Almost from cinema's infancy, the ancient world - and especially the world of the Bible - exerted an irresistible fascination over the new medium. As early as 1902, the ambitious Pathe company was presenting Vie et Passion de Notre Seigneur Jesus Christ in 12 tableaux, later expanded to 32. And almost as promptly, scholars and historians pounced on these productions with relish, happily enumerating the inaccuracies, distortions and downright howlers they detected.
Jeffrey Richards can't resist picking out a few of these choice blunders: the 1st-century BC priestess of Astarte in The Prodigal (1955) who lists the Caliph of Baghdad among her lovers; Elizabeth Taylor's Cleopatra making her entry into Rome through the Arch of Constantine. Not every solecism was the result of ignorance. Preparing his abortive I, Claudius, Josef von Sternberg was advised the Vestal Virgins were invariably six in number and modestly attired. "I want 60 and I want them naked!" Sternberg retorted.
Richards also comes down hard on inanely anachronistic dialogue in Nineties TV serials such as Xena, Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, whose characters ask: "Is everything okay, Jason?" or tell Zeus: "You've got to be kidding." But mostly he aims neither to mock nor condemn. Hollywood's Ancient Worlds offers the first serious English-language exploration - and in many cases, appreciation - of movie epics since Derek Elley's 1984 The Epic Film: Myth and History.
As Richards points out, the two earliest leading American exponents of the genre, D. W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille, were both former actors and playwrights, "Victorians steeped in the traditions and conventions of the melodrama stage". Those stage melodramas in turn drew on 19th-century British and American novels such as Edward Bulwer-Lytton's The Last Days of Pompeii and General Lew Wallace's Ben-Hur and, in visual terms, on artists such as the apocalyptic John Martin - whose panoramic, cast-of-thousands canvases anticipated CinemaScope - and the classical revivalists Frederic Leighton and Lawrence Alma-Tadema, with their scenes of everyday ancient life and decorously posed nudes.
Alma-Tadema in particular was famous for his scrupulous reproduction of background detail, trawling the latest archaeological findings for his depiction of ancient clothes, buildings and furniture. It was an example followed by DeMille, who employed armies of researchers to seek out authentic artefacts that could be used, or reproduced, in his films. But while going to endless pains to ensure his Romans, Egyptians or Jews drank out of the right goblets and wore historically correct earrings, he rarely seemed concerned that their dialogue and attitudes were blatantly of the modern age.
But then, as Richards makes clear, Hollywood's ancient-world epics have rarely been about the ancient world. From Griffith and DeMille onwards, their makers have used the spectacles and exotic trappings to make oblique comments on the modern world. They could well have echoed Alma-Tadema in his aim "to express in my pictures that the old Romans were flesh and blood like ourselves, moved by the same passions and emotions". Early in his career, DeMille often made his parallels plonkingly explicit. In Manslaughter (1922), the tale of a jazz-mad flapper succumbing to drunken debauchery is sandwiched around a flashback to the orgies of ancient Rome, and his 1923 version of The Ten Commandments used the events of Exodus as prologue to a crass modern-day parable of two brothers, a good one who follows the Commandments and prospers, and a bad one who breaks them all, contracts leprosy and dies in a shipwreck. It was films such as these that inspired E. C. Bentley's famous clerihew, much resented by its subject: "Cecil B. DeMille/By a mighty effort of will/Was persuaded to leave Moses/Out of The Wars of the Roses."
Later entries in the ancient-epic genre were a touch more subtle, but analogies to contemporary events were rarely hard to find. This was especially true in the high noontide of the Hollywood epic, the 1950s and early 1960s, to which Richards devotes more than half his book. The Roman Empire in particular furnished rich pickings. Sometimes, as in The Sign of the Pagan (1954) with Attila's hordes menacing Rome, the Empire stands for the US: the Cold War message being that, should the US succumb to disunity and lose sight of its Christian ideals, it risks conquest by barbarian forces from the East.
More frequently, though, Rome embodied tyranny, whether fascist or communist. Quo Vadis (1951), the film whose box-office bonanza kickstarted Hollywood's postwar epic cycle, deployed unmistakably fascistic imagery, with black-clad Pretorian guards giving Hitler salutes, while the military hero's triumphal procession, Richards observes, "looks to be modelled directly on Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will". In The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), whose disastrous failure put paid to Hollywood Roman epics for 35 years, the Empire, after the death of the humane Emperor Marcus Aurelius, turns into "the Soviet Union, a cruel, militarist, totalitarian tyranny". Peter Ustinov, who played a richly over-the-top Nero in Quo Vadis, felt that while the films were critical of the Empire, Americans subconsciously identified with the all-conquering Romans.
Freedom and humane values were almost always represented by Christians, struggling against Roman persecution - or by Jews resisting the oppression of Egypt (The Ten Commandments, 1956) or the Philistines (Samson and Delilah, 1949). And now and again, unexpectedly, left-wing sentiments crept in. In The Robe (1953), co-scripted by Albert Maltz, one of the Hollywood Ten who fell foul of the House Un-American Activities Committee, the Christian-persecuting Emperor Tiberius demands "I want names", a clear echo of McCarthyite tactics. Androcles and the Lion (1952) even included a weaselly Christian-hunter (not in Shaw's play) who goes round sniffing out subversives. "The enemy within," he mutters, "is just as real as the enemy without."
Epics, on the whole, have suffered a bad press, sneered at by reviewers as dull and vulgar. Richards aims to redeem the best of them from this blanket dismissal. He not only argues a case for such acknowledged standouts as Ben-Hur (1959), Spartacus (1960) and The Fall of the Roman Empire, but finds a good word for less regarded specimens, including Quo Vadis, The Robe - and even DeMille's fustian Samson and Delilah, despite its scenes of Victor Mature's Samson "struggling with a very obviously stuffed lion". (A pity that Richards omits Groucho Marx's comment, on Mature's teaming with Hedy Lamarr as Delilah, that "it's the first movie I've seen where the hero's tits are bigger than the heroine's".)
The book's final chapter considers "The Ancient world revival" of recent years. In cinematic terms, this really boils down to Ridley Scott's hugely successful Gladiator (2000). Subsequent attempts to follow Scott's lead - Troy (2004) and Alexander (2004) - have fallen woefully flat, while Mel Gibson's gory The Passion of the Christ (2004) repelled as many as it attracted. It may be that the future of Hollywood's ancient worlds lies on television; the Anglo-American double series Rome (2005-07) set a fine example for producers to emulate. But as Richards suggests, "the combination of spectacle, action, conflict, inspiration and larger-than-life characters will... be too potent and appealing for future film-makers to resist", and his excellent account will probably need updating.
Jeffrey Richards is professor of cultural history at Lancaster University, where he has taught for nearly 40 years since graduating from the University of Cambridge. Originally a medievalist, Richards has become one of the most respected historians of popular culture and in particular of the world of film, despite the fact he despises DVD players.
Brought up in Aston, Birmingham, Richards is a devoted supporter of Aston Villa, and even dedicated one of his books to the Villa squad at the time. Despite approaching retirement age, he calls the idea of retiring a "polite fiction".
A quick look at his interests in railways and 19th-century British music corroborates his profile in a student newspaper when he began at Lancaster as "19th century - so late that I'd missed it altogether and was forced to live in the 20th".
Hollywood's Ancient Worlds
By Jeffrey Richards
Continuum, 240pp, £25.00
Published 1 July 2008