Video: “Sohrab Modi’s ‘Sikandar’ (British India, 1941) and Carmine Gallone’s ‘Scipione l’Africano’: Plundering Footage from a Fascist Film” [Paper Delivered at the Antiquity in Media Studies Conference (December, 2021)]

Click on the link to view the paper:

The plundered footage of a fascist film in Sohrab Modi’s anti-Colonialist Sikander (British India, 1941)

Synopsis of the Paper:

Sikandar, a film made in British India early in World War II, depicts Alexander (Sikandar) the Great’s invasion of northwestern India. It is the first film to treat Alexander as its subject. Despite its warlike theme, in a runtime of over two hours and twenty minutes, less than a half hour treats scenes related to battle with only thirteen minutes of actual fighting.[1] In fact, almost all of the actual fighting that we see enters Sikandar in postproduction. Modi constructs all three of his battles primarily from footage inserted from Carmine Gallone’s Fascist 1937 film Scipione l’Africano. Why would this be?

It is certainly true that Gallone’s film offered footage that can be seen to address logistical problems involved with the filming of large battle scenes, particularly those that involve elephants. At Cinecittà Studios, Carmine Gallone had the support of Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini’s regime, which furnished the production with thousands of cavalry, battlefield extras, and even thirty elephants in order to recreate the Battle of Zama, fought between Roman general Scipio Africanus (Annibale Ninchi) and the Carthaginian Hannibal (Camillo Pilotto) in 202 BCE.

I argue, however, that, at most, practical considerations are only part of the answer. Sohrab Modi was an ambitious artist committed to his own vision. Scipione l’Africano’s Fascistic worldview is manifestly opposed to that of Sikandar. It is therefore important to understand the editing in of battle footage from Gallone’s film as an artistic challenge as much (and I believe more) than simple opportunism. I focus therefore on how Modi creates meaning in Sikandar through this editing process and establishes continuity with that footage through original scenes, despite the considerable differences in tone and ideology between the two films. Modi uses Gallone’s footage in order to make an anti-Scipione l’Africano, rooted in Indian history.

Posted in Cinema, Classics, Fascist Cinema, Non-Western Receptions of Ancient Rome, Reception, Sohrab Modi | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

New Zealand’s Ancient Rome in ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ (Taika Waititi, 2017) and “‘STARZ Spartacus’ (2010-2013).

[Spoilers Ahead]

New Zealand director Taika Waititi infused his 2017 entry in the Marvell Studios Avengers saga with visual and plot elements that recall a Roman gladiatorial arena. Director Waititi was also particularly concerned to register the Australian production context of the film, as well as New Zealand’s role in the form of his own involvement and that of compatriot cast and production staff. In this post, I explore the elements of the Roman past featured in Thor: Ragnarok as part of a growing tradition in New Zealand’s entertainment industry of depictions of the ancient Greco-Roman world.

Direct inspiration for the gladiatorial sequence in the film can be found in the comic book universe of Thor and Hulk. The Roman-style helmet and gladiator-themed armor worn by Hulk in Thor: Ragnarok (2017) derive from the 2006 Planet Hulk story arc. Ridley Scott’s film Gladiator (2000), released six years before Planet Hulk appeared, is a likely inspiration for the Roman elements that appear there. By the time Thor: Ragnarok was released in 2017, however, STARZ Spartacus had established itself as a defining gladiatorial screen narrative. It doesn’t seem impossible that Waititi saw STARZ Spartacus as a feature of New Zealand screen history that had a place in his film. Whether or not there was any intention behind it, however, Thor: Ragnarok channels a distinctively New Zealand tradition of strongly fantasy-based depictions of the ancient past, and of the Roman arena in particular. 1

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Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) battle it out as gladiators in the arena of Sakaar.

STARZ Spartacus was filmed entirely in Auckland, New Zealand. Indeed, it is one of three highly successful shows set in the ancient Greco-Roman world, for which New Zealand has been the production location. The other two are of course Hercules: The Legendary Journeys (1995-1999) and Xena: Warrior Princess (1995-2001). All three have casts substantially recruited from New Zealand and Australia. I suggest that they together comprise a distinctly New Zealand tradition of recreating Greek and Roman mytho-historical pasts. And I further argue that Thor: Ragnarok‘s gladiatorial sequence belongs to this tradition.

These three shows do not forcefully assert a New Zealand identity. Although filmed in New Zealand, STARZ Spartacus is also connected to the United States. Its producers, Steven DeKnight and Robert Tapert, are U.S. Americans. It was produced as original content for the STARZ network, which is headquartered in Santa Monica, California, and is a property of Lion’s Gate Entertainment, which is also headquartered in Santa Monica. Personal lines of connection stretch back to New Zealand insofar as Producer Tapert is married to New Zealand actor Lucy Lawless, who plays Lucretia, wife of lanista Batiatus. Lawless first gained international fame as the title character of Xena: Warrior Princess, a spin-off of Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. Indeed, Lawless’ celebrity and connection to Xena and Hercules are part of what, for fans, links STARZ Spartacus to New Zealand.

Taika Waititi was very much conscious of the way in which a country can be both simultaneously visible as a production location and invisible when the film superimposes a different dramatic setting that situates audiences in another place and time altogether. Thor: Ragnarok was filmed in Australia. Waititi is explicit on the importance of this production context for his approach to the film: “… there’s lots of [references] that would just, for me, help make it actually a true Australian film rather than, ‘oh they just shot a movie in Australia’.”2 At the same time, Waititi’s own Kiwi and specifically Māori identity, as well as role of New Zealand in supplying actors and production staff, also mattered in his vision of the film.3 At the outset of filming, Waititi, with the support of the Studio, arranged for an opening ceremony on the production that honored both Māori and Australian Aboriginal nations: 4 “You wouldn’t really start a movie in New Zealand without asking the local tribe to come in and bless you and send you to work with some good mojo. Especially if you’re on their land, you’re in their backyard, it’s sort of just nice manners to get in touch,” said Waititi. “The studio were very receptive (and) jumped on board, so we got some locals from the (Australian Aboriginal) Yugambeh mob, they came in and welcomed us. And one of our Kaumātua (a Māori elder), came over to do a Karakia, a kind of open-up ceremony from my side of things as well.” “Because it really felt like two nations coming together and making this thing.”

The Plot of Thor: Ragnarok

At the death of their father Odin, Thor’s half-sister Hela (Cate Blanchette), the goddess of death, immediately reemerges from the banishment to which he consigned her. In their first encounter, Hela causes Thor to be sent to Sakaar, a far-flung world that serves as a galactic garbage dump. Scavengers called ‘scrappers’ search the refuse that lands there for anything of profit and anyone worth preying upon — the word appears to be a euphemism for slave-trader. Scrapper 142 (Tessa Thompson) claims Thor as her find. She fights off others who want to seize him and, after incapacitating the god of thunder, takes him to the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), ruler of Sakaar. As it happens, the Grand Master is particularly devoted to staging a series of gladiatorial games known as ‘The Contest of Champions’.

The film depicts Asgard’s history of brutal aggression as having been suppressed in favor of a revisionist account of a spread of civilization. Hela reveals that Asgard and Thor’s father Odin has a history of bloody imperial expansion beneath its veneer of peace treaties. This is visualized as a set of paintings featuring Odin and his first-born Hela violently subduing the universe hidden beneath an overlay of newer paintings of Odin engaging in ceremonies and rituals of peace. Hela reveals this secret history when she strips away a set of revisionist visual narratives spreading a false account of humane Asgardian interactions with the universe around it. Modern European-derived societies generally and institutional Christianity likewise avail themselves of an image of humane reason, which covers over a hyper-aggressive and supremely brutal past.5

Thor discovers that his half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) was similarly diverted to Sakaar. To his further surprise, Thor discovers that Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), whose whereabouts have been unknown since the end of Age of Ultron (Whedon, 2015), is not only also on Sakaar, but is the Grand Master’s unbeatable, favorite gladiator in the Contest of Champions. Hulk actually finds his new role to be a satisfying outlet for his aggression and enjoys relative comfort, thanks to the Grand Master’s favor. Scrapper 142, it turns out, also found Hulk upon his arrival and sold him to the Grand Master, making a very favorable impression on both ruler and gladiator in the process. This set of relationships, plus Scrapper 142’s hidden but highly significant identity as an Asgardian called Valkyrie — lone survivor of an ancient and fatal battle in which Hela destroyed her entire elite band of female warriors — makes her a valuable ally to Thor. The god, Valkyrie/Scrapper 142, Loki and Hulk ultimately make their escape from Sakaar and journey to Asgard in order to battle Hela.

The Comic Book Sources for Thor: Ragnarok‘s Gladiatorial Storyline

Thor: Ragnarok‘s gladiatorial storyline looks to two comic book sources: the 1982 miniseries Marvel Super Hero Contest of Champions by Mark Gruenwald, Bill Mantlo, Steven Grant and Bob Layton; and the 2006 “Planet Hulk” storyline by Greg Pak and illustrated by Carlo Pagulayan and Aaron Lopresti. The first provides the ‘Contest of Champions’, presided over by the Grand Master. Thor appears in this contest, but it is an ultra-ensemble, cross-over cast in which the Grand Master pits teams, each consisting of both Avengers and X-Men, against one another.

The 2006 Planet Hulk introduces the world of Sakaar and includes Hulk as the central character in a gladiatorial scenario, marked with clear Roman visual features. The storyline involves a concept similar to Gladiator (Scott, 2000), in which Hulk, delivered to gladiatorial bondage on Sakaar, joins forces with fellow gladiators, wins over audiences, and rises in prominence. Ultimately, in a battle intended by Sakaar’s ruler to destroy Hulk, the technology that enslaves every gladiator is undone and they revolt. Yet, in translation to 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok, the gladiator portion of the story comes to resemble less Ridley Scott’s Gladiator and more STARZ Spartacus.

Insofar as New Zealand not only contributes to Thor: Ragnarok its director and several actors in various larger and smaller roles, it seems appropriate that it also channels one of the several globally successful franchises connected with that country in order to invoke its vision of Rome. The key points of similarity are as follows. First, there is in each a pair of ally-rivals: in STARZ Spartacus, Spartacus and Crixus; in Thor: Ragnarok, Thor and Hulk. Physically, one of the pair combines lesser strength with agility of mind and body (Spartacus/Thor), while the other combines ferocity with relatively greater physical strength (Crixus/Hulk).

Second, while one of the pair desires escape from the outset (Spartacus/Thor), the other finds gladiator status meaningful and resists rebellion until circumstances and changing relationships finally dislodge him. Spartacus’ eventual goal in escaping the gladiatorial school is to lead his fellow gladiators, those enslaved to the house, and any who join to freedom. Third, at the conclusion of the final season, Spartacus’ army and the community attached to it have been destroyed. A few refugees do manage to escape the slaughter. Thor’s initial ambition, on escaping Sakaar, is to conclude his battle with Hela and save his home-world of Asgard. Although he is able to save the people of Asgard, the planet is ultimately destroyed and they must flee to Earth as refugees.

The Plot of STARZ Spartacus

The plot of the first season of STARZ Spartacus is structured around the title hero’s betrayal and capture in his native Thrace. It begins with Spartacus (Andy Whitfield) in his native Thrace advocating among his people for an alliance with Rome against their traditional enemies, the Getae. Rome, represented by Claudius Glaber (Craig Parker), abuses and then betrays this alliance. Glaber is not interested in defending Spartacus’ people against the Getae, but with marching east to face Mithradates, King of Pontus, in hopes of bringing down that wealthy kingdom and reaping the glory. After hostilely confronting Glaber over his betrayal of their treaty, Spartacus becomes first a fugitive, then a prisoner, and finally a gladiator. The drama centers around loss of sovereignty, loss of freedom, the fight to regain both, and final defeat.

Spartacus becomes a gladiator in hopes of surviving long enough to recover his wife. She was captured with him but has been taken he knows not where. After Batiatus, owner of the school, betrays him by killing his wife (in hopes of keeping him as a gladiator), Spartacus is committed to revenge. As a competitor Spartacus must face the school’s feared champion, Crixus ‘the Undefeated Gaul’ (Manu Bennett).

Crixus is in love with Naevia (played in season 1 by Leslie-Ann Brandt), who, for almost her entire life, has been enslaved to the domina of the household, Lucretia (Lucy Lawless), wife of Lentulus Batiatus (John Hannah). Hoping initially to conceive a child and believing that her husband is incapable of this, Lucretia begins a secret affair with Crixus. Although he submits to her Lucretia sexually, Crixus has no interest in her otherwise. Once Lucretia discovers his love for Naevia, she becomes jealous and banishes her. In the wake of Naevia’s departure, among other issues, Crixus agrees to put aside his differences with Spartacus and join the revolt. They lead their fellow gladiators in a massacre of almost all the Romans and collaborators who had authority over them at the school.

After the escape, in the second season, Crixus finds Naevia (now played by Cynthia Addai-Robinson).7 Since her banishment, she has lived through unspeakable physical abuse. Crixus teaches her the fighting arts so that she may know that no one can inflict such things upon her again. The brutalized Naevia survives, but is consumed with a thirst for revenge that leads her to collude with Crixus in a series of unwise decisions leading ultimately to their destruction. Nevertheless, the show allows for violence on behalf of the her refugee community to play a healing or at least therapeutic role in Naevia’s life. Franz Fanon’s observation about violence in the life of the colonized person fits here: 8 “At the level of individuals, violence is a cleansing force. It frees the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction; it makes him fearless and restores his self-respect.” In the course of the second and third seasons of the show, Spartacus and his comrades increase the size of their army. They defeat the Romans at every turn and strike mercilessly at their once powerful oppressors. Ultimately they divide into two armies, one of which attempts to destroy Rome itself and the other to flee Italy through the Alps to freedom. Ultimately, both meet a tragic end. Even so, a small band of refugees from Spartacus’ army does survive and escapes to freedom.

Character Parallels between Thor: Ragnarok and STARZ Spartacus

[1] Thor and Spartacus:

Similar hairstyle experiences mark Chris Hemsworth’s Thor-as-gladiator and Andy Whitfield as Spartacus. Both Thor and Spartacus at their places of gladiatorial captivity as rough-edged ‘barbarians’ with the flowing locks that the part demands. Their loss of freedom and transformation into a character obligated to fight for the entertainment of others is marked by the change in hairstyle to a starker, military-like trim.Thor (Chris Hemsworth) with long-haired pre-gladiatorial look and short-haired gladiatorial look.

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Spartacus (Andy Whitfield) with long-haired pre-gladiatorial look.
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Spartacus with short-haired pre-gladiatorial look.\

[2] Hulk and Crixus:

Thor and Hulk recapitulate the rivalry of Spartacus and Crixus respectively — prior to coming to terms and revolting against Batiatus. Thor is the protagonist whose storyline we follow, even as we become familiar with Hulk (in his new existence) through Thor’s encounters with him. Mighty though he is, Thor is a hero characterized more by his wits when he is in the presence of Hulk’s brawn. The Spartacus of season 1 stands in similar relation to the bulkier Crixus.

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Hulk (Mark Ruffalo)
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Crixus (Manu Bennett)

Where STARZ Spartacus arcs from action-drama ultimately to tragedy, deflationary humor is the primary motif recurring throughout Thor: Ragnarok‘s account of its title hero. Waititi sketched his vision for the superhero franchise installment in explicitly comedic terms: “Given the brief to pitch directing a “Thor” buddy comedy that he would help write, Waititi suggested “ Withnail & I in space,” “just these two people who happen to be superheroes making their way across the universe.” (In this formula, the Hulk is the volatile Withnail figure, and Thor must “take care of this time bomb and keep him out of trouble” as they travel from planet to planet.)” 9 This formula, despite its comedic origins, resonates with STARZ Spartacus insofar as Spartacus’ more reasoned approach to their shared challenges is unable to restrain the volatile Crixus. As a result, the army ultimately splits in the show’s final season, leading ultimately to tragedy.

Dan Taipua notes that anti-ego humor is particularly strong in Māori culture. In this respect, Waititi has invested his film with a distinctly Māori ethos. 10 The film offers perhaps its clearest deflationary comical treatment of the sort of ultra-masculinist world found in STARZ Spartacus. Hulk and Thor bond while discussing what kind of fire they are. Hulk philosophically suggests that he is like fire and Thor is like water. Thor objects, suggesting that he too is like fire. Hulk concedes the point, qualifying only by adding that he is like raging fire and Thor is like smoldering fire. As simple an ego joke as it is, this exchange also describes with absolute accuracy the difference between the quiet, intense Spartacus and the bellowing, strutting Crixus.

[3] The Grand Master and Quintus Lentulus Batiatus:

The Grand Master corresponds roughly to the character of Batiatus, the owner of the gladiatorial school in the Italian city of Capua, where Crixus and Spartacus train. Although Thor has a mission to return to Asgard with whatever help he can bring to fight Hela, the Grand Master provides a figure against which the characters who meet in the gladiatorial games of Sakaar can rally. Similarly, Batiatus is the figure against whom Spartacus and Crixus ultimately unite, together with the other gladiators of the school. The Grand Master retains something of the sinister character of John Hannah’s Batiatus in STARZ Spartacus, though Jeff Goldblum’s performance is more explicitly comedic.11

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Q. Lentulus Batiatus
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Grand Master of Sakaar

[4] Scrapper 142 / Valkyrie and Naevia:

Hulk and Valkyrie have a friendly, non-romantic relationship. Hulk has not reverted to his form as Bruce Banner for his entire time on Sakaar so there is no room for a romantic connection such as appeared to be taking place with Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson) in Age of Ultron (Hulk’s gargantuan body is a seemingly asexual one in the Marvel films). This passes into the realm of what may seem alike only in light of more apparent similarities. While Hulk corresponds broadly to the Crixus, Valkyrie recalls Naevia, Crixus’ lover and a ferocious warrior in her own right. Both Valkyrie and Naevia — as played by Cynthia Addai-Robinson in seasons 2 and 3 — are Black women.Valkyrie has a warrior past and a decadent present, from which she awakens to renewed heroism. Naevia has an enslaved past and present, from which she awakens to become her own avenger.

Valkyrie survived destruction at the hands of Hela, but only to become a refugee. After this defeat, she lost herself in the anonymous wasteland of Sakaar, an alcoholic who surveys the vast scrapyards looking for things and beings of value. Valkyrie falls into despair and self-imposed exile but seems never to have ceased being a warrior completely capable of protecting herself. Her encounter with Thor, the royal son of Asgard reminds her of her history and the purpose and code that once governed her life. Scrapper 142 then begins a journey of return to her previous identity as Valkyrie. In so doing, she recovers her sense of pride in herself as a warrior and as an Asgardian.

Scrapper 142/Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson)
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Naevia (Cynthia Addai-Robinson)

Scrapper 142/Valkyrie is emotionally lost in the urban and quite literal wasteland of Sakaar, as many indigenous people around the world find themselves similarly uprooted and scattered. She is mired in depression and substance abuse. She is haunted by the horror of cataclysmic defeat and its personally brutal legacy. Yet, she is heir to a glorious past. The classic filmic — and deadly serious — account of this sort of story in the Māori/New Zealand context is Once Were Warriors (1994).12 The scene in which Valkyrie opens a bottle with her blade is drawn from that film. The spacecraft that she first appears on is painted in the colors of the Tino Rangatiratanga, the flag of the Māori people. In Thor: Ragnarok, this character emerges triumphant from her state of loss and alienation. To dramatize this, Waititi draws on the culture of the film’s Australian production context. When Valkyrie steps foot again on Asgard to once more do battle with Hela, the space ship she came in on bears the colors of Australia’s Aboriginal flag.13

[5] Korg, Frantz Fanon and Thor: Ragnarok‘s Spirit of Revolution

The character of Korg is played by director Taika Waititi. Korg is the character from whom Thor learns that everyone who faces the Grandmaster’s champion dies. Thor does not yet know that this champion is Hulk. At the same time, he learns that Korg was sentenced to gladiatorial combat on Sakaar because of his failed attempt at revolution on his home world. Korg hopes to foment revolution — this time successfully — on Sakaar as well. In this respect, although Thor parallels Spartacus as a leader, it is actually Korg who embodies the Spartacus character’s revolutionary spirit. The character of Korg originates in the “Planet Hulk” comics, but his personality in the film is very much the creation of Waititi. The director is on record as saying that his inspiration for Korg was the image of Polynesian bouncers in New Zealand, who might have their job because of their size but nevertheless be a gentle personality.14

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Korg (Taika Waitii)

A key theme of Spartacus (1960) is the quest to recover and preserve a stolen humanity. This quest requires communal work, shared risk, and the willingness of all to fight for a common future. Similarly, there is an ongoing moral struggle to defend that humanity in the face of all the temptations to tarnish it now that they have some power to do so. When, for example, Spartacus (Kirk Douglas) comes across members of his army forcing aged Roman slave owners to fight one another in a makeshift arena, he stops them and excoriates them for lowering themselves to the Romans’ level.

STARZ Spartacus takes a consciously different approach. Indeed the show’s next to last episode (‘The Dead and Dying’) involves Spartacus staging a funeral games for Crixus in which outmatched Romans are forced to fight the best gladiators for the amusement of the escapee community. The Romans initially try to refuse to fight, not want to lower themselves to the level of gladiators and slaves. The first and most physically courageous of the Roman captives is able to defy the command to fight and accept summary execution. The spectacle of his death, however, causes the others to buckle and they fight as ordered. The contest is portrayed as a healing respite for the community after the grievous shock at learning the fate of Crixus and his half of the army and before they themselves meet the formidable Roman force sent to destroy them. This is the clearest example of the show’s conscious rejection of the 1960 film’s depiction of the Spartacus community’s ethical life and aspirations. What STARZ Spartacus envisions instead is an ethical community more in line with Franz Fanon’s interpretation of colonized peoples’ attitude toward their European colonizers.

Frantz Fanon refers to the “colonized races” as the “those slaves of modern times.” 15 STARZ Spartacus works from a similar point of departure; i.e. modern ‘colonized races’ are part of its template for telling the story of a rebellion of ancient slaves. The first season tells describes the decoupling of the gladiatorial fraternity in the House of Batiatus from any feeling except that of absolute homicidal animosity toward Batiatus, his family, and the society they represent. If we allow ‘Roman’ to replace ‘settler’ and ‘gladiator’ or ‘the enslaved’ to replace ‘native’/’aborigine’/’the colonized’, Fanon’s account of violence in the 20th century colonial context well describes that of Spartacus’ followers towards Roman society: 16

“To the theory of the “absolute evil of the native” the theory of the “absolute evil of the settler” replies. The appearance of the settler has meant […] the death of the aboriginal society, cultural lethargy, and the petrification of individuals. For the native, life can only spring up again out of the rotting corpse of the settler. This then is the correspondence, term by term, between the two trains of reasoning. But it so happens that for the colonized people this violence, because it constitutes their only work, invests their characters with positive and creative qualities. The practice of violence binds them together as a whole, since each individual forms a violent link in the great chain, a part of the great organism of violence which has surged upward in reaction to the settler’s violence in the beginning. The groups recognize each other and the future nation is already indivisible. The armed struggle mobilizes the people, that is to say, it throws them in one way and in one direction. The mobilization of the masses, when it arises out of the war of liberation, introduces into each man’s consciousness the ideas of a common cause, of a national destiny, and of a collective history. In the same way the second phase, that of the building-up of the nation, is helped on by the existence of this cement which has been mixed with blood and anger.” (On Violence, 93-94)

What Fanon describes and STARZ Spartacus mostly depicts is the how and why of (anti-colonial) violence on the part of the oppressed against their oppressors. Thor: Ragnarok, in the character of Valkyrie, examines a different moment: the isolation and hopelessness of someone cut off by time and circumstance from the solidarity that, through violence or any any other means, could restore meaning and pride to one’s life.


1 This extends beyond the ancient Mediterranean world to include Asian pasts in Netflix The New Legends of Monkey (2018-).

2 Luke Y. Thompson, Forbes. February 27, 2018.

3 Caris Bizzaca. TAIKA WAITITI: PAYING IT FORWARD ON THOR: RAGNAROK. 17 October 2017. Taika Waititi himself is Māori through his father (Te Whānau-ā-Apanui tribe), Jewish through his mother, and indeed refers himself as a Polynesian Jew.

4 Bizzaca (2017).

5 Hunter, Jim. “What Thor: Ragnarok is Really About.” Screenrant. February 1, 2020.

6 The following represents research I did in open source articles about these comics, not from reading the comics themselves (which I hope at some point still to do). This paragraph and the next are indebted to Sam Stone’s 2019 article “Contest of Champions: What Inspired Thor: Ragnarok‘s Arena?” Comic Book Resources. Oct. 11, 2019.

7 Leslie-Ann Brandt, who played Naevia in the first season, is South African of Indian and European descent, according to her Wikipedia page. In the U.S. terminology of skin color, she would be understood as Brown. Read more about Naevia’s character on the Spartacus Wiki: (TW: explicit descriptions of rape and sexual assault). It seems as though Brandt chose to leave in pursuit of other opportunities and, had she stayed, would presumably have had the same character arc as Cynthia Addai-Robinson went on to have. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that the character’s story becomes more trauma-focused when taken over by a darker skinned actor.

8 Franz Fanon. The Wretched of the Earth. Translated by Constance Farrington. Grove Press, 1963: 94.

9 Dan Kois. “The Superweirdo Behind ‘Thor: Ragnarok’.” New York Times. October 19, 2017. Michael Sragow likens Thor: Ragnarok to “…a Hope and Crosby Road movie with successive comic duos.” “Short Take: Thor: Ragnarok.” Film Comment 53.6 [November-December] 2017: p. 70.

10 Taipua, Dan. “Thor and his magic patu: notes on a very Māori Marvel movie.” The Spinoff. October 31, 2017.

11 Even here, there isn’t an absolute difference between the characters of Batiatus and the Grand Master, although we must go further back than STARZ Spartacus to find it. The Batiatus character has had at least one prior, quite notable comedic interpretation in Peter Ustinov’s portrayal in Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 Spartacus. Peter Ustinov’s comic Batiatus follows almost a decade after his comic (-psychotic) performance as Nero in the Romans vs. Christians extravaganza Quo Vadis (LeRoy, 1951) which sported its own arena scenes. While the Grand Master occupies the role of Batiatus relative to his gladiators, he is in other respects very much a decadent Roman emperor, relative to the world of Sakaar.

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Peter Ustinov as Emperor Nero in Quo Vadis (LeRoy, 1951)
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Peter Ustinov as Lentulus Batiatus in Spartacus (Kubrick, 1960)

12 Thompson (2018).

13 Bizzaca (2017) and Thompson (2018).

14 Kilgallon, Steve and Kylie Klein-Nixon. “The most Kiwi moments in Thor: Ragnarok.” Stuff. Nov. 7, 2017.

15 Fanon (1963) 72-73.

16 Fanon (1963) 93-94.


New Zealand Film Commission. ‘Spartacus’.

AlAwadhi, Dina and Jason Dittmer. “We come from the land of ice and snow: Decolonizing superhero cinema through music.” Politik. Nummer 1, Årgang 23, 2020: 88-93.

Bizzaca, Caris. TAIKA WAITITI: PAYING IT FORWARD ON THOR: RAGNAROK. 17 October 2017. Accessed October 4, 2020.

Curtis, Neal. “Thor: Ragnarok.” Blog: Mutliframe: Comment on Comics and Other Crucial Stuff. October 27, 2017. Accessed June 19, 2020.

Franz Fanon. The Wretched of the Earth. Translated by Constance Farrington. Grove Press, 1963

Geraghty, Hannah. “Taika Waititi’s Oscar Win Is Extra Special for Māori Jews Like Me.” Kveller. February 10, 2020. Accessed October 8, 2020.

Hunter, Jim. “What Thor: Ragnarok is Really About.” Screenrant. February 1, 2020.

Kilgallon, Steve and Kylie Klein-Nixon. “The most Kiwi moments in Thor: Ragnarok.” Stuff. Nov. 7, 2017. Accessed June 19, 2020.

Kois, Dan. “The Superweirdo Behind ‘Thor: Ragnarok’.” New York Times. October 19, 2017. Accessed June 19, 2020.

Rodger, Kate and Daniel Routledge. “Thor: Ragnarok — The Five Kiwis to Look Out For.” Newshub. October 26, 2017. Accessed June 19, 2020.

Sragow, Michael. “Short Take: Thor: Ragnarok.” Film Comment 53.6 [November-December] 2017: p. 70.

Stone, Sam. “Contest of Champions: What Inspired Thor: Ragnorok‘s Arena?” Comic Book Resources. Oct. 11, 2019. Accessed Aug. 27, 2020.

Taipua, Dan. “Thor and his magic patu: notes on a very Māori Marvel movie.” The Spinoff. October 31, 2017. Accessed June 19, 2020.

Thompson, Luke Y. “The Hidden New Zealand and Australia References in ‘Thor: Ragnarok’.” Forbes. February 27, 2018. Accessed June 19, 2020.

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Greek and Latin References in Netflix ‘Versailles’ (Season 3)

Jean-Hughes Anglade as the Man in the Iron Mask


This is the third post on Netflix Versailles — one for each of the three seasons. The overarching storyline of season 3 is that of the ‘Man in the Iron Mask’ — the story of a claimant to the throne who lives as a prisoner, his head encased in a mask to suppress his threat to the man who reigns as king. The story is known from other films and books, but in Versailles — the extraordinary palace created from a royal hunting lodge by the reigning king, Louis XIV — it serves primarily to advance the theme of self-knowledge, or the ideal of ‘know thyself’, which is associated in an ancient Greek context with the Oracle at Delphi, and was cultivated in both season 1 and season 2.

In the first episodes of season 3, Philippe, Duc d’Orleans (Alexander Vlahos), brother of Louis, happens upon a mystery. When visiting a prison, he catches a momentary glimpse of a masked prisoner. He is promptly knocked unconscious by an unseen assailant. When the recovered Philippe investigates, he finds that the prisoner in the mask is now dead in an apparent suicide. Puzzled and frustrated, Philippe suddenly recalls that the man in the mask he glimpsed before being knocked out had blue eyes. The corpse just shown to him had brown eyes. He enlists Marchal (Tygh Runyan), head of the King’s secret police, to investigate the matter further. Philippe has no power over the King’s secret policeman and can appeal only to his interest in the task. Intrigued, Marchal agrees.

Phllippe investigates the prison where he saw the man in the mask.

Episode 3 of season 2 in particular foreshadows the third season’s themes. Louis (George Blagden) has a dream in which he is an actor on stage addressing the court about his concerns and everyone laughs. Bontemps tells him he isn’t the king; that he is an actor, not a king. The court has only pretended so because it was funny. Asking who he is, if not the king, Louis is informed that he is foot servant to the second chamberlain. When he asks who is the king, he sees Madame de Montespan (Anna Brewster) dressed in gender-ambiguous fashion.

Louis’ dream reveals his anxiety about his own legitimacy as king. He has not (yet) questioned in his waking life whether he is really the legitimate heir to the throne, but this dream clarifies his anxiety and sense of inadequacy in his own gender performance. As King, he should dominate, but does his mistress dominate him? If so, or if it is believed so, then who really is king? As of season 2, Louis is experiencing what is commonly referred to today as ‘imposter syndrome’.

In the fiction of season 3, however, Louis discovers that he, in a very real sense, actually is an imposter; albeit one put in his current position by the previous king — who was the legal husband to Louis’ biological mother. Louis learns, however, as a result of Philippe’s investigations, that he is not in fact Louis XIII’s biological son. Louis XIII and his wife are reported in the show as having had one son who died in infancy. After that, however, Louis XIII, unable to father another child, secretly engaged a servant from his and his wife’s immediate circle to impregnate the queen. Louis XIV and Philippe are the offspring of that union.

In Season 2, Episode 3 Louis dreams he is not the king.

References to Greek Myth

In season 3, Louis discovers that his former lover M. de Montespan is the source of certain rumors plaguing the current object of his affection M. de Maintenon (Catherine Walker). Louis punishes M. de Montespan with exile to a convent. In reply to this sentence, Montespan declares that she now sees in Louis ‘the stone face of a tyrant’. She also reminds the King of the story of Icarus flying too close to the sun. Louis is of course the self-styled ‘Sun King’. To associate Louis with Icarus is to suggest that he is not the sun, but rather an impetuous child recklessly moving toward it with disastrous consequences in the offing. It is a brief moment, but M. de Montespan draws the King’s attention, perhaps unwittingly, to the accusation that he is not what he says he is.

M. de Maintenon, on the other hand, rejects Louis’ amorous advances, saying that he takes advantage of his station. This tests Louis’ sense of entitlement to the bodies of those around him — in effect, it tests his willingness to embrace being perceived as a tyrant by someone he currently cares for. Louis even says, speaking of their relationship, he sometimes ‘is not sure what his station is’. The theme of ‘know yourself’ runs in parallel in season 3 between the King crafting what his role in governance of France and within the walls of Versailles is to be like and, secretly, navigating revelations that he isn’t the person that he and everyone believe him to be.

A Latin Name

By episode 7 of season 3 classical allusions having given way to Biblical references (mark of Cain, etc.). Yet, the Man in the Iron Mask (Jean-Hughes Anglade) is introduced with a Latin name: Duc de Sullun. ‘Sullun’ is an anagram for the Latin word nullus, meaning ‘No One’. De Sullun is the symbolic equivalent of the character Agathe and the imagery of the Minotaur and Satan in season 2. De Sullun is the mysterious entity at the heart of a deadly labyrinth. Unlike Agathe, however, he is not malevolent. He embodies danger, he does not will it.

In response to Louis’ questions, de Sullun says, “It is not my name, but who I am that matters.” Louis replies, “Who are you?” de Sullun: “I am your father.” Afterwards, Louis and Cardinal Leto meet. Indeed, with the metal mask and the paternity theme, the Duc de Sullun resembles a strangely gentle Darth Vader. The Latin name fits the associations with Latin, both ancient Roman and medieval, that it had in season 1. Latin in both scenarios emerges in connection with secrecy, uncertainty, and the sense of lurking danger.

‘Know Thyself’

The Vatican, it is revealed, has known Louis’ secret the entire time. Its emissary Cardinal Leto, attempts to leverage this knowledge into power over the French throne. Louis now works to redefine the identification of his monarchical power vis-a-vis the Church (from S3E8): [Louis] “The Pope may be God’s representative on Earth but I am born of God.” [Leto] “But you and I both know that isn’t true.” [Louis] “I am who you see before me. I am Versailles. And I have all the power I need.” [Leto] “But not if the truth comes out.”

In spite of putting up that defiant front, Louis later asks a puzzled M. de Maintenon, “Do you know who you are?” [de Maintenon] “Of course, sire.” [Louis] “But how can you tell? How can you know it’s not just a fiction? An invention of those around you? What if everything you know is made up of lies, and you are not who you think you are, but who you’ve been told you are?” [de Maintenon] “Why are you thinking this way?” Her question pertains in particular to his manner of late. She adds, “You’re not yourself, Louis.” When a member of the Protestant community, loyal to Louis, brings leaflets that have been spread by Protestants in Paris attacking him, the King is uncharacteristically passive. He simply wonders if it’s true and leaves the room.

Cardinal Leto (Ken Bones) accompanies King Louis and M. de Maintenon.

M. de Maintenon overtakes him outside and asks what’s wrong with him. Louis replies that she forgets that she is talking to her King, to which she says, “That man in there was not my King. What has happened to you? Where is the King who makes decisions? Where is the King who was building an empire? Where is the King born of God?” Maintenon’s question, “Where is the King born of God?” — the phrase is striking. The show develops it to suggest the perception, at least, that Louis is aspiring to godhood, perhaps becoming parallel to Jesus — whom his France also recognizes as being born of God. Perhaps we are mean to remember that Louis characterized the building of Versailles in season 1 as building a temple. The Greeks built temples to their gods. Versailles would be a temple to France and to God. Yet, Louis dwells in this temple. Is it ultimately a temple to him?

The brothers consider what to do with their true father.

Leto threatens Louis with excommunication, plus exposing the truth about his father. “Louis the Great would be an outcast in the eyes of the world and God himself. You would not even exist. Versailles would collapse. Everything you have built would tumble to nothing.” He still remains outwardly defiant in the face of the Cardinal, but Louis is wracked with uncertainty.

Philippe announces (S3E8), “Our father sends you a message. He says he can answer your question.” Louis asks his father (rhetorically) what he is to do with him. Duc de Sullun replies, “Look into your heart. If you know who you really are, you will know what to do.” The camera cuts to a new scene in a 1st person shot, gazing through the mask at a mirror. It is Louis, not his father, looking through the mask. He pulls it off and throws it at the mirror, smashing it. Bontemps enters. Louis says, “I don’t know who I am anymore.” A distressed Bontemps replies, “You are my King.” Louis declares, “I’m nothing.” Bontemps interrupts him and reassures him with great — almost frantic — vehemence of his identity. Louis is relieved by Bontemps’ sincerity and faith in him. In a strangely calm, yet drastic measure, Louis takes Bontemps alone to a cliff, where he quite suddenly tests the divinity of his role. Louis jumps from the cliff into the river below. The jump from the height recalls the second temptation of Jesus in the desert (Matthew 4:6). The tempter encourages Jesus to demonstrate his power by casting himself down, for angels will intervene to prevent harm from coming to him. Louis, in effect, tests God, which Jesus declines to do. Louis casts himself down, briefly losing consciousness under water. He awakes beneath the water. Arms reach out from below to grab him. They seem demonic — perhaps his victims? — meaning to pull him down. But he moves toward the surface just in time. Having survived, he takes the test as an affirmation of everything he wills himself to be.

Louis and Philippe share a final moment with their father. Accepting his fate with the contentment, perhaps, of helping his sons, de Sullun drinks poison at Louis’ direction. They bury their father in secret. Striking the theme of aspiration to divinity, Philippe says to Louis: “You’re treating your people with cruelty. All of us. You’re behaving like a god, but you’re not even a real king.” Louis replies, “I know exactly who I’ve become: A man chosen by God as his ruler.” In this fight between the royal brothers, it becomes clear that, where the living father threatens Louis’ identity as King, his death destroys that identity in the eyes of his brother. Yet Philippe ultimately sides with his living brother, despite the unnecessary (so he felt) loss of their father. In the season’s climactic conflict, Philippe saves Louis from an assassination attempt, after which he praises Louis’ strength and commends him for doing what he could not: doing the harsh, even unbearable things that an ordinary person cannot face.

At the series finale’s end, Louis meets briefly his own son and warns him of questions that will beset him: “Do I have the strength? Do I have the knowledge? Who am I?” Louis warns him, “Trust only in yourself above all others. Because you are the King. Chosen by God.”

The series down to its last minutes emphasizes the theme of identity, framing Louis’ answer to the question of ‘who am I?’ as ultimately bringing on revolution. The implication, brought to the fore by the attempted assassination of the King by members of an angry, oppressed group of Protestants (which has one the good will of Marchal), is that Louis’ embrace of his identity in the 17th century provokes the Revolution of 1789, which will result in the execution of his descendant Louis XVIII.

George Blagden (Louis XIV) visits Paris on a good will journey to lay hands on his subjects. At this event, a group of Protestant conspirators, aggrieved and exhausted by their experience of his rule, try to kill him. He is saved by the intervention of several protectors, the last of whom is his brother Philippe.
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References to Ancient Greece in Netflix ‘Versailles’ (Season 2).

Marquise de Montespan

When the refreshingly down-to-earth and slightly awkward Princess Palatine (Jessica Clark) sees King Louis’s mistress, Marquise de Montespan (Anna Brewster), from across the room, she compares her to a Greek goddess (S3E3). This newcomer’s evaluation of the King’s lover confirms an impression that the Louis of season 1 wants very much to establish in Versailles and, through it, to posterity: a world of Hellenic beauty and awe with himself at its center.

Season 2 begins with an exhibition at Versailles of a technological accomplishment associated with the Greek tyrant, Hiero II of Syracuse, who employed Archimedes: a mirror capable of focusing the sun’s rays to deadly effect. The device causes a small object on the other side of the room to catch fire. The scientist in charge of the demonstration explicitly compares Louis’s power with this mirror in his possession with that of Archimedes when he allegedly set the Roman fleet ablaze. The comparison offers a fantasy of the king’s power to destroy his enemies.

A theme consistent across all three seasons of the series is the fearful dimensions of the reckoning that awaits, perhaps not Louis, but certainly his successors to the French throne. The early years of the Second Punic (or ‘Hannibalic’) War put Hiero II of Syracuse in a difficult position. His was a prosperous city-state located in Sicily, a territory that Rome had wrested from Carthage during the First Punic War. Carthage sought to regain its lost possession, but Syracuse was now allied to Rome. The Carthaginian commander Hannibal inflicted a series of devastating losses on Rome in these first years of war, which increased pressure on its allies to defect.

Hiero charged Archimedes with strengthening the city’s defenses against whatever might come. He died in 214 BCE without having deviated from Rome. His fifteen year old grandson Hieronymos succeeded him as tyrant of Syracuse. Overwhelmed by the pressures of crisis and factional divisions among his advisors, Hieronymos was assassinated just a little over a year into his reign, during which time, Syracuse pivoted away from its alliance with Rome in favor of Carthage. As a consequence, Rome attacked Syracuse, laying siege and eventually taking the city in 212, despite Archimedes’ storied war machines. Like Hiero II, Louis is a capable monarch with vision and resourcefulness, but both chart a course toward a future that their successors can neither control nor even survive.

Season 2’s first episode ends with Louis and his court watching an eclipse. Given that the episode began with a device that projects the sun’s power to destroy upon a target of the king’s choice, the solar eclipse signals that Louis, the Sun-King himself, is now crossing into uncertain terrain, fraught with danger.

The Sun King watching an inescapably symbolic eclipse with his court at the close of S2E1.

References to Greece and Rome increase in season 2, partly because, unlike season 1, ancient Greek history and myth are no longer the King’s private domain. The Chevalier de Lorrain, Philippe’s lover, offers a comical example of this new direction with his own take on a possible Greek identity for Louis (S2E3): Chevalier de Lorrain: “I hear the King has finally finished the building works and is finally doing something about the interior. Imagine, new art, better chairs, clocks that work, frescoes all over the place, and so much gold it looks like King Midas went around fondling the entire palace.”

Marquise de Montespan talks to Madame Agathe

The King’s enemies are now also looking to the Greek past for the symbols of their identity. In so doing, they offer a reflection (through a mirror darkly) of Louis’s aspiration to become a Franco-Hellene monarch through the creation of Versailles. This is the space the nobles now inhabit. They come, often against their will, leaving behind their ancestral estates, to live out their lives on terms not of their choosing. For those most bitterly opposed to this upending of their lives, the Greek architectural analogy for Versailles is not an exalted temple-like space, but the labyrinth of Minos, mythical king of Crete. According to myth, Minos had subjected the Athens of King Aegeus, which had to demonstrate its loyalty by sending seven young males and seven young females to Minos, who would send them into the Labyrinth where the creature kept hidden within it, the Minotaur, would devour them.

The notion of a Labyrinth is often thought to be a later impression of the incredibly sophisticated and complex Minoan palaces with their hundreds of rooms. This idea, a palace perceived to be a labyrinth into which human tribute was sent to feed a monster lurking at its center, serves very much as the archetype for Versailles’s the second season’s plot arc. Fabien Marchal, the King’s head of security gives Louis the opportunity to interrogate a conspirator, Madame de Foix:

Madeleine de Foix (Greta Scacchi)

(de Foix) “You are walking blindly toward an enemy that you do not know. You have opened the door to him and now he will destroy you.”
(Louis) “Who is this enemy?”
(de Foix) “Have you any idea the hell you’ve created here? Hundreds of nobles driven from their homes, forced to live in squalor, told how to behave, what to wear, what to eat!”
(Louis) “Give me a name.” (de Foix) “He has no name.”
(Louis) “Everyone has a name”
(de Foix) “Come closer, sire, and I’ll tell you. Closer, closer: Satan!”

We learn that there is a thriving market in narcotics, or ‘social powders’ at work in Versailles, as the nobles in residence seek diversion or simply to deaden their misery. Within this market in powders runs a second market in poisons. In some cases, the poisons are substituted for powders by Madame Agathe and her agents in order to assassinate a particular member of court. In other cases, the poisons are requested by one spouse to kill the other in order to make room for a new lover and the like. In all cases, Agathe and her agents do their utmost to rain down destruction on the court. In the prime example of this phenomenon, Justice Minister Reynaud is poisoned and Marchal discovers that his wife possesses powders. She claims they are aphrodisiacal. Marchal concludes that they are the poison but that Reynaud’s wife was deceived into administering it. The vial she used with the ‘love powder’ was replaced with another containing a very powerful poison. Later Madame Reynaud is poisoned in her cell (S2E1).

Marquise de Montespan, increasingly insecure with her place in the King’s life, consults Madame Agathe, whom she takes to be a fortune-teller. de Montespan introduces Agathes to Louis, whereupon she delivers this chilling fortune to the King:

“You have sought paradise. And you have built paradise for yourself. But now a scourge is coming. Five points of the same vengeful star. The well is poisoned, but still you drink. Hell will rise, sire, and consume all you have built. The fires are coming, not just for you, but for all of France. Terrible things happen to kings.”

As Louis struggles over the course of the season with the apparent unravelling of his plans at the hands of his hidden and known enemies, he ponders who and where the enemy in his palace might be. This enemy waits Minotaur-like in the palace. For Madame de Foix/Ariadne and Agathe, on the other hand, Louis is Minos, the one who demands who human tributes for sacrifice to the terrible beast lurking within his palace. They yearn for a Theseus-like destroyer to liberate them.

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Greece and Rome in Season 1 of Netflix ‘Versailles’ (2015/16).

In Season 1 of Versailles, references to Greece and Rome are connected respectively to themes of royal aspirations and self-conception on the one hand and the conspiracies and paranoia to which they give rise on the other. Clichés of Hellenic greatness inspire Louis XIV’s (George Blagden) sense of what he wants to create in the world. Louis, the future ‘Sun King’, introduces his vision for Versailles’ future status as follows (S1E1): “Greeks built temples as dwelling places for their gods. France will build a temple to the sun and for the people.” At the beginning of the series, Versailles is a hunting lodge, albeit a lavish one, built by King Louis’ father. The son means to transform it into the signature royal monument of France under his reign.

Mid-season, as he encounters resistance among the workers at Versailles who complain of insufficient attention to their working conditions and pay (as resources are diverted to a war against Spain), Louis utters this complaint (S1E6):

“By the age of thirty Alexander the Great created an empire stretching from Greece to India. But without his men beside him, King Darius would have driven him into the sea. I will not be pushed into the sea by a builder on a scaffold.”

There are two possible metaphorical identities for the workers in this comparison. The workers are either beside Louis/Alexander advancing his conquests or they are Darius, pushing an abandoned Louis into the sea. The analogy betrays Louis’s blindspot where the people’s sense of their own wellbeing is concerned. He speaks of Alexander’s war of conquest, but his workers are all too aware that they are receiving inadequate care and compensation exactly because Louis is pushing the project on which they are working at the same time as he is waging an extremely expensive war.

George Blagden’s Louis XIV in the Franco-Canadian television series Versailles on Netflix

The King’s comparison to Alexander makes no room for this reality. At the same time, it is to Fabien Marchal (Tygh Runyan), his chief of secret police, that the King delivers this comparison. Implicitly, the inability of Louis’ lieutenants to contain the situation also aligns them with Alexander’s men, without whom the young Macedonian king could never have vanquished Darius. Like much in the series, especially in its later seasons, this remark anticipates the concerns of the French Revolution. By introducing the relationship between the Macedonian Alexander and his army into his conversation with Marchal, however, Louis does acknowledge the imperial work that others must do in order for him to attain his ambitions of Franco-Hellenic greatness.

The theme of Socratic inquiry to one’s identity tends emerges when circumstances compel the King to rethink his approach to achieving this ideal. In the second episode of season 1, Louis learns that his newborn daughter is not in fact his biological child, but the offspring of an adulterous union between his wife, Queen Marie-Thérèse (Elisa Lasowski), and Prince Annaba (Marcus Griffiths) of Assinia (in Côte d’Ivoire). Putting her adultery in the context of international relations and the threat he perceives to his realm if he were exposed as a laughing stock to the monarchs of Europe, he denounces his queen as a traitor (S1E2): “Do you know what Socrates had to say about marriage? He said: “By all means marry. If you get a good wife, you’ll be happy. Get a bad one, you’ll become a philosopher. I must tell you madam, I am feeling very philosophical.” The baby is black and so her identity cannot be immediately redefined. After consultation, the child is spirited away and kept in safety for the time being.

From left: Prince Annaba, Bontemps (back), Louis XIV, and Queen Marie-Thérèse (back).

The father of his wife’s child is visiting in order to discuss giving France preferred trade privileges. After consultation his valet and advisor Alexandre Bontemps (Stuart Bowman), Louis decides not to act punitively toward any of the principal figures involved in the adultery. Keeping trade negotiations in view, the King confronts the father and parlays his tolerant — read philosophical — perspective on the adultery and the fate of the child into an example of how the France of his reign differs from all others past and present. Among other benefits, Prince Annaba will be allowed to take the child home with him. Impressed, Annaba agrees to Louis’ offer.

An epilogue to this secret negotiation suggests that strategic motives aside, Louis is less different from other kings than he pretends. Dr. Masson (Peter Hudson), the physician who delivered the child, immediately perceives the dangers of the situation and fears for both his life and that of his daughter Claudine (Lizzie Brocheré) who assisted him. Masson assumes that the King will have any witnesses to the birth murdered to cover up the scandal. Thinking as quickly as he can, he explains to Louis that the baby’s skin color must be the result of Nabo, the Queen’s Moorish jester, giving Her Majesty a “particularly penetrating look.” Since Nabo is black, opines Masson, his look altered the fetus’ skin color. Incidentally, this explanation seems to indicate that Nabo is a male character played by a female actor.

Dr. Masson, who contrives a medical explanation for the royal child’s skin color.

Masson’s motive, of course, is not to convince the King, but to perform for this royal audience his ability to project confidence in a medically explicable reason other than adultery. After Louis’ successful presentation to the child’s father, revelers on the palace grounds discover Nabo’s corpse. The implication is that the King accepted doctor’s immediate medical explanation as sufficient to spare the lives of everyone in the room who witnessed the child’s skin color at the moment of birth, except for Nabo, whom Masson’s diagnosis holds responsible for the child’s skin color.

Anyone not in the room believes the child white and stillborn, but for other audiences it suggests one or more of three things. First, for those who were in the room and anyone who learns from rumor of a black baby born to the queen, Nabo’s murder stands as a royal seal on the official/unofficial cause of it in the jester’s gaze. Secondly, apart from Louis’s attempt to play the part of a Socratic husband in his male monarch to male monarch conversation with Annaba, the murder stands as the King’s decidedly non-philosophical response to the Queen who loved Nabo and found in his company the only comforting remnant of her life in Spain. Third and finally, Louis’s persuasive argument to Prince Annaba shows that he can take adultery in stride when he needs to do, but it implies something more to Versailles‘ television audience. It suggests that his France may be a place where a black body won’t be destroyed because a white mother gives birth to a black child. Nabo’s murder shows otherwise. The transgression was important enough to Louis that he substituted and killed another black body (Nabo) for the one he spared (Annaba).

Nabo, jester and beloved companion to Marie-Thérèse.

At the conclusion of S1E2, Louis reveals another direction in which he means to take the theme of discovery of identity. He is already concerned to find out who is conspiring against him. Accordingly, he publicly exposes the secretly villainous and outwardly suspicious and unappealing Montcourt (Anatole Taubman) whom he suspects of being in league with a foreign conspiracy against his life. Louis’s tactic, however, is not to expose Moncourt as murderer and accomplice to murder, but as lacking the aristocratic lineage required to attend the royal court. Louis uses the occasion to announce a new policy of demanding documentary proof of ancestry from all nobles at court. While denouncing Montcourt, Louis declares ominously, “We shall all soon discover who we are.” Speaking privately to Bontemps, the King says: “I will not be king of Paris. I know who I am.” “Who is that […]?” asks Bontemps. “I am Louis XIV, King of France. Now these nobles must prove their worth to me.” By episode 8, such certitude is in short supply. When Louis wistfully recalls to his longtime friend Rohan (Alexis Michalik) a shared past when (S1E8), “We knew who we were.” The audience is a aware at this point that Rohan is one of the deadliest conspirators against Louis.

The Latin language and ancient Rome play slightly different roles. In S1E5, Louis enters the room and notices that his lover Henriette (Noémie Schmidt) — also his brother’s wife — is reading a book. He asks her if it is a diverting volume. She replies that it is not and holds it so that Louis can see only its cover. She reports that Philippe (Alexander Vlahos), her husband, brought it back from the front and gave it to her as a gift, though it had originally been a present for his same-sex lover, the Chevalier de Lorrain (Evan Williams). Louis takes it from her and pages through it, allowing the audience to notice both that it is written in Latin and that there are symbols on the upper right corners of its pages. It appears to be a book of Psalms, an unlikely gift for Philippe to give to his lover. With considerable suspicion, Louis asks Henriette where his brother found the book. The scene then changes abruptly. Shortly after, Marchal announces that he has identified the code, to which the symbols in the book belong, as a rare, almost forgotten “Cistercian codex” from the Low Countries.

Fabien Marchal, the King’s secret policeman.

This appears to be a mistaken usage in the script. Or, if not a mistake, then an invented use meant to sound archaic and technical. The word code does derive ultimately from the Latin ‘codex’, but the latter in itself refers only to the physical form of a book; i.e. leaves of whatever material sown together, rather than, for example, rolled up as in the case of a scroll). Marchal nonetheless uses the term as though it means ‘code’. He is holding a pamphlet consisting of the code as he speaks, so he is not in fact holding a codex per se (i.e. a book). Marchal identifies the psalm book as coming from the Spanish Netherlands, indicating that the conspiracy originates in the same place.

The use of the Latinized word ‘codex’, the a Latin psalm book, and the tying of this part of the storyline to the solitary figure of Marchal who tends to lurk about in dark passage ways, ill-lit chambers, where he occasionally carries out torture, all evoke a generalized medieval air, akin to Jean-Jacques Annaud’s The Name of the Rose (1986), a film adaptation of Umberto Eco’s novel of the same title. In it, a monk must solve a string of murders at a remote monastery that involve codes, ancient books, and apocalyptic symbols with seemingly Satanic implications. Marchal conducts this work with tools, both in terms of codes and torture devices, that belong to or seem most at home in the medieval world. Indeed, his character seems a blend of The Name of the Rose‘s Brother William of Baskerville (Sean Connery) and the sadistic inquisitor, Bernardo Gui (F. Murray Abraham). Yet, Marchal himself may suggest that his self-conception is aligned with the ancient Roman, rather than medieval, world.

In S1E6, Marchal is examining the psalm book in question and taking notes, when Béatrice de Clermont (Amira Casar), his lover and (as it turns out) the arch-conspirator against Louis in season 1, enters his chamber. She takes note of what she sees, even as Marchal tries to obscure what is on his desk. When asked what he is reading, he lies, saying that it is a treatise on espionage in the Roman Empire. Béatrice glimpsed the notes on his desk, however, and realizes that their code has been broken.

Béatrice de Clermont conspiring with a mysterious stranger.

The title that Marchal thinks to give to the book Béatrice asks him about reflects his self-conception. It invokes the Roman Empire in the way that Louis makes various Ancient Greek associations into emblems for himself. In Rome, Marchal chooses an empire whose name is a watchword for imperial dominance. His king prefers to think of reign in terms of radiant Hellenic images. Between Louis and Marchal arises the paradox that the Romans were the conquerors and oppressors of the Greeks, but it is henchman Marchal’s Roman identity that proves the first and last means of securing Louis’s Greek one.

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“The Latin in Episode 5 of Mayans MC (2018- )”

In episode of 5 of Kurt Sutter’s series ‘Mayans, MC’, club prospect EZ Reyes (J. D. Pardo) exchanges Latin phrases in an encounter with drug cartel leader Miguel Galindo (Danny Pino), the current husband of EZ’s former girlfriend Emily Thomas (Sarah Bolger). Galindo takes Reyes to a remote spot and mentions his plans for the area.

[To read about Kurt Sutter’s use of the ancient Greek tragic play Ajax in Sons of Anarchy, the prequel series to Mayans, MC click here]

Reyes listens, as Galindo describes his development scheme for a desolate region outside of town. EZ then smiles and says “Michael Corleone,” implying that Galindo is trying to work his way toward legitimacy for his family through above board business deals and trying to escape his bloody past, as Godfather characters Don Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) and his son Michael Corlone (Al Pacino) dreamed of doing. After a brief exchange on The Godfather, a reflective Galindo says “Ne prodas genus (‘Don’t betray the family’).” EZ replies with a smile, “Cor aut mors (Heart or death).”


Galindo is surprised, remarking, “Can’t be a large percentage of outlaw bikers who speak Latin.” EZ replies, “Or cartel leaders saving a migrant town from extinction.” After this moment of respectful acknowledgement, EZ comments that he doesn’t suppose that they are meeting in this deserted spot to bond over dead languages. Galindo then tells him to stay away from his wife (EZ secretly went to see her when she was hospitalized).

Both EZ’s and Miguel’s Latin phrases are mottos. They fit just as well on a coat of arms or a tattoo. Galindo’s phrase continues the sense of the Godfather discussion through its explicit emphasis on family. It speaks to his sense of duty, public and personal. For some viewers, Latin’s ceremonial character may lend additional dignity and severity to his sentiment. EZ’s ‘cor aut mors’ is interesting partly because it appears to have a precise meaning (heart, i.e. the things that matter most, or death), but no author or precise point of origin that I know of. It contrasts in tone with Miguel’s phrase, suggesting impulsiveness, passion, and commitment to whatever those qualities bring. ‘Cor aut mors’ appears on a Wikipedia list of Latin phrases (minus any author connected to it). It also appears frequently across the internet in a variety of ways, including as a social media user handle.

Nothing from the immediate context of the scene requires any of this be in Latin. This exchange does establish a sort of intellectual and educational common ground for EZ and Miguel. EZ has already made his mark in the show through a photographic memory. Here we see that his knowledge is more than simply retained observational data. He has pursued knowledge for its own sake. The first episode suggested that he attended for a time or was going to attend Stanford. This moment refreshes the audience’s awareness of this side of EZ.

The Latin exchange also removes EZ and Miguel from their respective social contexts for a moment and puts their contrasting sensibilities in relief, while showing the possibility of communication between them. Latin, like their desolate surroundings, offers a sort of momentary neutral ground on which they can meet and talk, before returning to their adversarial roles.

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The Epic Voices of Terrence Malick’s ‘The New World’ (2005/8)

[For more on the relationship between ancient Greek lyric and The New World, especially the Malick’s use of Sappho, see my post “Sappho’s Poetry in Terrence Malick’s The New World (2005/8).”]

Epic is the political genre of the Greco-Roman world par excellence and also the category to which one intuitively assigns movies about culture heroes and wars of foundation. One may envision The New World as an Odyssey in which John Smith comes to Virginia as an Odysseus figure, yet passes that mantle to Pocahontas who makes her own great journey, not only into the life of the English settlers in Virginia, but to England itself.[i] Still more, it resembles Vergil’s Aeneid, in which Smith, a would-be Aeneas, misses his opportunity to play the part of symbolic founder-ancestor of a new Roman nation born, like the old, of two peoples. In his stead, Pocahontas becomes its very different progenitor. In support of this conception of Malick’s Pocahontas is the comment to the New York Times from the president for marketing at New Line Cinema, Russell Schwartz: “Terrence said to me very early on, ‘This is our original mother,’ meaning that her journey is that of America itself….”[ii] The Pocahontas of this film grows within and, eventually, beyond a traditional epic role to develop a perspective that envisions, evaluates, and selects from possible destinies. In the course of these experiences, she rejects self-destruction and loss of original identity.

It is Pocahontas’ navigation both of her desires for John Smith and John Rolfe and of the consequences of each relationship that enables her to assume and preserve the protagonist’s part. Smith is the obvious competitor for this position, but he loses it through his refusal to acknowledge his desires or to confront their consequences. Instead, by making the traditional epic hero’s choice to continue his quest, he forfeits his role as protagonist.For his characterization of John Smith, Malick draws on Vergil’s Aeneid, the signature epic of the Roman tradition, much as he employs Sappho for Pocahontas.  This connection is unsurprising, for there has been a Vergilian presence in the Pocahontas tradition since 1801, when John Davis published his romanticizing version of the tale. Davis compares Pocahontas to Dido, the Carthaginian queen.

When Aeneas and his followers, fleeing the Greek destruction of Troy, are washed up on the shores of Libya, Dido gives them refuge. The goddess Venus, Aeneas’ mother, protects him by ensuring that Dido falls in love with him. She also arranges for Jupiter to insist that he leave Carthage to pursue his destiny of founding a new people in Italy, which down the generations will become the Roman nation. When Aeneas leaves, Dido despairs and commits suicide. Aeneas’ quest leads him to the Underworld where he must seek the counsel of his deceased father. There he encounters Dido in the company of her first husband, whose murder by her brother originally drove her to flee to Libya and found Carthage. Aeneas greets her, expressing his shock and sadness at finding her there. Dido stares in silence at the ground, refusing to acknowledge him.[iii] It is this response that Davis, quoting the Latin, uses to describe Pocahontas’ encounter with Smith.[iv]

Pocahontas, now Rebecca Rolfe, has visited England in the company of her husband John Rolfe years after Smith leaves Virginia. While there, she encounters John Smith, whom she had thought dead. This meeting inspires Davis’ quotation from the Aeneid. Malick’s use of Vergil accepts Smith as an Aeneas figure, while emphasizing Pocahontas’ difference from Dido. Most fundamentally, in The New World she is not a Dido figure because she is not undone by loss and her lover’s duplicity, whereas Davis’ quotation from the Aeneid reduces her to a self-silenced protest against Smith’s caddish conduct.

Malick’s John Smith speaks in voice-over the first time that we hear his voice in the film: “How many lands behind me? How many seas? …. What blows and dangers? Fortune ever my friend.” These lines draw on Robert Fitzgerald’s translation of Vergil’s Aeneid, but they come not from Aeneas, but his father Anchises. The ghost of Anchises awaits his son’s visit to the Underworld and, as he sees him approach, utters this address: “I greet you now, how many lands behind you, / How many seas, what blows and dangers, son! / How much I feared the land of Libya / Might do you harm.”[v]


Anchises’ anxiety about the land of Libya, Dido’s home, suggests a fear that Aeneas might have abandoned his colonizing quest due to love for the queen. By making these lines part of Smith’s internal dialogue, Malick implants in him an intuition that plays the part of an epic father figure mindful of the concerns of glory. This allusion to the Underworld sequence in the Aeneid resonates with the circumstances of Smith’s arrival on the shores of Virginia: an execution from which he is reprieved at the last moment. The visual of his abortive hanging reinforces the sense of Smith’s presence among the dead.

Pocahontas’ declaration, “A god he seems to me,” offers a useful point of departure for appreciating Malick’s film as a Sapphic epic. [For more on this see my post “Sappho’s Poetry in Terrence Malick’s The New World (2005/8).”]“God-like” is a standard epithet in Homeric epic, marking the superiority of one mortal over others.[vi] In both fragment 31 and The New World, resemblance to a god introduces an example of male attractiveness, for which desire for another is promptly substituted. The Homeric echo in fragment 31’s “like a god” resounds still more strongly in fragment 16.

This poem is important to the broader sense of the significance of ancient authors for The New World. It offers a model for approaching the content and concerns of the Iliadic tradition while keeping Helen at its center. The speaker in the poem recalls the example of Helen as an analogy for her own experience of desire (fragment 16, lines 1-8):[vii]

Some say a host of cavalry, others of infantry, and

Others of ships, is the most beautiful thing on the

Black earth, but I say it is whatsoever a person loves.

It is perfectly easy to make this understood by everyone:

For she who far surpassed mankind in beauty,

Helen, left her most noble husband and went sailing

Off to Troy with no thought at all for her child or dear

Parents, but (love) led her astray … lightly …

Although Malick does not quote from this poem, it merits attention insofar as it draws together the ideas broached in Malick’s allusions to Sappho’s god-like man, her characterizations of desire, and the relationship of both to the context of Pocahontas’ story. This fragment’s brief narrative of Helen offers parallels to the film in that both women abandon their communities for a foreign visitor. Unlike the Greek Helen, Pocahontas does not provide the occasion for her people to go to war. Nevertheless, in the film’s version, the help she gives to Smith prevents the Powhatan from eliminating the English colony before the return of the English ships with the personnel, weaponry, and supplies that ensure its survival and their defeat.

For Sappho’s Helen and Malick’s Pocahontas, desire informs their decisions. Force may swirl about them, but they choose where they go. In neither case, however, does this attribution of agency serve as a basis for their condemnation or removal to supporting roles in the stories of male lovers. Pocahontas’ father exiles her for her actions, while she confesses to her uncle, late in the film, to having made “many mistakes.” Even here, she is allowed to address the issue. Most importantly, the man who resembles a god does not have final authority to determine what Pocahontas does with her desire. Likewise, to look at the film through the lens of fragment 16, Smith’s epic world with its troops and ships does not command her attention. What, or whom, one loves and why are the questions on which the film turns. Accordingly, when Smith abandons love, he drops from the film. When he returns briefly, it is to comment on that abandonment.

Film scholar Lloyd Michaels identifies four types of story in The New World: epic, creation myth, love story, and personal story.[viii]  Malick’s Sapphic voice unites these four dimensions, combining allusions to a male-centered epic tradition and Sappho’s woman-centered erotic lyric. These allusions and the narrative directions they open up enable Pocahontas to experience the passion and loss characteristic of the abandoned women of epic, yet to emerge, without any sense of anachronistic gender identity, as the protagonist of a revisionist epic of desire and discovery.

[For a fuller treatment of classical allusions in this film see my chapter entitled “Sappho and Pocahontas in Terrence Malick’s The New World (2005)” in Screening Love and Sex in the Ancient World. Monica Cyrino, Ed. Palgrave-Macmillan, 2013.]

[i] Bleasdale (2011) 50. Bleasdale observes that Pocahontas is presented as the successful explorer, Smith the failed one.

[ii] James (2005).

[iii] Aeneid 6.469 (in the Latin original). Line numbers of translations will vary. The line numbers of Sarah Ruden’s translation are closest to those of the Latin.

[iv] Davis (1801) 292-293.

[v] Autochthonous88 (2008a). Fitzgerald (1981) 184. Book 6, lines 927-930 in Fitzgerald’s translation and Book 6, lines 692-694 in the Latin text.

[vi] Page (1955) 21n1.

[vii] Campbell (1982) 67.

[viii] Michaels (2009) 85.


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Roman and Japanese Intersections in ‘Thermae Romae’ (Takeuchi, 2012)

Thermae Romae (trailer here) began as a manga in 2008, written by Yamazaki Mari. It was later made into a six episode flash anime series (January 12 – 26, 2012) in the lead-up to the release of its film adaptation on April 28, 2012. Yamazaki has garnered honors for this project, winning both the Manga Taisho (‘Grand Cartoon’) Award and Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize Short Story Award in 2010, and in 2017 receiving the Order of the Star of Italy from the Italian ambassador to Japan for her incorporation of Italian heritage in her work. [1] The movie went on to become the second highest grossing film at the Japanese box office that year. As of 2015, it was the 95th highest grossing overall. [2] Structured as a romantic comedy, Thermae Romae’s characters grapple with the importance of thinking of others before oneself, the elusiveness of professional fulfillment, and the under-appreciated creativity involved in borrowing ideas from other cultural contexts.

Plot and Characters

Filmed at Cinecittà Studios near Rome, its story unfolds in two dramatic contexts: Rome of the second century CE, under Emperor Hadrian (Ichimura Masachika); and Japan of 2012 For the most part, the Roman storyline is dramatic and the Japanese comic. The film begins in Rome, following the character Lucius Modestus (Abe Hiroshi), a Roman bath engineer. Lucius finds himself in a rut, both professionally and personally. In a Roman bath market depicted as thriving on superficial novelty, he has no relevant ideas and frowns on novelty for its own sake in any case. Lucius’ consequent downcast outlook on life has long since infected his marriage, creating distance and disaffection. While at the baths one afternoon reflecting on these matters, Lucius suddenly finds himself transported to modern Japan, where he pops up in a bathing establishment, frequented by the elderly. As the plot progresses, Lucius adapts the novel (to him) bathing concepts from modern Japan to 2nd century Rome, revolutionizing the bath scene of his day and rejuvenating his career in the process. He repeatedly encounters on these time-slips a young manga artist and writer named Mami (Ueto Aya), with whom a largely implicit romantic scenario begins to develop.

Back in Rome, Lucius’ new ideas bring him to the attention of Emperor Hadrian himself who plans to use his talents for the betterment of the Empire. Hadrian recognizes that Rome’s cultural institutions, such as its baths, are the Empire’s connective tissue, with much greater long-term capacity to preserve its disparate cultural components than Rome’s legions. He sees a role for Lucius in capitalizing on this cultural ‘soft-power’. Eventually Mami, who has begun to learn Latin and study Roman history, time-slips back to Rome with Lucius where she discovers that the timeline is about to take a terrible turn. The virtuous Antoninus (Shishido Kai), whom Mami knows to be Hadrian’s successor, is assigned to take over the governorship of a province, while the evil Ceionius (Kitamura Kazuki) will remain in Rome as a likely successor to Hadrian. History says it should be the other way around. Furthermore, Ceionius is supposed to die two years into his governorship when a plague ravages his province. Unless history is put right, the virtuous Antoninus will die instead, while Ceionius becomes emperor in his place. Furthermore — and Mami rouses the morose Lucius with this point in particular: under an emperor Ceionius, the Roman Senate will not deify Hadrian.

Lucius is able to restore Antoninus to Hadrian’s favor and prevent his dispatch to a provincial governorship by crediting him with the idea for an audacious plan. Hadrian is on the frontier overseeing a war with powerful enemies of the Empire. His troops are exhausted and unable to carry on. Lucius secures permission to build a bath adjacent to the battlefield, for the resuscitation of the troops. Confounded by the pace at which he must complete the work, however, Lucius is rescued by a troop of elderly Japanese citizens who time-slipped with Mami to Rome (or rather to the site of the battle that Hadrian’s army is fighting). They realize that, while an indoor bathhouse (sento) is impossible, an outdoor hot springs bathing establishment (onsen) can be built in the time available, and they proceed to do exactly that. The exhausted and injured Roman soldiers recuperate at the onsen, return to battle at full fighting strength, and score a victory for Hadrian.

Communal Bathing

The film’s background themes include the common ground between modern Japan and ancient Rome, based on their shared appreciation of communal bathing. The film indicates that in Japan the health-giving qualities of bathing have received greater attention and that the more group-oriented Japanese society has allowed bathing to function as a restful rather than raucous form of leisure. On the other hand, the film’s implicit recognition of the decline of communal bathing in Japan among the non-elderly suggests a nostalgic perspective. Its depiction of bathing in Roman society as omnipresent and central to Rome’s imperial greatness only underscores this.

The Japanese storyline begins by following the character of Mami, an aspiring manga artist and storyteller who, like Lucius, is unable to interest anyone in her work. Her drawing is good enough, but, according to the criticism of one would-be publisher/mentor, her storytelling lacks inspiration. Walking about, depressed at her latest failure to break into the manga business, she witnesses the nude Lucius on his first time-slip to a Japanese bathing establishment (sento). Believing Lucius to be the perfect model/inspiration for the lead character of her manga, she rushes for her sketch materials, only to find upon her return that he has disappeared.

Although Roman communal bathing is depicted as somewhat crude and chaotic, its social importance, suggested by its ubiquity and rough and tumble vitality, underscores the sense of loss to Japanese culture that the disappearance of communal bathing as institution would entail. In accordance with current cultural trends, the film presents Japanese communal bathing primarily as the province of the elderly. Secondly, it shows the non-elite bathing establishments that the elderly can afford (especially the rural ones) as economically imperiled. Mami’s return to the rural bathing establishment run by her mother (Kimura Midoriko) marks the failure of her career ambitions in Tokyo. She does not want to work there. Yet, to Mami’s dismay — since she still needs a job — her mother reveals that she is near to closing the bath business altogether.

Young and old characters alike are comical in the Japanese storyline, but the aged characters who congregate in the baths ultimately contribute vitally to the plot, whereas the younger ones (apart from Mami) do not. Accordingly, the importance that Japanese bathing and related practices have in the Roman storyline put into relief the importance of Japanese values as expressed through the fortunes of an imperiled cultural institution.

A Tale of Two Phalluses

Buoyed by his newly successful career as a bath engineer, Lucius purchases a gift for his wife. It is a small ornamental phallus attached to a necklace. Since Lucius has been a somewhat absent husband, disinclined toward sex and having children, this gift signifies an about-face, a signal to his wife that he now shares her vision of their marriage. In this context the phallus necklace resembles a fertility charm. When Lucius arrives home, however, he discovers that this gesture is too little, too late. The unpleasant truth is that his wife has moved on. He finds her and one of his acquaintances having sex. Shortly thereafter he time-slips once again to Japan, 2012.

On this occasion, Lucius finds himself in an onsen. He is surprised to see several women in the pool alongside a giant phallus and another woman riding atop it. The film provides no further context for this scene, but its Japanese audience may have recognized it as a festival (matsuri) event in which the attendees engage Konsei Daimyõjin (‘Konsei the Great Shining God’), a kami or divinity represented in phallic form, embodying the male sexual and generative elements. The scene that Lucius witnesses resembles the Konsei matsuri at Õsawa Onsen in Iwate Prefecture: “… held every May since 1965 [that] culminates when women enter one of the open-baths and try to climb on to a floating wooden phallus, an activity that has probably been inspired by other ‘phallus-riding’ events.” [Turnbull, 212]

A number of phallus-themed festivals, some including (non-aquatic) phallus-riding, sprang up in the period from the 1960s through the 1980s. Such matsuri were created in some cases to improve the local tourist industry. [3] [Turnbull, 212] The essential role that Konsei Daimyõjin performs, however, is a serious one:

The achievement of conception is the speciality of this most phallic deity, and websites exist to direct childless couples toward onsen … (hot spring resorts) where a combination of a luxury hotel and the spiritual power of enshrined sexual gods such as the great procreative Konsei Daimyõjin will help achieve their desire for a family. [Turnbull, 213]

The women that Lucius encounters at the onsen are engaged in an activity that lies at the intersection of leisure, popular health beliefs, and Shinto religious sensibilities. The giant Konsei phallus that they unintentionally present to Lucius contrasts comically with the tiny one on the necklace he planned to give to his wife. Although Lucius’ procreative plans do not reappear in the film after his marriage falls apart, the comical onsen encounter suggests that the revitalization he planned for his personal life is to be found through his encounters with Japan rather than his old way of life. The life-changing dynamic that he expects to initiate for himself instead comes to him from others.

‘Glocalized’ Rome

The reception of Rome as a source of visual entertainment, edifying or otherwise, is a global phenomenon. That is to say, the manifold cinematic and televised representations of Rome are, like everything else, consumable everywhere. Like other globalized cultural products, globalized Rome can also be rendered local by people anywhere in the world. The process of making a globalized product local in some fashion has been dubbed ‘glocalization’. [Atkins, 206]

Scholar E. Taylor Atkins, discussing a 1991 educational documentary The Japanese Version, quotes a customer at a Japanese Old West theme bar about the establishment’s cowboy symbolism. His reply:

You guys [Americans] have it all wrong. [Cowboy mythology is] not about being an individual. It’s about working together. Whenever those guys had a problem, they’d gather together and figure out how to solve it. That’s why those [television] shows [Rawhide and Laramie] were so popular in Japan: they used teamwork.” This account “indicates the sense of ownership that Japanese feel about culture appropriated from abroad and the authority with which they invest it with their own meanings and self-stereotypes. [Atkins, 205]

This glocalization of Hollywood’s cowboy culture offers an informative analogy for that of Rome in Thermae Romae. In the film, Rome has many points in common with Japan, but ultimately — to judge from Lucius — it is prone to a toxic individualism with negative consequences for its government and citizens alike. The film’s ‘self-stereotype’ of Japan as a Confucian culture that privileges the group over the individual exists side by side with the depiction of both Mami and Lucius as creatively and professionally unfulfilled in their respective economies — a condition that profoundly frustrates them both. The communities of successful practitioners of Mami’s and Lucius’ respective crafts do not appear in an especially positive light in the film. However, although Mami’s interest in Lucius gives her character purpose, she ultimately has a community that is invested in her, in contrast to Lucius’ lonelier Roman existence. Her community, however, consists by and large of the retired elderly. There is comedic purpose in this, but it also suggests that younger Japan finds itself somewhat more removed from the cultural ideals that their elders still embody.

A second self-stereotype of Japan at work in the film is that it is a nation which primarily takes the products of other cultures and makes Japanese versions of them. This is not explicitly stated in the movie with reference to Japan, but it certainly is made clear in Lucius’ anxiety over taking ideas from Japan and adapting them at Rome. Lucius must grapple with the identity crisis implicit in this stereotype; i.e. the anxiety that he is an imitator of the creativity of others rather than a creator himself. The example of Rome as an imitator of Greece is also invoked in this thematic connection. Part of Mami’s attempt to reconcile Lucius to himself is to show him the positive value in recreating ideas from one cultural context for the benefit of those in another.

One result of casting Japanese actors as the principal Roman characters is that the Rome of the film may even more easily serve as a sort of mirror for aspects of present day Japanese society. Another conception of Japan with much evidence to support it, which is opposite to the one featured in the movie, is that it is a supremely original, creative media mega-exporter (e.g. anime, etc.) that has revolutionized the culture industry around the world. The complexity and contradictions wrapped up in the questions of originality and imitation find perhaps one further implicit comment in the fact that Thermae Romae originated as a manga, an art form original to Japan which has exercised a powerful influence on graphic art worldwide.


[1] Loo, Egan. AnimeNewsNetwork. “Mari Yamazaki’s Thermae Romae Wins Manga Taisho Award.” March 17, 2010. Accessed March 12, 2018.

Wikipedia, Accessed March 12, 2018.

Hodgkins, Crystalyn. AnimeNewsNetwork. “Thermae Romae‘s Mari Yamazaki Honored with Order of the Star of Italy.” October 13, 2017. Accessed March 12, 2018.

[2] Wikipedia.

[3] For an example of the promotion of phallus-riding as a curiosity for the consumption of non-Japanese tourists (virtual or otherwise), see this rather glib write-up about the Iwate prefecture event from SoraNews24, the English language version of Rocket News 24, a Tokyo-based media site.:


Ashkenazi, Michael. Handbook of Japanese Mythology. ABC Clio: Santa Barbara, CA. [27-36]

Atkins, E. Taylor. A History of Popular Culture in Japan. Bloomsbury, 2017: 203-208.

Jarnes, Mark. “Japan Times,” November 5, 2016. “Washed up? Tokyo’s iconic. communal bathhouses face an uncertain future.” Accessed March 10, 2018.

Turnbull, Stephen. Japan’s Sexual Gods: Shrines, Roles and Rituals of Procreation and Protection. Brill, 2015.

Posted in Classics, Classics, Cinema, and Popular Culture, East Asian Reception of Greece and Rome, Non-Western Receptions of Ancient Rome, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Papa’s Goods: ‘Sons of Anarchy’ (2008-2014) and ‘Lonely are the Brave’ (Miller, 1962)

This post examines the relationship of Kurt Sutter’s series Sons of Anarchy (SOA) to the film Lonely are the Brave (LATB) starring and produced by Kirk Douglas, written for the screen by Dalton Trumbo, and directed by David Miller), including ideological, narrative, and visual parallels. It supplements my earlier discussion of SOA, but without direct attention to Greek and Roman elements.

[To read about the use of Latin in SOA‘s spinoff series Mayans, MC, click here]

LATB tells the story of John ‘Jack’ Burns, a complicated loner, a modern cowboy, who returns from the wilderness. He does this in order to break his friend Paul Bondi (Michael Kane) out of jail, where he is serving a two-year sentence for refusing to register for the draft. SOA‘s John Teller, though given to bouts of isolation, wants love, family, and community. Burns too hopes to bring not only Paul, but his wife and son to Mexico where they can enjoy a life of freedom together. Neither man is able to achieve his aim, though each makes his own remarkable attempt.

The Deaths 1 (Jax and John Teller):

The series finale of SOA depicts the death of Jax Teller (Charlie Hunnam), president of SAMCRO (Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club Redwood Original). He deliberately provokes a police chase, then deliberately steers his bike into an oncoming truck. He does this, however, because he has been sentenced to death by the council of SOA presidents for the unauthorized killing of another club president. Jax persuades his club members to accept this judgment. Instead of carrying out the sentence by shooting him as is custom, they allow him to escape so that he die in a manner of his choosing. His choice is to recreate his father’s death. His father John Teller died in a crash involving a collision with a semi-truck. For much of the series, viewers are under the impression that he was murdered by his stepfather Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman) in conspiracy with his mother Gemma Teller-Morrow (Katey Sagal), who were having an affair. Morrow sabotaged Teller’s bike, causing it to crash. Jury White (Michael Shamus Wiles), the SOA president that Jax kills in ‘The Separation of Crows’ (S7 E9), insists before his death that whatever anyone had done to the bike could not have deceived Teller for whom it was like an extension of his body. This suggests that John Teller may have committed suicide by acceding to his own murder. However winding and obscure the paths that bring father and son to their deaths, though, the dynamics are similar.

The Deaths 2 (John ‘Jack’ Burns):

Burns whose given name and nick name link him both to John and Jax Teller does not die in the movie. He may well be about to die, though. He attempts to ride across a freeway, something he did at the beginning of the film. It is a boundary dividing civilization from the desert wilderness that he prefers and, at this moment in the film, it constitutes the path to Mexico where he can life freely and safe from U.S. law enforcement. The police are chasing him because he broke out of jail. Although on horseback he has successfully evaded them thus far and seems on the cusp of escaping completely. The horse is understandably skittish about crossing a freeway. She almost doesn’t make it at the beginning of the film. The horse panics again, this time with tragic consequences. Burns is definitely not committing suicide, however risky his actions. Like John Teller, however, his mode of transportation rebels against him. The horse panics, the motorcycle malfunctions. See the final sequence here (starting at 1:33.19)

The Truck Drivers:

The drivers of the trucks that inadvertently claim the lives of Burns and Jax respectively both feature as characters in their respective stories. Both drivers are introduced in a truck stop scene.  LATB’s necessarily briefer scene has a random stranger accost Carrol O’Connor’s character, hoping that he can deliver a package for him to Coffeeville, Kansas. He cannot, but the audience learns from the exchange that he is driving to Duke City, NM at 70 mph carrying a freight of 150 toilets.

Carroll O’Connor as the Truck Driver in Lonely Are the Brave.

He has no connections to the other characters or the plot in general until final moments of the film, when he collides with Burns (Kirk Douglas) who is attempting to flee the law on horseback across a freeway. The viewer with a keen eye on dramatic conventions might guess what purpose O’Connor’s driver would eventually serve in LATB, especially since Burns just barely survives crossing a freeway in the previous scene, but either way this dramatic structure makes the truck into a force akin to fate. SOA’s elaborate mystical ornamentation sets this dynamic in relief. Its corresponding character is likewise introduced in a truck stop scene in ‘Red Rose’, the next to last episode of season 7 (S7 E12).

Gemma en route to visit her senile father (Hal Holbrook), sleeps overnight in her car at a truck stop. A truck driver (Michael Chiklis) taps on her car window, waking her up to ask her to move her vehicle. Later on, they have a relatively relaxed conversation in which, among other things, the audience learns that he is driving north to collect produce and return with it. He has none of the banal mystery of O’Connor’s driver. Chiklis played the main character in The Shield (2002-2008), a series on which SOA creator Kurt Sutter served as a writer. His sudden appearance in the next to last episode of Sutter’s series immediately suggests some further significance to his character.

Michael Chiklis as Milo, the truck driver in Sons of Anarchy, S7 E12-13

When he reappears later that morning waiting in line for a vending machine, he enters the scene just as a startled Gemma recognizes the mysterious homeless woman (Olivia Burnette) who has appeared to both her and Jax at various times throughout the series. This character resembles a woman killed in John Teller’s crash with the semi-truck and adds a supernatural dimension to the series at significant moments. Milo’s first words in this scene compare the homeless woman checking a vending machine’s coin return for change to his ex-wife’s pursuit of their money, thus confirming that he too sees her. Whether her invisibility is literal or that of the homeless generally, no one notices her, apart from Jax and Gemma — and now Milo. In sum, the truck stop scene gathers together in a single shot a truck driver, the character who evokes both a sense of fate in motion as well as the unintended victim of John Teller’s collision with a truck, and Gemma, who is partly responsible for both deaths. [1] The homeless woman’s appearance adds to the audience’s awareness that Milo has a role to play in the events to come. It may also do the same for Gemma at that moment.


The SOA first season moment (S1E4 ‘Patchover’) in which Jax finds the words of Emma Goldman written beneath a bridge evokes the LATB moment when Paul refuses to leave his cell, after Burns has broken through the bar. As Burns tries to convince his friend to breakout with him, he describes an idyllic scenario where he, Paul, his wife Jerry (Gena Rowlands) and son Sid all live together in Mexico:

[John Burns: ] Listen, amigo. I know a place in Sinaloa just aching to hide us. Good cabin. Lots of rain. You’d write your book. I’d run a cow or two. Jerry could paint. And Sid, he’d learn — like we used to talk about — natural man.

Jax describes the concept for the Sons of Anarchy MC that he encounters in his father’s journals as follows: “Seems like his original idea for the MC was something simpler. You know, social rebellion. He called it a ‘Harley Commune’. It wasn’t outlaw. It was real hippie shit.” Burns slightly predates the hippies, as he does John Teller, but his scenario of friends and family living together in Sinaloa could be characterized in the same way.

In the LATB jail scene, Paul turns away from Burns’ portrait of a new life together in Mexico and refuses to leave jail. Burns questions him: does Paul agree with the sentence that he received? No. Doesn’t Paul realize that Jerry and Sid are paying for his idealism too? Yes. This jail confrontation between the two friends resonates with a key SOA first season moment (S1E4, ‘Patchover’), in which viewers learn, via passages read from John Teller’s memoir about the Sons of Anarchy club, that its name derives in part from the words of anarchist Emma Goldman (the link is here). Jax visits the spot where his father mentions first reading them. [2]

[John Teller:] The first time I read Emma Goldman wasn’t in a book. I was sixteen, hiking near the Nevada border. The quote was painted on a wall in red. When I saw those words it was like someone ripped them from the inside of my head.


[Jax Teller reading from the wall:] “Anarchism… stands for liberation of the human mind from the dominion of religion; the liberation of the human body from the dominion of property; liberation from the shackles and restraint of government. It stands for social order based on the free grouping of individuals.”

[John Teller:] “The concept was pure, simple, true. It inspired me. Lit a rebellious fire, but ultimately I learned the lesson that Goldman, Proudhon and the others learned. That true freedom requires sacrifice and pain. Most human beings only think they want freedom. In truth they yearn for the bondage of social order, rigid laws, materialism. The only freedom man really wants, is the freedom to become comfortable.”

The extract from Goldman and, in particular, the senior Teller’s reflections on it describe what happens in the cell confrontation between Burns and Paul. ‘Natural man’, an Enlightenment concept invokes indirectly the philosophical content that SOA approaches explicitly through the quotation of particular post-Enlightenment philosophers. The rural mountain Nevada/California border context of the SOA scene deepens its resonance with the New Mexico setting of LATB. Teller’s declaration about what most people want speaks directly to the disagreement between Burns and Paul. Paul Bondi lives up (or down) to one resonance of his name insofar as he quite literally chooses the “bondage of social order [and] rigid laws” and rejecting just as literally Burns’ offer of “liberation from the shackles and restraint of government” and a new, anarchic “social order based on the free grouping of individuals” in Sinaloa. While some — and presumably he in particular — may find his commitment to principle noble, he arguably finds greater comfort in enduring society’s imposition of unfreedom than satisfaction in the possibility of freedom and free association. This perspective, applied to SOA‘s own conclusion, raises the question of whether Jax’s ultimate decision to accept the sentence of death from the SOA presidents and to protect the Club from the law enforcement is noble or a decision, like that of Bondi, to endure a harsh penalty because it is more psychologically comfortable to do that than seek a more uncertain form of freedom.

Symbols in Collision and Fate:

In addition to the above ideological connections, we can point to thematic similarities in the closing scenes of SOA and LATB. In the last scene, LATB focuses on Burns’ cowboy hat lying on the freeway. SOA‘s series finale ends with a shot of crows pecking at a hunk of bread on the road, while Jax’s blood streams toward it. The technique of transitioning from a scene by focusing on an inanimate object is a standard cinematographic device. Symbolically the hat on the road (1:47:00) points to the brokenness of Burns’ chosen identity. His horse is dead, his life hangs in the balance, and the signifier of the cowboy, his hat lies on the road, separated from its owner, soon to be crushed by traffic. SOA invests this transitional device with Christ symbolism (see Jax’s pose below, as he approaches the truck). The shot following the collision replicates the opening shot of episode one of the first season (S1 E1, Pilot), but for the addition of the blood and wine in the finale’s closing shot. [3]

The crows eating bread and wine, as Jax’s blood flows into the frame, his final encounter with the homeless woman earlier in the same episode, where he finds her sitting with bread and a bottle of wine at her feet. [4]

In LATB, the truck embodies a fate consisting of the depersonalized and unintentional violence in U.S. society that simply eliminates what resists it, including noble, iconic characters. It is therefore essential that a hapless, well-meaning driver trying to deliver 150 toilets on schedule destroys Burns. The fact that we follow the driver from early in the film creates the impression that the moment of collision is a feature of a the driver’s schedule more than the act or failing of the driver. This in turn creates a sort of fate, which deliberately offends the viewer. But it does so possibly less with its meaninglessness than with the impoverished meaning that it imposes on the terrible outcome: schedules have to be kept, individuals need to stay in their lanes (or out of them altogether), and everyone must pay what they are told that they owe. So, an exhausted truck driver continues his route through conditions unsafe to himself and others with lethal results. So, Paul Bondi chooses to serve two years in prison for conscientious objection. As the film presents it through Burns’ perspective, there is a maddening paradox in this. Bondi refuses to do military service, because he thinks that the state cannot ethically or constitutionally require him to do it. Yet, he insists that he must remain in prison because he does accept that the state can ethically and constitutionally impose that on him for refusing to do what — he believes — it has no right to ask him to do in the first place.

SOA‘s crime drama brand of American violence, on the other hand, is very much on its surface. Violence is deeply personal to the characters. It gives them structure and direction, even though the forces that drive it derive from larger systems of profit and ideology that they do not fully comprehend, cannot control, and by which almost all of them are ultimately consumed. Furthermore, the capacity of these characters and their loved ones to suffer violence is a principal means of securing sympathy for them. The elaborate supernatural apparatus haunting the show, however, insists on a level of respect viewers might not otherwise think to give. We may feel for these characters or be impressed or distressed by their deeds, but the supernatural dimension also demands that we accept that they matter to God or gods, to ghosts, or that they have fates which great and terrible.

Accordingly, the perfusion of symbols woven through the show elevates and isolates certain characters much as the Weird Sisters do Macbeth and of course the ghost of Hamlet’s father does his son. All this makes a wide range of viewers reluctant to discount the passions and ambitions of characters they may otherwise find repugnant. Therefore, even though Milo and Carroll O’Connor’s driver are both solidly built, middle-aged men as unremarkable as the hats they wear, the former, for all his decent simplicity, walks into a role laden with symbols of terrible forces drawing near to their deadly conclusion. In a truck with the words ‘Papa’s Goods’ painted on its side, Milo gives Gemma a ride to the place where, unbeknownst to him, her son will find and kill her. Then, on his return, he will unwillingly serve as the son’s instrument of suicide.

[1] Series producer Paris Barclay discuss her briefly in this post-finale interview. For a complete list of the homeless woman’s appearances in the series, see the SAMCROpedia entry. Her character is a reminder that, however much Teller may have rejected the Club’s violence by the end of his life, if he did indeed accede to his own murder, his debt is not simply that of abandoning the living and failing to stop an evil that others wove around him, he also took the life of an innocent.

[2] The following paragraphs, including quotations and screen caps are drawn from my post on SOA and Sophocles’ Ajax.

[3] The image of the opening and closing shots of the series are taken from Sons of Anarchy on Pinterest. The image compilation of Jax’s suicide is from Project Fandom.

[4] The SAMCROpedia entry in note 1 documents the multiple convergences of symbolism in these shots.

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A StoryMapJS Visualization of the Plot of “Ulisse” (Camerini, 1954).

This is a link to my StoryMapJS visualization of the plot of the 1954 film Ulisse, an adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey, directed by Mario Camerini and starring Kirk Douglas, Silvana Mangano, and Anthony Quinn. I originally made it for an undergraduate course in which we were studying the film.


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