Swords and sandals: A bid for box-office glory

The Romans (and Greeks) are coming! Classical myths, legends and almost-true stories are about to invade a cinema near you

Andrew Johnson
Sunday 28 February 2010 01:00

They came, they saw, and – in a bid for box-office glory – ransacked the props room for swords and sandals. A phalanx of films based on the myths and history of ancient Greece and Rome – from the killing of the snake-haired Medusa to the doomed love of Antony and Cleopatra – is about to hit cinema screens thanks to the runaway success of the bloodthirsty Spartans film, 300, which saw audiences stump up nearly £300m in 2007 to see a retelling of the story of the battle of Thermopylae. Since then, producers have plundered the classical world for stories of heroes, gods and monsters.

The true story of the Roman general Mark Antony and Egypt's Queen Cleopatra is to be retold in a 1920s setting; Ben Hur, the 1959 epic famous for its chariot race, is to be a mini series; and Jason and his Argonauts are off to find the Golden Fleece again nearly 50 years after the myth became a special-effects extravaganza. Also coming soon are Centurion and Eagle of the Ninth, both about Roman soldiers dealing with drizzle, mist and rebellious Celts in ancient Britain.

Warring gods come to blows in a remake of 1981's Clash of the Titans as well as in Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, in which Hades, Poseidon and Zeus fight it out over modern-day New York. So far it has made £83m.

Dr Carl Buckland, who lectures on the influence of the classical world on contemporary culture at the University of Nottingham, said modern audiences are little different to their ancient ancestors in their attitudes. "The real influence in the last few years has been 300," he said. Its innovative retelling of the famous battle in 480BC – when 300 Spartan held their ground against hundreds of thousands of Persian invaders – was based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller. It blended live action and cartoon-style visuals and made £260m profit.

Dr Buckland explained the appeal saying: "Part of it is that we like to think it was a better, more simple, world of white marble and columns. It wasn't of course. It was dirty and smelly just like today. They are not only great stories, however. The ancient Greeks were very good at showing the East as a bad thing. The hardy Greeks and Romans looked on the East as a place where too much luxury had corrupted the people. That kind of attitude – that the West is good and the East is corrupt, is still in society today. You could say we have not changed much in 3,000 years."

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