In further proof that Hollywood is out of fresh ideas for anything that doesn’t star someone wearing a cape, they’ve decided to do a completely unnecessary remake of the Charlton Heston classic Ben-Hur, coming out on August, 19. But to be fair to the movie executives, there is something especially appealing about films set in the days of Ancient Rome. Consider the following.
Julius Caesar (1953) This film adaption of the Shakespearean play was directed by Joseph Mankiewicz of All About Eve. Louis Calhern (The Asphalt Jungle, The Prisoner of Zenda) played the title role, while James Mason (The Boys From Brazil, Murder by Decree) played Brutus and won Best Actor Award from The National Board of Review which also awarded Julius Caesar Best Film. Marlon Brando as Marc Antony was nominated for an Academy Award, and won the BAFTA as did John Gielgud for his turn as Cassius.
Spartacus (1960) Directed by Stanley Kubrick, based on the novel by Howard Fast, it tells the true story of a gladiator who began a slave uprising against the Roman Empire. Starring Kirk Douglas (in arguably his most iconic role) as the titular lead opposite Laurence Olivier as Roman general Crassus the film won four Academy Awards including Best Cinematography and Best Supporting Actor for Peter Ustinov for his turn as slave trader Batiatus. Furthermore, its screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was blacklisted at the time, and President Kennedy himself crossed picket lines to view the film! It became Universal Studios highest grossing picture to date, and “I Am Spartacus,” is part of the zeitgeist.
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966) This hysterical musical comedy farce based on the Broadway smash of the same name, was directed by Richard Lester (Help! The Three Musketeers) and had the legendary Zero Mostel (The Producers) reprising his stage role as Pseudolus as well as Jack Gilford (Cocoon) as Hysterium. Joining them were Lester favorites Roy Kinnear, Michael Crawford, Michael Hordern, and lastly Buster Keaton in what was his last motion picture performance. It won the Oscar for Best Musical Score; no surprise since the music and lyrics were by Stephen Sondheim.
Monty Python’s Life Of Brien (1979) Following Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the irreverent British comedy group wowed the world once more with this religious satire about how Brian Cohen (Graham Chapman) a member of the People’s Front of Judea (one of a large number of divided Jewish independence groups who spend more time fighting each other than the Romans) around during the time of Christ gets mistaken for the actual Messiah. The film provoked gut belly laughter AND accusations of blasphemy from numerous religious groups. Ireland and Norway both banned its screening altogether. Despite (or rather because of) the controversy it became the fourth highest box office hit in Great Britain and the top grosser of any British film in the U.S. that year.
Gladiator (2000) This box office smash directed by Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Black Hawk Down) about how General Meridius (Russell Crowe) is sold into slavery, betrayed by the evil Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), sold into slavery. Meridius then rises through the ranks of the Gladiator arena scheming to avenge his murdered family. The film won Best Picture, Best Actor, as well as three others Oscars AND helped revitalize the historical epic movie genre.
Top photo from Bigstock.