"My Sword and Sandals, Please!"

In childhood, while many of my friends were off at ballet and tap lessons, I was parked  too close to the Zenith  console, mesmerized — whenever I was lucky enough to find them — by sword-and-sandals pictures. You know, those black-and-white Italian imports boasting muscular heroes,  bouffant-coiffed  heroines in chiffon, and daring fight scenes.  So what the words didn’t match the lip movements? They were capital G-lamorous!

Over the years my cinematic taste expanded and, I hope, improved. So here, in no particular order — because really, who could play favorites? — is a list of my favorite S & S epics, starting with …

Caesar, Cleopatra, Mark Antony, meet Eddie, Liz, and Dick. Was there enough on-screen and off-screen drama in this production or what?  Nonetheless, a faithful rendering of history, right down to Mark Antony’s abbreviated pteruges. Wardrobe note: Taylor’s gold dress was really just that — pure, actual  24 carat gold — probably like the original in Cleo’s closet.  And her character, BTW, required a record 65 costume changes.

Spartacus (1960)
The one, the only, the original. With a cameo by the magnificent Hearst estate outdoor pool in San Simeon. And with the  most killer punchline in the S & S genre: “Spartacus, this is your son. He is free.” Excuse me while I find a kleenex.

I, Claudius (series)
A sterling cast, including Sian Philips as Livia, John Hurt as “Little Boots”, and Frances White as that notorious trollop Julia, whose sexual addiction eventually got her kicked onto her own island, courtesy her esteemed dad, Augustus. Best scene: the beheading of Valeria, witnessed from the POV of Valeria herself. Best aside: “… I’d avoid the figs!”

+1 for the soot-blackened marble facades because, after all, Rome lived by lamplight and cooked with fire! Also, the effects, especially the imagery of the ruined wall in the NDE scenes, not to mention the arena fights with the tigers (those were digital, weren’t they?) Notable goof: the CO2 tank plainly visible on the back of the war chariot.

Jason and the Argonauts (1963)
Starring Talos, the bronze giant from Daedalus’ workshop, the 7-headed hydra, and living skeletons with swords! All conjured, in an age before digital, by the remarkable hand of Ray Harryhausen, whose stop-action animation branded any films he worked on (1981′s Clash of the Titans was his last) as masterpieces of craftsmanship.

As if Peter O’Toole, Brian Cox and Sean Bean on the same screen weren’t enough, Wolfgang Petersen gives us humongous blazing balls of twine flying though the sky. How awesome can moving pictures get? I ask you.

I still get all goosebumpy during that chariot race and it is for that sequence alone that I’d give William Wyler’s 1958 production (which I was once lucky enough to see on the Big Screen) a spot on any top-ten epics list. Amusing factoid: the charioteer in near-accident scene, where “Ben-Hur” is nearly thrown over the tongue of his chariot, was legendary stuntman Yakima Canutt’s son, Joe, in a practice round. Wyler decided, after reviewing the dailies, to use the footage of the unintended, near-disaster to add yet another breathtaking moment to the story. Bonus factoid:  the chariot arena sequence required 15,000 extras, and utilized only one foot of film for every 263 feet shot.

The Ten Commandments
Another great cast; this one including Edward G. Robinson, Judith Anderson, Anne Baxter, Yul Brynner, and Charlton Heston — an actor who’d clearly cornered the market on Biblical-age heroes — this time, as a beefy Moses, abandoning the court of Pharaoh Seti to lead his tribe to The Promised Land. Never mind that the “Red Sea” was actually a pair of matching parallel foot-high curbs with water flowing over (I can tell you this because I saw them once, on the Universal Studios tour!) this one was  fantabulous even by Cecil B. DeMille’s over-the-top standards.

Rome (series)
Oh my.  May I just step through the flatscreen and join you? From the raucous streets of the city’s Subura to the lavish interiors of the Palatine, the smell, touch, and taste of the Eternal City captivates. Each episode watched multiple times on TV(with Roman food), then purchased as a DVD set, then watched some more from the cozy confines of my overstuffed couch. Just one question: why can’t we have really cool wall calendars like that?

Quo Vadis
“It’s the lions!” A hardened Roman general (Robert Taylor) falls for a lovely Christian prisoner (Deborah Kerr) and pathos ensues. Featuring Peter Ustinov (and can you  imagine anyone else?) as the paunchy, deranged Nero, and the entire city of Rome in flames.

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