The films of “Classic Hollywood”—the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s—are fun and fascinating to watch, especially for their glamorous aesthetics. This era of cinema was also filled with period pieces, many set in the ancient world of the Mediterranean. When classic Hollywood took on the classics—ancient Greece, Rome, and Egypt—the results were often spectacular, dramatic epics. The sumptuous costumes and grandiose art deco sets make for a very different picture of the ancient world than contemporary adaptations like 300 or Troy.
- The Ten Commandments (1956)
Cecil B. DeMille’s epic drama, depicting the life of the biblical figure Moses, is a visual treat regardless of religious affiliation. The film is nearly four hours, but every scene is filmed in striking VistaVision and packed with colorful detail. At the time of its production it was the most expensive film ever made, and it won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects.
Charlton Heston plays Moses, who struggles against the Egyptian pharaoh Rameses (played by Yul Brynner of The King and I) for the freedom of enslaved Israelites. Filmed on location in Egypt, the epic follows the story of Moses and the Israelites searching for the Promised Land for forty years.
Media Services recently got a special edition of The Ten Commandments,which includes the 1923 silent film as well. Come check it out! (Click on the title link above. All title links connect to the item’s IUCAT record.)
- Cleopatra (1934)
Another Cecil B. DeMille classic, Cleopatra jumps several centuries forward in history to depict the famous story of Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, and Marc Antony.
Claudette Colbert plays the powerful, glamorous and seductive Cleopatra, who is vying for power over Egypt and throughout the Roman Empire. Cleopatra follows the political and romantic intrigue between its titular queen, Julius Caesar (Warren William), and Marc Antony (Henry Wilcoxon)—but like The Ten Commandments, the visual spectacle of the Egyptian costumes and set designs is just as exciting as the plot.
Because it was made just before the enforcement of the “Hays Code,” the film is a bit more risqué than other black-and-white films of the period. Still, it was a smash hit: nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, it took home the award for Best Cinematography.
Available in the Media Services Teaching & Research section.
- Helen of Troy (1956)
Jumping back to 1100 B.C., my next pick is the 1956 Warner Bros. film Helen of Troy. The film stars Jacques Sernas and Rossan Podesta, and is loosely based on Homer’s account of the Trojan War and the “face that launched a thousand ships.” Brigitte Bardot appears as Andraste—at 22, this was her first American film!
- The Celluloid Closet (1995)
For a change of pace, check out the 1995 documentary film The Celluloid Closet. The documentary is broadly about the history of LGBT representation in Hollywood. Filled with 90’s stars and narrated by Lily Tomlin, it tracks progress from stereotypes in early Hollywood, to covert representation in the Hays Code era, to emergent representation in the 90’s.
In the documentary, Gore Vidal shares a fascinating story about his contributions to the script of the 1959 Ben-Hur, which sets Charlton Heston in ancient Jerusalem. Vidal reports that, unbeknownst to Heston, he wrote the characters of Ben-Hur and Messala as former lovers. While Heston denies the story, it is an interesting take on the subtext of the campy Hollywood classic.
The Celluloid Closet is available in Media Services’ Teaching and Research and Browsing Documentary sections. JW
Josie Wenig is a PhD student in Religious Studies, studying early Christianity, philosophy, and transgender theory.