By Jason Apuzzo. I come to praise Sword & Sandal movies – not to bury them.
But with Wrath of the Titans and the Sword & Sandal/sci-fi mash-up John Carter not exactly setting the world on fire – along with recent disappointments like Immortals and Conan – it’s getting more difficult by the day to believe that the Sword & Sandal movie can survive the recent fumbling of this otherwise great genre.
And that’s a shame, because the Sword & Sandal movie – known for its gladiatorial games, pagan orgies, depraved emperors, and the occasional snarling cyclops – may represent the most colorful and enduring movie genre of all time.
So for the uninitiated, what exactly is a Sword & Sandal movie?
Like its cousin the Biblical epic, a Sword & Sandal movie – or ‘peplum,’ named after a type of ancient Greek garment – is typically set in the ancient Mediterranean world, and dramatizes the fight for freedom. Think of Kirk Douglas fighting to free slaves in Spartacus.
The hero of a Sword & Sandal movie is usually muscle-bound (think Steve Reeves) and able to deliver passionate speeches about freedom (think Charlton Heston). The villain is normally a wicked tyrant, preferably played by a silky British actor (think Christopher Plummer) – and the hero typically has a few slave girls, wicked queens or curvy sorceresses thrown his way before he settles down with his true love, often played by an Italian brunette (think Sophia Loren).
From as far back as 1914’s Italian epic Cabiria – the first movie ever screened at the White House – Sword & Sandal movies have been delivering huge entertainment value with their muscle men, exploding volcanoes, sacrifices to Moloch and marching Roman armies.
Cecil B. DeMille and D.W. Griffith took the genre to its early heights from the 1910s-1930s, with spectacular films like Intolerance (1916) and Cleopatra (1934). In the years before the Production Code, these films often pushed the boundaries of sex and carnivalesque violence. In DeMille’s infamous The Sign of the Cross (1932), for example, Claudette Colbert takes a sexy milk bath (see below), and the film wraps with a lurid finale featuring Amazon women fighting pygmies, and nubile Christian martyrs (including one played by burlesque queen Sally Rand) served up to gorillas and crocodiles.
The genre’s heyday, however, was in the 1950s and early ’60s – the era of ‘Hollywood on the Tiber,’ when the studios decamped to Rome to recreate the ancient world. This period was dominated by American-made Biblical epics and Italian-made serials about Hercules or other burly, mythical heroes like Maciste. Lavish spectacles like Ben-Hur, The Robe and Quo Vadis saved Hollywood from the economic encroachments of television, and minted a new generation of masculine stars like Charlton Heston, Kirk Douglas and Richard Burton. And the movies themselves got bigger, with new formats like CinemaScope and VistaVision filling movie houses with sumptuous panoramas of ancient lands.
Capping off the era was Elizabeth Taylor’s magnificently grandiose Cleopatra (1963), a movie so big that today it would’ve cost over $330 million to produce – possibly because the film’s dubious Italian accountants claimed Liz Taylor ate twelve chickens and forty pounds of bacon each day for breakfast.
Nothing about peplum movies – not even their catering – is small.
After a long drought, broken by only a handful of films like Ray Harryhausen’s magical Clash of the Titans (1981) – and Conan the Barbarian (1982), featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger as the bone-crushing Cimmerian warlord – the Sword & Sandal genre was revived splendidly in 2000 by Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe in Gladiator. Gladiator took advantage of new digital technology to convincingly recreate the ancient world in telling a blood-soaked tale of Rome’s slide into imperial tyranny. Frank Miller’s 300 then ‘modernized’ the genre in 2006 – recreating the Battle of Thermopylae with video game-style action, post-9/11-style speeches about the value of freedom, and Gerard Butler providing the most impressive display of abs since Franco Columbu was Mr. Olympia.
Fortunately, although recent projects like Wrath of the Titans and John Carter are doing little to build off the momentum of those films, Hollywood still seems to have confidence in peplum movies. Brett Ratner and The Rock are plunging ahead with their adaptation of Hercules: The Thracian Wars, and Russell Crowe recently signed to star in Darren Aronofsky’s Sword & Sandal-esque movie about Noah. The 300 prequel Battle of Artemisia still moves forward, and Wrath of the Titans director Jonathan Liebesman wants to direct movies about Julius Caesar and Odysseus. Plus Mel Gibson’s Maccabee movie is still in development (a bit awkward, that one), Ridley Scott and Paul W.S. Anderson are both doing Pompeii projects, Angelina Jolie is still circling around an expensive Cleopatra film – and Steven Spielberg is even considering directing Gods and Kings, an epic telling of the life of Moses.
While it’s heartening that these projects are still going forward, no one wants them to suffer the same fate as John Carter or other recent, lackluster efforts. Audiences probably deserve better than what they’ve been getting, so with that in mind it’s time to take an unflinching look at what’s working – and not working – about this latest crop of Sword & Sandal movies.
WHAT’S WORKING ABOUT THE NEW SWORD & SANDAL MOVIES:
1) Boffo Digital Creatures
Movie creatures haven’t been quite the same since Ray Harryhausen retired, but his legacy is still alive and kicking (and growling) into the digital age. Recent creatures like Wrath of the Titans‘ Kronos or the club-wielding cyclops, or the White Apes in John Carter, are awesome beasts to behold – especially in IMAX 3D and 7.1 channel sound. And whereas back in the 1950s and ’60s only Harryhausen’s movies had credible creatures (even the wonderful Italian peplum movies so often got dragged down by paper mache dragons and rubber lizards), nowadays most Sword & Sandal flicks can be expected to feature a decent mythical beast or two.
2) Great Use of Weaponry
Today’s Sword & Sandal stars like Conan’s/Game of Thrones‘ Jason Momoa or Immortals‘ Henry Cavill (who’s also the next Superman) really look like they can fight, or at least like they’re trained and know their way around weaponry. And while that isn’t a prerequisite for peplum heroics – Tony Curtis never needed it – the ability to use a sword, spear or hammer axe convincingly is one of the key selling points of any Sword & Sandal hero.
3) Bold Costumes & Production Design
Tarsem’s Immortals featured some wildly imaginative costume and production design, blending North African, Indian, Persian and Greek influences that enlivened the look of Sword & Sandal cinema for the first time in years. Plus, Disney’s John Carter managed some fabulous retro/19th century sci-fi designs, for the few people in the audience still awake after the first hour.
4) British Accents
Let’s face it: the Brits, along with the Aussies and the Irish, just sound better doing this stuff right now than their American counterparts, and are saving a lot of otherwise sub-par films. In Wrath of the Titans, for example, stodgy dialogue is routinely rescued by the redoubtable Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes – both of whom could probably make an ad for shaving cream seem portentous.
5) 3D & IMAX
When it comes to Sword & Sandal movies, size really does matter. And while today’s 3D/IMAX-sized movies can’t compare in scale to films like Howard Hawks’ 1955 CinemaScope epic Land of the Pharaohs (one scene in that film featured over 9,000 extras), new films like the IMAX 3D version of John Carter still offer a reasonable facsimile of what those widescreen spectacles of old were like.
WHAT’S NOT WORKING ABOUT THE NEW SWORD & SANDAL MOVIES:
1) Where did all the Love Goddesses go?
Easily the biggest problem with today’s Sword & Sandals movies – although this is less of a problem on cable TV shows like Spartacus or Game of Thrones – is the lack of good female characters. The wicked queens, love goddesses and slave girls that once made peplum movies so famous (and scandalous) are almost completely gone – leaving little for the men in these films to do other than chop each other to pieces. No more dancing girls, pagan orgies, or virgin sacrifices – what fun is that? In the ’50s and ’60s, tantalizing (and usually Italian) women like Sophia Loren, Rossana Podesta, Gina Lollobrigida and Sylva Koscina appeared routinely in Sword & Sandal epics and made life exciting for the gods and mortal men who coveted them – or feared them. They should be welcomed back.
2) Spoiled Heroes with Super-powers and Abs
The big new trend nowadays – from peplum films to comic book movies – is to have annoying, demigod heroes with abs who fret over their supernatural powers. Petulant guys like John Carter or Perseus in Wrath or Theseus in Immortals who can’t decide whether the world is cool enough for them to save. It’s tiresome. Kirk Douglas didn’t fret over his ‘powers’ or his abs in Spartacus, Ulysses or The Vikings, probably because he didn’t have any – he just had courage (also the cinema’s best chin). Today’s peplum heroes should have fewer powers and flabbier abs (like Victor Mature), and more backbone. They should be more stoic, and stand for something beyond their own narcissism – like freedom.
3) Fake Digital Armies
You know the kind I’m talking about, because they’re in every new Sword & Sandal film: the fake digital armies, with endless rows of digital soldiers wearing digital armor – marching and grunting into battle as one. They always appear in a scene that’s supposed to be ‘awe-inspiring,’ but that instead comes across as software-driven and phony. Memo to Hollywood: spend the money and hire some real extras.
4) Characters Who’ve Never Taken a Bath
In an effort to create ‘edgier,’ more ‘realistic’ Sword & Sandal movies, some filmmakers have come up with the idea of populating the ancient world with guys who’ve never bathed, shaved, or washed their clothes. Wrath has one such guy, an unshaven dude with matted hair named Agenor, who looks like he spent the last six months occupying Zuccotti Park. He actually gets more on-screen time than actress Rosamund Pike (seemingly the only female cast member), who plays the film’s pretty blonde heroine. A related idea in today’s peplum cinema is to have everything – buildings, armor, vegetable stands – sprayed with mud and dirt for that ‘authentic,’ antediluvian feel. It may come as a shock to some filmmakers to learn that people in the ancient world actually had access to water, and were able to wash themselves.
5) Movies That Skimp on the Big Themes: Freedom, Romance, Religious Faith
Here’s the key to a good Sword & Sandal movie: it wears its heart on its sleeve. Classics like Robert Wise’s Helen of Troy, Kirk Douglas’ Ulysses or Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire not only had more intelligent, literate scripts; not only were they better researched, and more faithful to the spirit of their original stories. There was also an element of sincerity and passion to them in how they depicted the big Sword & Sandal themes of freedom, romance and religious faith. In more recent years, for example, a film like 300 took the theme of freedom seriously, and cleaned-up at the box office. By contrast, I read recently that in Disney’s early meetings on John Carter, the first things executives discussed about the film were … the merchandizing and the sequels. It showed.
THE BOTTOM LINE:
While today’s 3D/IMAX-sized Sword and Sandal movies have modern technology and other advances going for them, they don’t always understand the human element that made classics like Ben-Hur or Spartacus work. Of course, assuming Hollywood doesn’t want more $200 million write-downs on its books, perhaps that will start to change.
The good news is that when Sword & Sandal movies are done right, people still love them. Movies about the ancient world stir our imaginations, and give us a sense of continuity with the past. They also speak to our most cherished values of liberty and faith – often while providing scandalous fun. Hollywood is right to believe in these projects – Cecil B. DeMille did, and made a career out of them for 40 years – so let’s hope filmmakers can up their game over the next few years, and make the ancient world as exciting as it used to be.
Posted on April 4th, 2012 at 8:04am.
By Jason Apuzzo. THE PITCH: Commercial and music video director Tarsem reinvents the ancient Greek Theseus myth in Immortals, featuring rugged Brit star Henry Cavill (the new Superman) and coming from the same producer, Mark Canton, who revitalized the Sword & Sandal genre with 300.
THE SKINNY: Jettisoning any actual Greek mythology from his story, Tarsem repurposes Theseus’ ancient heroics into a violent, vacuous cross-cultural mash-up for the video game/UFC generation – a stylized ballet of severed limbs, senseless plot devices and wild costuming. Immortals – which likely deserved an X rating – is a film neither for the faint of heart, nor the lively of mind.
WHAT WORKS: • Although the film’s costumes and production design – which extravagantly blend North African, Indian, Persian and occasionally even some Greek influences – make little sense in the context of the story, they bring a visual novelty to the film that grabs one’s attention. The garb of the Olympian gods, and the armor of the Titans, deserve special praise.
• Years of bizarre behavior and dissipated living have made Mickey Rourke into a good hire to play a wicked tyrant. His King Hyperion, who bears no connection to any Theseus myth I’m aware of, is nonetheless a formidable and interesting villain – a kind of Colonel Kurtz of the ancient world, decked out in bronze bunny ears. As an interesting side note, the disjointed terrain of Rourke’s face has begun to resemble a Paul Klee painting – fascinating to look at (particularly in 3D), even for long spells of time.
WHAT DOESN’T WORK: • Having drained the story of any meaningful connection to Greek mythology or history (which, one assumes, he finds dull), Tarsem has nowhere to go with the Theseus story excerpt to turn it into a generic, head-chopping ‘hero’s journey’ like a thousand similar films before it. Immortals, trite in the extreme, shows less respect to the core cannon of Greek myth than your average comic book movie shows toward comic book lore.
• Outside of Mickey Rourke, Immortals features not a single noteworthy performance – including those of Henry Cavill and Freida Pinto, who make for a handsome but pitifully dull couple. And although Luke Evans is passable as a young Zeus, the rest of the Olympian gods are almost laughable, like something out of a high school performance of Godspell.
By Jason Apuzzo. • Immortals is upon us, opening this Friday in 3D. As LFM readers know, I love the Sword & Sandal genre – it might actually be my favorite type of movie, among the many that we discuss here at Libertas – and so I’m looking forward to seeing the film. I grew up on films like Clash of the Titans and Jason and the Argonauts, the Steve Reeves Hercules films, and Ben-Hur – so it takes absolutely no effort for me to get revved up about a film like this. Especially when there’s a Minotaur involved.
At the same time, based on how Immortals is being marketed, I’m a very long way from believing it’s going to be anything other than a vacuous exercise in style, a kind of Chanel commercial in togas. Having watched/read recent interviews (see here and here) with the film’s director, Tarsem Singh, I have no sense that the film has any kind of personal meaning for him or anybody else involved. Nor do I sense as yet that the film is anything other than a cash-in on the ongoing popularity of 300, from which it obviously draws its inspiration.
Part of this, I confess, has to do with the cast – none of whom is really grabbing my attention. Henry Cavill, who is currently shooting the forthcoming Superman reboot, is someone I haven’t seen before except in 2002’s The Count of Monte Cristo, a film that did nothing for me. He doesn’t look all that interesting, frankly. As for the rest of the cast – Stephen Dorff, Luke Evans, Kellan Lutz – I barely even know who these people are. And as far as the women in the film, Isabel Lucas was appealing enough in Red Dawn, and in the second Transformers movie as a sexually aggressive alien robot … but having her play Athena? The goddess of wisdom? That seems like quite a stretch, like something you’d see in a high school play – along with cardboard swords and paper-mache busts of Caesar. As for Freida Pinto, my sense is that her 15 minutes of fame are rapidly dwindling – prior to her inevitable cash-out three years from now as a Bond girl.
And then there’s Mickey Rourke, wearing what appear to be bronze bunny ears. I’m still trying to figure that one out.
So to say that I’m skeptical is an understatement. Still, the film’s costumes look good, and a great deal of thought seems to have been put into the visual design of the film – so we’ll see. In the meantime, you can read this incredibly inane interview with Tarsem, the cast members are also out talking about the film (Cavill, Rourke, Dorff), you can catch photos of the film and also 8 new clips. Also: the film has new TV spots (here and here), and a graphic novel is apparently on its way; also, the NY Times has a new feature on the film’s stylized violence.
• One of the best rumors of late in the Sword & Sandal world – indeed, one of the best movie rumors overall, of late – is that Steven Spielberg may direct Gods and Kings, an epic revolving around the life of Moses. I think this is a fabulous idea, assuming it can be made to happen. Deadline Hollywood reported recently that Spielberg has already read the Gods and Kings script by Michael Green and Stuart Hazeldine, and that the film would be made by Warner Brothers – likely with involvement from DreamWorks.
Where to begin? To have the director of Schindler’s List and Raiders of the Lost Ark take on the life of Moses would seem to make perfect sense. Spielberg would bring an old-fashioned, humanistic warmth and sentimentality to the project that very few directors have anymore, while also bringing a sense of spectacle, adventure and showmanship into the mix, as well. So for what it’s worth, I love the idea of him doing this – although I hope he’d change the title; Gods and Kings sounds a bit too anodyne, for my taste – or maybe just too close to Gods and Generals, I can’t tell. And anyway, aren’t we really talking about ‘Prophets and Pharaohs’ here?
Spielberg is also a major admirer of Cecil B. DeMille’s (watch any documentary on DeMille and you’ll always see Spielberg singing his praises), and I strongly suspect that Spielberg would love to have a DeMille-style religious/family epic of this sort under his belt to cement his legacy – the type of film that could be watched on holidays in perpetuity, much like DeMille’s Ten Commandments. Adjusted for inflation, incidentally, The Ten Commandments is still the #5 movie of all time at the box office, and would’ve made over a billion dollars domestically at today’s ticket prices.
Of course, I don’t know a lot about Gods and Kings; it could be that the screenwriters have opted for a less traditional take on the story than what I’m expecting. Be that as it may, it seems likely that with a project of this kind Spielberg would be swinging for the fences, trying to hit a major home run at the box office and also tell a story that would – in our increasingly fractious times – unite audiences worldwide.
Were I to guess, I’d say that he will likely do some kind of Moses film – although the script will need to match his personal agenda, more than the screenwriter’s. It’s conceivable that this project will remain in development for a while, if he doesn’t like what he sees initially, but I’d bet he’ll give the Moses story a try before too long.
By the way, do I dare mention the possibility of parting the Red Sea … in 3D?
By Jason Apuzzo. • We had some very sad news lately in the Sword & Sandal world with the passing of Spartacus’ Andy Whitfield, who recently succombed to non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The intense Whitfield was only 39 years old, and after his first – and only – season as the star of the hit cable series Spartacus on Starz his career really seemed to be on the rise. We extend our condolences to his family and friends and to his colleagues at Starz – and the network will be holding an Andy Whitfield-Spartacus marathon in his honor. Whitfield will be missed; the arena won’t be the same without him.
• Otherwise, the biggest news of late on the Sword & Sandal front is the long-rumored return of Mel Gibson to the genre with a new film project on the Maccabees story, the freedom-fighting tale of Jewish revolt against Syrian and Hellenic rule in second century B.C. Judea – essentially the story that inspired Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights. Almost as striking as the fact that Gibson is taking on this material is that the gruff and colorful Joe Eszterhas (Basic Instinct, Showgirls) will apparently be returning from self-exiled Hollywood purgatory to write the screenplay – returning to material with which he is familiar, having previously written about the Holocaust in Hungary.
How do I react to all this? Twenty years ago this project would’ve sounded great. Today it sounds like two middle-aged guys who want to bond over bottles of Cazadores while auditioning dancing girls. In the wake of Gibson’s distasteful anti-Semitic tirades, this film is feeling like his belated mea culpa, like D.W. Griffith making Intolerance as penance for Birth of a Nation – which is not to imply, incidentally, that Gibson has a fraction of Griffith’s talent or determination.
Look, Gibson can do whatever he wants to do with his career as far as I’m concerned. Personally, however, I can’t watch his films anymore – even the Mad Max and Lethal Weapon movies I enjoyed so much years ago. His behavior has ruined those films for me; the magic is gone, Gibson’s ‘charm’ eroded away after too many boozy encounters with police, racist and/or paranoid rants, and Russian mistresses. I get very tired of people these days talking about how ‘George Lucas spoiled their childhood’ just because he re-edited a few scenes from Star Wars, or dropped some new digital creatures into the back of Jabba’s palace. You know who’s really spoiled a lot of fond memories from my teenage years? Mel Gibson. I look forward to the day when Gibson’s personal psychodramas are no longer routinely inflicted on us as industry news.
• A lot of new Sword & Sandal projects are suddenly in the works: a new Spartacus movie is on the way; Warner Brothers has acquired a Viking-related project for Alexander Skarsgard, a project said to be in the Gladiator-Braveheart vein; there’s yet another new Viking project floating around that deals with the Viking slave trade in Irishmen (centuries before the Irish were owned by the USC Trojans); The Rock is in talks to play Goliath in Goliath; Jonathan Liebesman (Battle: Los Angeles, Wrath of the Titans) is attached to a big new Julius Caesar movie that would apparently cover “Caesar’s Spanish campaign, his formation of the 10th Legion, and the battles that would eventually establish Caesar as ruler of the Roman republic” (this is great history to cover in a film); Justin Lin will now only be producing the Highlander reboot, because a new director has come on board; 300: Battle of Artemisia (which now has a director) will have small roles for Gerard Butler and Lena Headey, meaning that Butler will have to train for 6 months to get his abs in shape for 30 seconds of screen time; and some sweet new concept art (see to the right) is out for the Frank Frazetta-inspired Fire and Ice that Robert Rodriguez wants to do, a film that will hopefully prevent Rodriguez from doing any Machete sequels.
• The Immortals continues to roll down the tracks with a new marketing push, although the film still isn’t looking any better than it did before. Is it the bad dialogue? The trite storyline? Mickey Rourke wearing bunny ears? Hard to say. A lot of eyes will be on the film in November because it stars the new Superman (Henry Cavill), and because Freida Pinto will likely be getting her last chance to make an impression in a major film. Director Tarsem Singh will probably survive, of course, because he can always be hired to do Christian Dior ads.
By Jason Apuzzo.
Mongol General: What is best in life?
Conan: To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women.
- from Conan the Barbarian (1982).
THE PITCH: Lionsgate reboots the Conan the Barbarian series – or tries to – without either Arnold Schwarzenegger or director John Milius on board. In Arnold’s place comes Jason Mamoa, buff former star of Stargate: Atlantis and the recent Game of Thrones. Pretty Rachel Nichols, not-so-pretty Stephen Lang (buried in make-up) and Rose McGowan as an insane witch with metal claws round out the cast.
THE SKINNY: As Conan says in the film, “No man should live in chains,” but also no man should confuse this new movie for the 1982 cult classic produced by Dino De Laurentiis and co-written by John Milius and Oliver Stone – the film that effectively launched The Austrian Oak’s career as a major star. Hawaiian newcomer Jason Mamoa scowls wickedly and swings a mean sword, but he can’t match the humor and cracked intensity of Arnold’s original take on the Cimmerian warlord. This mediocre, History Channel-level Conan only beats out the original in action, gore and 3D bare breasts.
WHAT WORKS: • The 6’5” Jason Mamoa, a kind of poor man’s Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, manages to sell the action scenes and look formidable and athletic as Conan.
• Rose McGowan as the insane/bloodthirsty/incestuous witch Marique is arguably the only cast member at home in this type of film, as she struts around in wild headdresses – and with no eyebrows – tasting the blood of virgins by pricking their necks with metal claws. Think of her as a hellish, antediluvian Nurse Ratched. This is also a good moment to mention that this film is rated ‘R.’
• The film’s lavish production design and costumes – that effectively mix North African, Middle Eastern, Persian and Indian influences – create the distinct-yet-familiar feel of ‘The Hyborian Age’ as Robert Howard envisioned it (more or less).
WHAT DOESN’T WORK: • Again Jason Mamoa, who’s given some cool lines to deliver (“I live. I love. I slay … I am content.”) but can’t summon any humor or pizazz in doing so. As smoothly as he chops heads, Mamoa lacks the over-the-top persona required to sell this basically silly material.
• It wasn’t until the end credits were rolling that I realized that the actor buried in make-up playing the ruthless villain ‘Khalar Zym’ was actually Stephen Lang. It seems like a waste to hire somebody that good and make him totally unrecognizable to the audience.
• The movie is in desperate need of a sense of humor. Rachel Nichols’ character Tamara seems like a wasted opportunity here, as she should’ve been back-talking Conan more throughout the film – or else Conan needed a worthier sidekick, like Mako from the original film.
By Jason Apuzzo. • A lot’s happened since our last Sword & Sandal Report. First of all, we now have a new and slightly better trailer for Immortals, the forthcoming 300-style take on the Theseus myth coming this October starring the new Superman, Brit star Henry Cavill.
As I’ve said before, I like the concept of building a film around the ancient Greek hero Theseus, lover of Ariadne and slayer of the Minotaur – but from this new trailer it still looks we’re dealing with more CGI overkill here from the same producing team that gave us 300 – a film which, for all its cheeky/politically incorrect depiction of the ancient Persians, still felt way too much like a cross between a video game and a Chanel ad. Immortals looks like it’s picking up right where 300 and the Clash of the Titans remake left off, substituting CGI and TV commercial styling for a lack of storyline or interesting characters. I’ve seen two trailers for this film so far, and I still have no idea what the film is about – why, for example, as the tagline goes, ‘the gods need a hero’ (gods being gods, they usually don’t need human heroes) – although I have seen a lot of massed CGI armies and shouting. And Mickey Rourke wearing what look like Bronze Age bunny ears.
And by the way, where’s the Minotaur in this film? There’s no sign of it – nor of the Labyrinth. I’m hoping the creators of this film are aware that what Theseus is most famous for is slaying the Minotaur inside the Labyrinth – think of slaying the Minotaur as being for Theseus what, say, the 56-game hitting streak was for DiMaggio – and that it might’ve been a shrewd idea to include either a Minotaur or a Labyrinth somewhere in the film or the trailer. Is it too much to ask for a Minotaur or a Labyrinth in a movie about Theseus? Hello?
At least Isabel Lucas looks good as Athena – who will apparently be an action figure in this film. Incidentally, Immortals has some new character posters out, and there are some good screengrabs here from the new trailer.
• Speaking of 300, the big news about the prequel is that it will no longer be called Xerxes, but 300: Battle of Artemisia – a triumph of brand marketing over common sense. The new film, of course, is not about the 300 Spartans, and is about Xerxes – but no matter, brand triumphs over all and the producers are obviously worried that no one in foreign markets like Poland or Thailand or West Virginia will understand that a film called Xerxes is actually a prequel to 300. (Maybe they should just call it 200 – that makes about as much sense.) In any case, Zack Snyder will not be directing the prequel – it will apparently either be Noam Murro and Jaume Collet-Serra. (Murro, interestingly, has done commercials for the Halo video games – and may do the next Die Hard film.) So what does any of this mean? Not very much, except that this would-be franchise is still on the drawing board while a lot of time passes. By the time Battle of Artemisia hits theaters (in late 2012 at the earliest), both Clash of the Titans and Wrath of the Titans will have been released, along with Immortals, and 300 will be at least 5 years in the past.
One of the things that made 300 so intriguing was its apparent relevance to our contemporary War on Terror. With Iran becoming more belligerent all the time, that relevance will likely still be there by 2012 or 2013, but one can’t help but wonder whether an opportunity is being lost with this franchise …
• Conan the Barbarian 3D has a new international trailer out, an amusing new ad, and also a red band trailer for the more bloodthirsty among you. This film seems to be cruising along toward its late summer (August 19th) release, without a lot of heat or buzz – mostly, I suspect, due to the cast not being filled with A-listers. But the film looks diverting enough (as these things go), and – in an important carryover from the Schwarzenegger films – willing to have a sense of humor about itself. This, incidentally, is what’s noticeably lacking from the Immortals trailers thus far – a sense of humor.
Conan also has some new posters out (see here and here), and a lot of good new productions stills are available (here and here). I feel willing to give this film a chance, although I’m not expecting El Cid, if you know what I mean …
By Jason Apuzzo. • In the time since our last Sword & Sandal Report!, trailers have been released for Immortals and also for the new version of Conan. I’ll start with the Immortals trailer. What a disappointment! As much as I love the concept of building a film around the ancient Greek hero Theseus, slayer of the Minotaur and lover of Ariadne, this Tarsem Singh take on the myth is not working for me at all based on what I’m seeing so far in the trailer … a trailer for which the term ‘derivative’ would be an understatement. About halfway through the trailer a title card reads, “From the producers of 300,” which is about as unnecessary a statement as can be imagined given how utterly identical this film looks to 300. In fact, if this film wasn’t being made by the producers of 300, I would’ve recommended they sue for copyright violation, given how close the two films are in terms of their look, styling, costuming and even color palette.
300, however, at least had a perverse/decadent sense of humor about itself, of which – thus far – Immortals seems painfully devoid. The entire Immortals trailer gives us little more than earnest speeches, slo-mo action, mugging at the camera and massed CGI armies. The dialogue sounds dreadful, featuring such chestnuts of profundity as: “To those whom much is given, much is asked.” Wow, really? I’ve never heard that line before! I thought that to those whom much is given, still more could be given – along with a free Starbucks coupon!
As for Mickey Rourke, his physical transformation into The Elephant Man seems complete, which I suppose makes him a good choice as the villain here … provided his character wasn’t wearing bronze bunny ears, and provided his mumbled dialogue was actually comprehensible, which it isn’t. And as for future Superman Henry Cavill, he does nothing for me here – and nor does Freida Pinto, who in her first big Hollywood film already seems to be taking her clothes off. That certainly didn’t take long! Welcome to L.A., young lady – you’ll fit in just fine.
In any case, I’m lowering my expectations for this film, although not to the point that I’ll avoid it altogether. (In other Immortals news, cast member Joseph Morgan discusses his role in the film here.)
• … which brings us to the new Conan the Barbarian trailer. This trailer is slightly better than the one for Immortals in that I actually understand what the story is about (“No man should live in chains …”), it has a more masculine lead (Jason Momoa), war elephants, and Rose McGowan as an insane witch. All good elements. This trailer again features too much CGI for my taste, and music that sounds a little too close to Metallica, but on the whole the film looks less annoying than Immortals. Jason Momoa as Conan is also reminding me a lot of The Rock, which is a good thing.
How will the new Conan rate against the original Schwarzenegger/Milius version? Poorly, I suspect, but it still may be entertaining. The trailer goes on a bit too long, repeating its action sequences, as if the film has little else to offer. That’s a problem. The original Conan got by on a certain amount of cheeky good-humor, based around Arnold’s over-the-top persona. Hopefully they’ve found some way to preserve some of that in this new version.
By Jason Apuzzo. Today we begin a new feature here at Libertas called The Sword & Sandal Report!, to complement our Invasion Alerts! and Cold War Updates! The Sword & Sandal Report! will cover the recent explosion of new films & TV shows dealing with the ancient world, and especially those depicting the worlds of ancient Greece, Rome and the Biblical lands – but also ’sword and sorcery’-type projects that cover the Middle Ages, or alternative-style fantasy worlds. So dust off your sandals, grab that Roman-Gladius sword off the wall, strap on your helmet … and ladies, get ready to wear some loose clothing.
Or, as in the case of Spartacus: Gods of the Arena on Starz, wear no clothing at all!
I’ve always loved sword-and-sandal movies or peplum, particularly of the Italian/Steve Reeves-Hercules variety, but also Hollywood-on-the-Tiber classics like Ben-Hur or Helen of Troy - or fantasy fare like Ray Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts. If the purpose of the cinema is to ‘take us away’ to imaginative lands of the past, where heroes are always larger than life and nobler – and women lovelier and more virtuous (or more wicked and licentious, as your tastes demand) – then these films really accomplish that. In recent years. the peplum has been revived largely by Ridley Scott’s Gladiator from 2000, although the results since that time have admittedly been mixed – with a few hits like Frank Miller’s 300, and quite a few reekers like Oliver Stone’s Alexander.
Nonetheless, I’ve been wanting to do The Sword & Sandal Report! for some time, because – when done properly – these films not only convey a wonderful spirit of adventure, fantasy and romance, but they can also be great vehicles for communicating basic ideas about freedom. In fact, it’s often the case in the more modern sword-and-sandal films that the only idea conveyed whatsoever – in the midst of all the dust, carnage and orgiastic sex – is the basic need to fight for one’s freedom, an idea we champion wholeheartedly here at Libertas.
At the same time, sword-and-sandal movies are also an entertaining way to learn about history, even when these films diverge (often drastically) from established fact. And, as in the case of something like The Fall of the Roman Empire or El Cid, sword-and-sandal movies can also be among the more poetic and erudite films you will ever see. So let’s let get started …
• Very big news recently on the sword-and-sandal front was the early rollout of the media campaign for The Immortals, Tarsem Singh’s 3D take on the Theseus myth coming from Universal and Relativity Media in November. The film features Henry Cavill (the new Superman) as Theseus, and also Mickey Rourke, Freida Pinto, John Hurt and Transformers 2/Red Dawn hottie Isabel Lucas as the goddess Athena. Producer Mark Canton talks about the film here and here, new posters are out for the film here, plus Immortals is already getting the graphic novel treatment (see here), and Tarsem Singh and Isabel Lucas together talk about the film here and here.
Because this is a ‘Tarsem’ movie (he helmed the memorably perverse Jennifer Lopez thriller, The Cell), the early vibe I’m getting on this film is that it could be a hyper-violent, MTV-Zack Snyder-type mess, but we’ll see and I’ll hope for the best. Certainly the benefit of casting Mickey Rourke these days as a villain – in Immortals he plays the wicked King Hyperion of Crete – is that you don’t need to put any extra fright makeup on his face.
• While producing The Immortals, Mark Canton is also apparently prepping the 300 prequel with Zack Snyder and Frank Miller … which was initially going to be called Xerxes, but which is now lacking a title, as the title ‘Xerxes‘ has apparently been dropped. Why? Too many X’s? I think Xerxes is a great title – crisp, simple and dramatic. Were they worried no one would understand that it was a 300 prequel? Here’s hoping they don’t title the film 299 - or, worse yet, Themistocles.
In any case, Canton talks about his enthusiasm for the prequel here, and you can also see a full breakdown of the Xerxes storyline via Frank Miller here. On paper, it looks like the film could be genuinely spectacular.
• Robert Towne (Chinatown) has been hired to write Pompeii, Sony’s four-part miniseries based on the best-selling historical thriller by Robert Harris and produced by Ridley and Tony Scott, among others. Read the details about the project here, and Jeffrey Wells does a nice job of tracking the intriguing similarities between Harris’ Pompeii and Towne’s Chinatown here.
I haven’t read Harris’ Pompeii, although I’ve been to Pompeii itself – an otherworldly ghost town, meticulously preserved since its unearthing – and I’ve read Harris’ Imperium and enjoyed it a great deal. Because Ridley Scott’s involved, expect Pompeii to be big, ponderous, vaguely conspiratorial but otherwise respectable – with a boffo conclusion, as it were.
• Wrath of the Titans, sequel to the godawful remake of Clash of the Titans, has just begun shooting – and you can check out the official plot synopsis of that film here. Wrath was written by a completely different team of screenwriters than the first film, and is being helmed by Battle: Los Angeles director Jonathan Liebesman, so here’s hoping the new film is a lot better than the last. All I ask is that the new film not feature ‘heroic’ pseudo-Islamic suicide warriors (the ‘Djinn’), nor gratuitously insult Indian Hindus, and maybe include a few more women in the cast next time? Just a thought. Actually that’s three thoughts.