Period epics were all the rage in the 1950s and early ’60s, but after the Kennedy assassination and the Vietnam War, Hollywood went on a reality kick. For three decades, nobody was making noteworthy films about Roman legions, Greek warriors, or medieval knights. Then came Gladiator in 2000, and swords and sandals were back. None of the first batch of historic epics has equaled Gladiator’s box-office success. In this case, however, first isn’t necessarily best.
Take last year’s Troy, which featured Brad Pitt as Achilles, the Greek warrior with a goddess for a mother. The film was widely panned by critics, but what’s so awful about Troy? Sure, some liberties were taken with Homer’s The Iliad. So what? Troy avoids many of the pitfalls that cause most period epics to collapse under their own weight. Characters actually converse, and the acting is realistic, not bombastic. The casting of Pitt in the lead role — a sore spot for critics — actually contributes to the film’s restless energy. He is the perfect embodiment of a Greek hero, and his climactic confrontation with Hector (Eric Bana) ranks as one of the cinema’s classic duels. Troy makes barbed points about the futility of war, and the line “Don’t waste your life following some fool’s orders” certainly resonates in today’s world.
King Arthur, also released last year, undergoes a different sort of transformation by jettisoning myth in favor of history. The true story of Arthur may never be known, but evidence suggests that he lived at the end of the Roman Empire. The change is a bit disconcerting, particularly the image of Arthur in Roman garb, but it is an intriguing concept. Clive Owen imbues his character with a mixture of intensity and compassion, and Keira Knightley is quite energetic as a warrior version of Guinevere. King Arthur boasts some extraordinary battle scenes. Don’t overlook this one.
Cult favorite The 300 Spartans (1962) was finally released to home video last year. Its unavailability seems to have enhanced its standing. The historically significant battle of Thermopylae, in which a small band of Greek warriors held off a giant Persian army for three days, is portrayed realistically, but the dialogue is stilted and the battle scenes are a bit listless. This one will have to suffice until director Michael Mann shoots his big-budget version, Gates of Fire. And there are more to come, including two films about Hannibal, the Carthaginian general.