schedule, way over budget and turning into a fiasco when the studio bosses called the cast and crew back to Hollywood.

The historian Kevin Brownlow has described it as a "sort of Dunkirk of the cinema; a humiliating defeat transformed, after heavy losses, into a brilliant victory." In spite of its chaotic beginnings, it became a runaway box-office success. The chariot race was shot with over 40 cameras and provided the example by which big action set-pieces would be measured for many years afterwards.

In the 1950s, when Hollywood was trying to lure viewers away from their TV sets and back into the cinemas, toga movies were prime bait. The Robe (1953), shot in CinemaScope, and the remake of Quo Vadis (1951) were on a similar scale to the Italian silent-era epics that inspired them. The biblical themes were dealt with in earnest and sermonising fashion, but both were on a monumental scale and threw in plenty of swordfighting in among the preaching.

The action has never been the problem in the sword-and-sandal/togagenre. Where the form has often creaked is in the characterisation; and in the costumes, especially when the actors' knees have been exposed. From Richard Burton to Colin Farrell, intense, testosterone-driven stars have looked very silly indeed when they have been whisked back to classical antiquity. As his biographer Melvyn Bragg noted, Burton was especially unfortunate in Alexander the Great; fitting the mercurial Welshman with a blond cowpat wig was a definite mistake. "Burton, blandly blond and in a lady's tennis tunic fashionable at Wimbledon in the Thirties, looked on helplessly as an unstoppable rush of clichés fled from his lips."

There was an element of kitsch and self-parody in the sword-and-sandal films starring bodybuilder-turned- actor Steve Reeves, who became a very big star in the late 1950s. Italian films like Hercules and Hercules Unchained weren't taken altogether seriously by critics, especially when dubbed into English.

Fantasy adventures that featured Gorgons and dancing skeletons designed by special-effects wizard Ray Harryhausen were likewise taken at least partially tongue in cheek by producers and audiences alike.

The problem came when the toga film began to take itself too seriously. Robert Wise's version of Helen of Troy (1956) was called by critics a "monumental epic of dullness". Too many supporting characters in false beards and wigs and too much pomp and ceremony undermined a story that needed to be told with far more humour.

Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus (1960) was a rare example of a Hollywood sword-and-sandal saga from this era that successfully combined the epic and the intimate. It wasn't weighed down by the woolly religious moralising found in Quo Vadis and The Robe. Kirk Douglas brought such intensity to his role as the slave-turned-gladiator that audiences were never distracted by the short-cut costumes and the actors' knobbly knees.

Censorship rules and Hollywood prudery have stopped most toga movies from exploring the decadence of ancient Rome. That certainly wasn't a problem with Tinto Brass's notorious version of Caligula (1979). Some very big-name actors (Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, John Gielgud and Peter O'Toole) joined the project on the basis of the Gore Vidal screenplay. Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione then hijacked the production, turning it into pornography. Even today, McDowell defends aspects of the project, calling it "a very authentic look at ancient Rome of Caligula's particular period." The debauchery wasn't just Guccione's invention. McDowell plays Caligula as an anarchist rather than a madman. The film boasts inventive production and costume design from Fellini collaborators. However, thanks to Guccione's tinkering, it was transformed into a garish exploitation pic.

In the CGI era, sword-and-sandal movies are more affordable than in the days of The Robe and Quo Vadis. Alongside the big effects-driven films like the new Clash of the Titans, there are now films from independent producers that are pushing the genre in new directions. Advance word suggests that Neil Marshall's Centurion and Macdonald's Eagle of the Ninth have a brutality and muddy realism that you wouldn't find in the sword-and-sandal epics of yesteryear. Gone for good, it seems, are the days when actors in togas looked like Home Counties tennis players.

'Clash of the Titans' is released on 2 April

Sandals of time: Five top turns in togas

1. Kenneth Williams in Carry On Cleo

"Infamy! Infamy! They've all got it in for me..." Williams's Julius Caesar is preposterous, but no more so than many actors who've donned the toga in films that were ostensibly serious.

2. Victor Mature in The Robe

Rugged and saturnine, Victor Mature had the physical stature to wear a toga without ever quite looking like a man in a mini-skirt.

3. Ramon Novarro in Ben-Hur (1925)

Novarro brought a febrile and edgy quality to the role of 'Ben-Hur'.

4. Peter Ustinov in Quo Vadis (1951)

Ustinov made a very porcine Nero and seemed to derive real pleasure from feeding the Christians to the lions.

5. Peter O'Toole in Caligula (1979)

This is O'Toole at his most manic and deranged. Watching his Tiberius, you get a sense of how he must have been on stage as 'Macbeth'.