By Matthew Chandler
This page provides thematic analysis of the female form. In particular, within films that fall under the Sword and Sandal genre. While many Sword and Sandal films include this theme, it has varied in application and noticeable intensity. The theme inevitably revolves around the concepts of gender, agency and sexuality.
Quo Vadis (1951) Edit
The female body is the subject to the erotic gaze in Quo Vadis. The other male characters in the film also take notice and submit commentary on the physical assets of the central females. Marcus verbally adorns Lygia, while also making direct physical advances by stroking her hair. At another point, Petronius spots Eunice and commands that she spin around and display her beauty. It's important to note in that the film incorporated the main character's unsolicited sexual advances, which ultimately came across as entitled, for his desired love interest into his heroic virtue system. In later Sword and Sandal films, this trend shifts when female figures are still displayed as being luscious but having more agency.
Cleopatra (1963) Edit
As previously mentioned, Cleopatra provided significant space for discussing the role of the female form. Cleopatra herself expressed an enormous amount of agency for a female character at the time and was consistent in doing so through out. She exudes confidence in her independent decision making. She commands the respect of other male leaders. Upon arrive in Egypt, the Roman generals and Cesar were talking about Cleopatra's qualities. One general stated that she has a strong educational background, but "were she not a woman, she'd be considered an intellectual." The gentlemen also mention her sexual behavior. They suggest she uses sex as a "weapon" and has performed so well that her partnered could openly attest to it. It become fascinating to the generals that Cleopatra herself chooses what men she has sex with.The Roman general's conclude their conversation by agreeing that Cleopatra could not be trusted. It's apparent that the men in the film, even Cesar, that they view Cleopatra through archaic gender stereotypes. Women who wield power and sexual agency are clear threat to the dominate patriarchal paradigm. This sexual trope was also present in Quo Vadis (1951) with the character Poppea.
There is a scene where Cleopatra is naked in a bathhouse and in keeping with Sword and Sandal tradition, her breasts and lower body area is censored. While barely covered, she is approached by Cesar who inquires about her country's future. Rather than respond in timidly, given her vulnerability, she remains assertive in her responses. But at the same time, the scene deviates from previous epics because her nudity is not symbolic of a progression toward a future monogamous romance (like Spartacus) but rather for the audience to watch as she lures her prey. Her sexuality is solely for her and she retains control over it. During their conversation, Cesar makes a clear intention to remind Cleopatra that she's still a women who is still susceptible to being "conquered." In her successful seduction of Cesar, her passion alone was what was on display. Not a stable, new, or promising relationship. The female form in this movie provides a space where Cleopatra and the male characters are able to discuss politics and sensuality in the same breath.
During the festivities and parades scene, female dancers are enlisted to perform in small bikinis. These women serve no purpose in terms of developing the plot other than to be objects for the male gaze. Cleopatra ultimately tricks Antony into kissing one of the dancers as a trap. Often in Sword and Sandal films, like in A Funny Thing Happened on The Way To The Forum (1966), sultry female minorities are sexualized for the purpose of exotification. At the time, the United States was still undergoing a sexual revolution that would later develop to a point where it became even less taboo to incorporate sexualized women in films. Elizabeth Taylor, Rex Harrison, Cleopatra (1963) https://www.flickr.com/photos/29069717@N02/29014282924
A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966) Edit
The Roman comedy included a variety of instances where the female body and sexuality were amusing vehicles for humor. Jokes were made throughout the film about the nature of heterosexual relationships, courting, and the pleasures of sex. There was a scene where the slave Pseudolus and protagonist Hero venture into a brothel for the purpose of seeking out Hero's love interest. Each of the brothel's women frolicked and danced as to sexually entertain Hero and Pseudolus. It becomes evident that the sexual revolution of the 1960's had significantly influenced the comedic direction of the movie. The women were busty, wore different colored bikinis and had Playboy-playmate style names. A few of the women were minorities and they stood out in particular because of their extreme exotification. The African-American courtesan wore a leopard print bikini and danced in a "tribal" fashion. In this instance, it's difficult to not observe the offensive depiction between the dancer's ethnicity and racist stereotypes of how white male's view black female bodies. The movie utilized the female form in ways that were benign and for the sake comedy. But there were others when it headed into socially problematic territory.