“Harness My Zebras!” Roman epics season
Due to the advent of colour television in the 1950s, movie audiences declined in the USA. In response, Hollywood studios produced a series of biblical and Roman epics. Many were based on the Bible but the more successful films drew on novels and original screenplays. The films were shot in new widescreen processes, commanded large budgets, required the construction of huge sets and involved thousands of cast members and extras. In addition to presenting large scale spectacle, they explored contemporary issues about masculinity, religion, anti-semitism, civil rights, slavery and freedom.
The biggest of them all was William Wyler’s hugely impressive remake of Ben-Hur (1959), about a Judean prince thrown into slavery by his former friend, Messala, now commander of the Roman garrison in Jerusalem. Wyler brought great sensitivity and intimacy to the large scale action, which included a huge sea battle and a chariot race which became the most famous scene in Hollywood history. The film won 11 Oscars, the equal highest ever.
After missing out on the part of Judah Ben-Hur, the Hollywood star and liberal activist Kirk Douglas embarked on his own project, a secular Roman epic about the renegade slave Spartacus (1960). Written by the Hollywood blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo and directed by a young Stanley Kubrick, Spartacus is an equally powerful depiction of a struggle for freedom, featuring Laurence Olivier, Peter Ustinov and Charles Laughton in top form, impressive gladiatorial and battle scenes, and the famous – previous deleted – gay scene about ‘snails and oysters’.
After Cleopatra (1963) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) proved financial flops, the genre virtually died out, until Ridley Scott produced and directed Gladiator in 2000. Although now able to utilise computer technology, the film bears a striking resemblance to the earlier films, particularly in the transfiguration of the pseudo Christ figure, his nemesis and the theme of slavery. Gladiator went on to become a huge hit, winning five Oscars including a best actor award for a young Russell Crowe in stunning form.
Films in this season