Earlier in March I took my mother to the theater to see 300: Rise of an Empire, directed by Noam Murro. The sequel to the 2007 Zack Snyder-directed 300, Rise of an Empire stars Sullivan Stapleton as Athenian General Themistocles, Eva Green as Greek-turned-Persian naval commander Artemisia, and, returning from the original, Lena Heady as Sparta’s Queen Gorgo and Rodrigo Santoro as Xerxes, the God-King of Persia. In much the same way 300 depicted the Battle of Thermopylae of 480 B.C., this lesser sequel tells a heavily stylized version of the Battle of Artemisium, which occurred simultaneously. As a fan of the original, I was pleased to see so many cross-references, and to see how the two films were actually taking place at the same time, though this one went on long after the death of King Leonidas to show the result of the naval battle in the straights of Salamis, where Xerxes’ fleet was pushed back by the Greek city-states. While Stapleton and the other actors portraying Athenian soldiers (who wear blue capes in contrast to the Spartans’ red capes) aren’t quite as buff as those maniacal Spartan battle-lords, he’s still quite the sexy dude – not quite as sexy as the demented Eva Green, though. My respect to the filmmakers for giving us a fan-service sex scene between the two opposing generals, which I found quite pants-tightening, though I found Artemisia’s sexual rapaciousness an odd choice considering her back-story, which involved a lot of being raped as a child. I could do without that kind of knowledge in my softcore movie porn. But pornographic is the way of the Greco-Roman film, and from the people that brought us orgies, Caligula, and Futurama’s Hedonism-Bot, here are my top five favorite films set in ancient Greece. And since I couldn’t find 5 movies I really enjoyed set in ancient Greece, I threw in a couple films set in ancient Rome for good measure. Enjoy! (Oh, and vomitoriums aren’t what you might think they are.)
Of course 300 would make this list. As an action fan and someone who did not major in history and therefore feel the need to gripe about all the factual inaccuracies depicted in the film, I found this adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel (which I have not read) an incredibly stylish and entertaining spectacle. And those abs! Some women complain about how Hollywood portrays female characters with these super-fit, super-thin actresses, and how that makes “average women” feel lessened. First of all, sex sells. Second of all, when Gerard Butler and his crew of 299 Spartans march into the frame and we see a forest of rock-hard bodies, us poor “average men” also look down at our pouches of belly fat and mourn over our unexceptional physiques. I’m being facetious with and poking fun at what’s a serious sociological issue, of course, but still. It wasn’t until I saw Mark Whalberg in Pain & Gain that I decided, “Okay, fat ass, you’re losing weight now.” Four months later I was 25 lbs. lighter and fitter than I’ve ever been in my life. Seeing an army of buff super-soldiers wearing almost nothing (and the female audience members who swoon over them) makes a man want to get in shape, and in a country of fast food and sodie pop, where obesity is considered an “epidemic,” fitness is as important as ever.
300 tells the story of King Leonidas, of Sparta, who, along with his small personal escort of 300 Spartan warriors, sets off to resist the advances of the Persian God-King Xerxes and his army of over 300,000. Offensive to Iranians for its depiction of Xerxes as some freakish, effeminate ruler of demons and other monstrosities; offensive to members and allies of the disabled communities for its supposed support of eugenics and “ableism” (prejudice against the disabled by the abled), for the idea that the Spartans killed off babies that wouldn’t grow up to be useful warriors; and offensive to ideologues who see the film as fascistic and race-baiting incitements to war, 300 is an epic war picture with fantastical elements that has spawned countless Leonidas quotables, including but not limited to:
“SPARTANS! WHAT IS YOUR PROFESSION?”
“Madness…? THIS– IS– SPARTA!”
“Spartans, ready your breakfast and eat hearty. For tonight, we dine in Hell!”
“This is where we hold them! This is where we fight! THIS IS WHERE THEY DIE!”
“Give them nothing, but take from them EVERYTHING!”
Based in part on the classical Greek myths of Theseus and the Minotaur and of the war of the Titans, Immortals was directed by Indian Tarsem Singh and starred Henry Cavill, who would go on to play Clark Kent/Superman in Zack Snyder’s 2013 Man of Steel. Stylistically similar to if not tonally darker than Snyder’s 300, Immortals is set in an ancient Greece where myth and reality are still intertwined, where mankind is still reeling from the after-effects of the Titanomachy, or the war of the Titans. During this ten-year engagement, after which the victors elevated themselves to the status of “gods” and imprisoned the losers, the “titans,” to a prison beneath Mount Tartarus, a magical weapon, the Epirus Bow, was lost on earth. Cut to 1228 B.C.E., and King Hyperion of Heraklion (a creepy Mickey Rourke) is tearing across the land, burning village after village in search of the weapon, with which he plans to unleash the titans to spite the gods. Theseus (Cavill) is caught in the middle of the warpath when Hyperion’s men raid his village, and Hyperion executes Theseus’ mother. Theseus then sets out to avenge her death, to find the Epirus Bow, and to stop Hyperion, and in doing so he meets up with a band of helpful folk, including a sexy Freida Pinto as an oracle, and none other than Stephen Dorff, my man from Blade, who doesn’t get enough work – maybe because he’s an American and everyone else in ancient Greece has English accents. Incongruity, much?
My favorite part of the film comes at the end, after the titans are released. Throughout the film, the gods, including Zeus (Luke Evans), Poseidon (Kellan Lutz), Ares (Daniel Sharman), Apollo (Corey Sevier), and Heracles (Steve Byers), struggle with the question, “Should we help mankind even though they don’t deserve it or should we sit this one out?” With the titans loose, the gods step up, and perhaps I give this film too much credit for just this one element. It wasn’t a fantastic film, and I didn’t much care for the brutal castration scene or the metal bull torture scene. Also, as much as I love him, I don’t think Dorff is a very good actor. What ultimately saves the film for me is the goddess Athena (Isabel Lucas). I had such a crush on that goddess, and I was so psyched to watch her kick titan butt in that holy golden armor of hers (pictured above). I can base my opinion of a film on one character in that film, right?
When Troy came out, directed by Wolfgang Petersen, it seemed like a quaint call-back to the sword-and-sandal films of old (not that I’ve ever seen any of them), and an interesting experiment to see if the epic Greek war film could still justify the expense. With a $175 million budget, Troy was a box office success, bringing in almost $500 million. I can’t think of a similar movie that has come out since, unless Immortals and 300 count, but there was something old-fashioned about Troy that was very charming. I wonder if these other films might not have been able to exist without Troy. A loose adaptation of Homer’s epic poem Iliad, Troy is the story of the famous Trojan War, which everyone knows about thanks to condoms. Agamemnon (Brian Cox), the king of Mycenae, is on a war-path, trying to conquer all of Greece, and using his most skilled fighter Achilles (Brad Pitt) to do it. One day, two Trojan princes, Hector (Eric Bana) and Paris (Orlando Bloom) are in Sparta, making peace with the Spartan king Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson), but on the return trip to Troy, Paris decides to take Menelaus’ wife Helen (Diane Kruger) with him. Understandably, Menelaus isn’t too pleased, and Agamemnon seizes Paris’ act as an opportunity to go to war with Troy. Thus begins one of the most cinematically epic battles ever filmed, and, in my opinion, a very over-produced yet under-appreciated movie.
Some critics, notably Roger Ebert, complained about Troy‘s departures from Homer’s poem, like how the movie removed gods from the narrative entirely and made it solely a mortal war – quite the opposite of Immortals, in fact. Like in real life, in Troy, the existence of “gods” isn’t taken for granted. Most believe, most pray, most worship, most depend on “omens” and “signs,” and then some don’t, necessarily, like Achilles, who says, “The gods envy us. They envy us because we’re mortal, because any moment might be our last. Everything is more beautiful because we’re doomed,” and Hector, who asks a priest disbelievingly, “Bird signs? You want to plan our strategy based on bird signs?” I absolutely loved that atheistic direction. As for deviating from the source, my friend’s father didn’t like the movie because it didn’t deviate enough: he suggested that they should’ve flipped the script entirely, and had Hector win the battle against Achilles, because he liked Hector more. I don’t think he was being serious – but could you imagine the implications?! Treachery.
The History of the World, Part I (1981)
Mel Brooks is no stranger to my lists. I previously mentioned his Robin Hood: Men in Tights on My Top 5 Most Nostalgic Films. And I’m sure if I ever get around to a space-themed list, Spaceballs might work its way in there. But for now, The History of the World, Part I, which is an assembly of sketches set in various historical epochs, from the days of prehistory to the French Revolution, makes the cut because its longest segment is set in the Roman Empire. Stand-up philosopher Comicus (Brooks, who plays many roles in the film) lands a gig at Caesar’s palace thanks to his agent Swiftus (Ron Carey), and on his way to the palace he befriends the love of his life, a Vestal Virgin named Miriam (Mary-Margaret Humes), as well as an African slave, Josephus (hilarious Gregory Hines). The trio reach the palace only for Comicus to blow his set and insult Emperor Nero (Dom DeLuise), and now they must escape… for their lives! It’s actually very funny, especially the scenes with Empress Nympho (Madeline Kahn, who also had roles in Brooks’ Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles).
You’ve already seen it, haven’t you? Of course you have. At the end of the sketch, Comicus, Miriam and Josephus find themselves working at a restaurant, where they meet Jesus (John Hurt) and Leonardo da Vinci (Art Metrano). Some of the other segments don’t hold up so well as the Roman one, like the French Revolution segment (though it is from here that we get the classic “it’s good to be the king” line) and some of the Stone Age gags, and although it’s found its way into the popular culture, I don’t personally care too much for the catchy Spanish Inquisition song-and-dance routine. The Old Testament joke, though, where Moses drops the third stone tablet containing Commandments 11-15, is probably the highlight of the movie.
You didn’t think you’d get out of this without hearing about the Ridley Scott-directed Gladiator, did you? Set in 180 C.E., Gladiator tells the (mostly) fictional story of Roman General Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crowe), who, after rebelling against Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) following the death of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), is taken out to the woods to be executed, only then to escape and return home, only then to find his family massacred and his estate burned to the ground, only then to pass out and be captured by wandering slavers, only then to be sold into the gladiatorial circuit and purchased by Antonius Proximo (Oliver Reed, who died during filming, which prompted the script to be rewritten so that his character died as well), only then to fight his way up to the royal Coliseum games and earn the love and respect of the hoi polloi, only then to rile up the populous against Commodus, thus threatening his reign, only then to face off against the bastard one-on-one in front of thousands of spectators, only then to die and be reuinited with his family in Elysium. Oh, I’m sorry, did I just ruin the movie for you? Shame on you for not seeing it 14 years ago, then. You’re not even 14 years old, you say? Kids on the Internet these days. Then go see it right now, because even though you know how it ends (he dies), it’s still one of the most incredible films of this millennium.
Gladiator was one of the most influential movies on my young sensibilities, and I consider it a classic that belongs to my generation in the way an old, old, old dude might consider Casablanca an essential part of his generation. I don’t know if it’s the very first movie that ever made tears well up in my eyes, but it’s the earliest movie I remember having that effect – twice even! I cried when Maximus found the charred corpses of his wife and child, and then I cried harder when he died at the end. For the next several times I rewatched the film, I cried again and again. I don’t cry to it anymore. I’m desensitized to Crowe’s superb acting abilities. But other movies will still make my eyes rain – and I’ll make a list of the top 5 movies that made me cry soon. Don’t judge me. As you could see, while I originally wanted this list to be only of movies set in ancient Greece, I couldn’t flesh it out enough and I had to throw in two movies set in ancient Rome. Help me out here – what are some other amazing films set in Greece?