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Reviewed by:
  • Ancient Rome at the Cinema: Story and Spectacle in Hollywood and Rome
  • Jon Solomon
Ancient Rome at the Cinema: Story and Spectacle in Hollywood and Rome. Elena Theodorakopoulos. Exeter: Bristol Phoenix Press, 2010. pp. 199.

This is a short book with 177 pages of double spaced text in relatively large font, barely 60,000 words. A little more than one-sixth of the book offers introductory material, and then follow six brief essays on Ben-Hur (1959), [End Page 73] Spartacus (1960), The Fall of the Roman Empire, Gladiator, Fellini’s Satyricon, and Titus. Not nearly as thorough as Cyrino’s Big Screen Rome or Winkler’s anthologies on Spartacus and Fall, this book could be very useful in the classics classroom, but not for film students. The short essays each raise several interesting questions and offer clear and positive readings of the films with minimal intrusions from contemporary scholarship. The book belongs to the “Greece and Rome Live” series and is well suited for that purpose.

The theoretical crux of the book is the tension between spectacle and narrative when applied in films set in antiquity, which by tradition are often large-scale spectacles. Theodorakopoulos announces at the outset (1–7) that these six films will provide interesting test cases in that they are all historical and divide into four Hollywood spectacles and two works more properly categorized as art cinema. She immediately underscores that spectacles assault our senses, sometimes overpowering us, sometimes becoming so obtrusive that they interfere with everything else, particularly the narrative.

The first chapter (“Narrative and Spectacle: Realism and Illusion, and the Historical Film”) differentiates between the Realists, whose theoretical approach suggests that cinema might provide an exact reproduction of reality, and the Formalists, who recognize that film must shape or construct its own form of reality. Here she introduces such concepts as transparent narration, the 180-degree rule, and metahistory as well as wide-screen formats. She also spends two pages (17–19) on Robert Rosenstone’s six elements of historical films, which are simplified efficiently but seem to me too obvious even at the undergraduate level. She occasionally strays beyond the limits of Ancient films, for instance, when citing an iconic scene from Titanic as an example of spectacle overriding narrative (28–29); but such off topic cases will surely provide fodder for classroom discussion. Here she argues that when the camera sweeps from Jack and Rose and pulls back to reveal the entire ship, the pretense that the story is “telling itself” is shattered. While this is true and important for students not educated in film studies to recognize, Theodorakopoulos fails to reconcile this lesson with the “uncritical absorption” concept she had spelled out previously (3). Thus student readers are not directed to reconcile what they have learned about screening a film with the power cinema has over both uncritical and critical viewers.

Because the individual chapters are brief, they do not offer extensive or consistent background information about the historical periods in which the films are set or how their cinematic properties were developed, nor do they explain how either or both affected the narrative and the spectacle. Scholars will not find much new or of great value here. The virtue of Theodorakopoulos’ essays are that they offer insightful readings of several [End Page 74] segments of each film—the chariot race in Ben-Hur, the final encounter between Spartacus and Crassus, the triumphs in Fall and Gladiator, and so on. Most of these are scenes of spectacle, as the theme of the book requires, but not all. While there is a little too much reliance on comments by contemporary popular reviewers, these judgments, too, will offer enlightening contrasts for student readers.

Jon Solomon
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


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