Old media artifacts like silent films are traditionally thought of as being windows into their individual moments in time. But when they portray another era still—like the ancient world—they serve as a kind of mirror, telling the story of that distant period while also reflecting their own.
This is one of the most interesting aspects of The Ancient World in Silent Cinema, a project of scholars Pantelis Michelakis and Maria Wyke. Michelakis, senior lecturer in classics at the University of Bristol, and Wyke, professor and chair of Latin at the University College London, have worked with the British Film Institute to dig films of the ancient world out of international film archives.
In April, Michelakis and Wyke brought six of these films to a sold-out screening at the Getty Villa with pianist Andrew Earle Simpson, who provided live accompaniment.
Made between 1908 and 1927, in the United States, France, and Italy, the films and fragments demonstrated a range of styles. Superficially, it was easy to see the fashion differences—Helen of Troy was quite a bit more covered up in 1910 than she was in 1927. But there were other more subtle details: sets and structures, the varieties of soldiers’ armaments, the accuracies (and inaccuracies) of gardens. Many details referred back to traditions of 19th-century theater and opera rather than an archeological record. In the end, the films spoke as much to the era in which they were made as those which they were meant to portray.
Was there anything in the 1920s, one audience member asked, that might have sparked an interest in the ancient world, a la the 2010 film Clash of the Titans? Yes, Michelakis responded, in Italy, at least: there, nationalism in advance of the First World War meant that many of that country’s films turned to the storied era of its ancient past.
In the two decades of early film on display, the evolution of film styles became apparent. Louis Feuillade’s early La Légende de Midas (France, 1910), with its hand-tinted color and early special effects, used the screen to be a place of play and fantasy, a style that would be set back by the advent of sound and revived, decades later, with sophisticated effects like CGI. Several of the films screened were melodramas—a form that looks strangely exaggerated to us now, but was widely popular with audiences a century ago. But by 1927, as The Private Life of Helen of Troy shows, realism and even sassy, flapper-era comedy had displaced the tragic grand gesture on the screen.
The last film, a Mutt & Jeff cartoon, felt positively contemporary: the mostly-adult audience laughed as though we were children on a Saturday morning.
Michelakis and Wyke took their films back to England, but hope to return to the states with other portions of their program, focusing on Egypt and on the Old and New Testament.