Hollywood, the ancient world and the classroom
Some time ago, I purchased Jeffrey Richard’s book, Hollywood’s Ancient Worlds. In it, he explores, “the cultural, social, economic and technological circumstances that dictated the rise and decline of each successive cycle of Ancient World epics…” As an ancient history teacher, I often get asked about Gladiator, or Troy or even 10,000BC !! Students are usually disappointed when I tell them that Emperor Marcus Aurelius was not murdered by his son (who might have been in love with his sister), and that Achilles probably didn’t look like Brad Pitt, because Achilles was a mythological character. There be the power of the Hollywood film!
In class, we often refer to films (from all decades) as a way of thinking about bias, reliability and perspective. We have had long discussions about what happens if an historical event is incorrectly portrayed in a film - how does the audience know that they are being lied to? One film that caused genuine concern was 300 the film adaptation of a series of comics by Frank Miller based on the Battle of Thermopylae. In particular, the representation of the Persian king Xerxes, was of such concern that the Iranian Government condemned it. But they were not alone, the outrage was even felt in my class! (read Time Magazine article 2007)
So, how do I use films in the ancient history classroom? What do the students gain from such a close study of such films?
We do a short task about how contemporary film represents historical characters. Students can choose Cleopatra, Xerxes, Nero, Alexander, Genghis Khan, etc and look at various representations of this character from the first recorded sources (primary) through to the current visual/written sources (secondary). Have the contemporary representations deviated from the primary? If so, how?
Do we get to watch movies in class, Miss? Yes. They watch some things in class, but the task does not require students to watch movies, rather to look at characterizations, context and settings. What is Cleopatra wearing? Is it historically correct? Does she have blonde hair? Um, why? Students need to think about why directors/producers represent characters in certain ways. Richards comments: “… Ancient World epics tell us much about the the preoccupations and values of the period in which they were made as about the period in which they were set.”
By the end of the task, the students are more confident about questioning what they see on film - #fakefilm?
Here are some resources you might find useful if you wish to do a similar task:
Richards, J. (2008), Hollywood’s Ancient Worlds, Continuum:UK
article: Using film in the history classroom
Oliver Stone and the controversy over Alexander
HBO’s Rome and historical accuracy
article: The case for Cleopatra