Monday, March 31, 2014

Hollywood Romans #10 The Silver Chalice

"I need no wings to fly"

The Silver Chalice
Warner Brothers 1954
142 minutes
Directed by: Victor Saville
Written by: Thomas B. Costain and Lesser Samuels
Starring: Paul Newman, Virginia Mayo, Lorene Green, Jack Palance, Pier Angeli, and Natalie Wood

Based upon the best selling novel by Thomas Costain, The Silver Chalice was Warner Brothers’ attempt to cash in on the popularity of Sword & Sandal films kicked off by the success of MGM’s 1951 box office hit, Quo Vadis.  However, almost from the opening frame it is clear that Warner Brothers and their director, Victor Saville, had no idea what they were doing.

Made for about half what Quo Vadis cost and without Peter Ustinov as Nero, The Silver Chalice nevertheless boasts a roster of talent that should have insured a good return on WB’s investment.  Many of the actors were already well established (Natile Wood, Virginia Mayo, Jack Palance) but the cast also included a couple of noteworthy debuts among them Lorne Greene and Paul Newman.  Yet even these talented actors can do little to improve a script that is both too earnest and too unfocused at the same time.

                               Loren Greene as Peter and Paul Newman as Basil

There are several competing subplots, but essentially the story concerns a Greek sculptor (Paul Newman), sold into slavery, who is set free, both physically and emotionally, by the commission given him, from Joseph of Arimathea, to create a silver chalice to hold the Holy Grail.

This commission takes Newman’s character, Basil, from Antioch to Jerusalem and then on to Rome where he finds Peter (Lorne Greene) running a small tavern, and Simon (Jack Palance) performing at Nero’s palace as the ancient world equivalent of Penn & Teller.  Newman also enjoys romantic interludes with Helena (Virginia Mayo) and Deborra (Pier Angeli).  Beyond that the story is imminently forgettable and easily interchangeable with any number of other films dealing with Romans and Christians including The Robe and its sequel, Demetrius And the Gladiators.  Generally, the Romans are corrupt pagans, and the Christians virtuous martyrs.  Oh, and as the climax is set in Rome, there is the obligatory riot by the Mob because, as Hollywood has taught us, that’s what the Roman Mob does – it riots.

What makes this film noteworthy are neither the story nor the acting, but the costumes and sets, though not for their historical accuracy, but rather just the opposite.

                               Helena led away by the Praetorians

While the Roman legionaries and Praetorian Guards wear standard Hollywood Roman armor and the Roman citizens wear non descript tunics, the costumes worn by Jack Palance are straight out of a B-grade Science Fiction film and indeed the makeup poor Virginia Mayo is saddled with makes her look like ZaaZaa Gabor from the 1950’s Sci-Fi classic, The Queen Of Outer Space.

                               Jack Palance as Simone the Magician and Virginia Mayo as Helena. 
                              As for the design on Simone’s costume, they might be snakes or perhaps …

Interestingly, although the legionaries and Praetorians have round metal shields, wear red tunics & capes, greaves, and carry spears, their helmets are not outrageously bad (like those in Gladiator) and even more remarkable – some of the soldiers are not wearing bracers!  How the costume designer got this right, and so much else wrong, is baffling particularly given the outrageous nature of the other costumes.  It is also worth noting that in this film (like so many others) the legionaries seem to enjoy lounging about at dinner while still wearing their armor!  That could not have been very comfortable, for actor or for soldier. 

Better still are the sets, which display a fine example of Abstract Minimalist Art.  Nero’s Palace looks like Las Vegas, except even Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas displays more affinity for ancient Rome that these sets do.   The sets are more reminiscent of the original Star Trek TV series, and one expects Kirk and Spock to walk in at any moment and complain that someone has violated the Prime Directive, which, come to think of it, actually seemed to happen a lot on that series.

                               Simone and Helena at Simone’s home in Rome.  Judging from 
                               the wall d├ęcor is it any wonder that Simone was crazed?

This is not to say the sets are either cheap or un-artistic.  Far from it, and in fact the Art Director, Boris Levin and the Set Decorator, Howard Bristol, both have several great films to their credits including West Side Story, The Sound Of Music, The Andromeda Strain and Rope, to name a few.

Likewise, the story of the film is more interesting than the story told by the film.

The part of Basil, the Greek Sculptor, was first offered to James Dean, but he passed on the advice of his agent who thought the script poor.  The part was then offered to Paul Newman who had lost out to Dean for the starring role in East of Eden.  That film made Dean a star, while The Silver Chalice, nearly sank Newman’s career before it had even set sail.  One contemporary critic said of Newman’s acting, he delivers his lines with the emotional fervor of a Putnam Division conductor announcing local stops.” In fact, when the film was first shown on television in 1961, Newman took out a full-page ad in the Hollywood trade papers apologizing for his performance and asking the public not to watch the broadcast.  Predictably, the ad had the opposite effect and the film enjoyed a robust TV audience share.

                               Paul Newman and Pier Angeli – Newman’s protests
                               not withstanding, his performance is not that bad.

Filming another movie on the same lot, Dean actually came to watch Newman work and see what he had passed up.  It was on the set of The Silver Chalice that Dean met the love of his life, Pier Angeli.  Years later, upon Dean’s untimely death, Newman would replace him in the boxing film Somebody Up There Likes Me, working once again with Pier Angeli.  That film reignited Newman’s career, and he remained a top star for the rest of his life.

                               “I need no wings to fly!” Jack Palance as Simone the Magician.

Beyond the sets and the unintentional humor, there is little to recommend this film, other than perhaps Jack Palance’s scenery chewing performance.  Although he is playing the character as crazed, Palance is clearly in control.  His talent is both obvious and remarkable.  The director no doubt meant this as a serious performance, but it is now a stand out example of High Camp at its best.  In fact it now seems clear, given recent performances by Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino and Nicholas Cage, that Jack Palance had as great an influence on American actors as did Brando, Olivier, or Wells.

Sometimes even the most earnest on intentions bring about unintended results, so perhaps it is incorrect to say this film has no merit.  On the contrary, there is enough ridiculousness here to recommend this film for a hot summer night when there is nothing else on.  So pop some corn and enjoy. 

                               Jacques Aubuchon as Emperor Nero

These short scenes from the Turner Classic Movies web site should give you a good feel for the film and the remarkably strange sets:

The DVD is currently available from Amazon.

This Review first appeared on the Ancient Warfare Magazine website in July, 2011
(c)2011 David L Reinke

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

SRB School 6th Grade History Class Notes - Ancient Greek Hoplites (2/27/14

Ancient Greek Hoplite Shields
6th Grade History Class – 2/27/14

Each City-State maintained an army of citizen soldiers who served in the army only when called upon.  After basic training (usually between the ages of 18-20) these citizens worked as farmers, merchants, and craftsmen.  They were not professional soldiers, however, because the Greek City-States were constantly fighting with each other, many of these citizen soldiers served with the army for a few months every year.

Each citizen was expected to provide his own armor and weapons, which could be quite expensive.  The cost of the full panoply for a foot soldier was about the same as the price of a modern automobile.  Thus the very rich would serve as cavalry (because they could afford the cost of a horse) while poor citizens would serve as light infantry (with simple weapons and little or no armor).  It was the middle class, citizens just like your parents, who formed the backbone of the army – the heavy infantry called Hoplites.

The word hoplite comes from the word hoplon, which is the name for the soldier’s distinctive shield.  (The word hoplon also refers to the hoplite’s complete panoply of armor & weapons).

The Hoplite’s shield was 3 feet in diameter and weighed from 15 to 20 pounds!

It was made of wood covered in bronze with the inner side covered in leather.  The arm and handgrips were made of leather reinforced with bronze.  The shield was carried on the left arm and protected the hoplite’s left side as well as the right side of his neighbor.  So it was then that each hoplite depended upon his fellow soldiers for protection.

The Hoplite also wore a bronze helmet, often with a horsehair crest to make the Hoplite appear taller, and greaves made of bronze to protect his legs.  Over his body he wore a cuirass made of linen or leather sometimes reinforced with bronze scales.  The very rich could afford armor made of bronze or brass, but the linen cuirass (called a linothorax) was favored by the hoplites because of its lightweight and easy maneuverability. 

Although the Hoplite was well armed with a thrusting spear (6-8 feet long) and a sword (about 2’ long) there was a problem.  These weapons were, generally speaking, not strong enough to penetrate a Hoplite’s shield.  Thus most battles between hoplites became a shoving match, much like a modern day rugby scrum – the first formation to fall apart or to be knocked over lost the battle.  Most soldiers did not die in the battle itself, but were killed when they broke ranks and retreated.


Unlike his fellow Greeks, the Spartan Hoplite was a professional soldier – all he ever did, throughout his entire life from the age of 7 until he was 60, was train for war.  Although armed like other Hoplites, the Spartan did have two very distinctive items: his red tunic and cape. 

What set the Spartan Hoplite apart from those of the other City States was his superior training and discipline.  The Spartans did sometimes lose a battle and on very rare occasions they did retreat, but their reputation as formidable soldiers was well earned.  At Thermopylae, the Spartans did hold their ground and fought to the death.

The Persian Immortals

By contrast, consider the Persian Immortals.  Like the Spartan Hoplites, the Immortals were professional soldiers who spent their days training for war.  During times of peace the Immortals were the King’s bodyguard, while on campaign they were the elite backbone of the entire Persian army.

This sculptural freeze from the royal palace at Susa shows the Immortals in their parade uniforms richly adorned with silver, gold and precious stones.  Each Immortal was armed with a bow & arrows, a short sword and a thrusting spear with a counter weight of sliver (gold for officers).  There is no doubt that the Immortals looked impressive on parade. 

Were they really immortal?

No, not exactly.  They were called ‘The Immortals’ because whenever they suffered casualties those soldiers were immediately replaced so that there were always 10,000 soldiers on duty.  The Greek historian Herodotus was the first to use the title ‘Immortals’ but it is possible he confused the Persian word for Companions with that for Immortals.
(See Jona Lendering’s excellent website for details )

How did they compare to the Hoplites in battle?

The Immortals were professional soldiers, well trained and highly motivated.  They always displayed great courage and steadfast discipline as did their officers.  They were good soldiers, however …

The Immortals were ill equipped for fighting against the Hoplites.

Their arrows were ineffective against the Hoplite’s armor and although their spear points were made of iron, they could not penetrate the bronze shields of the Hoplites.  The Immortals did wear scale armor underneath their tunic, but unlike the Hoplites they had no protection for their legs.  Instead of bronze helmets the Immortals wore a cloth cap.

As for their shields, the Immortals carried shields made of wicker and covered in animal hide.  These were lightweight and easy to handle but offered little protection against the heavy weapons of the Greeks.

Now About Those Hoplite Shields …

The Hoplites often decorated their shields with images and symbols that held a special meaning to them.  Some cities, like Sparta, used the same symbol on all their shields, while others displayed a wide range of images taken from mythology or nature.

As you can see from these examples mythical creatures like the Cyclopes, Medusa and Pegasus were very popular.  So too were animals like the dolphin, octopus, horse and bull.  Some hoplites favored geometric patterns while others used the image of a ship or a soldier.

Today’s Exercise

Design your own Hoplite shield.  You may use a classical image from mythology or something more modern.  The choice is your, but it should be an image that has a special meaning to you.  Perhaps something from your family history (where you were born) or an item you really like (a family pet or your favorite hero).  The design and colors are totally up to you.  However …
Be prepared to explain your shield and its meaning.  

This assignment is due at the beginning of the next class and you may be called upon to explain your shield’s meaning to the rest of the class.


Sources, Further Reading and Links of Interest


Warfare In The Classical World by John Warry, ©1980  ISBN: 0-312-85614-8

Greece And Rome At War by Peter Connolly, ©1981 ISBN:0-13-364976-8

The Spartans by Nicholas V Sekunda, ©1998 ISBN:1-85532-948-4

Ancient Greece by Anne Pearson, ©1992 ISBN: 0-7894-5724-4

The Greeks by Susan Peach & Anne Millard, ©1990 ISBN: 0-7460-0342-0

Thermopylae The Battle For The West by Ernle Bradford, ©1980 ISBN: 0-306-80531-6


Hoplite Shield Construction

Hoplite in the Ancient History Encyclopedia  

The Immortals & Spartans  

One of the very best websites for Ancient history and in particular Ancient Persia is Livius created by Dutch Historian Jona Lendering.  His command of the ancient sources is remarkable and his analysis always insightful.  His web site should be your ‘go to’ source on the internet.


Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Hollywood Romans #4 Box Office Gladiators

Of Charioteers, Gladiators and George Lucas

By David L Reinke

George Lucas’s Blockbusting
Edited by Alex Block & Lucy Wilson
(c)2010  ISBN: 978-0-06-177889-6

Noted scholar Adrian Goldsworthy recently remarked that gladiators are one aspect of ancient Rome everyone knows about. “Hollywood has this strange obsession, with virtually every epic or drama set in the Roman period there will be a gladiator or two, hanging about somewhere.”1

Indeed, Hollywood has fed us such a steady stream of Roman gladiator movies that it is now impossible to conceive of one without the other.  Is it any wonder that the Colosseum, the premiere venue for gladiatorial combat, is the iconic symbol for the city of Rome?

More properly known as the Flavian Amphitheatre, it is truly a marvel of engineering, able to seat over 50,000 spectators and housing a sophisticated system of trap doors and mechanical lifts in the theatre’s floor. Even the ruins themselves are impressive and one can easily understand why the Colosseum was selected to represent Rome.

And yet …

If you were to ask a citizen of ancient Rome what their favorite sports venue was, they would most likely answer the Circus.  Rome contained several, the most famous being the Circus Maximus.

Known throughout the empire, the Circus Maximus could seat over 380,000 spectators who watched Wild Beast Hunts, gladiatorial combats, and, most importantly, Chariot Races.  There was perhaps no more popular entertainment in ancient Rome than the chariot races.  In fact the fans were so devoted to the various teams (or factiomnes) that it was not usual for fights to break out, sometimes requiring the intervention of the Guard to restore order, often at considerable loss of life among the civilian populace. (Imagine dispatching the Grenadier Guards in full battle kit to quell the crowds at a soccer game.) 2

It is interesting to note that modern stadiums, like that in Michigan, seat a mere 110,000 and even the largest in the world, in North Korea, tops out at 150, 000.

So it should come as no surprise that with modern movie audiences too, chariot racing is more popular than gladiator fights.


How can that be true?  Wasn’t the film Gladiator a big hit?  Didn’t Peter Graves ask Billy if he liked Gladiator movies?  And what about Spartacus – both the film and the current series on the Starz Network?  Besides, Professor Goldsworthy just said that Hollywood is obsessed with gladiators …

Yes, but the numbers tell a different tale.

In his new book, Blockbusting, George Lucas and his editors, Alex Block and Lucy Wilson, have put together a compendium of statistics, facts, figures and some behind the scenes trivia, about 300 of the biggest films in Hollywood history.  Although the list is limited to US made films, ranked by their US Box Office receipts, it is none the less an impressive assembly, one in which films about the ancient world are well represented.

The book is divided into decades with each chapter examining different aspects of the film business as well as taking an in-depth look as representative films from that decade.  These in-depth examinations include all the vital information about the film (costs, domestic box office, cast & crew, award nominations, etc.) as well as a short essay dealing with the struggle to bring that film to the screen.

Hollywood thinks of the ancient world as two film genres: Biblical Extravaganzas and Sword & Sandal Epics.  Of course, not all such films are set in Rome, however the Roman Empire has been the most often used backdrop for these epics and it is well represented in this book.

A few of the films given the “in depth” treatment in Blockbusting:

Intolerance 1916
Cleopatra 1917
The Ten Commandments 1923
Ben-Hur 1925
Cleopatra 1934
Samson and Delilah 1949
Quo Vadis 1951
The Robe 1953
The Ten Commandments 1956
Ben-Hur 1959
Spartacus 1960
Cleopatra 1963
Gladiator 2000
Passion of the Christ 2004 

The associated essays are lively and informative, brimming over with interesting trivia such as:

Kirk Douglas wanted Spartacus to have its premiere in Rome, at the Baths of Caracalla, after the Olympics finished. However, Paramount’s publicity department needed additional time so the film had a more traditional opening in New York on October 6th. (Page 443)

Quo Vadis, MGM’s extravagant answer to the threat posed by television, was first considered for film back in 1935 with Marlene Dietrich as Poppaea.  For the aborted 1942 attempt both Orson Wells and Charles Laughton were considered for the role of Nero.  Even Gregory Peck was briefly cast.  When the cameras finally did roll, in 1951, there were 200 speaking parts, 30,000 extras and 120 lions. (Page 349)

For his 1934 production of Cleopatra, Cecil B. DeMille did extensive research that included ordering a copy of the sixteen-volume French Military Survey of Egypt.  A stickler for authenticity, when he learned that the Romans used snow to cool their wine, DeMille decided to use real frost scraped from the studio’s refrigeration pipes.  Likewise, he insisted that real grapes be used on set and had them flown in from Argentina where they were still in season. Even the Asp was real. (Page 185)

For the 1963 Fox remake, director Joseph L. Mankewicz, having shot over 120 miles of film, wanted to release two 3-Hour movies: Caesar and Cleopatra and Antony and Cleopatra.  However, Fox’s new leader, Darryl Zanuck insisted on a single 4-hour epic. (Page 461)

 Given the list above, Cleopatra would seem to be the most popular ancient history topic and even now Hollywood has two more biopics about that fabled queen in development.  However, modern audiences, like their ancient counterparts, prefer their entertainment fast and bloody.  In the battle for box office laurels, according to Lucas, charioteers not only beat the Queen, but the gladiators as well. (Ben-Hur ranks at #9, while Cleopatra comes in at #34 and Gladiator a distant #202.)

Blockbusting takes a detailed look at the production costs and box office revenues of several films, two of which just happen to be Ben-Hur and Gladiator.  In fact the book directly compares the two, and the numbers are fascinating.3

                                    Ben-Hur                                 Gladiator
US Box Office            $704.2                                     $223.2
Foreign Box Office     $608.6                                     $321.0
Total Box Office         $1,312.8                                  $544.2

Production Cost          $106.7                                     $116.8
Print & Ads                 $98.4                                       $59.5
Distribution                 $155.7                                     $94.6
P&L                            $230.0                                     -$20.6
Length                         217 minutes                             154 minutes
Principal Photo            200 days                                  89 days
Oscar Nominations     12                                            12
Oscar Wins                 11                                            5

It would appear from the chart above that Ben-Hur was bigger than Gladiator in everyway, and in fact there was much more riding on the success of the former than the latter.

As the 1950’s drew to a close MGM, as a working studio, was in serious trouble.  Yes, their library of past films was impressive, but unless they could turn out a new hit the Studio faced bankruptcy.  Noticing the success Paramount was enjoying with their remake of The Ten Commandments (still the box office champ of Ancient Epics) MGM also turned to history, and, staking their future on a single throw of the dice, bankrolled a “go for broke” remake of their own Ben-Hur.

Despite Paramount’s success, MGM was still taking a huge risk given that their original production of Ben-Hur had been fraught with problems and had garnered only modest box office returns.  Indeed the new production, besides being expensive, had its own challenges and set backs, not least of which was the death of the film’s producer, Sam Zimblest, who left the set with chest pains and died forty minutes later.4

However, the gamble paid off and paid off big.  Ben-Hur received 11 Oscars, including Best Picture, and is still ranked in the top ten of All Time US Box Office Champs. 

By comparison, Gladiator, though credited with reviving the Sword & Sandal genre in post Star Wars Hollywood and despite receiving five Oscars out of 11 nominations, has yet to turn a profit.  Its US Box Office ranking is 202, well below Ben-Hur at #9 or even Spartacus at #158.

It seems that, when it comes to putting down one’s own money, audiences would rather watch the slave turned charioteer than the slave turned gladiator.  No doubt it is a matter of personal taste, but in Hollywood taste doesn’t matter, only Box Office does.

If there are failings with this book they are acts of omission.  Blockbusting focuses exclusively on US made films, and only covers films released prior to 2006.  We can hope that future volumes will take a look at films made outside of the US and those made after 2005.

George Lucas’s Blockbusting is a fascinating book and recommended for anyone who views film not as a simple entertainment, but as an art form where money often trumps both artistic merit and critical acclaim. 


1.         Lecture by Adrian Goldsworthy at the Kansas City public Library 2009
A link to the lecture may be found here:

2.         Seating capacity for the Flavian Amphitheatre and the Circus Maximus are found in Connolly’s superb book, The Ancient City – Life in Classical Athens & Rome, c1998 ISBN: 0-19-917242-0.  See pages 176 and 197.

Perhaps the largest and most spectacular fan riots were the Nika Riots of 532 at the Hippodrome in Constantinople.  Once the racing fans moved from hurling insults to hurling stones at the Emperor Justinian, the Imperial Army was called in.  They had to take the Hippodrome by storm resulting in 30,000 dead and nearly half the city burned to the ground.  See:

3.         George Lucas’s Blockbusting, c2010, p.324

4.         Blockbusting, p.411

This Review was first posted on the Ancient Warfare Magazine website in September, 2010
(c) 2010 David L Reinke