Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Top Classical Films, in Anticipation of The Immortals: Part 1

In England, the long-awaited Classics-based thrill-fest The Immortals came out in cinemas on Friday. Tragically, I have not yet had a chance to watch the film, and probably won't until at least Sunday, but I have every reason to expect it will be as riveting and moving as the various trailers.

Others have been less optimistic, and in their glass-half-empty churlishness have compiled lists or parodies of previous unfortunate cinematic forays into Greek and Roman mythology. This one is fairly neutral. I, however, am made of jollier stuff, so here is my countdown of Classical films which were are actually genuinely good.

10. Troy

Good reasons to like: Though much maligned, this film has suffered a great deal of snobbery from critics and certain audiences. Let alone the fact that it's an enjoyable and entertaining movie, it does render Homer's characters (Brad Pitt's brooding Achilles, Eric Bana's tragic Hector and Orlando Bloom's cowardly, effeminate Paris particularly) and themes (immortality, kleos, war, loyalty and greed) quite faithfully, even if some of the action has been jazzed up (the Achilles/Hector showdown) or radically changed (I don't remember Agamemnon being stabbed in the Iliad by Briseis...).

Silly reason to like: The score by Yated was scrapped for being too "old-fashioned" and a new one was written last minute by James Horner. "Horner" looks quite a lot like "Homer". Coincidence?

P.S.: Also, here's a little bit of insider gossip for you: I've been told that after a screening of the film for academics, they were asked by the producers not to reveal the ending...

9. Spartacus

Good reasons to like: One can get pretty dewy-eyed about the "golden age" of Hollywood film-making, but this truly was an epic work, with fully fleshed out (if not quite three-dimensional) characters and a long-enough running time (184 minutes) for a properly developed (some might say over-developed) plot. It also has the courage to eschew Hollywood "happy ending" cliches: the most famous (and oft-parodied) scene from the film is undoubtedly the "I'm Spartacus!" clip embedded above, but the self-sacrifice shown in the duel between Antoninus and Spartacus, each trying to kill the other in order to spare them the ordeal of crucifixion, is somewhat more gritty, and a refreshing subversion of goodie vs. baddie. The execution is a bit mawkish, but the morality is at least a bit ambiguous. Equally, the shot of Spartacus hanging from the cross as his son goes free is profoundly bittersweet, a happy ending of sorts tinged with realism.

Silly reason to like: Tony Curtis, who plays Antoninus, also plays the cross-dressing Joe/Josephine in Some Like It Hot. Somehow he seems to wear more make-up in Spartacus.

8. Clash Of The Titans (Original 1981)

Good reasons to like: It's another top notch film, except doesn't take itself too seriously and prioritises fun over fidelity to mythology. Yes, it's a bit of a hodge-podge when it comes to the details, but the fundamental plot is mainly true to the original Perseus story. I've always found Calibos quite sympathetic, and found his speech rather moving. Maybe it's because I'm a deformed demi-god who has trouble letting go. Most important, however, and what elevates this film from being too silly is Ray Harryhausen's special effects, in the last film he would work on. Nostalgia overload.

Silly reason to like: Simply because it isn't the atrocious 2010 remake.

7. O Brother Where Art Thou

Good reasons to like: This is an allegorical offering from the Coen brothers, meshing the Odyssey and Americana to deliver a hugely effective result. Ulysses Everett McGill, as the trailer says, has to "get home to his wife and kids", facing Sirens and a Cyclops along the way. This is I suppose an extreme case of the trend exhibited by Troy - it gets the basic themes and characters right, so much so that you don't care about the small differences. They are especially forgiveable in this film, because, well, it's set in the 1930s America South. The subtle references, for example to Odysseus' epithets, make this a particular treat for the classically literate.

Silly reason to like: The name of the film is a reference to the 1941 film Sullivan's Travels, in which the title character proposes to make a film called 'O Brother Where Art Thou', where the name is deliberately and satirically pretentious.

6. A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum

Good reasons to like: Similar to O Brother Where Art Thou, this is a sort of meshing of Roman comedy and American wise-guy humour (epitomised by Phil Silvers, "The King of Chutzpah", who stars as the slave dealer Marcus Lycus, having previously turned down the role of Pseudolus). All of your favourite stock characters are here, with a brilliant (if annoyingly catchy) score by Sondheim adapted by Ken Thorne, and Buster Keaton's last ever performance. What's more, it's genuinely funny. At least, I think so. While it isn't as good as the original musical, it's still hugely entertaining and not to be missed.

Silly reason to like: It stars Zero Mostel, who also played Tevye the Milkman on Broadway in Fiddler on the Roof, the greatest musical of all time, and therefore everything he is in must by definition be amazing.

(to be continued...)

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