Two Men in a Tub: the Bath as a Type Scene in Roman Hollywood

Monica S. Cyrino

University of New Mexico

Ever since the early days of cinema, epic films set in the ancient Roman world have exhibited spectacular set-piece scenes, such as chariot races, triumphal processions, large-scale battles, gladiatorial combats, and imperial banquets/parties. These "type" scenes were intended to portray the fabulous wealth and power of ancient Rome, while at the same time they demonstrated the fabulous wealth and power of the Hollywood film industry. Filmmakers invested huge amounts of financial resources and creative energies into the depiction of such scenes, which soon became obligatory to the genre and eagerly anticipated by the ticket-buying audience. Just as these scenes were used to depict the "Roman-ness" of ancient Rome, its authority, affluence and epic sweep, they were also used to characterize the Romans as a competitive, decadent, and affect-hungry people.

Within the network of "type" scenes in the Roman epic film is the bath scene. Along with temples, stadiums and roads, the public bath was a physical symbol of Roman culture, built in every outpost of the empire as a mark of Romanization. Thus, the Roman bath can be seen as a privileged location for the delineation of "Roman-ness" of those people who makes use of its facilities. In the epic film, bath scenes also delineate the character of cinematic bathers, yet the scenes offer a wide range of interpretations, depending on various factors. The baths can be public or private, luxurious or simple; they can be set in the city of Rome or in the provincial barracks, in an urban or "natural" locale; there can be one, two or several bathers interacting at once. Moreover, the bath scene allows the film viewer to make certain assumptions about the character of the bather/s. Bath scenes also allowed a context for the display of semi-nudity and the subtle expression of sexual themes to titillate the mid-century American film audience. This paper will examine the bath scene as a "type" scene of the Roman epic genre, and then analyze several bath scenes from the films The Robe, Ben-Hur, Spartacus, Cleopatra and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

AV requirements: TV/VCR/DVD  


Back to 2006 Meeting Home Page