Hail, Caesar!



Like a lot of Classicists I know, I have eagerly been anticipating the latest film from the Coen brothers, Hail, Caesar! I expect, however, that I might be slightly unusual in that besides a vague professional interest in how the ancient world is depicted on screen, I also have a deep and abiding love for Hollywood films of the forties and fifties, which are exactly the setting for this movie. (I did, after all, spend a recent Sunday afternoon in the cinema watching Cover Girl, which stars my favourite song and dance man Gene Kelly alongside Rita Hayworth. Gene Kelly is the model for the character played by Channing Tatum, who first appears on screen as the lead in an ensemble cast of Navy men, bemoaning their forthcoming time at sea and lack of women: ‘We’ll see a lot of fish but we’ll never see a dish!’ This throwback to Kelly is no where more evident than when they are dancing on tables whilst the disgruntled barkeep pulls the tablecloths from under their feet.) There are colleagues more expert than I who have already begun writing about classical themes in the film, and there is little that I would want to add, except that I particularly enjoyed seeing replicas of the Augustus Prima Porta flanking the temple on the stage set for the film within a film that provided the title. Instead, as I sat in the dark cinema scribbling illegible notes to myself, it wasn’t the representation of Rome that piqued my interest, but something else all together.

The film within a film, Hail Caesar: A Story of the Christ, in which George Clooney’s character of Baird Whitlock stars, is a send-up of the typical big budget sword and sandal epics of the mid-twentieth century. It is Ben-Hur and Quo Vadis and The Ten Commandments all rolled into one. But most importantly, it is Spartacus – not the film itself, but the circumstances in which the film was made. Made in 1960, Stanley Kubrick‘s film and its star Kirk Douglas, went some way to end the blacklisting that had run rampant in Hollywood throughout the late 1940s and the 1950s. Howard Fast, who wrote the novel on which the film was based, was blacklisted and as a result, originally had to self-publish his book. He was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1950, but refused to name any fellow members of the Communist Party. The screenwriter for the film was a man named Dalton Trumbo, who had been blacklisted in 1947 as part of the Hollywood Ten, a group who were accused by HUAC of not only subverting democracy by inserting Communist propaganda into their films, but also for refusing to cooperate with the Congressional hearings. Douglas is credited with insisting that Trumbo not use a pseudonym in the credits, and thus ended the blacklisting. Rather famously, JFK crossed picket lines in order to see the film, demonstrating that the activities of McCarthyism were well and truly at an end.

So… what does this have to do with the latest effort of the Coen brothers? Herein lies the only spoiler: there are Communists in the film. Screenwriters, producers, and others gather to bemoan their role in producing for the studio, which they claim is an instrument of capitalism. That they are speaking of a company called Capital Studios is surely no coincidence. As part of their discussion over finger sandwiches and tea in a Malibu mansion, they cheer themselves for inserting Communist ideas into films, exactly as the Hollywood Ten were accused of doing. When Clooney’s character is kidnapped and converted to the political and economic agenda of the Communists, he threatens, upon learning he won’t get a share of the ransom paid to return him, to ‘name names.’ The elements that surround this plotline, which is indeed only one of many in the film overall, are clearly more about the history of blacklisting in Hollywood than it is about Rome itself. Others have commented on the economic aspects of this film, but I think have failed to recognise the significance of the statement this makes about politics, the arts, and fear. Douglas said, in reference to his work on Spartacus, ‘I was making a film about freedom at a time when freedom in America was in jeopardy.’ Well, quite. In the current political climate in the U.S., with many recent comparisons between a declining American way of life and the end of the Roman Empire, it seems the Coens have inserted a pertinent warning wrapped up in farce of just how bad things can get when party politics, fear-mongering rhetoric, and demagoguery rule the day.

I think maybe I’ll go watch Gene Kelly dance his way across Paris and into Leslie Caron’s heart. That’s a much nicer story.


Pompeii and circumstance

I was asked to contribute a short article to The Conversation, an online newsletter written by academics, on the importance of accuracy in the film Pompeii, which is released in the UK today. My original text can be found below, and the published article is available here.




It seems that every time a new film based on historical events is released, there is a rush to discuss the accuracy of the portrayal, how realistically the past is recreated, and what value the film might have for learning anything about the past. This is as true for films about antiquity as it is for films set fifty or one hundred years ago. Perhaps though, these are not the right questions to ask, but we should instead wonder if accuracy even matters.

The purpose of a film is to tell a story – whether entirely fictional or not – and is not meant to be an educational tool. That’s why documentaries exist. As much as the makers of the newest film set in the ancient world, Pompeii, claim attention to detail and historical accuracy, that seems an impossibility, and is probably an unfair burden to place on what is, in essence, an heroic action film. Much discussion has already filled the internet regarding the manner in which the eruption takes place (there was no fire raining down on escaping Pompeians) or the location of the amphitheatre (it should be in the southeast corner of the city instead of the north), but these are details that can easily be attributed to artistic license. Fire is much more dramatic than a lot of pumice and ash, and the foreboding view of Vesuvius looming over the arena must add an element of expectant dread for the viewer. And isn’t that the point? The elements of antiquity that are altered are likely done so in order to better tell the story, to enhance the experience of the moviegoer. If the average person in the cinema learns a little something in the process…great! If that spurns someone on to read more, or take a trip to Italy to see it for themselves…even better! If it is just a fun two hours watching some sword fighting and volcanic drama (with undoubtedly a bit of romance thrown in), well that’s good too. History won’t suffer because the film isn’t quite right on every detail.

This is not to say that particularly egregious historical inaccuracies don’t set my teeth on edge – they often do. But films like this aren’t made for scholars who have been working in Pompeii (or Rome, or Greece) for more than a decade – they are for the general public. For the average person sitting in the cinema (expert or not), what it comes down to really is how compelling the story is – the flaws in accuracy can be overlooked if the story and the characters capture the viewer’s attention. This was the case with Gladiator, the HBO/BBC series Rome, but not so much with some other recent sword and sandal films (I’m looking at you, Alexander and Troy). Until I get a chance to see it for myself, whether or not Pompeii tells a good story is something I cannot judge.

Regardless of what might be historically wrong with the film, I have no doubt that many will see it and enjoy it. For the city of Pompeii, there has always been an huge attraction for the general public – the ruins wouldn’t get 2.5 million visitors per year otherwise. This is not entirely about viewing antiquity, but about the horrific destruction of nature. Walking around the city gives a sense of average people, living their lives, until one day everything stopped. It is the suddenness of that end that engenders a kind of empathy and fascination. As macabre as that may sound, it is an element of a visit to Pompeii that can be found even amongst the earliest visitors, when writers such as Goethe, Mary Shelley, and Mark Twain wrote about the spectre-like aspect of the city and its unfortunate inhabitants, frozen in time at the worst possible moment.

There is something immensely compelling about the tragedy that befell the people living in this city that draws people to its story. This is equally true for those of us in academia as it is for the general public. These filmmakers have just found another way to tell that story, and in doing so, will reach far more people than any scholar ever could. For that reason, how accurately they have done it isn’t really that important.