Celluloid Caesar Salad
The movie industry, from its earliest days to the recent production of Gladiator, has exhibited a steady interest in the ancient world. Hollywood as well as studios in Europe have produced historical epics like Spartacus and Cleopatra, mythological movies like Jason and the Argonauts and Disney’s animated Hercules, not to mention film versions of drama like Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, which Hollywood has recreated at least three times. The most notable version, of course, is the one featuring Marlon Brando as Marc Antony, but few people know of David Bradley’s 1951 version filmed here in Chicago with the columns of Soldier’s Field to serve as the backdrop of ancient Rome. Then too most of us are familiar with the BBC’s I Claudius, which brought to life the Julio-Claudian emperors from Augustus to Nero
This paper will focus on select Roman emperors and their image in cinema and drama. Julius Caesar, Caligula, Nero, and Marcus Aurelius have figured in many masterpieces of film, and a comparison of select clips will illumine different interpretations of each Caesar. For example, viewers of I Claudius familiar with John Hurt’s portrayal of Caligula will find an interesting contrast in Jay Robinson’s crazed rendition in the The Robe. Similarly, Peter Ustinov’s Nero, called by J. Solomon “one of the most magnificent pieces of hamming in the history of film,” invites comparison to the more subdued treatment in the most recent remake of Quo Vadis? Finally, Gladiator, which is, in fact, based on Hollywood’s The Fall of the Roman Empire starring Stephen Boyd and Sophia Loren features Marcus Aurelius and Commodus in a significant departure from the 1964 version. In the end, the emperors, who once provided vast spectacles for their subjects, continue to entertain us on the silver screen.