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How do Hollywood ancient world epics use spectacle and for what purposes? What is the relationship between spectacle and narrative in such films?

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How do Hollywood ancient world epics use spectacle and for what purposes?  What is the relationship between spectacle and narrative in such films?  

The portrayal of the ancient world through film has been dominant from film-making’s earliest beginnings.  From silent cinema’s simple yet memorable interpretation of Ben Hur in the 1920’s, to the modern-day epics of the millennium, antiquity provides film-makers with the perfect pedestal on which to portray the excitement and action the modern audience expects.  The relevance of the ancient world in modern-day entertainment is summed up perfectly by Monica Cyrino, as she states, “Today more than ever, popular images and stories projected onto movie, television and computer screens invite us to experience, understand and connect with the ancient world.  Films about antiquity bridge the gap between past and present by offering spectacular and compelling interpretations of history, literature, and mythology that are relevant and educational for contemporary viewers.” (Oxford, 2005: 1)

         To understand the significance of spectacle in such films, we must first understand how ‘spectacle’ might be defined in relation to the ancient world and its portrayal in Hollywood.  The word itself comes from the Latin spectaculum, meaning ‘a show’.   For an ancient Roman, a visual spectacle might consist of watching gladiatorial combat, a religious sacrifice, or a triumph.  Indeed, anything that is visually impressive and evoking of emotion might be deemed a spectacle.  The significance of this is summed up by Ralph Jackson as he discusses the power of spectacle in Roman theatre: “These spectacular shows were embedded in Roman society, and the imagery of the amphitheatre, circus and theatre permeated all classes, from top to bottom... to illustrate the brilliance, danger, skills and brutality of those events and the political power that went with them.” (2000: 7)  The modern film audience too, then, must surely be presented with the same level of spectacle for it to have any real success or feel of authenticity.  We have certainly come to assume that any film centred on the ancient world will be both visually impressive and exciting; the ‘spectacle’ being at the forefront.  

Nevertheless, a film cannot survive on spectacle alone.  A visually impressive piece of cinematography is, by all means, worthless without an equally engaging and efficient narrative behind it.  If we take Philip French’s review of Hollywood’s fairly recent big-budget epic Troy (2004), it is easy to see that for all the time and effort gone into creating spectacular visual effects and exciting battle scenes, the fundamental flaw in the handling of the narrative leaves this film somewhat lacking.  Getting its inspiration from Homer’s Iliad, Troy contains elements we would certainly expect to see in any epic film – warfare, rivalry and heroes – yet, as French notes: “... there's the lack of any sense of time. The siege seems more like 10 weeks than 10 years, and the wooden horse incident is rushed and muffled...” (The Observer, Oct. 2004), though he goes on to state that, ‘the spectacle and action sequences, with more digitally created soldiers than you could shake a spear at, are impressive.’  It is clear then, that to focus solely on creating a visual spectacle at the expense of the narrative does not make for good results, and may explain why Troy was not a box-office success, despite its huge budget and array of stars.  American film reviewer Roger Ebert likewise criticises the film, as well as its over-reliance on visual effects: “The movie sidesteps the existence of the Greek gods, turns its heroes into action movie clichés and demonstrates that we're getting tired of computer-generated armies.” (May, 2004)  

        Stephen Neale identifies that a Hollywood ‘epic’ was essentially a 1950s and 60s term, used to define a film which fused together a (usually ancient) historical narrative with a modern, technologically advanced production.  In this sense, the ‘epic’ also differentiated itself from the other films and genres on offer at this time, by presenting human drama in its most extensive form. (2000: 85)  However, whilst it is certainly true that ancient world epics became dominant in Hollywood during the 50s and 60s, it is fair to say that the reason for this is a complex one: these films did not just entertain, they also acted as somewhat of a contemporary social and political commentary.  To put it simply, for American film-makers especially, the ancient genre could be used and manipulated to portray modern ideals in a time of social and economic unrest.

 In William Wyler’s Ben-Hur (1959), we are constantly reminded of the importance of Christ, faith and morality.  From Finlay Currie’s recitation of biblical quotes in the opening scene, to the powerful Christian image of a shepherd and his flock as the films ends, Ben-Hur operates to remind its audience of the Christian triumph against adversity.  This theme runs constant throughout the film, yet arguably it is the spectacle – the vast number of extras, the battle scenes, and the infamous chariot race – that would make the biggest impression on its audience.  The amount of time, effort and money gone into creating this level of spectacle attempts in a way to evoke the same emotions an ancient audience might have had when witnessing these sights for themselves.   The same can be said for the slightly earlier Quo Vadis (1951) which portrays the social battle between the harsh and imperialistic Romans under Nero, and the virtuous Christians – a narrative which is somewhat undermined when we are presented with scenes of big-budget spectacle: in this case, Nero’s “House of Women”, as well as a crucifixion and a large-scale Triumphal march.    

Nevertheless, these blatant and deliberate social and religious overtones in many ancient epics created by Hollywood during this time do carry an alternative significance by alluding to the USA’s political position after World War II – as a nation gripped with post-war paranoia.  William Fitzgerald discusses this in detail in his chapter in Imperial Projections, focussing particularly on the classic contest between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ which is dominant in every Hollywood epic: “The world of the toga movie is structured round an opposition in which Rome is always one pole.  The primary Roman/Christian opposition has its analogues in Romans and slaves (Spartacus), Rome and Egypt (Cleopatra), even Rome the metropolis and Rome the empire (The Fall of the Roman Empire).” (2001: 24-5)  If this is the case, then the American film audience was encouraged to position themselves on the side of the ‘underdog’, supporting their struggle against Rome, as well as reflect on America’s own struggles, such as independence from Britain, and a resistance against communism.

However, not all ancient world epics acted to further a conservative message.  Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960), centred on a slave revolt against Roman oppressors, affirmed its place as an epic for its high-drama, big-budget and visually impressive cinematography – offering spectacle in the form of over 10,000 extras – goes slightly against the grain of previous Hollywood epics by offering a liberal political message rather than a conservative religious one (James Naremore, 2007: 17) and any visual spectacle we are presented with only furthers the emphasis on Spartacus’ position as a leader and hero.  The bloody spectacle of a gladiatorial “fight to the death” for example, may allude to the slaves’ battle against a harsh and corrupt Roman regime.  Maria Wyke suggests that for Spartacus to be a box office success, it would need to stress its position as a spectacular and visually exciting Hollywood epic, whilst at the same time, “requiring its spectators to assimilate the oppressive Roman state and its corrupt leaders to an American society still in need of radical transformation.” (1997: 71)

         There were, of course, films which challenged ‘epic’ expectations even further, despite being set in the ancient world.  If we take Fellini’s Satyricon (1969) as an example, it does not rely on any large-scale spectacle we are used to seeing in an ancient film, it instead steps away from the epic genre almost entirely.  Fellini here takes a pre-existing narrative, and manipulates it in such a way as to maintain interest and intrigue – a task usually reserved for spectacle. Peter Bonadella offers an explanation: “...Fellini selected Petronius not as a substitute for a personal narrative of his own but as a challenge to his inventive powers... for a non-literary and completely visual narrative, similar to that in a dream.”(241)  The emphasis here then, is on narrative rather than spectacle – but a visual emphasis nonetheless.  Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) set in the time of Christ, mockingly parodies the many religious epics that preceded it – replacing spectacle with spoken and visual comedy.  For an ancient film to survive without any significant level of visual spectacle, it must present an appealing or exciting narrative that does not lose the attention of its audience.

In spite of this, interest in the ancient world waned from the mid-1960s and the creation of ancient epics in Hollywood took a decline, a decline which would last until the turn of the 21st Century.  This revival of the ancient epic at the millennium brought with it a change in the way such films create the all-important spectacle.  This began with Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000), which followed the ‘sword and sandal’ genre of the 1960’s, yet presenting it in a way that was spectacularly modern.  The impressive visual effects of this film was, of course, down to the computer animation and CGI which many Hollywood directors have now come to rely on.  Jon Solomon notes that this “high-tech revolution” (2001:21) was itself largely responsible for the revival of the ancient epic genre, which the public had otherwise grown weary of.   Likewise, he suggests that the use of computer animation on modern films, “...not only offers breathtaking visual and aural effects expected of today’s new generation of moviegoers, it costs much less than building monumental sets in foreign locations and insuring film stars and casts of thousands of extras.” (21)  Of course, Gladiator was not the first film to depend heavily on CGI, but it is arguably the first to have any real success in rekindling Hollywood’s love affair with the ancient world.  Martin M. Winkler discusses Gladiator in detail, and summarises perfectly the significance of its production techniques in creating spectacle: “The film's coliseum scenes display both the most advanced technology of today and the primal emotional reactions of the crowds of the past.” – To put it simply, Gladiator is one example of how a modern representation of spectacle is set against the backdrop of a narrative we are already familiar with, having taken its inspiration from both The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) and Spartacus.  Here then, spectacle and narrative work alongside each other to appeal to a wide audience.  

What followed Gladiator was a string of epic films set in the ancient world – most notably, Alexander (2004), Troy, and 300(2007).  Adapted from a graphic novel of the same name, 300 tells the story of the Battle of Thermopylae between the Greeks and Persians, using production techniques that create an almost fantastical portrayal of the ancient world.  It’s narrative contains many imaginary aspects, such as oracles, a giant and androgynous King Xerxes, and mythical war creatures – and a visual spectacle is used to portray them.  In this sense, spectacle is used in 300 to enhance the entertaining ‘fantasy’ aspects of a true historical event, and to give us an insight into the ancient Greek audience, who would have indeed believed such events to be true.  Its inclusion of this level of fantasy within its spectacle differentiates 300 from any modern ancient world epic, and may explain its subsequent success.

        As we can see, Hollywood ancient world epics – from their earliest beginnings – have relied on spectacle as a way to bring the most significant sights, sounds and experiences of the ancient world into the modern cinema.  As film technology has advanced, as has the way this spectacle is presented to us: film-makers are no longer burdened with the costly and time-consuming task of creating large-scale sets and scenery, such as those seen in Ben-Hur and Spartacus, instead they can rely on CGI to present us with the same, if not more dynamic, experience of ancient Greece and Rome.  Roman culture in particular was centred on spectacle, something Harriet Flower identifies, as she says, “...spectacle was at the heart of politics and of the Roman’s understanding of the identity of their community.  Theirs was above all a visual culture, a culture of seeing and being seen, both on special occasions and in everyday life.” (2004: 322)  

Therefore, to present a modern audience with spectacle not only creates interest and excitement, but also gives us a better understanding of the culture of our ancient counterparts.  Gladiator, for example, does not claim to portray true historical events – indeed, its main protagonist is entirely fictional – yet the spectacle of the Colosseum, the Triumph and the CGI-enhanced crowds – allows us to become familiar with spectacle from an ancient Roman perspective.  Interestingly, as we have seen, modern film-maker’s reliance on CGI has not gone uncriticised, and it may be argued that a bombardment of computerised images takes away a certain level of authenticity.   Regardless, spectacle is a key factor in any ancient epic – not only drawing in its audience to experience a sight they would never see in real life, but also to portray the ancient world in its most vibrant and dynamic form.  To quote Marcia Landy as she discusses the various epics of the 1950’s and 60’s: “The reconstruction on screen and exhibition of ancient Rome came to stand for Hollywood’s own fantastic excess – its technological advances and aesthetic innovations, its grandeur and glamour... And spectators of Hollywood’s widescreen epics were invited to position themselves not only as pure Christians, but also as Romans luxuriating in a surrender to the splendours of film spectacle itself.”


Quo Vadis (1951) dir. Mervyn LeRoy

Ben-Hur (1959) dir. William Wyler

Spartacus (1960) dir. Stanley Kubrick

Satyricon (1969) dir. Federico Fellini

Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) dir.

Gladiator (2000) dir. Ridley Scott

Troy (2004) dir. Wolfgang Petersen

300 (2007) dir. Zack Snyder


Bonadella, P., The Cinema of Federico Fellini, (Princeton, 1992)

Cyrino, M., Big Screen Rome, (Oxford, 2005)

Llewellyn-Jones, L., ‘Hollywood’s Ancient World’ in Erskine, A., (ed.) A Companion to Ancient History, (Blackwell, 2009)

Fitzgerald, W., ‘Oppositions, Anxieties and Ambiguities in the Toga Movie’ in Joshel, S. R., Malamund, M., & Maguire, D. T. (eds.), Imperial Projections: Ancient Rome in Modern Popular Culture (London, 2001)

Flower, H. I., ‘Spectacle and Political Culture in the Roman Republic’ in Flower, H. I., (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to the Roman Republic (Cambridge, 2004)

Naremore, J., On Kubrick, (Bloomsbury, 2007)

Solomon, J., The Ancient World in the Cinema, (Yale, 2001)

Wyke, M., ‘Projecting Ancient Rome’ in Landy, M., (ed.) The Historical Film: History and Memory in Media, (Rutgers, 2001)

Wyke, M., Projecting the Past, (Routledge, 1997)

Reviews from -

Philip French in The Observer, October 2004.

Roger Ebert at http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20040514/REVIEWS/405140304/1023

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