25 November 2015

4.15pm-5.30pm – Powell Building – Pf06, North Holmes Road Campus, Canterbury Christ Church University, Canterbury, CT1 1QU

Speaker: Dr Tony Keen (Open University)

One odd factor in the boom in ancient world movies post-Gladiator is the relative dearth of Roman settings, as opposed to Greek, especially in comparison with movies of the 1950s and 1960s. However, some Roman movies have been made, and this paper focusses upon four of them: King Arthur (Antoine Fuqua, 2004), The Last Legion (Doug Lefler, 2007), Centurion (Neil Marshall, 2010) and The Eagle (Kevin McDonald, 2011). Though not produced as a series, these form a convenient thematic set. Not only are all four set predominantly or entirely within Roman Britain, but the most significant portion (and in some cases all) of the action takes place on Hadrian’s Wall or in the barbarian territory beyond. Three of them also involve the Ninth Legion – the exception being King Arthur.

One noticeable thing about these movies is the degree to which they employ the plot structures and mise-en-scène of the classic American western. The villa north of the Wall in King Arthur, which makes no sense in terms of Roman settlement patterns, becomes comprehensible as the equivalent of the isolated homestead that needs rescuing by the US Cavalry. Centurion, as Neil Marshall freely admits, steals substantially from the prolonged chase of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, including a virtual recreation of that scene’s climax. The Seal People of The Eagle are visually coded in costumes and make-up reminiscent of recent cinematic depictions of Native Americans, such as that seen in Dances with Wolves. Only The Last Legion avoids that approach, choosing instead to appropriate the mysticism of Star Wars (which has itself been described as a Western in disguise). Why are such elements so attractive to makers of Roman movies that they want to use them to supplement the more traditional tropes of the epic? Why does The Last Legion choose a different route? If moviemakers are so keen to make disguised Westerns, why are they not making real Westerns? Perhaps there is a certain portrayal of the Other that is no longer acceptable when applied to Native Americans, but can be applied on a different continent and at a greater chronological remove.

Tony Keen is an Associate Lecturer and Honorary Associate with the Open University, and Adjunct Assistant Professor with the University of Notre Dame London Global Gateway. He writes on reception of Greece and Rome in modern popular culture, in particular in cinema in science fiction. He is planning a co-authored book on the depiction of Roman Britain in cinema and television.

Email Dr Andrew Butler – andrew.buttler@canterbury.ac.uk – for further details

All welcome