In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Classics and Cinema

  • Introduction
  • The Pioneers: Film—Art and Psychology
  • The Pioneers: Antiquity and Cinema
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Studies of Films with Modern and Futuristic Settings
  • Teaching Antiquity with Film: Some Pioneers
  • Teaching Antiquity with Film: Some Moderns
  • Theoretical Reflections
  • Books Notable for Their Illustrations

Classics Classics and Cinema
Martin M. Winkler
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 June 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 June 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0053


“Let Dickens and the whole constellation of ancestors, who go as far back as Shakespeare or the Greeks, serve as superfluous reminders that Griffith and our cinema alike cannot claim originality for themselves, but have a vast cultural heritage; and this causes neither one any difficulty in advancing the great art of cinema, each at their moment of world history.” Thus wrote Sergei Eisenstein, the great Soviet filmmaker, theoretician of cinema, and one of the most influential artists in the history of film, in his 1942 essay “Dickens, Griffith and Ourselves.” Eisenstein regarded Charles Dickens as one of the 19th-century precursors of cinema and here examined his influence on D. W. Griffith, the American film pioneer. Griffith has often been credited with inventing most of the grammar of film language. Since the cinema’s birth in 1895, classical Antiquity has played a major part in the history of storytelling in moving images. Films either present their mythical, literary, and historical material in ancient settings or they transpose classical themes and historical or narrative archetypes to contemporary or even future times. For most of the 20th century, classical scholars and teachers neglected the presence of Greece and Rome on the screen, although there were some honorable exceptions. (Examples are cited under The Pioneers: Antiquity and Cinema.) Since the 1990s, however, classical scholarship has increasingly focused on this area of reception, which is now outpacing all others. Two statements published in The Classical Review, one of the profession’s foremost book review journals, illustrate the change that occurred in less than a decade. In 1999, a reviewer began with the following statement: “The combination of classics and film studies is not a common field of interdisciplinary research” (Classical Review, new ser., 49: 244–246). In 2005, a reviewer observed: “Successfully—and fruitfully—the study of classics and cinema has asserted itself as a leader in the field of reception studies” (Classical Review, new ser., 55: 688–690, at 688). Further evidence may be found in the fact that a highly regarded publisher—Edinburgh University Press—launched the book series “Screening Antiquity” in 2015, which has by now published nine volumes, distributed by Oxford University Press. The hope expressed in 1958 by Paul Leglise, that his approach to Virgil’s Aeneid (see The Pioneers: Antiquity and Cinema) would lead to future research of a comparable nature on other classical authors has now been fulfilled to a greater extent than he may have imagined. Nevertheless, the study of classics and cinema and related media (television, computer videos) is still evolving. It is a broad and demanding field that requires a double expertise from its practitioners: a sound knowledge of all aspects of the ancient cultures on the one hand; close familiarity with film history, technology, theory, aesthetics, and economics on the other. These are preconditions for all serious interpretive work on cinema and Antiquity.

The Pioneers: Film—Art and Psychology

In 1915 and 1916, respectively, American poet Vachel Lindsay and psychologist Hugo Münsterberg published the first books of film criticism and appreciation (Lindsay 2000, Münsterberg 2002). In 1955 French art historian Pierre Francastel introduced the term “pre-cinema” at the second Congrès International de Filmologie (“Études comparées: Compte rendu,” Revue internationale de filmologie, nos. 20–24 [1955]: 62–65). He was by no means the first art historian to take the cinema seriously. So did, and in significantly greater detail, the German art and film theorist and psychologist Rudolf Arnheim (Arnheim 1957 and Arnheim 1997). Sergei Eisenstein, in his voluminous writings about cinema and its artistic predecessors, frequently turned to all visual arts (architecture, painting, photography) and to literature (epic, drama, other poetry, the novel) in connection with cinema. Eisenstein 2010 is representative.

  • Arnheim, Rudolf. 1957. Film as art. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    Short but influential book; English version of Film als Kunst (Berlin: E. Rowohlt, 1932). Several reprints.

  • Arnheim, Rudolf. 1997. Film essays and criticism. Translated by Brenda Benthien. Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press.

    Substantial collection of essays and film reviews covering four decades (1925–1965), adapted from Kritiken und Aufsätze zum Film (Munich: Carl Hanser, 1977). Some overlap with Arnheim 1957. This edition contains a complete a list of Arnheim’s writings on cinema.

  • Eisenstein, Sergei M. 2010. Selected works. Vol. 2, Towards a theory of montage. Edited by Michael Glenny and Richard Taylor. Translated by Michael Glenny. London: Tauris.

    Hefty volume collects major essays written 1937 to 1940. “Montage” (a special kind of editing) is perhaps the key term in Eisenstein’s understanding of cinema; he frequently addresses it elsewhere, too. Originally published by the British Film Institute in 1992.

  • Lindsay, Vachel. 2000. The art of the moving picture. New York: Modern Library.

    First book of American film criticism by a poet and painter. Originally published 1915. This reprint is based on the expanded edition of 1922.

  • Münsterberg, Hugo. 2002. Hugo Münsterberg on film: The Photoplay: A Psychological Study and Other Writings. Edited by Alan Langdale. New York: Routledge.

    Fundamental book about the psychology and aesthetics of viewing films. Originally 1916. This edition collects all of Münsterberg’s writings on cinema and supersedes various other reprints.

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