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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
We live in a pretty decent Sword and Sandals era when you really think about it. We’re fortunate, being that for a period of about five years or so we got very little. After Troy, Alexander, and Kingdom of Heaven all disappointed in theaters in 2004 and 2005 (though I personally found each one interesting in its own way), it seemed we might never again get the big-budget Sword and Sandals epics we once got. The past few years, however, have seen a glut of epic fantasy films that could all fall within this wide sub-genre. Today’s installment of The Friday Five will feature five recent films, film franchises, or television shows, most of which that have seen success, be it critical or commercial or both, in the classic Sword and Sandals tradition.
Michael Fassbender hadn’t had much exposure prior to 2009’s Inglorious Basterds, where he played multi-lingual, ill-fated British officer Lt. Archie Hickox. His first starring role intended for a wide audience would come in 2010’s Centurion, a Roman Empire-set tale of a small group of soldiers attempting to outwit and escape a roving band of merciless Scottish barbarians (known at the time as the Pict people – an ethnic group that has not survived into the modern age).
Filmed on a minuscule budget of 16 million (and really looking like it), Centurion was not a commercial success, but critics enjoyed the survival-based action/adventure. Fassbender is magnificent as Quintus Dias, the titular Centurion who must lead his war-torn men back to Roman territory. Also great is Liam Cunningham, who has really found success lately in films like War Horse (and who will also reappear on this list). Former Bond Girl Olga Kurylenko shows up to menace our Roman heroes and she is one of the absolute best portrayals of a female in an action role in years. It is important to note that Neil Marshall, he of The Descent and Doomsday fame, is the director, meaning Centurion is thrilling, violent, bloody, and exciting.
Clash of the Titans/Wrath of the Titans (2010, 12)
I wasn’t a big fan of the Clash of the Titans remake initially, but I grew to actually kind of like it when I re-watched it on home video. The sequel, released earlier this year, is not nearly as good (and might be the worst film I’ve seen in theaters in 2012 thus far). Both were commercial successes for Warner Bros. (Wrath not as much as Clash) and both are definitely of the Sword and Sandals mold. Hollywood/Australian everyman Sam Worthington plays Perseus, the half-man/half-god hybrid and our reluctant hero. Both movies see him on a quest to retrieve a MacGuffin, and in both films he must face his demons, overcome his obstacles, and save all of Greece from supernatural terrors.
These are not great movies by any stretch, but there is something charming in just how serious they take themselves. I am reminded of the original Clash of the Titans, as well as other Harryhausen creature-features (Sinbad, Jason and the Argonauts, etc), in that the material is taken wholly at face-value, and thus has a kind of unintentional camp aesthetic. Though the first Clash does have its attempts at humor (the discarded Bubo the owl prop), it is mostly taken exceedingly seriously. The second ups this, with nary a humorous break outside of Toby Kebbell’s comic relief as the half-man son of Poseidon. They might not be a great pair of films, but they have their value and I accept them as worthy additions to a sub-genre I love so much.
Game of Thrones (2011-)
Game of Thrones took most of the internet by storm during its first season back in the spring of 2011. The second season caused an even bigger internet disturbance during its even better second go ‘round earlier this year. I have no doubt that the internet will collapse in on itself like a dying supernova when the third season premiers next March. A high fantasy tale of murder, intrigue, vengeance, and all of those great attributes of any solid Sword and Sandals property, Game of Thrones is legitimately great entertainment.
The strongest part of the show may be its talented cast. Liam Cunning, mentioned earlier in this article and a key addition to the second season, is one of the best characters on television. Also great are Stephen Dillane, portraying the draconic Stannis Baratheon, the great Charles Dance as the patriarch of the Lannister family, and Peter Dinkage as Dance’s son Tyrion, who should just be automatically given an Emmy every year. The sheer amount of talent on the cast side is unprecedented for a television show. I must also give props to the fantastic set design. Locales have a certain lived-in look, as if the interior sets of the castles had actually been in use for thousands of years. Directors of the series, including the previously mentioned Neil Marshall, have also done great work. Game of Thrones is simply one of the best, most entertaining shows on television.
I am always going to be interested in any project Tarsem Singh (The Cell, The Fall) works on. I am intrigued by his keen visual style and unique approach to the director’s chair. In 2011’s Immortals, Henry Cavill stars as Theseus, a Greek warrior trained by Zeus to protect innocent citizens from the wrath of the evil King Hyperion (a menacing, scenery chewing Mickey Rourke). Also featuring Freida Pinto and Stephen Dorff (who is still unbelievably in this 30s), Immortals is a Sword and Sandals epic worth watching for the interesting cinematography and insane performances alone.
Immortals is not a great movie; in fact, it is incredibly dumb. It looks absolutely beautiful though. It also has one of the most interesting portrayals of the gods I’ve yet seen in a film. Played by such actors as Kellen Lutz (Twilight) and Isabel Lucas (Transformers 2, The Pacific), the god characters in Immortals look as if they were superheroes, wearing brilliant golden armor and moving like the Flash or Superman. This, coupled with an absolutely crazy performance by Mickey Rourke (who really needs to be in every movie), kept my interest throughout the film’s too long 110 minute running time. It should be noted that this film was shot in 3D, but I watched it on Netflix so I cannot comment on the quality of the 3D like I would under normal circumstances.
The Eagle (2011)
Telling, in some ways, essentially the same story as Centurion, The Eagle is the story of an injured young Roman soldier (Channing Tatum), who returns north of Hadrian’s Wall to recapture the Eagle standard of the doomed Ninth Roman Legion, which had been captured in a previous battle by barbarians. Along with his best friend/slave (Jamie Bell) and a former Ninth soldier (Mark Strong, actually not playing a bad guy this time), Tatum must brave the harsh weather of northern England, the vicious barbarian tribes, and his own ravaging injury to restore honor to the famous-but-ill-fated Ninth Roman Legion.
The Eagle is interesting to me in that it is a more sanitized version of the same story as Centurion. The Eagle has its fair share of swordplay and violence, but it was obviously meant for a broader audience. Directed by Kevin MacDonald (The Last King of Scotland, State of Play), The Eagle is also ponderous and plodding compared to the other films on this list. Though praised by Roger Ebert (who gave it 3 out of 4 stars), other critics found MacDonald’s work to be unemotional and uninspiring. For what it’s worth, however, my brother absolutely loves this movie. I can get behind it too, if only for its talented principle cast and the fact that it falls into a subgenre I love ever so much. It remains the least interesting choice on this list though.