Can Homosexuals Save the Roman Epic From CGI?

Russell Crowe and Djimon Hounsou are not gay in Gladiator

On the set of Gladiator, Russell Crowe mocked his character’s signature mini monologue that came after a script rewrite: “My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.” After filming the second take, crew members stood around in quiet excitement, basking in the cinematic badassery of a moment that would stand the test of time. “It was shit,” Crowe remarked, “but I’m the greatest actor in the world and I can make even shit sound good.”

Maybe Crowe is right – if a lesser actor had played Maximus, Gladiator would have overstepped its luck on cheesy, unrealistic lines weaved through a cookie-cutter revenge plotline. But Ridley Scott’s historical epic was a massive commercial and critical success. It’s the last to feature a truly ancient setting on the backdrop of one of Rome’s greatest villains and choreographed sword fights that had history buffs vying for more episodes of the Roman world that Hollywood could zing into award season mainstays in the tradition of Ben Hur and Spartacus. Why have we not seen another sword and sandals epic equal or surpass Gladiator’s box-office numbers and plaques?

Since Gladiator, the sword and sandals subgenre has vied for relevance against massively popular niches of myth and superhero epics revolutionized by visual effects magic. In 2017, real sword fighting, with real sweat dripping off macho bodies clad in togas is boring, especially when superhero movies like Thor: Ragnarok look to up the ante on gladiator fights by throwing the Incredible Hulk in the ring.

In 2000, before the uptick of summer blockbusters relying squarely on studio magic, Scott capitalized on the genre’s old-school visual themes that now face shrinking appeal – togas, arenas, swords, battles – staples of the “sword and sandals” tradition that can no longer captivate an audience the way limitless CGI can. The next high profile sword and sandals film must not only showcase visual themes to the steroidal degree of any superhero movie, and feature great actors like Crowe to bury inevitable screenplay cheesiness, it must tap into other, more intangible themes unique to an ancient setting to have the success of Gladiator. Luckily, there’s precedent in the genre for incorporating more unsung traditions of Roman culture in the form of Ben Hur’s subtle foray into homosexuality. In 1959, audiences were not ready for a relatively progressive display gay love and emotions, but in 2017, they are! Why not show two gladiators in love and having sex?

Homosexuality not only has plot precedent in the genre, it’s historically accurate, and increasingly popular at the box-office today. Facing a downhill battle against popcorn films steeped in visual effects and boundless imagination, homosexuality can save the sword and sandals subgenre with jarring realism and pointed progressivism that would match box-office success with unique material ripe for award season. A sword and sandals movie incorporating gay themes in a bold, unrelenting way would stick out like a rainbow thumb among Hollywood’s heterosexual tradition. By accurately including the homosexual tradition of the Roman empire in the main plotline, themes which are very different from the LGBTQ scene of our own culture, filmmakers would minimize the risks of seeming unnecessarily PC, or of turning away homophobic viewers. The risks, at the very least, are well worth it for a dying genre.

Visual effects, especially CGI, can entirely eliminate the need for on-location filming, and leave increasingly little to the audience’s imagination. Gladiator used plenty of (dated) CGI, but we weren’t expecting crazy Crowe to fight real tigers in this Coliseum scene. Today, it’s no longer just supplementary, but it’s not any less expensive either. 2013’s most expensive movies were made with some or entirely with CGI, easily the biggest slice of the budget. The timing and practicality of film schedules and locations are solved by computers – and clearly, studios think it’s worth it. Movie giants like James Cameron and Jon Favreau marketed Avatar and The Jungle Book as products which were almost entirely created by advancements in computer imagery – so realistic that there was no need to film in a jungle or other appropriate landscape.

Just six years after Gladiator, 300 employed visual effects so liberally that it fundamentally changed the appearance of the film, intentionally showcasing its graphic novel roots to give us a Battle of Thermopylae that never once saw filming in Greece. Director Zach Snyder shot the entire film at the Icestorm Studios in Montreal using bluescreens – and while this worked for his religious commitment to the source material, it foreshadowed how producers of historical epic would increasingly reject the “old fashioned way” for the dreaded subgenre of “myth movies”. Clash of the Titans and Wrath of the Titans, held up only by a thundering Liam Neeson summoning the Kraken, are a genre unto themselves outside the tradition of Gladiator.

Even true sword and sandal movies that avoided the appeal of overzealous visual effects bombed critically or commercially. The Last Legion incorporated some interesting King Arthur elements into a story of Rome’s last emperor, Romulus Augustulus, but was a forgettable dud. Oliver Stone’s Alexander the Great uses perfect source material (i.e. one of the greatest military expedition in human history) but spreads forgettable human elements across several battle scenes. Troy, released in 2004, came closest to Gladiator’s model and was a box office success that boasted some surprisingly believable performances from Brad Pitt and Eric Bana, but still fell short of the award season success of Ridley Scott’s faux-masterpiece.

Gladiator is cheesy but conveniently timely, released before the evolution of ultra-realistic visual effects, and the parallel rise of audience expectations. It accomplished multi-faceted success on Hollywood’s best terms – a protagonist who was never real and a plot that is entirely fabricated. Commodus was definitely a crazy asshole who enjoyed watching and participating in fixed fights in the Coliseum, but he never killed his father Marcus Aurelius (who died of the plague) or spurred a general of the North who never lived by killing his family.

Hollywood has never prided itself on historical accuracy date for date – and that’s fine, many episodes of ancient history can be chopped into a 150-minute runtime with no one actually caring if the characters for real…but they have to be interesting, and interacting in a way weren’t used to.

Gladiator buried its revenge plot cheesiness beneath Crowe’s performance and succeeded on visuals that were breathtaking in 2000, but a man exacting vengeance against the emperor for killing his family by working his way through (by today’s standards, slow-paced) arena fights is bland for a mass audience, and wholly unacceptable to awards shows…without any extra spice. Imagine a remake of Gladiator in 2017 – not only with updated visuals to compete at the box-office with the superhero giants but perhaps featuring a gay Maximus much to the pleasure of eagerly progressive award shows?

Audiences are ready to suspend stereotypes about gay culture and cast aside qualms about traditionally masculine men engaging in gay acts to enjoy fresh Hollywood themes backed by historical realism. According to Variety, intolerance for LGBTQ characters or moments in the film has evaporated over the years. Beauty and Beast, while destined for massive success no matter the sexual preference of any of its characters, featured that 3-second Josh Gad scene towards the end that was controversial in progressive circles for not going even further.

For 1959’s Ben Hur, bisexual screenwriter Gore Vidal claims that he instructed Steven Boyd, who played Hur’s childhood friend turned enemy Massala, to act as a scorned lover torn apart by political differences Videl suggested that the bitter hatred the characters have for one another is more realistic with a gay subtext.

Antinous mysteriously died on the Nile after a well-documented affair with Hadrian (117-138 A.D.)

Videl rationalizes a gay subtext by matter-of-factly declaring that “he’s a Roman,” correctly suggests that homosexuality was prevalent in Roman culture since the mid-Republic, and certainly common in the early and mid-imperial settings of Ben Hur and Gladiator. But the stereotypes of speaking with a lisp or dressing in drag, the whole range of imagery associated fairly or not with the LGBTQ community, is nowhere to be found in ancient Rome. In Videl’s own words: “There are only homo or heterosexual acts. Most people are a mixture of impulses if not practices.”

The emperor Hadrian bemoaned the loss of his lover Antinous by deifying the young man and establishing a cult in his name, while also maintaining a wife Vibia Sabina. Masculinity was equated with sexual dominance – over women and other men alike. According to MetroWeekly, Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960) hinted at this in a bathtub scene taken out before the film’s release in which Laurence Olivier’s character, taking interest in the slave Antoninus, says: “Some people like oysters, some people like snails. I like oysters and snails.”

The Lex Scantinia, a poorly documented law dating past the late Republic, allegedly addressed this dichotomy – it primarily functioned to punish a sex crime (stuprum) against a freeborn male minor (ingenuus or praetextatus), but may have also served to prosecute men who knowingly took the “passive position” in homosexual acts. Gay sex was not explicitly outlawed in ancient Rome, so long as the individual in the dominant role was a citizen in good standing. Latin has no words that designate strictly homosexual or heterosexual. Prejudice was directed strictly at those who took the submissive, and therefore, feminized, role in a sex act.

On the Starz series Spartacus: Blood and Sand, the network used a gay sex scene to reveal a homosexual character Barca. The network described him like this: “A big, hulking brute of a man, an esteemed gladiator and also Batiatus’s bodyguard and sometimes hit man, Barca is second only to Crixus at the ludus. Though possessed of a temper and an imposing stature, he tempers this with the tenderness he shows…for Pietros.”

The 2015 remake of Ben Hur missed the opportunity to “go further”, with producers arguing that the political progress of homosexuals had eliminated Hollywood’s liberal obligation to include Videl’s homosexual backstory in the remake. The Hur remake was a dud, and proof that audiences are no longer invested in what sword and sandals films can bring just visually. Homosexuality allows for historical accuracy and inherently unique plotlines that will draw money of a progressive base and award buzz from committees and guilds used to fawning over a well made historical epic. Filmmakers can restore intrigue in the genre by embodying Roman culture’s themes and practices beyond just sandy arenas and revenge.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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My name is Connor Blue Harrison, a 24-year-old from Gainesville, Florida currently completing an M.S. in Journalism at Boston University.

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  1. Gay subtext or not, apart from the two famous action scenes (the naval battle and the chariot race), the Charlton Heston version of Hur is tedious beyond belief, with all the trappings that can be expected from Eisenhower-era biblical reverence. Spartacus, released only a year later, may have its flaws, but it’s a breath of fresh air in comparison.

  2. Has anyone ever read the book, “Ben Hur”? I am sure that Lew Wallace did not have any sexual subtext in there.

    • I have read it (although it was a while ago), and still have it. Perhaps I’ll re-read it one of these winter nights.

      In any case, I see no need to introduce a ‘gay sub-text’ into the relationship between Ben-Hur and Messala, when simple political ambition on Messala’s part provides more than enough heat to explain the virulence. People shouldn’t forget that a (successful) military career was seen as somewhat of a prerequisite for the pursuit of any higher political office in the Roman Republic/Empire. And Messala was plainly a very ambitious Roman. Political candidates would often bare their battle scars as part of their political campaigning. And 1st-Century Judea was certainly a hot-bed of insurrection, where a young up-and-comer could hope to make a name for himself.

      Much like in America today.

      And, yes, Gore Vidal must be much missed by some, for his uncomfortable truthiness regarding aspects of American ‘civilization’. The RWNJs probably celebrate the anniversaries of his death.

      And no, I won’t be going to see the re-make … I’m getting heartily sick of re-makes, prequels, and sequels to stand-alone movies, whose sole reason for being made are for intellectually-lazy and artistically-deficient mega-studio film-makers to make more mega-bucks off the artistic achievements of their more talented predecessors.

  3. Mario Doe

    I really miss Vidal. We need his bite and wit more than ever, as there’s been no suitable successor.

  4. I always thought the gay subtext in the original Ben Hur wasn’t too well done. I mean, it had potential, but it could have been so much more. It was “too implied” if you get what I mean, they needed to flesh it out a bit more, and unless they new writers could have implemented it better, I’m in favor of cutting it.

    • And how would you propose they “flesh out” the gay theme for what was a very expensive blockbuster movie at the time?

      Brokeback Mountain was only a few years ago, really. What other major Hollywood production has gone there? (I’m not counting Philadelphia, since that was ABOUT being gay, and was not an epic with a cast of hundreds).

  5. Latrisha Egan

    I think the only solution should be to make at least one character in any mainstream movie gay, or otherwise give it a less favorable rating. People need education.

  6. If you take a story that is essentially about faith and turn it into nothing but a macho slug fest you better leave out any hint of homosexuality or the mindless minions won’t show up. But as it turns out, the Millennial audience that frequents the cinemas these days won’t go anywhere near movies like Hur anyway.

  7. Carmona

    I don’t understand (except the obvious, milkin it for all it’s worth!) the reason to make another version at all. There’s a classic movie and a recent (2010) mini-series, why another?

  8. Stephan Rubio

    The sexual tension injected by Vidal into Ben Hur was a masterstroke of writing and direction. The problem is – you can’t pull off the same trick again because the audience is expecting it. Perhaps that’s why the film(re)makers of this one chose to dispense with it.

  9. Bullard

    More importantly, why did they remake Ben Hur?

    • In fairness, the 1957 version was a remake, though a definitive one. The best thing to do with these modern remakes is to ignore them completely, an attitude which confirms that I’ve gotten old.

    • The same reason they made Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings – Hollywood has realized there is money to be made making movies for evangelicals.

  10. This article makes the accurate point that we are not living in a more “enlightened” age as we are often lead to believe.

  11. It’s funny how the people most afraid of “gay sub context” are usually the ones with the most unresolved, or un-self-recognized, issues concerning their sexuality: hence, so many conservative politicians caught soliciting sex in men’s bathrooms.

    • I don’t know of one coservative politician caught soliciting sex in men’s bathrooms. Although it is plausible that it has taken place sometime, somewhere.

  12. JulieCMillay

    This was such an insightful stance, I really enjoyed the article!! Great topic and great execution on your commentary.

  13. By all means, let a noisy minority of sexually-preoccupied special interests decide what movies get made and how they are written.

    • They will also, by extension, be deciding what films get seen in China and India. You know, the largest movie markets on the planet?

      Yes, it sucks that big budget films often bury or outright eliminate certain sexual subtexts, but movies are a business, and if you’re looking at making back your investment plus some decent profits on a multi-hundred billion dollar film, you’re going to want it seen in cinemas in Asia, which means you either write the film with that in mind, or you have to make a special cut to get past the censors. Much easier to simply release a film that has a strong likelihood of passing muster to begin with.

  14. Munjeera

    A very unusual perspective.

  15. CB, your research and knowledge of the Roman life is obviously thorough. And your idea of portraying more accurately the homosexuality of Romans is fantastic. It would definitely add a novel dimension that surely audiences would accept. After the success of Brokeback Mountain, I doubt anyone could argue otherwise.
    Sword and sandals movies have never made me run to the theatres. For me, Gladiator was memorable because of Ridley Scott’s direction, his casting and their talents (Russell Crowe, obviously, but more Joaquin Phoenix, Oliver Reed, Richard Harris, Derek Jacobi, and Djimon Hounsou). The fact that the filmmakers took artistic license with the history…well, that’s Hollywood for you. I didn’t expect to be learning any history and I seriously doubt that the large majority of its viewers even noticed or cared. Truth is people go to the movies to be entertained, to be provoked, to escape their everyday lives for 2 hours.
    In my opinion, sword and sandal movies seem passé. However, with the right cast, the right director, a great script with an appealing storyline, I might even walk to the theatre (living in LA, that says a lot!) Truth be told, I endured The Immortals purely for Henry Cavill. Shirtless, looking fine…the movie is quite terrible, but worth every cent I spent.
    Homosexuality is now depicted in teen movies, TV, and every other show on the major networks especially if Shonda Rhimes has any part of it. It would be surprising if anyone had a problem with it, especially as it wouldn’t be gratuitous, it would be realistic (and historically accurate).
    Unfortunately, there is no magic formula for making a commercially or critically successful movie. That being said, I think you’re on to something!
    Oh, thank you for your article. It’s very well written, great references & main idea, and food for thought. A really good read! I look forward to more. Keep on trucking! as they used to say in ancient times…

  16. Very interesting. You’ve obviously put a lot of thought to this.

  17. I thought that line was cheesy as hell.

  18. Can the queens save the Roman movie…? Too late. Gore Vidal, outside of Bill Clinton, the last persona ta give the romans a chance at dignity, is dead and I don’t feel so good myself. I have since a kid been told that there is a reason that the noble savagery of mezzo, interesting word, America was so picked up upon by the Germans and the white trash who ruled the land now and more now than then, , barbarians all. I was warned that eventually a love of noble savages would trickle down to a love of those Leoncavallo painted up vikings, so adored by Hitler and who almost sniffed out civilization in whole, as not called a holocaust amazingly is the fact that the forebears of most of the people in the senate killed 7 oily wops out of every ten people alive in Italay at the fall of Rome. But as one of my Google plus friends recently has told me, he is a communist where as I believing nothing so we get along, as I do with most, they ave have a name in Greek for Stalins dared and now declared starving of the Urals, which probably was just him playing devils and Satan lest anyone realizes what an incapacitate he really was. But,when I see a stride spectacle like that old buzzard macKane stoppping so low, a scar on his face like a pirate, or a Cassius, Caesars line of the once vaunted senate being nothing more now than a mausoleum where buzzards who ate too much carrion at Cumea went to die, has never been so on the button. With arthritic hands and aged beak, our Banshee, votes one way then homilies the other, lest we pay attention to either, as again the senate has more to do with later Romans than the early ones. Someone should have not portended that this wasn’t their bill all along, as those salad days of that house everything being able to hand you all the travel bans you wanted was a salad days that couldn’t last forever. So, his war soft shoe routine haulted long enough to beheld buckled and bleeding at the residuum,and I thought my love of Menstruation Antiny was passe, oh heavens forbid! As he is hailed by hags and fairies pf power, and Caesars wives women and comedy writer NBC Jews all wearing proper sashes, like something out of I Claudius,I liked it better when it was still Suetonius, and our beloved corpsus delecti, and as the queens crash the toilets,I know my love of Rome makes sure I always get all the jokes.

  19. I agree that it would be interesting to see a film set in Greece or Rome with gay characters, or honestly in any other genre than romance or genre. It would be really cool to see gay representation in the protagonist of an action movie, and not in a villain or as comic relief. I’d love to see a giant blockbuster superhero movie where the subplot love interest is of the same sex.

  20. I find this piece both refreshing and hopeful. Recently, there has been a notable shift towards characters in popular culture who are increasingly sexually fluid. More and more screenwriters seem to be consulting the Kinsey scale and helping bring this concept out of the proverbial closet. Although not a member of the ‘sword and sandal’ genre, the hugely popular Game of Thrones has featured multiple characters who sleep with both members of the opposite and their own sex. It is well past time that we see realistic human sexual behaviour represented on both big and small screen.

  21. We’ll always have Steve Reeves.

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