Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Future of Swords & Sandals

by Mark Ahn
I left Hercules this past weekend wondering about the last time I was totally satisfied with a sword and sandal movie.

For the sake of clarity, I’m taking “sword and sandal” movies to mean mostly those about Greek/Roman mythology or based in one of those settings. So I’m not including movies with armored knights on horses or set in Gaelic or Scandinavian culture (even though the Romans were around), although those movies are perfectly fun and worth having a conversation about (I love Valhalla Rising).

I didn’t want to go as far back as Ben-Hur or Spartacus, so I decided that Gladiator was a safe starting point, since most people liked it just fine and the year 2000 pleases my OCD. The quality of the movies is, at best, uneven. In fairness, we could probably take a list of any subgenre since 2000 and say the same.

2000 – Gladiator

2002 – The Scorpion King

2004 – Troy, Alexander

2006 – 300

2007 – The Last Legion

2010 – Clash of the Titans, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Centurion

2011 – Immortals, Conan the Barbarian, The Eagle

2012 – Wrath of the Titans

2014 – The Legend of Hercules, Pompeii, 300: Rise of an Empire, Hercules

Exodus: Gods and Kings is also slated for 2014, which looks promising. A few of these might be a stretch, especially The Last Legion.

I won’t get into ranking these movies, or discussing all the ones that work or don’t (that’s better left for the comments) but when these movies do, they usually have 3 components: 1) engaging live action, 2) an idea of how seriously to take the material, and 3) a lead actor who can generate sympathy from the audience, either through charisma or emotional arc. Basic stuff, but it helps draw the line between something like Clash of the Titans and something like Centurion.
Not engaging live action
Just to clarify, the distinction is between what works and what doesn’t. I think 300 works, but I could understand when people say it’s not good. Prince of Persia just doesn’t work.

The live action component might seem outdated, especially with more movies using digital effects, but I find that’s the common factor in the re-watchability of these films. Obviously, many of these films are not exclusively live action, but the ones that work have an actual actor sparring with another that the weight feels right, and the slow-motion adds to the live action, instead of inert hordes of visual effects charging at each other.
Also, I think the action works in Immortals.
So, the future. I’ll share three stories that could potentially be good movies. The first one is sort of obvious.

1) Jason and the Argonauts 
- With all due respect to the Harryhausen movie, part of what makes this so potentially enjoyable is the different directions the story could go. Legendary roster of heroes? A quest for a mythical object? Witchcraft? A spurned son seeking his rightful inheritance? Jason Momoa, Scott Adkins, and Zoe Bell, step right up.

2) Theseus
 - Aside from fighting the Minotaur, Theseus also went on several Hercules-like labors and also broke into the underworld. Also, did you know that Tom Hardy was in a movie called Minotaur (2006)? Here’s the trailer:

That looks terrible; don’t bring it up when you see Tom Hardy hanging out. We definitely could use a better Theseus and the Minotaur movie; you’d especially get my attention if it was structured like a detective thriller or science fiction, although horror would work.

3) The Odyssey
 - Odysseus, although not quite an anti-hero, has many anti-hero qualities, most notably that he uses his intelligence to overcome his obstacles rather than brute force. This is exactly the type of historically fictionalized material that Ridley Scott goes for.

 Also, apparently there is a 1997 movie called the Odyssey:

Aside from these stories, I’d also to see some new directors find their way into this particular genre. Ridley Scott is a fixture, and Ed Zwick has made some historical-feeling war movies, but I’d like to see someone like Paul Greengrass make an attempt. He’s already shown an interest in filming historical material, has the action credentials, and hasn’t made one of these movies yet.

I’m sure I’ve missed source material that would make a great sword and sandal movie, or directors who would do a great job creating one. What do you guys think?


  1. Great column, and I've been actually wondering the same thing recently, that swords and sandal movies (or historical epics in general) have been severely lacking in the last decade. There have been some watchable movies I suppose, but nothing all that great. Which is why I hold Gladiator, Braveheart, and even Noah in such a high regard, even if they aren't nearly the perfect movies some make them out to be, but at least they're not merely passable like many are these days. Exodus does look promising, but Ridley Scott has had a few recent letdowns, so I won't get my hopes up quite yet.

    I did like the directors cut of Kingdom of Heaven though, which was Ridley Scott's last great movie, but the movie that they put into theaters was not nearly as good. Which kind of shows what Hollywood wants from this genre of movie. Something that is short enough to have many showings in a day; which often means taking out major elements of the plot. Then above all else they want standard PG-13 fare, with toned down blood, violence, and fight scenes. For a while there these epics were moving towards the Disney standard with Pirates of the Caribbean, The Lone Ranger, and the dreadful Three Musketeers. Maybe it's a good thing the last two bombed, and put a halt to those embarrassing efforts.

    Now I didn't mind Hercules, but it's very much like Scorpion King in many ways, where if another actor was put into the lead role (say Brendan Fraser) the movie would have been much worse. To its credit at least it's far better than Clash/Wrath of the Titans, and I liked it more than the rather strange Immortals.

    Warners is actually making another live action Odyssey though, so we do have that to look forward to. It looks like the director of Stalingrad is at the helm of it, and I wonder if they'll bring back Sean Bean for the role. I am sure they will try and cast someone younger, but can they really turn away from the lore Bean has these days?

    1. Thank Alex!

      I would say that though there aren't a ton of strictly sword and sandal movies int the last decade, if you add these to the number of historical epics, then then are about 2 in a year, and that's pretty good, I think. So, on top of the list above, it includes movies like The Last Samurai, King Arthur, and Kingdom of Heaven.

      I hope Ridley Scott keeps making movies, because he's the only director who's really committed himself to this genre, although not without some clunkers (let's never speak about Robin Hood). I like the longer cut of KOH as well, and suggest that anybody who is on the fence about that movie to check it out. The theatrical cut suffers from focusing too much on Orlando Bloom's rather leaden starring role, whereas the director's cut divides the narrative weight on some of the other more interesting characters. That's my recollection at least; it's been awhile since I've watched it.

      Sean Bean would be great because I generally really like Sean Bean in most things, but can't see him getting cast in the Warner Bros. remake because it's supposed to be set in SPACE?

    2. Yeah I think much of my under appreciation of Scott's recent work was because of Robin Hood. Most of his other recent work has been good or at least tolerable. I'll probably never watch The Counselor again, but there was an interesting idea in there somewhere. Robin Hood though... ugh, the climax of that movie alone makes me shudder. It's not even a real Robin Hood movie; I'll go with Kevin Costner and Christian Slater and their awful accents for a better take on Robin Hood.

      Are they really setting The Odyssey in space though? I'd call it an unusual move, but I suppose it could make for an interesting backdrop. Maybe that's changed though, since Fedor Bondarchuk came aboard? I can't see the guy who directed Stalingrad making a sci-fi epic.

      Who knows if it will ever see the light of day anyway, as I think there were discussions to make The Odyssey into a movie when Troy came out, and that only ended up only being a mild hit. So unless this one's made for a smaller budget, who knows if it will go any further than just "discussions".

    3. What kills me the most about Robin Hood is that there are so many good stories involving that character, but we ended up with something so inert and unnecessarily politically tinged and wrapped up in the grim trappings of gritty realism. I'm not saying it needs to be A Knight's Tale, but Robin Hood could have used a little more of that lighter, adventure-story touch.

      Bondarchuk is an intriguing choice for a director, and I'm hoping his choice is not a cynical move to court Russian and Chinese audiences. Jeremy Doner, who writes for The Killing, and is supposed to be on the script. Let's hope for a good one.

  2. First things first, in part of a fairly epic dream last night which I won't get into because ugh, it's so annoying when someone tries to describe their dream, you and I were hosting the podcast together! Except I was just like transcribing our conversation in a chat room - must have been 1996! We were going to F The Matrix but then I had to run down some hallways to get somewhere before something bad happened. ANYway...

    Totally on board for a Theseus movie but that movie does look terrible - I like how Hardy's character is named "Theo" - huh? Get it? Huh? And I thought I saw Thor's Dad but I checked out IMDB and it was Rutger Hauer. And Tony Todd's in it too. Wait a minute, maybe we all need to see this!

    And yeah, why hasn't a great, high budget Odyssey movie been made - into a Hobbit-style bloated trilogy perhaps? I had a novelization of it when I was a kid that I must have read 10 times. I'd cast Sean Bean in the lead - even if he's busy doing something else it probably won't be for long!

    And you were vague on where you stand on 300 - I'm sure there's a thousand reasons why it's not good but I've always liked it a lot, more for style than substance I suppose. You?

    1. FTM the Prequel? Nice. Did you have to print out the transcripts on dot matrix printers? Hopefully the AOL mods didn't kick anybody out.

      My first run-in with the Odyssey was in 8th grade, when I discovered there was an abridged version in the back of our literature textbooks, which I proceeded to read on my own. It beat the heck out of Julies Caesar, but I cam around on that too.

      I think 300 works, with a charismatic main character, some inventive live action, and knowing how seriously to take the material (helped immensely by Frank Miller's aesthetic and narrative). Adam Riske has appointed me as Asian Hemingway, so I am obliged to say that 300 also taps into that Gladiator/Braveheart masculinity narrative that these types of movies are fueled on. The weakest parts seem to be some extraneous plot threads, and the relatively plain arch-villain, but those don't sink the ship.

  3. I know this is a movie site, but we'd be remiss in not giving a shout-out to HBO/BBC's Rome, the gold standard for sword-and-sandals filmed entertainment post-2000, and maybe even ever. (I've heard good stuff about Starz's Spartacus also, but haven't yet tried it). Maybe the reason so many of these S&S movies are so tame and generic is the studios feel the need to bend themselves all over to make their stories inoffensive to contemporary viewers. In this regard, I think The Eagle was really terrific in grounding audiences in the Roman protagonist's mindset, and letting them - encouraging them, even - to make up their own minds about the situation, with the British slave questioning the Legionnaire's values and society in a way that didn't feel corny or pat. It's definitely deserving of a podcast, as is Troy, which I think is almost great, especially in the Director's Cut (the heinous replaced music cue in the Achilles/Hector throw-down notwithstanding) - by excising the gods, it captures the feel of The Iliad in a way a more faithful adaptation never could.

    I'm also a big fan of the Clash of the Titans remake - I disagree with Patrick; I think it's a lot of fun. If I could have any S&S wish, it'd be for an HBO/BBC series about Athens, as a spiritual prequel to Rome. Otherwise, my main hope is that we get more ancient-times-styled weirdness - I believe Patrick when he says The Rock's Hercules is better than its plot summary may suggest, but even so, a Hercules without mythical monsters is not something I much want to see.

    1. I never watched Rome, but did catch a lot of the episodes of Spartacus when they were on Netflix, way back when. I found them very entertaining, mostly because it focuses on action and a revenge narrative; I find myself getting a little bored if it's too much political palace intrigue. I agree with you that the show's TV-MA allows it to find a tone that is appropriate to the story, rather than sticking to a bloodless violence that leads to a bigger audience. A gladiator show with bloodless violence would be pretty sad.

      I think the depiction of gods in mythological sword and sandals movies is one of the hardest things to get right. It feels like most movies have gone the route of avoiding them altogether for fear of neutering the hero.

      I'm curious to hear what you like about Clash of the Titans, because I find myself not liking it. I'm always up for hearing somebody who can make a movie I don't like more palatable.

    2. Well, I pretty much agree with Ebert's three-star review. I thought the action all around was great, including a fantastic Kraken climax. I loved Perseus' punk rock anti-gods attitude (which, yes, the reshot ending shies away from somewhat, but by that point I've had so much fun I don't really mind). I really dug the fast-paced, just-the-facts-and-brawls story. Gemma Arterton is luminous, no complaints there. And the ticking-Hades-bomb plot keeps me invested and rooting for the expedition all the way through.

      It's trash, yes, but it's unabashed, fun trash, with a fairly brisk running time (the longer, subtler movie originally envisioned, which Devin Faraci wrote that piece about, doesn't sound nearly as enjoyable to me). It may not have any Titans, but it definitely delivers on the Clash. I've never seen the original, but I've always been interested in the excitement of its Pegasus-with-lightning poster/lunch box as seen in the also-bananas Once Upon a Time in Mexico, and this movie felt like the embodiment of that poster. Also, Gemma Arterton is reaaaallllyyy pretty.

    3. I think I've identified our difference: our opinions of Gemma Arterton! Just not my cup of tea.

      I can agree with you that I had fun with the action. I do wish the Kraken made a longer appearance at the end. Glad that you enjoyed the movie.

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