Bright Lights Film Journal

Book review: Hollywood’s Ancient Worlds, by Jeffrey Richards & Movie Photos by Alex Bailey

Hollywood’s Ancient Worlds, by Jeffrey Richards. New York: Continuum, 2008. Hardcover $29.95. 227pp. ISBN: 1847250076

The “ancient world” epic has been one of cinema’s most curious. For every major auteur and film — e.g., Mann’s El Cid, Aldrich’s Sodom and Gomorrah — there are plenty of minor, often appalling bargain-basement counterparts, such as Roger Corman’s hilariously cheap Atlas and scores of cut-rate Italian films about Hercules, Goliath, the “Sons of the Sun,” and other buff, be-sandaled heroes from antiquity. In Hollywood’s Ancient Worlds, author Jeffrey Richards focuses on the big-budget Hollywood version of the ancient epic, in the process leading readers on a fascinating tour of works from the silent Ben-Hur to Gladiator and Troy. The author reminds us of something we may be inclined to forget: many of these films were as commercially successful as they were critically reviled. And he shows that, read carefully, they are typically as much about their own time as they are about ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, Palestine, etc.

Richards is an authority on Victorian popular culture, and Hollywood’s Ancient Worlds convincingly uncovers the ancient epic’s roots in the “cult of Hellenism” in both the American Founding Fathers and Britain’s Victorian intellectual class; in neoclassical paintings; in hugely popular, kitschy 18th-century plays; and in sanitized myths retold for children in books like Bulfinch’s The Age of Fable. Moving to American film production, Richards claims that “the necessity for the infant motion-picture art to draw inspiration from the older art forms was an axiom of early theoretical writings on the cinema,” citing, for example, Vachel Lindsay’s influential book Art of the Moving Picture.

Each of the major films discussed get a thorough reading in terms of production and reception, with sharp critical judgments applied throughout. Richards has his own opinions of these works, which are both amusing and penetrating, but takes special delight in contrasting the often wildly inconsistent reactions of critics. Wyler’s Ben-Hur, for example, was dismissed as “bloody . . . and bloody boring” by Esquire’s highbrow Dwight MacDonald, while Britain’s more prole-minded Daily Express praised it as “little short of a revolution in mass films.” One of the things commercial critics of the time missed about the epics is how much they reflected their time (frequent sarcastic references to the rampant a-historicality of bouffant hairdos and 1960s couture notwithstanding). This is another area where the book shines, with Richards persuasively pointing out the subtext of present in past. He describes Gladiator, for example, as a “critique of Clintonian America . . . made at a time when the American government was mired in financial and sexual scandals and embroiled in overseas adventures” — exactly the themes found in the film.

The book also doesn’t stint on the facts, chronicling locations, budgets, profits, on-set anecdotes, and backstory. Thankfully, and unlike many a film book these days, this one speaks with authority and is supported by extensive footnoting. Richards’ enthusiasm for these films, including the less successful ones, is evident throughout. Written with verve and a wealth of detail, and observing these complex films both as individual creations and in a variety of larger contexts, Hollywood’s Ancient Worlds is a pleasure to read and worth the investment.

* * *

Movie Photos: A Definitive Guide to Movie Photography, by Alex Bailey. London: Imagebarn, 2008. Trade paperback, $39.95. 225pp. ISBN: 0-95593-370-6

Alex Bailey is no more a household name than any photographer of images for movie stills and poster art. But he’s responsible for at least one important, indeed iconic image in contemporary culture: Lara Croft, with Angelina Jolie as a fetishized femdom exuding cool, unstoppable power. He’s also been an image-maker on other significant films, including Atonement, Pride and Prejudice, Sunshine, and Troy — apparently enough to inspire him to self-publish this intermittently interesting, lavishly illustrated combination of mini-autobiography, art gallery, and how-to guide. Bailey’s purpose, according to an interview in Freelance Photographer magazine, is to help talented young photographers who want to enter the movie business and be successful. “The world is full of failed artists who could have been very good, but they could never deal with the business side of their talent.” To address the problem, this book features plenty of examples of Bailey’s rise, his insights into the biz and anecdotes centered on his personal push for success.

There’s a bit too much dull detail for comfort here (do we really care which unknown person helped him at which point in his climb?). And some of his points are simple to the point of simplistic: “A movie is developed by individuals, called producers, or a production company, and sometimes in conjunction with a director.” Others, like some of his descriptions of actually being on the set, are in fact informative. However, Movie Photos is less interesting as a personal story than as a gallery seductive images. Bailey is clearly adept at capturing a film’s particular mood, from epic (stunning tableaux in Enemy at the Gates and Troy) to intimate (evocative portraits of Ian McKellan in Richard IIIand James McAvoy in Atonement, above). Technical information about each of the shots, including the kind of lens used, has practical value. If Bailey’s personal story doesn’t rise above the humdrum, many of his tips on how to excel in this niche profession to which few are called are often sound, and his visual artistry is evident throughout. Eagle-eyed readers who obsess over such things will spot more than the necessary number of errors in the text, particularly in the captions.