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Marcus Stiglegger

Gladiator, or:
The birth of peplum cinema from the spirit of the ancient tragedy

The continuity of the myths

The fact that media of modernity, especially cinema, literature and theater, soon had become the myth reservoir of modernity is not exactly a new idea to media-theoretical writings. Any way it is especially true for epic cinema such as the peplum films of Hollywood between the 1950s and today. Which definition of myth this is especially based on – because there are many – is yet to be clarified. It will not be possible to answer this question exhaustively in an essay like this, but it seems appropriate to outline some basic definitions and approaches to expand further on this idea.
In the context of cultural anthropology myth is recognized as an oral, written or otherwise mediated traditional story with sacred content. In Myths, Dreams and Mysteries (1967) Mircea Eliade has pointed out various elements that the myth may contain: 1. In the last instance myths tell a ‘true story’. Myths are based on the existential facts of life (birth, war, death) especially connected to the idea of cultural identity; 2. The mythical fable is sacred, that is: its content is removed from the secular area. 3. The myth is always associated with the time of the origin or creation; this origin does not necessarily belong to an earlier time, but can refer to any form of new beginnings. Consequently, the living mythos is a time in which all times fall into one. 4. The myth contains the justification and basis of the rituals; the myth has therefore morally binding normative force. 5. The protagonist of the mythical fable are usually super human beings.
Myth and life are closely linked and are suitable in particular for a structuralist analysis in the context of regional and social peculiarities, like Claude Lévi-Strauss in Structural Anthropology ([1958] 1963), demonstrated. Likewise a message is ‘formulated and condensed’ within a mythos – equivalent to Roland Barthes’ definition of myths in Mythologies ([1956] 1972). At the center of the myth lies the origin of the world, the people or the culture. It always involves elementary truths that are condensed in mythical narration and experience, even when it comes to the modern myth ‘ of everyday life’ (Barthes), which often revolve around cultural images (self).
If so with Eliade myth is understood as a key situation of a culture, it is also understandable how and why it can be transferred into other contexts. This may also explain, why well known myth collections – such as Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890; abridged 1922) – themselves are a major source of inspiration for international artists.
Another step of the mythos theory is important here: Mythical narrations operate on a level of cyclical repetition. Mythical thinking is cyclic thinking in a way that it works with recurring standard situations, archetypical characters and ritualized actions. This is a close connection to the medium of narrative film: especially in genre contexts, in western cinema, television series and in computer games – but even more so in the Asian film (e.g. Japanese cinema) the transformations of standardized texts is a generic continuum. As if the medium tries to grant permanent presence of the sacred mythical tales in modern formats to seduce its audience. This fact goes well along with the audience expectations demanding similar texts over and over again – which is finally proven by the continuing success of the DC and Marvel adaptations in recent years.1
The medium of film specifically works with either classical myths or mythological motifs (Orpheus, Oedipus, the Fall, etc.), but it can also create its own myths and cults – often charismatic protagonists such as James Dean, Bruce Lee, Marilyn Monroe, or Romy Schneider become the heroic protagonists of such neo-mythological narratives. Especially stars who die early or under mysterious circumstances, are suitable for the creation of neo-myths, because only their image remains as a cinematic phantom and as a fetishistic ritual – like in the repeated viewing of their films. In this way cult film phenomena can be explained. Cult films are cyclically revived neo-mythological texts.
The protagonists (heroes) of the mythical narrations are often described as beings of supernatural origin. But if we take the social intertwining of myth as given, one can see only the projection of humanity into a religious (or holy) form within these mythical creatures. And again the larger than life quality of Hollywood cinema qualifies as neo-mythology: Global audiences admire iconic heroic characters such as those that have been coined by John Wayne, Bruce Willis, Clint Eastwood, or Sylvester Stallone. These iconic embodiments of martial archetypes are celebrated for their heroic ability to transcend the human boundaries. They resemble the sacred heroes of ancient narratives. As long as this quality is intact, the audience appreciates these heroes. Problems arise as soon as their mythical status is questioned and ultimately deconstructed. The audience sees this latent longing for a glimpse of otherworldly and divine quality being cheated within the process of deconstruction. Think of Clint Eastwood as a broken veteran in The Beguiled (1970) by Donald Siegel, here the sexual object and playground of a group of women and girls, or John Wayne – who was ill of cancer in reality as well as within the film – in The Shootist (1976), also by Don Siegel, desperately fighting for his heroic final showdown. In these films little remains of the mysterious and always superior ‘stranger with no name’ from Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western or from the ‘upright defender of American values’ like John Wayne. The brokenness of the hero not always contradicts its mythical function: In the movies Gladiator (2000) by Ridley Scott, Pale Rider (1983) and Unforgiven (1992) directed by and starring Clint Eastwood the myth itself is the discourse of the films. Although these films deal less naively with their matter than their respective genre-typical sources such as the peplum film or the classic Western of the fifties, they let the heroes reach their goal and fulfill their violent missions nonetheless. As John Wayne in The Shootist dies in the end, he might have taken the lives of some malicious people, but basically he remains a tragic figure; when Gladiator Maximus in contrast kills the tyrant in one last stand he has granted the freedom of a whole empire.
So film generates its own take on myth and has its own superhuman protagonists. Cinema is also suitable as a mediator of myths because it can always be experienced in a relative presence: As the film is ritually re-seen (again: think here mainly of the phenomenon of the cult film), it becomes a genuine, present experience for the dedicated audience. At the same time the cinematic myth revolves around elementary and existential motives: birth, life, death, sexuality, violence, fear, joy, hatred, happiness, etc. It turns out to be counterproductive to regard the mythical content of the film as a kind of regression or more generally to consider even the myth as anxiety or an ‘enemy’ of enlightenment as you can occasionally see in the leftist theory of Theordor W. Adorno and Max Habermas ([1947] 2002). Film, popular culture and myth are closely intertwined in any case. In fact, it is rather the question of whether a cinematic artifact would incapacitate and manipulate the viewer or even be working productively with the myth. The intentionally manipulative American mainstream cinema builds its greatest quality on its mythical quality, even replacing ideology and historical consciousness by generally approachable mythical models. Such as in Ridley Scott’s neo-peplum Gladiator.

Myth and tragedy

Already in early epic cinema narratives – such as David Wark Griffith’s American epic Birth of a Nation (1915) – you can notice a specific dramaturgical structure, which is based on the myth as well as on the classical tragedy. And like the classic tragedy their materials refer to mythical primordial tales and national foundation myths (e.g. the frontier theory). It seems obvious that the epic cinema narrative still hints at elements such as the odyssey of the hero, martyrdom, regicide, the messianic quality of a culture founder and the pathos of the individual demise, which nevertheless may culminate in the victory of the Community. Analyzing the highly successful international historical film Gladiator I would like to illustrate how myth, pathos and ritual are brought in as a quasi-religious motives into a major American film to affect the audience and offer the viewer an ideological model, replacing the lost spiritual and religious trends by a new universal and trans-historical new quality of myth.
Some reflections on the tragic format of this film are important: In a sequence in the first third of the film the Roman general Maximus (Russell Crowe) is betrayed by the new Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). He flees towards his homeland Spain to save his native family and farm, but he’s too late: The Praetorian guards of the Emperor have already crucified and burned his wife and his little son. In front of their corpses he collapses in the dust. Behind him in the distance, we see his fertile lands, while in the foreground the charred feet of his family are visible. Ridley Scott’s historical drama Gladiator in this moment achieves the ultimate level of individual suffering that characterizes the efforts of this film to function as a tragedy of classic theatrical format. This tragedy form emphasizes the timelessness of its substance, which functions as an action-driven revenge drama as well as a morally challenging fable.
In Gladiator, the mise en scène is dominated by the pathos of that increased expression of the existential, which today often is blamed for being a platitude or an exaggeration. Here, the Greek pathos refers literally to suffering, passion and affection – elements so effective that even the narrative cinema of the 20th and 21rst century has always continued to use them. Probably the most obvious definition of pathos was given by the German dramatist Friedrich Schiller in his writings on dramatic theory (1793). Schiller sees the stage tragedy burdened with the task of moral education of the audience. The stage drama was the ‘poetic imitation of a continuous series of events (a complete action), showing us people in a state of suffering and intends to arouse our pity.’2
From the moral dilemma in which the recipient as a witness of the tragic events a mixture of emotion and desire results: the ‘pleasure in tragic subject’. The moral sensibility of the audience is challenged in the face of this suffering which is partially appropriated by identification and relation with or to the action. An important role is played by the sensuous affections. In sad emotions Schiller recognizes the most effective means because it employs the audience in the tragedy and challenges its moral judgment. To achieve this affect the tragic artist is allowed to mobilize all appropriate means – especially the representation of pathos. In pathos ideally lies the true emotion, the bridge to compassion: the compassion of the audience, which ultimately leads to the urge to take a moral or ethical position. The audience should understand that the protagonist can free himself from the suffering and therefore should be ranked above the purely sensual perception.
In dealing with the sensuous affections the experience of the sublime can be made. According to this model the recipients can observe within themselves that reason triumphs over emotion which makes a moral decision possible. The ambivalent reaction to the confrontation with the sublime is due to the inner split of the human being in sensuous and moral aspects. The tragedy is thus experienced as a pleasure in this confrontation. Interestingly, such a dichotomy is possible, even when an object is at the same time experienced as aesthetically appealing and as morally or ethically repugnant. In such a case, the dilemma of the protagonist is reflected in the ambivalence of the recipient.
To sum these aspects up, the key terms of the tragedy are pathos, pity and fear, emotions that are evoked through mimesis (the imitation of life) and which are dissolved in the catharsis of the concluding ritual. This ritual is often a final judgment or a blood sacrifice performed in a specifically established sacred space (a temple, an arena, a palace – or just a sacred ground signified by a symbolic or eminent border). Additionally films like Apocalypse Now (1979) or Conan the Barbarian (1982) would hardly be conceivable without this template – specifically related to the latent subtext of regicide.
The tragedy is based on the strict acceptance of a rationally comprehensible worldview which can be expressed in clear, rational words and concepts. Thus the tragedy refers to reason, order and harmony. The ancient tragedy, the ‘rising goat chant’, had been preserved by the Greek Aeschylus and Euripides through to the Roman writer Seneca. This leads to the dramaturgical form of five acts that is also reflected in the epic film narrative. These five acts follow a linear fable, presenting a unified, purposeful action, and include the final solution of the dramatic conflict and restoration of harmony. The five act scenario corresponds to following steps:
1. exposure
2. conflict construction
3. collision
4. deceleration and acceleration
5. disaster and reconciliation.3
On a dramaturgical level Ridley Scott’s film Gladiator follows this model by sending the hero on a tragic journey from the battlefields of Germania through Spain and Africa back to the Roman arena, where he kills the corrupt emperor in a fatal duel so the Senate can return to power.
The internal stress of the tragedy was traditionally justified rather by the metaphysical-mythical ritual in ancient theater and later increasingly on the moral level. This moral component also underlies Scott’s model: Maximus is established as a fearless warrior, in whose breast clearly the heart of a simple farmer beats rather than of an ambitious statesman. He rejects Marcus Aurelius’ offer to become Caesar himself, preferring to return to his family and his home country instead. Consequently it is this dream of a quiet family life that Commodus can destroy first, after Maximus has refused to follow him. From that moment on and with the death of his beloved family irrevocably in mind, Maximus (a telling name meaning ‘the ultimate’) becomes an incarnation of revenge. The film’s finale gradually becomes a pagan dies irae (‘day of wreath’) leading to the fall of the tyrant, a despot who embodies the spirit of a ruthless materialism. The focus of this pseudo-historical tragedy – the script refers to some historical figures and facts – is the fate of a man whose only purpose in life is revenge and his own heroic death. This heroic death in the arena is not presented as something negative but staged as a kind of spiritual ‘homecoming’: the restoration of balance and harmony. Along with Lisa Gerrard’s ethereal vocals Maximus enters the Elyzium which resembles his Spanish homeland where his wife and son already await him. But before this redemption the tyrant is killed and the democracy restore. A regeneration through violence is executed – a deeply American maxim that characterizes mainly the Western and Hollywood war movies.
As a further level of challenge of the participating audience the conflict between the individual’s duty towards the community and the personal interests is established in ancient tragedy. Especially in the ancient dramas an often cruel sacrifice by the tragic hero is required to restore the lost balance. René Girard4 points out that there are several expressions for the relationship between violence, desire and divinity admit in the Homeric epics, the term kydos particularly catches the eye: ‘Kydos is a quasi-divine prestige to define as mystical election associated with the military triumph. In the fight […] it comes to kydos. […] The kydos emanating from the fascination with violence.’ It is hardly surprising that in the context of massive re-mythologization of cinema at the turn of the millennium created a film like Troy (2004) by Wolfgang Petersen, who directly relates to Homer’s epics.
The sacrifice demanded by Maximus is final. Although he manages to survive his execution, he is degraded from general to slave. The ‘Fallhöhe’ (German for social and emotional drop height) is enormous and qualifies Maximus as a tragic, suffering hero of classical format. While the structure and dramaturgy of Gladiator follows the classical tragedy, Ridley Scott chooses comparatively opposite means of representation in his mise en scène – the cinematic performance is based on kinetic movement and sensation, the means of modern Hollywood cinema. Gladiator is therefore also encoded as a contemporary action movie in which all major conflicts are discharged on the physical level. All emotions here are evoked on a physical level before they reach a moral dimension. This is typical of the mainstream cinema approach from the 1980s onwards. The result is an international, timeless clarity of the underlying drama. While the ancient tragedy was dialogue based and aimed at intellectual and emotional identification, contemporary mainstream cinema goes for seduction, manipulation and immersion employing all cinematographic means.

Peplum cinema as popular mythology

The historical films of the 1950s and 1960s of the twentieth century were marked by Christian values and ambitions. Films like Henry King’s peplum The Robe (1950) or William Wyler’s Ben Hur (1959) told Christian salvation and redemption tales. Their pathos followed clearly, though banally, adapted specifications. This Christian impulse is missing in Gladiator, but not the mythical level. Here the identification with the heroically suffering individuum Maximus is established.
In the first shot of the film we see Maximus’ hand sliding through stalks of corn in the golden light of the setting sun. Later we learn that this vision expresses his longing for the return to his home in Spain and the fertile soil of his farm. This paradisiacal country he will reach the end: In the mythical Elysium, the ‘Valhalla’ of Roman legionaries, which unites him with his wife and children again. But before this redemption there are suffering and anger.
Before each battle Maximus grabs a handful of the soil on which he is struggling, smells it and lets the soil or the sand trickle through his fingers. As a farmer he has a strong connection to the earth, even if it is not his own – even to the dry chalky soil of the Roman Colosseum. But he gives us a sensual feeling for the space in which he acts. The film indulges the audience in this moment. In the initial battle the Germanic blood and soil splash equally against the camera, being unclear whether the country or its people are wounded.
Later Maximus enters the Arena with the equanimity of a man who has finished with his life: He fights without hatred. His weapon cuts almost elegantly and quickly through the bodies of the opponents. And in the evening he prays to his ancestors, in the face of small clay figures that symbolize his wife and son. Belief in spirits and ancestor worship mingle in this staging to an indifferent archaic religion, which give an impression of the comfort that lies in this prayer.
An important ritual element of the ancient theater is the persona, the mask, a medium of theatrical transformation. With his first appearance in the Roman Colosseum Maximus selects a mask-like metal helmet that is meant to conceal his true identity in the fateful meeting with emperor Commodus in the arena. At the same time it transforms him into that pure fighting machine, whose bloody craft is free of any emotion. Maximus literally become the avenging mythical half-god-hero of the ancient tragedy. Similar models appear in Scott’s other epic films like Kingdom of Heaven (2000) or Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014).
It is amazing how persistently those mythical motifs are being used in contemporary cinema. While in ancient drama the most horrific events, bloody body collisions, never took place on the stage, but were described mostly in speech and dialogue, narrative cinema brings those bloody rituals on the screen in graphic detail. While the ancient tragedies were based on ritual performances and mythical narration, a film like Gladiator refers back to both to confront the modern audiences with their desire for archaic, pagan and existential events. To achieve this goal Gladiator sticks to the means of the body cinema (movement and sensation) to evoke feelings and affects that under-represented in the Western industrial societies. Instead of ignoring and avoiding death and war, the film directly confronts the audience with these incidents on ritualistic and mythical level. Scott makes shameless use of the cultural image archive of Western culture, such as in the scene of the triumphal procession of the Emperor in Rome with image quotes from Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will (1934). Thus Ridley Scott’s epic adventure Gladiator may be seen as a prototype of post-modern neo-peplum cinema with a pagan edge, based on the ancient tragedy and the mythological narration alike.
As a conclusion I summarize the results of this analysis:
1. The classical and contemporary peplum cinema is linked in dramaturgy, construction and choice of subject to the mechanisms of the mythically structured classical tragedy.
2. Elements of classical tragedy actions such as the odyssey, the martyrdom, the regicide and the celebration of individual destruction, culminating in the victory of the community, can be found in the classical epic cinema and neo-peplum again.
3. While in classical era Hollywood films (1930s-60s) biblical salvation stories were dominant, this tendency gave way to a rather pagan perspective, which is meant to be accessible to all kinds of contemporary audiences, but also gives more space to archaic values and ultimately remains ideologically indifferent.
4. Pathos, martyrdom and even transcendence appear as key elements in these cinematic tragedies and appear to be in the service of a true conciliatory but very death-seeking plot construction. The constitution of the community is thereby chosen radically over the welfare of the individual.
Films like Gladiator or The Passion of the Christ (2003) and Apocalypto (2006) by Mel Gibson represent these strategies to seduce their audiences worldwide by serving the lust for mythical pathos of the tragic hero in face of death and destruction. Their ritualistic approach, resembling pre-theatrical forms of religious performance, grants international interest beyond any Christian agenda found in classical peplum films. Neo-peplum cinema like Gladiator is the rebirth of the ancient tragedy fueled by the rage of a pagan god of revenge.

1. Marcus Stiglegger, Ritual & Verführung. Schaulust, Spektakel und Sinnlichkeit im Film (Berlin: Bertz + Fischer, 2006), 26-28.
2. Friedrich Schiller, Vom Pathetischen und Erhabenen. Schriften zur Dramentheorie (Stuttgart: Reclam 1999), 48, translated by the author.
3. Gérard Schneilin, „Aktstruktur,“ in Theaterlexikon, eds. Manfred Brauneck / Gérard Schneilin (Reinbek: Rowohlt 1986), 1011ff., translated by the author.
4. René Girard. Violence and the Sacred (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press 1977), 152-154.

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Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. New York: Hill and Wang 1972.
Brauneck, Manfred / Schneilin, Gérard (eds.). Theaterlexikon. Reinbek: Rowohlt 1986.
Eliade, Mircea. Myths, Dreams and Mysteries. Trans. Philip Mairet. New York: Harper & Row 1967.
Frazer, James. The Golden Bough. One-volume abridgement. New York: Macmillan Company 1922.
Girard, René. Violence and the Sacred. Translated by Patrick Gregory. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press 1977.
Lévi-Strauss, Claude. Structural Anthropology. Trans. by Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepf. New York: Basic Books 1963.
Schiller, Friedrich. Vom Pathetischen und Erhabenen. Schriften zur Dramentheorie. Stuttgart: Reclam 1999.
Stiglegger, Marcus. Ritual & Verführung. Schaulust, Spektakel und Sinnlichkeit im Film. Berlin: Bertz + Fischer 2006.