Latest update: 10/1/2004; 5:10:43 AM
quidquid bene dictum est ab ullo, meum est ~ Seneca
~ Hollywood and the Ancient World

From today's Toronto Star comes a piece (not sure which section this comes from) on how Hollywood approaches ancient flicks now compared to fifty or so years ago. Inter alia:

In this case, digitalized movies are retrieving Hollywood sword and toga epics popular in the 1950s and early 1960s, which culminated in such movies as Spartacus and 1959's Ben-Hur.

In recent times, we've had the mammoth Roman Colosseum in Ridley Scott's 2000 epic Gladiator, and this year's Troy, with its vast CGI panorama of ships and armies. Early in November Oliver Stone will release Alexander, in which the Macedonian conqueror will also command a horde conjured up by the computer.

There's a striking coincidence here. In one year, 1956, the world was given two epics by two respected Hollywood directors: Robert Wise's Helen Of Troy and Robert Rossen's Alexander The Great.

In 2004, we have, in effect, remakes of both movies. Neither of the 1950s movies was very successful. Helen Of Troy was preceded by a publicity campaign promising moviegoers the most handsome man in the world (Paris) and the most beautiful woman in the world (Helen), but the actors who played those roles, a Frenchman named Jacques Sernas and an Italian named Rossana Podestà, failed to live up to billing. For one thing, they spoke fractured English and their lines were dubbed. Poor Podestà, the most beautiful woman in the world, also had to compete with Brigitte Bardot, another cast member.

Alexander The Great had some good battle scenes, but when I saw it as a little boy I was bored, except for the scene where Fredric March, playing Alexander's father, Philip of Macedonia, dances on top of a mountain after slaughtering a bunch of people and chants, "Philip the Barbarian! Philip the Barbarian!"

I liked that scene because I thought Philip was a sissy name, and here was a positive role model.

Needless to say, this year's films stake a claim to artistic as well as technical advances on these old CinemaScope clunkers.

We haven't seen Oliver Stone's Alexander yet, but we know there are a lot of deep political thoughts whirling inside that head of his.

Sure enough, in a recent article, Stone has said he believes Alexander was assassinated — given a poisoned cup of wine — by reactionary Macedonians because of his racial liberalism. Alexander wanted, Stone writes, "to radically globalize the known world by, among other things, intermixing Macedonian and Oriental bloodlines." He was, like another Stone hero and film subject, John F. Kennedy, "increasingly calling for radical change on several fronts."

Wolfgang Peterson's Troy is also far more political than its predecessor. Of course, that's not saying much. What is surprising is that it's a good movie. It actually used the digital technology to appropriate effect.

I know this is right because I confirmed my impression with my old Classics professor, M. Owen Lee. (Father Lee, author of First Intermissions, a series of commentaries on opera, is as conversant with movies and operas as he is with Greek and Latin.)

"I liked the Homeric effect with the digitalized and aerial views of the battles," Lee said. "I thought those were wonderful. Homer has this Olympian view of what's going on in The Iliad, which is very much like watching a movie. He doesn't put himself in the middle of it. He watches from a distance. Everything is beautiful, as expressed in these great Homeric similes — the two armies clashing like waves in the sand, or flies around a milk pail."

But Homer is also master of the medium shot and the close-up, so to speak. In the middle of a battle he will switch focus from the big picture to these two men locked in mortal combat, and suddenly it's as if the rest of the battle has disappeared.

At those points, the spotlight often falls on Achilles, portrayed by Brad Pitt. Some snobby movie critics — not our Star critics, I might add — have sneered at Pitt, and it's true (Father Lee agrees) that Pitt is not always up to great scenes, like the indescribably poignant visit of King Priam to the tent of Achilles at night to beg for the body of his son, Hector. But Pitt's leaping and other athletic displays are graceful and convincing, his golden mane is true to Homer, who describes Achilles as having "lion-coloured hair," and even Philip the Barbarian would admit the guy's beautiful.

Peter O'Toole, who plays King Priam in the movie, was once himself a golden-haired, blue-eyed hero in a movie epic entitled Lawrence Of Arabia. Noel Coward said that if O'Toole were any more beautiful they would have had to call the movie Florence Of Arabia. Pitt is a little less delicate than O'Toole, but still. Any more male beauty in this film and the next step is a gay porn flick: The Boy Toy From Troy, or Achilles In The Lillies.

But Pitt is a lot better than the beefy Stanley Baker, the British actor who played Achilles in the 1956 movie. You can at least begin to imagine his character as the son of a goddess, and one favoured by the gods.

For the record, Homer explicitly denies the notion that Achilles and his great friend Patroclus were homosexual lovers. Father Lee tells me, however, that the dramatist Aeschylus wrote a play based on the theme that Achilles and Patroclus were, in fact, gay. Unfortunately, the play was lost.

The movie Troy, rather ludicrously, tries to explain the passionate attachment of the two men by making them cousins. "But he's my cousin!" Achilles cries out in grief and anguish at one point. So?

That Aeschylus would tamper with the great Homeric myth in such fashion reminds me of another point. Our snobbish critics were offended that Wolfgang Peterson would take liberties in this movie with The Iliad. But as Lee points out, the ancient Greeks who went to the theatre to see some treatment of Homeric myth were always wondering how Aeschylus or Euripides was going to change the story to make it relevant to their present concerns.

After the Athenians, in a famously brutal episode during the Peloponnesian War slaughtered the men and enslaved the women of the island of Melos, Euripides wrote his play, The Trojan Women, a searing portrayal of the sufferings of the vanquished. His audience didn't need a study guide to understand the play's connections with current affairs.

In the same way, Wolfgang Peterson makes the connections between Achilles's war and the current war in Iraq quite clear. When a Trojan temple is raided in the early part of the movie, we can easily feel the parallel with a destroyed mosque or looted antiquities. It is a movie that genuinely makes a viewer disgusted with war.

In that sense, it presents a promising example for future epics of its kind. [the whole thing]

Saturday, September 18, 2004 10:49:32 AM

~ Galen and Fallen Arches?

This showed up in today's scan:

Xarchas and Tsolakidis, "Galen: Author of the First Flatfoot Description." Journal of the American Podiatric Medical Association 2004; 94: 508-509

Unfortunately it's a subscription thing, but someone might want to check it out ...

Saturday, September 18, 2004 10:42:19 AM

~ Michael Jameson Obituary

From the New York Times:

Michael Hamilton Jameson, a scholar of Greek antiquity who in the 1960's helped unearth the relics of battles fought more than two millenniums ago, died on Aug. 28 in Stanford, Calif. He was 79 and lived in Palo Alto, Calif.

His family said his death followed a brief illness.
Previously associated with the University of Pennsylvania, he retired in 1990 as Crossett professor emeritus of humanistic studies at Stanford University.

Mr. Jameson led explorations that shed new light on the Peloponnesian War, in which Sparta defeated Athens in 404 B.C. His field work also discovered significant evidence from the Persian Wars (500-449 B.C.) described by Herodotus. Mr. Jameson's most notable finds included remnants of the town of Halieis, a strategic harbor on the Argolid, the easternmost peninsula of the Peloponnesus.

Mr. Jameson wrote books about the tragedies of Sophocles and agriculture and slavery in classical Athens. He was co-author of "A Greek Countryside: The Southern Argolid From Prehistory to Present Day."

Michael Jameson was born in London. He graduated in 1942 from the University of Chicago, where he also got his Ph.D. in 1949. He started teaching at the University of Missouri before his nearly two decades at the University of Pennsylvania. He joined the Stanford faculty in 1976.

Mr. Jameson is survived by his wife of 58 years, Virginia Broyles Jameson; and four sons: Nicholas, of Los Angeles; Anthony, of Saarbrücken, Germany; John, of Tokyo; and David, of London.

Saturday, September 18, 2004 9:58:50 AM

~ AWOTV: On TV Today

12.00 p.m. |DTC|The Grasp of Empire
Rome's legacy of trade, roads and architectural and psychological infrastructure relied on a fragile alliance of slaves, peasants and the provincial. The glory years of the Roman conquest led to the longest period of peace the world has ever known.

1.00 p.m. |DTC| The Cult of Order
Roman culture still weaves influence through western art, architecture, medicine, and urban planning. This enormous empire was a reflection of the multicultural world it encompassed, as excellence gave way to excess and decline.

2.00 p.m. |DTC|The Fall
From the reign of Diocletian to the sack of the Eternal City in 410 A.D., abusive political elite, complacent military, and an eroding cultural identity placed the Roman empire in an inexorable decline.

4.00 p.m. |DCIVC| Meet The Ancestors: Princess of the City

Saturday, September 18, 2004 9:36:29 AM

~ Apologies

Sorry we're a bit late updating this a.m.; one of my kids had an early hockey practice and I've got to figure out how to work that into an ever-decreasing amount of time in the a.m.. Saturday, September 18, 2004 9:34:58 AM

1. n. an abnormal state or condition resulting from the forced migration from a lengthy Classical education into a profoundly unClassical world; 2. n. a blog about Ancient Greece and Rome compiled by one so afflicted (v. "rogueclassicist"); 3. n. a Classics blog.

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