Hail, Caesar: A Classicist’s Movie Review

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George Clooney takes it easy on a lawn chair after being kidnapped in ‘Hail, Caesar!’ (Photo via Indiewire)

It is about 43 minutes since we got out of seeing ‘Hail, Caesar!’, the Coen brothers’ new movie about a Tinseltown film studio during the 1950s. I enjoyed the film immensely, and, well, I have some frayed, butter stained theater napkin notes about the multiple classical allusions in the film.

Before we get to the allusions, let’s talk about the writer-directors Ethan and Joel Coen–and their Classics bona fides. Everyone who has seen ‘O Brother Where Art Thou?’ (2000) knows that the Coen brothers have a love for classical antiquity. The film was later based off of Homer’s Odyssey, although the directors have previously revealed that the script did not begin as a re-imagination of the poet’s tale. It only later became a mix of Homer and ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ The brothers are the children of academics (an art history professor for a mother and an economics professor for a father) and Ethan was also a philosophy major at Princeton. 

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As ‘Big Dan’, John Goodman gives a nod to the cyclops, Polyphemus in ‘O Brother Where Art Thou’ (2000).

I was in a supermarket in Milwaukee in 2013 when I first heard this Fresh Air interview with the Coen brothers. In it, they mentioned that their future project was based on “sword and sandal” movies popular in the 1950s and 60s. I had visited Rome’s legendary film studio, Cinecittà, just a few months prior, and was excited to see the Coen brothers’ take on this period of film history.

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An extra dressed as a Roman soldier at Rome’s Cinecittà in 1959 (Image via Bibliolab).

To begin (and end with), this film has a ring composition. It starts and concludes with a confessional. As humans, we love symmetry, and so ring composition is a quite satisfying mode of storytelling that dates back to classical antiquity. Actually, it is a very Homeric approach to narration. In this opening scene, we are introduced to Eddie Mannix, played by Josh Brolin, who is the managing executive of Capitol Pictures Studio, a film studio currently filming a number of movies on a large studio lot. Certainly the name of the film studio itself is meant to reference the movie’s theme of capitalism versus communism, but it may also be an allusion to Rome’s Capitoline hill. The collis Capitolinus was arguably the most important of the seven hills, and contained the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus as well as the Temple of Juno Moneta–where Rome’s mint produced coinage.

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Josh Brolin as Eddie Mannix in ‘Hail, Caesar!’ The Studio lot map behind him looks strongly like a Roman army camp plan.

As the audience gets to know our main character, Eddie Mannix, we are introduced to the fact that he is defined by a (seemingly) devout Catholic faith and is currently mulling over a competing job offer from Lockheed Martin. Both of these things–Mannix’s religious and his financial duties in life–provide both the protagonist’s struggle and the larger themes of the film. In the words of the headhunter hired to lure Mannix from his film studio job, Lockheed is the stable future and movies are the past. After all, soon everyone will have a television! One couldn’t help but think of insanity of the late Republic in the first century BCE as it transitioned to the more stable empire under the emperor Augustus. The metaphoric transition between Republic and Empire seemed obvious to me, though the film is more directly referencing the tension between democracy and communism in the U.S. during the beginning of the Cold War. It seemed to me that the map of the studio in Mannix’s office was actually a plan of a Roman army camp. This would make Mannix an imperator torn between the past and the (apparent) future.

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Plan of a typical Roman army camp. Mannix’s ‘troops’ are his zany actors, directors, and writers.

Early on, we are told that Capitol Pictures is filming a movie about the death of Christ from the perspective of a Roman centurion, played by George Clooney. The film’s name is ‘Hail, Caesar!’, though this is not Julius Caesar. It takes place during the middle of the reign of Tiberius (I calculated it at 26 CE). If we put aside the fact that Clooney says he wants to head to the Baths of Caracalla (which did not yet exist!) and focus instead on the purpose of showing us these film snippets, the intent seems to be to harken back to the period of sword and sandal movies that gave us ‘Ben-Hur’ [1959] and ‘Spartacus’ [1960].

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Kirk Douglas as Spartacus in the 1960 film Spartacus. This is the famous “I am Spartacus!” moment later satirized rather crudely by Pepsi.

Both ‘Ben-Hur’ and ‘Spartacus’ had ethical and religious overtones that were often quite heavy handed. Spartacus is also widely cited for breaking the Hollywood blacklist by using Dalton Trumbo as its screenwriter. Similarly, ‘Hail, Caesar’ alludes to this conflict by having Clooney be kidnapped by a bunch of communist writers who long for a safe harbor of equality and communism amid the rough seas of Hollywood capitalism. In this context, we can see Capitol Pictures as also referencing Marx’s communist manifesto Das Kapital. A running theme in the movie is certainly whether belief and faith (both in God and in politics) are acted parts: Are these simply affectations or integral to the way one should live?

There are certainly myriad classical names and references to be had–a gossip columnist named Thessaly who has a twin sister named Thora–both of whom reminded me of the fact that rumor and gossip are personified by the Greek goddess Φήμη and the Roman goddess Fama. There are also mentions of the rise of “new men”, which will make any lover of Cicero think of the ascent of the novus homo during the late Republic. However, I was most fascinated by the theme of being caught in between, as it were, in a liminal space. As any historian will tell you, the most interesting parts of history come at its junctures. It is why the transition from the Republic to the Principate draws our students in, but it is also why the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation remain enthralling periods to study.

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Tilda Swinton plays both Thora and Thessaly in the film, twin gossip columnists ostensibly based off of notorious 1930s gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, but also very reminiscent of the goddess Pheme and Fama–the original gossip columnists.

I won’t tell you the decision that Mannix ultimately makes about that job offer, but his comments to the priest in the confessional at the end of the movie outline a question that men, women, and whole nations have had to grapple with: Is it better to do a hard job that you feel worthwhile, or should you do the easier job that seems to be more progressive?

The Roman historian Tacitus couches the decision to accept imperial rule in much the same way in the beginning of his Annals. To Tacitus, the Res Publica is a hot mess, but it is better than becoming enslaved follower-sycophants to an emperor. The irony here is that while Mannix fights for tradition, those communist writers view themselves as slaves on the plantation of Capitol Studio Pictures. So the Republic ain’t perfect either. It is all about perception, and ‘Hail, Caesar!’ leave the audience without a lot of moralizing ends. As the camera pans out in the final scene, the water tower at Capitol Studio reads, simply: ‘Behold.’ In my head, all I could hear was the shout of ‘Ecce homo!–‘Behold, the man.’ Famously, these are the words said (in the Vulgate) by Pontius Pilate as he presented Jesus to the Jews (John 19: 15). ‘Hail, Caesar!’ places its audience into the middle of a religious, political, and social world at a crossroads in the 1950s, but it is a world not dissimilar to the Republic in 49 BCE or Palestine in ca. 26 CE.

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The ‘Ecce Homo’ moment of the Passion of Christ, as depicted by Andrea Mantegna, 1500.

3 thoughts on “Hail, Caesar: A Classicist’s Movie Review

  1. Love your analysis! This movie has so many moments to contemplate. I was initially interested in seeing it (in addition to the fact that the Coen Brothers are my idols) because of the kidnapping of what I assumed would be a Caesar — and I think you can safely correlate pirates with communists. Also, I theorized that the movie was a chiasmus poem, which I believe fits nicely with several of your observations, but I have to see it again to accurately make that claim.

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