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.
Clash of the Titans, 1981
The Story: Perseus tries to save his bride from a giant sea monster by turning it to stone using the decapitated head of Medusa. His backup? A flying horse and a friendly owl.
Gratuitous Skin: Medusa is unappealingly topless during the scene in which Harry Hamlin uses his sword to make her permanently topless.
Historical Accuracy: The Perseus myth was passed down through the oral and literary tradition for millennia before Hollywood tore it apart for creative reasons.
The Moral: Krakens will be Krakens.
The Story: A power-crazed sexual deviant named Gaius Germanicus Caesar takes the throne and proceeds to behave rather badly, murdering people, forcing senators' wives into prostitution, and (because the worst ones always do) trying to invade England.
Gratuitous Skin: Other than the graphic oral sex, incest, necrophilia, and rape, it's a pretty clean movie.
Historical Accuracy: Caligula was definitely crazy, but he probably wasn't Malcolm McDowell crazy.
The Moral: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you – especially when you're at an orgy.
The Story: Pseudolous the slave tries to earn his freedom by getting his young, dull master Hero in bed with a local courtesan who has just been sold to a legionnaire. This requires a lot of singing.
Gratuitous Skin: What the musical lacks in violence, it makes up for in cleavage. Plenty of boys spent the sixties re-watching the sex scene and none of them knows any lyrics.
Historical Accuracy: Inspired by the works of early satirists, the play is – probable for budget reason – likely the most realistic film on this list. That said, Romans probably didn't lean so hard on schtick.
The Moral: Lying (and casting Zero Mostel) is always the right decision.
Jason and the Argonauts, 1963
The Story: Jason, the son of a murdered king, goes fleece shopping with the most feared warriors in Greece. He encounters all manner of monsters while sailing from one battle to the next.
Gratuitous Skin: Jason and his short-skirted men battle stop-motion animated skeletons in the Ray Harryhausen directed scene that inspired a generation of special effects nerds.
Historical Accuracy: The film completely embraced the ludicrous excesses of the ancient myth. The story didn't age well.
The Moral: As much as we whine about it, CGI is a good thing.
The Story: A Roman gladiator and slave leads his followers into battle against the decadent empire. When his army is finally forced to surrender, his men won't reveal their leader. To keep things simple, the Romans kill everybody.
Gratuitous Skin: A skinny dipping scene leads to passionate petting. Kirk Douglas's chin looks like an orifice.
Historical Accuracy: Spartacus was a former gladiator and leader in the Third Servile War, a slave rebellion in 71 BC, who was subsequently put to death on the Appian Way – basically your run-of-the-mill Hollywood pretty boy.
The Moral: Crucifixion can be a group activity.
The Story: When a former friend and Roman citizen forces Jewish prince Ben Hur into slavery, he becomes a war hero and charioteer before returning home to compete with his captor in a lawless race.
Gratuitous Skin: Charlton Heston and the world's saddest crew team paddle shirtless and manacled into a Mediterranean maritime battle.
Historical Accuracy: The first half of the movie is a fairly understated historical account of the subjugation of the Near East by Roman legions. The second half is basically Fast and Furious: Judea Drift.
The Moral: Jews can be good at sports.