Total Recall

Total Recall: The Rise And Fall Of Rome (In The Movies)

With The Eagle hitting theaters, we present a brief rundown of Roman history in cinema.

by | February 11, 2011 | Comments


This weekend, Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell strap on their swords and sandals for Kevin Macdonald’s adventure epic The Eagle, adding another chapter to Hollywood’s decades-long fascination with the Roman Empire. The genre has had its ups and downs over the years, but it’s never really gone away completely, and for good reason — from goofy comedies to sweeping romances and blockbuster action adventures, it’s a time period with something to offer film fans of all persuasions. To prove it, here’s this week’s feature: a fond (but by no means comprehensive) look back at some of our favorite films inspired by ancient Rome. We came, we saw, we Total Recalled!



After all these years (and so many movies), it isn’t easy to make a Roman empire film that breaks new ground — but it isn’t impossible, as illustrated by 2009’s Agora. Starring Rachel Weisz as Hypatia, a fourth-century philosopher and scholar who lived in Roman Egypt, Agora asked thought-provoking — and depressingly timely — questions about religious fundamentalism and gender roles. And even if it didn’t pose them all as artfully as it could have (Tom Long of the Detroit News dismissed it as “something of a bore”), it still found favor with critics like Colin Covert of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, who wrote, “Some may consider Agora sound history, others may label it heresy, but I call it thumping good drama.”



MGM’s recent money troubles are nothing new — the studio has teetered on the brink a few times, and they nearly went under in the late 1950s, only to be saved by the $15 million gamble known as Ben-Hur. Though not the first adaptation of Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel, it was by far the most successful, grossing almost $100 million (in 1950s dollars!) and winning an astonishing 11 Academy Awards, a record that would remain unbroken until James Cameron’s Titanic. With Charlton Heston’s gravitas in the title role and a hefty 212-minute running time — plus one of the most grandiose action scenes ever filmed — critics and audiences couldn’t help but be awed. As Phil Villarreal wrote for the Arizona Daily Star, “The film moves with an assurance and majesty hardly seen in modern movies.”



Fittingly for a film about the reign of one of the Roman Empire’s most infamous emperors, Caligula (don’t call it Gore Vidal’s Caligula or he’ll sue you from beyond the grave) is a legendary filmmaking debacle. A whirling cesspool of lawsuits, disputed credits, assorted sundry cuts, it took the brave step of merging historical epic drama with hardcore pornography; perhaps unsurprisingly, most critics weren’t all that impressed (Roger Ebert, no prude, walked out during his screening, and called it “sickening, utterly worthless, shameful trash”). Still, it has its defenders: Gregory Weinkauf admitted it was “Kinda dumb and tacky,” but countered with, “at least it’s a real movie.”



If the storyline behind The Eagle seems familiar, it’s because Neil Marshall’s Centurion drew from the same well just last year. But as disappointing as these cases of lousy Hollywood timing can be, it’s easy to see what filmmakers have found so fascinating about this story — after all, it isn’t every day that an entire legion of soldiers vanishes into an unsolvable riddle of history. In Marshall’s mud-and-blood-fueled take on the story, a crew of stony-faced action vets (including Dominic West and Michael Fassbender) march off to war against the tenacious Picts, under orders to — as the poster put it — “fight or die.” (Spoiler alert: They did plenty of both.) Centurion wasn’t a huge hit, either with critics or filmgoers, but it’s unapologetic bloodlust earned the approval of scribes such as Cary Darling of the Dallas Morning News, who deemed it “Far more entertaining, and infinitely less cumbersome, than its recent big-budget Hollywood counterparts.”



You want an epic movie? How about this: 1963’s Cleopatra was the highest-grossing film of the year, but it still lost money, thanks to the $44 million tab run up by 20th Century Fox and director Joseph L. Mankiewicz. It’s all up there on the screen — all four hours and five minutes of it, from Cleopatra’s tryst with Caesar (Rex Harrison) to her affair with Marc Antony (Richard Burton) to her final showdown with Octavian (Roddy McDowall). Elizabeth Taylor may not have looked the part, but who else could have played Cleopatra? If and when Steven Soderbergh gets Angelina Jolie in front of the 3D cameras for his musical about the legendary Egyptian queen, she’ll have some big eye makeup to fill — but then again, most critics didn’t think much of Cleopatra in the first place. Billy Mowbray of Film4 saw something many of his colleagues didn’t, calling it “A giant of a movie that is sometimes lumbering, but ever watchable thanks to its uninhibited ambition, size and glamour.”



By the late 1970s, swords and sandals epics were about as hip as musicals or Westerns — and even those genres enjoyed periodic revivals during the 1980s and 1990s. It took Ridley Scott, Russell Crowe, and a little movie called Gladiator to reignite filmgoers’ interest in ancient Rome, to the tune of over $450 million in worldwide box office and a whopping 12 Academy Award nominations (five of which it won, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Crowe). With a story strongly reminiscent of The Fall of the Roman Empire and Spartacus, Gladiator certainly wasn’t anything new for Hollywood — but after so many years away from the spotlight, tales of ancient Rome felt fresh again, and modern filmmaking techniques made it possible to present them more viscerally than ever. Michael Wilmington of the Chicago Tribune said as much in his review, declaring Gladiator “The most visually spectacular of all Roman Empire epics.”

History of the World — Part I


Yeah, we know putting this one in here is cheating a little, but even if it mostly takes place in other eras, History of the World, Part I contains plenty of ancient Rome-inspired laughs — and besides, you aren’t likely to see another movie where Caesar’s palace is played by its modern-day Las Vegas counterpart, or where you’ll learn about the powerful effects of “Roman Red” marijuana and the true story of the Last Supper. Like most of Mel Brooks’ movies, History has its ups and downs, but — in the words of eFilmCritic’s Scott Weinberg — “It succeeds only in fits and starts, but the bits that do work are hilarious!”

Julius Caesar


Shakespeare’s play about the titular dictator received the Joseph L. Mankiewicz treatment with this 1953 Best Picture nominee, starring Louis Calhern (King Lear) in the title role alongside a showy supporting cast that included Greer Garson, Deborah Kerr, John Gielgud, James Mason, and Marlon Brando (who received a Best Actor nomination for his efforts). Julius Caesar weighs in at a relatively trim 121 minutes, but that was plenty epic enough for the critics, who showered it with universal praise — including Geoff Andrew of Time Out, who called it “a remarkably successful stab at Shakespeare.”

Monty Python’s Life of Brian


Hollywood hasn’t turned to the Roman Empire for laughs very often, but that isn’t for lack of comedic potential — as evidenced by this Monty Python classic, which imagines the absurd confusion that might envelop the life of a man born on the same night as (and just a couple of stables away from) Jesus Christ. A vicious satire of organized religion, politics, and bureaucracy, Monty Python’s Life of Brian was unquestionably one of the more provocative comedies of the era — and provoke it did, inspiring public debate, accusations of blasphemy, and a healthy $20 million return on its $4 million budget (largely contributed by George Harrison). But as with most of Python’s aggressively silly material, there was a message behind all the goofing around; as Anthony Lane pointed out in his review for the New Yorker, “The Pythons are enlightened jesters, whose scorn is reserved for those who persist in walking in darkness.”

Quo Vadis


Offering nearly three hours of sweeping Technicolor drama, this adaptation of Henryk Sienkiewicz’s 1896 novel took viewers all the way back to 64 AD, and the bloody struggle between the Roman government and the burgeoning Christian movement. Pretty high-stakes stuff, and director Mervyn LeRoy (Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo) mined it for every last drop of melodrama, aided by a cast that included genre mainstays Deborah Kerr and Peter Ustinov. Not the most subtle approach, perhaps, but it worked well enough to earn Quo Vadis eight Academy Award nominations — and critical praise from the likes of the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther, who trumpeted, “Here is a staggering combination of cinema brilliance and sheer banality, of visual excitement and verbal boredom, of historical pretentiousness and sex.”



By the late 1960s, ancient Rome had been visited by plenty of filmmakers — but none who viewed it through the distinctive lens of Federico Fellini. Inspired by Petronius’ first-century fiction, Fellini’s Satyricon blended lusty comedy, violence, historical drama, and anything else he could squeeze into two hours to produce a boldly irreverent international hit that earned the director a Best Director Oscar nomination. “It is so much more ambitious and audacious than most of what we see today that simply as a reckless gesture, it shames these timid times,” applauded Roger Ebert, adding, “Films like this are a reminder of how machine-made and limited recent product has become.”



No surprises here — you think “swords and sandals,” and Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 classic is one of the first films that comes to mind. And for good reason: Every element of Spartacus, from Dalton Trumbo’s script to Alex North’s score, Kubrick’s direction, and a stellar cast that included Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, and Peter Ustinov (who won an Oscar for his work) was assembled with top-shelf ingredients. At over three hours, this tale of a Roman slave rebellion is a certified good old-fashioned Hollywood epic, and it includes one of modern film’s most oft-quoted scenes to boot. As Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote for the Chicago Reader, “This may be the most literate of all the spectacles set in antiquity.”

Take a look through the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out the reviews for The Eagle.

Finally, for those of you who don’t have time to read the works of Edward Gibbon, here’s a super-quick history of the Roman Empire: