Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Steven M. Cohan
atomic anxiety, epic, film, history, hollywood
Arts and Humanities
This dissertation focuses on the mid-20th Century historico-biblical epic—a film genre that flourished within Hollywood from 1949 to 1966 and which took as its subject the depiction of the ancient world—and reads this body of films as a mode of historical engagement. I argue that the historico-biblical epic takes the pressure of the terrifying possibility of the end of human history engendered by the atomic bomb and transmutes this into a series of dialectics, between agency and powerlessness, embodiment and transcendence, desire and punishment, imperial zenith and nadir. While antiquity seems to offer the modern world the ability to escape from the traumas of World War II, the imminence of a nuclear Armageddon, and the possibility of no future, the epic renders visible and forces an encounter with the very terrors it promises and seeks to escape. As such, it presents a portrait of an uneasy American culture struggling, and never quite succeeding, to make sense of its own position in time and history.
Chapter one argues that the proliferation of atomic technologies in the postwar period engendered a profound eschatological fear in American culture, a fear reflected in the historico-biblical epic’s concern with heroic agency and impotence. This chapter draws on a wide variety of historical documents, including contemporary newspapers and magazines, the works of public intellectuals, and thinkers in the Christian press, all of whom struggled to make sense of the possibility of the end of history and whether it could (or should) be prevented through human intervention. I argue that the epic, including films such as The Ten Commandments (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), and Spartacus (1960), takes this terror and sublimates it into an ongoing narrative tension between agency and powerlessness, in which the male hero remains enmeshed in forces that exist beyond his control, his agency constantly displaced onto larger forces such as the will of God or onto a future the films seem reluctant to visually represent.
Chapter two argues that the advent of widescreen, inaugurated with The Robe (1953), opened up new possibilities in the way in which the epic framed its temporal and embodied appeals and the way in which it sought to provide an escape from the terrors of modern history. Drawing on midcentury theological explorations of time, industrial and trade discussions of widescreen technology, as well as certain work on time and affect in recent film theory, I explore how the widescreen epic’s emphasis on immersion and embodied presence suggests the ability to escape modernity and experience the fulfillment offered by redemptive Christian time. Simultaneously, the genre’s emphasis on embodiment, both that of its on-screen, Christian convert heroes and the spectator sitting in the audience, draws attention to the limits of temporal transcendence.
In chapter three, I shift into a discussion of the use of color in epic films such as Samson and Delilah (1949) and Quo Vadis (1951), arguing that color’s sensory address, combined with the genre’s emphasis on sexual and material excess, expresses a utopian wish to escape from the mesh of modern, linear time and escape into the perpetual present offered by sexual desire. Drawing on recent explorations undertaken in color theory and situating the films in the context of Cold War anxieties over sexuality, containment, and nuclear annihilation, I also show how the sexual excesses and deviance so conspicuously on display intertwine with the moralizing impulse of the films’ narratives, conjoining the pleasures of desire and death. Through this analysis, I demonstrate how these films expose the fractures in the not-yet-hegemonic ideology of containment.
Chapter four moves into a discussion of imperial and geopolitical anxieties in later epics such as Cleopatra (1963) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). These films provide a conflicted experience of history, one founded on a form of what I call “melancholic utopia,” a hopeful mourning for a brighter future that the films never bring to fruition. In these films, the hero’s aspirations unfold via spectacular displays of armies, vistas, and material wealth, which emerge at key points to create moments in which time is suspended and seemingly filled with vast historical potential. However, these films’ narratives, driven toward failure, suffuse these time-stopping, utopian spectacles with the despair of inevitable historical decline. These films thus provide an experience of history that holds the promise of infinite possibility in productive tension with a deferral of such potential.
West III, Thomas Jefferson, "History's Perilous Pleasures: Experiencing Antiquity in the Postwar Hollywood
Epic" (2018). Dissertations - ALL. 882.