5 Observations about Ben-Hur

After Alexander and Macedonia, our next Anglofilmia stop was Isreal, to visit Judah Ben-Hur, in our first entry for our Roman Britain section (43 AD to 410 AD: they came, they saw, they conquered). (Note: we’ve selected it to provide historical context to the events of the time, as it doesn’t actually take place in Britain.)

Unlike Alexander, this epic actually delivered in story, character and scale. Check out our five observations about the film, a re-edited, contemporary trailer and a recap, below.

Continue reading →

Alexander

Meanwhile, in nearby Macedonia…

I’ll start my review of Oliver Stone’s Alexander by stating a simple fact: the story of Alexander III of Macedon is too epic – in both scale and badasssery – for one film to contain. That doesn’t stop Alexander from trying.

The real-life Alexander (356-323 BC) is fascinating, to say the least. Alexander’s mother (played in the film by Angelina Jolie) groomed him from childhood to believe it was his destiny to rule. He began his command at the age of 16, a period when most of us are writing in journals about how much that song reminds us of this boy we’re crushing on, omg. By the age of thirty he had created one of history’s largest empires. At the time of his death at age thirty-three, he was undefeated in battle and today “is considered one of the most successful commanders of all time”.

This film tries to cover all of that in its 175 minute run time, focusing mainly the miscellaneous battles he engaged in as he took over the world, as well as his relationships to his mother (confused), his male lover (tender) and his wife (raw).

A lot of reviews of the film point out how well-received it was outside of the United States, and Stone himself said Americans are too squeamish about homosexual love. But you know what? I think people didn’t like it because it wasn’t gay enough.

The film sets up a contrast between Alexander’s true love Hephaistion (Jared Leto) and his political wife Roxane (Rosario Dawson). Supposedly, Alexander and Hephaistion are as close as two souls can be, having grown up together, and they now remain always at each others’ sides, while Alexander and Roxane marry only for the sake of proving he’s down with people from “barbarian” nations.

Yet the film devotes a significant amount of screen time to an uncomfortable, not-entirely-consensual sex scene between Alexander and Roxane, in which you see her partially nude. The most action poor Hephaistion sees during the entire 2.5 hours is some hugging and a whole lot of wistful gazing. They don’t even kiss.

Agape vs. eros? (Historical documents suggest their relationship was sexual as well as erotic.) Studio meddling? Whatever the case, this handling of their relationship was a mistake so large the film simply couldn’t overcome it.

Aside from the disingenuous handling of the character’s sexual relationships (and did I mention, there seems to be an implied sexual tension between Alexander and his ambitious, scheming mother?) I thought the casting left something to be desired.

I like Colin Farrell a lot and he’s an electric actor, always roiling with a kind of nervous energy. Supposedly the real Alexander had a violent temper and an impulsive nature (attributed, by Plutarch, to his penchant for drink). But he was also a statesman, a general and a man possessing great intelligence and dignity (and, dare I say it, gravitas). For me, Farrell always manages to come off as a lovable rogue, and that just doesn’t work for a character that’s supposed to be the ruler of 90% of the known world.

The film looks great, and it’s a treat to see wonders of the ancient world such as the Library of Alexandria and the gates and palaces of Babylon. But there’s an excess of narration and the battle scenes are cumbersome and blend together.

And there’s also the issue of the portrayal, as in 300, of the Persians as barbarians in need of Occidental civilizing. There’s the usual amount of Hollywood whitewashing, with Alexander appearing as the traditional-but-misinformed Nordic blonde, and barbarian Iranian Roxana as dark-skinned when she would apparently have been from a northern tribe of blue-eyed, blonde nomads.


Detail from the Alexander mosaic from the House of the Faun, Pompeii, c. 80 B.C.
National Archaeologic Museum, Naples, Italy

A lot of this is due, naturally, to drawing from Greek historical sources, which aren’t going to be particularly subtle in their praise or their condemnation. A lot of ink has been spilled over the other historical inaccuracies in this film, and I won’t add any more to it except to say that viewers should keep in mind that the Persians were pretty great at empire-making, themselves.

It’s interesting to note that Stone released an extended final cut of the film in 2007, in which he restores every piece of cut footage and subplot that had been edited out of the original and the 2005 director’s cut. The total running time is 3 hours 40 minutes, with an intermission between the two acts. (Our next entry Ben Hur clocks in at 3 hours 32 minutes.)

Surprisingly, given how we chafed under the length of the original, if I were to ever watch Alexander again, it would be this longer version. There’s a thorough review of the lengthier film here, and while the review says the movie still “doesn’t exactly gel”, it notes the film has been re-edited to help the narrative flow and give a lot more time to the human influences on Alexander’s life. Even if his political and militaristic motivations are made “hopelessly muddy” by the reshuffling, at least there’s this:

While there still isn’t much physical expression of their affection, the relationship between the king and Hephaistion is not shied away from. Their liaison is quite clear. Expanded scenes of Hephaistion counseling Alexander also show their connection is more than physical.

And finally, I can’t wrap up this post without discussing my own first exposure to the myth and legend of Alexander, which came through the animated series Reign: The Conqueror (Alexander Senki). It was designed by Peter Chung, whose Liquid Television series Aeon Flux started me as a child on the path of appreciating animation as an art form, and gave me a taste for shows of the the surreal and mind-bending variety.

Reign follows in the same vein, drawing as much on metaphysics, Euclidian geometry and the Pythagorean cult (believers in a mathematic mysticism, of sorts, and forebearers of hermeticism, gnosticism and alchemy as well as modern physics) as on the actual historical legend of Alexander.

Someone has uploaded the entire show onto YouTube, and it’s well worth a watch to gain an entirely different, still fascinating perspective of the Alexander mythos.

 

 

Support Anglofilmia by purchasing Alexander through our Amazon Affiliate links. US: Alexander Revisited, UK: Alexander – Director’s Cut.

300

300 is another of the Anglofilmia movies that touches on several familiar concepts: natives fighting invading forces, the appeal of a glorious death in battle at the peak of one’s life, and the resulting immortality in story form throughout history (see also: Troy).

I’m sure by now you’ve seen the film, and if not, you’re at least vaguely familiar with the story, if for no other reason than its advertising was ubiquitous when it was released in 2007.

But just in case: 300 is based on a Frank Miller/Lynn Varley comic of the same name, which tells the story of the baddest-ass group of fighters in history, in their baddest-ass epic battle, shown in bad-ass stylized form. It’s an eye-melting spectacle of battle glory and sweaty, ripped abs and lots of men yelling. And then everyone dies. (Except one guy, who’s the one telling the story.)

All caught up? Good. Since we’re all familiar with the story, a bit of context is also necessary.

2007 was a great year for stylized (or at least stylish) movies. For indie hipster color, we had Juno, Superbad, Lars and the Real Girl, Dan in Real Life, and Hairspray (does that count as indie?). On the other end of the tones spectrum, repping for washed-out cool, we had Sweeney Todd, the Orphanage, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and There Will Be Blood.

Blockbuster comics movies seemed to be nearing the end of their run (though in retrospect we know better), with X-Men: the Last Stand in 2006 and Spider-Man 3 standing in stark contrast to 2007’s Persepolis. It was as if filmmakers realized a comic page made a pretty sweet-lookin’ storyboard without any meddling, and Frank Miller’s oeuvre was still ripe for the picking.

As it turned out, 300 became a blockbuster in its own right, raking in over $200 million at the box office. Comics movies are still going strong.

The movie currently sits at a 60% critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes, compared to a 90% user rating. It makes sense that there’s such a huge gap. The film turned out to be one of those that you either love or you hate. People get into the flashy stylishness, the deliberately over the top battle scenes, the comic panel framing, and the rigorous training undertaken by the actors, or they loathe the historical inaccuracies, the portrayal of Persians and the disabled, and the posturing.

In short, 300 doesn’t try to be anything but itself, which is to say it doesn’t let truth (or historical accuracy) get in the way of a story, and there’s a lot of very shiny battle scenes, and it matches the comic very, very closely. Ultimately, war stories are written by the people who won, and we can’t help but project our contemporary sensibilities onto the stories. Whether you can accept those elements will determine your feelings on the film.

So what of the actual Battle of Thermopylae? Learning about the actual event, it’s such a cool story that it doesn’t actually need much (any?) embellishment to be downright fascinating. But while 300 throws in some magic, demons and depicts Xerxes as “an angry bald giant“, as far as the general sketch of events goes, 300 doesn’t actually deviate all that much.

The primary source for information on the wars is Herodotus, and other accounts line up with his telling. The Persian Wars took place between 500 and 479 BC. Wikipedia tells us it was “fought between an alliance of Greek city-states, led by Sparta, and the Persian Empire of Xerxes I over the course of three days, during the second Persian invasion of Greece.”

Persia was mounting its second invasion of Greece, who mostly agreed they weren’t keen on the idea. The armies launched a two-pronged defense, blocking the army at the pass of Thermopylae and the navy at the Straights of Artemisium.

Around 7,000 Greeks (Herodotus says 4,200) held off approximately 100,000 to 300,000 Persian soldiers for three days of battle, with Spartan king Leonidas at the pass itself, a strategic stronghold.

Two days in, a local named Ephialtes revealed the location of a small path that bypassed the Greeks and allowed the Persian army to flank them. Leonidas saw what was happening and sent most of the Greek army away, leading around 1,400 in the last stand.

The Greek navy withdrew after learning of the defeat, and the Persian army captured Athens. But several months later, the Greeks attacked and defeated them, causing Xerxes to withdraw his army from Greece, and the following year he gave up his quest for Greece after a massive defeat at the Battle of Plataea.

(300 begins at the beginning of the Battle of Plataea, at which the story of the Battle of Thermpylae is told in order to rouse the troops, with all its attendant exaggerations.)

After Plataea (479 BC), the Greek city states went on the offensive, Best estimates put a peace accord some time around 466 BC. Herodotus wrote his Greek histories around 440–430 BC, ensuring Leonidas and his soldiers a place in legend.

Funnily, the film begat a legacy all its own, in the form of memes derived from the over the top line deliveries from the film trailers, like “THIS IS SPARTA!” and “TONIGHT WE DINE IN HELL.”

As for me, I know what I’m being next Halloween.

 

 

Support Anglofilmia by purchasing 300 on DVD or Bluray, or the Frank Miller and Lynn Varley graphic novel on which it’s based, through our Amazon Affiliate links.

US DVD, US Bluray, US graphic novel.

UK DVD, UK Bluray, UK graphic novel,
The 300 Spartans on DVD