Monday, August 31, 2009

What Price The Favour Of The Gods?

The film industry seems to have rediscovered what canny CB DeMille built his Biblical epics on: public domain sources allow you a latitude in their adaptation while harking back in publicity to a respectable source - for which you don't have to buy rights. However the flip side of this is that competing productions tend to appear - when the grapevine says that a major producer or director is developing a project on a particular subject, people will think that such an undertaking must be blessed - in olden days they might have said favoured by the gods. For film production is a sector with great risks but no guarantees of success. Everything becomes a gamble, and like others faced with little control over their fate, producers easily become insecure and superstitious. In olden times, if the powerful turned to a new god, others would copy them. In Hollywood, the cliché is that the god is always the same – success, to the extent people will hang on your every word when success shines on you, but cross the street to avoid you as soon as good fortune abandons you. Despite the movers and shakers maintaining secrecy about their latest undertaking (Spielberg learned early on to print his draft scripts on purple paper, which goes black when photocopied), rival projects will quickly appear, since the theme or topic is obviously “favoured.” And with ancient legend, no one can hold monopoly rights.

Currently, it's not the Bible that's in favour (now too divisive for another De Mille), but Greek and Roman myth and legend, whose gods like Zeus are officially part of a 'dead' or churchless religion. Today, we can say things like 'By Jove' (as the characters in the 1962 film The 300 Spartans do, quite anachronistically as it’s a Roman phrase) without worrying that we are turning our statement into an oath sworn in the name of Jupiter - originally Io, the father [piter or pater] of the gods, equal to Greek Zeus. This is the irony of the current trend, and the chief difficulty facing dramatists - the ancients lived and died to please the gods, sacrificing not only animals but even their nearest and dearest to appease them and gain their favour. Whereas today we live in a secular and materialist age that can scarcely comprehend the ancient mindset this literature gives us insight into.

Yet if the gods’ role can be credibly managed for a modern audience, it's still a genre with built-in drama. In Greek or Roman myth-tales, if a hero has the favour or disfavour of one god, he is likely to attract the enmity or secret support of another, for they were jealous rivals, constantly intriguing against one another by meddling directly in the affairs of mortals. I learned that early on, watching films and TV dramas like the 1963 Jason And The Argonauts - obviously a favourite in Hollywood (I think Tom Hanks once said every kid knew the best film ever made was not Citizen Kane but the 1963 ‘Jason.’) The Jason legend is currently undergoing rival remakes - another miniseries version from NBC TV (who made an on-location live-action version in 2000), this time using ‘green screen’ to allow the latest CGI special effects free play, plus X-Men writer Zak Penn's The Argonauts for 20th Century Fox, backed by the producer who brought you "Alien vs. Predator." There is also The Argonauts from Spielberg's DreamWorks, which opens as a modern-day treasure-wreck quest before the heroes are shot back in time to 2000 BC. … I've been keeping tabs on this increasingly crowded media scene as some of these productions are bound to inspire others set closer to our remit here, of the Celtic world. (There are claims going back to classical times that both Hercules and Ulysses - in legend at least - sailed to British shores, more about which in a future post.)

If you read reference works like Larousse's Mythology summarising the tales, you find they often exist in differing form, e.g. Hercules (originally Greek Heracles, meaning glory of the goddess Hera) has several incompatible lifepaths and fates. Scholars say that different cults or priests would change the story to promote their own agenda - and who there and then could argue with them? This inconsistency can be baffling when encountered today in a modern reference sourcebook. But it can help counter one of the genre's PR problems - purist claims the scriptwriters have got the myths or legend 'wrong.' This is often misconstrued anyway. Films like Helen Of Troy (1955 and 2003) or Troy (2004), for example, are not strictly adaptations of Homer's Iliad - neither the start of the onscreen story we always see (Helen's elopement) nor its denouement (the Wooden Horse ploy) are in The Iliad, which covers only a single episode, the 'Wrath Of Achilles,' part a (largely lost) story cycle of different epic poems. The Wooden Horse appears in Homer's 'sequel' The Odyssey, in what we would call a 'flashback' scene, where shipwrecked Odysseus tells his hosts how the ten-year siege of Troy finally ended.

The various screen adaptations of Classical myth and legend coming up for 2010 are inspired, I've read, by veneration for the box-office and DVD millions earned by the 'Rings' trilogy, Gladiator, Troy, and Zack Snyder's hit 2006 R-rated Spartans-last-stand epic '300,' which earned $70 million in its opening weekend in America alone. 300 was a shot-for-shot filmization of a graphic novel by Frank Miller, itself inspired by his seeing an earlier 'straight' historical adaptation [no gods or monsters], the 1962 film The 300 Spartans shot in Greece with official cooperation, the story then having Cold War anti-Soviet propaganda as an example of ‘free men’ standing up against Eastern-bloc tyranny, an issue that had led to civil war in Greece after WWII; the original main source, Herodotus’ near-contemporary Histories, may also have reflected his own determination to write up the war with Persia as the big East-West conflict of his age – perhaps exaggerating the scale of the conflict.) Warner Bros. is now working on "a follow-up film" to 300 - presumably a ‘prequel,’ a similarly-titled sequel being tricky as the 300 all died in the first film.
With the spread of CGI effects, the traditional live-action film seems to be converging with the video game, and like the recent Beowulf, 300 used CGI layers and a blue/green-screen matte process to create a new high-definition IMAX-quality 'hyperrealist' look, an improvement image-wise on both the video game (which 300 was also simultaneously released as) and the adult-content graphic novel. 'Graphic' here also means explicit sex and violence, which seems to be the favoured new approach, to the extent of reducing the characterisation to that of a video game or comic book, and introducing monsters like giant wolves into an historical tale. (Online magazine Spiked published a long essay on 300, on how the R-rated film turned 'xenophobia, amorality and inaccuracy' into 'comic-book' entertainment. That is, where the 1962 film directed by Rudolph Maté had Cold War propaganda value as an allegory of the ‘free’ West resisting tyranny (which is ironic if you know anything about the Spartans), this version was designed to appeal to an America at war with Iraq and its allies, portraying them in a way reminiscent of the sub-human orcs in the ‘Rings’ trilogy. (The film uses a framing device called the Unreliable Narrator to get around this issue.)

Even the Greek and Roman heroes’ own gods are easily regarded today as vain, cruel and capricious, and scriptwriters have to reckon on the fact many viewers would have trouble with the way the gods like Zeus or Poseidon actively intervene out of spite or lust, even visiting mortals in the shape of a swan or a bull to have sex or cause other mischief. Thus, with a film about Troy, the Iliad's references to the constant meddling in the war by a whole gallery of jealous rival gods like Apollo and Poseidon favouring one hero or another are usually omitted as unfilmable. This means the scriptwriters have to come up with 'rational' reasons why the Greeks gift of the Wooden Horse (originally an offering to seagod Poseidon - cf cresting waves are referred to as 'white horses') will be foolishly taken in by the Trojans without checking it. Or reasons (besides Poseidon's disfavour) why it took Odysseus ten years to sail 200 miles home afterwards, being 'forced' to spend years dallying with sea nymphs like Calypso [pictured below] or sorceresses like Circe who could turn men into swine. (I wonder how faithful Penelope reacted to that one?)

Far from home: Boecklin's painting of Ulysses with the sea-nymph CalypsoFar from home: Arnold Boecklin's painting of Ulysses with the sea-nymph Calypso

The 'Celtic' counterpart gods like Dis Pater that Caesar wrote of encountering in Gaul and Britain (with Druidic 'wicker man' sacrifices), and the fearful goddesses and bloody rituals Tacitus writes of in his accounts of Germania and Agricola's British campaign, represent a similar problem. Ancient religions requiring human or even animal sacrifices by the pious won't work for sympathetic characterisation today.(A new book on the Druids, Blood And Mistletoe, by University of Bristol history professor Ronald Hutton, traces how the Druids have been repackaged over the centuries to fit changing tastes.)

Making everyone ruthless, as in 300, doesn't really circumvent the problem, since piety and cruelty have gone hand in hand throughout history. And piety in itself can make characters seem dim (like Peter O'Toole as old Priam, with his pathetic trust in Apollo in the 2004 Troy, a film where by contrast the hero Achilles is 'modern' in believing gods like Apollo are powerless, he himself being only out for fame). Even with a historical rather than mythic tale, as with the films about the 480 BC Battle of Thermopylae - The 300 Spartans, 300, and the upcoming Gates Of Fire - script difficulties can emerge in terms of character motive. For instance, the Spartan warriors initially refused to mobilise against the Persian invasion as it was a religious holiday. The same difficulty may be faced with the upcoming Sony-Columbia filmization of the March of The Ten Thousand, which is historically a follow-on from the '300 Spartans' war a generation before. It's from the memoir called The Anabasis ['Journey Up-Country'] by Xenophon, one of the officers present, and though no no gods appear, religion still plays a role, with decisions influenced by the ‘reading’ of the entrails of sacrificed animals etc.

Still, historical rather than mythic sources offer the best prospect for keeping the gods at bay, as with the 13-part US TV miniseries on the life of Spartacus debuting in January 2010. I read the news of this with interest, as I recalled from seeing the highly regarded 1960 film directed by Stanley Kubrick that Spartacus' fellow slave, and later common-law wife, was from "Britannia." This intrigued me, since Spartacus died in 71 BC, long before Roman Britannia existed (the name existed, as Celtic-British Prydain, in Greek Prettanike). I thought if this was true, there must have been Roman-British trade routes through Gaul long before. The Roman plutocrat leader Crassus, who buys Varinia, was a character in Winter Quarters, a 1956 novel set in Gaul by British archeo-historian turned novelist Alfred Duggan. And the real Spartacus (under wifely influence?) first led his peoples northwest towards Gaul - when most decided to turn back after they saw the Alps, they were doomed to be trapped on Italy's narrow peninsula. However the Varinia character was evidently just to fit the casting of a British actress (Jean Simmons). Plutarch's account, in his Life Of Crassus, is that Spartacus' "woman" [actual name unknown] was a Dionysian priestess of the same Thracian tribe as he, enslaved and escaped along with him. "Varinia" was just a made-up name, and not even Celtic-British (more Germanic).

I'm not sure about the various other modern retellings, but religion is left out of the 1960 Spartacus, except significantly for an opening remark that slavery was only ended by Christianity - which is not historically correct, and reportedly a calculated sop, added to foil people attacking the project as left-wing. (Before Howard Fast's 1951 novel - self-published as he was blacklisted and in jail for refusing to become an anti-Communist informant, there had also been Scots author Lewis Grassic Gibbon's 1933 Spartacus, famous for its opening sentence, plus Hungarian Arthur Koestler's 1939 The Gladiators, which like Fast's was angled for contemporary political allegory.)

The ancient accounts tell how Spartacus with an army of up to 140,000 slaves, defeated Roman forces in battle half a dozen times, something left out of the 1960 film, presumably to make him more sympathetic, despite blacklisted scriptwriter Dalton Trumbo's arguing for their inclusion, which he labelled the 'big" approach. (He meant that populist revolt could defeat imperial tyranny, as opposed to what he called the 'small Spartacus' concept the producers went for - where the slaves revolt is doomed, but their inevitable defeat became an inspiration). Though Spartacus died in battle, the film has him being crucified. A new study based on the surviving ancient accounts, The Spartacus War by Barry Strauss, professor of classics at Cornell U. and author of The Trojan War: A New History, apparently has various theories about her religious influence as Spartacus' wife, saying the revolt was in partly in pursuit of "the favor of the gods."

Sadly, it seems the upcoming Spartacus miniseries, subtitled Blood And Sand (from the title of a famous bullfighting film), seems intended as little more than a vehicle for 'graphic' violence etc. It is being produced for an R-rated slot on a US premium cable channel, and co-stars Lucy Lawless, former star of Xena: Warrior Princess (and wife of the series' exec-producer), in the role Peter Ustinov played in the 1960 Kirk Douglas film, the gladiator school owner Batiatus, here renamed Lucretia!

Since the cult TV series 'Xena', famous for lines like "The way to a man's heart is through his rib cage," women have been getting more onscreen action roles. As well as the 'braveheart with a bra' Mel Gibson version of Boudicca's revolt we mentioned before, Amazon, a film about an Amazonian "gladiatrix" starring Scarlett Johansson, is also in the works. (The Amazons, mentioned by Herodotus, appear in various myths like the odysseys of Aeneas, Hercules, Theseus, and the Argonauts.) Johansson will play a 'bloodthirsty gladiatrix' out to destroy the army that ravaged her homeland. It's being touted as a cross between 'The Wild Bunch and The Seventh Samurai' [sic], and is set in 200 BC, though there may be a few anachronisms creeping in, given that the scriptwriter got the job on the basis of Outlander, which has a humanoid alien UFO-crash survivor in 709 AD Norway helping local Vikings defeat another alien who has landed nearby, the vicious 'photo-luminescent' predator the Moorwen.

Anyway, the focus in the 2010 Spartacus miniseries is to be on the back story of his early life for which there is no ancient source, to freely go for 'blood and sand' scenes of gladiatorial gore, aiming [at $2 million an episode] to outdo '300' with an orgy of 'graphic sex and violence unlike anything ever seen on television.' This tidbit should suffice to give the idea: "There's a great deal of nudity, both male and female, and some guys are not as well endowed as others, so we had to create [a prosthetic male extension we called] the 'Kirk Douglas' so that certain actors would have [something] they could wear and feel comfortable."

On his own website, Professor Strauss recommends Spartaco, a 1953 b&w Italian film, as more accurate than the 1960 film he thinks it clearly influenced, as well as the 2004 US miniseries adaptation of the Howard Fast novel. Ironically, the first Spartacus film is only available in dubbed version called Sins Of Rome, issued in the US on a double-feature DVD with a 1960 version of the Jason-and-the-Argonauts story, Giganti di Thessaly, from the same director, Riccardo Freda. The latter was re-released in typical dubbed form (I've seen it) as Jason And The Golden Fleece at the same time as a better-known US-UK production of the story, of which more below.

For the Greco-Roman epic has long been the popular basis of Italian cinema, with the 'sword 'n sandal' genre's 1950s revival introducing many to the dubbed action spectacle. (A British film extra I met who had worked on films like the 1955 Helen Of Troy once told me that until 1968, Italian films were shot without sound, all audio being post-dubbed. For the 'sword 'n sandal' epics, this one figure would arrive at the studio with two suitcases containing swords and chains, and in one projection run-through, do the sound effects as well as the dialogue - Take that, you Spartan dog!)

Special effects wizard Ray Harryhausen put both gods and monsters on screen with his 'kidult' colour fantasy films derived from ancient myth, starting with his 1958 The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad, loosely based on Arabian Nights tales (some of which are adapted from Homer’s Odyssey; here the Cyclops and the Sirens appear). This was followed by two films featuring Greek gods as characters. Scripted by a writer who was both a classicist and a dramatist, Beverley Cross, the 1963 Jason And The Argonauts was the first to show the gods v mortals, here having them play a sort of chess with human fates. (The first big-screen Technicolor film of the Odyssey, Dino de Laurentiis and Carlo Ponti's 1954 Ulysses starring Kirk Douglas, now finally out on DVD, was more a Classic Comics version of the tale. It had monsters like the Cyclops, but no gods intervening on-screen, only a curse on Ulysses by Neptune - these being the Roman equivalent names of the Greek Odysseus and Poseidon.
The 1997 Hallmark TV miniseries version of The Odyssey directed by Andrei Konchalovsky did go for the full Homeric framework of heroes v gods on-screen, cf Poseidon to Odysseus - “without the gods, man is nothing.”) Hallmark Entertainment's 2000 2-part TV movie Jason And The Argonauts, aka Jason And The Golden Fleece, also has Zeus and Hera again intervening in mortals' affairs, and their 2-part 2005 Hercules takes a similar approach, with the troubled strongman battling against various burdens and tasks set by the gods. (Hercules of course was also one of the Argonauts, though he dropped out, angry and upset, after his adopted companion Hylas is seduced and spirited away by nymphs [pictured below]. The 1963 Jason And The Argonauts, aimed at children, had him drop out due to guilt over Hylas being killed by bronze giant Talos.) Variety reports at least three Hercules movies in development, including one from Universal Pictures and one from Spyglass Entertainment called Hercules: The Thracian Wars. As I mentioned earlier, Hercules had such a crowded life, some scholars there were several different figures with that forename, so he’s a natural candidate for bare-chested screen heroics that can claim to be based on some myth somewhere.

An Argonaut, Hercules’s pal Hylas, is about to forget all about finding the golden fleece

The Perseus-v-the-Gorgon legend is also being filmed again, with a remake of Clash Of The Titans, which was a major box-office draw in 1981. Despite some nightmarish scenes, Harryhausen's 1981 version was a kid-oriented grab-bag of Greek and other myth plus some blatant inventions for the kiddies (like a cute R2D2-style beeping robot owl). Scripted like the 1963 Jason by Beverley Cross, it had an A-list star gallery of gods - Olivier as Zeus, Ursula Andress as Aphrodite, Claire Bloom as Hera, Maggie Smith (Cross' wife at the time) as Thetis etc - all standing around in a heavenly palace. Here, Perseus combats hazards such as the Kraken (actually a Scandinavian sea-monster), and the Gorgon Medusa (who here seems to live across the River Styx, crossed in Charon's rowboat, on the isle of the dead shown in Arnold Boecklin's famous painting, pictured here).
Boecklin's Isle Of The Dead

Warner Brothers' Perseus-legend remake is being produced largely here in the UK (shot partly in England and Wales) for March 2010 release. It stars Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes as "feuding Greek gods Zeus and Hades" (I'm quoting The Guardian here) who try to help or hinder young Perseus trying to rescue Princess Andromeda with the help of Pegasus the winged horse, and two players from recent 007 films: Mads Mikkelsen as the leader of his 'Praetorian Guard' and Gemma Arterton as Io, "a priestess who in the myths is seduced by Zeus before being turned into a cow." (I have a feeling the scriptwriters will drop the cow transformation - as much a nonstarter as those moments in Homer where Achilles or Odysseus is dressed as a girl to avoid conscription.)

One of the Argonauts, Theseus (who went on to slay the Minotaur), is also now getting his own film in 2010, though gods and their demon minions are co-stars here, judging from the title, War Of Gods. (IMDB synopsis: "A purported bastard who retains an allegiance to his mother despite the fact that he longs to join the quest of a king who is battling demons in ancient Greece later embarks on a grail of discovery that has him finding he is the king's son and also fated to become his country's greatest hero as he leads the successful war against long-imprisoned Titans who are hoping to use the demons to restore their power.") This is not to be confused with God Of War, a popular mythology-based video game which is now also being turned by Universal Studios into a feature.

Whether the gods will smile on all these competing endeavours by mortal producers and scriptwriters to achieve box-office success through ancient myth and legend, only time and the Hollywood trade papers will tell. But like Odysseus, we're still far from home - where are the films of myths and legends from the Celtic world? Ancient 'classical' tales influenced Celto-British works within our remit here, like the one which launched the Arthurian cycle, Geoffrey of Monmouth's 12C Historia Regum Brittanniae (just out in a new £25 textual-study edition from Boydell & Brewer), which is set up as a follow-on to The Aeneid. (Trojan exile Aeneas, now a king in Italy, banishes his great-grandson Brutus, who sails away and eventually ends up on an island he names after himself – Britain. Geoffrey was probably misled by the “y” in the underlying Celtic name Prydain, thinking it pronounced like the first “u” in Brutus.) But the films discussed so far take place outside our area, on Mediterranean shores. However, one or more of the new films announced for 2010 may have a northern Atlantic setting closer to home.
More on this next time.