Contemporary settings and culture play a large role in how Orpheus and Spartacus are told. Greater depth and meaning to each story can by found by examining the time period that produced them. It is telling that Orpheus came out of post-World War II France and Spartacus shows the morals of changing 1960s America.
Orpheus places ancient Greek mythology in 1950s France. This gives an old story a modern twist and encourages the audience to analyze the nature of love, life and death. Such a lesson was valuable after World War II.
The film draws comparisons to the French Resistance, which became increasingly valuable in French memory to combat memories of France’s involvement with Nazi Germany during Occupation. For example, the codes given by Cègeste are similar to the secret codes sent by the French Resistance through Radio Londres.
Cègeste reading recording at 48:40
Message from Radio Londres
Also, the board that condemns Death for her involvement with Orpheus has historical significance. Their stiff demeanor encourages comparisons to a board of Nazis interrogating possible French Resistance members.
Death meeting with the Tribune (Timestamp: 1:02:50)
The comparisons between France’s enemies and the enemies in the film show how Orpheus held special significance to French people after the war. Their leanings towards the French Resistance made characters like Death and Heurtebise more likeable, while making the rigid bureaucrats of the Underworld clear enemies.
Giving the film a contemporary setting helped to give hope about the redeeming powers of love to a downtrodden society, but also helped enhance their memory of the war to redeem the citizens of France themselves.
Spartacus also appeals to modern values as a means of characterization. They give the slaves attributes that would be respected by modern society, rather than the Roman society they lived in. On the other hand, Patricians possess many traits that would be looked down on by a typical person from the 1960s.
1960 was a time of change between the old-fashioned ideals of the 1950s and more modern ones stemming from the Civil Rights Movement. Both ends of the movement can be seen in the film.
One example we discussed in class was Crassus discussing his homosexuality. The issue is mentioned with euphemisms of oysters for women and snails for men.
Crassus: Do you consider the eating of oysters to be moral and the eating of snails to be immoral?
Antoninus: No, master.
Crassus: Of course not. It is all a matter of taste, isn’t it?
Antoninus: Yes, master.
Crassus: And taste is not the same as appetite, and therefore not a question of morals.
Antoninus: It could be argued so, master.
Crassus: My robe, Antoninus. My taste includes both snails and oysters.
At the time, open sexuality could not be discussed in film, and it was certainly not something that would make Crassus seem favorable. In fact, his interaction with Antoninus caused the man to join the slave uprising.
The biblical parallels of the film (like Spartacus’ crucifixion) also appeal to traditional and religious Americans.
A theme of striving for equality makes Spartacus and the rebellious slaves seem sympathetic. Spartacus does not discriminate based on race and treats his wife well. These are ideas that would be appreciated by a viewer at the time, but not necessarily by people in the time period Spartacus is set in.
Also, Antoninus is particular shows how the film appeals to modern sensibilities. He sings and performs magic tricks, but has little skill as a warrior. Even though this would likely be looked down upon during the time the film is set in, he is an extremely likeable character in the film. In fact, his smashing an egg on Spartacus’ head is met with laughter and good spirits, rather than seen as disrespect of a leader.
Spartacus taking an egg from Antoninus (Timestamp: 1:30:09)
By appealing to 1960s sensibilities to make the characters in Spartacus likeable, Kubrick shows the changing attitudes of modern people through the lens of changing attitudes of Romans. His film is an attention-grabbing epic that maintains relevance to the people the film was released for.
Each film uses contemporary ideas to turn an old story into something modern people find relatable. They have messages that can be appreciated and uplifting to a country during turbulent times.
By: Alex Fulton