Friday, 25 July 2014

Hercules (dir. Brett Ratner, 2014)


Maybe I've just seen too many rubbish ancient world films, especially those based on mythology, but I thought this was really pretty good - I was pleasantly surprised. It was funny, the cast of British thespians did their thing well, The Rock was fine (I've quite enjoyed all the acting performances of his that I've seen, which is mainly The Mummy Returns and Star Trek: Voyager's 'Tsunkatse'), and most importantly it played around with ancient mythology in some interesting ways, putting some nice twists on the material.

For once, I've kept spoilers to a minimum in this review, because the film rests on a couple of turns and revelations that you should see for yourself if you're at all interested in this sort of film. I also won't go through the many ways in which the film differs from the various ancient sources, which would not only be tedious, but would miss the point entirely. The whole reason for telling new versions of ancient stories is to put a new spin on the material, which is what the ancient versions certainly do - you'd struggle to find any two or three versions of Hercules' story that are particularly similar. (I will mention briefly that the mythical Eurystheus is king of Mycenae, not Athens - evidently the writers thought the audience were more likely to have heard of Athens, or perhaps they just wanted to redress the balance a bit re screen interpretations of the city. We also get the ever-irritating assumption that 'Elysium' equates to heaven and 'Hades' to hell - heaven and hell are medieval Christian concepts).

I will say that the film used or referenced lots of aspects of Hercules' mythology, many of which often get left out of modern interpretations. It mentioned the derivation of his name (they went for 'glory of Hera' whereas I would usually translate it as 'glory through Hera', and it would have helped if they'd used the Greek 'Herakles' instead of the Latin 'Hercules', but still), as well as the various Labours, the snakes he supposedly strangled in his cradle, even the murder of his first wife Meg(ara) and their children, and he wore the skin of the Nemean Lion when fighting, which I loved (a reason is provided in story for such an impractical bit of kit, as well). It was lovely to see so many bits and piece of Hercules' mythology get a shout-out.

Considering how much of the ancient Hercules was put into the film, I have to confess I was a bit disappointed when the young man loudly singing Hercules' praises at the beginning turned out to be Iolaus, rather than Hylas, so there was no reference to the complexities of ancient sexuality. Iolaus in mythology is Hercules' nephew and much of Hercules' mythology revolves around his relationships with his two wives and his children, so the portrayal of uncle and nephew here would be perfectly recognisable to the Greeks - but the emphasis put on the blood relationship in Iolaus' early scenes and the lack of subtlety with which the point is made that Iolaus likes girls suggests the makers must be aware that some viewers might assume a different relationship between an older ancient Greek warrior and a younger man. How fantastic would it have been if this part went to Hylas, Hercules' younger lover, instead? Ah well, maybe some day.

Alongside the mythology, there was an interesting nod to historical developments as well. The warfare described in Homeric epic is all about individuals fighting alone and gaining glory, but sometime during the Archaic period, hoplite warfare was developed, which relied on soldiers creating a wall of shields, each half protecting himself, half the man next to him, and basically shoving the enemy as hard as possible (300 depicts this for about 30 seconds before it gets bored and everyone starts leaping about like a mad thing).

The Chigi Vase, which depicts hoplite warfare - it's all about shoving the enemy.

The film sort of seems to be trying to depict this change. Our heroes themselves fight individually and make use of chariots, like in the epics (these chariots are far too big to be Mycenaean war chariots - though they might fit Homer's somewhat inaccurate description of Mycenaean war chariots). However, Hercules teaches the army something like the hoplite style, focusing on maintaining a wall of shields - except he leaves out the bit about creating deep lines of hoplites, to help with the pushing. The shields the army are using are presumably supposed to reflect Ajax's tower shield from the Iliad, a style also seen on a Mycenaean ring from Mycenae, but most pre-hoplite Greek soldiers would have had smaller, round shields. Then Iolaus equips the men with hoplite armour, but only half of them - which would completely defeat the object, as they all have to have the same shields for the thing to work. All in all, it's a rather nice attempt to tie the story in to historical developments and a particular historical period, but there are some noticeable holes in the depiction of the fighting. (Edited to add: apparently the film is set in 358 BC - see comments - in which case this is all ridiculous, because it was all happening in the Archaic Age. Phillip II of Macedon made some changes to Macedonian phalanxes, e.g. giving them longer spears, around the fourth century BC, but hoplite warfare had been around for centuries).

My favourite thing about this film was that, like the BBC's Atlantis, it played around with the legend of Hercules and with the idea of storytelling. Ignore the incredibly misleading trailer (which also gives away the movie's best moment) because this is barely a fantasy film. It has prophecy in it, as do many ancient world stories, fantasy or otherwise (including I, Claudius and The Roman Mysteries) and the extent of Hercules' strength beggars belief, but otherwise this is a film in which the Hydra is a group of criminals wearing snake-like disguises and centaurs are just cavalry (rare in the mountainous landscape of Greece). In fact, the whole resolution of the plot, which I won't give away here, rests on the legend of Hercules, on how his story has grown and spread, regardless of the reality. It's an excellent theme for a version of a Greek myth, reflecting the importance of heroic kleos (glory) that gives Herakles his name.

I enjoyed this film a lot more than I expected to. I really liked Ian McShane's Amphiaraus, who's almost like a slightly chirpier version of The X-Files' Clyde Bruckman, and it was nice to see Atalanta in there (even if she's magically become an Amazon to save time on explaining her backstory). It's not a cinematic masterpiece or anything, but I found this an enjoyable and interesting addition to Hercules' mythology.

More movie reviews

Friday, 18 July 2014

Xena Warrior Princess: Remember Nothing


Xena: Warrior Princess does the It's a Wonderful Life thing. It's quite early in the show to be doing that, but then, Xena has a particularly dramatic backstory and a pre-existing history in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, so it works.

While paying her respects to her late brother, Xena protects a temple of the Fates, so they offer her a reward. Xena says all she wants is for the young boy she just killed (he was attacking her) to be alive, and she wishes she'd never 'followed the sword'. So the Fates change history, with the knock-on effect that her brother never died, but warn her that as soon as she spills a drop of blood in anger, everything will snap back into place.

The Fates here are represented as three woman spinning a thread, which is not far off the ancient Greek Fates. The Greek Fates were the Spinner, who spun the thread of life, the Apportioner of Lots, who measured it, and the one who cannot be turned, who cut it, rather than the maiden, mother and crone seen here (whether or not the maiden/mother/crone division goes back to ancient religion is debatable, but it has more to do with Robert Graves than anything else). The maiden/mother/crone thing works well enough, though, and I liked the simple visualisation of it using three actresses at various ages.

Xena's brother Lyceus at one point mentions that his virillus token, which Xena teases him for still wearing, once saved his life. This is presumably inspired by the ancient Roman bulla amulets freeborn children wore (girls and boys), which they took off when they came of age (i.e. got married for girls, or put on a toga for boys). The word 'virillus' is derived from the Latin for 'manly' ('vir' means 'man') so this seems to be the Xenaverse equivalent, though the name is a bit the wrong way around assuming you become a man when you take it off - it may be intended as a diminutive (like 'Drusilla', feminine diminutive form of 'Drusus') in which case the grammar's a bit off, but you can see what they were going for. It's a nice touch, throwing in a genuinely ancient custom that also serves the story by emphasising how young the boy Xena kills in the opening sequence is.

Roman bulla amulets at the Ashmoleon museum, Oxford

Xena is informed what will happen if she spills blood at the beginning of the episode and ends it by doing so anyway, but interestingly this is not an example of the classic trope in Greek mythology of people being given a clear instruction they utterly fail to follow for no particular reason (see: Orpheus, Odysseus' crew). The way the Fates initially give the instruction, saying "until you spill a drop of blood in anger", clearly indicates that they do not really expect Xena to be able to follow it, and they turn up a few times throughout the episode, almost seeming to want to persuade her to return to her old life.

In the end, Xena makes a conscious choice to spill blood and reset the world. I thought it was rather a shame that ultimately she did so to preserve Gabrielle's innocence and protect her from experiencing what it is to kill another person, since their lifestyle surely suggests Gabrielle will inevitably end up killing someone at some point in self-defence, and to sacrifice her brother for that specific reason doesn't seem quite right. Still, overall she was able to make some peace with herself when he encouraged her to stand with him and told her not to fight destiny. The Fates' real gift to Xena is that she feels better about her life and her choices, despite the high price she's had to pay - and they give her a little extra time to save the boy from the opening as well, so at least one life is spared in the end (and her mother's, of course - though I suspect most mothers would willingly exchange their life for their son's, which is why, although saddened, Xena doesn't change things back straight away on finding out her mother died).

In really liked this episode - I love It's a Wonderful Life episodes anyway and this one was really well done. Lucy Lawless' performance is great, giving Xena a softer edge (while Gabrielle's is much harder) and investing all of it, especially the scene at her mother's tomb, with real emotion. I also enjoyed seeing Xena use her brains as well as brawn and try to find increasingly inventive ways to fight people without spilling any blood (though I have to say, if you set someone on fire, you will spill their blood). I was a bit puzzled by the section in which our heroes are suspended in very high cages, as if being saved for dinner by the giant from 'Jack and the Beanstalk', and Xena's brother becomes the latest victim of the 'everyone Gabrielle fancies dies' curse, but overall it was a very satisfying installment. Even the opening shots of New Zealand were gorgeous, as long as you ignore the fact they're obviously re-used footage from season one (Gabrielle is in her early season one costume). Definitely a good use of the old trope.

Quotes

Gabrielle: I don't know whether to thank you or to hate you.

Lyceus: Don't fight destiny!

Disclaimer: Xena's memory was not damaged or... ...what was I saying?

All Xena: Warrior Princess reviews

Friday, 27 June 2014

The Night Raid (by Caroline Lawrence)


The Night Raid is a re-telling of the story of Nisus and Euryalus from Book 9 of the Aeneid, specifically aimed at dyslexic teenage boys. It's written by Caroline Lawrence, author of The Roman Mysteries, and published by Barrington Stoke, who specialise in books for dyslexic and reluctant readers. Caroline has blogged about the process of writing The Night Raid and aiming it especially at dyslexic readers here.

I don't want to go into the book as a book for dyslexic readers too much, as Caroline has explained that much more clearly than I can herself and it's not something I know much about. So instead, I'll just say a few words about how that particular emphasis affects the book for general readers, because it would be a terrible shame if knowing it has such a particular target audience put everyone else off reading it.

Essentially, this is a book written in a very clear and simple style but not aimed at particularly young readers. The target age range is 8-12 but, as you can see from the opening posted at Caroline's blog, the book is extremely gory (for a children's book) so it's aimed at either the older end of that range or younger children with strong stomachs (as I've said before, I was a right wuss when I was eight years old - everyone else in my class would have loved the gore I'm sure). I am firmly of the belief that you don't need complex language to tell a good story or make a clear point (this is something I try to practice in academic work, as far as possible) and this is an exciting and emotional story that had me happily hooked.

The main thing strong readers might notice is that, like books for younger children, the story is told in very short chapters made up of very short paragraphs and short sentences, and the book overall is shorter than some 'short' stories (at 10,000 words). Simpler Latin names like Turnus and Nisus are left as they are, while nick-names are substituted for awkwardly spelled names ('Rye' for Euryalus, 'the Leader' for Aeneas and most amusingly, 'Flame Head' for Neoptolemus, specifically because "his real name was too long and too horrible to say out loud"). Most of the other changes or alterations to make the book dyslexic-friendly probably aren't noticeable to general readers at all.

The best thing about the language used here it that it reflects Virgil's original Latin while keeping it readable and comprehensible for reluctant readers with no knowledge of the original. This is most obvious towards the end, when a few lines of the Aeneid are translated into English (though the Aeneid's line about 'as long as the father has imperium', a reference to Augustus' imperial power, is left out and replaced with a reference to the characters' eternal souls, to make the lines apply to Nisus and Euryalus' ongoing legend right through to the present day rather than tying it to the ancient Roman Empire; Aeneid 9.446-449). However, there are other, smaller references throughout, like the description of Euryalus' head drooping like a poppy in the rain as he dies, which comes straight out of the Aeneid.

A deliberate choice is made to tell the story as a Roman story, rather than as a Greek legend, again reflecting Virgil. This is most obvious when Euryalus refers to Latin as 'our language'. The story of the Trojan War is a Greek story about people from modern Turkey. Whatever language and culture the historical inhabitants of Troy had, in Greek literature they generally speak Greek and live in a vaguely Greek society - exactly what society the Homeric Trojans represent is the subject of intense academic debate, but they worship Greek gods, at the least. Latin literature varies in how far it represents them as Greek or as Roman and uses the Latin names for the gods (Juno not Hera, Jupiter not Zeus etc.). In the Aeneid, Roman customs such as worshiping household gods (which is also included here) are attributed to the ancient Trojans.

Nisus and Euryalus appear for the first time in the Aeneid and may be inventions of Virgil's so it makes sense to leave out the complicated historical setting of the story and just represent them as Romans. And so they speak Latin, address the gods by their Latin names and the description of Euryalus' Trojan home fits that of a Roman villa. This also extends to their afterlife belief, though once we reach the end, the book's treatment of the characters' existence after death is more of a combination of a more general spirituality with a much older, Greek, theme from the Homeric poems. In the Iliad, Achilles' aim is to win eternal kleos (glory) because, what with the Homeric afterlife being a rather miserable place, being eternally remembered in legend is your best chance at living forever. The Night Raid literalises this Homeric idea, as Nisus and Euryalus' souls are reunited and sustained by Virgil's telling of their story.

The exact nature of Nisus and Euryalus' relationship is, as in the Aeneid, unspecified. In general terms, the characters seem to fit perfectly the traditional Greek pair of an older and a younger (unshaved) lover, erastes and eromenos (lover and beloved). However, the Romans were slightly less keen on this idea in a military context, and Virgil describes Nisus' love for Euryalus as 'pious' (pius, a noble virtue especially important to Augustus; Aeneid 5.296). Some readers must have understood them to be lovers, while others would not. The Night Raid similarly leaves this up to the reader's imagination - when Nisus notes how beautiful Rye is, or holds his hands, it might be romantic, or they might just be really good friends (and interpretation will depend partly on the age of the child reading the book - younger children are unlikely to notice anything beyond friendship).

I really enjoyed this book. The characters were likeable and engaging, the story would make sense if you didn't know any ancient mythology but gains extra depth if you do and the action was exciting and definitely doesn't pull any punches. The language is simple, but the themes of the story are very complex, so it's a really nice choice especially for older children who struggle with reading, and who may appreciate a story with the depth (and gore) of more complex literature, but written in a style they can read for themselves. I also found it a really nice palate cleanser if you've been reading through something really dense, like A Song of Ice and Fire or, (in my personal case at the moment) Robin Hobb's Realm of the Elderlings books. This has all the magic, fantasy (there are nymphs in it), complicated romance/deep friendship, adventure and gory, horrible death of those series, but in a fraction of the time it takes to read it! Probably my favourite Lawrence book since The Gladiators from Capua (as you tell, my tolerance for violence has got a lot stronger since I was eight years old). Highly recommended.

See all my reviews of Caroline Lawrence's Roman Mysteries series here.

Friday, 30 May 2014

Top 5 representations of ancient Athens in film and TV


Athens is the most famous city-state in ancient Greece. The majority of our textual evidence from the Classical period comes from Athens. It was the home of Plato, Sophocles and Thucydides, the birthplace of democracy and philosophy, one of the two states that led a Greek coalition to victory in the Persian Wars. If asked to picture 'ancient Greece' in your mind, chances are the image behind your eyes is that of the Parthenon, the Athenians' beautiful temple to Athena, sitting on top of the Acropolis (the rock it's on) standing guard over the city.

And yet, Athens appears strangely rarely on film and television. Wet, cold, miserable Roman Britain is far better served that hot, sunny, beautiful ancient Athens.

Modern Athens shows up every now and again. Nia Vardalos' 2009 romantic comedy My Life in Ruins was the first American film to get permission to film at the Acropolis and Athens will feature in upcoming Patricia Highsmith adaptation The Two Faces of January. Michael Palin stopped off to visit the fabulous soldiers with the furry shoes in Around the World in Eighty Days and I'm sure it's featured in a host of travel shows - and there have probably been many documentaries about ancient Athens as well.

But when it comes to fictional representations of ancient Athens, the city is bizarrely poorly served. Partly, this is down to film-makers' fondness for making films about Roman history, but Greek mythology. Athens is the most famous and most important city in historical ancient Greece, but it doesn't show up quite so often in myth, and when it does the story in question may be too dull and sexist to want to film (Eumenides) or it's about a hero from Athens who goes elsewhere to perform his heroics - Theseus is Athens' great hero, but he tends to perform his heroics in Crete, the underworld and so on. (I have not yet forced myself to sit through Immortals, but the Wikipedia page doesn't suggest Athens itself shows up).

And yet, even the few films in which you might expect to see Athens don't always show it. The 300 Spartans features the Athenians in a substantial role, but they meet in Corinth. Michael Hoffman's 1999 film adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream (which is set in ancient Athens) shifts the action to 'Monte Athena' in Italy. Disney's Hercules sort-of-probably includes Athens; the biggest temple in ancient Greece (not actually finished until the Roman period) housing the biggest cult statue was the Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens, so that's probably where Hercules goes to talk to Zeus at the beginning, and the background during Meg's song 'I Won't Say I'm In Love' looks a bit like the Parthenon. However, Thebes steals all the limelight, location-wise, with Athens fading into the background.

We can only assume that, since all film-makers know about Athens is that it has that pretty temple in the middle of it, they never think to set anything there. They want to go to the underworld, to magical islands or Trojan battlefields; or they want to show hordes of angry Spartans running around without enough clothes on. If possible, they want to incorporate something Roman where it doesn't belong, because it's really not an ancient world film without a gladiator fight, chariot race or incestuous emperor. Still every now and again ancient Athens does manage to squeeze its way into a film or TV show - here are five of the best examples.

5. Aladdin
During 'A Whole New World', Aladdin and Jasmine fly on Carpet all over the world, taking in medieval Arabia, ancient Egypt and China at an undisclosed period (evidently, it also travels in time, which might help explain how they've survived travelling that fast on an open vehicle). As the song ends, they snuggle together while floating on a lake below a Greek temple on a hill.
Do we see the Parthenon? Yes, OK, this isn't necessarily the Parthenon - it's a temple on a hill and the city of Athens is distinct by its absence. It's not even a rock like the Acropolis, it's green and grassy. But if Carpet is taking them on a whistlestop tour through space and time, you'd assume it's Athens and the Parthenon. The garden district of Athens...
Is it historically accurate? No (see above re: time travel, lack of city).
Anything blatantly Roman shoved in? No, though it does appear to co-exist with the much earlier construction of the Sphinx in Egypt.
Top Athenian moment: Well, all of it really, it only lasts a few seconds.

4. Xena Warrior Princess: Athens City Academy of the Performing Bards
Gabrielle joins the Athenian City Academy of the Performing Bards, a sort of ancient version of an American college, where she hopes to study story-telling.
Do we see the Parthenon? No, it's too set-bound for that.
Is it historically accurate? Not even slightly. It's Xena. It would be quicker to list the parts that are accurate (there was an Athenian called Euripides, who liked story-telling).
Anything blatantly Roman shoved in? The entire story of Spartacus.
Top Athenian moment: Ancient Athenian drama re-told well-known myths and very occasionally historical stories to an audience who knew broadly what to expect, but were looking for new twists or especially moving versions of old stories. The episode's use of clips from Stanley Kubrick's Spartacus to illustrate a story told by one of the bards may not fit in a factual sense, but it gets across the idea of re-telling classic stories, though Jason and the Argonauts would have seemed a more logical choice.

3. Tom and Jerry: It's Greek To Me-ow!
Tom lives behind the Parthenon; Jerry lives inside it. Tom wants to eat Jerry.
Do we see the Parthenon? Yes, and the Acropolis is shown covered in buildings, rather than being a bare hill or rock, which is how other animations tend to depict it. They're not necessarily accurately drawn, but points for effort.The opening, comparing the fancy front part of the Acropolis to the poorer rear view, is brilliant (it has a very A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum feel, but the cartoon predates both the stage musical and the film version).
Is it historically accurate? I'm sure there were cats and mice in ancient Athens (still are) - it's more physically implausible than historically implausible.
Anything blatantly Roman shoved in? On the other hand, there's a Roman chariot in there and Jerry is reclining and eating grapes like a pop-culture Roman. Everyone also wears laurel wreaths all the time, which is Greek, but they were prizes, not everyday fashion.
Top Athenian moment: As Tom slides down a pillar desperately scrabbling at it with his claws, he transforms it from a plain column to a Corinthian column, with leaf design at the top and fluting. There aren't any Corinthian columns on the Parthenon (it's Doric) but who cares.

2. 300: Rise of an Empire
As Xerxes continues his invasion of Greece after the end of 300, he burns Athens in dramatic style.
Do we see the Parthenon? Yes. Burning. Which we shouldn't because it wasn't built for another few decades.
Is it historically accurate? Sort of. Xerxes did burn Athens, but the Parthenon and other current famous buildings on the Acropolis hadn't been built yet. Athens has developed Colosseum-syndrome - period is irrelevant, as long as the most famous buildings are in there. The whole significance of the 'wooden walls' prophecy is also completely omitted, which baffles me.
Anything blatantly Roman shoved in? Thankfully, no. Roman tropes are unnecessary when you have horses that can jump across burning boats and into fire, and Xerxes takes over crazy-leader duties.
Top Athenian moment: Earlier in the film, before the burning, we see an Athenian assembly meeting degenerating into a brawl - I have a sneaking suspicion that's not entirely off the mark.

1. Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure
Travelling through time on a mission to pass their History project, Bill and Ted stop off in ancient Athens to pick up Socrates. Pronounced So - crates.
Do we see the Parthenon? No, the establishing shots are of statues rather than a wide shot (probably because, in the days before ubiquitous CGI, a wide effects shot would have been too expensive).
Is it historically accurate? Yes! There is nothing that is not accurate about this depiction of Socrates standing in the Stoa (a colonnade) in Athens, expounding his philosophical Thoughts to an attentive audience. Apart from the bit where two American teenagers turn up and take him away in a magical time-travelling phone booth. Socrates is even speaking Greek.
Anything blatantly Roman shoved in? No. This is far and away the most accurate depiction of ancient Athens I have yet seen on film or television. Think about that for a moment, film and television makers.
Top Athenian moment: "All we are is dust in the wind, dude".

Honourable mention: If we assume the temple in Hercules is indeed the Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens, it's very impressive.

More Top 5 Lists

Friday, 2 May 2014

Pompeii (dir. Paul W.S. Anderson, 2014)


This film was ridiculous. I kinda loved it.

Spoilers follow and they are major spoilers - I will be discussing the end of the film. So look away now if you want to go in fresh! I will just leave you with the knowledge that Brother and I chortled happily throughout the entire film, which may not have been the reaction the makers were going for, but we had a good time.

There's no way I'm going to have remembered all the little bits and pieces that were totally bonkers about this film, but I'll do my best to cover the main issues. The easiest way to approach it is probably to provide a brief summary and discuss it as we go along.

The film opens, over ominous-looking ash and 'bodies', with a quote from Pliny the Younger's letters describing the eruption as he saw it from Misenum and as those with his uncle Pliny the Elder, who was killed in the eruption, saw it from Stabiae. (So far, so good, even if the lecturer in me wants to mark them down for the incomplete reference).

After that we go back in time to a 'Celtic Horsemen' revolt in 'Northern Britannia' in AD 62, during which all of Young Jon Snow's family are killed by Evil Kiefer Sutherland, because Evil Kiefer Sutherland does not understand that you're supposed to sell defeated women and children for profit, not butcher them. This is not a revolt I am familiar with, possibly because 'Celtic Horsemen' describes most of Britain and 'Northern Britannia' could mean anything (presumably they meant Northern England). It's very strange, because there was a perfectly good historical revolt in AD 60-61 they could have used, as I'm sure Jon Snow could plausibly look a year or two older. It was led by Boudicca, queen of the Iceni - you may have heard of it. The only reason I can think of for not using it is that they need Jon Snow to be a horse whisperer later and they want to imply he gets it from some special tribal skill. And possibly because coming from 'Northern Britannia' sounds more rebellious than being from East Anglia - though since Kit Harrington later uses his own southern accent instead of his perfectly good Sean Bean impression from Game of Thrones, they don't seem to be pushing that angle.

Young Jon Snow survives and is picked up by slave traders and we next see him all grown up fighting in a small arena in Londinium, 'capital of Britannia' (no, it wasn't). It is chucking it down with rain and the Roman lanista in charge is complaining being in 'this hellhole', because it always rains in Roman Britain and everyone hates it. They call Jon Snow 'The Celt' because the makers have seen Gladiator, despite the fact it makes no sense since everyone in Britain who is not a Roman is a Celt. The lanista likes what he sees and carts him off to Pompeii.

There are lots of fancy CGI shots of Pompeii with Mount Vesuvius looming threateningly over it, and one gratuitous look into the volcano in which lava is jumping about in the crater. Which is nice, except that Vesuvius didn't have a crater before the eruption of AD 79. There are paintings of it in some of the buildings in Pompeii, and it's pointy. Because it hasn't erupted yet.


Vesuvius in the film


Painting from the Temple of Venus Pompeiana near the Marina Gate, Pompeii

The makers have also seen Spartacus (all of it) as once in Pompeii, Jon Snow slowly strikes up a friendship with a fellow gladiator despite the prospect of them imminently having to kill each other and then they're all pimped out to rich Roman women (except this film is a 12A so we don't actually see any of that). Jon Snow impresses the daughter of the house with his horse-whispering skills, which pisses off Evil Kiefer Sutherland because Evil Kiefer Sutherland wants to marry her. Cassia, the young lady in question, seems to be under the impression that she is not a Roman, but a 'citizen of Pompeii'. Since Pompeii became a Roman colonia in 90 BC I'm not sure what she's on about there. Her father is trying to get Imperial support to re-build Pompeii after the earlier earthquake, but it's a good thing he'll never get the chance as he can't tell the difference between an arena (circular, gladiators fight in it) and a circus (long oval, more oblong really, chariot races happen in it).

Evil Kiefer Sutherland is a bizarre character. He's a senator, but he stays in a military encampment and seems to be a military commander of some kind (the two aren't mutually exclusive, but it's weird for this place and this period, and unexplained). He wears purple, which is supposed to be an Imperial colour, and most bizarrely of all he doesn't seem to realise that there is a new Emperor, a plot point that goes nowhere. His accent is a thing of beauty - the most ridiculously over the top cod-posh-British evil English accent I've heard in a long time (most of the other fake English accents are just as bad, but not as funny).

Anyway, it all builds up to another scene nicked from Gladiator, in which (Roman) Jon Snow proves himself to be one of the unluckiest characters in fiction, as he is forced to re-enact the massacre of his own village in the arena. Meanwhile Evil Kiefer Sutherland threatens to have Cassia's family killed for insulting the Emperor, because he's apparently got Titus mixed up with his younger brother Domitian (Titus held no treason trials and didn't execute any senators during his reign, which is why he's well thought of). Jon Snow and his buddy Atticus win the fight they're supposed to lose, of course, but just as the various tensions between him and Evil Kiefer Sutherland and Cassia and so on are about to erupt, the mountain does instead.

The rest of the film follows a pretty predictable series of set-pieces as everyone races towards their impending doom. Brother thought it ought to have been called A Storm of Cliches. To be fair, though, the film doesn't shy away from the fact that everyone in Pompeii when the big ash cloud hits is going to die. I was fully expecting Jon Snow and Cassia to be able to out-run pyroclastic flow, but they don't - though they do imply that their horse does, which doesn't seem likely either.

The film ends on them kissing as the ash cloud descends, which is all very dramatic and romantic, though I did have a couple of problems with it. One is the usual complaint that the 'bodies' from Pompeii aren't bodies, they're plaster casts - so unless there was a two-person-shaped hole in the later hardened ash and a Victorian archaeologist poured plaster into it, no such thing should exist (see Caroline Lawrence's excellent summary of some more accuracy issues here). Secondly, and perhaps more problematically, the fact that they're still kissing as they die and are preserved that way inevitably recalls Up Pompeii! and young Erotica frozen in the act of sex forever. At least it meant I ended the movie as amused as I had started it.


This is what a real pyroclastic flow looks like


And this is Pompeii's version. To be fair they do incorporate elements of Pliny's description, but that's probably more flame-y than it should be.

To give the film-makers their due, ending by killing everybody is a brave move (though it does make the film feel a bit pointless - but then, I sometimes feel that way about Das Boot, and that's a masterpiece). And I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed the film. It's totally daft in every way but Milo (that's Jon Snow's actual name in this film) and Atticus are likeable heroes and very easy to watch for an hour or two. Cassia's not bad either, and I liked the fact that it was her who more or less finished Evil Kiefer Sutherland off, by handcuffing him to something (with a pyroclastic flow coming at him). It's fun to Jared Harris (Moriarty/the evil guy from Fringe) and Trinity from The Matrix as Cassia's parents as well. All in all, watching this again to do research for my co-authored book on films about Roman Britain will not be too odious a chore.

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Thursday, 17 April 2014

Game of Thrones: The Lion and the Rose


I have just managed to see 'The Lion and the Rose', as I was away at the CA conference this week (and I noticed that I saw the major event revealed in at least two places online without me looking for anything Game of Thrones-related - luckily I'm a book reader so I knew what was going to happen in this episode anyway, but to avoid spoilers you really do have to avoid the internet sometimes don't you?!). I had originally been down to review this episode for Doux Reviews but had to rearrange due to the conference - just my luck! Anyway, all of this preamble is here to provide a nice big chunk of text as a spoiler-free safety net for anyone behind on Game of Thrones and the books its based on, and any TV fans who haven't read the books - spoilers lie ahead so stop reading now if you haven't read all of the books and seen up to season four, episode two.

Just to reiterate (and provide plenty of space before the spoilers come) - I will be spoiling all the books up to A Dance With Dragons and presumably upcoming episodes of the TV show. You have been warned.

There are plenty of excellent reviews of this episode out there so I won't go into great detail on the episode in general other than to say I was impressed with how tense the whole wedding sequence was despite the fact I knew exactly what was going to happen. I also loved all the little conversations going on through the wedding, with Jaime's 'oh crap' face when he sees Brienne and Cersei talking to each other being a particular highlight (and Cersei has a point about Brienne's ability to change sides). My least favourite aspects of the episode were Tyrion and Shae, whose story has been my least favourite aspect of the show for a while now and if the show follows the books, will actually be my least favourite thing about the entire series, so that's nothing new.

The reason I'm blogging it, however, is not to make up for missing out on reviewing it (oddly enough I quite enjoyed reviewing the premiere, even though it was much less exciting). What caught my eye Classics-wise was what looked to me like a couple of nice directorial references to I, Claudius.

As I mentioned when I looked at season one, blurbs on the Song of Ice and Fire books often compare the series to Suetonius' Twelve Caesars. I often have a sneaking suspicion that what they're really reminded of isn't so much Suetonius himself (though most of the lurid bits and pieces do come from his gossipy biographies) but Robert Graves' I, Claudius and especially the TV series based on it, which draw on Suetonius, Tacitus, a bit of Cassius Dio and, in the TV version, one spectacularly gory bit of pure invention. Martin certainly references it in the one tiny bit of background we have on the late Joanna Lannister - that Tywin ruled the kingdoms, but Joanna ruled Tywin ('Augustus ruled the world, but Livia ruled Augustus'). Whether that comparison is significant or not remains to be seen.

It's hardly surprising, then, that we see echoes of I, Claudius reverberating through an episode focused on the murder-by-poison of a king at a feast. According to the Roman mindset, poison was a woman's weapon. It is also a method of murder that in the days before forensic pathologists could look conveniently like a natural death - or, from the point of view of a gossipy historian or inventive author of historical fiction, allows for the re-casting of a natural death as a murder (Exhibit A: Augustus' natural death re-figured as Livia poisoning him with figs). It's hardly surprising that it features prominently in I, Claudius, a story which takes Tacitus' snide implications about Livia and really runs with them.

This episode of Game of Thrones, too, focuses heavily on women as the prime suspects in a royal poisoning. There are, of course, male suspects as well - Dontos, who ushers Sansa away; Loras, who storms off in a huff shortly before it all goes pear-shaped, and obviously Tyrion, the possibility of whose guilt the series has so far left open (the book tells this section from his point of view, so we know it wasn't him - though to be fair I've read detective stories in the past that have cleverly concealed the fact he narrator did it until the end). Frankly, I wouldn't even put it past Tywin, who has another grandson and is fed up of Joffrey, who's clearly a liability. Prime suspects, though, are Sansa, for obvious reasons, Margaery, whose acting skills are crumbling in the face of Joffrey's insanity (the character's acting skills that is - Natalie Dormer is excellent as ever) and Margaery's caring grandmother, Olenna Tyrell (we can probably discount Cersei, and Brienne would just have chopped his head off).

It's in the moments focused on Margaery that the I, Claudius references creep in. Desperate to distract Joffrey from tormenting people, she cries out 'Look! The pie!' with a level of excitement comparable to Augustus' daughter Julia spying cake (though in Julia's case she genuinely just wanted the cake) but the clue that it might be I, Claudius the director or writer is thinking of comes when she and Joffrey start eating the pie. She picks a piece off her own plate and feeds it to him from her fork - which is exactly the way the emperor Claudius is killed by his wife/niece Agrippinilla in I, Claudius (historically Agrippina the Younger). Agrippina supposedly poisoned a mushroom of her own and carefully fed it to her husband in order to get around his food tasters (I bet Jaime's wishing he'd thought of that right now, instead of fussing about where everyone was going to stand).

Now of course, book readers know that the deed was done by the process of Dontos, ordered by Littlefinger, giving Sansa poison to wear (here a necklace, in the book a hairnet) which Olenna then takes and sneaks into Joffrey's cup, making Littlefinger, Dontos, Sansa and Olenna all culpable, though Sansa doesn't appear to have known anything about it. It looks like the show is following the book in that, as it's while Olenna fiddles with Sansa's necklace (nabbing the poison) that she talks about how awful it is to kill a man at a wedding, sympathising with her over Robb's demise - there's no dramatic irony like really heavy-handed and unsubtle dramatic irony.

However, one of the big issues that's as yet unresolved in the books is whether Margaery knew about it. Olenna does it for Margaery - politically, she probably should have waited until Margaery and Joffrey had a child, preferably a son, before offing him, but she couldn't bear to let Margaery suffer being married to the little creep. But did Margaery know? Is she acting when she looks shocked and horrifed, or was she kept in the dark? We'll have to wait until Martin writes some more books and/or the series fills us in, but that visual reference is an interesting one - it certainly suggests to me that Margaery is in on it and as much a part of the poison plan as Olenna - it will be interesting to see how she reacts over the next few episodes.

More Game of Thrones thoughts

Friday, 11 April 2014

The Eagle of the Ninth (by Rosemary Sutcliff)


Rosemary Sutcliff explained the dual inspiration for her classic children's novel in the Foreward; the apparent mysterious disappearance of the Ninth Legion (which may not have been a disappearance at all) and the discovery of a wingless bronze eagle at Silchester, which Sutcliff described as a 'Roman Eagle', presumably believing it to be from the standard of the Roman Legion (it isn't, it's the wrong shape - as Reading museum explain). The fact that neither of the 'facts' the story was based on are, as it turns out, true is rather beside the point, as Sutcliff uses them to tell a classic historical children's adventure story featuring several scenes and themes I recognise from reading adventure and fantasy stories from the same period as a child, including secret paths through bogs, wild chases on horseback, mist in the mountains and extremely devoted pets.

I have to confess, I struggled a bit to get through this book, but I think that may be my own fault for seeing Kevin Macdonald's 2011 film adaptation The Eagle first. Throughout much of the story, despite dramatic changes in tone and theme, the actual plot of the movie follows the book fairly closely - it's only towards the end that the plot itself starts to diverge, and I found those latter sections easier and more enjoyable to read. Although the book includes some beautiful descriptions of the landscape, both in England and Scotland, it is fairly plot-centric, fast-paced and with enough characterisation to keep things interesting, but not as much depth or detail as some children's books, so I think those parts where I knew the story felt like a bit more of a slog for that reason.

While the plot may be superficially similar (up to the point where everyone starts killing each other - after the first battle, no one actually dies during the rest of the novel, except in flashback), the tone of the film and book, and especially Marcus and Esca's relationship, is markedly different. What first attracts Marcus to Esca in the book is not his defiance so much as his fear, which inspires some fellow feeling in him, and Book!Marcus frees Esca before they set off on their quest for the Eagle, so Esca comes and risks his life of his own free will (his duty to serve Marcus as his freedman is mentioned when they return, but Marcus makes it clear he does not want Esca to come unwillingly when they leave for the north). After some initial friction, the relationship between the two is so close that frankly it became almost dull and Esca's devotion seemed a tad extreme - but perhaps I'm just getting old and cynical. I never thought that about Frodo and Sam when I was a child. And Marcus did save his life, after all.

The book also presents a more grounded view than the film of the lands north of Hadrian's Wall and of Britain and the Britons in general. The existence of the Antonine Wall is acknowledged, and one set-piece takes place in an abandoned Roman watch-tower between the two, in what was briefly a Roman province. Although the various British tribes have their own cultures and ways, there is much more emphasis on all humankind's similarities. The tragedy of the rebellion that wounds Marcus is that he and the doomed leader were friends, similar men with similar interests who ended up on opposite sides. When Marcus and Esca travel north, they do so in disguise, since they know Romans won't be welcomed, and they spend time with the tribe who have taken the Eagle and get to know them (there seems to be one language called 'British' that Marcus is remarkably good at speaking, but we'll let that go).

Marcus is initiated in the cult of Mithras. Mithraism is very useful to authors for a couple of reasons. It shares several superficial similarities with Christianity, in some cases because Christianity co-opted elements of Mithraism. Mithras was a sun-god and the religion is also associated with the Moon. Although originating in Iran, the cult was especially popular in the Latin West of the empire and among soldiers. The focal part of Mithras' myth involved killing a bull and a fresco in a Mithraeum at Santa Prisca reads 'you saved us with the shed blood' (probably the bull's blood). There was probably some kind of Mithraic festival around the winter solstice as well, given that he was a sun-god. But most usefully of all for authors of fiction - we actually know very little about the cult, because it was a secretive mystery cult, only known to initiates, who were forbidden to write anything about it down. Nearly all the evidence for the cult is archaeological, and not heavy on text, so we're interpreting images without context as best we can. That's a goldmine for authors, who can pretty much make up whatever they want and claim it's historically plausible.

It's perhaps not surprising, then, to find Marcus following a heavily Christianised form of Mithraism (and hardly ever referring to the other gods, always praying to Mithras). The language he uses to pray is that of the King James Bible, using archaic 'thees' and 'thous' and saying things like 'O God of the Legions... send down thy light upon us.' Logical enough for a sun-god, but clearly Christianised. There's a tension between referring obliquely to the exotic Roman mystery cult and its mysterious initiation ceremonies, and presenting that religion to 1950s child readers (presumed Christian, or having had a Christian upbringing anyway) as something familiar and identifiable.

Although I found it a little slow going at times (despite the fairly fast-paced plot) I enjoyed this book, and I'm sure I'll go on to read the others in the series. Although many of the characters are fairly lightly sketched, they're all likeable, and there's even a female character in there, which is nice, even if she doesn't get to join in the adventure. There's a dry humour throughout the book too, and the setting and landscape are richly drawn. I wish I could love it as much as I know many of my colleagues do, but I think that just comes down to when you read it. Much of the book reminded me of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings, right down to the sound of horns and trumpets heralding the arrival of the cavalry or a desperate chase on horseback through dangerous terrain. I suspect if I'd read it as a child, and without seeing the movie, I would have loved it as much as I know many others do.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Oedipal themes in Angel: the Series


There's something inherently Oedipal about modern romantic vampire mythology. When Byron's friend Polidori wrote about a sexy, beautiful 'vampyre' who preys on the protagonist's sister, he paved the way for later stories to depict vampirism as a metaphor for lust and the act of a vampire biting a victim as a metaphor for sex. Once the concept of the vampire sire had been developed, what you end up with in several modern vampire mythologies is a depiction of vampire 'families' consisting of 'parents' (the sire or sires) and 'children' (the vampires they've sired) in which the 'family' has been created by a process of the 'parent' having metaphorical sex with the 'child' (often accompanied by literal sex). The entire set-up revolves around the idea that the 'child' and 'parent' are sexually attracted to each other.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel play up this theme even more than many modern romantic vampire series, partly thanks to the presence of Drusilla in Angel's vampire 'family'. Drusilla's madness is depicted largely as making her child-like, fond of dolls and parties (and, er, children), so while Spike refers to the sire/offspring relationship as 'you were my Yoda' early on, implying more of a teacher/protegee relationship, Drusilla always comes across as the child in a twisted 'family'. She also refers to herself and the others that way more than most, explicitly calling Angelus 'Daddy' while cheating on Spike (later revealed to be her 'son' rather than, as initially implied, her 'brother') with him.

Later, when Drusilla appears on Angel to re-sire Angel's now human 'mother' Darla, Gunn again makes the relationship explicit by commenting on how weird it is that Darla's 'grand-daughter' is becoming her 'mother'. Meanwhile Drusilla buries Darla in a flower nursery, just to really drive home the mother/daughter point, before they embark on a killing spree so full of sexual tension between the two of them it's hardly surprising when a later flashback in season five reveals they have had a sexual relationship at least once, when they had a threesome with the Immortal. With season five also implying pretty strongly that Angel and Spike have got it together at least once, the whole 'family' is more twisted and incestuous than anything seen on HBO.

Angel, however, was not satisfied with the just the bog-standard Oedipal vampire 'family' - the show played with Oedipus complexes all over the place. Back on Buffy, Spike's relationship with his biological mother took vampiric Oedipal issues one step further when, as Giles would say, the subtext became the text and his newly sired mother (sired by Spike himself, making him 'lover', 'son' and 'father' all at once already) actually tried to come on to him, at which point he staked her (i.e. he shoved his hard pointy stick into her, which does not improve the situation, in Freudian terms). After Spike's move to Angel, Wesley re-enacts the other, less sexy, part of the Oedipus complex when he kills what he thinks is his father to save Fred; Spike's attempts to sympathise by telling him about his mum do not go down well.

The mother (hah!) of all Oedipus complexes on Angel, though, is only tangentially related to vampirism, though it does involve alternate dimensions and creepy god-like beings. When Darla kills herself to save her and Angel's son Connor, the baby is cared for by everyone at Angel Investigations including Cordelia, in whom Angel is clearly romantically interested. To cut a long story short, Connor ends up growing up in a demon dimension and coming back as a petulant teen, Cordelia gets possessed by an evil god-like thing, and they end up having sex so that the thing that made sure Connor was born in the first place can give birth to itself through Cordelia. Connor turns out to be impervious to the adoration his daughter Jasmine induces in everyone else, but Angel isn't, and ends up worshipping the ground his own grand-daughter walks on for a while, until Fred 'cures' him and Jasmine is eventually killed by her father, Connor.

Connor doesn't know about Cordelia being possessed by Jasmine at the time they have sex, but he does know how close Cordelia and his father - whom he makes several different attempts to kill - are, and that she looked after him as a baby. Eventually, Oedipus Rex finally gets a proper shout-out when the temporarily-returned Angelus tells Connor 'I mean, when you think about it, the first woman you boned is the closest thing you've ever had to a mother. Doing your mom and trying to kill your dad. There should be a play.'

Angel's interest in the Oedipus complex, then, seems to go a bit beyond the Oedipal themes that inevitably come up in romanticised vampire fiction. That's partly because, unlike many pop culture references to the Oedipus complex which focus only on the enticingly taboo wanting-to-have-sex-with-your-mother part, Angel is equally interested in the wanting-to-kill-your-father part (and of course, when Drusilla sires Darla she is both having metaphorical sex with and literally killing her 'grand-mother'). Because Angel is all about brooding and feeling guilty over past crimes, past relationships and bad decisions, it's just as interested in ruined and destructive relationships as it is in overly-close ones.

All these Oedipal issues may also be a simple result of taking common TV themes one step further than usual, in the heightened reality of the fantasy setting. Many modern TV shows represent a group of unrelated characters forming an ad hoc 'family' in the absence (for whatever reason) of their actual relatives, and friendship is depicted as 'family' in everything from Sex and the City to Community ('When you guys first came in, we were as wholesome as the family in The Brady Bunch. Now we're as dysfunctional and incestuous as the cast of The Brady Bunch'). TV shows also tend to pair off the characters in small casts to create romantic and sexual tension, so perhaps, once Angel's almost-grown-up son was thrown into the mix, Oedipal issues became inevitable even without the vampiric background. All the same, the sheer variety of Oedipal issues floating around on Angel are notable, and it certainly confirms the capacity for vampire fiction to deal with taboo subjects through metaphor in a much more explicit way than most non-cable prime-time American TV shows.

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