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Internet Ancient History Sourcebook

Ancient History in the Movies

See Main Page for a guide to all contents of all sections.

Contents

Films and TV series set in the past can help students (and teachers) of history to visualize the period they are studying. But film makers are usually much more concerned with making an entertaining film rather than a historically accurate depiction. This is especially the case with Ancient History.

The movies here are claim some loose connection to historical events, but many are purely fictional -- such as Ben Hur. Note that some of the best of these movies are the films made of plays by classical authors.

In general, I recommend seeing foreign language films in the original language with subtitles rather than dubbed into English. [Try watching John Wayne dubbed into French someday - and you'll see why dubbing almost never works.]

In reviewing a film from the viewpoint of history, rather than entertainments, here are the sort of questions you should aim to answer.

  1. What seems to be accurate in the film? What sources are you using to assess accuracy?
  2. In what ways does the film impact your reading of any of the documents you have read.
  3. What liberties does the film take with the past? Why?
  4. Is the film primarily entertainment, or is it really trying to work within a historical period? How can you determine the film maker's intention?
  5. What, if any, modern point is the film trying make?

Notes

  • By "clicking" on the title of the movie, you will be taken to the Internet Movie Database record on that movie.
  • In some cases where a videotape of the movie exists, but is not mentioned in the IMDB, a link is made to some library source.
  • VHS means that I am certain a film is available on VHS Video. Even if a title does not have VHS next to it, it may be available at a good local video outlet [such as Kim's or World of Video in New York (but not Blockbuster!)]
  • * before the title means I own a copy. # indicates it is in the University of North Florida Library. [This is useful information for my own students only: I do not lend videos, nor make copies.]

 Pre-Historic Humans

*Quest for Fire [aka La Guerre du feu], (1981) 97 mins VHS
Dir. Jean-Jacques Annaud
The search for a new fire source.

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Mesopotamia

*Intolerance (1916) VHS
Dir. D.W. Griffith
First of four parts focuses on Bablyon.

*Cortigiana di Babilonia [Queen of Babylon] (1956) 98 mins
Dir. Carlo Ludovico Bragaglia. With Rhonda Fleming, Tamara Lees, Ricardo Montalban
-Italian epic with American stars set in as Chaldea/Bablyon sets to fight Assyria. Flemming plays Semiramis. Although reportedly very bad as a movie, there is at least connection with historical events here.

Epic of Gilgamesh (1981)
Dir. Stephen Quay and Timothy Quay
-Not clear if this is about the Epic of Gilgamesh.

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Egypt

["Mummy's curse" movies are not listed!]

*The Egyptian (1954) VHS
Dir. Michael Curtiz. With Jean Simmons, Victor Mature, Peter Ustinov
Conflates the Egyptian story of Sinuhe with the events of Akhenaten's reign. It's ca costume drama, but an enjoyable one. Based on a novel by Mika Waltari.

Land of the Pharaohs (1955) VHS
Dir. Howard Hawks, With Jack Hawkins and Joan Collins.
This one has "proto-Hebrews" building pharonic tombs.

Princess of the Nile (1954) 71 mins.
Dir. Harmon Jones, With Debra Paget and Jeffrey Hunter

Sudan (1945) 76 mins.
Dir. John Rawlins, With Maria Montez

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Biblical Epic/Ancient Israel

The Bible, AKA La Bibbia,   (1966) 174 mins. VHS
Dir. John Huston, With  Michael Parks, Richard Harris, Stephen Boyd, George C. Scott, Ava Gardner, Peter O'Toole.
Covers: Adam & Eve, Cain & Abel, Noah, Sodom & Gomorrah and Abraham & Isaac.

*Abraham (1994) (TV) 175 mins VHS
Dir. Joseph Sargent, With Vittorio Gassman, Richard Harris, and Barbara Hershey.

Sodom und Gomorrah (1922) 150 mins, BW
Dir. Michael Curtiz

Last Days of Sodom and Gomorrah (1962) 154 mins VHS
Dir. Robert Aldrich, With Stewart Granger (as Lot) and Ainouk Aimée (as Queen of Sodom).

The Story of Jacob and Joseph, (1974) (TV) VHS
Dir. Michael Cacoyannis, With Alan Bates, and  Colleen Dewhurst.

Joseph (1995) (TV) VHS
Dir. Roger Young, With Ben Kingsley, Paul Mercurio, Martin Landau, Lesley Ann Warren.

*Moses the Lawgiver (1975)(TV) 140 mins VHS
Dir. Gianfranco De Bosio, With Burt Lancaster.

Moses (1996) (TV) 188 mins VHS
Dir. Roger Young, With Ben Kingsley, Christopher Lee, and Geraldine McEwan

The Ten Commandments (1923) 146 mins.
Dir. Cecil B. DeMille, With Charles De Roche
Silent Movie.

*The Ten Commandments (1956) 220 mins. VHS
Dir. Cecil B. DeMille, With Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, and Anne Baxter.
De Mille's last movie, and curiously old fashioned. Best scenes are the Parting of the Red Sea, the engraving of the Ten Commandments, and the orgy around the Golden Calf.

The Prince of Egypt (1998) 98 mins VHS
Dir. Brenda Chapman and Steve Hickner, With (voices of) Val Kilmer, Ralph Fiennes, Michelle Pfeiffer, Sandra Bullock, Jeff Goldblum, Danny Glover, Patrick Stewart, Helen Mirren, Steve Martin, and Martin Short.
Animated version of Exodus.

Samson and Delilah (1996) (TV) VHS
Dir. Nicolas Roeg, With Elizabeth Hurley, Michael Gambon, Dennis Hopper, Diana Rigg.

*King David (1985) 114 mins VHS
Dir. Bruce Beresford, With Richard Gere as David.

Solomon and Sheba (1959) 139 mins VHS
Dir. King Vidor, With Yul Brynner and Gina Lollobrigida.

*Masada (1981) [TV Minseries] 394 mins [or feature film length version] VHS
Dir. Boris Sagal, With Peter O'Toole, Peter Strauss
Shot on location, the film more or less ignores the one ancient source -- Flaviu s Josephus' The Jewish War.

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Classical Greece

*Helen of Troy (1956) VHS
Dir. Robert Wise, With Rossana Podestà, Stanley Baker, Niall MacGinnis, Brigitte Bardot
The Trojan war from the Trojan viewpoint. 

*The 300 Spartans (1962) VHS
Dir. Rudolph Maté. With Diane Baker, Robert Brown
Based on the history of Spartan king Leonidis and 300 soldiers holding off Xerxes attack at Thermopylae.

*Socrates (TV)(1970) in Italian VHS
Dir. Roberto Rossellini

#Barefoot in Athens (TV) (1966) 76 mins. VHS
Dir. George Schaefer
The last days of Socrates, including his trial.

*Clash of the Titans (1981) 118 mins VHS
Dir. Desmond Davis, With Harry Hamlin, Laurence Olivier, Claire Bloom, Maggie Smith, Ursula Andress, Siân Phillips,
Flora Robson, Anna Manahan.
An Incredible cast wasted in an adaptation of the Perseus myth.

Homer

*The Odyssey (1997) [TV Miniseries] 2 hours 49 mins VHS
Dir. Andrei Konchalovsky, With Armand Assante (Odysseus), Greta Scacchi (Penelope), Isabella Rossellini (Athene), Bernadette Peters (Circe), Eric Roberts, Irene Papas, Vanessa L. Williams (Calypso)

Aeschylus

#Oresteia (1979) [TV Miniseries]

Agamemnon (Oresteia, Part 1) 90 min. 1983 VHS
Dir. Peter Hall, transl. Tony Harrison. National Theatre of Great Britain. Films For The Humanities.  [At UC Berkeley]

Choephori: The Libation Bearers (Oresteia, Part 2) 70 mins. 1982 VHS
Dir. Peter Hall, transl. Tony Harrison. National Theatre of Great Britain. Films For The Humanities.  [At UC Berkeley]

Eumenides: The Furies (Oresteia, Part 3) 70 mins, 1983
Dir. Peter Hall, transl. Tony Harrison. National Theatre of Great Britain. Films For The Humanities. [At UC Berkeley]

Agamemnon (Oresteia, Part 1) 108 mins VHS
London Small Theatre Company, translation for the stage by Peter Meineck, 1991.  [At UC Berkeley]

Sophocles

Ajax
New translation; featuring Yasmin Sidhwa, James Moriarty. 71 min.Video/C 2698  [At UC Berkeley]

Oedipus Rex (1967) 119 mins VHS
Dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini, With Silvana Mangano (Jocasta) and Franco Citti (Oedipus), Alida Valli (Merope), Carmelo Bene (Creon), Julian Beck (Tiresias).

Oedipus Rex (Theban Plays) 45 mins.
With Anthony Quayle, James Mason, Claire Bloom, Ian Richardson.
A presentation of Sophocles' Oedipus the King, performed in the authentic setting of a fifth-century Greek theater, with the use of masks made after ancient models.  [At UC Berkeley

Oedipus the King (1968) 97 mins
Dir. Philip Saville, With Christopher Plummer and Orson Welles.

#Oedipus the King (1984) (TV) 111 mins
Dir. Don Taylor, With Michael Pennington (I)

Edipo alcalde AKA Oedipus Mayor (1996) 100 mins.
Dir. Jorge Alí Triana
Sophocles Oedipus as rendered by Gabriel García Márquez.

Oedipus at Colonus (1984)(TV)
Dir. Don Taylor, With Anthony Quayle and Juliet Stevenson.

Antigone (1960) (TV)
Dir. Hans Dahlin, With Ulla Sjöblom as Antigone
In Swedish

*Antigone, Aka Rites for the Dead (1961) 86 mins. VHS
Dir. George Tzavellas, With Irene Papas as Antigone
In Greek with English subtitles.

Antigone (1984) (TV) 111 mins
Dir. Don Taylor, With Juliet Stevenson as Antigone.
[Princeton, N.J.: Films for the Humanities, c 1988 (120 min., color). Videocassette release of the 1984 television production by BBC-TV.

Antigone (1992)
Dir. Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub, With Astrid  Ofner as Antigone. In German.

Antigone: Rites of Passion (1990) 85 mins
Dir. Amy Greenfield, With Bertram Ross, Janet Eilber, Amy Greenfield, In English.   [At UC Berkeley]
An "adaptation" rather than a version of the play.

I Cannibali  AKA The Year of the Canibals (1970) 88 mins
Dir. Liliana Cavani, With Britt Ecklund
Italian version of Antigone -- by a major Italin auteur director.

Euripides

The Bacchae (1999)
Dir. Bradford Mays, With Brian Blessed.

Electra (1962)
Dir. Michael Cacoyannis, With Irene Papas
In Greek.

Iphigenia (1977) 127 Mins
Dir. Michael Cacoyannis, With Irene Papas
In Greek 

#Le Baccanti [aka The Bacchantes] (1961)
Dir. Giorgio Ferroni

Medea (1963) (TV) 95 mons
Dir. Keve Hjelm
In Swedish

Medea (1970) VHS
Dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini, With Maria Callas
In Italian 
Medea was one of Callas' great operative roles, but here she acts without music.

#Medea (1982) 90 mins.
Dir. Mark Cunningham, With Zoe Caldwell.
A Kennedy Center production about a proud woman betrayed by the man she loves.

Medea (1986) 110 mins.
Dir. Peter Steadman
"A production of Euripides’ tragedy with all the traditional components of classical theater meticulously researched and dramatized: two actors with masks, a chorus, song, dance and mimetic acting. The intonation of the classical Greek text is in accordance with recent linguistic discoveries. Introduction and commentary by Professor William Arrowsmith. With English subtitles." [At SFSU]

Medea (1987) (TV)
Dir. Lars von Trier
Danish TV  version.

A Dream of Passion (1978)
Dir. Jules Dassin, With Melina Mecouri
Adaptation of Medea.

*The Trojan Women (1971) 109 Min
Dir. Michael Cacoyannis, With Katherine Hepburn, Vanessa Redgrave, and Irene Papas.

Aristophanes

*Lysistrata (1972) in Modern Greek, 97 mins VHS
Dir. Georgos Zervoulakos, With Jenny Karezi.
[New York] : New York Film Annex, c1987 ISBN 1558814965  [At UC Berkeley]
The date of the movie is needed to understand it. It combines a fairly accurate rendtion of the play with intense anti-Americanism and a variety of modern Greek songs.

The Second Greatest Sex (1955) 87 Mins
Dir. George Marshall (I)
A "Western/Musical" movie based on Lysistrata.

Escuela de seductoras (1962) 83 mins
Dir. León Klimovsky
Spanish version of Lysistrata

Flickorna AKA The Girls (1968) 100 mins
Dir. Mai Zetterling, With Bibi Andersson
Version of Lysistrata in Swedish, BW

The Birds (Excerpts)
With Neil Pepe, Ed Porter, Todd Weeks, Phil Reilly, Clare Tattersull, Terry Hardcastle, 1991. 43 min. Video/C 2549  [At UC Berkeley]

Frogs
With Rick Smith, Rachel Springs, Jon Williams, Fiona Laird--cast of the London Small Theatre Company, 1991. 110 min. Video/C 3239 [At UC Berkeley]

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Hellenistic Greece

*Alexander the Great (1956) 143 mins VHS
Dir. Michael Forlong and Robert Rossen. With Richard Burton, Fredric March, Claire Bloom, Peter Cushing, Michael Hordern
Currently the main Hollywood-made Alexander movie.

The Ptolemies
BBC TV series.

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Roman Empire

*Spartacus (1960) VHS
Dir. Stanley Kubrick, With Lawrence Olivier, Tony Curtis, and Kirk Douglas

*Cleopatra (1963)  243 mins VHS
Dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz. With Elizabeth Taylor, Cleopatra, Richard Burton, Rex Harrison.
-Not as bad as it is reputed to be, but not as camp as the 1934 Cecil B. DeMille version [102 mins] with Claudette Colbert.

*Cleopatra (1999) [TV Miniseries; also reduced film version]
Dir. Franc Roddam, With Leonor Varela, Timothy Dalton, Billy Zane and Rupert Graves

Caesar and Cleopatra (1946) VHS
Dir. Gabriel Pascal, With Claude Rains and Vivien Leigh
Writer -- George Bernard Shaw

*Julius Caesar (1953) 
Dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz. after Shakespeare

Caligula (1980) 115 mins (R rated version) /156 mins (unrated version) VHS
Dir. Tinto Brass and Bob Guccione, With Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, Peter O'Toole, John Gielgud
Despite the cast, this has some pornographic sequences.

#I, Claudius (1976) BBC TV-Series, 10 episodes of 50 mins. VHS
Dir. Herbert Wise. With Derek Jacobi, Siân Phillips, Brian Blessed, John Hurt
One of the best TV series ever made. Based on Robert Graves' novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God, which in turn were based on Suetonius. The acting is superb.

Age of Treason (1993) 93 mins.
Dir. Kevin Connor, With Matthias Hues
Murder mystery set in 69 CE.

The Arena (1973) VHS
Dir. Steve Carver, With Pam Grier.
Women slaves fight in the Arena. A Blaxpolitation movie.

*The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) 188 mins VHS
Dir. Anthony Mann. With Sophia Loren, Stephen Boyd, Alec Guinness, James Mason, Christopher Plummer.
Essentially the story of the transition from Marcus Aurelius to Commodus. Gladiator represents a remake.

*Gladiator (2000) 154 mins
Dir. Ridley Scott, With Russell Crowe.
A movie which may represent the rebirth of the sandals and sand epic. It was widely praised in the press, and panned by ancient historians (with the Harvard faculty member who was listed as "historical" consultant sending out a mass apologia to colleagues). Ridley Scott made full use of modern technology to create a "real" ancient Rome, but the result looks more like the French Second Empire. The Arena sequences are OK, but do not match those with Charlton Heston in Ben Hur.

*Attila (2001) (TV mini)
US, HIstorical, Color
Director. Rick Lowry

Sign of the Pagan (1955) 92 mins.
Dir. Douglas Sirk, With Jeff Chandler and Jack Palance.
The Story of Attila the Hun....

*Titus (2000) 162 mins.
Dir. Julie Taymor

Plautus

Amphitryon (1935) 105 mins
Dir. Reinhold Schünzel
A musical made in Nazi Germany based on Plautus

*A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966) VHS
Dir. Richard Lester, With Zero Mostel and Phil Silvers.
Based on Plautus' play  Miles Gloriosus.

Terence

That Girl from Andros 115 mins.
In earliest Engl. verse translation, c. 1500. Films For The Humanities.

Petronius

#*Satyricon (1969)  VHS
Dir. Federico Fellini

Seneca

Fedra (1956)
Dir. Manuel Mur Oti

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Biblical Epic/Life of Christ

*From the Manger to the Cross (1912) BW, Silent
Dir. Sidney Olcott. With Robert Henderson-Bland as Jesus.

*The King of Kings (1927) BW, Silent VHS
Dir. Cecil B. Demille, With H.B. Warner as Jesus.

*King of Kings (1961) 168 mins VHS
Dir. Nicholas Ray, With Jeffrey Hunter as Jesus.
Hunter is very whitebread ideal of Jesus.

*Gospel According to Matthew (1964) 136 mins VHS
Dir. Pier Paol Pasolini, With Enrique Irazoqui as Jesus.
Pasolini, an agnostic or atheist Marxist, made what is often considered the purest Jesus movie by using only the Gospel of Matthew (he left out the "Saint" in the Italian title) and the services of local non-professional actors.

*The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) 268 mins VHS
Dir, George Stevens, With Max von Sydow as Jesus.
Very long, and full of "guest stars," including a fmaous appearance by John Wayne as the centurion at the cross. With von Sydow as a very in control Jesus, this film perhaps best presents the Jesus of the Gospel of John.

*Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) 108 mins VHS
Dir. Norman Jewison, With Ted Neely as Jesus.
A filmed version of Andrew Lloyd-Weber and Tim Rice's musical. Although many enjoy the music, it was widely criticized for its stressed-out Jesus and failure to go beyond the crucifixion. In effect, this is the most "de-mythologizing" of all the Jesus movies.

*Godspell (1973) 103 mins VHS   
Dir. David Greene, With Victor Garber as Jesus
In general this was a more "religious" musical adaptation of Jesus's life than Superstar.

*Jesus of Nazareth (TV)(1977) 371 mins VHS
Dir. Franco Zeffirelli, With Robert Powell as Jesus.
As a made-for-TV series, Zeffirelli was able to take longer with his story, and his is probably the most faithful to the gospel's telling of the story. Although no actor has satisfactorily played Jesus, Robert Powell looked the part (at least as established in Western art), and played it without the gauchness (Hunter) or sheer weirdness (von Sydow, Neely) of others.

*Jesus (1979), 117 mins VHS/DVD
Dir. John Krish and Peter Sykes, With Brian Deacon as Jesus.
Apart from the prologue, this movie is entirely based on the Gospel of Luke. It was produced by evangelical Protestants (Campus Crusade for Christ) who rave over it, and have made audio tracks in over 660 languages! The whole film is available to view online. Unfortunately the acting is lousy and Jesus presented as a tepid bourgeois, perhaps just as men in suits would like him to be. It is, however, interesting to compare this with Pasolini's version of the Gospel of Matthew.

#*The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) 168 mins. VHS
Dir. Martin Scorcese, With William Dafoe as Jesus.
Based on Kazantzaki's novel, in which Jesus on the cross dreams of avoiding his death and marrying Mary Magdalene (i.e. one final temptation), this was stupidly criticized as blasphemous when it came out.

*Jesus of Montreal (1989) in French. 120 mins. VHS
Dir. Denys Arcand
A group of actors puts on a play about Jesus, while their lives come to echo the play.

*Jesus (TV)(1999) 2x 60 mins. VHS
Dir. Robert Young, with Jeremy Sisto as Jesus.

*The Miracle Maker (TV)(2000) 90 mins VHS
Dir. Derek W. Hayes and Stanislav Sokolov, With Ralph Fiennes as Jesus.
A claymation version of the life of Jesus.

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Biblical Epic/Early Christian

*The Sign of the Cross (1932) 115 mins.VHS
Dir. Cecil B. DeMille, With Fredric March, Elissa Landi, Claudette Colbert, and Charles Laughton.
Nero burns Rome. This was made before the Hayes code, and represents an high point id De Mille's skill of getting in as much sin as possible under a pious justification. Laughton as Nero is every bit as decadent as one could hope, but the last third of the movie is spectacular. Frederic March tries to "warm up" the Christian girl (Landi) he is pursuing by taking her to an orgy where she is carressed by a half-dressed lesbian -- in the background, martyrs sing on their way to the arena.  The arena scenes are massively violent and erotic -- with naked women being attacked by crocadiles, and, at one point, an Amazon spearing a pygmy and lifting the still wriggling guy up in the air.   The movies was cut to shreds after the Hays code, and it is important to get hold of the uncut version.

The Silver Chalice (1954) 142 mins VHS
Dir. Victor Saville, With Pier Angeli, Virginia Mayo, Paul Newman and Natalie Wood.
Newman in his first role. He was so embarrassed that in later years, whne this was shown on TV, he used to take out ads in Variety asking people not to watch...

Quo vadis? (1951)  171 mins VHS
Dir. Mervyn LeRoy

*The Robe (1953) 135 mins VHS
Dir. Henry Koster, With Richard Burton, Jean Simmons, Victor Mature.

*Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954) VHS
Dir. Delmer Daves, With Victor Mature and Susan Hayward (as Messalina).

*Ben-Hur (1926) 143 mins VHS
Dir.  Fred Niblo, With Ramon Novarro.
Silent but spectacular.

*Ben-Hur (1959) 212 mins. VHS
Dir. William Wyler, With Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins, and Stephen Boyd.
Ben Hur is a love story between two men: Heston was not let into the secret (he has made a career of unacknowledged homoeroticism -- see The Agony and the Ecstasy or Planet of the Apes], but Boyd knew what role he was to play. The Arena sequences are among the best put on film.

Fabiola (1949)
Dir. Alessandro Blasetti, With Michèle Morgan
In Italian

*Sebastiane (1976) in Latin. 90 Min.
Dir. Derek Jarman.

*Constantine the Great [aka Constantine and the Cross] (1962)
Dir. Lionello De Felice, With Cornel Wilde.

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See Also