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 I originally made it for an undergraduate course in which we were studying the film.


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Lego Vitruvius and Roman Vitruvius on the Importance of Parents Educating Children.

In a previous post, I wrote about the ancient Greek references in the The Lego Movie (see post ‘The Lego Movie and Aristophanes’ Alternate Realities in the Birds and the Clouds’). Here, I focus on a Roman connection. Until 2014, the most famous person to hold the name Vitruvius was undoubtedly Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, the first century BCE (and part of the first CE) Roman author of a ten chapter treatise on architecture, appropriately entitled On Architecture (De Architectura). Since 2014, the most famous holder of that name is no less undoubtedly the character Vitruvius from The Lego Movie, voiced by actor Morgan Freeman.


[Film summary with parts relevant to this post]

The Lego Movie (Lord and Miller, 2014) recounts the fantasy of a boy named Finn (Jadon Finn), as he plays — without permission — amidst his father’s vast lego collection. The father (Will Ferrell) has meticulously created a lego metropolis, which he does not want touched or changed in any way. In order to defend his creation, he forbids his son from playing with it, thus banishing the opportunity for the two of them to play together and enjoy a relationship free from rules and domestic hierarchy. Finn sneaks into the basement anyway, picking a nondescript lego construction worker Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt) on which to project his loneliness and helplessness. He imagines for Emmet a universe in which to deal with his frustrations with his father, as well as hopes for a solution.

Overhanging the whole fantasy is a sense of impending doom at the machinations of the tyrannical Lord Business, a lego character whose diabolical plan it is to immobilize every other lego character. Lord Business stands in for Finn’s father, who plans to glue his entire lego metropolis in place so as to keep all aspects of it in perfect order. For Finn’s father, therefore, the lego world offers a fantasy of control. It comes at the cost, however, of his son’s fantasy life and, with it, Finn’s ability to cope with his lack of a close father/son relationship.  Emmet’s ordinariness speaks to Finn’s sense of inadequacy, especially in comparison to the evil brilliance of Lord Business/his father. The symbol — indeed the evidence — of that creative brilliance is the lego metropolis itself, both as creation of his father and as the dominion of Lord Business. Ultimately Finn makes common cause with Lord Business, rather than try to defeat him. This decision causes fantasy and reality collide and interpenetrate at the conclusion of the film.

Lord Business is the avatar of his father strictly in connection with his oppressive role in the lego room and any associated aspects. The father has another identity, as well, in Finn’s fantasy. Emmet has a vision of a mysterious, seemingly divine ‘Man Upstairs’. This turns out to be Finn’s father as well, but in a different aspect — the part of his father that exists beyond Finn’s perception of him as the caricature of a hypocritical tyrant. This aspect of his father is where there is potential for growth. In Finn’s fantasy, Emmet’s vision of the Man Upstairs qualifies him to be snatched from his bland existence as the least interesting member of his construction crew by a female Lego character — the exotically monikered Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks). She too has adequacy issues, as it turns out, when it is revealed that her real name is Lucy.

Delivering the The Terminator II line, “Come with me if you want to live,”Wyldstyle/Lucy whisks him away from the ordinariness of his day to day existence into a series of alternate realities a la The Matrix. In the non-animated dramatic frame of the film, the father actually is upstairs. The lego set is in the basement. This bifurcation of the father and son into characters both inside and outside the fantasy frame sets up the surprising conclusion of the film, where Emmet/ Finn finds rapprochement with, rather than a victory over, Lord Business/his father.


Lego Vitruvius of course hearkens back to the character Morpheus from The Matrix (1999, The Wachowskis), portrayed by Laurence Fishburne. The name Morpheus belongs ultimately to the god of sleep depicted by the Roman poet Ovid in his epic the Metamorphoses. Like Morpheus, the name Vitruvius is Latin and ancient-sounding. The Roman Vitruvius, however, was not a god, but an architect and author — a master builder, in the terminology of the film. The part of Vitruvius’ treatise relevant to this discussion of The Lego Movie concerns education.

In the introduction to Book 6 of his On Architecture Marcus Vitruvius argues that fathers or other kinsmen should educate the family’s junior members. He commends his parents for ensuring that he received a broad liberal education, which, he notes, has equipped him to write a treatise such as On Architecture. Vitruvius addresses Emperor Augustus in this introductory section, emphasizing that architecture is a liberal arts discipline worthy of esteem, in addition to a useful knowledge resource. As a noble precedent for his claim that the best architects are taught by their fathers or other kinsmen, Vitruvius notes that the comic playwrights of Athens praised their city for limiting the requirement that children maintain their parents in old age to only those parents who had seen to the education of their children. Other Greek states, says Vitruvius, required children to maintain their elderly parents without exception. [1]

Of the four comic playwrights that Vitruvius names, it is number three on the list that concerns us: Aristophanes. Cloudcuckooland and The Thinktank, key locations in The Lego Movie, derive from Aristophanes’ plays Birds and Clouds respectively. I argue for the relevance of these plays to the themes of The Lego Movie in my earlier post, Here I stress only that it is the Roman Vitruvius, namesake for Lego Vitruvius, that bridges the film’s allusions to Aristophanes’ plays and the theme of parental responsibility for their children’s education.

Lego Movie Finn & Father

Emmet’s final heroic act, taken after his rapprochement with Lord Business, is to leap beyond his reality into that of Finn and his father. There, Finn must now duplicate in his reality the coming to terms that his Lego avatar Emmet has done in fantasy. By doing this — getting his father to engage in his imaginative life — Finn both lays the foundation for a more positive father-son relationship and brings the film’s plot its resolution. [2]

By gaining permission to build in the Lego city, Finn wins recognition from his father as legitimate builder in what was formerly his space. This in turn enables him to move beyond his isolated fantasies, contrived to help him cope with inferiority and loneliness, into a fantasy space shared with his father. Although his father engages with Finn at the level of his games, this time together is also a fresh opportunity for Finn’s development through (hopefully) positive parental influence. All this also frames Lego products as positive educational accessories for the family unit. The film has already framed Emmet’s character development as a process of education about himself through an appreciation of his own skills and limitations as lego builder. Vitruvius is the educational authority and wisdom figure in this fantasy journey.

While this post does not touch on the film’s highly commercial dimension, Lego’s marketing has long commanded respect among parents for its claims to educational and developmental value. [3] The Lego Movie ends with a modern spin on the hierarchical character of both the Roman pedagogical model and the novice/master dynamic of the conventional ‘hero’s journey’. Instead of a parent attempting to impart knowledge to a child about how to build more perfect Lego cities, a dynamic of shared play takes over both father and son. It is in this new relationship of play that the theme of education reaches its conclusion.

Part of the joke in the final sequence of the film is that the father’s hobby is a lego set with recommended ages of 8-14. “Those are just suggestions,” insists his father. The symbolism of a father using educational time to join in his son’s game might not have faired well with Marcus Vitruvius. Officially, at least, a Roman father should see to his sons’ education, but should not be involved in children’s games. Presumably — and hopefully (from my culturally relative perspective) — the reality was more complex. However that may be, education as play is a key characteristic of Lego as a commodity. The conclusion of the film shows educational play happening through Lego building. Once that begins to take place between parent and child together, rather than separately, Finn’s father is fulfilling the role that the Roman Vitruvius assigned to parents and in support of which he cited the example of the Athenian comic poets’ praise of Athens


[1] De Architectura, 6.2: Non minus poetae, qui antiquas comoedias graece scripserunt, easdem sententias versibus in scaena pronuntiaverunt, ut Crates, Chionides, Aristophanes, maxime etiam cum his Alexis, qui Athenienses ait oportere ideo laudari, quod omnium Graecorum leges cogunt parentes a liberis, Atheniensium non omnes nisi eos, qui liberos artibus erudissent.

[2] The idea of a daughter participating in this lego-building relationship is introduced as a comical note of chaos in the closing moment of the film, when Finn’s little sister’s invaders from ‘Planet Duplon’ burst onto the scene.

[3] By way of an example from a quick internet search, here is the following from Educational Technology and Mobile Learning:

Skills Lego develop :

  1. Lego provides tools that develop lateral thinking in a fun environment
  2. It teaches kids to think in three dimensions
  3. It improves literacy as kids work with instructions
  4. It develops problem-solving, organization, and planning by construction
  5. It improves creativity
  6. It enhances communication and critical thinking
  7. It boosts kids motor development.
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The Battles of Winterfell and Marathon: GoT/’Mother’s Mercy’ (2015) and ‘300: Rise of an Empire’ (2014).

[This post has been updated as of 10/29/2018]

Television often borrows from films as a means of visualizing its stories and shaping its plots. I have argued in other posts that ‘Mother’s Mercy’, the season 5 finale of Game of Thrones, adapts elements from Intolerance (Griffith, 1916) (discussion here) and that the series finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer draws visual and musical echoes from Gladiator (Scott, 2000) (discussion here). In this post, I return to ‘Mother’s Mercy’ (airdate: June 14, 2015) to examine another component of the Battle of Winterfell.

In this episode, the Bolton forces, led by the repugnant Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon), carry out a successful attack on Stannis Baratheon’s (Stephen Dillane) newly arrived army, ending his hopes of securing the Iron Throne. By this point in its progress, the HBO series had outstripped the novels on which it was based. George R. R. Martin had not yet completed the volume that would presumably reveal Stannis’ fortunes at Winterfell (nor has he, as of this writing). In short, showrunners that were accustomed to having a map from which to work suddenly lacked orientation for a very significant moment in the show — one which they had decided would mark the end of Stannis’ three season character arc.

I argue that the showrunners found an alternative template for the Battle of Winterfell in 300: Rise of an Empire (Murro, 2014). The scene of Stannis’ arrival and the commencement of the battle closely recall the newly landed Persian army’s encounter with the Athenian assault at Marathon, as depicted in 300: Rise. The Boltons are made to parallel the Athenians and Stannis’ army the Persians. Stannis arrives at Winterfell at dawn, following a night march. He halts his forces and directs them to establish a camp and prepare for an extended siege. The Boltons, who now occupy Winterfell, take him by surprise, launching an immediate attack on his weary and disorganized forces [View the scene here, starting at minute 2:37].

The release date of 300: Rise, March 7, 2014, falls about a month before April 8, 2014, the date on which the HBO network ordered ‘Mother’s Mercy’. It was therefore available as a resource for visualizing their scenario within the period of the episode’s creative formation. I have argued in another post that 300: Rise adapts elements from GoT season 2 episode 9, ‘Blackwater’ (Neil Marshal, 2012), in which Stannis attempts a naval assault on King’s Landing. In season 5, GoT collects on this debt. Such narrative resource-sharing complements the central roles that actor Lena Headey plays in each franchise, as Cersei Lannister and Queen Gorgo respectively. As the latter, she provides the voiceover narration for the Marathon sequence in 300: Rise. 

300: Rise begins with Gorgo, now the widow of Leonidas, narrating the background to the Persian King Xerxes’ (Rodrigo Santoro) invasion of Greece. She describes the bold Athenian strategy against Xerxes’ father Darius (Igal Naor) as follows: “So, at dawn the hopeless Athenians do the unthinkable. They attack. They attack the weary Persians, as they disembark their ships on shaky legs after a month at sea. They attack before they can set up their war camp and supply their soldiers.”


A Persian officer looks over his should and watches the oncoming Greek attackers. The attack is so unexpected, he seems at first unable to understand what he is seeing.


As the Athenians are protagonists, the camera follows them in profile, showcasing their physical impressiveness and determination in slow motion.


Gorgo’s description of the Persian forms fits the Baratheon army in all respects, save for its arrival over land. Stannis is similarly in the very act of setting up his war camp when the Bolton forces are sighted. In both movie and episode, the camera registers the significance of the attack through an initial emphasis on the bewilderment of the minor characters that first spot it. In both, the defender’s preemptive strike at dawn surprises and eliminates the invaders, already weakened by rigors of their journey.


Stannis directs the construction of the army’s camp, oblivious to the Bolton attack which the general standing behind him has just noticed.

Battle_of_Winterfell_Bolton charge

Antagonists in this conflict, the Boltons are seen from a distance. The camera is concerned only to register their impact on Stannis and his soldiers and to communicate Stannis’ fate to the audience.

Finally, ‘Mother’s Mercy’ and 300: Rise both feature the death of the invading monarch. In each case, this is a divergence from the texts which they respectively adapt; i.e. Martin’s published novels (as of that date) on the one hand and the Ancient Greek historical sources on the other.


Stannis survives the battle that destroys his army, but is mortally wounded while killing two Bolton attackers. As he bleeds to death, he is discovered by Brienne of Tarth, who kills him in revenge for his murder of her lord (and his brother) Renly.

Igal Noor Darius

King Darius in 300: Rise is mortally woundedby an arrow while observing the Battle of Marathon from shipboard.

300: Rise makes Darius so confident in his numerical advantage that he expects no resistance on landing. He simply assumes that no defender would dare attack such a force as his. Stannis’ army, however, has received severe setbacks en route. At this point, he could very nearly assume that the Boltons outnumber him, a consideration that recommends against his disorderly arrival into full view of the adversary’s fortress. Nevertheless, he marches straight to his fate.

Unlike 300: Rise, which explains a tactical mistake as the hubris of Darius’ bland overconfidence, ‘Mother’s Mercy’ leaves viewers to attribute Stannis’ fall to his general unsoundness of mind. His fevered brain has become both the source and the sum of the terrible lengths to which he has gone to secure the crown he believes is owed to him, including the murders of his brother and daughter. Some fans have seen this unsoundness of mind, perhaps rightly, as the beginning of GoT’s diminished storytelling. Once the show’s pace eclipsed George R. R. Martin’s ability to produce the next installment in the series, its producers were forced to go from creative adaption of his novels to invention within their universe.

Critics of Stannis’ storyline find it difficult resolve his reputation for military good judgment and inflexible attachments with the descent into madness that robs him of those qualities. A feature that accompanies tragic decisions in Ancient Greek historian Herodotus’ account of Greco-Persian history is ate (pronouned ah-tay), or ‘folly’. This is nowhere invoked in the show, but it helps to make sense out of its storytelling choices. If one chooses to accept the ending that the show-runners have given to Stannis’ arc, rather than reject it as incompetent storytelling, one can see ‘Mother’s Mercy’ as connecting his fall to a hubris more complex, profound, and generally true to the word in its ancient sense, in which it implies the commission of outrageous violence, whether actual or metaphorical, in combination with a folly that clouds otherwise sound judgment.


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Borrowed Battles: ‘300: Rise of Empire’ (Murro, 2014), HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’, and ‘Cabiria’ (Pastrone, 1914).

In this post, I examine the ways in which 300: Rise of Empire (Murro, 2014) — a film about the Greco-Persian War of 480 BCE — borrows from the HBO GoT season 2 episode ‘Blackwater’ (2012) in its depiction of a Persian naval victory over the Greek fleet. Then I examine these depictions in light of a similar scene in the 1914 silent film Cabiria, directed by Giovanni Pastrone.

In 300: Rise, after the Greek commander Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) leads his naval forces to two victories over inadequately led Persian flotillas, Artemisia (Eva Green), the supreme commander of Persian forces in the film, takes personal command of the next assault. Artemisia’s stratagem consists of sending forward a barge that pipes pitch into the sea. Atop the barge, a massive, more or less humanoid, creature hammer throws fiery projectiles into the waters around the Greek ships, setting them alight. Next, Artemisia sends in a squad of her personal guard as aquatic suicide bombers. They swim from the Persian ships to the Greek ships carrying an extremely combustible substance of some sort in packs strapped to their backs. When one manages to board Themistokles’ ship, Artemisia shoots a fiery arrow into his explosive pack, causing it to explode.


We witness the destruction of Themistokles’ ship, which nearly claims his life. The rest of the Greek fleet, we discover, has been disposed of in similar fashion. The following day Themistokles is left with the task of rallying the survivors to continue the fight.

This sequence is quite similar to the Battle of the Blackwater in Game of Thrones (Season 2: Episode 9, ‘Blackwater’, directed by Neil Marshall). There Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage), as the ‘Hand of the King’, serves as architect of the Lannister defense of King’s Landing. He remembers that the ‘Mad King’, whom the Lannisters and Baratheons ousted, had packed underground storehouses with containers of wildfire (a napalm-like explosive substance). He seeks out Pyromancer Hallyne (Roy Dotrice), who oversees the supply and arranges for massive amounts of it to be loaded onto a single ship. He then sends it drifting through the harbor waters into the first wave of Stannis’ (Stephen Dillane) attack fleet, as it leaks still more wildfire into the bay. Tyrion’s bodyguard Bronn (Jerome Flynn) then fires a flaming arrow into the waters, causing a massive explosion that destroys half of Stannis’ fleet (view the scene here).


Undaunted by this setback, Stannis leads the other half of his forces personally in a second wave attack on King’s Landing. By contrast, Themistokles’ renewed attack on the Persians, following his defeat at Artemisium, is not immediate. Also different is the fact that  Themistokles’ next attack is ultimately successful, while Stannis is not. Yet, here too there is an overriding similarity. When Stannis is close to victory, having breached the wall, his attack is foiled at the last moment by a relief force from House Tyrell (view here at 00.48). In 300: Rise, even though Themistokles succeeds in killing Artemisia, his tiny flotilla remains vulnerable and sure to be overwhelmed. The arrival of Spartan forces at the last moment reverses this all but certain outcome, destroying the Persians’ chances of eliminating the Greek strike force that took the life of their commander (view here).

The choreography of how the fortunes of battle are reversed is also similar. In GoT, Cersei  Lannister waits with her son in the throne room preparing to give him poison, while telling him a story to comfort him. 300: Rise even seems to contain a nod to its source, insofar as the same actress that plays Cersei serves as narrator in 300: Rise, this time as Gorgo the Spartan queen. Now, rather than immobilized within a palace, she leads the Spartan relief forces. In GoT, as the wounded Tyrion, losing consciousness, gazes off into the distance, the Tyrell army sweeps in to drive off Stannis’ forces. In 300: Rise, as the wounded Artemisia looks off into the distance, moments before her death, she sees the Spartan ships heading toward her fleet, ready to crush it.

Although the ‘Greek fire’ that the Byzantine fleet used to deadly effect is the widely noted historical antecedent for George R. R. Martin’s ‘wild fire’, the visual paradigm for the defense of King’s Landing seems to be Giovanni Pastrone’s recreation of the defense of Syracuse against an attacking Roman fleet in Cabiria (1914). siegesyracuse

According to tradition, the ingenious scientist Archimedes devised a means of setting the Roman ships on fire at a distance through the use of mirrors. Both in GoT and Cabiria, an aged figure endowed with obscure knowledge — Pyromancer Hallyne and Archimedes (Enrico Gemelli) respectively — provides the means by which the defenders of a city under attack from the sea inflict severe damage on the fleet threatening it. The Cabiria scene is here (0:53:30-0:58:20).


In both scenarios, the fire defense is successful against the invading fleet. Historically, the Romans eventually succeed in their assault on Syracuse, while Stannis fails. Cabiria, however, does not depict that outcome. Instead, the Roman naval disaster becomes a plot device for returning a major character, the Roman officer Fulvius Axilla (Umberto Mozzato), from Syracuse to Carthage where he rejoins his slave and comrade Maciste (Bartolemeo Pagano) in the main action of the plot.



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Prince and Orpheus: ‘Purple Rain’ (1984) as a Possible Model for Jacques Demy’s ‘Parking’ (1985)

In this post, I look at the possibility that the depiction of Prince in his role as ‘The Kid’ in Albert Magnoli’s Purple Rain (1984) offered a model for the recreation the mythical musician Orpheus in French director Jacques Demy’s film Parking (1985).

The key visual connection between the two films is a correspondence between the two artists’ arrivals at their performance venues early in both films. Demy’s introduction of Orpheus as a pop star begins in stark contrast to Purple Rain‘s opening sequence, but then shifts to a striking note of similarity with Purple Rain‘s introduction of The Kid. Both he and Orpheus arrive at their performance venue on motorcycle with a guitar slung across his back, each clad in, and riding a motorcycle of, their signature color — purple for The Kid, white for Orpheus. Once he is on stage, however, and has shed his coat, he too is in white. This correspondence, however, is embedded in a broader series of relationships that the opening minutes of each film introduce.

Demy imagines Orpheus as a white, French celebrity pop singer, very much established in his career, though dissatisfied with his own relationship to his art. [1] Over the course of the film, we learn that he is bisexual and has been carrying on a secret (from Eurydice anyway) affair with Calaïs, a member of his entourage. The audience first encounters Orpheus as a lover, joyfully fawning over – and simultaneously serenading – a semi-nude Eurydice (Keiko Ito). [2] Orpheus leaves on his motorcycle at minute 2:10, following the musical carpet romp with Eurydice. [3]

MCDPARK EC002prince,apollonia

Purple Rain introduces us to The Kid simultaneously with his rival Morris (Morris Day) and future lover Apollonia (Apollonia Kotero). The Kid’s status as the main character is established in the film’s first scene, which shows him performing onstage, followed by cuts back to this performance. This point of reference stands outside the timeline of the opening sequence as a whole, which also treats The Kid’s pre-show preparations, while periodically cutting to him as he readies himself. Morris and The Kid appear through intercut scenes as they dress and style themselves, each in his own fairly humble living quarters — the Kid in his room at his parents’ home and Morris vacuuming his cramped apartment, cleaning up and selecting his suit. The Kid gazes sensually into his mirror, smiles, licks his lips.

Morris emerges from his building, clad in a long white overcoat, to be picked up by his friend Jerome (Jerome Benton) for a grand arrival at the First Avenue Club. The Kid arrives at the club on his motorcycle. Apollonia enters the sequence at this point. Parking blends these details. The frenetic pace of the Purple Rain sequence becomes languorous in Parking. After making love with Eurydice, Orpheus emerges from his house. Orpheus slings his guitar across his back (pointed down) and mounts his motorcycle. The Kid arrives at the club on his motorcycle with his guitar slung across his back (pointed up).

Parking starts with Orpheus and Eurydice already in a relationship, but it is a love confined to the house in which we first meet them. Orpheus’ ride to the concert venure — much longer than the quick cut to The Kid’s arrival at the First Avenue Club provides the backdrop for the opening credits. The length of the ride alters our perspective on Eurydice’s role in his life. As Orpheus nears the performance arena, he grows literally and figuratively more distant from her and crosses (we later learn) into the territory he shares with his lover Calaïs, who works backstage at his concerts. In Purple Rain, by contrast, the performance space brings all three main characters into the same orbit.

End Notes:

[1] In addition to wealth and celebrity status, race marks a major difference between the two films. Two of Purple Rain‘s three major characters are black (biracial in The Kid’s case) and the third, Apollonia, is Latina, though her background is not specified in the film.

[2] Postscript on the interracial aspect of the Orpheus-Eurydice relationship in Parking. Although Eurydice’s name obscures the character’s ethnicity, when she dies, there is Japanese writing seen on the mirror near her body. Since she is an artist in a relationship with an immensely popular singer, who is ultimately shot by deranged fans, it seems likely that the casting was meant to evoke John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Lennon’s death was four years earlier. Secondly, although I’m uncertain how common the representation of white male and asian female couples were in contemporary French cinema, there is one example to be found in a highly influential 1981 French music-themed film entitled Diva (Jean-Jacques Beineix). Set in the world and underworld of the opera industry, Franco-Vietnamese actor Thuy An Luu portrays Alba, lover and operative of an idiosyncratic, middle-aged white philosopher and opera fan named Gorodish (Richard Bohringer). Their relationship contributes an air of post-colonial cool that is sophisticated, quirky, and stylish (the atmosphere of the film overall).

[3] In an interesting coincidence, Michel Colombier, composer for Demy’s previous film, the 1982 Une Chambre en Ville (A Room in Town) — a musical drama — is credited alongside Prince and John Nelson with the music for Purple Rain. Colombier, who continued to score U.S. film productions through the 1980s, did not do the music for Parking. That job went to Michel Legrande.

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Sappho’s Poetry in Terrence Malick’s ‘New World’ (2005)

[The following makes reference to dialogue found only in the 2008 extended edition of the film.]

The first half of Terrence Malick’s The New World offers an account of the relationship between the British adventurer John Smith and a young Algonquian woman. After Smith spends time as a prisoner and then guest of the Algonquian people at the city of Werewocomoco, he and the daughter of the monarch Powhatan fall in love. Although anyone familiar with this story knows that she is Pocahontas, that name is never spoken in the film. No given name for her is mentioned until she is baptized in the Jamestown colony as Rebecca.

During their time together, the secret couple’s affection has not gone entirely unnoticed, but neither has it been made a public issue. As Smith’s departure from Werewocomoco for the Jamestown colony looms, Pocahontas addresses her deity, the divine Mother, in voice-over. She begs the deity’s help, and describes the transformation she feels within herself (most of the scene is here, starting at 2:28):


Where do you live? In the sky? The clouds? The sea?

Show me your face.

Give me a sign.

We rise, we rise.

Afraid of myself.

A god, he seems to me.

What else is life but being near you?

Do they suspect?

Oh, to be given to you… you to me.

I will be faithful to you. True.

Two no more.



I am.

I am.

A montage begins. We witness a flow of images accompanying these words – a temple to the divine Mother, Pocahontas worshipping with other Powhatans, her mortal mother, birds in flight, a sky illuminated by lightning. Her voice transforms these into the visual record of her inner experience, adding an aura of erotic desire to the relationships of community, nature, and spirit that the imagery symbolizes.

The seventh line of this address – “A god, he seems to me” – is an unmistakable allusion to the opening of Sappho, fragment 31, but there are also important correspondences between the two contexts (translation by Anne Carson, 63):

He seems to me equal to gods that man

Whoever he is who opposite you

Sits and listens close

To your sweet speaking

And lovely laughing – oh it

Puts the heart in my chest on wings.

Fragment 31 contains the speaker, a female addressee, and, sitting near her, a male third party. Pocahontas’ speech likewise contains three figures: a female speaker, the divine Mother and Smith, though it is significant that he is never named.

The montage depicts Smith smiling and laughing with Pocahontas, offering visual, rather than verbal, recollection of Sappho’s reference to “your sweet speaking / And lovely laughing.” Its effect on Pocahontas, akin to that of the addressee’s laughter on Sappho’s speaker, is the transport of joy that registers in her voice-over and the exuberant imagery that accompanies it.

The speaker in Sappho’s poem appears, in the first line, to desire this man who is like a god, but it is quickly revealed that her appreciation is reserved for the young woman with whom he sits. The man seems to her like a god only because he is so fortunate as to sit with the woman whom the speaker desires. Initially, both Sappho’s speaker and Malick’s Pocahontas seem to desire the male who has been positioned so prominently before the audience. Soon, we realize that the male in view is a bridge to the female addressee.

Pocahontas’ response to Smith in combination with her desire for the Mother deity creates its own complex relationship. She begins the voice-over with an address to her divine Mother. After asking her where She lives and proposing several possible places, Pocahontas says, “A god, he seems to me.” After this point, the address seems to shift toward Smith, but in fact the prayer to the Mother has not ended. As Thomas Wall observes, “Her attitude to [Smith] blends with her attitude to the Mother … (Wall, 74).” Indeed, the scene suggests that Pocahontas believes that the deity is to be found in John Smith and, for this reason, he seems godlike to her.

Pocahontas desires Smith erotically, but eros for her is not separate from a relationship to the divine source (i.e. the Mother) of all the world’s beauty and generative power. Pocahontas sees in Smith a path to this union — mistakenly, as it turns out. The blending of her address to the Mother and to Smith does not suggest the subordination of her erotic feelings for Smith to a higher love for the goddess, but rather that these two loves share the same space.

To be near him, she feels, is to be near Her. She underscores the unity of her love for Smith and, through him, to the Mother with the words: “I am, I am.” This is an allusion to line 15 of Walt Whitman’s One Hour to Madness and Joy (Blodgett and Bradley, 106):“O to have the feeling, to-day or any day, I am sufficient as I am!” Malick changes Whitman’s desired feeling into a feeling accomplished.

“I am, I am” also recalls the name of the Hebrew deity – Yahweh, or “I Am Who Am” – and makes for a significant close to a speech addressed to a goddess on the subject of divinity. The fullness and joy that Pocahontas feels in her oneness with Smith and her Mother find expression in the same words. When Smith leaves her, she says: “You have killed the god in me.” Not only is the god ultimately not in him, he destroys it in her, albeit temporarily.

When John Smith departs for the Jamestown fort, leaving Pocahontas behind in the Powhatan capital, the young girl meditates on the state of her desire in voice-over. Pocahontas’ words are addressed to a divine Mother deity (see 01:08-30 in the clip below): “My mouth is dry . My body trembles. My skin burns. I have two minds.” This sentence references three poems of the Greek poet Sappho — a fact recognized, it seems, by the original poster of the clip below, insofar as ‘Eros the Bittersweet’ is an image drawn from Sappho.

The first comes again from fragment 31, where Sappho’s speaker enumerates the places on her body that love has afflicted, as she looks at the young woman whom she desires and the man next to her: “…tongue breaks and thin / Fire is racing under skin.” And “shaking grips me.” Desire afflicts Pocahontas in like fashion: mouth, fire on the skin, and trembling body. Pocahontas then sums up her experience: “Love has unbound my limbs. This love is like pain.”

“Love has unbound my limbs” is a quotation from C. M. Bowra’s translation of the first line of Sappho’s two-line, fragment 130 (Higham and Bowra,  211).  “This love is like pain” appears to be a variation on the second line of the same fragment, where Sappho describes as, in Bowra’s translation, “a monster bittersweet and my unmaking.” Lastly, “I have two minds” is a translation of fragment 51: “I do not know what to do; I have two minds.”


[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.]


Blodgett, Harold and Sculley Bradley, edd. Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader’s Edition. New York: New York University Press, 1965.

Carson, Anne. If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho. New York: Knopf, 2002.

Higham, T. F. and C. M. Bowra. Oxford Book of Greek Poetry in Translation. Oxford: Clarendon, 1938.

Wall, Thomas. “Rührender Achtung: Terrence Malick’s Cinematic Neo-Modernity.” In Terrence Malick: Film and Philosophy. Edited by Thomas Deane Tucker and Stuart Kendall. London: Continuum, 2011: 58-79.



Posted in Cinema, Classics, Reception, Terrence Malick | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

‘Gladiator’ (Scott, 2000) and the ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ (Whedon, 2004) Series Finale ‘Chosen’


Connections Under Examination:

  1. The final episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season 7,  exhibit soundtrack elements that quote from Hans Zimmer’s film score for Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000).
  2. The series finale combines musical parallels, recognizable quotation, and a culminating battle that draws on several scenes from Gladiator.


Intimate scenes between Buffy and Spike in ‘Chosen’ and the earlier episode ‘Touched’ recall a meeting of Maximus and Lucilla in Gladiator, an allusion supported by soundtrack elements borrowed from Scott’s film. The relationship between Buffy and Spike finds a model in Gladiator‘s leading characters. Both pairs have shared attraction for one another in the past. While Maximus is devoted to his dead wife, which frustrates any possibilities for a romance with Lucilla, Buffy has had a history of erotic entanglement with Spike, but does not hold for him the love that he does for her. Theme music is the strongest element in the complex allusions to Gladiator in both ‘Chosen’ and ‘Touched’.

The soundtrack to the confrontation between Buffy’s potential slayers and the First Evil’s ubervamps, entitled ‘The Final Fight’ and credited to Robert Duncan, combines at least two elements of Gladiator‘s music: the opening battle (listen from 2:35-2:50) and the dungeon scene in which Lucilla visits Maximus (listen from 1:00-1:55). The link to the BVS battle scene is here. Listen from 2:05 through 3:25 as the two passages from Zimmer’s soundtrack are combined in Duncan’s BVS score.

The dungeon scene motif in the BVS score has recurred at other points in season 7. Most notably, it has already appeared in Spike’s ‘You’re the One’ speech in ‘Touched’. The link is here. The musical allusion becomes recognizable a bit after 00:45.

The BVS scenes — both Spike’s speech and the final encounter of Spike and Buffy in the Hellmouth — draw on the meeting of Maximus and Lucilla in the dungeon and the later encounter between Commodus and the chained Maximus  before their duel to the death. The BVS battle between the slayers and ubervamps moves directly into Buffy’s final intimate moment with Spike, combining the Gladiator‘s opening battle between Romans and Germans with the dungeon scene. In the final fight against the ubervamps, Spike wears a magical amulet which will provide him with some needed additional power. It turns out to be both a devastating weapon against their foes and fatal to its wearer. Energy bursts upward from Spike’s body and outward from his chest, striking down legions of the demonic foe.

Spike, immobilized in a column of light, recalls Maximus standing, shackled to the wall of his cell. When Buffy approaches him, the moment very much recalls Lucilla’s visit to his cell. Yet, it also evokes Maximus’ pre-fight confrontation with Emperor Commodus, in which the latter fatally stabs him, as he is suspended in chains. Immediately thereafter, they both rise on an elevator platform to the arena level. The fatal blow and the posture recalling the earlier meeting with Lucilla offer parallels for the Spike and Buffy scene, but it is actually Commodus’ ascent into a stream of light pouring into the sub level from the arena above that gives the strongest visual parallel for Spike. Compare the images below (and/or watch here for Gladiator, especially 0:13, and here for Buffy, especially 0:09):

spike immobilized hellmouthjoaquin-phoenix-as-commodus-in-gladiator

The visual analogy between the two figures draws a further link between Sunnydale High School and the Hellmouth over which it is placed, to the gladiatorial arena — a hellmouth of a different sort. This is a powerful parallel that resonates with many of the other motifs we have drawn attention to here, though it also draws interesting attention to the battles waged in throughout series as a spectacle for the gratification of an audience, which in this final conflict has acquired newly significant import (destroying the Hellmouth).

Spike has parallels with Commodus as well. Commodus is sadist who murdered his father. Spike killed his mother, after turning her into a vampire in a misguided effort to give her eternal life, later becoming a sadistic torturer of his victims. During the scene in which Commodus stabs an immobilized Maximus, the emperor delivers a summative speech (00:25-1:12). He remarks how the crowds call for Maximus — “…the general who became a slave, the slave who became a gladiator, the gladiator who defied an emperor. Striking story. Now the people want to know how the story ends.” Spike’s last works before dying are “I want to see how it ends.” More generally, however, Commodus’ catalogue of Maximus’ transformations, while different in detail, fits well with Spike’s own odyssey. A bookish wallflower in life, he became a sadistic vampire, a slayer of (vampire-) Slayers, ally and then lover of a Slayer, and, in the final season, a demon-warrior with a soul.

The gladiatorial dimension of Spike’s character takes a turn at the end of season 6, when he enters a series of single combat ‘demon-trials’ in order to regain his soul. In the final episode, Buffy and Spike occupy in roughly equal measure the space that Maximus’ character fills in Gladiator. Buffy is the fierce general of Gladiator‘s opening sequence, leading an army against a barbarous horde. Spike is the bereft, haunted warrior of Gladiator‘s conclusion, bound to death, yet all the more heroic for that. Spike ultimately embodies Maximus’ self-sacrificial return to the death that he evaded earlier — Maximus, when he escapes the murder plot that claimed his wife and son, and Spike, when Angelus sired him as a vampire, ending his mortal life in the process.

Buffy and Spike are at the same time also both Lucilla figures — Buffy a witness to his sacrifice and courage, Spike an emotionally isolated individual, cynical yet in love, but with the discipline and dignity to accept its unrequited nature. Although Buffy addresses him in their final encounter in the Hellmouth, confessing her love after the fashion of Lucilla, it is Spike who resembles Lucilla more at this moment. Maximus loves his deceased wife, as Buffy presumably loves the absent Angel. Although there is fan debate over who feels what about whom in this scene, Spike at least believes that Buffy does not love him. As does Lucilla, he must say good-bye in the knowledge that his love is not returned — at least not in the same way that he gives it.

During the final fight in the Hellmouth, Buffy embodies the Maximus of Gladiator‘s opening sequence, who leads a Roman army against rebelling Germani. In the course of the fight, Buffy addresses the potential slayers, exhorting them to ‘hold the line’. This is a direct quotation of Maximus’ battle cry as he leads a cavalry contingent into the fight (the link is here; the phrase comes shortly after 3:13). In BVS, the ubervamps in the service of the First Evil are the parallels of Ridley Scott’s Germani. All this, of course, unfolds against the musical background of Robert Duncan’s Gladiator-like soundtrack.



Posted in and Popular Culture, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Cinema, Classics, Classics and television, Gladiator (Scott 2000), Joss Wheedon, Reception, Ridley Scott | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment