Twelve Best Torch and Toga Movies
Where ancient history and modern spectacle meet
Movies about ancient history are lots of fun to watch. And if you’re old enough, you grew up watching Torch and Toga movies produced in the 1950s and ‘60s, perhaps the golden age of such American and English flicks. Many are epic in scope, show great production values and provide lots of popcorn-eating swordplay, handsome brawny men and beautiful women.
Please keep in mind, this list only includes movies about ancient history, that is, the Roman Empire, considered late antiquity, as well as older times, though not as far back as the Stone Age. It also doesn’t include fantasy movies with little or no basis in world history (no Lord of the Rings trilogy). Each movie has at least some historical, religious or mythological basis, their stories referring to incidents and passages in books such as the Twelve Caesars, the Iliad , the Odyssey , the Epic of Gilgamesh or, of course, the Bible.
It also doesn’t include foreign language films such as the Italian-made Hercules or the Sons of Hercules series. Since the author has seen few of these so-called Sword and Sandal movies, it wouldn’t be fair to include them on this modest list.
Please keep reading!
12. The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
A list such as this wouldn't be complete without at least one movie about Jesus Christ. One of the more controversial ones is The Last Temptation of Christ, directed by Martin Scorsese and based on a novel by Nikos Kazantzakis. Starring Willem Dafoe as Jesus, the story is based on the canonical Gospels and perhaps the Gnostic Gospels as well. While Jesus dies on the cross, an angel frees him and then lets him live the life of an average man. Jesus marries Mary Magdalene and has many children. During his old age, Jesus discovers that the angel that freed him was actually Satan. So during the First Jewish Revolt, while Jerusalem is torched by the Romans, Jesus returns to Golgotha and begs God to let him fulfill his destiny by dying on the cross, a wish God grants him.
In recent years, the film’s plot has gained resonance as Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code revived the tale of Jesus Christ’s possible marriage to Mary Magdalene.
11. Troy (2004)
Of course, no such list would be complete without at least one flick about Greek mythology. Based on Homer’s the Iliad , an adventure tale of the Mycenaean Greeks, circa 1200 B.C.E., the movie stars Brad Pitt as Achilles, who joins Agamemnon to free Helen, wife of King Menelaus, adducted by Paris and taken to Troy, which lies on the eastern side of the Aegean Sea. Pondering his involvement in the Trojan War, Achilles asks his mother Thetis for advice. Thetis, knowing this day would come, tells her son that if he wants to be remembered for all time, he must fight and die in the Trojan War. Desiring glory naturally, Achilles sallies forth, eventually entering Troy with the aid of the legendary Trojan Horse, designed by Odysseus, thus winning the battle for King Menelaus and freeing Helen.
This very expensive movie ($175 million), which may have taken liberties with Greek mythology, was not loved by all critics.
10. Barabbas (1961)
One of many biblical epics on this list, this movie is the story of Barabbas, the thief who is set free by the people (according to local custom) instead of Jesus Christ, soon to be crucified. Based on a Nobel-prize winning novel by Pärs Lagerkvist, the film stars Anthony Quinn as Barabbas, who, once freed, returns to his wife Rachel, who has become a Christian. Barabbas then goes to see the crucifixion and later Christ’s empty tomb. Eventually, Barabbas assaults some Jewish priests, who had stoned his fanatical wife to death, and the Romans sentence him to life in the sulfur mines of Sicily.
Twenty years later, an earthquake frees Barabbas, who soon becomes a gladiator in Rome, where he fights the top gladiator played by Jack Palance. Barabbas defeats Palance and is given his freedom by emperor Nero. Barabbas becomes a Christian, but is arrested by the Romans for trying to spread the fire that strikes Rome (perhaps started by Nero). Then Barabbas, now a Christian, is finally crucified by the Romans.
9. Ulysses (1954)
Ulysses is based on Homer’s epic poem the Odyssey , the tale of Odysseus (Ulysses as the Romans regarded him), who tries to find his way home after his part in the ten-year Trojan War. Starring Kirk Douglas as Ulysses, the story shows Ulysses as he battles various monsters and wily foes, as he and his crew sail about the Mediterranean Sea, trying to find Ulysses' way back to Ithaca, where his wife Penelope fends off the advances of scores of suitors hoping to marry her and take Ulysses’ wealth. Ulysses escapes the dreaded Cyclops, the Sirens of Sirenum Scopuli, Scylla and Charybdis and Circe the Sorceress. But he can’t avoid a shipwreck, which kills all his men. Now the lone survivor, Ulysses eventually returns to Ithaca, where he smites all of Penelope’s suitors and regains his throne.
8. Demetrius and the Gladiators (1954)
The movie Demetrius and the Gladiators proves that sequels can be very good, perhaps even better than the original. Based on the story and characters of The Robe, starring Richard Burton and Jean Simmons, the plot is about Demetrius (Victor Mature), who, after being given the robe of Christ in The Robe, must pass it on to Saint Peter. Maniacal Emperor Caligula, hoping the robe has the power of life over death, takes the robe from Demetrius. In the struggle, Demetrius assaults a Roman soldier and Caligula sentences him to fight in the arena.
Demetrius’ wife Lucia sneaks into gladiator school, hoping to see Demetrius. Other gladiators accost her and she is accidentally killed by one of them. In the arena, Demetrius avenges the death of his wife, fighting his wife’s killers all at once. After Demetrius wins this spectacular battle, he renounces his faith in Christ, and then Caligula makes him a Tribune. Also winning the affection of Messalina, wife of Claudius, she and Demetrius have an affair. Eventually Claudius has Caligula assassinated. A benevolent fellow, Claudius allows Demetrius to return to his Christian friends and vows that Christians have nothing to fear from him.
7. The Ten Commandments (1956)
You just can’t compile one of these lists without including at least one biblical epic directed by the legendary Cecil B. DeMille. De Mille, who had directed a silent version of The Ten Commandments in 1923, simply had to do a sound version. Based on the Book of Exodus, the movie highlights a stellar cast, led by Charlton Heston as Moses and Yul Brynner as Pharaoh Ramses II. As the well-known story goes, Moses leads the Jewish slaves from Egypt, while Ramses pursues him. Moses’ parting of the Red Sea is certainly a memorable scene, as are many other faith-oriented ones. Fans of the Bible probably can’t get enough of this sprawling, theatrical spectacle.
DeMille, who remarked how stressful it was making these very expensive epic movies, never made another movie after The Ten Commandments, one of the most financially successful movies of all time.
6. Alexander the Great (1956)
Alexander the Great is one of the most impressive historical personalities of all time. Just about everybody knows who he was, and to this day military strategists try to emulate his battlefield acumen. In this version of the story, Richard Burton stars as Alexander III, who, as a twenty-year-old, sprang from the tiny country of Macedon and conquered much of the known world (at least the Persian Empire), then died young of malaria – or perhaps poisoning by his generals - in 323 B.C.E.
Made in the prudish 1950s, the movie avoids any homosexual subject matter, contrary to Oliver Stone’s version, Alexander, made in 2004. Both stories provide a great deal of historical accuracy and show much battlefield action as well as insights into Alexander’s complex and volatile character. So, which movie is better? You tell me.
5. Samson and Delilah (1949)
Adapted from the Book of Judges, Samson and Delilah, may be the greatest biblical epic of all time. Another such offering directed by Cecil B. DeMille, the movie stars Victor Mature as Samson and Hedy Lamarr as Delilah. Most people know the story. Once Delilah drugs Samson, she shears off his long locks, after which he loses his great strength. Hoping to make Samson even less of a threat, the Philistines burn out his eyes. Samson gets revenge against the Philistines by destroying the Temple of Dagon, though he kills himself along with his enemies.
Incidentally, this was Hedy Lamarr’s last great picture and perhaps the finest of her glamorous career. At the time, Hedy, in her middle thirties, was beginning to lose parts to younger actresses.
4. Gladiator (2000)
The next movie on the list was credited with reviving the Torch and Toga epics. Directed by Ridley Scott, Gladiator stars reputed tough guy Russell Crowe, who plays Roman General Maximus Decimus Meridius. Maximus gets into trouble because of his loyalty to Emperor Marcus Aurelius, whose son Commodus wants his father’s throne. Commodus murders his father and then tries to do the same with Maximus, but he escapes. However, Commodus succeeds in murdering Maximus’ wife and son. Slavers then nab Maximus and take him to North Africa, where he’s trained as a gladiator.
Maximus eventually makes it back to Rome, where he fights in the Colosseum and, due to his heroic fighting ability, wins over the citizens of Rome. He then shows Commodus who he is. Enraged by Maximus’ popularity, Commodus challenges him to a duel in the arena. Maximus kills Commodus but dies shortly thereafter. However, with his dying words, Maximus returns power to the Roman Senate, frees the slaves and, in a dream sequence, reunites with his family in the afterlife.
3. Ben-Hur (1959)
Ben-Hur cleaned up at the Oscars, winning 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture (only two other movies have won as many Oscars.) Starring Charlton Heston, the story revolves around the life of Ben-Hur, a Jewish merchant in Jerusalem. When a tile falls from Ben-Hur’s house, nearly killing the Roman governor of Judea, Ben-Hur’s Roman friend and military tribune, Messala, condemns him to life in the galleys and also sends his mother and sister to prison. (Ben-Hur has much influence with the troublesome Jews of Judea, warranting this severe penalty.)
After Ben-Hur lives for three years as a galley slave, he finally regains his freedom when he fights heroically during a naval battle with Macedonian pirates. He then goes to Rome and becomes an expert Charioteer. Eventually Ben-Hur races against his nemesis, Messala. This chariot race is one of the most exciting and authentic confrontations in the history of American cinema. Once Ben-Hur defeats Messala, he frees his mother and sister from prison, where they have contracted leprosy, and then they all return to Judea. There they watch the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, who cures Ben-Hur’s leprous mother and sister.
2. I, Claudius (1976)
This work is the only television series on the list. Perhaps it doesn’t belong here, but it’s so good it simply has to go somewhere. I, Claudius was produced by BBC Television and based on the book of the same name by Robert Graves. It was shown in the U.S. as part PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre. Starring Derek Jacobi as Claudius, it chronicles the existence of Emperor Claudius, who - as the story goes anyway - comes to power simply because the Praetorian Guard of Rome thinks he’ll be easily manipulated. Well, Claudius proves them wrong, becoming one of the most effective autocrats in the history of the Roman Empire.
This dramatic production, which actually contains a fair amount of comedy, is the perhaps the greatest drama series in the history of television. The acting, direction, set decoration and camera work are without peer. (The next time you see it, marvel at what they do with just one camera.) No superlatives can match this tour de force. If you haven’t seen it, do so right now. Hey, don’t miss John Hurt’s peerless portrayal of Caligula!
1. Spartacus (1960)
Spartacus is a tale of slavery in the Roman Empire. Kirk Douglas plays Spartacus and Laurence Olivier plays Crassus, a Roman general determined to capture and execute Spartacus. The director is Stanley Kubrick, who, at the young age of 30, got the job because Douglas picked him! The stellar cast is truly impressive: Sean Simmons as the wife of Spartacus, Charles Laughton, Tony Curtis, John Ireland and many other notables. Moreover, the production values in this film are unequaled and the fight scenes riveting and unforgettable.
Perhaps the greatest scene in the movie is toward the end when the Romans have captured Spartacus and many of his chief compatriots. Since the Romans can’t recognize Spartacus, Crassus promises all the men they won’t be harmed if they identify Spartacus or his body. Spartacus begins to stand and identify himself, but then, one by one, all his men stand and cry, “I’m Spartacus!” Crassus then condemns them all to death by crucifixion. Anyone who watches this awesome scene will never forget it.
Just thinking about the greatest of Spartacus can give a person the chills! Does it do that to you?
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© 2011 Kelley Marks