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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.

Free tickets available from eventbrite.


Session 1 

2 pm to 3.45 pm: 35 mm films from the British National Film Archive 

* Though Your Sins Be As Scarlet (dir. Charles Kent, Vitagraph, USA, 1911) c 8 mins. BFI Synopsis: Lydia, a Roman courtesan, refuses the caresses of a Roman man. A leper passes by, seeking the Son of God. Lydia laughs at him, but later, at an orgy, she experiences pangs of remorse and dismisses the guests. Exchanging her finery for a plain garment, she preaches the forgiveness of sins to some wanton revellers, but is mocked. They fall silent as Christ passes by. Lydia is tempted to drink to Bacchus at another orgy, but again repents as Christ passes by. She sets off in search of Christ, taking her directions from three women, but arrives at Golgotha to find him crucified. An angel stands at the Tomb and Lydia kisses the robe.

* Saint Cecilia or Santa Cecilia (dir. Enrique Santos, Cines, Italy, 1911) c 13 mins. BFI Synopsis: Unknown to her parents, Cecilia, a Roman patrician, has become a Christian. She has two suitors for her hand, Valerianus and Lentulus. Cecilia promises to marry Valerianus if he converts to Christianity. Later, Lentulus sees Valerianus enter the catacombs to be baptised by Bishop Urbanus and denounces him to the Prefect, who orders his arrest. Cecilia and Valerianus are married according to Roman law, but during the nuptial banquet, Valerianus is torn from his wife and dragged before the Senate. Here he proudly affirms that he is a Christian and is sentenced to death. Cecilia claims the body of her husband and it is reverently laid to rest in the catacombs. As she leaves the catacombs she is arrested on suspicion of being a Christian and, refusing to pay homage to the gods, suffers martyrdom.

*The White Slave or Idylle corinthienne (dir. Louis Feuillade, Gaumont, France, 1909) c 15 minutes. BFI Synopsis: A young shepherd drives his sheep through the courtyard of a house in Corinth. He stops to place a garland round the neck of a bust of the God of love and turns to find the object of his affections, a young servant girl, coming down the steps. They embrace and do obeisance to the god of love. As the girl dances before the statue to the music of the shepherd's flute, she is seen and bought by a Moorish slave merchant. In the slave market of Alexandria she is sold again to a rich citizen who wishes to marry her. He lavishes every attention on her but, grieving for her lost love, she will not respond. To distract her from her grief her master gives a great fete in her honour with music and dancing. Among the musicians is the shepherd who has followed his love to Alexandria. At a given moment he begins to play the tune he had played in Corinth and the slave girl immediately begins to dance. As she dances nearer to him they recognise each other and in a moment she is in his arms. Her master, in spite of his own shattered hopes, sets her at liberty and the lovers embark for Corinth. In the courtyard at Corinth they again do obeisance to the God of Love and garland him with flowers and the slave girl dances for joy.

* Slave of Phydias or L’Esclave de Phydias (dir. Léonce Perret, Gaumont, France, 1916/17) c 35 mins BFI Synopsis: Sculptor Phydias searches for a divine model for a statue of Venus. Callyce, his slave girl, is in love with him, but her advances are rejected until she makes an offering of love flowers to one of the deities. Phydias embraces her, but their passionate encounter is seen by the sculptor's wife, Quinta. She has Callyce beaten, but Phydias saves her from further punishment. Quinta then steals the sacred gold set aside for the proposed statue of Venus, and publicly accuses her husband of the theft. He is arrested. Callyce goes in search of him, playing her lyre. From his prison cell Phydias hears her music. He is sentenced to exile. Quinta meanwhile watches a display of dancing by slave girls. Phydias is led into exile by a mounted guard of soldiers, followed by the faithful Callyce, who succours him when he collapses. At nightfall, by the sea, he bids farewell to Greece and is embraced by Callyce. On a boat they approach Elide, the road of oblivion. [Hervé Dumont notes the Parthenon was reconstructed in Nice, at the Villa Maryland, in antique Italian gardens planted with cedars and cypress.]

3.45 pm to 4.15 pm tea/coffee break

Session 2 

4.15pm to 6pm: digital copies of prints from Parisian and Italian archives

 * Pygmalion and Galatea or Pygmalion et Galathée (dir. Georges Méliès, Star Film, France, 1898) c. 1 min. Synopsis: A sculptor’s statue comes to life but falls to pieces as he tries to embrace her/it.

 *Dido Abandoned or Didone Abbandonata (dir. Luigi Maggi, Ambrosio, Italy, 1910). c 10 mins. Original programme: The Trojans, led by Aeneas, are shipwrecked on the cost of Africa and are taken prisoner by the amazons of the Queen of Carthage, Dido. She orders their immediate execution but Aeneas recounts their past sufferings. Feeling the birth of love, Dido frees them. Gradually Aeneas cedes to the queen’s love and forgets his high destiny. The queen refuses the hand of king Iarbas. [The ghost of Aeneas’ father appears to him in a dream and orders him to leave. Aeneas’ departs in secret.] The amazons repel an attack by the soldiers of Iarbas. [Dido sees the sails of Aeneas’ ships disappearing and, while the battle rages, sets fire to her palace and throws herself into the flames.]

 *Cleopatra or Cléopâtre (dir. Ferdinand Zecca & André Andreani, Pathé Frères, France, 1910). c 17 mins. Original Gaumont Pathé summary: This film, which inaugurates a new ‘Série d’Art’, shows us the celebrated queen of Egypt from the period when she seeks to seduce Mark Antony, conqueror and governor of the Orient. She goes to meet him in a ship of silver oars, with sails of silk and purple. Dazzled by this elegant woman, who spoke six languages and could stand up to him in orgies, Mark Antony forgot everything and became the tool of this ambitious queen. Now began the inimitable life in which excesses and fantasies of all sorts were pushed to a fantastic height and of which we see the reflection in the feast at the palace of Tarsus. Mark Antony began to forget that he was Roman: he led a rebellion and pursued Octavian who reproached him for his desertion. The latter resolved to finish with his rival and, having raised the Roman legions, declared war on him. Cleopatra armed a considerable fleet and the encounter took place near Actium. But in secret Cleopatra betrayed Antony who killed himself. Not wanting to serve as an adornment of Octavian’s triumph, Cleopatra had an asp brought to her hidden in a pannier of figs.

 * The conquest of Gaul or La conquête des Gaules (dir. Marcel Yonnet and Yan B. Dyl, France, 1922). c 53 mins. Contemporary film magazine plot summary: Jean Fortier has designed an epic film that will retrace the Conquest of the Gauls, but when – estimate in hand – he comes to ask his financial sponsor for 300,000 Francs, the latter, logically, replies: “Because you need 300,000 Francs to shoot 3,000 metres of film, with these 30,000 Francs shoot for me the Conquest of the Gauls in 300 metres”. And, well, as if the word ‘impossible’ did not exist, Jean Fortier sets to work. We thus witness the odyssey of a film, more exactly the miseries of a director who, in reality, has only his faith to sustain him. His faith and a labourer, who fulfills the functions of a prop man and who, because he also has suffered much, understands the pain of Fortier when he discovers the idyll sketched by the director’s wife with a guitar player while the director is too absorbed by the difficulties of his profession to notice.

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).

The UCL Department of Greek and Latin gratefully acknowledges the generous support of the A.G. Leventis Foundation.  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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