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Crassus movie pitch

2012/05/19

This was for a class on Hellenistic Greece and Rome. We didn’t write traditional papers. The professor had us watch Alexander, then read some sources on early Roman history, then give a pitch for a movie treatment based on that.

The essential point of my movie would be that the Roman republic collapsed because any sufficiently wealthy man could raise an army and use it in a way completely contrary to the good of the society. The social structures actually encouraged this because if the self-made military leaders were successful, they would not be punished and effectively get official endorsement. I chose to focus on Crassus, partly because that’s an angle that hasn’t been done to death and partly because he could serve as an illustration of how someone could get seduced into a destructive quest for glory when they should know better. I plan to follow the tradition of Spartacus and other epics and freely mix actors from all over the English-speaking world with little regard to their accents.

Gaius Marius would appear mainly in a prologue section of sorts because I plan to focus on the period after the first civil war. I think I would open on his illegal appointment to a second term as consul. This sets the tone for the rest of the story where the electors decide to just ignore the law because they have an apparent crisis and a popular hero. I would have a scene where a senator objects on these grounds, but is ignored. Marius seems to be the great savior of Rome for a while due to his reforms, but then it becomes clear the main effect was to give generals personal armies, and he is apparently involved in the murder of Nonius. However, through events like the slaughter at the forum, we can also see that Rome is really falling apart independent of him. Then, things get far worse because of his split with Sulla and the resulting civil war. While Marius is clearly highly capable and intelligent and talks about the good of Rome, he is really fighting for his own glory. He would be played by Ian McDiarmid, because that’s a guy audiences know you shouldn’t vote to give more power or allow to live given the chance. Ideally, when he frightens away the assassins, the audience should be cursing their cowardice and they won’t be surprised when he starts killing people more or less on a whim in the streets. He’s about the right age for Marius in the Civil War. We’d just have to use CGI de-aging ala X-Men 3 for the few minutes of the movie that would take place before that.

Sulla doesn’t fare much better. He is the lesser of two evils, but not by much. While he was strictly in the right, at least according to our protagonist Crassus, and didn’t take advantage of his power nearly as much as he might have, he ultimately also fights for his own glory, and marches on Rome, which set a most unfortunate precedent, and ruled through terror and mass slaughter of his enemies. He is less bloodthirsty than Marius, but incredibly arrogant and far more concerned with being thought of as the man who saved Rome than actually saving it. I would end his story with Metella. It isn’t difficult to make him look bad here. While he was throwing parties to improve his social standing his wife took ill and he chose to divorce her and send her off to die alone because he was placed superstition about deaths in his house above whatever love he may have had for her. Afterward, he illegally throws a large funeral and made a big public show of his grief to avoid the social repercussions of this act. Shortly thereafter he remarries Valeria, who I would portray as a much-younger gold digger and continues to carry or with any number of young, attractive women, the quintessential corrupt dirty old man. I would relate most of this information by having his slaves speak ill of him behind his back. This is a sure way to make an audience dislike a character. He would be played by Vin Diesel (with hair), who is known for playing arrogant tough guys and is also a more versatile actor than he is normally given credit for. I think he’d welcome the chance to star in Oscar-bait.

As I related, Crassus would be the protagonist. He would be the classical tragic hero, undone by his ego and ambition. Essentially, he could be seen as the victim as well of the perpetrator of the Roman republic’s political and social problems. Ideally, the audience would like him, but also understand he was a bad person by modern reckoning. Also, since he died fairly early in the process, focusing on him and ending on his death is a good way to keep the runtime under three hours.

I would open on Crassus’s childhood, though in this part of the movie, he would be called Marcus because his father, who would also be Crassus, would be an important figure in this section. This section would basically focus on how the Crassus family is very wealthy and has a celebrated history, the elder Crassus is a frugal public servant and Marcus grows up in a small house. His father believes wealth should be used wisely with a focus on what’s good for the republic and one’s family, not opulence. (This is all terribly speculative, but fits my narrative.) When he is a boy, his father spends most of his time away on his official duties. His tutor favors his older brothers and he is immensely jealous of his peers who seem to enjoy more attention and a better lifestyle and vows that he won’t live like this. We also see the conditions for poor Romans and slaves in this section to set up the idea that his own view of his life is rather distorted.

I would be sure to make a point of Crassus making his fortune through questionable real estate dealings. This would be depicted as shady, but no worse than was common. He uses his fortune to get involved with the military not so much for a love of conquest as a desire for the social recognition that military service brings. Basically, he wanted to be consul and being a general was just a means to that end. I would define his character largely through jealousy of Pompey. He nearly gets killed fighting a gladiator rebellion, and only gets an ovation because it is classified as a slave rebellion, though it’s hardly the same as previous rebellions. Since the audience knows of Spartacus as a hero, this also assures that they understand Crassus is not. Meanwhile, Pompey shows up and steals the credit, then gets a triumph for defeating an enemy rather questionably classified as foreign. Crassus feels this was done just so Pompey would qualify for a triumph when he was given no such consideration. He leaps at future chances to outdo him and agrees to make peace just to appear more magnanimous. From Crassus’s point of view, the public thinks Pompey can do no wrong. He is lauded for slaughtering enemies and equally lauded for sparing them.

He attempts to outdo Pompey by his war on the Parthians, which several characters would point out is not really justified, and ends up severely overreaching and suffering a most ignoble death. The movie would end with the scene of the Parthians throwing a party and using his head as a prop in a performance of The Bacchae.

Crassus would be played by Sean Penn, who’s versatile. I largely picked him because he’s not all that good looking, which is important in setting up his perceived inadequacy. I would have liked Michael Douglas for the sheer irony, but he’s really too old now.

Pompey is younger than Crassus and way better looking. He is also annoyingly virtuous. He distributes war spoils rather than using them for his own enrichment. He has an air of unconvincing modesty and a way of seeking honor and recognition while appearing to be humble, such as when he is illegally elected consul. He makes it seems he would rather not be consul, but is willing to accept the position for the good of Rome and bribes the public with shows while passing himself off as generous and civic minded. Whenever there is conflict, Crassus thinks everyone faults him whenever he comes into conflict with Pompey. He would be played by pretty-boy James Franco.

Caesar is very clever and calculating. To the audience, he is clearly playing Pompey and Crassus for his own benefit, though Crassus is too ambitious to really take heed of this. While the story would end before Caesar got embroiled the direct conflict, he is highly politically influential and concerned with his career. The formation of the unofficial first triumvirate is arranged to give him the upper hand in the future. The audience would all know his basic story, so he would be a supporting character here. He would be played by Karl Urban, who played the role on “Xena: Warrior Princess” and I think is one of today’s hot rising stars after his recent role in Star Trek.

This wouldn’t be a movie with heroes and villains so much as a story about how the fall of the republic was the fault of all the major characters because they all cared more about political power and glory than about their society as a whole or the principles on which it supposedly operated. It would end with a textual epilogue explaining Caesar’s invasion of Rome and how both he and Pompey ended up assassinated but the Republic fell anyway.

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