My cultural cravings, much like my moods, change according to the seasons. Every year, right around this time, I like to read a work of medieval history and watch sword and sandal epics. Perhaps it's because years and years ago I was not all that interested in modern history, and obsessed with the ancient and medieval worlds.
In terms of medieval history I tend to read things that are contemporary and on the scholarly side. In terms of sword and sandal epics, I go to the classics, since the recent entries in the genre (Alexander, 300, Hercules Reborn, Pompeii, etc.) are pretty lame. Many of the older movies aren't really all that good, but their sheer pagaentry and majesty is something to behold. They make an excellent escape during this trying time of year, when the sun doesn't shine and the cold winds blow. There is something about massive sets and casts of thousands that deeply appeals to me. However, when the ancient world is rendered via CGI and green screen, I feel like I'm just watching an elaborate cartoon.
Here's a list of some sword and sandal epics to pop in this time of year, all of which can be enjoyed on multiple levels.
Charlton Heston's acting was never more muscular. Others may not care for it, but it is one of my great guilty pleasures to see Heston sweat as he delivers his lines with such over the top physicality. Although the message of the film is rather heavy handed, the action sequences, such as the naval battle and chariot race, are absolutely amazing.
This was a famously troubled production, the most expensive film ever made at the time of its release. It is an insane four hours long, and chock full of ridiculous historical inaccuracies. In fact, on the eve of my final in one of my college Roman history classes, I sat down and watched it with two of my friends as a study session. We spent the whole time comparing to the real events and pointing out the problems. We all aced the test. (My favorite part of this movie might be cranky-voiced Rex Harrison as a surly Caesar.)
This might be the least Stanley Kubrick film that Stanley Kubrick ever made. Evidently he was brought in to replace the original director at the behest of Kirk Douglas. The fundamental story of slaves rising up for their freedom is very powerful, as is the famous "I am Spartacus." It also gets extra points for Laurence Olivier's racy "snails and oysters" come on, the presence of the underrated Woody Strode, and Tony Curtis' New Yawk accent in the ancient world.
Just started rewatching this one, which I first saw eons ago as a kid. Victor Mature can really rock a toga, and nobody can play a sneering Roman better than Richard Burton. Like Spartacus, it also stars Jean Simmons, a great actress from this period who seems to have been too much forgotten.
Life of Brian
I know you'll say this doesn't count, but I include it since it is such a great parody of the whole sword and sandal genre, among other things. The beginning, when the three wise men show up at the wrong manger, does a good job of throwing cold water on the reverent airs of old school biblical epics.