What did the Romans ever do for us?

The Golden Age of the Sword and Sandal Epic
by Mark Walker

Ridley Scott's Gladiator has revitalised a much-loved Hollywood genre: the historical epic. Their Golden Age was the post-war austerity years of the 1950s, when audiences were hungry for escapism. The advent of the sword and sandal genre allowed cinemagoers to experience vicariously the thrills of the gladiatorial arena, chariot racing in the circus, or an upper-class orgy at a Roman Senator's country villa--so long as such illicit pleasures were glossed with a veneer of pious Christianity, of course. In post-war Hollywood's version of history, Romans were thinly disguised Nazis (usually played by British actors with suitably patrician voices), while the oppressed masses (slaves, Jews, Christians) were proto-Americans, standing up for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Size Does Matter
By the early 1950s television had become a serious rival to cinema. The Hollywood studios needed to find new ways of encouraging audiences away from the little screen in the corner of the living room and back into the cinema. After experimenting with various gimmicks (3-D for example), they hit on a bold solution: widescreen. Until 1952, standard screen ratios for both cinema and TV had remained almost unaltered since the silent era. Then a widescreen spectacular entitled This Is Cinerama amazed audiences: projected on an astonishingly wide arc-shaped screen, the movie used three 35mm projectors running simultaneously to produce the wide image (it also boasted multi-channel stereophonic sound). New camera developments soon allowed studios to create widescreen pictures which didn't require such special equipment. CinemaScope, Panavision, VistaVision and the Todd AO system among others enabled movies to become bigger and more spectacular than they had ever been before. But a question remained: with these widescreen vistas in place, what kind of movies were best suited to them? In search of a solution, the studios turned to religion.

In post-war Hollywood's version of history, Romans were thinly disguised Nazis (usually played by British actors with suitably patrician voices), while the oppressed masses (slaves, Jews, Christians) were proto-Americans, standing up for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The Miracle of Widescreen

Although pre-dating CinemaScope, Quo Vadis (1951), starring Robert Taylor, Deborah Kerr and Peter Ustinov (as a wonderfully petulant Nero), helped stimulate the post-war public's appetite for the spectacle of Ancient Rome. Encouraged by this success, Hollywood embarked on an orgy of sword and sandal extravaganzas which defined the term "epic" for moviegoers ever after.

In 1953 20th Century-Fox announced their first CinemaScope presentation, The Robe. Designed to show off the wonders of the new system, The Robe is a reverential and--let's admit it right away--excuciatingly turgid biblical epic starring Richard Burton as a Roman Centurion on duty at Christ's crucifixion who bets on and wins Jesus' robe, then spends the rest of the movie agonising about becoming a Christian. Fox's publicity campaign soared to new heights in their desire to plug their latest "miracle": "Through the modern miracle of CinemaScope the eternal miracle of The Robe which has inspired men's hearts for 2,000 years comes alive!" they trumpeted. The movie was a great success at the time, but viewing it nowadays the performances seem stiff and the action static, although visually it's still undeniably a feast for the eyes.

The Robe spawned a sequel, the lamentably forgettable Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954), in which Victor Mature reprised his role as the sanctimonious Christian slave, this time boldly defying the Emperor Caligula (a great over the top performance from Jay Robinson--the best thing about the movie). History rewound a thousand years or so for Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 remake of The Ten Commandments, which he had first made in 1923. DeMille's movies remain a byword for grandeur on an unprecedented scale, and his retelling of the story of Moses (played by an impressively rugged, if over-earnest Charlton Heston) was filmed in wide VistaVision and didn't disappoint on that front. It falls down, however, like The Robe before it, in the script and acting departments where Old Testament dialogue predominates to the detriment of dramatic realism.

Bread and Circuses

The biggest and best of all had to wait until the end of the decade. MGM's Ben-Hur in 1959 was one of the largest productions ever undertaken: the Circus Maximus set alone, constructed for the climactic chariot race, was 18 acres in size and covered with 40,000 tons of Mediterranean sand. Costing in total a breathtaking $15 million and filmed on extravagantly wide 65mm cameras (the movie's aspect ratio is 2.76:1, almost twice as broad as the old standard of 1.37:1), Ben-Hur broke records all round. Fittingly it scooped an unprecendented 11 Academy Awards that year, an achievement only equalled three decades later by Titanic--another bloated, wildly costly epic.

Unlike Titanic, however, Ben-Hur was a literate, intelligent movie in which the human focus of the story is never sacrificed in favour of spectacle (thanks to director William Wyler, who had vivid memories of being an assistant on MGM's original silent Ben-Hur back in 1925). The movie's Christian theme is handled sensitively, focusing on the central character's love and compassion for his family, and heavy-handed sermonising is thankfully avoided. Among the movie's virtues are a towering central performance from Charlton Heston (the undisputed king of the genre), a script that received telling input from Gore Vidal, and a masterful music score from Miklos Rozsa--the composer also responsible for scoring Quo Vadis, Julius Caesar, King of Kings, El Cid and the forgotten and forgettable Last Days of Sodom and Gomorrah (1962).

Unlike Titanic, Ben-Hur was a literate, intelligent movie in which the human focus of the story is never sacrificed in favour of spectacle

Nothing could top Ben-Hur it seemed, but wunderkind director Stanley Kubrick was determined to have a go. In Spartacus (1960), Kubrick's theme was one man's struggle against oppression and slavery: a tale with many resonances for a Cold War audience, and especially for the Civil Rights movement in the US. A thoughtful, terse script exploited contemporary parallels to the full. But with screen idol Kirk Douglas (Kubrick's leading man from 1957's Paths Of Glory) as the revolting slave and heartthrob Tony Curtis as his reluctant sidekick (the duo had previously donned period costume for 1958's The Vikings), Spartacus also had all the spectacle and more that audiences had come to expect from the sword and sandal tradition: titanic battles, gladiatorial shows and even--in a scene deleted at the time but subsequently restored--a risqué bathing episode in which Laurence Olivier's Crassus chats up the well-oiled Curtis. Alex North's strident, martial score is another huge asset to the film, and received more considerate treatment from Kubrick than the composer's later music for 2001: A Space Odyssey (1967), which was rejected entirely in favour of all those classical excerpts.

Veni Vidi Vici
With Ben-Hur and Spartacus almost back to back, sword and sandal epics had apparently conquered all who came to see them. But audiences can have too much of a good thing. 20th Century-Fox entered the fray once again with the four-hour marathon that is Cleopatra in 1963. Scripted and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (whose previous foray into the genre had been the 1953 screen adaptation of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, starring James Mason and Marlon Brando), the movie gained notoriety for the real-life off-screen romance between Anthony (Richard Burton) and Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor), as well as for its spiralling budget. But it remains a grand if massively overlong spectacle, even though Rex Harrison's Caesar, who dominates the first hour, is the most compelling reason to watch it.

Thankfully, both Spartacus and Cleopatra lived BC not AD so audiences were spared the Hollywood homilies. But the studios laid on the piety with a trowel in two films about the life of Jesus: Nicholas Ray's King of Kings (1961) and George Stevens' The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). Barely two years after Ben-Hur, King of Kings was a sermon too far for most critics (it was dubbed "I Was A Teenage Jesus" in mocking reference to director Ray's previous work with James Dean on Rebel Without A Cause), although a healthy hit with audiences. Max Von Sydow's Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told was certainly a more charismatic portrayal than Jeffrey Hunter's in King of Kings, but John Wayne's cameo as a Roman Centurion is one of the movie's more ridiculous moments, as is the original 260-minute running time. Audiences had to wait for Franco Zeffirelli's epic TV mini-series Jesus of Nazareth (1977) for a convincing biblical biopic--a theme that was mercilessly and gloriously parodied by Monty Python in their magnum opus, Life of Brian (1979).

Romanes Eunt Domus
In 1961, producer Samuel Bronston, the man behind King of Kings, was also responsible for the magnificent medieval epic El Cid (starring Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren), which, although set in a much later period (11th century Spain), is one of the most sumptuous and enthralling of all Hollywood's epics. Thanks were due to director Anthony Mann who made full use of the gorgeous Spanish locations as a panoramic backdrop to the action. Bronston went on to produce 55 Days At Peking (1963)--again with Heston in the lead role--then re-united with Mann for The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). Once again thanks to Mann the movie looks magnificent. Alec Guinness is dignified and suitably stoical as the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Christopher Plummer has fun as his wicked heir Commodus, but Stephen Boyd (Messala from Ben-Hur) and Sophia Loren (Chimene from El Cid) were wooden as the dull and irrelevant central love interest which would have had Edward Gibbon turning in his grave. Gladiator reworks much of this movie's plot, but with decidedly more flair.

Stephen Boyd and Sophia Loren were wooden as the dull and irrelevant central love interest which would have had Edward Gibbon turning in his grave

Prophetically, The Fall of the Roman Empire sounded the death knell for the sword and sandal epic: not only were they unfeasibly expensive to make, audiences were growing a little tired of sword fights and chariot races accompanied by resplendent brass fanfares. The sixties were swinging and moviegoers wanted hip: Blake Edwards had already made Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961) and The Pink Panther (1963). The times they were a' changin', as a contemporary folk singing was telling everyone.

Other epics were made alongside these toga tales, of course, most notably David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965), as well as Cy Endfield's Zulu (1964). But Kubrick's futuristic 2001: A Space Odyssey (1967) was the last of them until audiences rediscovered the joys of widescreen with Star Wars a decade later. But what goes out of fashion is sure to come back in, and Ridley Scott's Gladiator may yet herald a welcome revival of the grandiose sword and sandal genre.