One of the panels I'm on is 'Favourite Historical Movies: what we like and why', in which four of us professional historians will be talking about - well, you can guess. We won't necessarily be talking about movies that deal with our particular area of research, and I can promise you that this article is not a spoiler for what I'm going to talk about next week, partly because I'm still trying to decide which of the many historical movies I love set in various different historical periods I want to talk about! But I thought it might help me to think about which of the many, many movies and TV shows I've watched featuring ancient Greece and Rome (or other areas of the ancient world) are my favourites, and why. And I realised that despite all the lists I've done over the years, I've never simply listed my favourites! So here they are. Though the whole list will probably have changed by tomorrow...
In an attempt to keep the list down to 10, I've only included things that might be described as 'period drama' and which are set entirely or mostly in the ancient world - so no Star Trek, no Hunger Games, no Stargate SG-1, no random Classical references hiding in The Lord of the Rings, no Narnia or Harry Potter - otherwise we'd be here all day).
10. STARZ Spartacus (2010-2013)
Why do I love it? Spartacus is totally bonkers, but in its own way it's can be one of the most accurate depictions of ancient Rome you could wish for - the dialogue reflects the structure of Latin, the characters' attitudes are, for the most part, recognisably Roman and only on Spartacus can you see characters using an accurately reconstructed Roman public toilet. Of course, it's not all accurate - the many, many orgies, for example, are probably a bit over the top... but then, the whole show is completely, ridiculously, ludicrously over the top. Why doesn't anyone wear clothes? Like, at all? Ever?! But it's that utter ridiculousness - and pumping rock soundtrack - that makes it so much fun.
Favourite character: Gannicus. I love me some Crixus and Lucretia, but Gannicus is not only the only character in the whole show with a sense of fun, he's also the only one with two brain cells to rub together most of the time. Honourable mention for Surfer Caesar, who I desperately want to see more of. Come on Steven DeKnight, there's decades more of Caesar's history just waiting to be given the Spartacus treatment!
Favourite moment: Season Two (Spartacus: Vengeance) is the weak link in the series, as it meanders about a bit trying to find its way before Caesar and Crassus arrive to kick things into gear in Season Three, but the moment in Episode 5 when the grand arena that had been such a focal point in Season One and the prequel goes up in flames is quite something.
Quotable: I am for wine, and the embrace of questionable women! (Gannicus)
9. Jesus of Nazareth (dir. Franco Zeffirelli, 1977)
Why do I love it? Zeffirelli's hyper-realistic approach to his material doesn't always work for me - I prefer my Shakespeare a bit more theatrical, for example - but I do appreciate it in this polished and well presented Jesus movie. What really makes it a favourite, though, is the incredible score by Maurice Jarre, which is sweeping, epic and moving. Robert Powell's performance as Jesus, while a bit wide-eyed in places, is also great and it's fun celebrity-spotting in the all-star cast.
Favourite character: Well, Jesus I guess. But I also have a great fondness for Peter Ustinov's wonderfully drawlly performance as Herod the Great (his delivery of 'you maaay saaaay triiiibe' is fabulous) and Rod Steiger's weary Pontius Pilate.
Favourite moment: The whole thing is beautifully shot and modelled after any number of famous paintings, but the moment when Jesus walks in to see Pilate after the whipping, wearing the crown of thorns and haloed (I see what he did there) in light is particularly beautiful.
Quotable: It's mostly Bible quotes so... you know, all the stuff about loving your neighbour and so on. Pontius Pilate says 'Ecce homo - Behold the man!' in Latin for no other reason than the cultural cache of the phrase 'ecce homo', which is quite amusing.
8. The Eagle (dir. Kevin Macdonald, 2011)
Why do I love it? I... I... I just really like Channing Tatum, OK?! And Jamie Bell. And it's beautifully shot, and well paced, and... I just really like Channing Tatum.
Favourite character: Jamie Bell's Esca is fabulously sulky. Not that he doesn't have good reason to be, what with being enslaved and all.
Favourite moment: I'm quite fond of the way our heroes limp out together right at the end.
Quotable: 'How can a piece of metal mean so much to you?' (Esca)
7. The Gospel According to Matthew (dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1964)
Why do I love it? I love that Pasolini (mostly) sticks to one specific source and films that version. It's not that any screen version can ever reproduce the text exactly, but I like the idea that what we're seeing is, as far as possible, the writer of Matthew's version as interpreted by the director, rather than the director's/writer's choice of random selections from different things. You hardly ever see that in historical movies at all, never mind Jesus movies!
Favourite character: Well, again, Jesus... who is distractingly sexy in this version.
Favourite moment: The moment when Jesus tells the leper he just cured not to tell anyone, and in the background we see the former-leper run off waving his arms around excitedly and clearly telling everyone he meets. It's really funny!
Quotable: This film is literally all Bible quotes, mostly from Matthew's Gospel. So, you know, pick a quote. Something nice about love.
6. Rome (BBC/HBO, 2005-2007)
Why do I love it? Amazing production values from set to costume to music, awesome opening sequence, great acting (especially from Max Pirkis as young Octavian and I love James Purefoy as Mark Antony), humour, drama... Rome isn't perfect (it drags in places in Season One and I wasn't as struck on Vorenus and Pullo's story as I was on the actual historical stuff) but it's very, very good.
Favourite character: It's a tie between Mark Antony and Octavian. Though, just as in history, Octavian might just edge it. Both Pirkis and Simon Woods play him as so wonderfully intense, intelligent, Machiavellian and yet just a bit socially shy and uncomfortable and aware of his own oddness. It's a wonderful take on the character. I also love Allen Leech's nervous, nerdy take on Marcus Agrippa.
Favourite moment: Probably the execution of Cicero. Not because I hate Cicero that much (though I really don't like him) but because David Bamber's performance is so good.
Quotable: 'Early stages of an orgy!' (Agrippa trying to defend Octavia to her mother)
5. Hercules (Disney, 1997)
Why do I love it? How many of the songs would you like me to sing to you?
Favourite character: Meg is the other reason I love this movie. She's just awesome, which is why I inflict 'I won't say I'm in love' on my students every. single. year.
Favourite moment: The whole of 'I won't say I'm in love'. It's possible I over-identify with that song.
Quotable: 'You! Are wearing! His! MERCHANDISE?!' (Hades)
4. Jesus Christ Superstar (dir. Norman Jewison, 1973)
Why do I love it? Not only is Jesus Christ Superstar one of my favourite Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals (along with The Phantom of the Opera), this film version is brilliantly put together with spectacular performances from Ted Neeley and Carl Anderson as Jesus and Judas respectively, as well as great work from Barry Dennen as Pontius Pilate, Yvonne Elliman as Mary Magdalene and Josh Mostel as Herod Antipas.
Favourite character: See above. Saying 'Judas' feels odd, but he is also a brilliant character. And I do love Dennan's sneering Pontius Pilate.
Favourite moment: In the middle of Neeley's heart-wrenching rendition of 'Gethsemane', as the music breaks into dramatic chords, we see a series of classical paintings of the crucifixion which somehow get the torture and horror of it across more effectively than all the buckets of blood in The Passion of the Christ.
Quotable: So many great lyrics, including Pilate's fabulous 'Who is this broken man / cluttering up my hallway?' and Herod's 'Prove to me that you're no fool / walk across my swimming pool', not to mention the hilarious line sung by the disciples in the Last Supper scene, 'what's that in the bread? / It's gone to my head'. But for simple drama and emotion, Jesus screaming 'Just watch me die! / See how I die!' is hard to beat.
3. Monty Python's Life of Brian (dir. Terry Jones, 1979)
Why do I love it? There are so many, many reasons (the Latin lesson from a Roman soldier, the very precise period setting of 'Saturday Afternoon - Around Teatime', the people at the back who can't hear the Beatitudes, Always Look on the Bright Side of Life...) but let's just sum them all up as: it's hilarious.
Favourite character: Brian, probably. Or the guy about to be stoned to death who points out it can't really get worse and starts yelling 'Jehovah! Jehovah!'
Favourite moment: I absolutely love the sequence where Brian falls off a tower, gets caught by a passing spaceship, is briefly involved in a space battle with aliens, then crash-lands right below the exact same tower. I've been to the tower, too. Lovely place.
Quotable: 'He's not the messiah, he's a very naughty boy!' (Brian's mother)
2. Gladiator (dir. Ridley Scott, 2000)
Why do I love it? This is one of my favourite films of all time. The epic sweep of it, the cinematography, Hans Zimmer's fantastic music, Joaquin Phoenix's wicked performance as Commodus, Juba's final 'Not yet'... it's all awesome.
Favourite character: Djimon Hounsou's Juba. He's remarkably upbeat considering his circumstances.
Favourite moment: You know the one - this moment:
Quotable: 'My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the armies of the north, General of the Felix Legions and loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next' (Maximus. Obviously.)
1. I, Claudius (BBC, 1976)
Why do I love it? I, Claudius is one of my all-time favourite TV shows, and I watch it again and again. The performances are great, the story is compelling and it's just over the top enough to be brilliant without going quite as far as Rome or Spartacus.
Favourite character: It's got to be Sian Phillips' brilliant, evil, scheming, completely awesome Livia, though I'm also very fond of John Hurt's interpretation of Caligula and BRIAN BLESSED's put-upon Augustus.
Quotable: 'Augustus ruled the world, but Livia ruled Augustus' (Claudius)
Argh - how was there no room for Carry on Cleo?! Infamy, infamy, they've all got it in for me...
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