Toga parties

Rather stay home and get decadent watching videos than go see Ridley Scott's "Gladiator"? Here are five classical suggestions.

Published May 5, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

Bogus computerized expanses that make you feel as if the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World have been dropped onto your head. Jagged, tricked-up action sequences that focus on the love and hate (well, mostly hate) of two men who should be brothers. Few laughs and little sex.

Of course, I'm talking about DreamWorks' mammoth "The Prince of Egypt" -- I mean, "Gladiator." Just as DreamWorks' animated kids extravaganza took a homogenizing, Mixmaster approach to the genre of the biblical spectacular, so the studio's "Gladiator" does with the related genre of the Roman epic.

For those who prefer a taste of personality to go with their swords, sandals, togas and plaster of Paris, here are five invigorating Greco-Roman alternatives to "Gladiator."


It isn't just rebel gladiator Kirk Douglas oozing charisma in a loincloth. It's Jean Simmons at her most delicious, acting on him like a magic tenderizer; Laurence Olivier being explosively droll and menacing as the fascistic bisexual Crassus; Charles Laughton radiating libidinous wryness as the republican senator Gracchus; and Peter Ustinov working magic as a wheedling slave dealer who mumbles improbably funny wisecracks in a manner that might have inspired "Mr. Subliminal" on "Saturday Night Live." It's a Robin Hood adventure and a satire of decadence, a democratic myth and an imperial spectacle, an antiwar movie and a tear-jerker -- all wrapped up and dropped into a bulging, opulent three-ring Roman circus, with Stanley Kubrick as ringmaster. And it's a Robin Hood adventure not just because Spartacus steals from the rich and gives to the poor but also because he isn't a superman -- he needs a band of merry women and merrier men. (As Tony Curtis introduces himself: "Antoninus, singer of songs. I also juggle a little.") When the hero's warriors come together to hide his identity and save him from crucifixion, their rallying cry -- "I am Spartacus!" -- resounds. Like everything else in the film, it's potentially ridiculous but ultimately exhilarating.

The Fall of the Roman Empire

Physically, it's a milestone. No producer in the decades since has assembled as vast an ocean of extras or as stunning an acreage of plaster as Samuel Bronston did in his Spanish studio. And back in the culturally aspiring movie world of 1964, it was possible to film the same basic story as "Gladiator" and actually have dying Emperor Marcus Aurelius use a phrase like "Pax Romana." Alec Guinness plays Aurelius as a weary -- dare we say stoic? -- intellectual who wants a Roman peace that all foreigners can join not as slaves or clients but as citizens. Unfortunately for Aurelius, but perhaps fortunately for audiences, Aurelius' successor, Commodus, played here by the flamboyant Christopher Plummer, forsakes Pax Romana and turns Rome into an empire of camp. Sophia Loren ups the entertainment level as Aurelius' daughter, especially when she tells dashing Stephen Boyd that he makes her feel "like a vestal virgin again." Was the child Madonna listening?

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Two years later, Richard Lester went to Spain and, legend has it, used some of the sets of "The Fall of the Roman Empire" to film this slapdash but still funny version of the hit musical comedy pastiche of Plautus, with songs by Stephen Sondheim. Along with evidence of why the overly boisterous Zero Mostel never became a movie star, it boasts those peerless comic actors Michael Hordern and Jack Gilford, and Michael Crawford in his love-struck juvenile days. The best jokes are bracingly cruel (this film's gladiators use slaves for practice) or boldly scatological (there's a mare's sweat/wine switch that would look at home in an Austin Powers movie), and Lester's manic inventiveness hits pay dirt in at least one big number: "Everybody Ought to Have a Maid."

I, Claudius

Derek Jacobi is a colorless Gracchus in "Gladiator," but here he reigns supreme. He plays the title character in the 13-part BBC adaptation of Robert Graves' two-part Forum-gate, "I, Claudius" and "Claudius, the God" -- the "Sopranos" of its day. A stutterer and a limping, twitching polio victim, as physically inept as he is mentally keen, noble Claudius keeps his literal and figurative head in bloody Rome by retreating tactfully from society. Jacobi wisely imbues Claudius with a comical awareness of his handicaps; his gestures are as outsize and artificial as a clown's, and his cryptic reading of his lines makes them as entertaining as those of King Lear's fool. Supporting Jacobi are Brian Blessed as a hale, bellowing Augustus, and Sian Phillips as Augustus' second wife, Livia -- the most audacious female performance ever given for the small screen and an obvious inspiration for Livia Soprano. Phillips is a sublime dirty dealer, and her snarl is strong enough to tumble Rome. (Later in the saga, John Hurt's Caligula, most alarmingly, proves to be Livia's match.)

Jason and the Argonauts

Waterlogged acting and strained Olympian wit can't douse the exuberant magic of this retelling of the Greek legend, which cuts between Earth and Olympus as Jason seeks out the Golden Fleece and Zeus and Hera play chess with the Argonauts' fates. Thanks to Ray Harryhausen's special effects, you experience the film simply as a series of enthralling supernatural adventures. The Harpies are half-gargoyle, half-pterodactyl. A giant man of bronze turns out to have an Achilles' ankle. And the movie ends with a double-barreled bang: Jason duels the seven-headed Hydra, then battles the spawn of the Hydra's teeth, armed skeletons who march and fight with spooky determination and precision. The only drawback of the powerhouse climax is that the skeletons seem fiercer and more animated in every way than Todd Armstrong's Jason.

By Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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