Selling an american myth
Just when you thought it was safe to go to the movies again, the dreadful mythological is back - this
time with Oliver Stone in Alexander. This, when we're still to recover from Brad Pitt's blockbuster thighs in Troy
or Russell Crowe's mini-skirted romp through Gladiator.
It doesn't take genius skills at deduction to see through the pathetic symbolism in Troy,
where Pitt plays California beach boy-turned-blonde-haired
conquering warrior Achilles. The military violence resonates with references to the allied forces' invasion of Iraq - the angry (but justified) Greeks seeking retribution
against the Trojans. If you steal someone's wife or allegedly stash away WMD, you're asking for trouble.
And yet, director Wolfgang Petersen allows room for ambiguity - keeping both sides of the 'Was Bush
right?' camp happy. Achilles is a mighty warrior but Agamemnon (like Bush) has motives that are suspect. Hector, leader of
the Trojan army, is a decent man. And there is certainly sympathy for the Trojans when their city is sacked. But regardless
of who you identify as the bad guys, Troy is a celebration
of testosterone-driven warrior skills - where old-fashioned concepts of military pride are upheld. The film's official tagline:
The story - and at one point there were as many as three Alexanders in the pipeline: Stone's, Ridley
Scott's and Baz Luhrmann's - chronicles the rise of one of the world's greatest military conquerors. A man who, in the words
of lead actor Collin Farrell, was, "Very brave, very bold, was highly ambitious, highly impassioned. Was quite lonely, was
quite damaged from his childhood... had quite unusual ideas about love or about relationships. And also quite a fear that
he would never find love and he had incredible trust issues."
Historically, wars have been fought over territory. Alexander's certainly was. But ideology has also
been a major driving force (the Christian Crusades, for instance). President Bush (senior) used the excuse that he wanted
to stop Iraq's aggression against Kuwait, and gained UN authorisation. But President Bush (junior) has confused the
traditional motivations. Was his invasion on ideological grounds (setting out to capture the thief of Baghdad) or was it about gaining control of an oil-rich nation?
Bush made neither claim. His explanation: it was to unearth WMD. The UN Security Council didn't buy
this. Nor did Hans Blix, chairman of the WMD committee. Blix, in Delhi recently, spoke of the
US's "new attitude prompted by a wish
to shake off any external restraints and to retain full freedom of action together with those who, in any given case, are
'with us' and to ignore those who are 'against us'."
Of course, Hollywood has always been fascinated by
history. What is Oliver Stone's own 1991 JFK if not a historical? From the early days of D.W. Griffith's 1915 Birth of a Nation
to Antoine's Training Day, Fuqua's 2004 flop King Arthur, Hollywood - and America - has been obsessed with recreating history. The golden
era was the Fifties when films like The Ten Commandments (1956) and the 11 Oscar-winning Ben Hur (1959) led to a rash of similar
films until Cleopatra (1963) nearly took 20th Century Fox to the cleaners and brought the party to an end. Now, over 40 years
later, the sword and sandals - a wonderful expression used by the western media to describe Gladiator and its successors -
genre is back. The obvious reason: the success of Gladiator. The other impetus: a revived interest in history, including the
history of military glory, in a post 9/11 world. But the inconvenient thing about recreating history is that it invariably
whips up a huge fuss and upsets people. The great thing about historical 'fact' or even contemporary events is that they are
all open to interpretation. After all, isn't one man's terrorist another's freedom fighter?
The latest crop of films go beyond history to mythology. And if you don't have a genuine literary source
(Homer's Iliad for Troy), no matter. You can always create
your own (Star Wars, Lord of the Rings). No problems then of authenticity issues. In any case, Hollywood has given itself huge artistic licence. What is the evidence that Achilles had
an affair with Paris' cousin? Or that Alexander was bisexual?
The facts aren't important. The symbolism is.
The important thing is how well you can play around with market-friendly clich and #233;s. Greece is the birthplace of western civilisation (and Hollywood
has largely ignored the historical and epic material from countries like China
and India). It makes commercial sense
to play up parochial pride in a country whose own history is pathetically brief.
But there's more to the revival of the sword and sandal film than just western pride. One reason why,
I suspect, these movies are so appealing to US audiences is their unabashed endorsement of a return to macho America - not
the America of Bill and Hillary Clinton with their politically correct notions of being sensitive to the other point of view,
but one founded on strong puritanical values of a clear-cut right and a clear-cut wrong. I suspect there's a yearning to get
back to simpler times when you knew who the bad guys were. I suspect that's why alpha male Bush gets re-elected (despite his
failure to get Osama 'dead or alive') and I suspect that's why audiences love superheroes from myth.
What is Bush if not the ultimate mythological figure. The sword and sandals might be missing, but the
rhetoric and the dreadful speeches have surely been spawned in the back alley of a Hollywood
studio. And so, despite some honourable Hollywood objections to Bush's presidency, there
is an unequivocal endorsement by the Establishment of his values. The good news is that ultimately, commercial sense will
prevail. All it takes is one flop to reverse the trend. Hollywood
is the ultimate dream factory. But it's a factory that runs on the principle of dollars.
An epic failure
Epic is a movie industry buzzword without a clear definition. The dictionary says one thing (or in
this case, several things), while Hollywood think tanks say another.
In Hollywoodspeak, epic is a generic phrase for any movie with a $100-million-plus budget whose creative
team has a nodding acquaintance with historical data or popular lore. With some exceptions, it’s also come to mean a
box-office and critical stiff.
“Alexander,” which opened Nov. 24, is already being pegged “the Ishtar of epics.”
“Troy” last spring didn’t perform as anticipated,
and both “King Arthur” and “The Alamo” tanked. “The Polar Express,” definitely an epic
from perspectives of cost and scope, has yet to come in from the cold with just over $81 million so far at the box office.
To borrow the title of a 53-year-old religious epic, quo vadis? Whither goest thou? What the devil
is going on? Can’t Hollywood take a hint?
A hint came last year in the form of “Cold
Mountain.” The public turned out, but not in the expected droves.
The Civil War romance, based on Charles Frazier’s best-seller, was regarded as a singular situation.
Despite the financial burdens, Nevada Film Office deputy director Robin Holabird said epics still will
be filmed because they challenge established directors who have the clout to pull big-budget projects together.
“There’s a lot of personality and, in a sense, pay-back to directors who have achieved
well,” she said. “Wolfgang Petersen (director of ‘Troy’)
being an example. … With ‘A Perfect Storm’ and things like that, he’s got a good track record for
box office hits and handling big projects and big stars. So it makes sense that if anybody could do it, these types of directors
Still, the bigger they are, the harder they fall. Nevada’s
most noteworthy epic is director George Stevens’ 1965 Bible tale, “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” In this
epic starring Max von Sydow as Jesus Christ, the area around Pyramid Lake stood in for first-century Palestine.
“(It) was immediately redubbed ‘The Longest Story Ever Told,’ which gives you a hint
at its box office success,” Holabird said. “It flopped big.”
The movie boasted an all-star cast that included John Wayne, Angela Lansbury, Charlton Heston and a
young Jamie Farr. Stevens was no slouch either, having directed the 1953 Western “Shane” and the James Dean epic
“A lot was riding on that movie, a lot of expectations,” Holabird said. “ ‘How
could you fail with a Bible epic?’ was the thought back in those days. Now, of course, we have the exact reverse. Everybody’s
shocked that a Bible epic has been the biggest movie of the year.”
Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” is an indisputable success that has brought
in more than $370 million in U.S. ticket
sales alone. That gross begins to look like a windfall when the film’s minuscule $30 million budget is considered.
Holabird said the possibility of such success helps keep epics alive.
“It’s the old gamble of moviemaking,” she said. “Most movies fail, even little
movies fail. But when you click, you click big and hopefully make up for those other failures.”
So Hollywood forged ahead this year,
and the mixed results of the studios’ epics are not easily explained.
“Troy” was the most successful
of the brew. It cost $200 million to make, and the studio spent many millions more to promote it, but it took in only $133
million domestically and did only slightly better overseas.
Miscasting seems its most obvious problem, with director Petersen toping the list. Petersen lacks the
necessary panoramic eye. His most impressive films, “Das Boot” and “In the Line of Fire,” dealt with
confined settings. The screenplay took a pseudo-majestic overview of the legendary Trojan War, but such intentions created
a void between film and filmgoers, who didn’t know who to root for. A Hollywood ending,
in which both Paris and Helen escape the wrath of the Trojan Horse marauders, offended even those who had not brushed up on
Brad Pitt’s Achilles is not a major catastrophe, but he still resembles a high-school bully instead
of a mythical warrior. Worse miscasting has left us with John Wayne as Genghis Khan in “The Conqueror” and Richard
Gere as the diaper-dancing ruler in “King David.” Colin Farrell’s Alexander is a prime candidate to join
the Epic Hall of Shame. He plays the admittedly troubled conqueror as a little boy lost.
“King Arthur” can only wish for “Troy’s”
modest gains. The revisionist retelling of the Round Table’s origins allegedly emphasized reality over mythology, with
a somber Arthur, an athletic Guinevere and an ambivalent Lancelot. Audience response was on the minus side of ambivalence,
leading to a paltry $52 million domestic intake compared to a $130 million price tag.
A somber mood also may be at the core of “The Polar Express’ ” early disappointment.
The beautifully drawn film lacks the merriment associated with holiday epics, whereas the makers of “The Incredibles”
understood that ’tis the season to be jolly. However, theaters showing “The Polar Express” in 3D IMAX are
reporting record-breaking business.
“The Alamo” reigns ignominiously as the new century’s
most notorious flop. Costing more than $100 million to make, the Texas
saga pulled in just $22 million at the box office.
Its production problems were scrutinized even outside the Lone
Star State, resulting in negative
buzz that no amount of spin control could alter. The movie’s lack of convincing major characters also surrendered audience
involvement. Amid the clutter of epic movie-watching, viewers like to identify with at least one face in the crowd.
But Hollywood-based filmmakers refuse to cry uncle.
“The Aviator,” Martin Scorsese’s biopic of Howard Hughes, opens Dec. 17 and has been
kept under wraps. But the few drips of advance buzz rave about Cate Blanchett as Katharine Hepburn.
Director Ridley Scott, whose “Gladiator” re-ignited epics in 2000, will return in 2005
with a revisionist view of the Crusades called “Kingdom
of Heaven.” Orlando Bloom will play a blacksmith engulfed in the
12th century tumult.
Scott is also unveiling “Mary, Queen of Scots” in the not-so-distant future. Bryce Dallas
Howard, daughter of Ron Howard, will possibly play Mary Stuart.
Even more intriguing is Sofia Coppola’s decision to film “Marie Antoinette.” The
success of “Lost in Translation” established Coppola as a priestess of minimalism, but there’s probably
no way to film the French Revolution in minimalist fashion. The casting also bears scrutiny. Kirsten Dunst will play the let-’em-eat-cake
queen, while indie prince (and Coppola cousin) Jason Schwartzman is her similarly ill-fated husband, Louis XVI.
The Dallas Morning News and Reno Gazette-Journal writer Forrest Hartman contributed to this report.