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Modern pic disasters? I don’t think so!

Cambridge Fellow Michael C Scott this week tackles Hollywood’s obsession with the ancient epics

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Brad Pitt as Achilles in Troy

Brad Pitt as Achilles in Troy made certain hearts flutter.

22 Mar 2010

We are in an era of sandals and swords epic movies. Gladiator, 300, Alexander, Troy, not to mention a spate of recent TV series (the HBO/BBC2 series Rome) and fictional spin offs (Percy Jackson and the Lightening Thief in cinemas now). More are in the pipeline (a rumored version of Xenophon’s Anabasis amongst others). The movie world, it seems, is in love with ancient Greece and Rome.

Many commentators though complain at the lack of historical accuracy in these films, moan about casting choices and ridicule the changing or simplifying of plot lines. These epics movies are epic disasters they claim.

But I don’t think so. Sure, all the above criticisms may be right. But I don’t think that qualifies them as epic disasters. In fact, they remind us about an important aspect of ancient myths and legends: that they changed.

Epics like the Iliad for example weren’t written down in the ancient world for an awfully long time; they existed initially as oral poetry and their story-line changed over the generations.

There was no one true script; it was constantly in flux. Equally, when the story of the Iliad was more or less ‘fixed’, then another genre of art – Greek tragedy – took up the reins to play with our reaction to the great epics by focusing on the ‘before and after’ e.g. what do we think of Agamemnon in the Iliad when we see that he will be killed by his wife on his return home, or the hero Odysseus when we see him having to trick a fellow Greek into coming to Troy after Odysseus had abandoned the same man on a deserted island some years before?

Alexander the Great offers a different example of how the ancient world is presented to us today. There are several ancient sources that survive for us about Alexander, each of which offers a slightly different take on Alexander’s character and his actions.

The point here is that there is not one obviously correct story, but competing interpretations and we each have to decide how to weigh the evidence – how we see Alexander.

If these Hollywood film adaptations can thus spawn debate and discussion about these key stories, places and peoples of our past, then, whatever their cinematic quality, they have done us a great service by continuing the great traditions of the ancient world.

A book has just been published which focuses on responses to the characterization of Alexander the Great in Oliver Stone’s movie Alexander. The movie, whether you liked it or not, seems to have got people thinking and that can’t be a bad thing.

Michael C Scott is the author of ‘From Democrats to Kings - The Brutal Dawn of a New World from the Downfall of Athens to the Rise of Alexander the Great’ www.michaelcscott.com

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