Roman epics

'Gladiator' revives interest in epic warrior stories

— Decline and fall? In Hollywood, the Roman Empire is on the march again.

The success of "Gladiator" � nominated for 12 Oscars � is bringing other old "sword-and-sandal epics" back to life.


AP Photo

Actor Joaquin Phoenix, center, plays Emperor Commodus in this scene from "Gladiator." The Oscar-nominated film's success was largely built on the digital pyrotechnics used to recreate the vistas of ancient Rome and the thousands of Praetorian Guards, seen in the background.

A restored "Ben-Hur" will be released next week on DVD, while "Cleopatra" and "Spartacus" are to debut in that format in April.

"'Gladiator' definitely renewed interest in Rome," said fan George Metz, 59, of Newtown Square, Pa., a member of a group called Legion XXIV, which recreates Roman battles. He believes much about the Roman Empire resonates with modern American audiences.

"Imperial Rome was the superpower of the ancient world," Metz said. "And we're the superpower of the modern world."

"Ben-Hur" star Charlton Heston credits the renewed interest to the ancient Roman heroes.

"It's because of the great men," he said. "The era is popular because there are so many interesting guys around in it."

The fictional story of a Jew who wars with a former Roman friend, "Ben-Hur" culminates in a chariot race staged at a replica of Rome's Circus Maximus racetrack. It was one of the most complicated and dangerous scenes ever filmed. The movie won 11 Oscars, including best picture, in 1959.

Heston also said Roman epics appeal to the American psyche because ancient Rome's language, government and innovations were such a powerful influence on Western culture.

"It has become undeniable that the nation of the United States of America has become the most important political development since the rise of the Roman republic," Heston said.

Big-budget missteps

So why did the genre fall out of favor for decades?

One reason is that so-called "spectacle films" became too expensive after the early 1960s; the decadent productions and elaborate sets were impossible to recreate until the advent of digital special effects.

Elizabeth Taylor's "Cleopatra," a four-hour tale of the Egyptian ruler and her encounters with Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, cost a record $44 million dollars in 1963. That's the equivalent of about $245 million today.

Then came the succession of cheap Roman-epic knockoffs like 1964's "Hercules Against Rome" and 1980's disastrous "Caligula," now considered soft-core pornography.

"There were a few really bad versions that I think really scared studios and audiences away," said Douglas Wick, a "Gladiator" producer. "A lot of bad gladiator movies did feel remote and silly."

"Gladiator" has clearly broken that stereotype. The movie � about a persecuted general who returns as a gladiator to challenge the emperor � has earned more than $400 million worldwide since debuting last May.

Its themes of honor and loyalty also figure prominently in another of Hollywood's most acclaimed Roman epics � director Stanley Kubrick's "Spartacus."

Kirk Douglas, who starred as the slave who leads a revolt against Rome, said "Spartacus" remains relevant because it's about fighting oppression.

"The movie is really about freedom. Freedom for all people," Douglas said. "And it was made in the McCarthy era, in the time of the blacklist."

"Spartacus" won four Oscars in 1961, including a supporting actor award for Peter Ustinov.

Tapping into old values

It's the fight scenes that initially draw audiences to gladiator movies, said Roman enthusiast Robert Woolwine, 28, of Pasadena, Calif., a member of the history club Nova Roma. But unless audiences see themselves mirrored in ancient times, the films are quickly forgotten, he said.

"Rome is appealing because its virtues translate exactly to what Americans want today: family values and good government," said Woolwine.

In "Gladiator," the general, Maximus, longs only to return to his family but feels obligated to help save Rome from dictatorship. The movie also plays with such modern themes as the athlete as entertainer and the power of celebrity.

"They had chariot races, we have stock car races. They had gladiators, we have boxing," Woolwine said.

Meanwhile, the appeal of ancient warriors isn't limited to Rome. One of "Gladiator's" rivals for the best-picture Oscar is the Mandarin-language "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," nominated for nine other Academy Awards as well.


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