Can Homosexuals Save the Roman Epic From CGI?
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.
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.