Pompeii, Noah and Exodus: The sword giveth again
Harness the zebras and fill the bath with asses' milk, the sword and sandal epic is back. Never in 50 years have we seen so many breastplates, so much leather. A genre that was deader than Caesar is risen, with a slew of new movies that are expected to be, well, bigger than Ben-Hur.
We must beware the Ides of March. Before this month is out, Pompeii will have been destroyed in 3D and Russell Crowe will have floated his ark as Noah, directed by Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan). Some Egyptian Muslim leaders are already calling for it to be banned; climate-change skeptics might not welcome it either.
By Christmas, Christian Bale will have parted the Red Sea as Moses in Exodus, directed by Ridley Scott, and Australian director Alister Grierson (Kokoda) is soon to shoot Mary, with Ben Kingsley as Herod and 15-year-old Odeya Rush as the mother of Christ. That is due out early next year. Son of God, a movie recut of a TV series based on the Bible, took $US44 million ($48 million) in the US in its first week.
What is going on? The heyday of these biblical epics was the 1950s, when Hollywood went looking for a way to counter the influence of television and calm the nerves of a country terrified by Cold War. They came up with wide-screen Technicolor versions of popular books and plays based on the Bible. Cecil B. DeMille came back into his own, having cut his teeth on lions and Christians in the silent era.
In DeMille's 1927 The King of Kings, Jacqueline Logan as Mary Magdalene actually tells her servant to ''Harness my zebras''. We see in the next scene how bad an idea that was: zebras do not like pulling a chariot, even for Cecil B. DeMille. In the 1930s, before the production code took out the fun bits, he put Claudette Colbert in a bath of powdered milk that slowly went off over several days of filming.
DeMille is the undisputed king of the biblical genre, and the biggest hypocrite. His biblical epics offered plentiful violence and scantily clad dancing girls before the inevitable moral finale, where the figure of Christ would come to absolve everybody for the sin of watching.
The films reflected DeMille's conservative politics. The first thing we see in his 1934 Cleopatra, also with Colbert, is an NRA membership logo, with the motto: ''We do our part''. His post-war pictures have a strongly anti-communist hue, depicting the early Christians as freedom-fighters against Roman dictators. In his version of The Ten Commandments, made in 1956, DeMille introduces the 220-minute picture himself.
It is, he says, about whether man ought to be ruled by God's law or by the laws of a dictator such as Rameses, played by Yul Brynner. ''Are men the property of the state or are they free souls under God? This same battle continues throughout the world today.''
This Cold War rhetoric turns up in a lot of the 1950s sword and sandal films - not surprising, given the threat to Hollywood from the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. The HUAC hearings from 1947 onwards may have been a primary factor in the rise of the genre. Biblical epics were a safe bet when the wolves of Washington were hunting commies and Jews in Hollywood (for some politicians, they were the same thing).
Bible subjects were safe and popular, and they offered enormous spectacle. Sex and violence were fine, because the films had wholesome heroes played by all-American stars such as Charlton Heston, who was at that time a Democrat. Even when he played a Jew such as Judah Ben-Hur, he looked like a gentile, and that was useful. As HUAC was destroying the careers of real Jews such as Edward G. Robinson, Heston was an unlikely bulwark against the anti-Semites in Washington.
Hollywood's Technicolor sword and sandal era ran from Quo Vadis in 1951 to The Fall of the Roman Empire in 1964, and many of the pictures were shot in Europe, particularly at Rome's Cinecitta Studios. The Italians developed their own sword and sandal industry, which soon dwarfed production in Hollywood.
The ''peplum'' era from 1958 to 1965 produced hundreds of films, many starring US body-builders such as Steve Reeves and Gordon Scott. These films were made fast and cheap, dubbed in English for US drive-in audiences and an Italian domestic market in need of escapism. Some of the sets and costumes turn up again and again across these hilarious, campy movies.
So, why is Hollywood reviving a style that was hard to take seriously even then? How is the new Moses going to improve on the old one played by Mr Heston?
One reason is that modern visual effects make it possible to do spectacle on a scale that DeMille never dreamed of. These films disappeared in the mid-1960s partly because they were expensive (see Cleopatra, starring Liz Taylor), but you do not have to build imperial Rome any more; you just draw it around the actors. Another reason is that films such as Gladiator (2000) and Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ (2004) have shown that modern audiences are hungry for historical adventures with a pointy end.
This is especially true since 9/11, which has caused a hardening in the politics of movies, as in the wider cultures of the West. Mel Gibson's film was partly a Christian call to arms against the infidels, and there are plenty of others. When somewhere between 80 million and 100 million Americans describe themselves as evangelical Christians, religious media is a huge market.
And in the US and beyond, so is revenge: ultra-violent fantasies such as 300 and its sequel are not simply about dramatising ancient Greek wars - they are about bashing the barbarians from the East, in this case, the Persian empires of Darius and Xerxes.
Even secular viewers who are not looking for vengeance or a blessing are watching the new television epics, such as the highly acclaimed Game of Thrones and the highly sexed Spartacus. In short, what is driving this new trend is money, and a new version of the old 1950s' battle between screens.
Both movies and television are trying to ward off the computer screen with King of Kings-size stories. When Noah and his animals go boating, they are fighting for eyeballs, with the same argument they used when The Robe came out in the new format of CinemaScope in 1951: ''Don't try this at home.'' The trend might last if Noah and Exodus are hits, but it could pass just as quickly if they fail. Those who live by the sword and sandal may also die by it, if you'll pardon the expression.