For nearly 3 decades after the epic disasters at the box office it seemed that the sword and sandal genre would be dead forever. The few movies that were made dealing with the ancient world just did not seem to be able to find their audiences, becoming formulaic and grand spectacles that overshadowed any attempts at good story telling. Just when all was thought lost, Mel Gibson’s Braveheart took the big screen by storm in 1995, with a stirring rendition of the medieval Scottish wars of independence. Although not set in Ancient Rome, this film did revive the historical epic through it’s successful attempt at graphic realism and bold cinematography. The bloody and overtly violent battle sequences mesmerized and changed the way violence would be used on film. In an attempt to immerse audiences in this world, Gibson introduced a stark realism that was both used in the action driven sequences but was equally at home in the more romance driven intimate moments. Braveheart spared no one from the harsh realities of these times, yet it became one of the top grossing movies of all times. Our list continues with the films that followed in the last decade, and helped revive the the historical epic and bring the Roman Empire back from it’s ashes for a new generation.
Directed by Ridley Scott, Gladiator is the epic retelling of the consequences that befall a Roman general Maximus Decimus Meridius, in the oscar winning role portrayed by Russell Crowe. Maximus is a favorite of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius who is betrayed and murdered by his only son Commodus , played by a wickedly sinister Joaquin Phoenix. Captured and enslaved by Commodus for his fear of rivalry, Maximus rises through the ranks of the gladiatorial arena , eventually reaching the heart of the Roman empire, where he avenges the murder of his family and his Emperor in a climatic scene in the colosseum.
Gladiator did not break new ground with violence, but it was the first historical epic to fully utilize CGI in bringing back to life an ancient city. Here Ridley Scott created a vision of the colosseum before it was a ruin, the marble new and gleaning in the center off the eternal city. But unlike the earlier films of the 60’s, this film had a pace and of action, that kept audiences engaged enough to earn the film five Academy Awards, and continued on to become one of the highest earning films of 2000.
Based on Homer’s Epic the Iliad, Troy is Wolfgang’s Peterson’s (of Das Boot fame) attempt at bringing to the big screen history's most famous battle. The actions takes place in the late Bronze age, after the unified Greeks city states invade the kingdom of Troy to avenge the abduction of their beautiful queen Helen. Paris, the Trojan prince played by Orlando Bloom, convinces Helen, to leave her husband Menelaus the king of Sparta, and sail with him back to Troy. Finding his wife missing, Menelaus and his brother Agamemnon raise a naval armada and set off after Helen, with her beauty indeed launching a 1,000 ships. With the help of Achilles, played to some effect by Brad Pitt, the Greeks are able to fight the undefeated Trojans until coming to a stop when Hector, the future king and greatest warrior of Troy arrives to challenge Achilles. The final dual between Hector, played by an intense Eric Bana, and Pitt’s Achilles is a wonderfully choreographed dual that certainly plays homage to the epic films of the 60’s.
While Troy did not connect initially with critics, worldwide it became the 60th highest grossing films of all time. It was certainly the movie that paved the way for other films like 300 and Alexander, but was certainly superior to both those efforts. A much underrated movie, with many good performances, Troy has lived on with amazing frequency on cable networks.
Rome, created by Bruno Heller originally aired on HBO in 2005 and ran for two seasons. The series was filmed i most notably in the Cinecittà studios in Italy where Ben Hur was made 5 decades earlier. Rome is set during Ancient Rome's transition from Republic to Empire, from Caesar's invasion of Gaul to the death of Mark Antony and the rise of the first Emperor Augustus. The series primarily chronicles the lives and deeds of the rich and powerful leaders of Roman noble society, yet it also focuses on the lives of two common soldiers named Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo. The two Roman soldiers are actually mentioned historically in Caesar's Commentarii de Bello Gallico, his treatise on the Gallic Wars. And in this series the ever present Vorenus and Pullo manage to witness and often influence the historical events presented as the intrinsic arcs of the series. It was very successful in creating an tactile experience due to the great level of detail placed in the scenes and rituals depicting this ancient society.
The series was a ratings success and received much media attention from the start, being honored with numerous awards and nominations in its two-season run. Creator Heller stated in December 2008 that a Rome movie is in development, so let’s hope it loves up to the perfection that was the series...
And this leads us to Spartacus: Blood and Sand! The new series supposedly focuses on a retelling of Spartacus, and stars a newcomer named Andy Whitfield as the rebellious slave. Lucy Lawless , of Xena Warrior Princess fame, plays Lucretia, and from the look of the trailer this will be a graphic and visceral account of Rome’s most famous gladiator, that later became the leader of a major slave uprising against the Republic. As with the bar that Rome has set, this television show has been advertised to have some of the most graphic sex and violence ever produced on television. An attempt to bring not only the violence, but the public’s desire to view the customs and social norms of the ancient Roman world to life, are part of the rekindled interest that all these films share. In this respect the official website quotes:
“When he’s separated from the love of his life, Spartacus is forced into the gruesome and bloodthirsty arena, where a grisly death is primetime entertainment. Spartacus must fight for survival, befriend his enemies and play politics in this new world of corruption, violence, sex and fame. He’ll be seduced by power and tormented by vengeance. But his passion will give him the strength to prevail over every obstacle, in this modern and uninhibited tale of death, honor and endurance. “
Let’s hope and see if Spartacus continues to provide a new chapter in the classic genre and continue to make the Ancient Rome come to life in all it’s high definition glory...