When I was doing my student teaching, my 9th graders’ mantra was, “Why do we have to learn how to read? Can’t we just watch the video?”
As you are reading this blog, I take it for granted that you enjoy reading, but like my 9th graders, you probably enjoy watching a good flick too. The following, in no particular order, are some of my favorite picks and pans for films dealing with ancient history.
The links on the movie titles will take you to the movie reviews found on Rotten Tomatoes. If you’ve never been to the site, it gives you access to all the top critics’ reviews. Below the link are the number of critics that reviewed the movie, their average rating (out of 100), the number of moviegoers that rated the movie, and their rating, followed by my grade.
166 critics 77%
34M moviegoers 85%
One of the best movies about the ancient world of all time. I give it credit for starting a renaissance in movies about ancient Greece and Rome. Though I enjoyed the film, my only real problem with it, was where it deviated from history. Emperor Marcus Aurelius was not murdered by his son Commodus, but died of an illness in Vienna at age 58. He had made Commodus his co-emperor three years before his death. He also had 13 children, five of whom out-lived him. Commodus was known for his love of the gladitorial games, where he would do things like shoot hundreds of animals with his bow from the safety of his box seat in the coliseum (on one such occasion he shot 100 lions) or he would have groups of sick citizens chained together and club them to death himself (or he would collect his own wounded soldiers and slay them with a sword). Commodus was not killed by the fictional Maximus, but was assassinated by his own officers. They tried poisoning him, but after Commodus vomited the food, they strangled him to death. Despite these inaccuracies, you can’t beat the movie’s opening battle scene or the gladitorial scenes.
226 critics 60%
1.4M moviegoers 88%
Though I enjoyed parts of this movie, I spent the vast majority of my time in the theater groaning. What does one expect from a movie based on a comic book? For example, the Spartans did not go bare-chested into battle. They wouldn’t have lasted long if they had. Too, Xerxes did not shave his head, wear nose-rings or a loin cloth. Take a look at a piece of ancient artwork that depicts the Persians and you’ll see that they wore long beards and pants. The thing that I found most disappointing was how they depicted the ancient phalanx. In the battle scenes they started formed up in a shieldwall, but as soon as the fight would begin, the Spartans would break ranks and devolve into a Matrix-like slow motion, hack ‘n slash fest. What made the Spartans invincible was their training, heavy armor, and their ability to fight in an impenatrable, close order, shoulder to shoulder formation. It’s diappointing that in Hollywood it’s more important to show comic book blood spraying across the screen than an actual phalanx in action.
The 300 Spartans (1962)
55K moviegoers 72%
According to Frank Miller, who wrote the comic book that was the basis for the movie ‘300,’ he was inspired by a film he’d seen as a young boy, ‘The 300 Spartans.’ Like Miller, I’d seen the same film as a kid and loved it. All of which makes me wonder why Miller injected charging rhinos, dual sword wielding ninjas and an oversized giant, as they weren’t anywhere to be found in the original. I suppose that’s what’s known as creative license. The sad thing is, today’s young people, whose knowledge of ancient events may come from the movies, are going to have a horribly distorted view of actual events. Though the 1962 version of ‘The 300 Spartans’ has no special effects, and was done on a low budget, it’s a fairly accurate depiction of what happened at Thermopylae. Richard Egan, though not as muscled as Gerard Butler, is a better actor, and the film includes Sir Ralph Richardson as Themistocles (a crucial character the Frank Miller version leaves out), and David Farrar as a very convincing Xerxes. I can do without ‘300s’ pumped up pecs and digital effects. I’ll take a more historically accurate film any day.
221 critics 54%
As The Iliad is one of my favorite pieces of literature, when the movie ‘Troy’ came out, I rushed to the movie theater, where I was promptly disappointed. In the credits they state the movie is ‘based on The Iliad.’ A better description would have been, ‘loosely based.’ The producers took so many liberties with the Trojan War, that anyone that loves Homer’s epic poems will hardly recognize the story. For one, Brad Pitt is no Achilles. He’s too small. The very sight of Achilles struck fear into the hearts of his enemies. Probably the only hysteria Brad Pitt inspired during the shooting of ‘Troy’ is when the filmmakers saw the size of his bar tab. Sure, they got right the part about Paris stealing Helen, but they botched what happens to each. In the original, Paris dies and Helen is reclaimed by her husband Menelaus and the two of them live a long happy life together. In the movie, Menelaus dies and Paris and Helen run off together. In the ancient Greek version, marriage is sacosant. You steal someone’s wife, you are doomed. In Hollywood, you steal someone’s wife you ride off into the sunset together. I could go on and on about all of the things ‘Troy’ gets wrong, but reliving it is just too depressing. Even though The Iliad has been a classic for 3,000 years, the filmmakers seemed to think they could improve on the original. They didn’t.
194 critics 16%
236K moviegoers 39%
I’m not a big fan of Alexander the Great, but I’ve read enough about him to know that Oliver Stone did a wonderful job of researching his story and for the most part stuck to the actual historical facts. Where the movie goes horribly awry is the casting of Colin Farrell as Alexander. It’s one of the worst acting performances I’ve ever seen. Remember George C. Scott in the movie ‘Patton’? Now there was a general. You can understand why his soldiers followed him across Europe. I couldn’t imagine a poodle following Colin Farrell even if he was loaded up with doggie treats, much less the Macedonian army following him across 16 countries. If you manage to block out Colin Farrell, the rest of the movie isn’t bad. Oliver Stone pays a great deal of attention to Alexander’s generals, troops like the Silver Shields, and correctly arms the phalanx with the Macedonian’s long spears called the sarissa. The depiction of Babylon, though probably computer generated, is awe-inspiring, as is the Battle of Gaugamela, that is if you delete Colin Farrell’s less-than-inspiring speech. Farrell spends so much time weeping in the film, instead marching his army back to Greece, he could have sailed them back on all his tears.
Alexander the Great (1956)
6 critics 35%
5,325 moviegoers 56%
Though somewhat old, this is a much better movie about Alexander the Great, for one big reason: it has the British actor Richard Burton playing the leading role. It lacks today’s special effects, it’s not a 3 hour Oliver Stone extravaganza, and it only touches on some of Alexander’s life, but it does have one great scene. When Alexander was in Asia Minor at a city called Gordium, he encountered something known as the famous ‘Gordian Knot.’ As the story goes, whoever could untie this huge, tangled mess of ropes, would conquer all of Asia. Richard Burton looks at the knot, draws his sword, and in one swing cuts the knot in two. Not a word spoken, but a brilliant scene.
I, Claudius (1976)
133 reviews on Amazon (105 gave it 5-stars)
I, Claudius is a made-for-TV, BBC mini-series, based on the novel of the same name by Robert Graves. I, Claudius is one of the best programs about ancient Rome ever produced. If you’re looking for a Gladiator-like action movie, pass I, Claudius by. If you’re looking for an intelligent, Masterpiece Theater-like inside look at the palace intrigue, murder, and back-stabbing that went on in the Imperial Roman family during the reign of Augustus Caesar, then this show was made for you. The members of the royal family stop at nothing, including poisoning their own relatives, to jockey for position in the royal line of succession. Augustus’ wife Livia, played marvelously by Sian Phillips, is the most fiendish of the bunch. I lost track of all of the people she murdered to ensure her son Tiberius was selected as the next emperor. What’s sad about all of this is that some extremely worthy, noble, talented people like Germanicus end up getting knocked off in the mad grab for power. Ironically, Claudius survives all of this mayhem because he’s lame and he has a stutter. Livia and the rest of the royal family consider him an idiot, so after the family does each other in, the only one left with royal blood to claim the throne is Claudius, played to perfection by British actor Derek Jacobi. If you’ve heard about the antics of people like Caligula, Messalina and Nero and want to find out why they are so infamous, I, Claudius gives you the inside track. While the program is not on Rotton Tomatoes, the link above is to its page on Amazon. Amazon Prime owners can watch it for free.
89 critics 53%
21,100 moviegoers 64%
This movie did not do well with critics, but I came away thinking it was an enjoyable film about a period of ancient history I knew nothing about. It follows the life of a Greek philosopher, astronomer and mathematican named Hypatia played by Rachel Weisz. The story takes place in the city of Alexandria in Egypt and has a great deal to do with the emergence of Christianity and the Christians persecution of the pagan religions. From what I’ve read by people who know more than I do about the 4th century A.D., the movie is a bit heavy handed when it comes to the Christians, who appear more like modern day Taliban, and it seems the Library of Alexandria and lighthouse were already destroyed. As I was ignorant of those facts, I found Hypatia’s story interesting and the depiction of Alexandria quite fascinating.
Jason and the Argonauts (1963)
35 critics 94%
22,100 moviegoers 72%
As a young person this was one of my favorite movies of all time. Nice to see it received a good response by the critics, and somewhat surprising audiences did not appreciate it as well. Though the special effects of the titan Talos, the harpies and the ‘children of the hydra’s teeth’ look rather dated now, at the time, they were the work of the master of stop motion animation, Ray Harryhausen. There are no actors in the film you’ve ever heard of, nor is the acting anything special, it’s just a fun adventure story.
1,710 moviegoers 46%
This is an oldie but goodie, starring Kirk Douglas as Ulysses. Similar to other films done during the period, they look faded now, but the producers made a strong attempt to stick to the original story from Homer’s Odyssey. The scenes where Ulysses and his crew are captured by the cyclops, when he listens to the song of the Sirens, and when he finally returns home to slay the suitors are classics.
The Odyssey (1997)
7,630 moviegoers 60%
This was a made-for-television miniseries starring Armand Assanti as Odysseus (Ulysses). It seemed to go on longer than Odysseus’ ten-year voyage home. Though not as lavish, nor did it include Vanessa Williams, Isabella Rossellini or Bernadette Peters, I much preferred the original with Kirk Douglas.
49 critics 96%
75,700 moviegoers 79%
This is another golden oldie starring Kirk Douglas, this time as the gladiator turned rebel leader, Spartacus. He is supported by a great cast including Sir Laurence Olivier and Jean Simmons and benefits from the directorial talents of Stanley Kubrick. There’s plenty of sword play and battle scenes that include a cast of thousands, but my favorite moment in the film comes when Spartacus is training to be a gladiator. As Jean Simmons, playing a slave named Varinia, is pouring wine for Spartacus, as he takes the cup, he gently caresses her hand. It’s an extremely small, tender moment in a 3-hour spectacle, but it’s that sort of attention to detail about the characters that make it a great film.
Clash of the Titans (1981)
38 critics 66%
55,900 moviegoers 68%
This is a horrible movie about the mythical hero Perseus starring Harry Hamlin. What a great actor like Sir Laurence Olivier is doing in this film, I have no clue. It also includes the stop motion animation by Ray Harryhausen, but in this film, it’s pretty lackluster stuff.
Clash of the Titans (2010)
238 critics 28%
280K moviegoers 43%
Why anyone would want to re-make a bad movie is a mystery. The only good thing I can say about this film is that Wrath of the Titans (2012) and Immortals (2011) are worse.
Ben Hur (1959)
36 critics 89%
103K moviegoers 81%
What list of films about the ancient world would be complete without mentioning Ben Hur. The chariot race is probably one of the most famous scenes in movie history. Am just glad Charlton Heston was not toting a rifle throughout the film.
The Ten Commandments (1956)
32 critics 91%
58K moviegoers 83%
Another great Charlton Heston film, this time about Moses. When I first saw it as a young person, I could not help but think Moses was an idiot for abandoning the war-loving Egyptians in favor of the poor Judeans. I must not have been paying enough attention in church.
Julius Caesar (1970)
2,660 moviegoers 40%
Yet another Heston film, this time in the role of Mark Anthony in the Shakespearan version of Julis Caesar. It’s not bad if you can sit through the old English. The 1953 version starring Marlon Brando, Sir John Gielgud and James Mason received vastly better reviews.
26 critics 46%
20,000 moviegoers 70%
I’m not sure I’ve ever been able to sit through this 3-hour epic starring Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra and Richard Burton as Mark Antony. The climactic sea battle between Antony and Octavian is obviously between toy models and so bad it’s almost comical. As I recall, the love affair that erupted during the filming between Taylor and Burton (both were married to other people) and resulting scandal eclipsed interest in the actual movie. It’s $44M cost ($300M today) made it the most expensive movie ever made.