Total Recall: The Rise And Fall Of Rome (In The Movies)

With The Eagle hitting theaters, we present a brief rundown of Roman history in cinema.


This weekend, Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell strap on their swords and sandals for Kevin Macdonald's adventure epic The Eagle, adding another chapter to Hollywood's decades-long fascination with the Roman Empire. The genre has had its ups and downs over the years, but it's never really gone away completely, and for good reason -- from goofy comedies to sweeping romances and blockbuster action adventures, it's a time period with something to offer film fans of all persuasions. To prove it, here's this week's feature: a fond (but by no means comprehensive) look back at some of our favorite films inspired by ancient Rome. We came, we saw, we Total Recalled!



After all these years (and so many movies), it isn't easy to make a Roman empire film that breaks new ground -- but it isn't impossible, as illustrated by 2009's Agora. Starring Rachel Weisz as Hypatia, a fourth-century philosopher and scholar who lived in Roman Egypt, Agora asked thought-provoking -- and depressingly timely -- questions about religious fundamentalism and gender roles. And even if it didn't pose them all as artfully as it could have (Tom Long of the Detroit News dismissed it as "something of a bore"), it still found favor with critics like Colin Covert of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, who wrote, "Some may consider Agora sound history, others may label it heresy, but I call it thumping good drama."



MGM's recent money troubles are nothing new -- the studio has teetered on the brink a few times, and they nearly went under in the late 1950s, only to be saved by the $15 million gamble known as Ben-Hur. Though not the first adaptation of Lew Wallace's 1880 novel, it was by far the most successful, grossing almost $100 million (in 1950s dollars!) and winning an astonishing 11 Academy Awards, a record that would remain unbroken until James Cameron's Titanic. With Charlton Heston's gravitas in the title role and a hefty 212-minute running time -- plus one of the most grandiose action scenes ever filmed -- critics and audiences couldn't help but be awed. As Phil Villarreal wrote for the Arizona Daily Star, "The film moves with an assurance and majesty hardly seen in modern movies."



Fittingly for a film about the reign of one of the Roman Empire's most infamous emperors, Caligula (don't call it Gore Vidal's Caligula or he'll sue you from beyond the grave) is a legendary filmmaking debacle. A whirling cesspool of lawsuits, disputed credits, assorted sundry cuts, it took the brave step of merging historical epic drama with hardcore pornography; perhaps unsurprisingly, most critics weren't all that impressed (Roger Ebert, no prude, walked out during his screening, and called it "sickening, utterly worthless, shameful trash"). Still, it has its defenders: Gregory Weinkauf admitted it was "Kinda dumb and tacky," but countered with, "at least it's a real movie."



If the storyline behind The Eagle seems familiar, it's because Neil Marshall's Centurion drew from the same well just last year. But as disappointing as these cases of lousy Hollywood timing can be, it's easy to see what filmmakers have found so fascinating about this story -- after all, it isn't every day that an entire legion of soldiers vanishes into an unsolvable riddle of history. In Marshall's mud-and-blood-fueled take on the story, a crew of stony-faced action vets (including Dominic West and Michael Fassbender) march off to war against the tenacious Picts, under orders to -- as the poster put it -- "fight or die." (Spoiler alert: They did plenty of both.) Centurion wasn't a huge hit, either with critics or filmgoers, but it's unapologetic bloodlust earned the approval of scribes such as Cary Darling of the Dallas Morning News, who deemed it "Far more entertaining, and infinitely less cumbersome, than its recent big-budget Hollywood counterparts."



You want an epic movie? How about this: 1963's Cleopatra was the highest-grossing film of the year, but it still lost money, thanks to the $44 million tab run up by 20th Century Fox and director Joseph L. Mankiewicz. It's all up there on the screen -- all four hours and five minutes of it, from Cleopatra's tryst with Caesar (Rex Harrison) to her affair with Marc Antony (Richard Burton) to her final showdown with Octavian (Roddy McDowall). Elizabeth Taylor may not have looked the part, but who else could have played Cleopatra? If and when Steven Soderbergh gets Angelina Jolie in front of the 3D cameras for his musical about the legendary Egyptian queen, she'll have some big eye makeup to fill -- but then again, most critics didn't think much of Cleopatra in the first place. Billy Mowbray of Film4 saw something many of his colleagues didn't, calling it "A giant of a movie that is sometimes lumbering, but ever watchable thanks to its uninhibited ambition, size and glamour."



By the late 1970s, swords and sandals epics were about as hip as musicals or Westerns -- and even those genres enjoyed periodic revivals during the 1980s and 1990s. It took Ridley Scott, Russell Crowe, and a little movie called Gladiator to reignite filmgoers' interest in ancient Rome, to the tune of over $450 million in worldwide box office and a whopping 12 Academy Award nominations (five of which it won, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Crowe). With a story strongly reminiscent of The Fall of the Roman Empire and Spartacus, Gladiator certainly wasn't anything new for Hollywood -- but after so many years away from the spotlight, tales of ancient Rome felt fresh again, and modern filmmaking techniques made it possible to present them more viscerally than ever. Michael Wilmington of the Chicago Tribune said as much in his review, declaring Gladiator "The most visually spectacular of all Roman Empire epics."


Brandon D.

Brandon Douglas


Feb 9 - 04:38 PM

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Feb 13 - 05:37 AM


Edward Rodriguez

Spartacus! Obviously! A Kubrick film is always the best.

Feb 9 - 04:46 PM

Robert T.

Robert Tiemstra

Maybe not always...

Feb 9 - 06:55 PM

Sultan R.

Sultan Ridwan

Definitely, not always.

Feb 10 - 04:16 PM


Lateralus Grates


Feb 10 - 05:33 PM

Roman Zolanski

Gaylord Focker

Eyes Wide Shut anyone...

Feb 10 - 11:24 PM


Stuart McCunn

Honestly, I love Kubrick but I think that Ben-Hur beats Spartacus on this one. I still love Spartacus but Ben-Hur just has so much more. Kubrick incidentally, was not happy with Spartacus. He didn't get the creative control he wanted since he was brought in as a replacement director and he ended up in a power struggle with Kirk Douglas and Howard Fast (the writer) about what direction to take the film in.

Feb 11 - 02:43 PM

mark w.

mark weistra

Ben-Hur better then Spartacus? Apart from the brilliant chariot race i found Ben-Hur to be boring and pompus. Kirk beats the crap out of mr. Heston.

Feb 12 - 12:32 PM


Richard Dempsey

Maybe history and movies should not mix. ONly a couple of these films were fresh.

Feb 9 - 04:52 PM

Sean Y.

Sean Y.

8 out of 11 of these have fresh meters.

Feb 9 - 04:53 PM

Jorge C.

Jorge Cossio

without history..what would movies be

Feb 10 - 12:28 AM

Sean Y.

Sean Y.

8 out of 11 of these have fresh meters.

Feb 9 - 04:53 PM

Mysterious F.

Mysterious F

Fellini Satyricon is the best of all of these.

Feb 9 - 04:54 PM

Earth Giant

Wayne Schenewerk

Yes, why isn't "Satyricon" on the list?

Feb 11 - 06:44 AM


Arend Anton

It is.

Feb 11 - 08:44 AM


Omar Siddiqui

I'm glad this list was made.

Thanks, RT. :)

Feb 9 - 05:19 PM

Joshua C.

Joshua Chilson

Agreed, this is a neat little list, I found it more interesting than most they put.

Feb 9 - 08:53 PM


Tyler Christian

Really love Gladiator. I have Ben-Hur on dvd, but I just don't have time to watch it.

Feb 9 - 06:03 PM

Alex L.

Alex Lavoie

We need more historical epics

Feb 9 - 06:43 PM

Yoni G.

Yoni Gottlieb


Feb 9 - 07:08 PM

Yoni G.

Yoni Gottlieb

I loved history of the world part 1 i don't know why it only has a 62 on the RT meter it is so freaking funny (blazing saddles is still his best movie though)

Feb 9 - 07:09 PM

Robert T.

Robert Tiemstra

Maybe not always...

Feb 9 - 06:55 PM

Sultan R.

Sultan Ridwan

Definitely, not always.

Feb 10 - 04:16 PM


Lateralus Grates


Feb 10 - 05:33 PM

Yoni G.

Yoni Gottlieb


Feb 9 - 07:08 PM

Yoni G.

Yoni Gottlieb

I loved history of the world part 1 i don't know why it only has a 62 on the RT meter it is so freaking funny (blazing saddles is still his best movie though)

Feb 9 - 07:09 PM

Randal Graves

Taylor White

why isn't this on the list? Dax Shepard is the man!

Feb 9 - 07:19 PM


kyle T

Look at the guy lazily hacking away behind Rachel Weisz around the time the narrator says "One Woman..." Reminds me of a part in Braveheart during one of the battle scenes.. haha

Feb 9 - 07:28 PM


Han Nguyen

Yeah, it's funny that most people who paid attention to Braveheart know exactly what you're talking about. That scene at the end of Stirling where the two guys just kind of go through the motions... "kids sword-fighting style" fighting.

Feb 10 - 01:20 PM


Kathryne C

Did anyone else think that Gladiator shouldn't have won/been nominated for Best Picture...

Feb 9 - 07:41 PM

Jorge C.

Jorge Cossio

Nominated? Yes. Won? Probably not. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was waayyyyyyyy too good to lose, and Ang Lee was denied as well. A very dissapointing year for Academy Awards.

Feb 10 - 12:37 AM


Harold Warren

I agree, I do not think it should have been nominated.

Feb 10 - 02:55 AM

Mysterious F.

Mysterious F

It's very terrible.

Feb 10 - 03:40 AM

Pee M.

Pee Murz

gladiator is not 'very terrible'.

Feb 15 - 12:20 AM


Andreas Babs

Even for best actor. Crowe was leagues better in A Beautiful Mind and should have won for that instead. I like Gladiator a lot, but Crouching Tiger was better. I think it was like The Departed. Scorsese has FAR better but he won for that. Same with Scott.

Feb 10 - 07:56 AM


Dre M.

For me, Crowe's best performance was as the multi-dimensional, women-protecting Officer Bud White in LA Confidential. And he didn't even receive an Oscar nom for that...sheesh!

Feb 10 - 12:16 PM



Good call, I also really enjoyed that movie. Guy Pearce and Crowe were nothing short of exceptional. Won't bother discussing Crowe's Oscar snub, it happens too often to too many people to even be considered to be accidental or a 'surprise' anymore.

Feb 10 - 02:44 PM

jay b.

jay bow

Have to agree with you there. Still Gladiator was an awesome movie and deserved to be nominated

Feb 13 - 11:09 AM

George Patchell

George Patchell

Nominated def. I just rewatched it on Blu-Ray and its a great film, but Best Picture probably should have gone to Traffic. That's back when Soderbergh was my favourite director. I even did a presentation on him in drama in high school, everyone else did like cameron and hitchcock and no one had heard of soderbergh. And while others picked famous scenes from films like psycho I focussed on the colour tones used for Michael Douglas' character in Traffic. Sorry got carried away but its just a great film. I think it prob should have won ahead of Gladiator

Feb 10 - 08:01 AM


dethburger hates Flixster

Its a remake though its also a truly great film.

Feb 10 - 05:11 PM


Patrick Gilliland

You could do this for any year and folks would disagree with the winner. Gladiator is one of my all time favs, so I can't agree on this one. There are several I shake my head at... the biggest being "Shakespeare in Love" over "Saving Private Ryan"... Ugh

Feb 12 - 06:37 PM

Over the Rising Sun

Simeon Deutsch


Feb 9 - 08:05 PM

Top Hat

John Miller

How could you omit Buster Keaton's crowning achievement? I refer of course to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

Feb 9 - 08:12 PM

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