Ancient Greece on film (a response)

Before going to bed, I usually spend a few minutes just messing around on the internet. I checked my Twitter feed to find that the Ancient History Encyclopedia had just published an article by Dana Murray called ‘The success and failure of Greek history in film’. I read through the thing with growing consternation: it is, in my opinion, completely rubbish. Let me explain.

The article opens with the bold claim that the ‘genre’ – i.e. movies based on ancient Greece – ‘appears to have fallen behind the dark shadow of Rome’, adding ‘perhaps with good reason.’ The author then posits the main point of the article by way of a question that I don’t think anyone has ever asked, namely ‘what is it about Greek history that seems so difficult to portray on screen?’

According to the author, there are three issues that get in the way when a film maker tries to bring ancient Greece to the (silver) screen:

  1. ‘the problem with “Greek love”’;
  2. ‘the lack of unity within ancient Greece’, and finally;
  3. ‘the difficulty of filming “Greek” ideas.’

Each of these three points can be easily countered. What is more puzzling, however, is why these three things in particular should be such obstacles to making a good movie about an ancient Greek topic. But I will return to that question later. First, let’s get these three issues out of the way.  

A little thing called ‘Greek love’

According to Murray, ‘one of the most notorious aspects of ancient Greek culture’ is ‘the idea of “Greek love”’, which would be ‘dismissed repeatedly as outrageous and/or disgusting’. However, Murray doesn’t make clear what she’s talking about.

Instead, the author points out that modern society ‘is also uncomfortable with the idea of nudity during athletics’. This is obvious, she claims, as in movies we never see people exercise in the nude, and she cites 300 and Alexander as proof of this. After all, ‘depicting actors in the traditional nude would be too much for a modern audience to handle’.

It’s not quite clear what she means with a ‘modern audience’. Here in Europe at least, we don’t seem to be all too hung up about nudity in film. I would also like to point to television series such as HBO’s Rome (or, to step into the world of fantasy for a moment, Game of Thrones), which have no problem with nudity.

Then, Murray swerves back onto the road she was on a minute ago and claims that if ‘modern society’ – whatever that might be – is uncomfortable with the unclothed human form, it’s to be expected that ‘Greek love’ could not be portrayed accurately at all. She then claims that ‘films based on Alexander the Great are excellent examples of the unease experienced by audiences when representing Greek love.’

She then claims that Alexander’s ‘pan-sexuality’ was blamed for turning the film into a cinematic flop. I don’t think that’s correct, but it’s been a decade. I do recall some Greek lawyers threatening to sue Oliver Stone (or whoever) for depicting Alexander as a ‘gay’ man, but I don’t think anyone blamed the lack of success on Stone’s daring portrayal of Alexander giving meaningful hugs to Hephaestion. I think Alexander had a lot of problems, especially the strange choice to make a movie about one of history’s greatest conquerors into a psychological drama about a man’s relationship with his parents. It’s still an interesting film, though.

Murray claims that in America at least there’s a shift toward greater acceptance of homosexual relationships on screen with the release of movies like Brokeback Mountain (2005), ‘but until this shift towards acceptance comes to pass, the idea of Greek love remains unloved by the audiences.’

For the author, then, ‘Greek love’ is apparently homosexual love. But that’s an awfully narrow way to look at what is commonly regarded as ‘Greek love’. Ancient Greeks of the Classical age and later would probably have found the idea of homosexuality confusing: bisexuality was commonly accepted, at least among the male members of the higher echelons of society, and it would be common for a man to be married to a woman while also engaging, for example, in a pederastic relationship with a younger man.

Perhaps this is what she means? Certainly, she turns to a discussion in which she claims that film makers have deliberately emphasized heterosexual relationships and then cites 300 as an example (about which I wrote extensively in the past). Murray then claims that ‘300 has been labelled as borderline homoerotic porn’, before dismissing it on the grounds that we only see Leonidas having sex with his wife, Gorgo, and the king mocks the Athenians for being ‘boy lovers’.

Movies are a product of their time. They are also a product of the society (or country) that makes them, and have to adhere to the concerns of producers and studios. If that’s Murray’s point, that’s fine. Yes, we are still waiting – I guess – for that movie that really dives into the ancient Greek practice of pederasty. Certainly, relationships between men have been portrayed on the small screen (e.g. Spartacus), and even in the 60s there’s been a movie set in ancient times portraying an man with an interest in other men (e.g. again Spartacus, but another one, obviously).

But it’s silly to argue that we haven’t had any good movies about ancient Greece – a contentious statement in the first place! – because of the problems inherent in portraying whatever it is that Murray thinks falls under the label of ‘Greek love’.

United we stand, divided we fall

Another problem that Murray point out is that ‘ancient Greece was not unified in terms of geography or politics.’ Pesky geographical features made the formation of larger political units, in her words, ‘somewhat inconvenient’. As such, there was never a country called ‘Greece’ in ancient times. Indeed, anyone with even a vague familiarity with ancient Greece will know this.

According to the author, when one thinks of Greece, one thinks of Athens. She then adds that, ‘Unfortunately for the world of cinema, Athens was not an iconic center as Rome was.’ In other words, ancient Athens just isn’t as sexy as ancient Rome. She then makes the bold claim of saying that ‘most individuals of today do not know what Athens looked like in ancient times, leaving filmmakers struggling with how to depict Greece on screen.’

I’m pretty sure most people actually have a good idea of what ancient Greece looked like. Mountains, marble temples, and ships with pointy beaks are some highlights, as are the colourful vases that they made for much of their history and those nice statues that do so well in museums around the world. As regards Athens, I would think that the Parthenon is at least as iconic as Rome’s Colosseum, and the Athenian Agora isn’t too shabby when compared to the Forum Romanum.

Murray mentions some films that were filmed in Greece yet somehow didn’t convey the flavour of Greece proper. Instead, ‘Roman themes filtered in in an attempt to fill the void’. Indeed, film makers often confuse ancient Greece with ancient Rome, but this has nothing to do with a void that needs filling so much as the amateur’s inability to distinguish one culture from another. I can give you the modern example of people confusing Chinese culture with Japanese, or thinking that the Dutch are essentially Germans that live below sea level. This has, however, nothing to do with any particular failing on poor old Greece’s part.

Having gone down this somewhat ludicrous path, Murray claims that film makers have tried to overcome the lack of a unified ancient Greece by focusing on the Battle of Thermopylae (480 BC), which she claims was ‘remembered in history as a defining moment of the Persian Wars.’ She claims that the act of the Greek states ‘binding together’ would have been simpler to grasp for ‘modern audiences’. That’s dubious to say the least, especially when you consider that most movies about ancient Greece are not about Thermopylae at all.

Another alternative for film makers, apparently, is to rally behind the figure of Alexander the Great. But ‘Alexander’, according to Murray, ‘is difficult to distinguish as ancient sources are fragmented, and various interpretations have developed over time.’

That statement is hollow, since it’s true about every thing and every person from the ancient world. The sources are fragmented and there are multiple interpretations available about almost aspect. That’s what’s been keeping ancient historians, classicists, and archaeologists in business for more than a century now. For a movie, you have to make certain decisions and then roll with it. When you make a movie about an ancient Greek subject, it’s no different than when tackling any other kind of historic topic.  

A factory of ideas

Murray continues to create problems where there are none. I’ll spare you a lengthy discussion. The gist of Murray’s third point is this: Athens was basically an ideas factory, and how can you make a movie based around ideas? I’m pretty sure you can think of some movies now that indeed take a central idea as their main point (e.g. 2001: A Space Odyssey or, more recently, Ex Machina), but the whole premise is silly, of course. You don’t have to make a movie based on some abstract concept in order to get to ancient Greece.

‘Here,’ Murray writes, ‘is the ultimate issue in regards to filming Greek history: the great fear that the ancient Greeks will bore the audience.’ Apparently, Greece lacks ‘eye-candy’ when compared to ancient Rome, and it also ‘lacks the necessary idea of unity and the broad frame of reference possessed by Roman history’.

If the above statements tell us anything, it’s that Murray doesn’t know her Ionian columns from her Doric ones. Anyone who would seriously maintain that ancient Greece is ‘boring’ or somehow doesn’t have a ‘broad frame of reference’ (a lack of history, for want of a better word) knows nothing about the subject matter.

Ancient Greek history is different from ancient Rome. That’s a matter of course. I think you’ll find that to be the case for most ancient cultures (and also the not-so-ancient ones). That doesn’t mean it’s not as rich or as entertaining as ancient Rome, as more than 50 issues of Ancient Warfare have proven, to name but one example.

There are also loads of other movies that we could list – but that Murray failed to name – in which ancient Greece takes centre stage and the result is entertaining, if not always authentic, and only rarely accurate: Jason and the Argonauts, for example, or Clash of the Titans (about which you’ll read a lot more soon), or the television miniseries The Odyssey (which is great, by the way).

Closing remarks

By the end of the article, it is obvious that Dana Murray loves ancient Rome. Ancient Greece? Not so much, I expect. Particularly startling is her suggestion that Rome offers ‘images of war, violence, and even death’, whereas Greece only offers ‘democracy, art and philosophy’, which ‘do no[t] make for very appealing films’. I can think of at least one thing that the Greeks had and the Romans didn’t that offers lots of images of war, violence, and even death’. It’s Homer’s Iliad. If adventure is more your thing, try the Odyssey. And the Greek historians also offer lots of interesting stuff. To name but a few examples.

In this article, Murray constructs a straw man and then takes it down. But a straw man is not a worthy target. The main problem with this article is that it starts off with a value statement, namely that there are no good movies based on ancient Greece. That in and of itself needs to be argued first. Why are none of the movies based on something ancient Greek any good, according to the author? You cannot simply posit that statement and then construct an argument around it to show you just how right that statement was in the first place.

But suppose that you do make the case that there are no good movies – not a single one! – based on ancient Greece. Suppose we accept that. Suppose that the author then wants to figure out why that is the case, i.e. what the reasons are for this lack of any good movies about the ancient Greek world. Such an article would have to take into account a variety of factors, many of which related to the actual process of getting a film made in the first place. 

The three reasons that Murray states as the causes for why there are no good movies on ancient Greece are facile and clearly based on limited exposure to the ancient world itself. ‘Greek love’ is a complex theme that cannot be distilled simply to a facile statement that ancient Greeks were homosexual. If you want to delve into this subject matter, Kenneth Dover’s Greek Homosexuality (1978) still offers a good starting point, I think.

Lack of political or geographical unity is also silly to name as a reason for this perceived lack of any good movies on ancient Greece. A storyteller can focus on a particular aspect and make the subject matter come alive. And finally, the idea that Greece was a place of ideas is extremely old-fashioned: it perpetuates the notion of rational Greeks, an idea long debunked, for example in E.R. Dodd’s The Greeks and the Irrational (1951).

I have no doubt that the author had good intentions, but the end result is a muddled mess that ultimately tells us more about her ideas regarding ancient Greece than about why there are supposedly no good movies about that topic. There are, I would argue, good movies about ancient Greece available. They might not be perfect. They might not even be accurate. And they might not be to a particular writer’s liking.

And it’s perfectly all right to publish an opinion piece about something that you don’t like and then point out why you don’t like it. But in this case, the article is presented as an essay on why ancient Greece doesn’t make for good cinema, and a reader not well versed in the subject matter might actually take it to heart and think, indeed, that ancient Greece doesn’t work well on the silver screen for what are essentially very particularistic reasons indeed.

Starting next week, I’ll be launching the ‘Autumn of Perseus’ on the Ancient Warfare blog, the follow-up (perhaps long awaited?) to last year’s ‘Summer of Hercules’. As part of this new series of blog posts on Hercules’ ancestor, I will also write about a few movies, including Clash of the Titans (both of them). I can’t promise you that they are good movies, but at the very least they’re interesting and worthy of discussion, instead of simply dismissed.

The pictures included in this blog posts are screen shots from the movies 300, Alexander, Jason and the Argonauts, Immortals, and Troy. They are included to give an idea of the degree of variety when it comes to movies about ancient Greece. Some of them are pretty good, I think, and all of them are, at the very least, interesting.

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