“Toga movies” were supposed to be a thing of the past. But filmmaker Ridley Scott proved that assumption wrong with 2000’s “Gladiator”—and studios have been plucking ancients for pictures ever since.
Toga movies peaked in the early 1960s after a healthy run of pictures like “Quo Vadis?” “The Robe,” “The Ten Commandments,” “Ben-Hur,” “Cleopatra” and “Spartacus.”
After that, the ancient world on film was limited mostly to B-movies, cultish TV series and occasional made-for-TV movies or mini-series. Remember “The Last Days of Pompeii”?
However, after “Gladiator,” starring Russell Crowe, earned $457 million and won five Oscars, ancient history seemed less like a stuffy college course and more like a copyright-free story warehouse ripe for plundering by studios in search of a blockbuster.
With such movies burdened by big budgets for expansive action, location shooting and large casts—not to mention a lingering bias against “period pictures”—it becomes necessary, in Hollywood logic, to attach a superstar to the project for box-office draw. As for the superstars themselves, it’s a bit of an ego stroke to give face to their ancient celebrity counterparts.
When Entertainment Weekly assembled its yearly “It” list of people who are shaking up Hollywood, Alexander the Great appeared as the “It Dead Guy.”
“Alexander’s past is interesting enough for a trilogy,” the magazine wrote. “He was schooled by Aristotle, marched his army from Gibraltar to the Punjab, considered himself divine, and bought the farm at 32.”
Thus, Leonard DiCaprio will star in Baz Luhrmann’s “Alexander the Great.” Colin Farrell will star in another Alexander biopic for Oliver Stone.
Brad Pitt will star as Achilles in Wolfgang Peterson’s Trojan War epic “Troy.” Vin Diesel plans to play Carthaginian warrior “Hannibal,” who crossed the Alps to whip Roman forces during the Second Punic War (218-202 B.C.). Several other movies couched in ancient history are in the works at various studios.
In a bit of irony, many of these productions are not being shot in the locales of their inspiration on account of fears of terrorist activity.
Luhrmann’s “Alexander” project recently decided to shift production from Morocco to Australia. That’s a boon for the Australian film industry, since the budget on Luhrmann’s epic is reported around $200 million.
When these movies start hitting theaters next year, expect renewed interest in ancient history courses and books. Look for more specials about these characters on the History Channel and Discovery Channel. And don’t be surprised if a wee Hannibal shows up at your door on Halloween.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.