Humour and Antiquity in Film: Roman Scandals and Monty Python’s Life of Brian

  • Lada Stevanović Institute of Ethnography SASA, Belgrade
Roman Scandals, Life of Brian, antiquity, film, parody


Antiquity appears in films from the very beginning of cinema. As in other examples of reception, the presence of antiquity depends on the context of reception, the specificity of the medium which includes the relationship with the audience, as well as the personal mark of the author. The subject of this paper are two movies set in antiquity: Roman Scandals (1933) and The Life of Brian (1977). Both films are comedies, the plots of which are set in the ancient past, and both are satirical, meaning that they have a contemporary social sting. Also, both comedies belong to the genre of swords and sandals (if we take this as an umbrella term for all films related to antiquity, and not only the epic sagas of the mid-1950s and 1960s), revealing a similar, parodic attitude to the mentioned genre. The film Roman Scandals, a musical comedy with elements of burlesque, is set both in contemporary America (the midwestern city of West Rome) and ancient Rome, constructing the complex process of identification and differentiation with ancient Rome. All this has to do with the remarkable usage of Rome in American culture and history, especially since the time when America started to break ties with Britain. This is explicitly marked in the scene of the exhibition in the Museum of Rome, which, as it is emphasized, belongs to the period of the Roman invasion of Britain. Humorous twists are numerous, being constructed in language, in problems of adaptations and dialogues between cultures, and in the parody of the genre and its motifs. The Life of Brian also parodies the genre of swords and sandals and its subgenre – biblical and Christian movies. Although both films are set in antiquity, the humorous procedures construct the satirical tone, which always bears a contemporary social sting. The anachronisms, and overlapping of history and contemporariness are constructed differently in those two films. However, they both raise, among other things, a question crucial for the research field of classical reception (to which this paper belongs), and that is the way in which antiquity is used in the invention of tradition (Hobsbawm). The paper also gives attention to the genre of parody, which already appeared in antiquity, continuing its existence through the Middle Ages, especially regarding the sacred texts and forms which, according to Bakhtin, all had their parodic version. In view of the fact that both films construct humour in numerous ways, the paper focuses particularly on the humorous procedures set in the context of antiquity, which among other things, raises the question of the attitude towards antiquity that these films pose.


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How to Cite
Stevanović, Lada. 2021. “Humour and Antiquity in Film: Roman Scandals and Monty Python’s Life of Brian”. Issues in Ethnology and Anthropology 16 (1), 135–154.