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: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/circusmaximus/nika.html

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

Saturday, August 3, 2013

10th Imperial Regiment - The Soul Eaters

Friday, February 17, 2006


The Soul Eaters

The Soul Eaters

In the black of night
Through a starless sky
Under the blood red moon
We fly.

Abandon all hope.
Your time is neigh.
Now like the Furies
We come.

To dine upon your flesh
And feast upon your soul.
Ask us for mercy,
We answer.

Betray us.
Resist us.
Deny us.
We kill.

Throughout the empire
Until the end of time
His will alone
We serve.

No enemy too far
Nor friend so dear
Will stay the sword
We hold.

In oceans of blood,
Our thirst never quenched
Until victory is ours
We fight.

Worlds beyond number,
Time without end,
As the Emperor commands
We obey.

No questions asked.
No reasons given.
In victory or death
We believe.

In the black of night,
No sound do we make.
Upon the Wings of Death
We fly.

Text c2006 All Rights Reserved
Image Hasbro Toys / LFL

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Hollywood Romans #14 Coriolanus

“Coriolanus has grown from man to dragon.”

(2011) 123 minutes
Directed by Ralph Fiennes
Screenplay by John Logan based upon the play by William Shakespeare
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Brian Cox and Vanessa Redgrave

“Oh mother what have you done to me?  You have saved Rome, but you have ruined your son.” – Caius Marcius Coriolanus

Caius Marcius (527—490 BCE), later given the name Coriolanus in honor of his heroism at the Battle of Corioli, was a patrician general from the earliest days of the Roman Republic.  Indeed, his first heroic exploits, for which he won the Civic Crown, were at the Battle of Lake Regillus, where the victorious Romans ended once and for all the efforts of their former king, Tarquin the Proud, to regain his throne. 

Hailed as a hero, Coriolanus embodied those martial virtues that all Romans aspired to while at the same time he exuded the particularly Patrician arrogance that the Roman people despised.  Like Scipio Africanus, who outfought every opponent in battle but was constantly out maneuvered by his political enemies in the Senate, so too Coriolanus had no skill for politics.  To say he lacked ‘the common touch’ is an understatement.  His disdain for the people coupled with his rigid inflexibility allowed Coriolanus to be easily ambushed by his opponents, the newly created Tribunes of the People, who contrived to have him exiled from the city.

Unlike Scipio, also forced into exile by his political foes, Coriolanus did not “go quietly into this good night.”  Instead he joined with Rome’s enemies, the Volscian tribes, leading them from victory to victory until they stood before the very gates of Rome.  The Romans sent numerous embassies to treat with Coriolanus, but he rebuffed them all.  It was not until the women of Rome, lead by his mother and his wife, came to the Volscian Camp and prostrated themselves before him, that Coriolanus relented.  Moved by this show of humility and sacrifice, Coriolanus withdrew his army. 

Some stories say the Volscians assassinated Coriolanus for this change of heart, while others tell us that he lived out his life in solitary exile, a broken man.

From this story Shakespeare shaped his play, and although Coriolanus may be more fiction than fact, he was accepted as real by the Romans and considered an integral part of their history.  His story speaks to the early struggles between the Patricians and the plebs to find the balance that would allow the Roman Republic to not only survive but to thrive, and indeed flourish into the Empire so well known today.

In an earlier review I commented that, sometimes, dramatic writing trumps historical accuracy.  This was never truer than with the plays of William Shakespeare.  A poet who often plumbed the depths of history for his plots, Shakespeare was never one to let history get in the way of drama.  In this he is very much like the film producer Darryl Zanuck who once opined, “There is nothing duller on the screen than being accurate but not dramatic.”  Indeed, Shakespeare has proven to be so dramatic and durable a playwright that his works have endured an endless parade of adaptations, re-interpretations and translations into new languages, cultures and media.  Some of these have worked better than others.1

Hollywood has always approached Shakespeare with some trepidation, for despite their critical acclaim, these films rarely make any money.2  (The one noteworthy exception being Shakespeare In Love which won the Oscar for Best Film against very stiff competition.)  So it is a testament to the persuasive powers of Ralph Fiennes that he was able to find funding for his film of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. 

Written late in Shakespeare’s career, long after his more famous plays, Coriolanus shares some of the same themes found in those earlier works: ambition, hubris, betrayal and manipulation by loved ones both subtle or not.  Where it differs, and significantly so, is in the conception of Coriolanus himself.  Unlike say Hamlet, or Richard III, Coriolanus is not given any long soliloquy in which he reveals his musings and motivations.  We have no ‘window into his soul’ and so Coriolanus remains something of an enigma.

T.S. Elliot thought Coriolanus superior to Hamlet or Macbeth for the very reason that he is not dissected and laid out for us, but rather remains opaque and difficult to pin down with any certainty.  Coriolanus is a slippery customer, in more ways than one, so it comes as no surprise that so many actors have sought to play this character on stage.3   Interestingly, Ralph Fiennes is one of the first to attempt a feature film of this particular play.

Lawrence Olivier as Coriolanus.  His
1937 performance, and 1956 reprise are
still considered by many critics to be the
definitive portrayal of this character.

In deciding to both direct and star in this film, Ralph Fiennes has taken on a momentous challenge, that, I am happy to say, he meets with great success, for the most part.

One of the first challenges that confronts any artist approaching Shakespeare is the language. How do you make the play accessible, understandable and dramatic to a modern audience?  Do you keep the setting and language intact (ala Joseph Manckiewicz’s Julius Caesar) or drop both while retaining the basic plot (Robert Wise’s Westside Story) or some combination there of?

For Fiennes, the language was key.  In an interview with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, Fiennes noted that he was first attracted to acting by the beauty and rhythm in Shakespeare’s language, so for him there was no question but that it would remain intact.4   Of course, the text has been edited, Coriolanus being one of Shakespeare’s longest plays, but on the whole the language is as Shakespeare wrote it. 

The other major challenge is setting, and here Fiennes has shown a deft imagination.

A subtitle early in the film tells us that we are in A place that calls itself Rome.”  This one simple sentence is the perfect preamble and makes the meshing of ancient and modern much less jarring than it otherwise might be.

Fiennes has opted for a contemporary setting and in doing so he has eliminated many problems that plague films set in Ancient Rome.  Instead of armor and shields, Coriolanus and his legionaries wear 21st Century ‘digital’ camouflage, ride armored IFV’s and wield assault rifles and RPG’s rather than gladius and pilum.

This design sensibility extends to the civilian characters as well, with tribunes and senators in business suits rather than togas, and the plebs in standard work-a-day clothing.  For the Romans, dress uniforms are the order of the day for soldiers not on the battlefield while the Volscians favor a potpourri of different camouflage patterns, on and off the battlefield, as seen in many newly formed armies and militias in the world today.

Consistent with this concept, Fiennes has assembled a first rate cast that is as racially and ethnically diverse as the population one might find in almost any city today.  Many of the actors are well known and, generally speaking, they all acquit themselves admirably. 

Of special note is Vanessa Redgrave as Volumnia, the mother of Coriolanus.  Either in her be-medaled uniform, or simple civilian attire, it is clear Volumnia is a women to be reckoned with.  When she physically assaults the Tribunes on the steps of the Senate, even though their persons are inviolate, no one dares to stop her.  Even the Tribunes themselves seem feeble next to her.  It is no wonder then that Coriolanus is no match for his mother’s manipulations of him.  She is in fact as driven by Patrician pride as is Coriolanus, and it is only at the end, when Coriolanus tells her, “O my mother, You have won a happy victory to Rome; But for your son …” that she realizes the true cost of her ambition.

Throughout the film Fiennes uses several styles of cinematography, including hand-held ‘you are there’ shaky-cam (thankfully kept to a minimum), faux news footage, and more traditional shots.  To his credit, Fiennes eschews the rapid fire quick cut editing found in so many films today.  Instead, he allows scenes to build and develop over time, and while some might find this pacing to be too slow, I found it a refreshing and welcome change.

Not surprisingly, the color palate is subdued, with the only really bright colors being those of the Roman dress uniforms festooned with ribbons and medals. 

Of course, as Shakespeare tells us, ‘the play’s the thing’ and here we have a mixed result. 

At its best, the film is riveting.  This is not surprising in the combat scenes, all of which are well choreographed and expertly shot.  Clearly Fiennes and his cinematographer, Barry Ackroyd, have been paying attention to current events.

At its worst, character motivations are unclear and confusing.  This may be due in part to the editorial decisions Fiennes made with the original text.  However, in this case the problem is often due, most annoyingly, to lines being lost either in the hurly-burly of the scene or simply delivered too naturalistically, resulting in their being neither distinct or, in some cases, even heard.  In their film adaptations Oliver, McKellen and Branagh took care to insure that all lines were delivered and heard clearly and crisply.5   This is not always so in Coriolanus, and while this may be more of a technical issue than one of acting, clearly the issue rests at the feet of the director.

However, in all other aspects Fiennes does an excellent job as both actor and director.

One scene merits special attention.  It is a scene not found in the play, but rather one devised by Fiennes and his screenwriter John Logan, and it serves to tell us much about Coriolanus the man.6

Now exiled, sporting shoulder length hair and unkempt beard, Coriolanus has traveled to the Volscain capital, looking for his rival, Aufidius (Gerard Butler).  He spies the enemy general walking down the street with a few bodyguards.  As he strolls with casual ease the people greet Aufidius warmly and though clearly on his way somewhere, he takes time to return their greetings and to make small talk with diners at an outdoor cafĂ©.

As he watches this transpire, we see Coriolanus hit bottom as he realizes how truly miserable his fate is.  Here is Aufidius, loved by the people even though he has lost many battles, while he, Coriolanus, who has brought the Romans victory after victory is hated and despised by his fellow Romans. It is then that Coriolanus resolves to join with Aufidius, and avenge himself on the Romans, or to let Aufidius take his life and so end this wretched exile.

The scene works perfectly because Fiennes has the confidence to let the images speak for themselves, and they speak volumes.

In contrast, the final scene, when Aufidius kills Coriolanus, does not work as well.  Although this scene is in the play, in the film the motivations of the various characters do not seem clear, particularly Aufidius’s several changes of heart.  Again I think this more a problem with Fiennes’ concept of the scene rather than Butler’s performance.  In fact, I wish Fiennes had, once again, strayed a little more from the text and instead given us a final shot of Coriolanus, sitting by himself, staring into space.  Much like Michael Corleone at the end of the Godfather, we would see Coriolanus as a victim of his own success – victorious and defeated all at the same time.

All in all, Coriolanus is well worth making the effort to see and in fact may work even better on television, giving it a more visceral reality. 

Coriolanus is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.


1   In several interviews Fiennes has related how he was inspired to take on the challenge of Coriolanus by Baz Luhrman’s film adaptation of Romeo And Juliet.  Likewise, working with directors like Anthony Mingehlla (The English Patient) and Steven Spielberg (Schindler’s List) built in him a desire to direct. 

Of course there have been many feature films adapted from Shakespeare and everyone has their favorites.  Wikipedia has a long, but by no means complete, list of screen adaptations.  For me, the best are those by Olivier, Branagh, McKellen and Kurosawa, to which I would also add Forbidden Planet, a Sci-Fi reworking of The Tempest, and Shakespeare In Love.

2   The production budget for Coriolanus was reported to be $10 million. To date, the worldwide box office is just over $1 million.  Sales of Blu-ray and DVD as well as to Broadcast and Cable Television might bring in another million or so.  Clearly this is a case of a film made for the sake of art, not profit.

One side note: With a production cost of $40 million (on an original budget of $25 million) Shakespeare In Love has grossed over $300 million (including both box office and ancillary markets like DVD and Cable TV).

3  “The most famous Coriolanus in history is Laurence Olivier, who first played the part triumphantly at the Old Vic Theatre in 1937 and returned to it to even greater acclaim at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in 1959. In that production, he famously performed Coriolanus' death scene by dropping backwards from a high platform and being suspended upside-down (without the aid of wires), a death reminiscent of Mussolini's. In 1971 the play returned to the Old Vic in a National Theatre production directed by Manfred Wekwerth and Joachim Tenschert with stage design by Karl von Appen. Anthony Hopkins played Coriolanus, with Constance Cummings as Volumnia and Anna Carteret as Virgilia.
Another notable Coriolanus of the twentieth century was Richard Burton, who also recorded the complete play for Caedmon Records.
Other famous performances of Coriolanus include Paul Scofield, Ian McKellen, Toby Stephens, Robert Ryan, Christopher Walken, Morgan Freeman, Colm Feore, and Ralph Fiennes. Alan Howard played Coriolanus in the 1984 BBC production.”

4   The Jon Stewart interview on December 7, 2011

5   Reportedly, Olivier purposely spoke his first few lines slowly and distinctly to give the audience time to adjust to the rhythm and cadence of the language.  Fiennes notes too that it takes a few moments to adjust one’s ear from modern language to the poetry of Shakespeare.

Likewise, with the possible exception of Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, every director edits Shakespeare’s text, usually to meet contractual obligations for a film less than two hours in length.  Some edit for reasons of focus or pacing, but generally the main narrative thrust remains intact as it does with Coriolanus.

6   John Logan’s screenwriting credits include: Gladiator, The Last Samurai, Rango, Hugo and the new James Bond film Skyfall.

 This Review was first posted on the Ancient Warfare Magazine web site June, 2012
(c) 2012 David L Reinke

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Cinema Caesars -- A Streetcar Named Antony

Julius Caesar (1953)

120 min.
Director: Joseph L Mankiewicz
Writer: William Shakespeare (adapted by Mankiewicz)
Starring: Marlon Brando, James Mason, John Gielgud, Louis Calhern, Greer Garrson, and Deborah Kerr

After watching the 1970 film of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar it was suggested that I look again at the earlier John Houseman production staring Marlon Brando in the pivotal role of Mark Antony.  In fact I had seen the film many years ago, and remembered it as being quite good, however a “refresher” viewing did seem in order.

Unlike the 1970 film, which was more of a low budget ‘labor of love,’ this earlier effort was a prestige production, given a large budget with the intent of making a first class film of Shakespeare’s play, while also riding on the coat tails of the recently popular Quo Vadis and beating The Robe to theatres by several months.

Although the title is Julius Caesar, the play and the film are more concerned with Brutus and his interplay with Cassius and Antony.  In this Mankiewicz has cast well.

As Brutus, James Mason displays the brooding intelligence of a man clearly swimming in political waters far deeper than he is qualified for, either by training or temperament.  Likewise Gielgud, as Cassius, is appropriately manipulative.  Cassius has his own agenda and is happy to use Brutus to reach that end.  In a similar manner, Mankiewicz has filled the other roles with excellent actors who are uniformly comfortable with Shakespeare’s language to the point that they can use it as a means of investing their characters with a reality that is both honest and entertaining. 

All of this is to the good and serves the production well, but it is in the casting of Marlon Brando as Mark Antony that Mankiewicz and Houseman show true genius.  Originally the director had sought Paul Schofield (A Man For All Seasons, Quiz Show) for the role of Antony, but changed his mind when Brando’s screen test came in better than expected.  Brando was an actor of immense talent and is not only comfortable with the language but more than holds his own with the classically trained actors in the cast who have far more experience with the Bard.  Brando’s timing and dramatic sense are impeccable.  What’s more, Brando infuses Antony with a pugnacious air that seems completely appropriate to Antony both dramatically and historically.

In terms of screen time, Antony might be considered a secondary character, for he really has only one scene to call his own, but what a scene it is and Brando plays it for all that it's worth!  Antony’s speech alone, as played by Brando, is worth the price of admission.

That being said …

In all other considerations this production is no better than the 1970 film.  Costumes are standard “Hollywood Roman” with many of the legionaries wearing armor we will see again in 1959’s Ben-Hur.  The same holds true for the sets (portrait busts of Hadrian are everywhere present) and once again, as with the 1970 film, the Battle of Philippi bears no resemblance whatsoever to history or indeed to anything particularly Roman.   Of course, one does not watch this film looking for historical insight, or even fidelity, but rather for excellence in acting and in this the viewer will not be disappointed.

More to the point, how does the 1953 film compare to one from 1970?

The key to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is the triumvirate of Brutus-Cassius-Antony.  The balance among these three characters is both critical and delicate – the play rises or falls on this and it is here that we see the big difference between the two films.

I admire the 1970 film for the energy and effort of the cast and crew working with their limited budget.  In many respects the film feels like a good community theatre production and one appreciates the work and commitment on display.  However, in that production the critical triumvirate, as played by Robards-Johnson-Heston, is wildly out of balance.  Despite the good work done by many of the actors they cannot restore the balance upset by Robards’ poor performance.

In contrast, the acting triumvirate at the center of the 1953 film, Mason-Gielguid-Brando is perfect.  The strength of the acting talent on display here is so good that, rather than being impressed with how well the actors recite Shakespeare we are caught up in the story itself and wonder what the character will do next (even though we know the play line by line).

The key scene in both the play and the films is the Forum oration given by Brutus and Antony.  The play turns on this scene.  Heston, as Antony, works hard to restore the energy sucked out of the scene by Robards, but despite his best efforts he is not up to the task.  Mason’s Brutus, on the other hand gives a superb speech, setting the stage perfectly for Brando who does not waste his fellow actor’s efforts. Brando builds upon that well laid foundation, his smoldering rage barley kept in check as he turns the people of Rome from rejoicing at the death of a tyrant to mourning the loss of their father.  It is a performance for the ages.

Much has been written about Brando as the premier American Actor, but most viewers, who are familiar only with his later films, may wonder what all the hoopla is about.  Watching his performance in Julius Caesar leaves no doubt as to his talent.

In an earlier posting I gave the 1970 film a favorable review, and I stand by that – I enjoyed that film with the caveat that Jason Robards is terribly miscast as Brutus.  However, I have no such misgiving about the 1953 production.  Indeed, if you are looking for acting at its finest you need look no further than the Mason – Brando speeches in the Forum. 

The film is currently available on DVD from Amazon

This review was first posted in January, 2011 on the Ancient Warfare Magazine website
 (c) 2011 David L Reinke

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Hollywood Romans #8 -- Cleopatra

Cleopatra – The Eternal Queen

“Whether we like it or not, Cleopatra was not really that important. Her world was one utterly dominated by Rome, in which her kingdom had at best a precarious independence.”1

This may indeed be the case, but given recent events it would seem the Queen has never been more popular, a fact that would please her to no end.

Last year saw the publication of two new biographies on Cleopatra and this year the release of a YA novel about her daughter.2

Likewise, Hollywood has not been idle on the Cleopatra front with two new films currently in development. 

Capitalizing on the publicity of Stacy Schiff’s book being the first biography of Cleopatra to be written by a woman, and thus bringing a new perspective to the Queen, Cleopatra A Life was optioned by Sony Studios for a new film starring Angelina Jolie.  This helped to push Schiff’s book up the NY Times Best Seller list where it has remained for several months now. Of course Hollywood then proceeded to under cut themselves, as is usually the case, by hiring Brian Helgeland to write the screenplay and David Fincher to direct.3  So much for the female perspective.  Worse still, Sony plans to film Cleopatra in 3D.

While Sony’s film might be the first 3D Cleopatra, Steven Soderbergh’s will be the first musical Cleopatra. 

Set in 1920’s Chicago and staring Catherine Zeta-Jones as Cleopatra and Hugh Jackman as Mark Antony, this project too, like the Sony film, currently sits in Development Hell. However, unlike the Fincher film, Soderbergh’s project may never make it before the cameras.  Last year Zeta-Jones cut back on her schedule to care for her husband, and this year she is herself undergoing treatment for a bi-polar disorder.  Although Soderbergh might recast the parts, he was hoping to capture the same energy of his hit film Chicago so it seems unlikely he will drop Zeta-Jones.  Like the Sony project, Soderbergh’s Cleopatra will also be filmed in 3D.

What has attracted Hollywood to Schiff’s book in particular is her supposed “revisionist” view of the queen.  No longer the sex kitten, oriental temptress or emasculating whore, she is now the shrewd politician, the able statesman and the steadfast warrior.  The idea that this is a ‘revisionist’ or even enlightened new view of Cleopatra is patently false. Schiff’s portrait of the Queen is largely the same as that painted by Goldsworthy or the one presented by Michael Grant in his excellent 1972 biography.  Schiff adopts a somewhat more romantic view of Cleopatra’s position in a world dominated by Rome than does Goldsworthy who presents a more realistic, and historically sound view of the Queen.

What is different here, or so we are lead to believe, is Hollywood’s view of Cleopatra, with the Sony film being, if not a repudiation of the 1963 Fox film starring Elizabeth Taylor, then at least a film with a new emphasis on Cleopatra the astute politician rather than Cleopatra the femme fetal.

A Hollywood icon with more than 80 films to her credit, Taylor will always be, for better or for worse, associated with Cleopatra and with the Fox film that has become legendary for its excess and its failure. 

Indeed, never one to miss an opportunity to capitalize on any event, good or bad, the Fox Movie Channel has taken full advantage of Taylor’s death last February by showing the longer “Premiere” version of their film on a semi regular basis, several times a day, on different days of the week (the last being Easter Sunday just past).  So it seems appropriate, given all of this recent Cleo activity, that we say a few words about Hollywood and Cleopatra, and in particular, the 1963 Cleopatra.

Cleopatra The Vamp

Of course, Shakespeare set the tone first, and influenced heavily by both the Bard and by Shaw, Hollywood has turned out over 50 feature films and TV shows about Cleopatra beginning in 1917 when Fox released Cleopatra staring Theda Bara.  The screenplay, by Adrian Johnson, was based upon the stage play Cleopatre by Victorien Sardou and Emile Moreau.

At the time Ms. Bara told the press, “I felt the blood of the Ptolemys coursing through my veins.” And Fox for their part capitalized on Bara’s reputation (manufactured by the studio of course) calling Cleopatra the “greatest vamp of all time” to which Bara added obligingly, “I Live Cleopatra, I breathe Cleopatra, I am Cleopatra!”  4

With that kind of endorsement you would expect the film to be a major success and while it did turn a profit, it was not the blockbuster Fox had hopped for. 

Filmed in Southern California, with pyramids built in Ventura County, the city of Alexandria in the beach community of Venice, and the Battle of Actium staged at Balboa Beach, it is rumored that the “lengthy script was solid and historically accurate.”  However, we will never know for ironically, the last person to ever watch this film was Cecil B. DeMille who screened it in 1934 while preparing for his own film about Cleopatra.  The 1917 film was then returned to the Fox film vault in New Jersey where a nitrate fire destroyed the majority of Fox’s pre-1935 film collection.5

The DeMille Treatment

Perhaps we see echoes of that earlier film in DeMille’s 1934 production for Paramount Studios.  Certainly, DeMille was a known stickler for historical accuracy and, like many productions before and since, he spared no expense to bring Egypt to life in Southern California.

His quest began with the purchase of the 16 volume French Military Survey of Egypt commissioned by Napoleon and ended with the use of a live asp to bite the actress playing Cleopatra (the venom having already been removed).  In between DeMille went to great lengths to get the “look right” including having the crew scrape the frost off of the studio’s refrigeration pipes because the Romans used snow to cool their wine, or flying grapes up from Argentina, where they were still in season, after the ten crates already on hand had gone bad.  Indeed, DeMille could be a tyrant about details:

At one point he saw that an extra was wearing a belt that was not historically accurate.  Using his trademark megaphone, he demanded
before the entire company that his secretary send a memo to the
production department complaining about the error. 6

For the part of Cleopatra DeMille cast Claudette Colbert, an actress he had worked with before on The Sing Of The Cross.  He felt that her sophistication, beauty and sense of humor were attributes that made her perfect for the role of
Cleopatra. 7   Indeed, Colbert brought those strengths to bear in her performance but, in a foreshadowing of Cleopatra films as yet unmade, Colbert was in “fragile” health, having suffered appendicitis, and she missed most rehearsals, being replaced by her stand-in.

As Julius Caesar, DeMille cast Warren William who gives a marvelous performance.  He invests Caesar with humor, intelligence and a certain ‘world-weariness that seems in keeping with the historic Gaius Julius.  Henry Wilcox, in his first leading role, plays Mark Antony and although he brings a good deal of energy and bravado to the role, he does not impress in quite the same way as does William or Colbert.

The film was a box office hit here in the US, bringing in $120 million against a production cost of just over $12 million (in 2005 dollars).  American audiences enjoyed the lavish spectacle and appreciated the historical detail, but Europe was not impressed.  At the 1935 premier in Rome, Daily Variety reports the film was met with “boos, catcalls and derisive laughter.”

Cleopatra as Comedy

It would be almost ten years before Cleopatra again appeared in a major feature film, an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s play Caesar And Cleopatra starring Vivian Leigh as Cleopatra. True to its theatrical source (the screenplay was written by Shaw himself) the film is played for laughs and though the cast is a capable one it is Claude Rains, as Caesar, and Flora Robson, as Fatateeta (Cleopatra’s major domo), who show the best comic timing.  There is no attempt at realism and the film looks very theatrical both in production design and cinematography. 

Although one can appreciate Shaw’s wry sense of humor, and at first glance his play would seem to reinforce the stereotype of Cleopatra as sex kitten, Shaw has written the Queen as a young woman much smarter than her friends and enemies give her credit for. Aided by Fatateeta, the Queen uses that underestimation to advantage, and is able, in the end, to secure her position and her future, for the moment at least.

As with all films about Cleopatra, this production too spared no expense on costumes and sets in an attempt to “get the look right.” The resulting look, while obviously expensive is typically “Hollywood Roman” and not historically accurate by any stretch of the imagination.  Reportedly the most expensive film ever made in the UK (to that date) it was a box office failure and nearly ended the director’s career.  What’s more, in yet another ominous foreshadowing, Vivian Leigh suffered a miscarriage during the shoot that delayed production for several weeks.

Flora Robson, Stewart Granger and Vivian Leigh

If for no other reason, this film is worth watching for the ample display of George Bernard Shaw’s prodigious wit, and while I am personally not enamored of Vivian Leigh’s performance, there are many who find it to be not just enjoyable, but actually better than her turn as Scarlet in Gone With The Wind.  That said, in terms of historical fidelity, there is no need to look here.  Enjoy the humor – ignore the lack of history.

With the box office failure of Caesar And Cleopatra, the Queen took a hiatus from Hollywood until 1963 when she returned in a big way.

Cleopatra the Extravagant

Much has been written about the now legendary and infamous 1963 Fox production, and reading through the list of woes it is a wonder any film emerged at all, good, bad or indifferent. 

A Few highlights:

Cost: Originally conceived of as a “B” film, a modest re-make of the 1917 Cleopatra, starring Theda Bara, with a budget of $1- 2 million, the production quickly grew, the budget ballooning to a then astronomical $44 million.

Cast: Although the first director originally wanted Dorothy Dandridge for the part of Cleopatra, Taylor was cast early on and for a very handsome salary including profit participation and overtime.  The first cast also included Peter Finch as Julius Caesar and Stephen Boyd as Mark Antony.  I must say that this casting seems far more interesting and I would love to have seen that production.  However, delays caused by Elizabeth Taylor’s ill health, including an erroneous announcement of her death, and weeks in the hospital, compelled both Finney and Boyd to withdraw from the production.  The weeks of footage already shot with those actors was now useless.  As with the health related delays on the 1917, 1934 and 1945 Cleopatra productions, so too did 1963 suffer from bad luck, or Cleopatra’s curse, depending upon how romantic you are. 8

Dorothy Dandridge

 Directors:  When the production shut down due to Taylor’s hospitalization, Fox fired the first director, Rouben Mamoulian (almost as if this bad luck was his fault) and started casting about for a new one.  They first approached George Stevens but he declined and so they settled on Joseph L Mankiewicz who already had several Academy Awards to his credit and had actually directed a previous film about Caesar and Antony, the 1953 film of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.  Mankiewicz quickly re-cast the parts of Caesar and Antony with Rex Harrison and Richard Burton respectively.

Location: The Mamoulian production was working on lavish sets in England despite warnings about the weather.  Mankiewicz heeded the warnings, moving the entire operation to Rome and using locations throughout the world including Spain, Italy, Egypt and even Malibu in Southern California.  This ran production costs up considerably.

Writers: After the change in directors the first screenplay was scrapped and Mankiewicz set about rewriting the entire film, shooting during the day and writing through the night Although giving story credit to Plutarch, Suetonius, Appian and “other” ancient sources it is difficult to believe that Mankiewicz actually read any of their works, so at variance with history is his screenplay.  His take on Caesar’s final days in Rome is, to be kind, fanciful.

Lovers: That Antony and Cleopatra were lovers is well known, and it quickly became well known that Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were too.  However, unlike Cleopatra who was not married when she and Antony “joined forces” Taylor was married.  In fact the spouses of both Taylor and Burton were on location and this resulted in all sorts of fire works including a bout of fisticuffs between Taylor’s then husband, Eddie Fisher, and Burton.  Of course like Octavian, who used the Cleopatra – Antony affair to boost his fortunes, so too did Fox use the fire works, on screen and off, to promote the film.  In Hollywood all publicity is good publicity.

The Final Cut:  After throwing out the several weeks of film shot by Mamoulian, Mankiewicz and his team still shot 633,000 feet of film over a 200 day shooing schedule.  Even then, Darryl F Zanuck, who was once again running the studio, sent Mankiewicz out to re-shoot the opening battle sequence, which looked too cheap.  That was after Zanuck had fired and then re-hired Mankiewicz to finish editing the film.  It seems that no one else could make anything out of the 120 miles worth of footage. 9

The rough cut that Mankiewicz screened for Zanuck and Fox executives was just under 6 hours in length.  Mankiewicz wanted to release two films of about 3 hours in length each: Caesar And Cleopatra followed a year or so later by Antony And Cleopatra.  But Zanuck was having none of that.  Besides, the Fox publicity department wanted to cash in on the Taylor – Burton affair while it was still hot.  They could not wait a year or more.  So Mankiewicz cut his film again to a still epic 243 minutes.  This is the version that premiered in New York on June 12, 1963.  It was subsequently re-cut several times but has, thankfully been restored to the full 243-minute length.  This is the version currently showing on the Fox Movie Channel.  In fact, there is talk of finding the missing elements and restoring the film to Mankiewicz’s original 6-hour cut.  So far a few minutes have been found, but this is a task that will take Fox many years to complete.

Contrary to popular belief, the film did not bankrupt Fox, or even come close to doing so.  Although the film did cost $44 million, Fox had taken out insurance on the production and received payments of over $13 million bringing net production costs down to $31 million.  Still, despite being Fox’s highest grossing film of 1963 the studio did not make a profit on Cleopatra until 1966 when ABC paid the then hefty price of $5 million for the broadcast TV rights.  As of 2005, Cleopatra has enjoyed a US Box Office take of $435 million (in 2005 adjusted dollars).

The film received nine Academy Award nomination and won four, including Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design and Special Effects.

However … What about the film itself?

I wish I could say that this is a great film, an epic that will stand the test of time, a DVD that belongs in every home video collection -- but I cannot.

Frankly, this film is a mess.  Yes, it is a feast for the eyes, and as spectacles go it might be worth sitting through at least once for the sheer experience of it, but films are nothing more than another medium for story telling and this film of Cleopatra manages to take a great story and render it not only barely comprehensible, but frankly rather boring.

The epic film, in the hands of a master, can be a truly great work of cinematic art.  A number of Kurosawa films come to mind, as do the works of Stanley Kubrick, David Lean, and Francis Ford Coppola.  No doubt each viewer would add his own favorites to the list and given the subjective nature of art personal likes and dislikes defy scholarly criticism or popular tastes.

For me, having watched the 1963 Cleopatra several times, I would, if given a choice, not sit through it again. 

Since 1963, Cleopatra has appeared in several TV series, most notably in the 1999 mini-series, Cleopatra, starring Leonor Varela as the Queen paired with Timothy Dalton and Billy Zane as Caesar and Antony respectively, and in the HBO-BBC series Rome, where Lyndsey Marshal played Cleopatra opposite Ciaran Hinds as Caesar and James Purefoy as Antony.

In both of these TV productions the actors playing Cleopatra do a reasonably good job, in particular Ms. Marshal, though once again history took a back seat to drama and neither character, as written, garnered much praise for accuracy.

So, given the somewhat checkered results, both box office and critical, for Cleopatra films, why would Hollywood want to embark on yet another trip down the Nile?

Cleopatra is such a compelling character, and her life and times filled with such momentous events that it is wonder more films about her are not in the works.  It may well be that, like Alexander the Great, Cleopatra is simply too big for the screen and no film is up to the task of capturing her.  One might as well attempt to capture lightning in a bottle.  Yet Hollywood will continue to try and we will continue to watch those attempts in the hope that maybe, just maybe, this next film will get it just right.

The “Evolution" of Cleopatra’s appearance:

As Goldsworthy points out in a recent article from the Guardian, Cleopatra would be dressed not in the Egyptian style of a thousand years earlier, but rather  "She would have dressed more in the Greek style and the problem for Hollywood is that Greek dress looks pretty much like Roman – lots of people in sheets." 10

Indeed, when shown the photo of Ms. Marshal (above) and asked “Who is this?” my ten year old grandson answered without hesitation, “Cleopatra!” 

“How do you know it’s Cleopatra?”

“By her headdress,” he replied.

And so it is, like the Hollywood Romans, whose costumes continually drive the historians crazy, so too Cleopatra will continue to be costumed in ancient style otherwise we might not recognize her.

End Notes

  1. Antony And Cleopatra by Adrian Goldsworthy, c2010 pp. 10-11. 

This is by far the best biography of this famous pair to be published to date.   In fact, the thirteen page introduction alone is worth the price of admission.  Goldsworthy writes in a lively and fluid style that, coupled with his solid researcher and command of the source material, makes for an entertaining and informative read.

2. Those books are:
Antony And Cleopatra by Adrian Goldsworthy, c2010
Cleopatra – A Life by Stacy Schiff, c2010
Cleopatra’s Moon by Vicky Alvear Schecter, c2011

3. David Fincher is only the latest director selected to helm this project.  Also on board at one point or another were James Cameron and Paul Greengrass.  There is a rumor that Jane Campion was under consideration and though intriguing, it remains unconfirmed.  At this point the only female still involved with the project, besides Jolie, is Amy Pascal, the Sony Studio chief in charge of production.  As for Fincher as director, this too could change but the film’s producer, Scott Rudin, worked with Fincher on The Social Network so this could be the team that sees this project through to completion.

** It should be noted that Jolie has asked Ang Lee to direct the film and, fresh from his Oscar win for Life Of Pi at the 2013 Academy Awards , it seems that Lee will accept the offer and direct the new Cleopatra film.  Considering how many directors this project has seen, it might be best to wait until the premier to see who the actual director is.

4. George Lucas’s Blockbusting edited by Alex Block & Lucy Wilson, c2010 p47.

5. George Lucas’s Blockbusting, p47.

To misquote Austin Powers, “It is amazing how much southern California looks just like ancient Egypt.”

6. George Lucas’s Blockbusting, p185

7. George Lucas’s Blockbusting, p185.

8. Antony And Cleopatra by Adrian Goldsworthy, c2010 p

Paired with the broadcast of the 1963 Cleopatra on the Fox Movie Channel is an episode of their in-house movie news magazine, Fox Legacy, hosted by Philip Roth.  Roth is a former Fox studio executive whose credits include Titanic.  At one point during this half hour show Roth mentions that Dorothy Dandridge was considered for the role of Cleopatra and comments that this might have been a more historically accurate casting, thus raising yet again the bogus question of Cleopatra’s ethnicity.

There is no question about her ethnicity.  The issue was dealt with by Michael Grant in his 1972 bio of the Queen, and once again by both Goldsworthy and
Schiff in their respective books published last year. 

The announcement of Jolie’s casting in the role of Cleopatra occasioned a new round of chest thumping and pontification about Cleopatra’s ethnicity that generated a lot of heat but very little light.

As for the coins that Antony & Cleopatra issued to pay Antony’s army, Goldsworthy notes:  "A coin image was a statement of power intended to prove you were the rightful ruler, which meant you wanted to look like a Ptolemy,"

9. George Lucas’s Blockbusting, p184

10.  “Jolie's Cleopatra will show Egypt's queen as more than a sex kitten”
By Vanessa Thorpe, The Guardian, January 9, 2011  See: Link above in Note #7

Books & Links Of Interest

Cleopatra by Michael Grant, c1972, ISBN: 0785818286

Antony And Cleopatra by Adrian Goldsworthy, c2010, ISBN: 9780300165340

George Lucas’s Blockbusting edited by Alex Ben Block & Lucy Autrey Wilson, c2010, ISBN: 9780061778896


This Review was first posted on the Ancient Warfare Magazine web site, May 2011.

(c) 2011 by David L Reinke