Entering the ancient world through silent cinema

Cléopatra (1910)
Cléopatra (1910)

This is a guest blog for Silent London by Maria Wyke, professor of Latin at University College London.

Few people realise how important and innovative a role early cinema played in shaping modern knowledge of ancient Greece and Rome. In the vaults of film archives scattered across the world, a large number of entertaining, provoking and often quite beautiful films survive that are set in the classical world. Through their enticing use of gesture and look, exotic sets and extravagant costumes, colour, music and movement, these films still offer their spectators the opportunity to enter into the history or myth of antiquity, and to experience a distant past where life is lived differently or to an extreme.

Antiquity is also one of early cinema’s most important means for bringing the past into the present, making it accessible to mass audiences across national boundaries, offering it up as a past that binds audiences to each other, and utilising it to legitimate cinema as a new and global art form. Yet early cinema’s use of the ancient world is little known or understood.

For a few years now, I have been involved in a research project with Pantelis Michelakis of the University of Bristol. Both of us are classicists, with my specialism being Rome and his Greece. Together, and with the help of film archivists, and historians of film and of cultural studies, we have been trying to understand this close relationship between cinema and Classics (we published an edited collection on the subject in 2013 with CUP, The Ancient World in Silent Cinema).

We see film screenings as an integral (and very enjoyable) part of our project – an opportunity for audiences to participate and help open up new routes for our research. So on 21st November 2015, at the fabulous Cinema Museum in East London, and as part of the Being Human Festival of humanities research, Pantelis and I will be screening a number of early “antiquity” films. If it interests you, do register for your ticket here and come along.

Though your Sins be as Scarlet (USA, 1911)
Though your Sins be as Scarlet (USA, 1911)

From 2 to 3.45 we will be showing 35mm films from the Joye collection in the National Film Archive and from 4.15 to 6pm films from archives in Paris, such as the Cinémathèque Française. What films exactly? Well, we are in final negotiations about that.

But the BFI films are likely to include Slaves of Phydias (Italy, 1916) about the love of a slave girl for the great Athenian sculptor and Though your Sins be as Scarlet (USA, 1911) in which a Roman prostitute abandons her improper ways as her life is touched by Christ – a kind of feminine version of Ben-Hur perhaps?

The Conquest of Gaul (1922)
The Conquest of Gaul (1922)

One of the Parisian films will be a restored version of Pathé’s Cleopatra from 1910, with an interesting take on exotic dancing at the queen’s court. And finally a knowing comedy from 1922 about making films about antiquity – The Conquest of Gaul  – in which a film director lacks the cash to fulfil his epic visions. This film currently is not restored and has no intertitles, but its comic plot of love lost and films almost made should, we hope, generate much discussion about silent cinema’s use of antiquity.

We plan to discuss the films with our audience, and with Bryony Dixon (Curator of Silent Films at the BFI) and Nick Lowe (classicist and film critic from Royal Holloway, University of London). There to accompany the films on piano will be Stephen Horne – about whose playing Silent London has enthused on many occasions. We hope you can come.

Professor Maria Wyke

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2 thoughts on “Entering the ancient world through silent cinema”

  1. Professor Wyke,
    Thank you for your blog. I have an art history background and am very much looking forward to this screening day. Will copies of your book be on sale on the day.

    1. Hi Sheila – thanks for reading. I have spoken to Professor Wyke and she says thanks for your interest but unfortunately she will have to point you in the direction of Amazon if you would like to buy the book.

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