Monday, April 26, 2010


I love sword and sandal epics, especially cheesy Italian ones, like the 1959 extravaganza, theGiant of Marathon. In these films, muscular proportionality is directly proportional to moral rectitude and ancient Greece is a Technicolor Arcadia of the righteous, assaulted by the minions of the Axis of Evil. In that world, scantily clad damsels can still appear demure, regardless of the amount and extent of the tapering of the variously phallic shaped tridents, swords, spears, or serpent-monsters that entwine or entangle themselves between their legs. Men speak in deep, decisive tones and experience no emotional conflict save a steely resolve to defeat the horrors that the Earth and the Gods throw at them and have perfectly styled hair. All this takes place before a stylized backdrop of bleached pristine columns, lush green countryside, and happy, loin-cloth clad, bronzed and oiled peasants. These are the type of people that one could easily locate in textbooks of ancient Greek history and identify as ‘authentic’ denizens of that time.
‘Hercules: The Legendary Journeys,’ starring a wild-haired Kevin Sorbo, who looked eerily like ancient Greek descriptions of the Celts that sacked the Oracle at Delphi in 279 BC marks, in my considered opinion, the end of the sword and sandal epic. For it was this nefarious program that first ushered in the contagion that has plagued Hollywood depictions of ancient Greece ever since: the tendency to make ancient Greeks appear medieval and/or anything but ancient Greek-like, as long as anachronisms abound. Scenes are dark and gloomy, as if filmed in the Teutoburger forest home of the ancient Germanic tribes rather than fair, sun-drenched Hellas. Buildings are primitive, as if they belong to the troglodytes of Stonehenge rather than to the instituters of beauty as architectural doctrine. This bizarre reversal of the portrayal of ancient Greece and all its pomps reinforces the view that Ancient Greece is in fact a construct purveyed by the West in order to serve its various purposes. The white, pure bleached marbled, noble, logical, and dispassionate philosophers and selfless, eminently rational, democratic patriots that have hitherto supposedly formed the basis of Western Civilization have now given way to conflicted, tortured, irrational and violent testosterone fuelled fighters who seem barely to be capable of resolving their own personal issues than to be able to relate and contribute to the polis and citizenry at large in any meaningful way.
The latest Hollywood offering in the way of sword and sandal is as inane, uninspiring and anachronistic as its predecessors, Troy, which featured hierophants dressed in the manner of Orthodox priests is not a patch on the remake of Clash of the Titans. As if to rub in the western appropriation of Greek heritage further, so that it is cleansed of any ‘inferior’ modern Greek connotations and thus rendered palatable to the English-speaking world, none of the actors speak in anything approaching a Greek accent. The sight of a semi-psychopathic Perseus brooding (actually not quite, he has it all worked out and there don’t appear to be any emotional or moral conflicts within the film) over such weighty conundrums as whether the Gods should be defied by mankind, with him, the demi-god at their head, and doing so in an Australian accent, makes our chests swell with patriotic pride and our sense of aesthetics shatter. Similarly, the Gods, with their shiny armour and bedraggled Viking beards look more like Norse deities than the denizens of Olympus. Zeus looks like Odin and his brother, the smoky and not so creepy Hades who manifests himself in blackness and terror, hisses his way around statue–defiling soldiers and the implausible plot in a manner strangely reminiscent of Lord Voldermort. Indeed, one is astounded and somewhat disappointed about the fact that Io, a sexier version of Hermione Grainger, and serial stalker of Perseus, does not assist him to extend his sword and shout “Expelliarmus.”
If there is a central premise to the film, it is one of iconoclasm and Götterdämmerung. That the Celestial beings can be dethroned is evidenced by the fact that the Olympians bested the Titans and in turn can be defeated by men. The ‘benign’ Gods apparently feed upon the adulation of their creations, while the ‘evil’ Gods feed on their fear. Thus both are parasites and must be destroyed, as should be their prophets and adherents, symbolised by the hysterical priest/prophet Prokopion (the name of a place, not a name) who looks more like an Indian Guru than anything else. The entire sub-plot involving the zealots of the Gods and their leader Prokopion is reduced to a practical pointlessness as the building confrontation between their desire to sacrifice Andromeda to save Argos, and Andromeda’s survival, is finally negated by her none too conflicted decision to just accept her fate and become mythological lunch. Is the conflict between Perseus’ dual nature as deity and human the stuff of Christological disputes, with Perseus inclining towards Aryanism through the rejection of his divinity? Probably not. Aussie Perseus lcks the sophistication to even be tempted towards a dilemma in this regard. Instead, he is quite happy to proclaim his belief in mankind, rejecting the Gods and all their doings, while at the same time not being averse to enlisting the assistance of unlikely and totally anachronistic supernatural beings: the Arabian Jinn, who appear in the form of gnarled tree-trunks and who also apparently have a nodding acquaintance with the Olympians, or even using Olympian weapons. Consequently, the film’s central message, that mankind can make it on its own without being in the thrall of other beings is conveyed with the crudity of early Soviet Bezbozhnik propaganda and ultimately, is rendered unintelligible through the paradox of Perseus selfless acts performed through self-obsession. Perseus destruction of the ‘Titan’ Kraken is only effected through the use of the powers of another Titan, Medusa, a tragic figure in Greek mythology and a true victim of the Gods, for whom however, the film evokes no pity.
Perseus’ tale truly could be portrayed as one highlighting the frailty of the human condition. His mother was effectively raped by Zeus, and he was brought up as a bastard child, albeit in a King’s court. Even his heroic exploits are subject to the guidance of the Gds, and he is their unwitting hand in the persecution and destruction of others, in order to carry out their designs. In the latest remake of the film, however, there is none of this. Even the previous 1981 film conveyed some passion, though admittedly taking licence with the myth. Remember how Perseus did everything out of love for the beautiful Andromeda? How he saw her only while sleeping but was condemned to fall for her even if it meant his own demise? Remember how Thetis was the patron Goddess of Joppa and she got her toga all in a wad because Cassiopeia had the nerve to compare her own daughter's beauty to the Goddess herself? Remember how Burgess Meredith found the confused Perseus and aided him in his quest? Forget about it all. Also forget Calibos, the tortured love-struck son of Thetis, (remarkably like the Shakespearean Caliban from The Tempest) whose arrogance caused him to be transformed into a creature hideous to behold and shunned by humanity. His tragedy is to have his love taken from him and be murdered by her lover. Though he is a vile villain, his plight stirs sympathy in the viewer. The Calibos in the remake, is actually Acrisius, Perseus step-father, who is nothing more than an unintelligible and deformed beast. His extreme violence renders his final words of humanity to Perseus as he dies at his hand: “Don’t become like them (the Gods),” as implausible and ludicrous as Perseus’ adopted father and protector “Spyro”.
Is it a sign of the times that Hollywood blockbusters are big on special effects and short on themes and messages? Notably, the pace and amount of words in dialogue these days seems to be restricted to a bare minimum, as if audiences cannot bear the intensity of emotion and human communication of yesteryear. This is a pity when this approach is applied to the portrayal of Greek myths. Greek myths formed corpus of inspiration through which the Greeks explored myths of mortality, hubris, the frailty of the human condition, fate, love and the extremities of passion. The latest Hollywood rendition of Perseus, far from even being possessed of the capacity to in any way explore these issues, achieves exactly what the Gorgon intended: it turns us into unmoved stone.


First published in NKEE on 26 April 2010