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The Idol Body: Stars, Statuary and the Classical Epic
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The Idol Body:
Stars, Statuary and the Classical Epic

This article explores the relationship between the male star body and the ancient world constructed through production design and star iconography. My primary case study is provided by M-G-M's 1925 production Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (Fred Niblo; henceforth Ben-Hur). The film influentially exploited the slippage between the star, Ramon Novarro, as a contemporary idol, and the diegetic hero he plays, who rises to become "the Idol of Rome." This historical interplay was achieved through extra-textual publicity that constructed Novarro as a rising "Apollo," and his on-screen performance of a contrapposto pose that referenced canonical sculptures of Hellenistic art.

Equally important was Cedric Gibbons' production design (in particular his Circus Maximus set), replete with monumental sculptures that frame the action of the chariot race. Zack Snyder's 300 (2007) is the second film discussed in this essay, which I examine to interrogate the themes of the star body, 'frieze-framing' and monumentality in a contemporary context. In both cases I will draw upon archival research undertaken in both the United States and the United Kingdom, including studio production files, promotion and reception materials, and textual analyses of the films themselves.

Contrapposto and the Historical Style

Ben-Hur tells the story of the eponymous Jewish prince who is wrongly accused of attempting to assassinate a Roman Prefect by his old childhood friend, Messala, who has turned against him and his religion. After escaping life as a galley slave Ben-Hur reclaims his position and defeats Messala in a chariot race, his restoration with his family told in parallel to the story of Christ's crucifixion. The 1925 Ben-Hur production is infamous for its troubled production history, with most of the cast replaced (including George Walsh, who was exchanged for Novarro) after an already expensive shoot in Italy. Original scenario writer June Mathis and director Charles Brabin were also dismissed from the project.2 What an examination of some of the ensuing script and design changes reveals is a careful iconographic balancing act between M-G-M's upcoming star Novarro and the themes of sexuality and "pagan" / Christian idolatry and religion.

One pivotal scene carefully constructs Ben-Hur's transformation from galley-slave to contrapposto "idol of Rome." Essential to this iconography, is the use of a contrapposto pose that consolidates many of the mythic and iconographic tensions within the film's narrative. Contrapposto is the technique developed in Hellenistic sculpture, in the Belvedere Apollo, for example, and rediscovered in the Renaissance, where the arms and shoulders of the body are turned out of direct alignment with the hips, usually with one leg slightly before the other; an implied movement of the body that dramatizes psychological aspects of the subject as well as the tension between animation and stasis.

Such poses differentiate the individual from the crowd as Garry Wills discussion of the contrapposto pose of John Wayne indicates. Wills suggests that Wayne referenced the pose of both Michelangelo and Donatello's Davids in his films, adding an unusual [End Page 39] grace to his imposing figure, making: "each motion a statement of individualism, a balletic Declaration of Independence." Wills links Wayne's persona to his post-WWII and Cold War context, and "the sense of imperial burden" that came to America during this period, posing his counterpoised stance with and against the prevailing political mores of this period.3 To strike such poses is to stand at once in the past and present, as I hope to demonstrate below.

In the scene in question, after rowing in the galley for two years, Ben-Hur is spotted by the Roman Quintus Arrius, who appears fascinated with him. After the ship is attacked and sunk by pirates, Ben-Hur saves Arrius from the water, finding himself officially adopted as his son when the men are rescued by a passing Roman ship. At the start of the sequence, in an addition to the original scenario by June Mathis, a nude male slave is prominent to the right of the frame, bound in the fashion of the crucifixion, as the camera takes in the...