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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: For honour.

 

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 can.”

 

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 “Giant.”

 

“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 their Homer.

 

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.