What a cool book.
The title says it all, and this new revised and expanded edition of Jon Solomon's THE ANCIENT WORLD IN THE CINEMA, first published in 1976, is even more fun and pleasant to read. So much so that, after you finish it, you might just be tempted to read more about antiquity. Now that's really cool!
Solomon, a professor of classics at the University of Arizona, is not one those classicists or historians who turn their noses up at films set in antiquity. As he writes in the preface to the 1976 edition, which is reprinted in the revised and expanded edition:
"My intentions in this book are by no means strictly academic. I examine all these films first as pure cinematic entertainment; then I examine them as cinematic renderings of history; and I also examine them as cinematic adaptations of ancient, biblical, or modern literature."
Solomon is not only unbiased but also flexible. How many professors do you know who would praise two such disparate films like Pier Paolo Pasolini's MEDEA (1970) and Ray Harryhausen's JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963) in the same lifetime much less the same book? MEDEA, if you have never seen Pasolini's film, is one of the most serious and harrowing films ever produced set in antiquity (In a caption for a still from the film Solomon writes: "Here [Medea] bathes one of her two sons, knowing full well that she will cut their throats in a few minutes."), while JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS is a classic of wholesome entertainment (Solomon compliments the two green DynoRama harpies who attack blind Phineas as "the most vivid impression of any Greek mythological monsters seen on film.").
Solomon breaks THE ANCIENT WORLD IN CINEMA into subjects and title his chapters accordingly: "A Survey of the Genre," "Greek and Roman History," "Greek and Roman Mythology," "The Old Testament," "The New Testament and Tales of the Christ," "Babylon, Egypt, Persia, and the Ancient Orient," "Ancient Tragedy and THE SATYRICON," "Ancient Comedy and Satirized Ancients," and "The Muscleman Epics." And if you like movies at all, this last chapter cannot be missed.
They just do not make mindless entertainment for its own sake the way they did back in 1957, the year Steve Reeves took the world by storm as the titular HERCULES. Solomon revisits many of these wonderful films about a "chesty hero," "their less chesty companion," "their chesty but innocent girlfriend," "pointy-bearded despots," and "bowling pin" adversaries. Many of Solomon's insights here are as piquant as those made in his book's other chapters, but you will also find many less-dignified but delightful observations such as "Muscleman heroes are wont to throw things," and that the hero's chesty, innocent girlfriend is typically "adept at virtuously bathing the hero's wounds (generally only flesh wounds on the shoulder)." You get the idea, and the tone.
I could go on...and have gone on too long...but hopefully I have made my point. Jon Solomon's THE ANCIENT WORLD IN THE CINEMA is a cool book. A fun book. And an intelligent book. Best of all, this book, like most of the movies Solomon examines in it, is worth checking out. Judging by his writing, I only wish Solomon could have been my classics teacher in college!