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Film | Opinion

What happened to the classic Greek myth movie? Marvel killed it


Throughout the centuries, one thing has endured above all else: our hunger for narrative. When Homer and his fellow bearded balladeers were writing things like The Odyssey and The Illiad, their tales of Gods and monsters were recieved by attentive huddles of listeners; society learned about itself through stories passed on orally. Today, many of those stories remain but the way we consume them has changed. The ancients listened; we watch.

Visual mediums like film and television are now the dominant narrative vehicle, yet we still crave those same old stories. The enduring and universal appeal of myths partly explains why Greek myth movies were once so common. In the 1950s and ’60s, you couldn’t move for stories about Jason, Perseus, and the pantheon of Gods resting on the clouds above Mount Olympus. Jump ahead to the present day, however, and the landscape of mythological cinema is about as barren as the windy plains of Troy. So, what happened?

From the silent era to the present day, filmmakers have used classical myth to push the limits of the cinematic form, often using the myths of ancient Greece as an excuse to craft bigger sets, pioneer new technologies and redefine the potential of the feature-length film. One of the earliest examples of Greek myth in cinema is Helena, a 1924 German silent drama film directed by Manfred Noa and starring Edy Darclea, Vladimir Gajdarov and Albert Steinrück. The feature, based on Homer’s The Illiad, was released in two separate parts: The Rape of Helen and The Fall of Troy and required thousands of extras and sets of a hitherto unseen scale. Indeed, despite being labelled a masterpiece on release, the film was so expensive that it seriously harmed the financial security of Noa’s production company, Bavaria Film.

When TV arrived in the 1950s and cinema attendance began to dwindle, directors used Greek Myths to make the classic feature film too irresistible to resist. The decade saw a renaissance in mythological and classical filmmaking, as tales of Hercules, Achilles and the like were further reinvigorated through the advent of technicolour. Italy was especially prolific in this regard. Rome’s Studio Cinecittà became a powerhouse of block-busting mythological marvels, churning out a film about Hercules roughly every year – sometimes twice a year – from 1956 until 1965. In America, the enthusiasm was no less intense. In 1963, Don Chaffey released Jason and The Argonauts, a loose retelling of the myth of Jason which has since become a cult classic, largely thanks to the inventive stop-motion animation of Ray Harryhausen. Indeed, when we think of ancient Greece on the big screen, it is Harrhausen’s bronze giant Talos, the seven-headed hydra, and that army of sword-wielding skeletons that immediately come to mind.

Like Desmond Davis’ original Clash of The Titans (1981), Jason and The Argonauts takes poetic license while staying true to the essence of all Greek myths: specifically that the Gods are a fundamental part of daily life. In both films, Zeus and the other Gods hold council, betray one another, offer assistance and rain destruction on humanity. Ridley Scott’s Troy sought to do away with the supernatural elements of its source material. In Scott’s version of The Illiad, Achilles, Hector, Helen, Paris, and the other central characters are self-motivated individuals detached from the world of the Gods. They are present only in the rites and rituals of the warring factions and are otherwise non-existent.

In subtracting the Gods, Scott blurred the boundary between the classic myth movie with the historical epic. This semi-mythological grey area was swiftly occupied by films like 300 and Immortals, which, like Troy, paint a distinctly grim and nihilistic picture of ancient myth. Classic mythological epics like Jason and The Argonauts were adored because they were pure escapism. With their knowingly implausible narratives and jaw-dropping special effects, they offered cinema-goers the chance to leave reality behind.

Modern interpretations have tended to do quite the opposite, using myth as a way of shedding light on the way we live. Today cinema-goers looking for a dose of escapism don’t go to see tales about ancient Greek demigods, they go to see superhero films. Drawing on a huge pantheon of supernaturally gifted warrior-heroes, the Marvel Universe truly is the new Olympus. Superheroes are often either exact replicas of ancient Gods (Thor) or modern reimaginings of mythological figures, such as Wonder Woman, an Amazon sculpted from clay by Queen Hippolyta, who just so happens to feature in The Illiad. Like the Greek myths, films like Captain America, Dr Stange, Thor and Spiderman depict a universe that moves to the rhythm of godlike entities. Their heavy use of CGI also offers the same bang-for-buck that Jason did back in the day. Really, the Greek myth movie hasn’t gone anywhere; it’s just changed shape.

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