Via Memoriae Classicae I: Asterix and Cleopatra

We’re getting to that time of year when people start to think about endings. The end of term; the end of the year; even, if we follow the interpretation of Mayan chronology and belief systems offered by that always-enlightening source of academic discussion that is the Internet, the end of the very world itself. Maybe I’m being overly dismissive of the latter, though. It’s not like the world hasn’t been visited by prodigies and natural disasters in recent times.

But I’m not here to talk about the apocalypse (though mental note: there probably would be a fun blog post to be written on classical views of the end of the world). For another ending is also approaching. Having now passed my viva, as I languish in that peculiar limbo-period of corrections and waiting for final PhD approval, I’m confronted by the rapidly-approaching end my time as a classics student and a final, enforced transition into the scary world of Real Academia or The Back-up Plan.

So indulge me if I’m in reflective mood. Don’t worry though, I’ve got no intention of posting my Classics memoirs. No hilarious reminiscences of school Latin lessons (thanks, Mr Bird!) or of the Faculty circa 2002 (What would be the point? I witter on about that often enough in the common room anyway, and at the end of the day this is Cambridge – besides a few changes to beard lengths and architectural alterations, things haven’t changed much in ten years). No, instead I’m going to embark on the probably equally self-indulgent but possibly more interesting pursuit of revisiting some film, TV and perhaps books from my childhood that (vaguely) relate to Classics and seeing what I make of them with the benefit of fifteen years or so’s study under my belt. I don’t anticipate having anything particularly scholarly to say – this isn’t meant to be any kind of Reception-Lite – but I hope maybe it’ll be fun.

So where to start? If I do more of these I intend to take them to some pretty tangential places, but to begin with something obvious is probably best. And what could be more obvious as a childhood route into Classics than Asterix? There are, of course, many many Asterix books and films (though anything produced from 1990 onwards DID NOT HAPPEN and DOES NOT COUNT)

Someone must have mocked these up in Photoshop because they do not exist.

Someone must have mocked these up in Photoshop because they do not exist.

but as I’ve carved out my niche for myself these days looking at contacts between the classical world and the Near East, one in particular leaps out. I refer, of course, to Asterix and Cleopatra, a tale of the clash of Roman, Gaulish, Egyptian and Hellenistic cultural traditions which doubtless had a seminal impact on my young and impressionable mind. The book came out in 1965, only two years after Liz Taylor was Cleopatra on the big screen. The Asterix version got its own film adaptation in 1968.

Asterix1

Here is a drawing of two Frenchmen beating up some foreigners. Clickbait. Pure clickbait.

All right, I admit it. This is all dodgy post-hoc rationalisation. I had the book of Asterix and Cleopatra as a kid and liked it very much. Unfortunately, along with the rest of my Asterix books it’s far away at home in Manchester and I’m too lazy to visit the UL West Room or (bizarrely) the library of the Judge Business School to consult the University’s copies. The film’s on YouTube, though, freely viewable in its entirety. Is that a slightly drunken, violence-and-boar-fuelled Gaulish-style cheer of delight I hear? No? Oh well, please yourselves.

The thing is, although it’s easily accessible for the present purposes, Asterix and Cleopatra wasn’t one of the assortment of Asterix videos my brother and I had. Nor do I recall watching it on one of its doubtless many TV repeats. I had, in fact, never seen it before I decided to write this blog. So that’s the basic premise of this strand of posts bent to breaking point right at the outset, then. Never mind. You’ll just have to indulge me in that too. For the movie that genuinely made a major impression on my childhood appreciation of Classics I wanted to watch Asterix in Britain, which Father Christmas brought my brother some time in the early 90s. Unfortunately no-one’s got round to posting that on YouTube yet (although this trailer gives a taste of its charming blend of ingredients. Thrill to the genuinely magnificent opening sequence of Caesar’s D-Day-style landing at the White Cliffs of Dover! Chortle into your warm bear through your prodigious handlebar moustache at the British clichés! Doubt the historical accuracy of the nonetheless creepy depiction of occupied Londinium! And above all, enjoy the catchy theme tune. Sadly the trailer omits the scene of the Roman general practising his first-declension endings).

Incidentally, my brother and I also had Asterix vs. Caesar, which has an even more catchy theme tune, which we used to sing it enthusiastically, with our best guess at the French lyrics (Astérix est là! In the car! Avé Cae-sarrr!). You’re welcome.

So anyway, Asterix and Cleopatra. The film begins with a mini-lecture on what spoken ancient Egyptian sounded like. No, really. It’s curiously reminiscent of a Part IA Linguistics lecture and it’s only a small stretch to imagine it being delivered by Rupert Thompson. I have reason to believe, however, that it falls somewhat short of strict linguistic accuracy. While it’s kind of fun, it doesn’t exactly get the film off to a rip-roaring start, and, disappointingly, the slow and stilted pacing continues throughout. I know this was the 60s, but even by the standards of the time this is pretty poorly directed, animated and edited. Asterix in Britain was much better. But I’m nothing if not stubbornly persistent, so I stuck with this to the bitter end. So you don’t have to.

The plot revolves around a bet between regular baddie Julius Caesar and the eponymous Egyptian queen, concerning whether Egypt’s onetime glories are things of the past. To demonstrate that they’re not, Cleopatra promises to build a new summer palace at Alexandria within a mere three months. It’s actually quite a nice conceit that takes a gleeful pleasure in playing with contradictions in various Orientalising stereotypes. Our first glimpse of Egypt is as a hive of activity, swarms of identical labourers toiling with regimented efficiency. It’s as fine an illustration of the ‘Asiatic mode of production’ as you could hope to find in the medium of cartoon. Naturally we assume they’re slaves, as do Asterix and Obelix when they eventually witness similar scenes. But no! These are paid workers whose tea-breaks, commutes and fractious industrial relations are the source of much drama as the story unfolds. How very late-60s.

edifis

No ethnic stereotypes here, guv, honest.

The counterweight to this efficiency is Edifis, the architect chosen for the palace (it’s far from clear why – he’s evidently the worst available and others want the job), who embodies every stereotype about shoddy foreign workmanship and lax building standards you’ve ever heard. He’s the kind of character Prince Philip would dream up if he spent his evenings on state visits trying to write a sitcom.

Nosirree!

Nosirree!

Edifis’s evil rival Artifis and his henchman Crewcut are no better. The latter is every paranoid tourist’s nightmare of the shifty, hand-wringing native guide who’ll leave you for dead if you’re foolish enough to trust him. Probably the standout moment for race-relations comes during the obligatory run-in with the hapless pirates, where the African lookout literally turns white with fear.

And while we’re on the subject of stereotypes, let’s broach the subject of Cleopatra herself. There are plenty of members of the grad community with a far better grounding in feminist theory than me, but I’m going to go out on a limb and call the Egyptian queen’s depiction here a little… problematic. True, she’s shown to be a strong and competent ruler, and we can hardly blame Asterix for the millennia-old tropes of her vanity, luxury and decadence. But even so, pretty much every scene she’s in involves her shrewishly haranguing men while they basically roll their eyes at each other (women, eh?!) before admitting that you can forgive it because she is very easy on the eye. Like every female character in the film, she’s voiced in a falsetto so high-pitched that at times she’s genuinely unintelligible.

Cleopatra, last pharaoh of Egypt. In the bath.

Cleopatra, last pharaoh of Egypt. In the bath.

The low-point for this is one of the film’s occasional musical sequences, which dwells on Cleopatra’s luxurious lifestyle. Bathing in milk, lavish dining – you know the drill. Oh, and a charmless singing and dancing lion. I don’t think that was in the book.

Scantily clad dancing girls. Because no visit to The Exotic East is complete without 'em.

Scantily clad dancing girls. Because no visit to The Exotic East is complete without ‘em.

Now, this came as something of a surprise. Previous Asterix films I’ve seen weren’t exactly brimming with musical interludes, or if they were I’ve evidently blocked them from my memory. On this evidence, it’s easy to see why. I won’t beat around the bush: the songs in Asterix and Cleopatra are uniformly awful. The tunes barely qualify for the word and the lyrics sound like they barely rose above the lyrical standards set by your average improvising toddler even in the original French; the English version has all the poetry and musicality of Google Translate’s read-out-loud function. What’s more, all of the songs go on for far too long, stretching their repetitive, banal lyrics out to five or more verses. The most memorable (and the only glimpse of any interiority in either of the leads) is an unenthusiastically trippy song about the joys of beer and boar, which includes a hallucinatory scene where Cleopatra comes on to Obelix in very forthright fashion. He turns her down, informing her that he prefers sausage and the taste of meat in his mouth. So, um… yeah.

Classics, meet the 1960s. Sixties, meet Classics. Do try to get on.

Classics, meet the 1960s. Sixties, meet Classics. Do try to get on.

So, I think we’ve established that by any standards Asterix and Cleopatra is not a very good film. But what illumination can the power of Classics shed on it? Well, first of all I have my doubts about the basic chronology. Events take place over three months between winter and spring. This is, it’s repeatedly emphasised, not very much time at all to build a magnificent Ptolemaic palace. Faced with this tight deadline, Edifis’s first action is to hop on a boat to Gaul to enlist the aid of the Indomitable Gauls. Having picked them up, they all sail back and the adventure proper can begin. Given what we know about sailing times in the ancient Mediterranean, I’m not at all convinced you could make this round trip in the time available, let alone have time to fit in a Nile river cruise, a few spells in prison, a small war with the local Roman forces and – oh yeah, building that palace. That’s before you even factor in the return trip, and it’s still only the beginning of spring when the Gauls are safely home. Plus it’s winter, when no self-respecting sailor’s going to be keen to put to sea anyway.

On the plus side, late Hellenistic Egypt is rendered with loving attention to detail. I wouldn’t want to make any claims as to the strict chronological accuracy of everything illustrated – Cleo’s mirror looks very much like Middle Bronze Age example in Beirut museum, for example – but as you’d expect for something that started life as a graphic novel, there’s a distinct sense that they’re far more interested in having fun drawing all the cool stuff than they are in piffling little details like the script, direction, animation, songs… You get the idea.

Alexandria as it appears in the film.

Alexandria as it appears in the film.

So, has my time as a Classicist given me a new appreciation of this film? Well no, I don’t think so. Everything that’s fun about it is better in the book. Unlike many of the books and a few of the later films, there’s no discernible attempt to pepper it with Classical nods and in-jokes for older viewers who can get the references. I suspect there’s a few Shakespeare and Elizabeth Taylor nods, but I have to admit I haven’t seen either’s version of the story so I leave them as an exercise to the reader to spot. My Classical Education means I can pick out the themes about oriental decadence and western ingenuity better than I would have done aged seven or eight, but I’m not sure that really added that much to my enjoyment. Ditto the ability to worry unnecessarily about the logistics of Egypt-Gaul sailing in midwinter. I also feel vaguely guilty for not putting an accent on the On balance, if you’re going to watch this it’s probably worth doing so while your brain is as undeveloped as possible. Fifteen years of Classics study can do little to improve it. Apparently the previous Asterix film was even worse. By Toutatis!

Asterix in Britain’s still great, though.

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16 Responses to Via Memoriae Classicae I: Asterix and Cleopatra

  1. Daniel Unruh says:

    Hmm. I’ve never seen the film; interestingly, I felt like the book is freer of orientalism than how you describe the film–it’s as much satirizing the cliches as the thing itself (I particularly remember Cleopatra’s taster complaining that she puts too many pearls in her vinegar).
    I will definitely have to reread it when I get home.

    • Philip Boyes says:

      I think I’d agree with that. I’m reluctant to give the books a completely clean bill of health on that front, but they’re certainly much smarter than the film. The pearls in vinegar scene doesn’t make it on-screen. Got to make room for those songs!

      • Daniel Unruh says:

        Well, sure. They were written in 1960s France–it’d be hard to imagine them being completely free of prejudice. But let’s just say that they are a bit more self-reflective than the film seems to be–and certainly more than the carnival of prejudice that is Tintin.

  2. Hannah Price says:

    Sadly Asterix was never part of my world when I was little (though I think our French teacher brought a book in to try and enthuse us about French…) More Rosemary Sutcliffe and Time Team… I hope you’re going to do a Time Team expose! ;)

    • Philip Boyes says:

      Weirdly, Time Team escaped my rough list of things to cover. Now that you mention it, though, I guess it’s inevitable. Sadly I didn’t work on a Roman site for them but I may compare an early episode with one of the ones I worked on.

  3. AnnaJ says:

    I have a copy of the book sitting on my shelf now, and will happily lend it to anyone who wants to (re)read it!
    Re: Mediterranean journey times, I am reliably informed that the fastest journey time between Alexandria and a randomly-chosen place in northern Gaul in January is approximately 43 days, and that’s if you go by river across Gaul; sailing around the outside presumably takes longer. [http://resgerendae.wordpress.com/2012/05/03/orbis-google-maps-for-the-roman-empire/] So, yep, that’s practically three months just for the outward and return sailing, never mind building a palace.

    • Philip Boyes says:

      In the film it very much looks like they went around the outside, so I’d guess at least two months. Possibly more depending on the vicissitudes of winter sailing. My suspension of disbelief lies in tatters.

      • AnnaJ says:

        So long as you maintain your suspension of disbelief over palace building times and reckon it took about three days, then it’s still just about a workable timescale…

  4. Daniel Unruh says:

    Ahem–as far as I remember, the whole reason Edifis goes to Gaul is to bring back the Druid’s magic–I bet a boat could go a lot faster if the rowers were filled up on magic potion, and had a druid with a direct line to the gods to ensure good weather!

    • AnnaJ says:

      True; it’s somewhat unfortunate that ORBIS doesn’t have an option to specify ‘good weather and a magic potion’. But it’s still taken them a good two months to get to Gaul in the first place…

      • Philip Boyes says:

        The thing is, later on when they’re cruising down the Nile to collect stone the journey’s explicitly magic potion-assisted. The voyage to Egypt doesn’t seem to be. Indeed, it makes quite clear that it takes some time – there’s even a narrator chipping in. As a comparison, the 11th century Report of Wen-Amon details a fictional Egyptian envoy sailing to Byblos to collect some cedar. The initial voyage perhaps takes about a fortnight, but with all the waiting around and trouble with sailing-seasons, it’s months before he can leave again. He does so in winter, against advice, and is promptly shipwrecked on Cyprus. Obviously Byblos is much closer than Gaul and there’s a good millennium between Wen-Amon and Edifis, but it very much shows that seaborne errands from Egypt take much longer than you’d think.

        And on reflection I think the book’s even more problematic on the three-month timescale, since it has a whole thing about Crewcut (I think) stopping cutting his hair after he fails to entomb the Gauls in the pyramid. Given how hirsute he gets in the amount of time it takes them to finish off the palace, it’s clearly not just taking a few days, even though the workers are chemically-enhanced.

      • AnnaJ says:

        Unless the hair is also chemically enhanced?

      • Philip Boyes says:

        Hmm, it might be, actually. I can’t remember. You might have to check the book. That whole subplot/joke was excised from the film.

      • AnnaJ says:

        I shall check later. Just as well as I have the book back in my room; this is too important an issue to wait until everyone else who owns it goes home for Christmas!

  5. Pingback: Via Memoriae Classicae IV – Time Team | res gerendae

  6. Pingback: Classics and Geek-Culture Round-up | res gerendae

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