Tuesday, January 15, 2013

New PEPLUM wave?

With yesterday's big announcement that MGM, which was teetering towards bankruptcy but saved after two big recent hits, has greenlighted a reboot of their most famous blockbuster, BEN-HUR, it seems that the PEPLUM genre is entering or will be entering a new wave. BEN-HUR was made twice by MGM: a silent superproduction in 1925, which is still impressive today, and the most famous one in 1959, winner of several Oscars® including Best Picture and best director for William Wyler. I've made a comparison last year of the similarities between the two versions here (link). I wonder if this new reboot will employ the same scenes as the previous two.

Personally, the Wyler directed BEN-HUR is not the end all of the epic genre. As much as I love it I have to admit there are some weaknesses to it which can be corrected in a new version. At nearly 4 hours the film does drag, the script is episodic and except for Ben-Hur, Messala and Quintus Arrius, the secondary characters are weak, including Esther. Because BEN-HUR is basically a one man's journey and the story goes from one setting to another I understand why the secondary characters might take a backseat to the whole journey but I hope the new version will flesh out the secondary characters so they're as memorable as the chariot scene.

The big question(s) about this new version is how the tone will be and how it will set the tone for future Sword & Sandal films. Will is be more or less religious than the 1959 version? Will it be action packed or more dramatic? Will it have unrealistic Rambo-like action or strive for realism? Will it remove the gay subtext introduced by Gore Vidal and William Wyler in the 1959 and be strictly macho? Will it be 4 hours long?

The entire worth of the project depends on who's going to direct it. Will they get a director who's a visionary or a competent workman-like director who will follow orders from producers? Casting the film is also an issue. I know people who refuse to watch the 1959 version because they're not Charlton Heston fans (to put it mildly). This new update will get a whole new crowd who probably never even thought of watching the Oscar® winning one.

The 1959 version of BEN-HUR was the apogee of the PEPLUM genre even though it also signalled its death. There were a couple of big epics before this film and there were a few made afterwards but the genre really peaked in 1959. Starting with QUO VADIS in 1951 at 171 minutes, big event pictures and their running time eventually averaged between 3 and 4 hours in length. Even though they were popular at the time Hollywood sorta made a disservice to the genre by seemingly only making super long films: these films tested the patience of moviegoers back then (Alfred Hitchcock hated them because of their excessive length) and eventually fell out of favor after the super long flop CLEOPATRA, at 4 hours, effectively killed the genre. Because Hollywood sold epics as big lengthly event films whenever someone mentioned an epic people eventually said: Ain't Nobody Got Time For That. This is where the European PEPLUM films had an edge over the big Hollywood epics: they told their stories in 90 minutes or so time, cost less and made tons of money.

HERCULES was released in 1958 in Italy and 1959 in the US (before BEN-HUR) and became a huge hit and started the PEPLUM explosion. There are many reasons why it became a big hit (link) but when it comes to entertainment HERCULES was fun and action-oriented. That's it. Comparing BEN-HUR to HERCULES would be considered blasphemy by many but in the end it's the genre itself (stories taking place in Antiquity) that's being sold to moviegoers so it doesn't matter if it's a super-production or a pulpy Italian film. I know a lot of people who simply do not like PEPLUM films (like many who don't like Westerns) because of the setting in the distant past or they love watching them only in and around Christmas time or Easter. A lot of people still think of those types of films in the way Hollywood sold the genre, even after the PEPLUM explosion of the 1980s and the more recent genre epics like GLADIATOR and 300. Selling stories set in Antiquity is not easy. When people might believe they're going to watch a history lesson...well, people tune out. No one likes watching a history lesson at the movies. So the selling of the genre is very important and how the new version of BEN-HUR will be sold (religious? action? historical drama? a combination of everything?) will determine the direction a new PEPLUM wave might be headed  towards. But when you consider that even after the success of GLADIATOR and 300, selling a story that takes place in the past, is still a difficult thing to do well you can see why the genre gets very little respect.

So what other upcoming projects aside from BEN-HUR signal this new PEPLUM wave? Here's a short list:

- New CLEOPATRA project directed by Ang Lee and starring Angelina Jolie.

- New MOSES project directed by Steven Spielberg, GODS & KINGS.

- New PONTIUS PILATE project starring Brad Pitt

- New HERCULES film directed by Brett Ratner and starring Dwayne Johnson.

- New CONAN film starring Ahnuld

- New version of THE ODYSSEY set in space (?)!

- New NOAH project directed by Darren Aronofsky and starring Russell Crowe

- Prequel to 300

As for BEN-HUR they need to attach a great director to the project for it to be taken seriously. Once that's done, we will have to wait and see.


Steve R. Orsulak said...

MGM must go according to the book as best as possible. This movie has to have the Religious Aspect in it to succeed. I don't think there's an actor in this world who can portray Ben Hur like Heston did. They have to stage a real chariot race not that computer stuff. My opinion they should make this into a 6 hour mini series. MGM screws this up they'll be back in Bankruptcy Court. Looking forward to the HERCULES film with Johnson should be interesting.

Pal said...

With all due respect, I have a different opinion on almost everything you wrote about Ben-Hur and other epics.

1. Firstly, the belief that there was a "gay subtext introduced by Gore Vidal and William Wyler" simply does not hold water. There are no movie characters beyond the screen. They are not alive, and they have never been - and it does not matter, what was the writer's or director's mind (in reality or in their far-fetched fantasy 'recollected' decades after the production). What is on the screen that matters. If on the screen there is no any indication whatsoever of more than a (boyhood) friendly attachment between the two men (and there is not), then it means that there were indeed "only" friends. It is pure logic - and no Vidal or Wyler can do anything about it. It is as simple as 2+2=4; movie characters are not real people - they "live" only on the screen. Therefore Ben-Hur and Messala were "only" friends. Period.

2. Good movies, even if they are long (or perhaps because of being long) can make (some) viewer think. On the other hand, fast paced, purely action-oriented movies rarely have any substance - they often only junk food for the mind. CLEOPATRA and all of the other mentioned movies superb movies (spectacular, but also with substance: witty lines that make you think, etc.) - a lot better than most of the action-packed (cheep) productions recycling the same old cliches over and over again. (The same goes for any other genre; for example, the best of the SF movies happen to be the longest ones as well [SOYLARIS, 2001].

3. Based upon my experience, I have no faith whatsoever in remakes. Remaking movies in the 50s and 60s made sense for the advancement of technology (e.g., colour replacing B&W). In this respect, BEN-HUR, MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY etc. surprised the original ones. But the last couple of decades always the 50s/60s originals came out as the winners. Even though now we have computer generated effects, they are sterile, unimaginative and gloomy when comparing to the beautiful matte paintings employed in BEN-HUR, CLEOPATRA etc. The same goes for the actors/actresses - their look and acting ability - as well...

4. "No one likes watching a history lesson at the movies." Hm... Well, I (along with my wife) do enjoy movies that are - more or less (!) - accurate in history (or in science in we watch a SF film). I can be entertained and educated at the same time (and I assume there are people with similar taste as well) But if your assumption were true (e.g., no one wants to learn while watching a film), then the humankind's future would be as gloomy as the current hollywoodian movies...

PEPLUM cinema said...

Steve, I agree that if they screw this up it might sink MGM again.

Pal I think you're injecting too much of your personal stuff with what I wrote. I like watching historically correct films but the genre itself is not based only on being historically correct. Shakespeare's Julius Caesar or GB Shaw's Caesar & Cleopatra are hardly what I would call historically correct and they were not made in the current state of Hollywood and yet they're great piece of drama/fiction based in Antiquity. People want to be entertained with their history not just a dry history course.

As for Gore Vidal's gay subtext, I'm just repeating what's fact. Whether I agree with it or you agree with it is not important as it's known that Wyler asked Vidal to help them with the script and that's how it started. Just Google "Ben Hur Gore Vidal gay subtext" and there are dozens and dozens of articles on this.

Remakes are often terrible but Ben-Hur is a remake of the 1925 film. I even show a visual representation of the similarities between the two films.

As for length, it's a non-issue. I never wrote that a long film = terrible.

Pal said...

I do agree with you that a film should be entertaining product and not a documentary. Sorry if I took it a bit more 'personal' :)

However, it seems that we are not the same wavelength on the relationship issue. You wrote: "it's known that Wyler asked Vidal to help them with the script and that's how it started". So what? It does not matter what they discussed, and what their intention was. These things are irrelevant. The point (rock solid fact) is that the two characters are not kissing each other, and neither their verbal or facial expression indicates that their attachment to one another goes beyond pure friendship (nor is Messala's visit introduced to Ben-Hur by his family members with the line such as "Look Juda, your one time lover has just arrived). Therefore they are friends - and only friends.

What Vidal or Wyler discussed is completely irrelevant (IF such discussion took place - many people are doubtful about Vidal's comments; see imdb Messager Board). Ben-Hur (the character) is what is on the screen. What he does not do on the screen, then he does not do that.

So the only proof of Ben-Hur's affection would be something what is being said, shown, or otherwise indicated ON THE SCREEN. (Again, as we all know it, he was not a living person.) And neither he, nor anyone else does/shows/expresses ANYTHING that would indicate his other-than-friendly feeling (past or present) to Messala (and vica versa). What the director or writer discussed is absolutely besides the point - therefore bearing no importance in this matter at all.

Pal said...

Finally, let me use an example to illuminate my point above.

Say, there is a certain movie in which the protagonist steals something then give it to someone. If there were two different edits of this film - one without the guy stealing and the other without him giving it to someone - then the two subsequent cuts would have two opposite characters: one is a a good person (a benefactor), and the other one is bad guy (a thief).

There could be no such thing that "hey, he is a bad (or good) guy, only it is not shown on the screen". It would be an utter nonsense.