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The Ancient World in Silent Cinema

Silent film screening (with piano accompaniment) and discussion, Entering the Ancient World through Silent Cinema, on Saturday 21st November 2015, 2 to 6pm at The Cinema Museum, London. Part of the Being Human Festival.

Details of programme tba.

Research project:

This research project aims to produce the first large-scale, radically interdisciplinary and collaborative study of representations of ancient civilisations in silent cinema and to establish new understandings both of cinema’s fascination with the past and of the appeal of ancient civilisations in modern times.  


In the first four decades of cinema, more than a thousand films were made across Europe and North America that drew their inspiration from the ancient civilisations of Greece, Rome, Egypt and the Middle East. Few of these films have ever been studied, and even fewer have received the critical attention of film historians, cultural historians or those working on the modern reception of ancient civilisations. Film histories and databases usually reproduce only their titles devoid of subject matter, cultural context and historical significance. While the strong cinematic interest in the ancient Mediterranean since the 1950s has resulted in a steady flow of publications, the breadth and persistence of fascination with ancient civilisations in the first decades of cinema has largely been ignored. The films in question, ranging from historical and mythological epics, to adaptations of Greek tragedy, Passion plays, cartoons, comedies and documentaries, suggest a preoccupation with antiquity that competes in intensity and breadth with that of Hollywood’s classical era. We have estimated that more than 400 of the films survive in archival collections in the UK and elsewhere. The large number of existing prints as well as production stills, screenplays, press books, reviews, and other ephemera constitute an enormous and rich volume of material that awaits integrated exploration and analysis.

Caesar accepts the surrender of Vercingetorix. Guazzoni’s Cajus Julius Caesar (1914). Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The significant presence of ancient civilisations in silent cinema opens up a number of research questions that are pertinent not only to film history and curatorship but also to classical and religious studies, Egyptology and Middle-Eastern studies, as well as to broader cultural studies: 

•    Why did a medium so closely and self-consciously linked with modern life develop such a strong interest in antiquity from its very beginning? 

•    How should antiquity films be situated within silent cinema and in relation to later and more dominant forms of cinema such as classical Hollywood? 

•    What inter-relationships do the films in question have with other conceptualizations of classical antiquity between 1896 and 1928? 

•    What contribution did the worlds of antiquity make to early film? 

•    How did those ancient worlds change upon their encounter with the new art form? 

•    What contemporary aesthetic and political interests did cinema’s ancient civilisations serve?

No research project of this kind concerning the broad intersections of antiquity and early cinema has been attempted before. An agenda has been set and the directions for research formulated in the introduction to a collection of essays that will be published in 2013 (Antiquity in Silent Cinema, eds. Michelakis and Wyke). Screenings of sample prints from the archives (such as Samson et Dalila [1902], La morte di Socrate [1909], Cléopatre [1910], Wanted a Mummy [1910], Lo schiavo di Cartagine [1910], L’ Odissea [1911], and Vie de Jesus [1905-1914]) have been organized on both sides of the Atlantic and accompanied by discussion with panel experts and members of the public. And preliminary surveys have been undertaken in the collections of archives in Europe and North America and in the ‘Joye collection’ of the British Film Institute, where the largest number of relevant film prints survives in perilous condition but also in a culturally unique situation: housed in a British national film archive but originally assembled by a Swiss Jesuit, these films are largely Italian or French in origin yet carry German intertitles. Research is now to be extended more widely, pursued in depth and developed in close collaboration between a number of disciplines.

Digital copies of silent films in the UCL library
A number of early silent films set in ancient Greece or Rome from the British Film Institute Joye collection have been digitised and placed in the libraries of UCL and the State University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (funded by both libraries and by Professor Jon Solomon). The UCL copies are available for viewing in the Audiovisual Viewing Room in the Main Library.
Here is a list of silent films set in antiquity available for viewing in the UCL library

Film screenings
A screening of two rarely seen yet remarkable silent feature films brought over especially from the archives of EYE (the Netherlands Film Institute) took place at the UCL Bloomsbury Theatre on Friday 3rd May 2013. Two beautifully coloured early feature films were screened in the late afternoon and evening, with musical accompaniment by Stephen Horne, and explanatory talks from Pantelis Michelakis and Maria Wyke: L' Odissea (Italy, 1911, dir. Francesco Bertolini, Adolfo Padovan & Giuseppe de Liguoro, studio Milano Films) 39min; Cajus Julius Caesar (Italy, 1914 dir. Enrico Guazzoni, studio Cines) 111min.

Another screening was held on Saturday 15th November 2014 at the Birkbeck cinema as part of the BeingHuman festival. Films shown include: Jupiter’s Thunderbolts (dir. George Méliès, France, 1903), ‘Serpentine dance’ by imitator of Loie Fuller (Pathé Frères, France, 1905), The Island of Calypso; or, Odysseus and the Giant Polyphemus (dir. George Méliès, France, 1905), A modern Sappho (American Mutoscope & Biograph, USA, 1905), Dans l’Hellade (Pathé Frères, France, 1909), The Twelve Labours of Hercules (dir.  Emile Cohl, Gaumont, France, 1910), From Death to Life (Rex Motion Picture Company, USA, 1911), Dances of the Ages (J. Searle Dawley, Thomas A. Edison Inc., USA, 1913), Some Statue (George Kleine Productions, USA, 1917), The Magic of Spring (Thomas A. Edison, Inc., USA, 1917), Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei or The Last Days of Pompeii (dir Luigi Maggi, Ambrosio, Italy, 1908); Il ratto delle Sabine or The Rape of the Sabine Women(dir. Ugo Falena, Pathé-Frères / Film d’arte italiana, Italy 1910); L’orgie Romaine or The Roman Orgy (dir. Louis Feuillade, Gaumont, France, 1911); Agrippina (dir. Enrico Guazzoni, Cines, Italy, 1911).

A one-day workshop on early films associated with ancient Greece and Rome was held on Saturday 31 January 2015 at the British Museum. Films included La tentatione de Saint Antoine or The temptation of St Antony (1898, Georges Méliès), La Sirène or The Mermaid (1903, Georges Méliès), Le ressentiment de Diane (1910, Pathé), Creon y Mirtyl (190?, France?), La vestale or The vestal (1910, Albert Capellani), Heliogabale (1910, André Calmettes), Le fils de Locuste or The son of Locusta (1911, Louis Feuillade), La Caduta di Troia or The Fall of Troy (1911, Giovanni Pastrone), Une excursion dans la Grèce antique or An excursion in ancient Greece (1913, Pathé), A travers les ruines de la Rome antique or Through the ruins of ancient Rome (1914, Pathé), Excursions aux ruines romaines d’ampurias or Excursion to the Roman ruins of Ampurias (1911), Oil and Water (1913, D. W. Griffith), L’etoile du genie (1913, Ferdinand Zecca and Rene Leprince).

For further information on the research project and on future screenings, please contact Maria Wyke.

•    Caesar in the USA & Antiquity in Silent Cinema (23 December 2012): short film >>

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