Top 5 Romans in film

#5 – Jack (Tom Cruise) – Oblivion

Bear with me here. Oblivion isn’t set in Rome, and no-one is explicitly a Roman. But in a way Jack is, and in a way that’s quite unique as far as modern cinematic portrayals of Rome are concerned. Jack’s a post-apocalyptic clean-up dude in a fairly average post-apocalyptic world that – naturellement – doesn’t have books. But Jack likes books. And he REALLY likes Thomas Babington Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome, particularly this narratively convenient passage:

“How can man die better:
than facing fearful odds,
for the ashes of his fathers,
and the temples of his Gods.”

Taken from the poem Horatius about three Roman men prepared to sacrifice themselves to hold a bridge against the Etruscan army, this little snippet is recited by Cruise as he prepares to sacrifice himself (and Morgan Freeman, because apparently being Nelson Mandela AND God isn’t noble enough) to destroy the anonymous alien presence that caused the apocalypse in the first place. Jack allies himself with the Romans, and thus becomes a Roman in himself, taking on the attributes of a Roman to destroy a destructive presence. So far, so obvious. But I like him more than all the other thinly veiled metaphorical Romans in fiction: he’s a good guy. The Romans are NEVER the good guys, they’re the evil, sexy, opulent guys; they’re the invading empire, the homogenising force, the destructive element (we see you, The Hunger Games), because those are the stories that we tell about Rome. But in Oblivion, Jack is telling the story the Romans told about themselves: the gutsy underdogs made good, the fearless heroes, the pious and the loyal. So Oblivion, you can be on my list, and Katniss can blow me.


#4 – Antony (Marlon Brando) – Julius Caesar

Can a world that contained young Marlon Brando ever truly be godless? These are the big theological questions we should all be asking. Forget bananas, the best evidence we’ve got of a benevolent God is Marlon Brando in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Julius Caesar as Antony, my favourite of the late Republican Romans. He was so staggeringly charming that Fulvia raised an army to fight for him, Cleopatra threw away her ENTIRE KINGDOM for him, and Octavia fought her own brother for him (then, after he married Cleopatra/divorced her/died, she raised his and Cleopatra’s children as her own). Antony had heroic levels of charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent, and I mean heroic in the classical sense. Antony was magnetic. So of course, Marlon Brando is a perfect Antony. He’s beautiful, he’s seductive, he’s brutal, and his “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech makes everyone want to stab Brutus. Let’s all just look at pictures of Marlon Brando all afternoon.


#3 – Marcus Flavius Aquila (Channing Tatum) – The Eagle

Remember when Jamie Bell was a skinny little ballet kid and Channing Tatum was a dancing ham? And then they both became decent and extremely boneable actors with range? Crazy stuff. In this film, C-Tates accidentally burnt off his own foreskin while playing the honourable Roman soldier who develops an in-no-way homoerotic friendship with Jamie Bell’s Celtic slave and wrestles with him a LOT. One time in a river, which isn’t arousing at all.

I like a lot about the Romans in The Eagle. I like that they have subtle-as-a-brick American accents; I like the depiction of the Roman garrison as frightened and freaked out by grim old Britain; I like the issues of shame and family honour which are explored in the most cursory way; I like Tahir Rahim speaking Gaelic; I like the wrestling. The Eagle offers paper-thin critiques of Rome, slavery, empire, occupation or the Celts but I’m charmed by it, and I’m charmed by C-Tate’s sudden emergence as an-actually-pretty-decent actor, who makes an actually-pretty-decent Roman.


#2 – Pontius Pilate (David Bowie) – The Last Temptation of Christ

Pilate plays “Rome” in every cinematic version of Christ’s life, an emblem of power making life difficult for Jesus. And this one time, he was played by Ziggy Stardust, asking Jesus mad questions, like ‘is this good magic or bad magic?’ in his actual Jareth voice. Bowie plays Pilate like he’s as confused by his presence as we are (to quote Simon Amstell, “I’m not saying Bowie was wooden, but a certain Mr Christ was nailed to him”), but that’s fine because his role is to dismiss the power of Christ, to apply the blunt instrument of mortal death to eradicate a religion, and to say obvious things like “Unfortunately for you, we don’t want things changed,” (discreetly implying that he knows about Christ’s wizard skills, which makes him an even bigger bastard). Bowie’s Pilate is a perfect encapsulation of Rome from this perspective: the hegemonic force that accepts no deviation and crushes all threats without even bothering to EMOTE.


#1 – Caligula (Malcolm McDowell) – Caligula

Once upon a time there was a publisher named Bob Guccione. He had unnatural hair, wide open shirts and an awful lot of gold jewellery. One day Bob was thinking about the great Roman epics of the 1950s & ’60s and thought “I can do that. But with hardcore scenes of lesbian pornography!” And so he made Caligula – my favourite film of all time, although I didn’t truly understand it until my 10th or 11th viewing.

Caligula is a disaster. It’s the cacophonous collision of 4 completely different and contradictory understandings of Rome, Caligula, and which lenses to use when shooting a really massive piece of scenery. Guccione believed he was making a ‘pagan-ography’; a true representation of Rome before the Christians ruined everything with their morality. Initial screenwriter Gore Vidal thought he was writing a morality tale about the corrupting effects of power. Tinto Brass, quite possibly the worst director in the world at that point, saw it as the third part of his unofficial homosexual trilogy. And Malcolm McDowell thought he was playing a man who just really hated bureaucracy, which.. nope, I’ve got no idea either. None of them seem to have talked to each other.

The result is a whirlwind of terrifying sets, incomprehensible scenes (some of which are clearly played in the wrong order), hardcore-even-by-our-standards pornography and a big cake shaped like a vagina, with McDowell presiding over all of it looking alternately frightened and concerned, or just doing an “insane” face. I make everyone I love watch Caligula with me eventually, because for all its terribleness (and it IS terrible) and inaccuracies, it’s unpredictable, hilarious and gloriously po-faced throughout. And that embodies everything I adore about the Romans.


BOOM! Didn’t expect that much knowledge on a Friday morning, did you? Let us know in the comments if you’d like to see more of the same – maybe we’ll get an Ancient Egypt correspondent too, if you’re lucky.

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