Friday, 30 May 2014

Top 5 representations of ancient Athens in film and TV

Athens is the most famous city-state in ancient Greece. The majority of our textual evidence from the Classical period comes from Athens. It was the home of Plato, Sophocles and Thucydides, the birthplace of democracy and philosophy, one of the two states that led a Greek coalition to victory in the Persian Wars. If asked to picture 'ancient Greece' in your mind, chances are the image behind your eyes is that of the Parthenon, the Athenians' beautiful temple to Athena, sitting on top of the Acropolis (the rock it's on) standing guard over the city.

And yet, Athens appears strangely rarely on film and television. Wet, cold, miserable Roman Britain is far better served that hot, sunny, beautiful ancient Athens.

Modern Athens shows up every now and again. Nia Vardalos' 2009 romantic comedy My Life in Ruins was the first American film to get permission to film at the Acropolis and Athens will feature in upcoming Patricia Highsmith adaptation The Two Faces of January. Michael Palin stopped off to visit the fabulous soldiers with the furry shoes in Around the World in Eighty Days and I'm sure it's featured in a host of travel shows - and there have probably been many documentaries about ancient Athens as well.

But when it comes to fictional representations of ancient Athens, the city is bizarrely poorly served. Partly, this is down to film-makers' fondness for making films about Roman history, but Greek mythology. Athens is the most famous and most important city in historical ancient Greece, but it doesn't show up quite so often in myth, and when it does the story in question may be too dull and sexist to want to film (Eumenides) or it's about a hero from Athens who goes elsewhere to perform his heroics - Theseus is Athens' great hero, but he tends to perform his heroics in Crete, the underworld and so on. (I have not yet forced myself to sit through Immortals, but the Wikipedia page doesn't suggest Athens itself shows up).

And yet, even the few films in which you might expect to see Athens don't always show it. The 300 Spartans features the Athenians in a substantial role, but they meet in Corinth. Michael Hoffman's 1999 film adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream (which is set in ancient Athens) shifts the action to 'Monte Athena' in Italy. Disney's Hercules sort-of-probably includes Athens; the biggest temple in ancient Greece (not actually finished until the Roman period) housing the biggest cult statue was the Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens, so that's probably where Hercules goes to talk to Zeus at the beginning, and the background during Meg's song 'I Won't Say I'm In Love' looks a bit like the Parthenon. However, Thebes steals all the limelight, location-wise, with Athens fading into the background.

We can only assume that, since all film-makers know about Athens is that it has that pretty temple in the middle of it, they never think to set anything there. They want to go to the underworld, to magical islands or Trojan battlefields; or they want to show hordes of angry Spartans running around without enough clothes on. If possible, they want to incorporate something Roman where it doesn't belong, because it's really not an ancient world film without a gladiator fight, chariot race or incestuous emperor. Still every now and again ancient Athens does manage to squeeze its way into a film or TV show - here are five of the best examples.

5. Aladdin
During 'A Whole New World', Aladdin and Jasmine fly on Carpet all over the world, taking in medieval Arabia, ancient Egypt and China at an undisclosed period (evidently, it also travels in time, which might help explain how they've survived travelling that fast on an open vehicle). As the song ends, they snuggle together while floating on a lake below a Greek temple on a hill.
Do we see the Parthenon? Yes, OK, this isn't necessarily the Parthenon - it's a temple on a hill and the city of Athens is distinct by its absence. It's not even a rock like the Acropolis, it's green and grassy. But if Carpet is taking them on a whistlestop tour through space and time, you'd assume it's Athens and the Parthenon. The garden district of Athens...
Is it historically accurate? No (see above re: time travel, lack of city).
Anything blatantly Roman shoved in? No, though it does appear to co-exist with the much earlier construction of the Sphinx in Egypt.
Top Athenian moment: Well, all of it really, it only lasts a few seconds.

4. Xena Warrior Princess: Athens City Academy of the Performing Bards
Gabrielle joins the Athenian City Academy of the Performing Bards, a sort of ancient version of an American college, where she hopes to study story-telling.
Do we see the Parthenon? No, it's too set-bound for that.
Is it historically accurate? Not even slightly. It's Xena. It would be quicker to list the parts that are accurate (there was an Athenian called Euripides, who liked story-telling).
Anything blatantly Roman shoved in? The entire story of Spartacus.
Top Athenian moment: Ancient Athenian drama re-told well-known myths and very occasionally historical stories to an audience who knew broadly what to expect, but were looking for new twists or especially moving versions of old stories. The episode's use of clips from Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus to illustrate a story told by one of the bards may not fit in a factual sense, but it gets across the idea of re-telling classic stories, though Jason and the Argonauts would have seemed a more logical choice.

3. Tom and Jerry: It's Greek To Me-ow!
Tom lives behind the Parthenon; Jerry lives inside it. Tom wants to eat Jerry.
Do we see the Parthenon? Yes, and the Acropolis is shown covered in buildings, rather than being a bare hill or rock, which is how other animations tend to depict it. They're not necessarily accurately drawn, but points for effort.The opening, comparing the fancy front part of the Acropolis to the poorer rear view, is brilliant (it has a very A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum feel, but the cartoon predates both the stage musical and the film version).
Is it historically accurate? I'm sure there were cats and mice in ancient Athens (still are) - it's more physically implausible than historically implausible.
Anything blatantly Roman shoved in? On the other hand, there's a Roman chariot in there and Jerry is reclining and eating grapes like a pop-culture Roman. Everyone also wears laurel wreaths all the time, which is Greek, but they were prizes, not everyday fashion.
Top Athenian moment: As Tom slides down a pillar desperately scrabbling at it with his claws, he transforms it from a plain column to a Corinthian column, with leaf design at the top and fluting. There aren't any Corinthian columns on the Parthenon (it's Doric) but who cares.

2. 300: Rise of an Empire
As Xerxes continues his invasion of Greece after the end of 300, he burns Athens in dramatic style.
Do we see the Parthenon? Yes. Burning. Which we shouldn't because it wasn't built for another few decades.
Is it historically accurate? Sort of. Xerxes did burn Athens, but the Parthenon and other current famous buildings on the Acropolis hadn't been built yet. Athens has developed Colosseum-syndrome - period is irrelevant, as long as the most famous buildings are in there. The whole significance of the 'wooden walls' prophecy is also completely omitted, which baffles me.
Anything blatantly Roman shoved in? Thankfully, no. Roman tropes are unnecessary when you have horses that can jump across burning boats and into fire, and Xerxes takes over crazy-leader duties.
Top Athenian moment: Earlier in the film, before the burning, we see an Athenian assembly meeting degenerating into a brawl - I have a sneaking suspicion that's not entirely off the mark.

1. Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure
Travelling through time on a mission to pass their History project, Bill and Ted stop off in ancient Athens to pick up Socrates. Pronounced So - crates.
Do we see the Parthenon? No, the establishing shots are of statues rather than a wide shot (probably because, in the days before ubiquitous CGI, a wide effects shot would have been too expensive).
Is it historically accurate? Yes! There is nothing that is not accurate about this depiction of Socrates standing in the Stoa (a colonnade) in Athens, expounding his philosophical Thoughts to an attentive audience. Apart from the bit where two American teenagers turn up and take him away in a magical time-travelling phone booth. Socrates is even speaking Greek.
Anything blatantly Roman shoved in? No. This is far and away the most accurate depiction of ancient Athens I have yet seen on film or television. Think about that for a moment, film and television makers.
Top Athenian moment: "All we are is dust in the wind, dude".

Honourable mention: If we assume the temple in Hercules is indeed the Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens, it's very impressive.

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Friday, 2 May 2014

Pompeii (dir. Paul W.S. Anderson, 2014)

This film was ridiculous. I kinda loved it.

Spoilers follow and they are major spoilers - I will be discussing the end of the film. So look away now if you want to go in fresh! I will just leave you with the knowledge that Brother and I chortled happily throughout the entire film, which may not have been the reaction the makers were going for, but we had a good time.

There's no way I'm going to have remembered all the little bits and pieces that were totally bonkers about this film, but I'll do my best to cover the main issues. The easiest way to approach it is probably to provide a brief summary and discuss it as we go along.

The film opens, over ominous-looking ash and 'bodies', with a quote from Pliny the Younger's letters describing the eruption as he saw it from Misenum and as those with his uncle Pliny the Elder, who was killed in the eruption, saw it from Stabiae. (So far, so good, even if the lecturer in me wants to mark them down for the incomplete reference).

After that we go back in time to a 'Celtic Horsemen' revolt in 'Northern Britannia' in AD 62, during which all of Young Jon Snow's family are killed by Evil Kiefer Sutherland, because Evil Kiefer Sutherland does not understand that you're supposed to sell defeated women and children for profit, not butcher them. This is not a revolt I am familiar with, possibly because 'Celtic Horsemen' describes most of Britain and 'Northern Britannia' could mean anything (presumably they meant Northern England). It's very strange, because there was a perfectly good historical revolt in AD 60-61 they could have used, as I'm sure Jon Snow could plausibly look a year or two older. It was led by Boudicca, queen of the Iceni - you may have heard of it. The only reason I can think of for not using it is that they need Jon Snow to be a horse whisperer later and they want to imply he gets it from some special tribal skill. And possibly because coming from 'Northern Britannia' sounds more rebellious than being from East Anglia - though since Kit Harrington later uses his own southern accent instead of his perfectly good Sean Bean impression from Game of Thrones, they don't seem to be pushing that angle.

Young Jon Snow survives and is picked up by slave traders and we next see him all grown up fighting in a small arena in Londinium, 'capital of Britannia' (no, it wasn't). It is chucking it down with rain and the Roman lanista in charge is complaining being in 'this hellhole', because it always rains in Roman Britain and everyone hates it. They call Jon Snow 'The Celt' because the makers have seen Gladiator, despite the fact it makes no sense since everyone in Britain who is not a Roman is a Celt. The lanista likes what he sees and carts him off to Pompeii.

There are lots of fancy CGI shots of Pompeii with Mount Vesuvius looming threateningly over it, and one gratuitous look into the volcano in which lava is jumping about in the crater. Which is nice, except that Vesuvius didn't have a crater before the eruption of AD 79. There are paintings of it in some of the buildings in Pompeii, and it's pointy. Because it hasn't erupted yet.

Vesuvius in the film

Painting from the Temple of Venus Pompeiana near the Marina Gate, Pompeii

The makers have also seen Spartacus (all of it) as once in Pompeii, Jon Snow slowly strikes up a friendship with a fellow gladiator despite the prospect of them imminently having to kill each other and then they're all pimped out to rich Roman women (except this film is a 12A so we don't actually see any of that). Jon Snow impresses the daughter of the house with his horse-whispering skills, which pisses off Evil Kiefer Sutherland because Evil Kiefer Sutherland wants to marry her. Cassia, the young lady in question, seems to be under the impression that she is not a Roman, but a 'citizen of Pompeii'. Since Pompeii became a Roman colonia in 90 BC I'm not sure what she's on about there. Her father is trying to get Imperial support to re-build Pompeii after the earlier earthquake, but it's a good thing he'll never get the chance as he can't tell the difference between an arena (circular, gladiators fight in it) and a circus (long oval, more oblong really, chariot races happen in it).

Evil Kiefer Sutherland is a bizarre character. He's a senator, but he stays in a military encampment and seems to be a military commander of some kind (the two aren't mutually exclusive, but it's weird for this place and this period, and unexplained). He wears purple, which is supposed to be an Imperial colour, and most bizarrely of all he doesn't seem to realise that there is a new Emperor, a plot point that goes nowhere. His accent is a thing of beauty - the most ridiculously over the top cod-posh-British evil English accent I've heard in a long time (most of the other fake English accents are just as bad, but not as funny).

Anyway, it all builds up to another scene nicked from Gladiator, in which (Roman) Jon Snow proves himself to be one of the unluckiest characters in fiction, as he is forced to re-enact the massacre of his own village in the arena. Meanwhile Evil Kiefer Sutherland threatens to have Cassia's family killed for insulting the Emperor, because he's apparently got Titus mixed up with his younger brother Domitian (Titus held no treason trials and didn't execute any senators during his reign, which is why he's well thought of). Jon Snow and his buddy Atticus win the fight they're supposed to lose, of course, but just as the various tensions between him and Evil Kiefer Sutherland and Cassia and so on are about to erupt, the mountain does instead.

The rest of the film follows a pretty predictable series of set-pieces as everyone races towards their impending doom. Brother thought it ought to have been called A Storm of Cliches. To be fair, though, the film doesn't shy away from the fact that everyone in Pompeii when the big ash cloud hits is going to die. I was fully expecting Jon Snow and Cassia to be able to out-run pyroclastic flow, but they don't - though they do imply that their horse does, which doesn't seem likely either.

The film ends on them kissing as the ash cloud descends, which is all very dramatic and romantic, though I did have a couple of problems with it. One is the usual complaint that the 'bodies' from Pompeii aren't bodies, they're plaster casts - so unless there was a two-person-shaped hole in the later hardened ash and a Victorian archaeologist poured plaster into it, no such thing should exist (see Caroline Lawrence's excellent summary of some more accuracy issues here). Secondly, and perhaps more problematically, the fact that they're still kissing as they die and are preserved that way inevitably recalls Up Pompeii! and young Erotica frozen in the act of sex forever. At least it meant I ended the movie as amused as I had started it.

This is what a real pyroclastic flow looks like

And this is Pompeii's version. To be fair they do incorporate elements of Pliny's description, but that's probably more flame-y than it should be.

To give the film-makers their due, ending by killing everybody is a brave move (though it does make the film feel a bit pointless - but then, I sometimes feel that way about Das Boot, and that's a masterpiece). And I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed the film. It's totally daft in every way but Milo (that's Jon Snow's actual name in this film) and Atticus are likeable heroes and very easy to watch for an hour or two. Cassia's not bad either, and I liked the fact that it was her who more or less finished Evil Kiefer Sutherland off, by handcuffing him to something (with a pyroclastic flow coming at him). It's fun to Jared Harris (Moriarty/the evil guy from Fringe) and Trinity from The Matrix as Cassia's parents as well. All in all, watching this again to do research for my co-authored book on films about Roman Britain will not be too odious a chore.

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