The vast majority of recent ‘Classical’ movies are, almost universally, completely mangled versions of the Classical history/mythology/literature on which they were supposedly based, without even the potentially redeeming feature of decent acting (I’m thinking of ‘Troy‘, ‘300‘, ‘Centurion‘…I’m sure you can fill in others). Classical movies from several decades ago, on the other hand, are, almost universally, completely mangled versions of the Classical history/mythology/literature on which they were supposedly based, without even the potentially redeeming feature of decent acting…and yet possessed of a certain vintage charm that somehow makes them utterly hilarious and hugely entertaining to watch.
In our never-ending quest to bring our readers the best in home entertainment, therefore, Res Gerendae‘s dedicated team of film critics selflessly set out to investigate and judge a series of cult Classics films – broadly defined as films relating (or claiming to relate) in some way to Greek or Roman history or mythology, dating from the 1950s-1980s. Ladies and gentlemen, without further ado, I give you – the Cult Classics Oscars!
Helen of Troy (1956) A version of the Trojan War story focusing on Paris and Helen.
The 300 Spartans (1961) The Cold War version of Thermopylae. Nothing at all like ‘300’, fortunately.
Hercules vs. Moloch (1963) A guy who isn’t really Hercules goes to Mycenae to fight the god Moloch, who isn’t really a god. It’s complicated.
Jason and the Argonauts (1963) Famous for Ray Harryhausen’s animated fighting skeletons.
Clash of the Titans (1981) The original: loosely based on the story of Perseus and Andromeda.
Hercules Returns (1993) Australian comedy remake of an Italian sixties sword-and-sandals movie. Strictly speaking, slightly too recent to be included here, but too good to leave out.
Best actor: Not awarded. The cast member in any of the above films judged best able to convey a range of subtle expressions of emotion was Bubo (Clash of the Titans), who was deemed ineligible for this award due to being a stop-motion animated owl.
Best costumes: Hercules vs. Moloch. Awarded on three criteria: most impressive armour (the helmet made out of a cross between a leopard and a fish was a particular favourite, as were the giant helmet-plumes); shortest tunic-skirts on male characters; and most impractical chiffon dresses on female characters (the latter two being general features of all the contenders, leading to a very close competition).
Alarmingly short skirt.
Special mention: Jason and the Argonauts, for its Colchian knitted hats and Medea’s psychedelic priestess-of-Hekate makeup.
Best set: Clash of the Titans, for its truly splendid portrayal of the city of Jaffa (in modern Israel) as a cross between Knossos, Persepolis, and Halicarnassus.
Jaffa, featuring Assyrian griffins and the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus
Special mention goes to Helen of Troy, whose Troy appeared to be basically Knossos on steroids — think rows of horns of consecration on every single wall.
Best special effects: Ray Harryhausen, for both Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans. This isn’t really a fair contest; as the pioneer of stop-motion animation, the creator of Jason and the Argonauts’ fighting skeletons, Talos, and Poseidon and Clash of the Titans’ Kraken, Medusa, and Bubo the owl was always going to win this one hands-down.
The famous skeleton army. Watch the whole scene here.
Best fight scene: Obviously this ought to go to the skeleton fight in Jason and the Argonauts, but since that’s already won the animation prize this one is shared between The 300 Spartans (for the scene in which the Spartans invade the Persian camp with as much subtlety as a sledgehammer, and only fail to assassinate Xerxes due to him being in his girlfriend Artemisia’s tent instead of his own); Helen of Troy, for the most inept invasion of a city ever carried out; and Hercules Returns, for a splendid fight in a paddling pool.
Most annoying romantic couple: Phylon and Ellas, The 300 Spartans. ‘Drippy’ does not even begin to describe them, and you don’t even get the consolation of watching them die at Thermopylae.
Creepiest romantic couple: Perseus and Andromeda, Clash of the Titans. Andromeda appears to shift between being about 20 years old (ok), 16 years old (not really ok), and 12 years old (definitely not ok). The scene in which Perseus wins her love by declaring that he’s been creeping into her bedroom to watch her while she’s asleep is even more disturbing. Readers: do not try this at home.
Best Olympian gods: Jason and the Argonauts, whose gods dematerialise in a flash of smoke and blue light, startle people’s horses by jumping out of bushes, and in between spend their time in a sitcom on Mount Olympus, competing against each other to influence events on earth by playing board games. (Incidentally, I’ve been trying to find out what the origin of this motif is, but haven’t yet been able to find any example earlier than this: if anyone knows whether this really is its first occurrence, or what its source was, I’d love to hear!)
Special mention: Clash of the Titans, for the roles of Zeus and Thetis. Laurence Olivier and Maggie Smith, respectively, must cringe whenever they remember being in this film. Still, there are some nice touches: Zeus plays with little clay models of the human characters, in a nice meta-reference to Harryhausen’s animation; he also gets blue disco lights around his head, while the scene in which Thetis manifests herself in the severed head of her cult statue is unforgettable.
Best musical performance: Hercules, Hercules Returns, for his moving and powerful rendition of ‘My Way’.
Best dubbing: shared between Hercules Returns (whose entire plot centres on the live-dubbing of an Italian B-movie by three Australian cinema managers) and Hercules vs. Moloch (which wins entirely unintentionally, due to dubbing so careless that characters occasionally went on talking long after the actor onscreen had clearly ‘died’).
Best political allegory: The 300 Spartans, for its stirring call on ‘free peoples everywhere’ to remember the glorious legacy of Thermopylae and resist all threats to democracy from Persians/Russians. Did I mention that the Spartans are all Americans, while Themistocles is British?
And finally…Best film: Entirely predictably, I’m going to award this to Jason and the Argonauts, almost certainly the most well-know cult Classics movie and the one that has most claim to be really iconic. It’s got terrible acting, short skirts, even shorter loincloths, bizarre outfits worn by non-Greeks, an implausibly happy ending, a completely messed-up but still recognisable mythological story-line, brilliant gods and of course Harryhausen’s animations – every possible ingredient of a great cult Classics film in one.
But there are obviously plenty more of these films out there that your reviewing team has yet to watch. Have you got a favourite we’ve missed out? Do you think I’ve unjustly underrated Hercules vs. Moloch? Let us know in the comments!