With 'Hercules’ thundering into cinemas, historian Bettany Hughes suggests directors try a subtler approach to ancient Greece
By Bettany Hughes
The Greeks are back. Medea – incarnated by Helen McCrory – is playing to standing ovations at the National Theatre. In Lebanese refugee camps, a British team is working with Syrian women to mount a production of Sophocles’ Antigone – following the success of Euripides’ Trojan Women in the camps of Jordan last year. And this summer’s movie blockbuster is Brett Ratner’s version of the life of the Greek demi-god Herakles.
Hercules is daft, frankly; all pumped action (led by ex-wrestler Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) and laconic gags from English character actors (Ian McShane, Rufus Sewell and John Hurt) with a couple of ancient-ish aphorisms thrown in for good measure.
From the earliest feature-length ancient epic, The Last Days of Pompeii (1908), it is the Romans who have had the best box office. Their cultural ancestors, the Greeks, bring more challenges.
The first is that Greece was never as triumphalist as Rome. An empire that came to control one fifth of the world’s population needed a PR machine to match. Gladiatorial games in the Colosseum, victorious processions, imperial pleasure-cruises, even the multi-ethnic orgies mentioned in Suetonius – all these make for hot film action.
To find the Greek equivalent, you have to dig deeper. What is Hollywood to do with a world of 1,000 competing city-states, where homoeroticism was institutionalised and philosophers were more interested in the rationale for Platonic love than for war?
Equally difficult for 21st-century film-makers has been working out how to represent the 600 or so Greek gods. In ancient Greece there was no separate word for religion; gods and goddesses were everywhere and in everything. To remove them from the narrative drama – as Wolfgang Petersen did in his disastrous 2004 film Troy, which starred Brad Pitt as Achilles – makes a nonsense of the febrile world their acolytes inhabited.
Greek tales would be better treated as supernatural thrillers. Imagine the real, lived historical experience for the ancient Greeks: the day-to-day jeopardy of knowing there was a fickle spirit in every breath of wind and ear of grain; that malicious deities might be lurking around the corner, shape-shifting to have their way with you. Stop-motion animation, pioneered by Ray Harryhausen in films such as Jason and the Argonauts, gave us loveable but clunky Olympians. Today, with computer-generated imagery and green-screen technology, the Greek gods on screen should be sublime.
Admittedly, in practical terms, source material is tricky. The Greeks operated for many centuries without writing; arguably the most exciting of Greek epochs – the Bronze Age and the “Age of Heroes” (when household-name characters such as Helen of Troy, Achilles, Odysseus and Jason and the Argonauts originate) graze with pre-history. There is no set text, no canonical version from which to develop a script. In some tellings, Helen of Troy’s mother is Leda, but in others she is the goddess of fate, Nemesis; in most accounts Medea kills her children but in a few she protects them with her life.
“Every legend starts with a true story,” blares director Brett Ratner on the press release for Hercules. Socrates, I suspect, would have asked “whose truth?” The Greek past is slippery, so directors tend to project what they want on to the void. Ancient history becomes contemporary polemic. Alexander the Great, directed by Robert Rossen in 1956, charts two Fifties American obsessions: juvenile delinquency (amplifying stories of Alexander’s dysfunctional family) and the corruption of idealism by power. The 300 Spartans, Rudolph Maté’s 1962 version of the Battle of Thermopylae of 480BC, had Spartans and their Greek allies (for which read America and Britain) as freedom fighters standing up to a monolithic (in other words, Communist) threat. By 2007, and Zack Snyder’s 300, which dealt with the same battle, it was the diabolical Middle East that was presented as the enemy.
Interestingly, although Petersen’s Troy was lambasted for implying that Agamemnon was a modern-day imperialist who used honour as an excuse for territorial invasion, we now know this mirrors the history of the eastern Mediterranean. In Turkey there is a Hittite cuneiform tablet from 1260BC, the most likely time for a “Trojan War”. This tablet is an office copy of legal proceedings and it explicitly tells us that the infidelity of a princess, in a foreign court as part of a diplomatic marriage alliance, is excuse enough for the two power-players of the day – the kingdoms of Ugarit and Amurru – to declare war on one another.
The Greeks were working out how to live in the world. In Homer’s Iliad we hear of a diplomatic resolution blown to smithereens by the hot-headed aggression of a single rogue archer. Aeschylus’ Antigone and Euripides’ retelling of Iphigenia in Tauris (set in modern-day Crimea) debate the validity of might declaring itself right, and remind us how war affects the most vulnerable in society – in both cases here, girls of 13 or so.
Some of the wildest of Greek tales are now evidenced by the findings of archaeological digs, and there should be rich pickings from them. The golden spindles, the rock-crystal thrones, the boars’ tusk helmets vividly described in the lines of the epic poets have now emerged from the earth. And when history and archaeology runs out, the Greeks still offer us the marvel of myth.
Myths exist to make sense of the world; they identify the universal constants that give the maelstrom of our lives stability. For the Greeks, it was deep in the collective memory that answers and security could be found. Through myth-sharing, the long-dead men and women of Greece debated the same issues we do today: how to achieve a beautiful death, the prevalence of rape in war, the nature of suffering, of ambition and of virtue.
The possibilities here are almost limitless. Now that we understand the psychological horror of earthquakes and tsunamis, the myth of Atlantis could be revisited. Daedalus and Icarus – the father and son whose ambitions led to tragedy – would make for a brilliant study of our species’ desire to always want more. Persephone – kidnapped by Hades and forced to live half the year in the underworld – forced the ancients to deal with the cycle of life and mortality.
Ancient Greek society was a juvenile one – most men were fathers at 12, grandfathers at 24, dead by 35. Many of the myth-cycles chart a youthful journey of self-discovery; it is perhaps why, coincidentally, the Percy Jackson films (a retelling of the Perseus myth) have been among the most successful Greek flicks at the box office.
Muthoi in Ancient Greece were never just fairy tales; they are a mixture of memories, histories, imagination and vital points of information. Movie moguls should consider themselves the privileged descendants of those first myth-makers. Contemporary sword-and-sandal epics can have all the adventure and gore and whizz-bang they want – but at their core there should be a critical question, satisfyingly answered. We should never say “It’s just a myth”, but instead: “This is a myth, and it might be the most important thing you will ever hear.”