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Sciences

A Return to Swords and Sandals

CHICAGO – Many years ago I wrote an article proposing the idea that most Americans only know about Greeks by watching old toga movies. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I grew up hearing the most outrageous comparisons between modern Greeks and what Americans saw depicted in those films. In a previous article, I pointed out that the typical viewers I spoke with made little or no distinction between modern and ancient Greeks, and any historical information about Greeks that they might have known was confused in their minds with Greek mythology, which they also “learned” from Hollywood. Not long after that article was published, I received a letter from a Greek-American reader claiming that there was a clear distinction between actual Greek history and the fiction seen in films, and I was the confused one who didn’t point that out.
So, let me emphasize once again that I do not think that the films about Ancient Greece (and now the programs offered on cable networks) offer an honest depiction (dare I say ethnographic) presentation of Classical times. Those films are meant only to entertain; everyone watching them should know they are fiction. Nonetheless, they do provide insight into how Ancient Greeks are viewed in contemporary society. It is important to understand that those perceptions are not static but change over time along with the wider notions of all things Greek. Therefore, whenever we look at such a film we have to situate it in time and even within the society that produced it.
Another aspect that must be taken into consideration is that nearly every film ever made exists in DVD or VHS formats. That means those “Sword and Sandal” films are not going to fade away anytime soon. {40326}
Sword and Sandal
The genre of films now known collectively as Sword and Sandal was a product of the Italian film industry from 1957 to 1965. A mix of Biblical and very loosely conceived historical films, those productions were an attempt to emulate the big budget Hollywood blockbusters such as The Ten Commandments, Ulysses, Samson and Delilah, Demetrius and the Gladiators, Alexander the Great, and Spartacus. Critics assert that the fundamental difference between the Hollywood movies of the Classical past and the later Sword and Sandal films had to do with content. The Hollywood films of old sought to fortify their classical films with protagonists that would be perceived by moviegoers as fellow human beings caught up in plausible dramatic conflicts. The Italian-made Sword and Sandal films merely used Classical names, myths, or historical settings as scanty frames for seedy, comic book-like action films.
I believe that the contemporary charm and appeal of those films is that they entertain us today for reasons they were not at first intended to be conveyed. But, do not take my word for it, go look at some of these films for yourself. One positive aspect of our declining American civilization is that everything is available for sale. So, if you spend some time searching you can find any book, film, or just about anything else at a discount. That is how I came across Clash of the Olympians, a special four disk set, which features a collection of 16 Hercules movies that taken collectively provide 23 hours and 20 minutes of viewing (www.millcreekent.com, 2010). I bought this set at a Borders bookstore, during that company’s going-out-of-business sale, for $4.99.
In truth, I had forgotten how cheesy those old toga movies are compared to Hollywood productions, that no amount of cinematic theorizing could ever whitewash. In those toga flicks the transition from scene to scene is often quite jerky, to say the least. And the sound quality (as well as the dubbing) leaves much to be desired. Still, as far as entertainment is concerned, once we accept it for what it is, it is quite satisfying with good always triumphing over evil. Hercules always breaks the chains that bind him and the beautiful and good blonde queen always gets (with the implication of marriage) Hercules. The films usually end with the extras raising their swords or spears above their heads and cheering. Like Italian opera gone way bad.
The 16 films in this collection only span the very early period of the sword and sandal films. The actors who play Hercules include Steve Reeves, Gordon Mitchell, Peter Lupus, Gordon Scott, Dan Vadis and many others. That predominately American beefcake strongmen appeared in those films is another hallmark of the genre.
As far as I have ever been able to determine, the only actor of Greek descent to have played Hercules was Dan Vadis. I have long heard Greek-Americans make the claim that Peter Lupus, once a regular on the 1960s television series Mission Impossible, is Greek-American but actually he is of Italian descent. As Vadis was the only person of Greek descent we can confirm who appeared in any of those Sword and Sandal films, his career deserves some attention.
Son of a Greek
Born Constantine Daniel Vafiadis in Shanghai, China on January 3, 1938, the circumstances of his birth and the exact manner of how he arrived in the United States are not readily available. All that is publicly known about the Vafiadis family’s background is that they originally hailed from Chios. Also lost to history are the circumstances, decisions, and events that led to Vadis having become dedicated to bodybuilding.
Sometime in 1956, Vadis joined the Mae West Revue, which was composed entirely of male bodybuilders. At the time Vadis was an extremely brawny 6’ 4” with curly brown hair, bluish green eyes and what was described as “affable demeanor.” It is said that a fellow member of the Revue, Gordon Mitchell, helped Vadis to get into the film business.
Vadis worked steadily in the early Sword and Sandal films. As far as can be determined, prior to 1962 Vadis worked only as a stunt man. From 1962 onward, Vadis appeared in a series of films – having moved up from supporting roles into leading ones. Dan Vadis’ starring roles include The Rebel Gladiators (1963), Spartacus and the Ten Gladiators (1964), and Hercules the Invincible (retitled as Son of Hercules in the Land of Darkness) (1964). Various critics contend that Vadis’ most notable portrayal of Hercules is in The Triumph of Heracles (1964), in which he battles golden giants in an effort to save the beautiful princess (whom he loves and who loves him) from an evil relative.
Several of Vadis’ films – such as Son of Hercules in the Land of Darkness (reissued in 2007) – are readily available from www.amazon.com and other outlets. The only Vadis film in the Clash of the Olympians collection is Spartacus and the Ten Gladiators. That is an odd film: it does open with flaming torches and marching Roman legionnaires, but Vadis’ character – the leader of the ten gladiators – is nameless. Sources allege that Vadis’ character in that film is Roccia, but I never heard anyone call him that when I was watching. In time, Vadis and his nine gladiator friends team up with Spartacus to fight the evil Romans – and naturally they win. Vadis’ character even wins the heart of the good servant girl, Diana. But why the star of the film, displacing even Spartacus as the real hero, remains nameless is just plain weird.
Vadis did not fade from the silver screen at the end of the Sword and Sandal films; he simply began to act in Italian spaghetti westerns. Not long after his appearance in those Italian-made westerns ,Vadis became a member of Clint Eastwood’s loose collection of reappearing actors in a number of his films such as High Plains Drifter (1973), The Gauntlet (1977), Every Which Way but Loose (1978), and Bronco Billy (1980). Vadis also worked in other Hollywood films and appeared in a variety of television programs. {40320}
By the late 1980s, Vadis was experiencing deep troubles. He died on June 11, 1987, in the desert just outside Lancaster, California. Vadis was found in his car dead from what appeared to be an accidental drug overdose of acute ethanol and heroin-morphine intoxication. Vadis was survived by his wife, Sharon Jessup, and son, Nick. Tragic as Dan Vadis’ ultimate fate might be, his passing did nothing to stop the lasting influences of his film depictions of the Classical World.
Symbolic Residue
Even as you read this article, more Classical film extravaganzas are being planned. Without even a completed script, Angelina Jolie has accepted the lead role in an upcoming film about the life of Cleopatra. Some African-Americans have criticized the selection of Jolie based on race. Now, those critics are not asking that a Greek or Greek-American actress should play Cleopatra, but rather that “a person of color” – as apparently they allude Cleopatra must have been – should fill that starring role. Shirea L. Caroll, in a piece in Essence Magazine, lamented: “just when you thought there weren’t enough leading roles for Black women in Hollywood, they create one and give it to a White woman…Why does Hollywood think it’s even slightly plausible to cast White women in roles that would be more sensible to cast a Black actress for? Especially when that role is an African queen (www.essence.com).”
Cleopatra VII (late 69-August 12, 30 BC), is the historic figure on which the numerous movies, stage plays, artwork, music and films featuring the character are based. Cleopatra VII was the last member of the Ptolemaic dynasty to rule Egypt. After the death of Alexander the Great, one of his generals, the first Ptolemy, acquired his own empire (carved out of the larger one Alexander left behind) of which Egypt was part. Members of the Ptolemaic dynasty, which ruled for some 300 years ,were of Greek origins, only spoke Greek at court, and due to ongoing disputes over the throne were always extremely careful to marry fellow Greeks. Virtually everyone except select members of the African-American community accept the fact of Cleopatra’s Greek ethnicity. It should also be pointed out that when Greek immigrants first began arriving to the United States in the 1880s they were found to be too dark in terms of their skin color for many port officials’ liking, and were thereby denied entry.
While I am certain the producers of this new Cleopatra film as well as Ms. Jolie do not plan on making a Sword and Sandal type movie, the existing fantasies about the Classical past, as just the previous example reveals, outweigh whatever history might have preserved.
But not all cinematographers have misrepresented the Classical Past. A 2010 film that somehow disappeared before it was ever released was the stunning Agora, starring Rachel Weisz, that featured a tour de force enactment of Hypatia of Alexandria. Hypatia, for those of you who were asleep that day in Greek school, was the last head of the Platonist school at Alexandria and a much respected mathematician. Many intellectuals in Western civilization mark her death in 415 AD as the end of humanity’s first age of reason and the beginning of the Dark Ages. Agora is not only a terrific and overlooked film, but the only one I know of that deals intelligently with Hypatia as both a human being and a working scientist.
Ultimately, all I am saying is that we ought to have fun exploring or rediscovering those old toga films. I have seen copies of DVD rereleases of the 1981 Ray Harryhausen pioneering stop-action film, Clash of the Titans, floating around the discount film-bins at Wal-Mart for around $5.00, so I am not suggesting investing a great deal of money. The point is to try and begin a discussion among Greeks about the manner in which non-Greeks make films about our history and our legends.

grecianmon@yahoo.com

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