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In the Wake of Gladiator

Jon Solomon

Largely because of Cleopatra's financial debacle in the early 1960s, the production of films set in antiquity that commenced with DeMille's Samson and Delilah (1949) and MGM's Quo Vadis (1951) withered after A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966). Rarely did a studio or independent producer venture into the "ancient genre" for the next generation, and the few such films that were made met critical disapproval, popular apathy, and even moral indignation.

This situation changed in the middle of the 1990s because of the success of Sam Raimi's "Hercules," which replaced (even the shameless) "Baywatch" as the most popular syndicated television program in the world. It spawned not only the much beloved television spin-off Xena but also DreamWorks' theatrical release, Gladiator, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture, as well as Best Actor and other awards, in 2001. Thereafter it was predicted that there would be additional films set in the ancient world, and at present Troy, Alexander the Great, and Hannibal are evidence of this, not to mention the made-for-television films Cleopatra, Jason and the Argonauts, and Helen of Troy. This phenomenon has yet to run its course.

However, an alternate method of representing the ancient world in film flourished in the 1980s and early 1990s, namely, inserting into a film at least one allusion to some aspect of antiquity, be it Polyphemus singing in Slaves of  New York (1989), or Judge Dredd (1995) with its "Janus Program" of genetically engineered policemen. Since the mid-1980s there have been well over 500 such films, most of them high profile, widely-released Hollywood films, demonstrating that there is a well-established current running through the popular culture that embraces a limited range of names and themes associated with Greco-Roman antiquity, particularly Caesar, Cleopatra, Hannibal, Alexander, Helen of Troy, Medea, Plato, and Aristotle.

In the wake of Gladiator this tendency has been reenergized. Film makers can still assume that their audiences know something, however superficial or even incorrect, about the Greco-Roman world, but now they tend to employ more obscure or profound classical allusions to add greater historical or philosophical depth.

In the Matrix trilogy, for instance, the triad of heroic protagonists allude to antiquity in their names (Neo, Morpheus, Trinity), and while one of their chief antagonists is only tangentially ancient by being the "Merovingian," his wife, who punishes her husband for being a womanizer, is named Persephone. Neo is "the new," that is, the revolutionary who will lead the human race out of the machine-dominated world of the matrix, while Morpheus is the "dreamer" who leads the way. In the second installment, Matrix Reloaded (2003), the Merovingian's featured argument is thoroughly Aristotelian, for he explains in intimate, sensual detail how the universe is based on causality, "cause and effect," demonstrating his point by spiking some digital chocolate cake with a digital aphrodisiac that causes a digital orgasm! The [Delphic] Oracle—"Temet Nosce" appears above her kitchen door—teaches Neo and Morpheus the opposite, a universe controlled by "choice."

Similarly, Under the Tuscan Sun (2003) frames its featured love-making scene in front of a copy of Titian's Venus and Adonis, mirroring a love affair between a divorcée and a handsome foreigner. Other relevant films produced and released after Gladiator include The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Adaptation, X2, Pirates of the Caribbean, Willard, The Fluffer, Searching for Paradise, The Triumph of Love, The Shape of Things, I Capture the Castle, Gerry, and The Secret Life of Dentists.

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