In the beginning, Old Hollywood had a problem: It wanted to wow audiences with the spectacle of unseen sights, but the realms of overt fantasy were still difficult to attain without obscene expense. The solution? Ancient History - just far-flung enough for realism to be relative, and everyone had at least a vague idea of it.
Aside from the Middle Ages, which were a given, the most popular ancient settings quickly became Egypt and Rome. It's not hard to guess the main reasons: mystery and exoticism. But soon enough, a more subversive rationale emerged. After a brief period of movie content rules being essentially "anything goes" (and boy did it) a wave of moralistic outrage from both community-betterment do-gooders and religious conservatives (they weren't always enemies) drove the studios to impose rigid self-censorship, and Hollywood lived for decades under the so-called Hays Code.
Funny thing about Hays, though. It was mostly imposed at the subjective whim of Mr. Hays himself, (and later his successors) which meant canny filmmakers learned to exploit the censor's personal biases. Will H. Hays himself, for example, was a devout Christian (a Presbyterian elder, in fact), and he was frequently amenable to allowing certain "immoral" activities to appear on film if said film was depicting "true events" as described in The Bible. After all, who wants to bleep the Word of God? And since Egypt and Rome figured so prominently in The Good Book, well, there you go.
Unquestionably, Rome was the more popular of the two - its social structure was more immediately familiar to mainstream audiences (translation: Rome had more white people) and its bread-and-circuses pageantry was can't-miss fodder for the Silver Screen. Gladiator combat? Execution by lion? Hedonistic banqueting? All good things. The Roman Epic became as much a staple genre of Hollywood as the Western, continuing to modern hits like Gladiator and this week's Escape to the Movies subject, The Eagle. Here's a sampling of the biggest and/or most-infamous ones that made the genre what it is:
Sign of the Cross (1932)
Like I said, Hollywood's Roman fixation extended back to before the Hays Code simply based on the potency of the available imagery. Sign technically has a story (a Centurion falls for a Christian girl during the reign of Nero) but it's just a thin framework on which to hang scenes of debauchery and spectacular violence. Our hero buys his would-be girlfriend a lap dance from a Sapphic dancing girl, pre-Code knockout Claudette Colbert skinny-dips in a pool of milk, dwarf gladiators get hacked up by Amazons in the arena, gladiators pummel one another with iron-spiked gloves and condemned prisoners are fed to lions, crocodiles, gorillas and even elephants!
Director Cecil B. DeMille made his (sound era) name on this one, and though the non-spectacle scenes play as unintentional comedy today you can see the root-DNA of every similar epic since in every frame. The racier footage actually was chopped out for reissues during the Hays era, and DeMille himself reworked it during World War II, adding a framing device where the story was told by American soldiers as their planes passed over present-day Rome.
The Robe (1953)
The first "Widescreen" (CinemaScope) movie was a Roman epic, based on a bestselling novel by Lloyd C. Douglas. Like a lot of similar tales, it uses the pop culture conflation of Rome and the New Testament to add elements of the supernatural to the proceedings. This one involves a "What if?" scenario built around the character of the Roman soldier who, in some accounts, wins the robe belonging to Jesus of Nazareth in a post-crucifixion dice game.
Richard Burton (whose bread and butter was movies like this) has the lead, and finds himself in possession of the titular Robe, which possesses the latent supernatural-energies of its former owner and which The Emperor has ordered found and destroyed. He teams with former slave Demetrius, and becomes a protector of Rome's now-persecuted Christian minority.
Along with being the first Widescreen movie, it's also the only Golden Age "Biblical Epic" (in the loosest possible sense) to spawn a sequel: Demetrius & The Gladiators, which isn't nearly as memorable.