Merriam-Webster's dictionary defines Nazism as "the body of political and economic doctrines held and put into effect by the Nazis in Germany from nineteen thirty three to nineteen forty five including the totalitarian principle of government, predominance of especially Germanic groups assumed to be racially superior, and supremacy of the führer"[1].

During the late nineteen-forties and fifties, America was still reeling after World War II. They still held a loathing in their heart for the Nazi party of Germany and their films reflected that. To America, the Nazi Party of Germany was everything that they were against and therefore were recognized as the enemy in everything including American films. To show the fact that they were evil and the enemy of what America stood for, they were portrayed as the villains in Sword and Sandal movies. In Quo Vadis, the villain, Emperor Nero, was a mixture of communism and Nazism. This is not the first time that the dictatorship of Rome was connected to Nazism. As seen in Quo Vadis, Romans had a salute that was appropriated by the Nazis.

Sword and Sandal Films with Anti-Nazi messages Edit

Quo Vadis Edit

The film, Quo Vadis, was released in nineteen fifty one, just six years after the end of World War II and Americans still held their anger and pain that was associated with the war and with the cause of the war itself, Nazis. Knowing this, the director of Quo Vadis, Mervyn LeRoy, used "linguistic paradigm". This is when American actors play the heroic protagonist, normally a Christian, Jewish, or Roman figure about to convert while the antagonists which are normally evil, power hungry, and wealthy are played by British actors. Not only did this give reminders to the American Revolution and the oppression that Americans fought against, but also reminded the viewers of the success in World War II against the European aristocracies such as Nazi Germany.

LeRoy didn't just use accents to show Nazism as the villain in the film, but used more similarities between the film's villan, Emperor Nero and what he represented. Nero's attitude and cruelty by saying he would "exterminate" the Christians after the tragic fire that struck Rome is extremely reminiscent of what Adolf Hitler did to the Jewish people in the nineteen forties and viewers that had just gone through the war would have immediately caught the reference.[2]

While it's possible that the salute used by the Roman soldiers in the film was for accuracy, that wouldn't have been the first thing that the audience would have thought of and the director knew that. It's more likely that his use of the Roman salute was to solidify the fact that the Roman soldiers that obeyed the tyrannical Nero were the equivalent to the Nazi soldiers that followed Adolf Hitler during World War II.

Ben Hur Edit

“In the name of all the gods, Judah, what do the lives of a few Jews mean to you?” -Messala
Much like Quo Vadis, the villains that are portrayed in the nineteen-fifty-nine film, Ben-Hur, had connections that the American people in the nineteen-fifties would have instantly recognized as people with the same ideologies as their enemies in World War II, Nazi Germany. Rome is intolerant and brutal with the aggression that they show the Jewish people like Judah. When Judah's old friend, Messala speaks to him and says “Judah, persuade your people that their resistance to Rome is stupid – it is worse than stupid, futile! For it can end in only one way: extinction for your people.” This would have hit hard for Jewish immigrants that came from Europe, especially seeing the loss of friendship and betrayal from Messala since most Jewish immigrants either would have known people who had been betrayed and given up to the government or even possibly been betrayed themselves.

And that's not the the only quote that the American people would see as a chilling reminder to Nazi Germany. When Messala says, "...what do the lives of a few Jews mean to you", the viewers would have recognized “the callousness in his casual reference"[3] of Jews as the same way Hitler referenced Jewish people in Germany. Another reference to Nazi Germany would have been the way that Messala demands Judah to reveal the names of the Jewish resistance leaders and calls them "criminals" much like Hitler's police demanded the German people to reveal and give up their Jewish neighbors and were also given the label of 'criminal' for being Jewish.
  2. Winkler, Martin M., ed. (2001a) Classical Myth and Culture in the Cinema. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. 55–62
  3. Winkler, Martin M., ed. (2001a) Classical Myth and Culture in the Cinema. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. 68

However it's important to note that while the characters in Ben-Hur were Jewish, they weren't always representing Judaism but Christianity. Roman leaders didn't have a large hatred of Jewish people and almost never killed them, but they did kill a lot of Christians. Which is why the viewer in the nineteen fifties would have been able to relate and understand and even empathize with the characters since they knew how persecuted Christians had been in Roman times.