Review: Hail, Caesar! and the Origins of Swords and Sandals Epics

Laura Eastlake teaches English Literature and Classics at the University of Glasgow. She specialises in Victorian receptions of ancient Rome and is public engagement officer for the CRSN.

EastlakeI’m not going to lie, I had high hopes for Hail, Caesar!, not least because the Coen brothers’ last foray into classical source material gave us O Brother Where Art Thou (2000), with its playful adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey, toe-tapping musical numbers, and wry examination of the culture and society of the Deep South in the 1930s. Jump forward two decades and Hail, Caesar! is set in the golden age of Hollywood cinema. It has a very different colour palette and visual aesthetic but the same quirky, oddball sense of humour and gleeful self-awareness about its own place in a long tradition of reception and adaptation of the ancient world.

The plot follows studio ‘fixer’ Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) as he oversees the production of several films at Capitol Studios including an aquatic spectacular worthy of Esther Williams and starring starlet DeeAnn Moran (Scarlett Johansson), a drawing room drama directed by an Olivier-esque Ralph Fiennes, and an all-male naval musical brilliantly played – and tap-danced – by Channing Tatum. Mannix’s biggest headache, however, is ‘Hail Caesar!’, a swords and sandals epic meant to remind us of films like Ben Hur (1959), Quo Vadis (1951), The Robe (1953) and Cleopatra (1963). When his leading actor, Clooney’s charmingly buffoonish Baird Whitlock, is kidnapped, Mannix has to negotiate ransom requests, squabbling actors, exasperated directors, and a pair of poison-penned gossip columnists both played by Tilda Swinton in order to bring his blockbuster to the big screen.

clooneyIf you’re familiar with the swords and sandals genre, then the movie-within-a-movie sections are a laugh a minute, with the Coen brothers striking the perfect balance between homage and parody. Clooney channels the camper, overblown aspects of Rex Harrison, Kirk Douglas and Richard Burton, strutting about in landscapes crammed with extras and pastel-coloured triclinia populated with lute players and languid bodies. It’s fun to play ‘spot the reference’, but from a classical receptions point of view, it is even more interesting to look at how the film deals with broader social and political tensions of 1950s America and how those are bound up with the cinematic depiction of the ancient world. There is a terrific gag for instance early in the movie where Mannix calls a meeting with a Catholic priest, a Protestant minister, an Orthodox presbyter, and a rabbi to ensure that his depiction of Christ “will not offend any reasonable American of any faith or creed” and which leads them all into a theological quagmire.

It is also no accident that the studio itself is called Capitol Pictures, parodying not only the imperial nature of the studio system with Mannix as its world-weary imperator, but also the McCarthyist paranoia of the period. Later in the film it is revealed that a group of Communist screenwriters have, for years, been infiltrating Capitol’s creative channels and making covert (and largely ineffectual) attempts to seed subliminal propagandist messages into the studio’s biggest hits. The Communist sub-plot reminds us that the 1950s was also the decade in which Leningrad staged Aram Khachaturian’s Soviet ballet Spartacus, resulting in a cultural conflict wherein both American and Soviet powers were laying claim to different aspects of the Roman legacy to promote opposing political ideologies.

Svetlana Zakharova as Aegina and Alexander Volchkov as Crassus, Spartacus, Bolshoi Ballet at Lincoln Center Festival, New York City, USA (July 25-27, 2014). Photo credit: Andrea Mohin

Svetlana Zakharova as Aegina and Alexander Volchkov as Crassus, Spartacus, Bolshoi Ballet at Lincoln Center Festival, New York City, USA (July 25-27, 2014). Photo credit: Andrea Mohin

And I don’t think I’m giving this movie too much credit when I suggest that the Coen brothers know exactly what they’re doing when it comes to crafting comedy out of classical reception. They have confirmed in interviews that the script began life as a story about actors in the 1920s putting on an even older incarnation of classical epic – the toga play. The toga play as a genre reached the height of its popularity in the 1890s and early twentieth century before its wholesale transposition to the screen.[1] Indeed, most of the stories we think of as swords and sandals screen epics – Ben Hur, Quo Vadis etc – began life as spectacular stage productions with big budgets and elaborate visual effects. The toga play adaptation of Lew Wallace’s novel Ben Hur (1880), for instance, cost $75,000 to stage and toured the UK and USA for more than 60,000 performances. It also featured no less than 16 live horses running on an oversized treadmill on the stage at Drury Lane to recreate the famous chariot scene – an eye-popping alternative to the drawing room scenes of Ibsen and the New Drama of the fin de siècle!

Poster for the Illinois production of Klaw and Erlanger’s production of Ben Hur (1901).

Poster for the Illinois production of Klaw and Erlanger’s production of Ben Hur (1901).

Despite the unabashed spectacle of these productions, late Victorian toga drama was heavily religious in tone. The plots were driven almost without exception by the persecution of Christian characters by decadent and debauched Romans, by interfaith romances between a pagan hero and a Christian maiden, and by the conversion (and frequently the martyrdom) of said hero. The religious fervour of audiences who attended toga drama was notorious, and lampooned by commentator G.W. Foote, who observed that the audiences of some shows ‘might be called a congregation. It seemed to be the emptyings of the churches and chapels of London. Most of the people […] walked as though they were advancing to pews, and took their seats with reverential expectation.’[2] The Coen brothers seem to have followed Foote’s lead in their tongue-in-cheek approach to the piety of the swords and sandals epics, which are the offspring of the toga play genre. Clooney’s hapless Whitlock undergoes an ill-informed conversion of his own, inadvertently becoming a card-carrying member of the Communist party, spouting party rhetoric and channelling his fervour into the production’s climactic crucifixion scene before being firmly returned to his place in the Capitol Studios empire by Mannix. Ironically, it is Mannix himself who embodies the oddly conflicting values attached to Rome in its various incarnations. He is an imperator, ruling Capitol Studios with an iron will; a devout Catholic after the fashion of the toga play heroes; a Capitalist; and, paradoxically, a champion of the ‘little guy’ and the working people in his employ.

In 2016, with the latest remake of Ben Hur slated for release this summer (God[s] help us), Hail Caesar! seems like a timely reflection on the legacy of the ancient Roman past and its relationship to the culture, politics, aesthetic, and religious ideologies of different eras. It is a film that is well worth a watch for the spectacle, the musical numbers, and the gags, but also for its clever comedic style which is rooted not in the question of ‘What have the Romans ever done for us’ so much as ‘What do the Romans mean to us anyway?’



[1] See David Mayer, Playing Out the Empire: Ben Hur and Other Toga Plays and Films (Oxford: Clarendon, 1994).

[2] G. W. Foote, The Sign of the Cross: A Candid Criticism of Mr Wilson Barrett’s Play (1896), cited in Richard Foulkes, Church and Stage in Victorian England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), p.209.

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