Tag Archives: cleopatra

It is 14 years after the assassination of Julius Caesar and three decades before the birth of Christ and the Greek queen of Egypt is about to die. The 39-year-old Cleopatra VII is the mother of four children by two fathers, both now dead. This much everyone seems to agree on. What happens next is romantic fairy tale, or conjecture, or cynical posturing — or all three.

The most widely believed version, used by Shakespeare in his tragedy, Antony and Cleopatra, has the queen, fearing to be taken captive to Rome by the conquering Octavian, has a basket of figs delivered to her, with a smuggled asp hidden under the fruit. She takes the venomous snake and applies it to her tender bosom and expires from the poison.

The problem is that there are conflicting stories told by the ancient writers.

The best known version, and the one Shakespeare cribbed from is that of Plutarch in his essay on Mark Antony.

The two rebellious lovers, having  been conquered by the young Octavian were at odds over what to do. Cleopatra had a false message sent to Antony that she is dead. Antony ran himself into his sword, but botched his suicide and was brought to Cleopatra, where he then expired. Cleopatra mourned and locked herself in her mausoleum. And then, according to Plutarch:

“Having made these lamentations, crowning the tomb with garlands and kissing it, she gave orders to prepare her a bath, and, coming out of the bath, she lay down and made a sumptuous meal.”

An old man came with a basket. The guards Octavian had sent to keep Cleopatra in check stopped him to examine the contents.

“The fellow put the leaves which lay uppermost aside, and showed them it was full of figs; and on their admiring the largeness and beauty of the figs, he laughed, and invited them to take some, which they refused, and, suspecting nothing, bade him carry them in.”

The queen then sent a letter to Octavian describing her intent to kill herself and locked herself in the monument with her two servants, Charmion and Eras. When Octavian got the note, which asked that she be buried next to Antony, he sent messengers to stop her from killing herself. But they found her already dead, “lying upon a bed of gold, set out in all her royal ornaments.”

Eras lay dying at her feet and Charmion, just ready to fall, barely able to hold up her head, was adjusting her mistress’s crown. And when the soldier that came in said angrily, “Was this well done of your lady, Charmion?”

“Extremely well,” she answered, “and as became the descendant of so many kings”; and as she said this, she fell down dead by the bedside.

“Some relate that an asp was brought in amongst those figs and covered with the leaves, and that Cleopatra had arranged that it might settle on her before she knew, but, when she took away some of the figs and saw it, she said, ‘So here it is,’ and held out her bare arm to be bitten. Others say that it was kept in a vase, and that she vexed and pricked it with a golden spindle till it seized her arm. But what really took place is known to no one.

“Since it was also said that she carried poison in a hollow hairpin, about which she wound her hair; yet there was not so much as a spot found, or any symptom of poison upon her body, nor was the asp seen within the monument; only something like the trail of it was said to have been noticed on the sand by the sea, on the part towards which the building faced and where the windows were. Some relate that two faint puncture-marks were found on Cleopatra’s arm, and to this account Caesar seems to have given credit; for in his triumph there was carried a figure of Cleopatra, with an asp clinging to her.

“Such are the various accounts. But Caesar, though much disappointed by her death, yet could not but admire the greatness of her spirit, and gave order that her body should he buried by Antony with royal splendor and magnificence. Her women, also, received honorable burial by his directions.

“Cleopatra had lived nine and thirty years, during twenty-two of which she had reigned as queen, and for fourteen had been Antony’s partner in his empire. Antony, according to some authorities, was fifty-three, according to others, fifty-six years old. His statues were all thrown down, but those of Cleopatra were left untouched.”

European asp

While Plutarch’s story has been repeated many times, it must be remembered that it was written 120 years after the events. Other historians and poets also told stories of Cleopatra’s death: Strabo, Velleius, Florus, Suetonius, Dio Cassius and Galen, Virgil, Horace and Propertius.

Of the historians, the only one who was alive at the time of Cleopatra’s death was Strabo, who wrote: “(Octavian) took the city at the first onset, and compelled Antony to put himself to death, but Cleopatra to surrender herself alive. A short time afterwards, however, she also put an end to her life secretly, in prison, by the bite of an asp, or (for there are two accounts) by the application of a poisonous ointment.”

Strabo was about 34 years old when Cleopatra died, but his account was written at least 10 years after that. It is thought he might have been in Alexandria at the time of the queen’s death.

The poet Horace wrote his ode, “Nunc est bibendum,” within a year or two of the queen’s death and mentioned it near the end of the poem: “Caesar came back to put the deadly monster in chains, but she, wanting to die more nobly had no feminine dread of the sword, and finding no way out of the situation, went to her palace lying in ruins and with a tranquil face was brave enough to handle vicious serpents and drink their black venom into her body. Having chosen death, she was fiercer still, unwilling to be taken back to Rome and led in a humiliating victory parade.”

The physician Galen (AD 130-200) wrote in De Theriaca ad Pisonem that “The queen had bit her arm and then rubbed the wound with poison.”

Virgil in the Aeneid says she died of “two fatal asps.”

Modern commentators tend to suspect that all the stories of Cleopatra’s suicide may very well be spin concocted by Octavian (by then Augustus Caesar) to cover up her murder at his orders. We know he had Cleopatra’s oldest son killed. Caesarion was the natural son of Julius Caesar and was 17 when Caesar’s adopted son had him quietly eliminated. “Too many Caesars is not a good idea,” he supposedly said.

So, Cleopatra either killed herself by taking poison, or by rubbing herself with poison ointment, or by stabbing herself with a sharp comb laced with poison, or held an asp to her arm to bite her, or scratched her arm up and rubbed it with venom from the smuggled asp, or — and the list goes on — it probably wasn’t an asp, since there are no actual asps in Egypt and if there were, their venom causes a very slow and painful death, and would more likely have been an Egyptian cobra, which is the sacred snake of the Egyptian pharaohs. Or she was killed by Caesar.

As Plutarch admits: “What really took place is known to no one.”

Among other accounts, Cleopatra tested various poisons on her slaves before picking the one that would cause her the least suffering. A good deal of the gloss on Cleo comes from the Romans, who had a vested interest in presenting her in the least flattering light. She was, after all, an enemy of Rome — at least after the disputed empire fell from the likely rule of Antony into the sure hand of Octavian.

Denouement: In addition to Caesarion, born to Julius Caesar, she had three children by Mark Antony. A son named for the sun and a daughter named for the moon survived her. Ptolemy Philadelphus was the youngest. Octavius spared them but gave them to his sister, the legal wife of Antony, to raise. The daughter, Cleopatra Selene, eventually married King Juba II of Numidia in north Africa. The son, Alexander Helios, is lost to history along with his brother.

Of course, you will have noticed that in none of the ancient stories of her death does Cleopatra apply the serpent to her firm but supple breast. That version comes later, especially as painters attempted to give us the version not so much of Plutarch as of Joseph L. Mankiewicz. There is a Cecil B. DeMille quality to most of the historical paintings of Cleopatra, who ranks second only to Eve as a ripe subject for images of naked women with snakes.

Not that they are the only two: There are paintings and sculptures of the Roman goddess Hygea, goddess of health, which show her feeding a snake — the snake being the sacred animal of Asclepius, the god of medicine.

Lord Leighton, the English painter, gave us a grand tondo of the Hesperides, the home of the golden apples Hercules was to gather, which was protected by a serpent.

And there is the story of Harmonia and Cadmus. Cadmus, king of Illyria, had killed a serpent and the gods then turned Cadmus into a snake. His wife, Harmonia, stripped herself naked and begged Cadmus to come to her. As she embraced the snake the gods turned her also into a snake.

There is an obviously salacious element in these stories, especially as they are told, painted and sculpted by artists in the Victorian age, where they could be hypocritically sanctimonious about expressing the moral uplift of the glory that was Rome and the grandeur that was Greece while at the same time thinking “Look at the boobies on that one,” and, as the French say, “L.H.O.O.Q.”

But the crown of this Orientalizing prurience must be in Gustave Flaubert’s novel, Salammbo — his followup to the scandalous Madame Bovary. It is the tale of the daughter of a Carthaginian general, set shortly after the first Punic War (264-241 BC). The plot is silly enough for an opera or a Hollywood epic. But there are scenes of sex and lasciviousness, not the least when the priestess Salammbo enters the enemy camp to retrieve the MacGuffin and encounters a prophetic snake. It is hard to avoid the Freudian undertones. They can hardly be called undertones.

“The moon rose; then the cithara and the flute began to play together.

“Salammbo unfastened her earrings, her necklace, her bracelets, and her long white simar; she unknotted the band in her hair, shaking the latter for a few minutes softly over her shoulders to cool herself by thus scattering it. The music went on outside; it consisted of three notes ever the same, hurried and frenzied; the strings grated, the flute blew; Taanach kept time by striking her hands; Salammbo, with a swaying of her whole body, chanted prayers, and her garments fell one after another around her.

“The heavy tapestry trembled, and the python’s head appeared above the cord that supported it. The serpent descended slowly like a drop of water flowing along a wall, crawled among the scattered stuffs, and then, gluing its tail to the ground, rose perfectly erect; and his eyes, more brilliant than carbuncles, darted upon Salammbo.

“A horror of cold, or perhaps a feeling of shame, at first made her hesitate. But she recalled Schahabarim’s orders and advanced; the python turned downwards, and resting the centre of its body upon the nape of her neck, allowed its head and tail to hang like a broken necklace with both ends trailing to the ground. Salammbo rolled it around her sides, under her arms and between her knees; then taking it by the jaw she brought the little triangular mouth to the edge of her teeth, and half shutting her eyes, threw herself back beneath the rays of the moon. The white light seemed to envelop her in a silver mist, the prints of her humid steps shone upon the flag-stones, stars quivered in the depth of the water; it tightened upon her its black rings that were spotted with scales of gold.

“Salammbo panted beneath the excessive weight, her loins yielded, she felt herself dying, and with the tip of its tail the serpent gently beat her thigh; then the music becoming still it fell off again.”

Yes, Flaubert; Mr. Mot Juste. More like Mot Jeaux, i.e. mojo.

We’re not done yet with naked women and snakes. More anon.

Click on any image to enlarge

George Leonard Herter

George Leonard Herter

The British have their eccentrics, but America has crackpots.

There is something quaint about the Englishman wearing a cutaway and top hat in the Sahara sun, or refusing to read any book unless its author’s name begins with the letter “A”. But the American version of this tendency usually comes out in something more oracular: Americans create new religions and build temples out of bottlecaps. And they are obsessed with peculiar certainty that nobody has got history correctly except themselves. herters catalog

One of the great American crackpots wrote cookbooks. George Leonard Herter built one of the nation’s great outfitting businesses, in Waseca, Minn. His fortune was founded on shotgun cartridges and duck calls. But his lasting place in history comes from the books he wrote, most notably, the Bull Cook and Authentic Historical Recipes and Practices, and it is not for the faint of heart.

In what other cookbook would you find the claim: ”The Virgin Mary, Mother of Christ, was very fond of spinach”?

Herter goes on to say, ”This is as well a known fact in Nazareth today as it was 19 centuries ago. Her favorite music was that of the crude bagpipes of that time, and this is a well-known fact.” bull cook cover

He then proceeds to give us her recipe for spinach, which, he says, was the only thing she ate in the stable where Jesus was born.

No, this is not a religious book. Other ”historical” claims include, ”Sauerbraten was invented by Charlemagne,” and that St. Thomas Aquinas was so fat, ”He simply sawed out a half circle in his eating table so that his stomach could fit comfortably into the sawed out section.”

He tells us that Johannes Kepler’s work on astronomy has long since been forgotten, ”but his creating liverwurst will never be forgotten.”

He has Bat Masterson’s recipe for prairie dog, Marie Antoinette’s recipe, not for cake, but for trout. He says Joan of Arc was responsible for the invention of pate de foie gras.

His standard recipe runs something like this: ”No one knows how to bake a potato anymore. I’ll tell you how to bake a potato.”

It is clear from the presentation that Herter is not trying to be funny. He is dead serious. As when he opens the book with this: how to live with a bitch

”For your convenience, I will start with meats, fish, eggs, soups and sauces, sandwiches, vegetables, the art of French frying, desserts, how to dress game, how to properly sharpen a knife, how to make wines and beer, how to make French soap, what to do in case of hydrogen or cobalt bomb attack. Keeping as much in alphabetical order as possible.”

Of course, the index is not in alphabetical order.

Herter wrote a number of books; among the more notable were How to Live With a Bitch and The Truth About Hunting in Today’s Africa and How to Go on a Safari for $690.00 (“Baboons are simply too small for leopard bait”).

I can’t vouch for any Bull Cook recipes. Most seem to involve a “well-buttered slice of bread” and some ground beef fried in even more butter. But I can say that Herter seems to have two entertaining obsessions that make up the bulk of the book, and its sequels, volumes 2 and 3. truth about hunting

He expresses the absolute certainty of the crackpot when he tells us his version of history:

“Napoleon Bonaparte always remained a great mama’s boy.”

“Napoleon not only liked green beans very well, but believed that they helped to produce more sperm in male humans. As he was always a man who played the ladies frequently, this was just as important to him as winning wars.”

Napoleon shows up frequently in the book. So does Cleopatra. Let Herter explain ancient Roman Egypt for you.

According to Herter’s version of ancient history, Cleopatra tired of Marc Anthony and tricked him into killing himself.

“Cleopatra went over to where Mark Anthony lay and made sure that he was dead. She then sent a messenger to Octavian telling the good news and asking him to come over for the weekend. Octavian did come over to visit her as he well remembered her charms when she lived in Rome. She did her best to charm him in every way possible and he was willing. Cleopatra was now thirty-nine and had produced five children. They did not have girdles in those days, nor uplift brassieres. She had widened out and her famous bosom had sagged considerably. The old charm simply was not there. Octavian decided that the younger models were more to his liking and told her she better get out of Egypt and he did not want to see her in Italy either. Octavian made Egypt a part of the Roman Empire. The Roman Legion, now that the fighting was over, had a well-earned vacation putting Italian blood into Egypt. It is still very much there today. They actually changed the appearance of the Egyptians to a very Italian look which they still have today. Cleopatra was just in the way. Octavian had one of his men pay a servant to poison her. Her record proved she was not the type to kill herself for anything or anyone. Besides, there were no asps anywhere near the town she was in. If she did have an asp and let it bite in one of her breasts as the fable goes, it would not have killed her anyway. A woman’s breast is mostly fat and it is one of the places where the bite of any poisonous snake has little effect.”

There follows a recipe for “Watermelon Pickles Cleopatra.”

He is a fountain of prejudices, and has no doubts about his opinions.

“Henry the VIII actually never amounted to anything and would not have made a good ditchdigger. The only thing that he ever did to to his credit was to highly endorse the kidneys made by Elizabeth Grant, one of his many cooks.”

He knows with dead certainty how Genghis Kahn liked his steaks prepared and how Gregor Mendel cooked his eggs. And according to Herter, it is not his banditry or gunslinging for which Billy the Kid will be remembered by posterity, but for his recipe for cornmeal pancakes.

“Here is his own recipe which will long outlive Billy’s memory.”

Herter’s other obsession is sex, and most specifically, women’s breasts. The second volume of the Bull Cook is full of bad black-and-white reproductions of famous paintings of the nude, and his historical commentary often features descriptions of famous cleavages of the past.

He tells us that Cleopatra “was said to have the longest, most pointed breasts in all the world. The movie actresses that have tried to play Cleopatra from time to time never qualified on this point.”

“Greek women have always been known for their unusually well-developed breasts. They have always felt that bare breasts gave them more grace and beauty and that exposing breasts was not at all immodest.”

“In those days, if you didn’t have breasts worth showing, you were really in trouble. A flat chested pendulent breasted woman just did not have a chance in life.

Lucrezia Borgia by Bartolomeo Veneto

Lucrezia Borgia by Bartolomeo Veneto

In another place, he reprints a portrait by Bartolomeo Veneto (and misattributing it as he does so) and tell us:

“Lucrezia Borgia, well-known poisoner, painted by Veneziano in 1520. By this time, it was popular to wear dresses with one breast exposed and the breast nicely rouged. As you can well see, this style did nothing for Lucrezia as she had nothing special to show.”

He has a chapter titled: “Bare Breasts and Food In the United States.” In it and passim, he describes various topless establishments, comparing those in Paris with those in Las Vegas. Vegas wins, by his reckoning.

“For my part I enjoy eating very much. I do not like to look at female breasts while I am eating as I like to concentrate on my food. There is a time and place for everything and I prefer exposed female breasts in a bedroom, a tepee or a clean cave.”

It isn’t only breasts, though.

“Michelangelo learned to paint and sculpture sexual organs probably better than anyone that ever lived. He never learned to use his own properly, however, and was a homosexual.”

And he has a way of combining his questionable grasp on history with his prurience:

“Charles the II of England was born in 1630 and died Feb. 6 in 1685. He married the beautiful Portuguese woman, Catherine of Braganza who brought Bombay, India and Tangier to England as part of her dowry. Those were the days when getting married could really get you something. He never had any legitimate children as Catherine was just plain scared of pushing out a child through so small a space. She became an early expert and exponent on birth control.”

There is more than an undercurrent of bigotry in him. While he exults American Indians (not always reliably: “Pizza pies were of course, unknown as these too are of American Indian origin.”), and recounts many instances where white America has raped and pillaged the Indians, he holds many questionable ideas about women and other races.

In that section on Michelangelo, for instance, he says: “Michelangelo’s statue of David shows what can be done with a piece of marble. As far as showing what David might have looked like, it is a masterpiece of errors. David was a  Jew and undoubtedly had the high cheekbones and nose of a Jew. This figure is strictly Anglo-Saxon in appearance, not even Roman.”

Lady Hamilton as the Cumean Sibyl by Vigee-Lebrun

Lady Hamilton as the Cumean Sibyl by Vigee-Lebrun

On a section (see below) spent with Horatio Nelson and his mistress Lady Hamilton, he includes a portrait of the woman, misspelling the name of the artist (Elizabeth Vigee-Lebrun) and in his caption tells us something about his opinion of women.

“The portrait was painted by Madam Vigee-Ledrun , one of the few good women artists the world has ever known. Women because of the effect of menstruation upon them, rarely can become even fair painters.”

Not to mention his take on Joan of Arc: “Never underestimate the strength and courage of a woman that is really mad at you.”

Among his other obsessions are nuclear war and art.

“Red pepper good for radiation and upset stomachs”

“We always have the money to buy good soap in this country and women folk look down on such menial tasks as making soap these days. An H bomb strike in this country would change the whole picture.”

“I never have  been an admirer of the paintings of Matisse but I always thought his cooking was excellent.” What follows is a recipe for “Beans Matisse.”

I could go on all day giving you quotes from the Bull Cook.

“Joshua 10:13 in about 1451 years before Christ says that the sun stood still in heaven and did not go down for the space of one day. This caused Indian Mexico to become dark.”


“Mozart was a man that believed just putting a lady on her back was not at all enough. Seducing an actress was a game with him that had to be done properly or not at all. He wined and dined his amours very well before getting down to any serious romancing. His dessert I like far better than his music and his orange wine is a classic. Here are his original recipes.”

Not to mention:

Eggs “are best eaten in a well ventilated room.”


“Never drink coffee right after eating peppered fried eggs or soft-boiled eggs.”

The combination of sex and history, scrambled, fried and soft-boiled can be enjoyed in his version of the life and appetites of Lord Horatio Nelson:

“Horatio Nelson was a fragile, very sensitive man nearly always in poor health. He was not at all good looking and women shunned him.”

“In the West Indies, on March 11, 1787, he made the greatest blunder of his life. He was more or less trapped into marrying Frances Nesbit, the widow of a doctor Nevis. Nelson had simply spent too many years on the seas with only men to look at and the prospect of having any nude woman looked like a catch to him.”

“Emma Lyon was born on May 12, 1765 … She grew up to be a lively, robust, big-breasted beauty that attracted any normal man.”

“Emma had a way with men, which consisted mainly of taking off her clothes. During Nelson’s battle of the Nile she obtained valuable information for Nelson. When Nelson returned from the campaign of the Nile to Naples, Emma arranged to meet him in her bedroom with nothing on but a string of pearls. Nelson’s wife had turned out to be a cold unenthusiastic bed partner and Emma, the vivacious, warm, bubbling prostitute was a welcome change.”

“I have always admired Horatio Nelson. He was not much physically or mentally, but he was an honest, hard-working man. He never cared what anyone thought or said about him. He liked Emma because she was a good bed partner and a light-hearted, depression chaser around the house.

“Horatio Nelson was not much of an eater as he had a bad stomach. His favorite food was a sandwich which he ate both on ship and shore. Here is his original recipe.”

It is a kind of onion sandwich on well-buttered bread. “Eat with a bottle of strong beer,” Herter recommends.

“This is a truly great sandwich befitting a truly great man and besides, it burps beautifully.”

solomon and sheba lollabrigida

The problem with reading history in books is that there are never enough dancing girls.

We can sit in silence with our Gibbon, Prescott or Tacitus and turn pages like a hermit, one after the other, but nothing makes history come alive like Hollywood. No footnotes, no pesky scholarship, no long sentences and paragraphs, no boring analyses: Hollywood gives us the battles, the orgies, the casts of thousands, the costumes and the lack thereof.

It gives us Victor Mature, Gene Tierney, Yul Brynner and all-time champ Charlton Heston.

It gives us Cleopatras, Caesars, Delilahs, Mata Haris, Lucretia Borgias and Genghis Khans.

They wear togas, tunics, buckskins, goat-skins and mastodon skins. They bring with them plagues, wars, dynasties, lust and ambition. They speak in a language with no contractions and in ponderous formalities and utter such memorable lines as ”Harness my zebras, gift of the Nubian King!,” and ”War, war! That’s all you think about, Dick Plantagenet.”

Or ”Take a letter. Mark Antony, The Senate, Rome . . .”

Or ”This Tartar woman is for me, and my blood says, ‘Take her!’ ”

Yes, Hollywood has a certain way with history. When director Alex Korda was told he needed six demurely dressed vestal virgins, he snapped back, ”I want 60, and I want them naked!”

Or, as James Thurber once remarked after seeing Cecil B. De Mille’s Ten Commandments, ”It makes you realize what God could have done if he’d had the money.”

History continues to inspire Hollywood execs, from Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln to Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. We even get a history lesson from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) and Brad Pitt’s Troy (2004). Not to forget the forgettable Gladiator (200), with Russell Crowe killing the Roman emperor, Commodus in the somewhat historically questionable coliseum.

But the heyday of historical dramas came with the studios, and the sword and sandal epics, with their “cast of thousands” before CGI made such a claim unnecessary.

kitschy posters

This all comes up because that megaturkey epic, Cleopatra (1963), with Liz and Dick, has been issued on Blu-Ray. All 243 bloated minutes of it. Stilted dialog, purple eye shadow, togas out the wazoo, to say nothing of barges on the Nile. And Rex Harrison as Caesar.

Hollywood is always historically accurate, at least in so far as there actually was a Caesar. After the establishment of that fact, all bets are off. Hollywood has made many Cleopatras, but I wouldn’t try to look for any fact larger than a mouse in any of them.


But accuracy is overrated in history. Some of the greatest artistic successes make for questionable history, such as Shakespeare’s Richard III or Oliver Stone’s Nixon.

The facts may be in question, but you nevertheless feel this is the way it should have been.

It’s like the dictum from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: ”When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

And if there’s not a legend, let the publicity department invent one.

What’s the point of reading all those scholarly books if, once you put them down, you can’t remember anything in them? On the other hand, who can forget Claudette Colbert as Nero’s wife in The Sign of the Cross, bathing in asses’ milk?

sign of the cross colbert bath

So, Hollywood provides us with a history that sticks to the brain like used chewing gum.

Think of your video store as a university.

It begins with prehistory.

raquel welch

Your main problem will be in choosing which movies to watch from the riches available: Do you want Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C. (1966) , Darryl Hannah in Clan of the Cave Bear (1986) or Rae Dawn Chong in Quest for Fire (1981)?

I always go for the last. I tell people it is because of the clever artificial language created by linguist and novelist Anthony Burgess, but it is really because Chong takes her clothes off. Several times.

quest for fire rae dawn chong

When it comes to pharaohs and Caesars, the film world is immense. There must be thousands of movies featuring Romans, from 1908’s silent Julius Caesar to 1980’s Caligula, by Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione, which wouldn’t shut up.

It is interesting: Hollywood loves Ancient Rome, but it ignores Ancient Greece. As I look down the long list of history, I can’t help but notice that every time civilization reaches an apex of intelligence and literacy, Hollywood grows mum. We have lots of gladiators, but few philosophers onscreen.

The pattern holds up in later history, too. It’s hard to find a good movie that takes on the Enlightenment or the Reformation. But give us revolution, debauchery or intrigue, and the cameras start spinning.

You’d think there would be something to film in the 18th century: Perhaps Hollywood has not yet discovered the Duc de Richelieu, who invented mayonnaise in 1756 and was notorious for holding nude dinner parties. I’m sure the two things must be related in a way Hollywood can use.

But there is something about knee-britches that puts Hollywood off. For all the films on the Civil War, there are darn few on the Revolution. Lincoln shows up over and over, but George Washington might as well never have lived. I guess Hollywood thinks he looks too foppish in that satin and wig.

To do their patriotic duty, Hollywood has managed two films on the Revolution. It tried to tart it up once in 1776 (1972) by turning the war into a musical; the next time, it thought it could make Al Pacino sound like an 18th-century Bostonian in Revolution (1985). Both films are predictably awful.


An entire history curriculum could be devised from Hollywood films, matching titles with history’s centuries and movements.

As with any course of study, there are crib notes for those who cannot take the time for the whole thing.

You can get an overview of history from these three films:

1. D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance.

2. The Story of Mankind, with the Marx Brothers.

3. Mel Brooks’ History of the World Part One — ”It’s good to be da king.”

I can’t give you a diploma for completing this curriculum, but I can promise that you’ll have as good a grasp on history as the average American student.