As I’ve been learning in my film class, genres go through boom-bust cycles: novel genius, spinoff, and finally parody. This happened in the mid-20th century with the giant epics (Quo Vadis and Ben-Hur, followed by Cleopatra and Fall of the Roman Empire — and Life of Brian), and Gladiator started another boom. With Centurion and The Last Legion, we seem to have hit the ‘bust’ stage again. So when will the first parody* come along?
The answer might be “February.”
That’s when the newest Jackie Chan movie comes out, and while I don’t usually associate Jackie Chan with togas, the trailer tells me that this is about to change. The movie, called Dragon Blade, isn’t meant to be a parody (I think) — it’s about the quasi-historical Roman settlement of China (more on this later). But with a cast that features John Cusack (as a centurion?), Adrien Brody (also as a centurion?), and a multinational bevy of pop stars, it’s hard to be entirely sure that this isn’t being played for laughs.
Just to be clear, I think Cusack and Brody are good actors, and I’m sure that they will acquit themselves well in a cuirass. They’re just not the typical muscleman-with-an-attitude that one associates with the sword-and-sandal. So this must be a joke (right?). Same with the musical accompaniment — it’s like Trimalchio’s dinner party, with everyone singing. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Jackie Chan movie, but I’m pretty sure that he can pull off some amazing stunts — and that can play either way.
Going back to the Rome and China idea, I was confused when I first saw the trailer. I thought it was talking about the emperor Tiberius, and was planning to make a pathetic joke about him never going further east than Rhodes. But it turns out that I was wrong, and there’s a bit more to this story than I thought.
According to the Hollywood Reporter, the movie is actually about a breakaway group of Roman legionaries who escape the massacre at Carrhae and end up in Han territory. The soldiers settle there for good, eventually intermarrying with the natives and producing the “documented” Roman presence at the village Liqian. This evidence comes in two types: the uncomfortably phenotypic, which is less secure, and the vaguely archaeological — a series of unconfirmed reports of Roman artifacts from excavations a quarter-century ago. But while caution says this legend is probably false, the villagers have jumped on the bandwagon, using their Roman origins story to drum up tourism for their town. But in a country that has its own Eiffel Tower, Niagara Falls, and Atlantis, a cardo seems relatively easy to put together.
Comparative studies of Rome and China have been getting more popular lately, and the Han Dynasty is the major (Chinese) locus of comparison. The Asian movie industry seems to be setting the pace with the trend — they put out a movie on Rome, Alexander, the Han Dynasty, and an invasion of Malaysia in 2012. It’s on my to-watch list for February break. And so is Dragon Blade.
* I don’t count Epic Movie, for reasons that will be obvious to anyone who manages to sit through more than five minutes of it.
Quick Takes: Rome and China, coming soon to a theater near you! by https://libraryofantiquity.wordpress.com is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.