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.