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Last Updated: Friday, 14 May, 2004, 07:26 GMT 08:26 UK
The return of swords and sandals epics
By Neil Smith
BBC News Online

A scene from Troy
Beware of Greeks bearing gifts - a scene from Troy
It may be all Greek to some, but the swords and sandals spectacular is making a comeback.

This week sees the much-anticipated release of Troy in the US, a $185m (103m) epic based on Homer's Iliad and starring Brad Pitt as Greek hero Achilles.

It will be followed in January 2005 by Alexander, directed by Oliver Stone and starring Irish actor Colin Farrell as the Macedonian leader Alexander the Great.

Next year the BBC will broadcast Rome, a 12-part mini-series set during the final years of Julius Caesar's reign.

And few can have escaped the recent adverts for a certain fizzy drink showing Britney Spears and footballer David Beckham wreaking havoc in a Roman amphitheatre.

Not since the days of Spartacus and Ben-Hur has this oft-derided genre been so much in favour.

Chariots and togas

Indeed, at one point there were no less than three Alexander projects in the pipeline - Stone's, another directed by Sir Ridley Scott, and a third from Moulin Rouge director Baz Luhrmann with Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead.

The phenomenal success of Scott's 2000 Roman epic Gladiator has much to do with the current fascination with chariots, togas and swords.

A scene from Alexander
Elliot Cowan and Colin Farrell in a scene from Alexander
But this year's offerings form part of a wider resurgence of blockbuster films about mythical heroes from yesteryear.

Arthurian legend makes a comeback in July with the release of King Arthur, which continues the classical theme.

And Sir Ridley is currently in Spain shooting Kingdom of Heaven, another period adventure set during the time of the Crusades.

The swords and sandals epic was born in the silent era, where it was nurtured by such legendary showmen as Cecil B DeMille and D W Griffith.

Casts of thousands

Griffith's Intolerance, partly set in ancient Babylon, the 1925 version of Ben-Hur and DeMille's original Ten Commandments set the mould for the genre: opulent sets, casts of thousands and thrilling action scenes that claimed the life of more than one stuntman.

The formula made its first comeback in the 1950s, partly as a response to the new threat of television.

Roman epics like Quo Vadis, The Robe and Spartacus used a combination of big stars and even bigger set-pieces to draw audiences back into cinemas.

David Beckham
David Beckham (left) adopts a gladiator pose in a recent advert
The 1959 version of Ben-Hur won a record 11 Oscars and saved the MGM studio from bankruptcy.

But soon afterwards another studio - 20th Century Fox - was almost destroyed by the huge cost of making Cleopatra.

The $44m production (the equivalent of $273m or 154m today) was a box-office disaster and effectively signalled the end of the big-budget Hollywood epic.

The genre was further damaged by a string of cheap, poorly dubbed Italian knock-offs, usually starring former bodybuilder Steve Reeves.

TV mini-series like I Claudius and Masada did much to salvage its credibility, and another bodybuilder turned actor - Arnold Schwarzenegger - enjoyed some success at the beginning of his career playing loincloth-clad warrior Conan the Barbarian.

But it was Gladiator that brought the swords and sandals epic back into the public consciousness.

'Ancient worlds'

Though the film cost over $100m, advances in computer technology negated the need for thousands of extras or built-to-scale sets.

And the five Oscars it received in 2001 - including one for lead actor Russell Crowe - proved the genre could once more be taken seriously.

Ridley Scott's movie Gladiator
Russell Crowe won an Oscar for his performance in Gladiator
According to Matt Mueller, editor of Total Film magazine, epic film-making is very much in vogue at present.

"Hollywood realises it needs to get bigger and bigger to hold people's attention these days," he told BBC News Online.

"As special effects become ever more sophisticated, you're able to recreate these ancient worlds at a relatively non-prohibitive cost."

But Mr Mueller said cinemagoers should not expect this current craze to last for long.

"Hollywood's always cyclical, so after a few years it will go on to something else," he said.

"It remains to be seen if these films will live up to the hype."

Troy opens in London on 14 May and nationwide on 21 May.


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