Friday, June 27, 2014

Hollywood Romans #13 The Immortals

SEE: Titans In A Box!

Immortals (2011) 110 minutes
Directed by Tarsem Singh      Screenplay by Charles and Vlas Parlapanides
Staring: Henry Cavill, Mickey Rourke, Freida Pinto, Luke Evans and John Hurt

This film's poster should have a banner headline screaming: SEE: Titans In A Box!

The story, in brief:

The Heraklion king, Hyperion, has declared war on the Olympian Gods and all mankind.  To this end he is searching for the Epirus Bow, a divine weapon that will allow him to release the imprisoned Titans and with their help defeat the Olympians.  Why?   Well, it seems that when his wife was stricken with a fatal disease Hyperion called on the gods for help but his pleas went unanswered.  So now he has decided to destroy the Olympians and punish them for ignoring his prayers.  The gods are listening now.

Mickey Rouke as King Hyperion

Not surprisingly the Olympians are disgusted by Hyperion’s cruelty and disregard for the “accepted rules of engagement.”  They are eager to teach Hyperion a lesson or two but Zeus, in his infinite and unfathomable wisdom, has forbidden the gods from intervening directly in the affairs of man.  Zeus has instead selected Theseus as his instrument for the salvation of mankind.  In this it would seem Zeus has chosen wisely. 

The Olympian Gods, roused at last, prepare to battle the Titans

Though of humble birth, whose mother is treated as an outcast and father is unknown (it is said his mother was raped by other villagers but there is every indication that Zeus is the actual father) Theseus has grown into a mighty warrior strong of limb and stout of heart.  The problem is that Theseus is badly out numbered in every fight and is constantly in danger of being killed. 

Zeus unleashes his anger on Apollo for intervening directly to save Theseus

Luckily for him the gods are constantly breaking Zeus’ commandment (with and without his knowledge) and intervening in miraculous ways to save Theseus from certain death.  The real question is: Can the Olympians save themselves from almost certain destruction?  That will be answered in the all too obviously set up sequel.

Titans in a box!  The Titans endure their strange imprisonment

Re-working myths is fine and it often serves to avoid all of the carping about historical accuracy.  Certainly we have been treated to numerous versions of Homer's Odyssey (including the rather imaginative version by the Coen Brothers with George Clooney as Ulysses) or the Jason myth (the seminal 1962 film showcasing the stop motion work of Ray Harryhausen being the noteworthy entry here).  However ...

There is little here to recommend this latest re-working of Greek mythology, and the level of violence is not so much gratuitous as it is pornographic.  As director Val Lewton so ably demonstrated, less is often more, but here the director, Tarsem Singh, clearly believes more is not enough.

Poseidon considers the fate of Apollo for aiding Theseus

Costumes are by the famed Japanese costume designer and fashion artist Eiko Ishioka, whose signature headgear is on display here from the fanciful helmets worn by the Olympian Gods to the seemingly Time Bandits inspired travel hats worn by the Sibylline Oracles.  Ishioka-san won an Academy award for her work on Bram Stoker's Dracula, and while her designs for Immortals are imaginative, and one of the film's better aspects, they are not served well by the film itself. (For a better example of a fashion designer's costume work in a feature film see The Fifth Element with costumes by Jean-Paul Gaultier.)

One of the Sibylline Oracles in her “travel” attire

Likewise the acting and fight choreography are, at best, ho-hum, though not from lack of trying.  The film is going for the look of 300 but unlike that earlier film (noteworthy for its faithful rendition of Frank Miller’s comic book stylization) Immortals is a very pale imitation. 

The production team for Immortals appears not to have understood the parameters of that style unlike, for example, the production team behind the Starz cable series Spartacus.  The violence and sex are so stylized in that cable series as to be almost cartoonish and thus more easily dealt with by the viewer.  Immortals, on the other hand, seems caught somewhere between this highly stylized look and a gritty realism (particularly with the violence) that leaves one confused, and not a little bit disgusted by the cruelty that seems plainly out of place in a fantasy film.

Theseus fights with the Minotaur

The idea that Theseus fights not a literal Minotaur but a man in a bull shaped helmet is not new but certainly works within the context of this story.  Likewise, I give the actors credit for working hard with the material they are saddled with, but therein lies the problem -- the story.

Zeus and his daughter, Athena

The story here, such as it is, does not engage the viewer on any level deeper than the most superficial.  The film's director, Tarsem Singh, has said that what he is attempting is:

"Basically, Caravaggio meets Fight Club. It's a really hardcore action film done in Renaissance painting style. I want to see how that goes; it's turned into something really cool. I'm going for a very contemporary look on top of that so I'm kind of going with, you know, Renaissance time with electricity."

All that being said, my disappointment with the film is not that it plays fast and loose with the Greek myths or mixes together art and artifacts from a dozen different eras/countries/cultures or even that the arms and armor have little to do with ancient or even mythic Greece.  This happens all the time in Science Fiction and Fantasy and often to good effect (The Lord Of The Rings comes to mind).  No, the problem here is that at its most basic level, Immortals is boring.  It fails to engage us and indeed actually repels us with its needlessly graphic splatter porn violence.

Theseus and his fellow Greeks prepare for the final battle

Immortals does achieve the impossible by making Zack Snyder's 300 seem Oscar worthy.

My humble recommendation: Save your money - Wait for Immortals to play on cable TV, and then watch something else.

Immortals is currently playing in movie theatres and should make its appearance on DVD and Blu-ray in the first half of 2012.

This review was first published on the Ancient Warfare Magazine website in November of 2011.
(c)2011 by David L Reinke

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 of 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.