This course surveys the influence of classical antiquity on Western filmmaking from the late 1970s to the present day, with an emphasis on exploring the ways in which filmmakers allude to and encounter classical themes, settings, characters, history, and literature in their works. Classical mythology and history have been a source of fascination for filmmakers since the beginning of filmmaking itself. Ben Hur (1907), Quo Vadis (1913) and Cabiria (1914) were all silent but ambitious films depicting aspects of classical antiquity on an epic scale that would have a profound impact on the classical blockbusters of the 1950s and 1960s. Cecil B. DeMille reintroduced the classical model with Ten Commandments (1956), and the epic(ally expensive) Ben-Hur (1959), Spartacus (1960), and Cleopatra (1963) would follow under other directors. These films can be analyzed for their interpretation of ancient material; their contemporary political subtexts and attitudes towards race, ethnicity, and gender; and their influence on the way 20th century Western cultures viewed Greco-Roman antiquity. Other film classics depicted an ancient world that ranged from dreamlike (Fellini's Satyricon ) to pornographic (Caligula ), to fantastical (Clash of the Titans ). We will briefly examine these films as a springboard for looking at late-20th and early-21st century adaptations of classical material.
Classical material in film regained popularity in the 2000s: Gladiator (2000), Troy (2004), Alexander (2004), 300 (2006), Clash of the Titans (2010), and Pompeii (2014), and the 2016 remake of Ben Hur. But beyond these obviously classically-inspired films, situated as they are in a version of classical antiquity, there are other modern films that draw less obviously on classical material. O Brother Where Art Thou? (2001) takes the Odyssey from Homer's Mediterranean world and drops it into Depression-era Southern America. Chi-raq resituates Aristophanes' Lysistrata in gang-ravaged Chicago. The Star Wars (1977-83) and Hunger Games (2012-15) trilogies use a reimagined Roman Empire to comment on spectacle and society in contemporary America.
We will study these films and others to analyze the trajectory of classical allusion in modern film: why do directors continue to revisit classical antiquity? What themes are pervasive? How do ancient archetypes like the seductive queen, evil sorceress, noble enslaved man, old philosopher, and debauched aristocrat help characterize modern film characters? What is the difference between adaptation and inspiration? How closely must modern interpretations cleave to the ancient material to be deemed "acceptable" by scholars and enthusiasts? How do these interpretations reshape our understanding of the ancient material? And why is classical antiquity still so compelling today?