Modern commercials use the word “epic” loosely to describe everything from video games to cell phones; however, the word epic typically recounts a long journey made by a hero who undergoes a transformation during his or her adventures. The historical epic genre follows the conventions of such a perilous journey, but includes other iconographies, such as the sword and sandal look of the Greco-Roman period. Elaborate and expensive mainstream films categorize the historical epic genre, using this spectacle to attract a large audience (Paul 15). While the historical epic always includes such spectacle, the true uniqueness and significance of the genre stems from the director’s ability to underscore the portrayed events that happened two and half thousand years ago with messages that pertain to contemporary political and social issues affecting Americans at the time of the film’s creation. Specifically, Stanley Kubrick used Spartacus to comment on the immorality and irrationality of post-war despite the censorship of the post-classical era, and, forty years later, Oliver Stone made Alexander an allusion to George W. Bush and the imperialism of the War on Terror, partially through employing the new, computer generated technology that the post-modern era offers to contemporary filmmakers.
The decline of McCarthyism in the late 1950s as well as the break down of general conservative culture right before the dawn of modernism in film greatly influenced Stanley Kubrick’s direction of Spartacus. In his essay “Who Killed the Legend of Spartacus? Production, Censorship, and Reconstruction of Stanley Kubrick’s Epic Film”, Duncan Cooper correctly notes: “[Spartacus] dealt with a topic that was politically suspicious to many when it was first released… it’s principle screenwriter was Dalton Trumbo who had been blacklisted for many years” (1). Stanley Kubrick used Spartacus to comment on the absurdity of the blacklisting in film, which insisted that anyone accused of being a communist name someone to take his or her place or else be banned from creating films. This point can be best illustrated in the scene when the Roman legions demand that Spartacus stand up and reveal himself, but instead each man in the captured slave army calls out “I’m Spartacus”. Kubrick cleverly included this scene because Dalton Trumbo bravely did not accuse anyone of being a communist, just as the slaves refused to give away their beloved leader. The scene further explores Kubrick and Trumbo’s unfavorable opinion of the American government, which they portray through the ignorant and unmerciful Roman soldiers. In Spartacus, the Roman soldiers put the rebellious slaves to death, even though they had a just reason – their freedom – to fight for. Similarly, the American government essentially “put to death” those filmmakers who did not name names by taking away their jobs in the film industry, making it nearly impossible for them to support themselves and often times ruining their film careers. Cooper also points out that “the film represents a breakthrough for left-wing themes in Hollywood Cinema after a decade of McCarthyism, not only because of its revolutionary political message but also because blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo received credit for the screenplay under his own name” (14). Spartacus ended the film blacklisting, giving Dalton Trumbo screenwriting credit – making it more than just a political commentary since it also changed the political scene at the time of its creation. Regardless, Stanley Kubrick did something that most filmmakers cannot imitate – he critiqued the American government while also praising the ideas of liberty and freedom that have influenced the United States since its founding. Martin Winkler acknowledges: “In its presentation of Spartacus as a messianic protagonist, the film expresses a dual emphasis on freedom and religion that is… more revealing about how Americans see themselves” (157-158). While Stanley Kubrick uses the historical epic to critique the corrupt American government, he also appeals to the idea of the “American dream” – an underdog rising up to face an insurmountable evil. Although, for historical accuracy’s sake, Spartacus could not overcome the Romans, he valiantly stood up to them, representing the ideal 1960s American citizen – brave, valiant, and moral. Thus, Stanley Kubrick used the basic underdog story in Spartacus to appease post-classical American citizens and as metaphors to criticize the government at the time.
Conversely, Oliver Stone could not master the art of dual critique that Stanley Kubrick employed; however, he successfully used the Greco-Roman era to comment on the immorality of George W. Bush’s attempt to imperialize Iraq during his “War on Terror.” Joanna Paul notes, “[Alexander] has long been a personification of imperialism” (21). Although others used Alexander to comment on imperialism, Oliver Stone is the first and only to do so in the post-modern era. Furthermore, Paul remarks, “It was all too easy to equate him [Alexander] with George W. Bush as a power-hungry Western ruler interfering with the East to satisfy a demand for material and political rewards” (Paul 21). Oliver Stone used Alexander’s invasion of India as a metaphor for Bush not stopping his “War on Terror” in Afghanistan, and pushing forward into Iraq in 2003. In the film, Alexander’s troops beg him not to press on and invade India, and to go home; however, Alexander refuses to listen and persistently tries to conquer the foreign territory to no avail. Similarly, Oliver Stone shows that George W. Bush had pushed the war beyond a reasonable point, and thus Stone warned early twenty-first century Americans that the United States of American could not win the “War on Terror”. In fact, like Alexander’s attempt to capture India, the war only wastes time, money, and lives. Paul goes on to say that “[Stone] presents him [Alexander] as treating his conquered territories well, not exploiting them and spreading civilization under the banner of an idealized multiculturalism and its evils” (Paul 21). Joanna Paul points out that Alexander’s conquest of neighboring lands is, in fact, “idealized” and, consequently, cannot be obtained. Modern imperialists’ lust for power hinders them from treating their conquered people well and, instead, they exploit them for their goods. For example, in the movie, Alexander marries an eastern woman, Roxane, in order to merge the two cultures and transfer some power to his newly conquered people. In contrast, contemporary Americans simply take over and change the political structure of foreign countries in the name of “freedom”, but then use the conquered countries for material goods – such as oil. By setting Alexander in the Greco-Roman period, Stone uses allusions to convey his political message, and consequently cannot be seen as an anti-imperialism radical.
Both Stanley Kubrick and Oliver Stone would not have been able to underscore their films with such controversial political messages without first successfully using the conventions and iconography – the spectacle – of the historical epic genre. Martin Winkler, a Classics professor at Ohio State University, recognizes this: “The false history on the giant screen looks real enough… when irreal history is combined with ideology the result can be irresistible” (6). The typical conventions of these sandal and sword Greco-Roman epics – lavish set design, a dominant and attractive male lead, and large battle sequences – draw innumerable people to see them, regardless of their authenticity. Moreover, Winkler goes on to remark: “As a result, historical films tend to supersede our knowledge of historical facts, not least when lavish spectacles made at million-dollar expense and with the proverbial cost of thousands dazzle our senses” (3). Filmmakers such as Stanley Kubrick and Oliver Stone spare no expense to make each scene of a historical epic filled with grandeur, but they do so to relate to and impress their audience. For instance, on the surface, Spartacus used extravagant sets and costumes not only because it was a typical convention of a historical epic, but also because it in part represented the consumer culture that arose from America’s postwar economic boom. At the time, post-classical Americans continuously expected to see greater and grander things, and Spartacus, along with other historical epics at the time, used the spectacle to draw in audiences, regardless of the cost. Kubrick, however, employed other conventions of the post-classical historical epic besides grandiose sets. He also included a large number of extras for intense battle sequences, which he showed through static (and in retrospect rather boring) long shots while panning. Kubrick, and other post-classical directors, used these types of shots for practicality’s sake rather than for an artistic reason, which would change in post-modern historical epics (Thompson 153-154). In fact, as time moved forward, many of the conventions of the historical epic changed over the forty years that bridged post-classical Spartacus with post-modern Alexander.
Oliver Stone made Alexander with all the technology and spectacle that many post-modern films employ. Because special effects and computer generated imagery dominate the post-modern era, present day audiences desire more spectacle than the post-classical historical epic could offer, making the genre become more violent and surreal. Alexander employs the use of computer generated images to create not only massive but also violent and grotesque battle scenes, a feat that could not have been accomplished in the post-classical era. In addition, the new technology allowed directors to compose new, dramatic shots that eradicated the static pre-battle long shot. Stone does this by using computer-generated imagery to follow an eagle that soars through the battleground in order to detail the large number of troops and vast background. This life-like movement makes for a far more lively and entertaining shot than the simple post-classical pan. Nevertheless, Joanna Paul reminds the audience that “evidence for the topicality… ranges from the modern fascination with entertainment violence to its allusions to contemporary American politics” (20). Thus, the spectacle only provides for entertainment value, while the director’s use of political and social commentary adds depth to a film. After all, filmmakers, such as Stone and Kubrick “sugar-coat the pill” in these high-budget historical dramas in order to educate an audience and bring awareness to important, contemporary issues.
In any case, the contrasting levels of censorship best differentiate between the post-classical and post-modern historical epic. The post-classical era severely limited what Stanley Kubrick could show on-screen because of the highly conservative 1960s American culture, thus, the time period prevented Kubrick from making some political points he wanted to (Cooper 15). One such instance includes a scene when Crassus reveals to his slave, Antoninus, his homosexual tendencies while Antoninus helps bathe him. Universal Pictures and the Catholic Church Legion of Decency cut this scene from the original 1960s version of Spartacus; however, when Universal Pictures re-released the film in 1991, during the post-modern era, they included the original footage since conservative values no longer dominated the film industry. Post-modern American society generally accepts much more varied forms of sexual orientation, which allowed Alexander to go even further by portraying Alexander as a homosexual. In addition to censoring non-heterosexual relationships, Universal Pictures and the Catholic Church Legion of Decency also prevented Stanley Kubrick from showing particularly violent scenes as well (Cooper 15). For example, when Spartacus cuts a soldier and blood spurts onto his face. The post-classical conservative nature combined with the still highly Christian values of the 1960s deemed depicted violence distasteful, and, thus it was limited in all media. In the post-modern era, however, many mediums shows at least some form of violence, and, consequently, enabled Oliver Stone to depict intense and grotesque battle scenes in Alexander without shocking modern society. The post-modern culture allowed Stone to put much more spectacle and blatantly controversial material in Alexander than Stanley Kubrick could in Spartacus, even though Kubrick pushed the boundaries of censored material in the post-classical era.
Stanley Kubrick and Oliver Stone both use an ancient, epic model in order to attract audiences through spectacle, but underscore their attention-grabbing films with radical political and often anti-American government messages. While Stanley Kubrick mastered dually critiquing the United States government and appealing to the American dream ideology during the highly conservative post-classical era, Oliver Stone used the conventions of the post-modern historical epic to comment on George W. Bush’s “War on Terror”. The fact that the historical epic genre takes place in an era over two thousand centuries ago makes these political undertones possible because it removes modern political entities and their connotations from the story. As Martin M. Winkler points out, historical epic “is not a lesson in Roman history, but it is a lesson in how Americans conceive history and of themselves” (Winkler 165). Although the technology has changed the conventions of storytelling and the political climate alters as years go by, modern filmmakers still employ historical epic genre for the same purpose as filmmakers have for many years – to entertain and to inform – because, as Cartiledge and Greenland sum up: “The ancient world makes for exceptionally good silver-screen entertainment” (Cartiledge and Greenland 3).
Cooper, Duncan L. “Who Killed the Legend of Spartacus? Production, Censorship, and Reconstruction of Stanley Kubrick’s Epic Film.” Spartacus Film and History. Ed. Winkler, Martin M. Maldan, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2007. Print.
Paul, Joanna. “Oliver Stone’s Alexander and the Cinematic Epic Tradition.” Responses to Oliver Stone’s Alexander: film, history, and cultural studies. Ed. Cartledge, Paul and Greenland, Fiona Rose. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 2010. Print.
Thompson, Kirsten Moana. “360-Degree Vision and the Historical Epic in the Digital Era.” The Epic Film in World Culture. Ed.. Robert Burgoyne. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis Group, 2011. Print.
Winkler, Martin M. The Roman Salute: Cinema History and Ideology. 1st ed. Columbus, OH: The Ohio State University, 2009. Print.
Winkler, Martin M. “The Holy Cause of Freedom: American Ideals in Spartacus.” Spartacus: Film and History. Ed. Winkler, Martin M. Maldan, MA: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2007. Print.