Troy - Press Archive - Toga sagas conquer the world
10 Aug 2003
Toga sagas conquer the world
The success of Gladiator has led to a rash of epics, with Oliver Stone and
Baz Luhrmann tackling Alexander the Great, and Cleopatra and Hannibal
movies in the pipeline. Get ready for more leading men in skirts
Sunday August 10, 2003
Alexander the Great was short, bisexual and a heavy drinker. He was
also something of a dandy and, in his final years, he enjoyed dressing up
as a god for dinner parties. He also had a taste for foreign women,
marrying two Persians and one Afghan. Were he alive today, middle
Americans would not be celebrating his 'life choices'. In fact, he might
well be a whipping boy on conservative talk radio.
He was also more bellicose than Donald Rumsfeld and succeeded in
subduing a swath of countries now well known to Americans for their
al-Qaeda terrorists and oil supplies. Starting from Macedonia, he moved
through Greece and Turkey, then conquered present-day Afghanistan,
Turkey, Syria, Iran, Iraq and Pakistan. By the time he died in Babylon,
aged 32, he had created an empire stretching from the Balkans to the
It is a tale that can only be told on an epic scale, and not one that
Hollywood studios were eager to gamble money on until Gladiator took
$458 million at the box office, and made swords and sandals hot again.
Now there are two biopics of Alexander in the works. Originally, they
should both have come out next year, pitching Oliver Stone and Colin Farrell
against Baz Luhrmann and Leonardo DiCaprio. But Luhrmann backed out of
the confrontation, partly so he could add to the script, giving more attention
to Alexander's mother (Nicole Kidman will play Olympia in Luhrmann's film;
Angelina Jolie will play the character in Stone's).
Now Stone will have Morocco to himself when he begins shooting in
September. He has written the script, with Oxford academic Robin Lane
Fox as a consultant. Ptolemy, played by Anthony Hopkins, is the other
lead character. The film will come out next year, with Luhrmann's version
due in 2005.
The two Alexander films will be competing with a slew of other epics.
First comes Troy, an adaptation of The Iliad, directed by Wolfgang
Petersen (The Perfect Storm) and starring Brad Pitt as Achilles, Eric
Bana as Hector, as well as a legion of British actors including Julie
Christie, Peter O'Toole, Brian Cox and Sean Bean.
Intriguing pictures of Brad Pitt in a pleated skirt have already appeared
in magazines, and it seems that several more leading men are set to have a
David Beckham moment. George Clooney may lead the Spartans into battle
in a movie based on the Battle of Thermopylae, while Vin Diesel is to play
Hannibal in a film by Ridley Scott.
Warner Bros also has a new Cleopatra movie in development, based on
the two-part novel by Karen Essex. Perhaps this is the bravest move of all,
given that the 1963 film starring Eliza beth Taylor nearly bankrupted
20th-Century Fox, and brought to a close the last rush of toga movies.
'That film was an enormous part of my motivation to write the novels,' says
Essex, who has also written the screenplay. 'I felt that it was time in this
postfeminist era to quit the reducing of history to their sexuality.' Hers is
very much a revisionist take. The film will be called Kleopatra - the Egyptian
queen was, in fact, Greek - and in her script, the heroine is not especially
beautiful, while her liaison with Julius Caesar is a considered diplomatic
move, not the impulsive act of a man-hunter.
'By the time this young woman was 20 years old, she'd already had to
endure the deaths of both her parents and exile at the hands of one of
her brothers. She manages to negotiate with Julius Caesar, the most
powerful man in the world, to keep her country free of Roman domination.
That is a remarkable achievement. It's a pity people only look at that
through the lens of sexuality,' says Essex.
Of course, looking at things through the lens of sexuality is exactly what
Hollywood likes to do. So, will the new Kleopatra be plain? 'That was the first
thing they said to me at Warner Bros,' laughs Essex. '"Look, we know in
your book Kleopatra is not a great beauty, but we will be casting a great
beauty." But the producers and the studio are in line with me on this point,
that Kleopatra in my book projects a great intelligence and the actress
who portrays her will have to do the same.' So while whoever plays Kleopatra
will be beautiful, Essex hopes she won't be the leading bombshell of her
generation as Elizabeth Taylor was.
Who can say if the masses are ready for Essex's postfeminist vision? But
as she points out, at least people now know where the Middle East is.
'Current events have kindled an interest in that part of the world. Three years
ago, your basic American could not have found Afghanistan on a map and
was pretty uninterested in Middle East affairs. But people are now interested
in knowing about the histories of those countries.'
It would be nice to take that a step further and imagine that the glut of
epics would become part of a pop-culture debate on imperialism and tyranny
in the region. Then again, maybe not. 'I don't think the average person in
the multiplex is going to make a connection between Alexander the Great
and Saddam Hussein or George Bush,' says Jonathan Kuntz, a film historian
If anything, Kuntz believes, these films allow directors to create violent
battle scenes without worrying about giving political offence. 'The issues
are so remote from the present day that there's no worry they'll step on
anybody's toes. Nobody is advocating for the ancient Romans or the
ancient Greeks, so you can do what you want.'
If anything, the films made in the early Sixties were more political. 'Some
of the blacklisted writers worked on them and put very interesting content
into these films. One of the great flops of that time, The Fall of the Roman
Empire, is full of fascinating ideas about the beginnings of democracy and
the differences between democracy and dictatorship. It debated the big
issues, whereas Gladiator focused on the individual - you kill my family,
I'm going to kill you. Like so many modern films it focuses on one person's
Luhrmann's Alexander movie will surely do the same, given the prominence
he's giving to the hero's mother. Written by Silence of the Lambs adapter
Ted Tally, from the novel trilogy of Valerio Manfredi, and with Luhrmann
putting his distinctive polish on the script, this is likely to be a movie
about spectacle, celebrity and Eastern-Western style fusion than an
earnest attempt at historical re-enactment.
Yet Luhrmann sees clear historical parallels between what's happening
now in the Middle East, and the clash of Western and Eastern values
taking place, and Alexander's march from Macedonia to the Indus.
'It was the first time that the pendulum swung away from Eastern
culture,' Luhrmann has said. 'What's going on in the world today is
directly applicable to Alexander's time. The level of contemporary
resonance is unbelievable. But for Alexander, there would not be the
Western culture we have today.'
Of course, any picture costing $100m, as both Alexander movies will,
has to be a blockbuster. In other words, teenage boys must be able to
watch it with no suspicion that they are being educated or otherwise
improved. At the same time, these are prestige projects designed to win
Oscars, which means that there must be two films rolled into one - the
popcorn action flick, and the worthy awards movie.
In the case of Oliver Stone, who has been working on his project for a
decade, there may also be the film that he really wants to make, the one
with a liberal, possibly controversial message.
'Oliver is certainly looking to make an entertaining movie,' says Dennis
Higgins of Intermedia Films, the company behind the movie. 'But clearly,
with the events of the last two or three years, there is a lot more focus on
activities in the same part of the world that Alexander led his armies through.
I'm sure there are lessons and similarities that you'll see from the movie,
but I think this is more about making an entertaining, factual, historical epic.'
But will these movies impress classicists? Despite the good intentions of
those involved, probably not. 'I'm trying to be really faithful,' says David
Benioff, the screenwriter who has adapted The Iliad for Troy . 'But maybe
one line of dialogue is direct from the source. In Homer, the characters
talk to each other in long speeches. Achilles will be mad and will give
this three-page monologue. It's beautiful, it's incredible, but you don't
want to sit there in a theatre watching him deliver it.'
By contrast, the women in Homer are often silent, something he has
had to rectify. 'There's an important character in the story, Briseis, the
slave girl who causes the whole rift. She doesn't have any dialogue in
The Iliad , you never hear her or see her, but she's an important character
in my story.'
Which is all as it should be. Every good Hollywood movie has a love
interest. But these films will have to be good. Gladiator succeeded not
because filmgoers had some deep need to watch a Roman epic, but
because it was a compelling film, with a great central performance. If
these films are as good, they'll easily hitch a ride on Gladiator 's box-office
chariot. If they're not, the sight of Brad, Colin and Leo in their skirts
will provide a spectacle of its own kind.
Ancient epics made easy
Despite the success of Gladiator, modern moviegoers might not be
familiar with the trademarks of the toga saga. Here is a short guide...
Sword and sandals
Standard-issue gear for tunic-wearing heroes. Also
the common term used to describe the films.
Generally cast as victims and cast to the lions; see Monty
Python's spoof Life of Brian (1979).
. Unkind to Christians, slaves, non-Romans etc;
see sexually explicit and violent Caligula (1979).
See above. The Romans were unabashed hedonists - great
excuse for lavish sets and costumes.
Men were men in those days. So square-jawed types - think
Russell Crowe (Gladiator), Charlton Heston (Ben-Hur) and Kirk
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