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The Ancient World in Silent Cinema

Maria Wyke (UCL) & Pantelis Michelakis (University of Bristol)

This 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.  

Siege

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 was set and the directions for research formulated in the introduction to a collection of essays which was 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]) were 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 and with colleagues across Europe.

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
Film screenings of silent antiquity films have been held regularly since 2009 in London and Bristol, Italy and Greece, the USA and Australia among other countries. Details of upcoming screenings will be included here.

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 >>