The Cosmopolitan Epics of 2004: A Case Study

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By Assoc. Prof. Saverio Giovacchini | 02.04.2011


Assoc. Prof. Saverio Giovacchini

Hollywood cinema has often reproduced the self-conscious American fascination with empires noted by many cultural critics and historians.1 As is well known, many of the “sword and sandal” epics of the fifties dealt with empires, be it the Roman, Macedonian, or even the Egyptian kind. Closer to the present, the first few years ofthe 21st century have been a heady time for empire, which has been extensively dealt with both in American cinema and in the other media.2


In 2004, Hollywood produced three purportedly blockbuster epic films about empires:Troy, King Arthur and Alexander. Many critics then suggested a direct link between the 1950s “sword and sandal” epic and this crop of movies. In the aftermath of the box office onslaught of Gladiator, New York Times’s Herbert Muschamp wrote that the Gladiator kind of films are a throwback to the Eisenhower age of Normalcy of the 1950s.3 When Troy came out, Variety noted that the film shared “the same prosand cons as a standard-issue historical spectacle of the 50s: great production values,spectacular battles and some fine actors in grand roles on the one hand; hokey dialogue and insipid romance and dull interstitial downtime between set pieces on the other.”4


Similarities between the two cycles abound. Like the previous “sword and sandal” cycle, the early 21st century one was made of blockbusters commanding a vast array of resources and enormous budgets, all above the $100 million mark. The visual exhibitionism of the former cycle was meant to sway spectators away from their TV,just like the grandiosity of the sets of the latter cycle was meant to remind viewers of the advantages of taking in a film in a movie theater rather than in front of a TV or acomputer screen. Like their 1950s predecessors, these films were also quite cavalier in reproducing historical knowledge.5 Centered on meditations on current political issues, the new epic film was hardly informed by historical akribéia. This has long been a tradition of the “sword and sandal” film inside and outside Hollywood.6 As Melani McAlister has argued, the 1950s/1960s cycle embodied a distinct foreign policy view, which was in tune with that in vogue in American political circles. This policy condemned the exertions of European imperialism while commenting favorably on the development of America’s own, more informal, imperial project. Thus, Hollywood epics were tied “to the production of a discourse of U.S. power that framed it as inevitably global in its scope, benevolent in its intent, and benign in its effects.”7 The 1950s films were “American” insofar as their fairly outspoken criticism of European imperialism, often revealed by the Oxford accent of their villainous Roman bureaucrats, fit well with American foreign vision at the time.8


What I want to emphasize here, however, is the relative novelty of the new cycle of “sword and sandal” films that, rather than promoting the American agenda, seemed to offer a somber assessment of it. I name these 2004 films “cosmopolitan epic” because I want to establish a productive tension between the terms “cosmopolitan” and the more nation-bound “Hollywood,” or “American.” The America epic of the fifties embodied a profoundly American vision of foreign affairs. That this vision was not met with universal hostility abroad was probably a testament to the relative success of the policy of the Eisenhower administration vis a vis the old and crumbling European empires. Selling these films was, in fact, a way of selling America, a notion that was embodied in Cold War legislation, such as the 1948 Smith-Mundt Act.9 The act of selling, however, tends to exclude complete coercion, and expensive blockbuster films, like the epics, needed the kindness of foreign audiences. The international success of these movies is evidence that the “benevolent supremacy” of Eisenhower’s foreign policy, centering on moderate criticism of the stalwarts of European imperialism, an aggressive public relations campaign in the matter of domestic civil rights, financial aid to Western Europe, and a moderate stance during the 1956 Suez crisis, did not resonate negatively outside of the USA….


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* Published in Journal of Global Analysis Vol. 2 No.1 – 2011
© Copyright 2011 by CESRAN

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