'Pompeii' sent to do battle with tales of old
On the morning of August 24, 79AD, the skies above the Bay of Naples turned black as a massive volcanic explosion blew the top off Mount Vesuvius and sent down a terrifying rain of ash and rubble. A lot of it fell on Pompeii, a busy provincial Roman town that was buried in minutes and lay frozen in time till a Spanish engineer rediscovered it in the mid-18th Century.
The fall of Pompeii has been the subject of numerous books and a number of films, the latest of which is a hi-tech disaster movie that opens here in a couple of weeks. Paul WS Anderson's Pompeii cobbles together a backstory involving a Roman general's cruel slaughter of a tribe of Celtic horsemen, the last surviving member of which grows up to be a popular gladiator in Pompeii's amphitheatre, and the movie's hero. He falls in love of course, but the real business of this film is the CGI explosion that shatters the peace of the seaside town and proceeds to teach those smug Romans a lesson.
The poor Romans have tended to get a pretty bad press in the movies. During the era of the great Hollywood epics, they were generally portrayed as the baddies, debauched and venal wine-swilling sex addicts, who tried but failed to corrupt our hero, who was usually a Christian, or recently converted Jew.
In films like Ben-Hur, The Sign of the Cross and Quo Vadis, Romans might win the argument on the ground, but you were left in no doubt that God was waiting for them in the long grass of eternity. This hopelessly narrow-minded view ignores the extraordinary achievements and overall benevolence of Roman rule, and overlooks the fact that the Roman Empire was a bastion of relative civilisation in a sea of cruelty and barbarism.
Most films about Rome don't make much historical sense if you examine them up close, but though silly in the main, a lot of them have been hugely entertaining. And here and there a sensible Roman film has turned up to provide a more balanced assessment.
Most people are familiar with the 1959 version of Ben-Hur, but that film was actually a remake of perhaps the first Great Roman epic. Fred Niblo's spectacular 1925 version cost a then-staggering $3.9m (€2.8m) to make and would remain the most expensive silent movie ever made.
Mexican star Roman Navarro starred as Judah Ben-Hur, a wealthy Jewish prince in the time of Christ, whose boyhood friend Messala has grown up to become a Roman Tribune. When a tile falls off the roof of Ben-Hur's house and injures the new Roman governor of Judea, he's imprisoned before proving himself as a gladiator and recovering his reputation.
Ben-Hur's Romans were a bad lot, and director Fred Niblo missed no opportunity to prove it. Topless dancers symbolised the empire's debauchery, and its cruelty was demonstrated in the film's famous chariot races. MGM boss Louis B Mayer was apparently not impressed with initial rushes of the race sequence, and offered a prize of $100 (€72) for the winner. This may have led to a horrific crash killing a stuntman. William Wyler was an assistant director on the 1925 film, and took charge of the handsome Technicolor 1959 remake, which did an even better job of filming the chariot races without killing anyone, though I suspect horses were not so lucky.
English character actor Charles Laughton was cast several times as dubious Romans. His fleshy face and portly screen presence made him a perfect fit to play the lunatic emperor Nero in Cecil B DeMille's entertaining 1932 epic The Sign of the Cross. Laughton went for it as the debauched despot, who burns central Rome to the ground and then decides to blame the fire on the Christians. Frederic March co-starred as a noble prefect who faces a conflict of loyalties when he falls for a Christian woman.
Laughton also starred in perhaps the greatest Roman film of all, Spartacus (see panel), playing the crafty but essentially decent senator Gracchus. But his performance as the Emperor Claudius in a 1937 production based on Robert Graves' novel I, Claudius was lost when the film was abruptly cancelled. Some footage remains, and the BBC transformed Graves' novel into a splendid TV drama in the 1970s.
The story of Cleopatra and Mark Antony has been filmed at least 10 times. Claudette Colbert played a sultry Cleopatra in Cecil B DeMille's 1934 film of the same name, who uses her womanly wiles to hoodwink first Julius Caesar and then his buddy Mark Antony, provoking a civil war.
Vivien Leigh starred in a 1945 film called Caesar and Cleopatra, but it bombed at the box office, and the definitive version of the story is probably Joseph L Mankiewicz's 1963 epic Cleopatra. It was famously the set on which Liz Taylor (Cleopatra) and Richard Burton (Mark Antony) fell in love, and it's also one of the most expensive movies ever made.
And let's not forget the Carry On team's bargain bucket 1964 version of the story, Carry On Cleo, in which Kenneth Williams played Julius Caesar and got to shriek the immortal line "Infamy, infamy – they've all got it in for me!"
Hollywood has found it hard to forgive the Romans for killing Christ, and the Passion has been mulled over in dozens of epics from Barabbas and The Robe to King of Kings and The Greatest Story Ever Told. In the latter film, John Wayne made a cameo as perhaps the most unlikely screen centurion ever, who looked up at the passing Christ and drawled, "truly he is the son a' Gawd".
Most of these films featured a star-struck Roman convert and demonised the empire as a whole. King of Kings and The Greatest Story Ever Told were hopelessly po-faced, and the Monty Python team lampooned them most effectively in Life of Brian (1979), which portrayed the Romans as world-weary administrators, who'd treat the Jews tolerably well if they'd only follow the rules. In perhaps the film's funniest passage, a Judean revolutionary asks a secret meeting "what have the Romans ever given us?" and is met by a long list of civilising accomplishments.
It all had to end sometime of course, and in the vastly underrated 1964 epic The Fall of the Roman Empire we were given a glimpse of the end of days. Anthony Mann's three-hour drama did badly at the box office but was intelligent and restrained, and charted the chaos that followed the death of the much-loved emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius.
Ridley Scott used the film as inspiration for his very successful action epic Gladiator (2000), which told essentially the same story and starred Russell Crowe as a betrayed general, who becomes a gladiator and gets his chance to avenge himself on the evil Commodus.
Gladiator was a much glossier and prettier film, but nothing like as good.