I gotta say now, as in 21st century (at least the first ten years), is a GOOD time in which to become interested in classical history. Thanks to Gladiator
, the sword-and-sandal genre has been revived, and I've been able to add tons of such movies and TV shows to my Netflix queue. In addition to
(which has the added bonus of being actually good
with Russell Crowe having won Best Actor and crazy-ass Joaquin Phoenix being nominated for Supporting Actor), there's also
*the HBO series Rome
of which I've only seen a few eps but which looks extremely promising;
which wasn't well-reviewed and doesn't actually have much to do with Rome except that one Roman tradition was that Aeneas, a Trojan prince who escaped from the city, later founded Rome. But notwithstanding I really liked Troy
--I liked everyone in it, even Orlando Bloom who actually made Paris likeable. I also respected how they made Helen thoughtful and intelligent. And the eye-candy was off the hook! Eric Bana as Hector and Brad Pitt and His Abs as Achilles--rowr!
*Helen of Troy
, a mini-series that aired in 2003. I watched it then on TV, and then watched the DVD about 6-7 months ago. This teleplay covers a lot more ground than Troy
did because it's not based on The Iliad
(heck, even Troy
covered more ground than The Iliad
, which only covers the last few weeks of the Trojan War)--Helen of Troy
is, naturally, about Helen and it starts with her abduction by Theseus, and ends with the aftermath of the War. An odd cast--an English model as Helen who gives a game, energetic performance but her inexperience shows. And she's a little too toothily British to really pass for the face that launched a thousand ships. The guy who plays Menelaus is quite good and makes him very sympathetic, and the woman who plays Cassandra is AWESOME. When she sees Paris again for the first time in years, she has this LOOK on her face and she whispers to him in amazement you should be dead
. Good stuff. The guy who plays Odysseus is good, too (they always seem to get good Odyssei, Sean Bean was also great in Troy
). The weirdest bit of casting is Stellan Skarsgård as....Theseus? Stellan Skarsgård is a fine character actor but well past his prime physically and really completely miscast as Theseus the Strapping Hero of Greek myth.
But then the big guns come in--John Rhys-Davies as Priam. He's terrific. And the best is Rufus Sewell as Agamemnon--God, he is fantastic
, absolutely riveting through the whole piece. His best scene is when he sacrifices Iphigeneia--this complete psychopath actually loves his daughter but the course is SET, the Achaean army is determined to sail, and if he has to make sacrifices to ensure positive winds, then that's what he's going to do. It's a fantastic scene, you see this adorable giggling girl being walked up to the altar by two soldiers, then you see the knife come down as her scarf is dangling over the edge of the altar and Agamemnon's sick, determined expression--then the winds start blowing. Just great. Another really good scene is when the Horse is revealed for the first time--you see it from this little boy's point of view, the camera sweeps and this enormous horse is looming over him, with this weird exotic music playing. And when they're dragging in the horse, the sun is setting in the background as the music is ratcheting up the tension and it's just a perfectly constructed scene. Trojans, this is Atë writ large--it arrived on your doorstep and you broke your own city gates to force it in. No wonder this story has lasted the ages.
*A side note--I've talked about this before but the city of Troy actually existed, roughly where Homer says it did (remember, The Iliad
was first written down about 700 BC). They've done archaeological research on it, and there have been many different...uh, iterations, I guess you could say, of the city on that site. So they number them, and Troy VII
is the one that was there in about the 12th or 11th century BC, when the Trojan War is said to have happened. There is no historical evidence that the characters, Helen, Paris, Hector, etc., actually existed, but they do
know that the city was leveled by a war. And they know that Troy VI was leveled by an earthquake. Often, as stories are handed down, the narratives get conflated, and one explanation for the Trojan Horse is that the storytellers conflated the destructions of the two versions of the city. This is the theory--there was a myth of an enormous horse that was delivered to the city in the context of the war and caused its destruction. How did the mythmakers decide upon a horse? Because horses are a symbol of Poseidon (the whitecaps are the manes)--and in the eastern Mediterranean, earthquakes come from the sea. Isn't that fascinating?
Ahen. Back to sword-and-sandal movies. Another one is this new TV series, Spartacus
which got an hilariously snarky review
in the Washington Post
. Ain't nothing not to like in sweaty Roman men beating the crap out of each other.