Exodus to the cinema… Swords, sandals, epic films and Archaeology

Unknown painter before 79 AD,  from Pompeii, now in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale (Naples), showing a banquet or family ceremony.
Unknown painter before 79 AD, from Pompeii, now in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale (Naples), showing a banquet or family ceremony.

If, like a guest at a Roman banquet (convivium or maybe a comissatio if you were drinking more than eating[!]) you are slowly starting to digest the gargantuan amount of food that comes our way every mid-winter, it is quite possible your mind has turned to entertainment to aid the process along. Perhaps less like the Romans we have quite a plethora of options thanks to the wonders of the internet and computers. But it is still quite possible that you too have been drawn to the honey-pot of passive public entertainment. The Romans certainly did, with huge amphitheatres and theatres to keep the plebeians and patricians beguiled. It’s a whole other story as to what modern theatrical performances owe to Greek and Roman roots (see below). For now, we’ll just focus on the fact that we all occasionally like to sit back and be wholeheartedly engrossed in a story without having to actually do very much yourself.

The Wisconsin Union Theatre (right) and the Roman theatre in Plovdiv, Bulgaria (left).
The Wisconsin Union Theatre (right) and the Roman theatre in Plovdiv, Bulgaria (left).

Enter, stage right, the sword and sandal epic pursued by a well know Hollywood director.

Boxing day saw the release of the latest in the slew of such films that have littered cinema from its inception. Exodus: Gods and Kings is proffered by Ridley Scott in the light of other biblically inclined films such as Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, you’d be forgiven if you had a bit of deja vu back to the now canonised Gladiator or even further to Hollywood’s golden era of Ben Hur (1959) and Cleopatra (1963). As a cinema-going society we seem to have fallen under the spell of such films. The scale of the story, the brutality of the battles and the often inevitable tragedy of the protagonists (Cleopatra being a prime example) have us coming back for more. The plus side is that it gives pseudo-academicsm and bloggers like me, the perfect excuse to over-analyse and synthesize the theories as to why this is the case.

Elizabeth Taylor's Cleopatra. Perhaps actually displaying all of Hollywood's 'Golden Era' just on her dress.
Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra. Perhaps actually displaying all of Hollywood’s ‘Golden Era’ just on her dress.
Lyndsey Marshal's Cleopatra from the HBO/BBC collaboration 'Rome' has, perhaps, a far greater claim to historical accuracy.
Lyndsey Marshal’s Cleopatra from the HBO/BBC collaboration ‘Rome’ has, perhaps, a far greater claim to historical accuracy.

From a more academicy point of view these films (or movies for our cousins across the pond) Ancient Rome and the Classical world more generally, you can identify concepts of foreignness and familiarity in the depiction and presentation of films and television; something that is both different, but comforts an audience with what they would understand as an identifiably ‘Classical’ outlook. It can be seen that this also applicable to documentaries. The concept of ‘foreignness and familiarity’ presents the Romans as unalterably alien in social and cultural background, yet, still presents a lifestyle or technology that can be easily recognised by us as modern people.

In the case of Scott’s Exodus film, this is brought a whole extra dynamic by being about a character that is deeply set within the Abrahamic faiths. The very fact of this does add a whole extra contingency when thinking about how they are received by a modern audience. For those who actively believe in the events depicted in the film, for those who may know much about the events, but do not ascribe any faith alongside them, and also people for whom the story is completely new.

As Egyptian as it's possible to get? Combining foreignness, familiarity and biblical stories in Exodus.
As Egyptian as it’s possible to get? Combining foreignness, familiarity and biblical stories in Exodus.

For my part, despite the criticism levelled against it, I did quite enjoy it. I do agree with Mark Kermode’s point (written in the Observer) that the actors could have least come from the same/similar racial background that a historical Moses would have (read Kermode’s piece here). But the dramatic sequences, brutality of historical battles and grand and epic scale of ancient Egypt in all it’s glory. Just try not to look too hard for the archaeological anomalies. Egypt and Morocco have already reportedly banned the film from showing  in cinemas.

It’s not my place, nor my area of expertise, to comment on the accuracy of Scott’s film in the light of biblical accuracy. Much more has been made of this than the historical/archaeological side of things. Unlike other sword and sandal epics; the involvement of characters that form part of major world religions is always going to be problematic.

For my part, I tried not to try and over-analyse whether or not slave labour would have been used for the building of certain monuments, the costume and language of the Egyptians, or the distinct lack of real character development despite a running time of 150 minutes. Ultimately, it is only for you dear readers to decide whether you an forgive it for its failings and accept it as the latest Hollywood offering to the weird and wonderful world of Ancient civilizations and history. Or condemn it as a bastion the worst things that could happen when film-makers are allowed to run amok with artistic and historical license.

“Are you not entertained? Are you not entertained? Is this not why you are here?”

*Sigh* Gladiator is still better.

Emma pinxit

 

Hobden, F., 2009. History Meets Fiction in Doctor Who, “The Fires of Pompeii”: A BBC Reception of Ancient Rome on Screen and Online. Greece & Rome, 56(2), pp.147–163

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