With Pompeii and 300: Rise of Empire, sword and sandal epics are staging a welcome box office comeback. The genre, popular since the fifties, allows action directors and scantily-clad thespians to enact moralistic tales against a backdrop of historical pomp. Watching these films, it's tempting to conclude that the Roman Empire was basically one long orgy punctuated by occasional bloodshed and chariot races. Sounds about right.
Here are the modern classics that bring the classical world to life.
The Story: King Leonidas of Sparta and his 300 not-so-merry men try to stop Xerxe's Persian hordes at Thermopylae. They fail, but it's the thought that counts.
Gratuitous Skin: Abs.
Historical Accuracy: The Greco-Persian war did take place in 480 B.C., but it was not in slow motion.
The Moral: Combining violence with beefcake is an easy and repeatable way to make lots of money.
The Story: Sparta's King Menelaus is more than a bit miffed when his wife decides to go home with a Trojan prince after a friendly treaty signing. He decides to round up a bunch of handsome guys and sack Troy. After the great warrior Hector fights them off, the Greeks decide to build a very large horse. The Trojans bring the horse inside the city because, hey, free horse, and all hell breaks loose.
Gratuitous Skin: The Greeks uniforms make the outfits in Magic Mike look conservative.
Historical Accuracy: Director Wolfgang Peterson spent millions making Malta look like ancient Greece and the sets are intricate, awesome, and far more compelling than any of the performances.
The Moral: Brad Pitt, Eric Bana, and Orlando Bloom don't deserve equal billing.
The Story: When Emperor Marcus Aurelius decides to leave his thrown to General Maximus Meridius, his son takes the news badly, commits patricide, and murders the general's family. Understandably upset, Maximus passes out. Unfortunately, he is taken prisoner by a slave caravan and made to fight for the new Emperor's pleasure in the Colosseum. He becomes so popular with the Roman people he can fight the emperor in hand to hand combat. Everyone loses.
Gratuitous Skin: Djimon Honsou spends the whole movie yelling and being handsome.
Historical Accuracy: Very accurate. Russell Crowe really did used to be a movie star.
The Moral: Climbing the ladder at a family business has its hazards.