This article will be published in Fotogenia (University of Bologna)
in 1995

Hannu Salmi:


Color, Spectacle and History in Epic Film

Since the beginnings of dramatic film, narrativization of past
events has been one of the most productive areas of film making.
As the German historian Jörn Rüsen argues, historical narration
aims to make sense of the experience of time.(1) This making of
sense (Sinnbildung) is not a privilege of professional
historians. History is produced in a variety of cultural
products, in novels and poems, in commercials and newspapers, in
TV series and films.(2) During the 20th century, historical film
has been one of the most influential factors in the formation of
historical consciousness.

Film scholars have written countless pages about the history
of historical films, but what has been left untouched is the
question: Can we identify a certain historical style or specific
narrative elements that are typical of cinematic historical
discourse? I am myself convinced that such a style exists. There
are certain signs of historicity, which are needed as markers
that the film in question represents historical narration. One
such marker, which carries historical implications, is the use
of epic music; but there are also many visual elements that are
common to historical films.(3)

The use of color has also played a specific role in this
genre. In the following presentation I wish to concentrate on the
problem of color both as a cinematic attraction and as a
historical attribute. Color seems to exist not only as a physical
term, as something opposite to monochrome, but also as a metaphor
referring either to the imaginative 'coloring' of historical
events or to a certain richness of the past. In the study of
color, it is necessary to study not only the films themselves but
also how they have been received by the public and how the
meaning of color has been perceived.

Color as Attraction

Historical films have been made since the first years of motion
pictures. The Edison Manufacturing Company, for example, shot
several historical tableaux vivants, including Joan of Arc (1895)
and The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1895);(4) and the
French film pioneer Georges Méliès made several short films such
as Cléopatre (1899), Neptune et Amphitrite (1899) and Les torches
humaines de Justinien (1908).(5)

It is difficult to estimate how important a role hand-
applied coloring had in these historical films. According to some
previously released collections of early cinema, films colored
by hand were usually fantastic adventures like Méliès' Voyage
á travers l'impossible (1904), or fairy tales like Pathé's Ali
Baba et les quarantes voleurs (1905).(6) Although the latter
could perhaps be characterized as a historical film in the
broader sense of the concept, usually films which were made as
representations of historical events were not colored. It has to
be remembered, however, that during the early cinema historical
film was not an important genre in the flow of production. During
the first decade of the century, films became longer and soon
hand-coloring was replaced by toning and tinting.

We may still argue that historical narration has accompanied
many of the essential turning points of film history. Italian
ancient spectacles, such as Quo vadis? (1912) by Enrico Quazzoni
and Cabiria (1914) by Giovanni Pastrone, assured film makers of
the commercial possibilities of full-length feature films and
constituted a further step in the development of film narrative.
Since the 1910s, historical film has been an essential genre.

In the society of the spectacle, to use Guy Debord's
terms,(7) history has revived nationally important imagery and,
simultaneously, offered a spectacular 'exit' from everyday life.
No wonder that spectacle has used new technology to astonish the
audience. When color film was invented, it was soon applied for
historical films as a new source of attraction. In this case, the
use of color was not introduced in order to create a more
realistic vision of history. On the contrary, color sequences
were utilized to give a distinctive dramatic emphasis for the
film. Color was a new attraction that could widen the larger-
than-life atmosphere of the spectacles. Early color sequences can
be found from The Ten Commandments (1923) and The King of Kings
(1927) by Cecil B. DeMille, and from Ben Hur (1927) by Fred
Niblo, for instance. In the resurrection scene of The King of
Kings the miracle was accompanied by modern technology: the
screen burst into color when Christ "came out of the grave".(8)
This film was not at all meant as a historical reconstruction;
it was merely planned as a sequel in a longer chain of
representations of Jesus. Cameraman Peverall Marley tried to
recreate the style of biblical paintings, and to duplicate them
on the screen.(9) According to Derek Elley, there are in sum 298
homages to Christian art.(10) The use of early Technicolor
process offered a possibility to go further in this visual

Some film makers were afraid that color would finally prove
to be only one more element that would estrange film ever more
from artistic purposes. They seemed to agree with Aristotle, who
wrote in the VI book of his Poetics: "The most beautiful colors,
laid on confusedly, will not give as much pleasure as the chalk
outline of a portrait."(11) In principle, film makers such as
Sergei Eisenstein agreed with Cecil B. DeMille, who used color
for dramatic emphasis (although DeMille had also used it as an
attraction per se). "Color is good when it is necessary", wrote
Eisenstein, "that means that color [is] good where and when [it]
can most fully express or explain what must be conveyed, said,
or elucidated at the given moment of the development of

Eisenstein seems to suggest that color should be used only
partly in a film, as he did in his own Ivan the Terrible (1944).
Moreover, color has been used ever since in this manner by those
wanting to make their film an artistic representative of the
"cinema of non-attraction".(13)

The history of color in the cinema in general, however, went
in the opposite direction. During the 1930s, color captured a
strong position in film making, especially in Hollywood. It was
not used for "artistic purposes", nor to increase the "reality-
likeness" of cinema. As Edward Buscombe has pointed out, color -
- unlike sound -- "could not be instantly accommodated to the
realist aesthetic".(14) Buscombe continues by arguing that for
early spectators there was something "unreal" in the use of

In the first few years after the introduction of three-
component Technicolor (originally used in the Disney
cartoon Flowers and Trees in 1932), the great majority of
films employing the process were produced within genres not
notably realistic in the sense of their being accurate
representations of what "life" is "like". It can be argued,
of course, that not many Hollywood pictures represent what
life is like; but it nevertheless remains true that a kind
of hierarchy ranks genres according to the extent to which
the world they portray, fictional or not, is close to what
the audience believes the world to be like. Thus at one end
of the scale we find newsreels, documentaries, war films,
crime films, etc. and at the other cartoons, musicals,
westerns, costume romances, fantasies, comedies. Virtually
all the early three-component Technicolor pictures are in
these latter genres.

It must be added that the early Technicolor films where usually
big budget productions. Newsreels and documentaries could not be
done in color simply for productional reasons. Maybe this
inclination to genres that could use color, however, created a
situation where the audience began to associate monochrome with
reality, and color with fantasy.

Many of the early Technicolor films could, however, be
classified as historical films. We only need think of The
Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), or Gone with the Wind (1939).
These historical films could be characterized as spectacles where
color had an essentially attracting function. These films were
not made as realistic representations of authentic past events
or processes; they were made in terms of entertainment and

This state of things cannot, of course, be generalized to
cover all national cinemas. In different film cultures, the use
of color could have had specific functions. For example, in
German historical films, such as Münchhausen (1943) by Josef von
Baky or Kolberg (1945) by Veit Harlan, color became a symbol of
the ability to reach the same technical standard as Hollywood.
A similar kind of symbolism can be seen in some early Finnish
color films. Most of the early color productions were remakes
that were based on national literary classics and that had been
earlier filmed as monochrome. The first Finnish full-length color
film was Juha (1956), directed by Toivo Särkkä. The film was
based on the novel by Juhani Aho and had been earlier adapted for
the cinema by Nyrki Tapiovaara in 1937. Here, color was a
spectacular attraction that was intensified by the fact that the
film was also the first Finnish widescreen film. It offered
national imagery in color, but at the same time color served as
a symbol of the domestic studio system hereby achieving
international standing.

Color as Non-History

Color as attraction is without doubt a central element in the
aesthetics of historical spectacle. Simultaneously, however, it
is also more than an attraction. The use of color in historical
films implies certain ideas about history. Could it be that
"history in color"(16) is conceived as something different in
essence from the monochrome Zeitgeschichte shown by old documents
and newsreels? Are there thus actually two modes of historical
perception in the cinema?

The Swedish film scholar Erik Hedling has located three
subcodes from films that alternate between color and monochrome

1) The color change can signify a turn into mental process narration.
2) It might indicate dramatic emphasis of a spectacular, crucial and/or
symbolically important moment of the narrative.
3) It can signify temporal changes.

The third subcode can be illustrated, for example, by Alan
Pakula's Sophie's Choice (1982), where the present time, the
cinematic "now", is filmed in color, but the flashbacks in
monochrome. As Hedling points out, the use of black and white
film not only marks memories as different from the present, but
also stresses their reality as historical facts.(18) This subcode
can perhaps be traced back to the history of cinematic color in
general, where color has been marked as fantasy. In addition,
however, there is a longer background in the history of color in
other cultural products. We are still used to regarding old black
and white photos as true historical images.

In western culture, there seems to be a certain iconography
of monochrome Zeitgeschichte. This tradition is perhaps even
longer than the history of photography. Michael Camille has
examined the influence of the printing press on the use of
images. In the early days of printing, there was a difference
between the reading of printed and painted images. There are
naturally many difficulties attending any attempt to study the
history of print perception; nevertheless Camille suggests that
"more efficient communication" was associated with black and
white woodcut images, while the "technicolor flashiness" of
painted Franco-Flemish images was more illusionist.(19)

Many of the early books were intended to look like medieval
manuscripts, and the pictures were colored. Printed books were
consciously set into the tradition of the book as a cultural
artefact. During the Reformation, printing technology was applied
not only to generate beautiful folio Bibles, but also to produce
rushed and cheaply printed pamphlets with black and white
woodcuts. Pamphleteers believed in making an impact upon their
large semi-literate audience. Their products were quick-made,
spontaneous. Their black and white roughness was an important
sign to verify and validate their role as instant history.(20)

This "instant" tradition was continued when newspapers were
born during the 17th century. Their monochrome image was a
contrast to colored books, which were seen as the bearers of the
cultural heritage, whereas newspapers merely reporting current
affairs. Of course, this was also a matter of financial
resources. The use of color has been regarded as expensive and
time-wasting; thus, the lack of color is interpreted as more
authentic and documentary. This is undoubtedly the case in the
case of the use of photographed images. The newspapers that
started to publish photographs at the end of the 19th century had
neither the money nor the time to consider the use of color, even
though color photography would have been technically feasible.
In fact, there were many technical problems limiting this
possibility. It was perhaps possible to produce a color photo,
and even print it, but there was no quick means of transmitting
it from the place of the event to the newspaper. As a result of
these many financial and technical factors, most of the
photographs preserved from the 19th and 20th centuries are black
and white images.

Without overgeneralizing, it could, perhaps, be argued that
the history of the 19th and 20th centuries, as a whole, is
conceived as monochrome, since images regarded as authentic from
that period are, as mentioned above, in black and white. It seems
that the use of color is permitted, on the other hand, in images
of former centuries, for describing the time before the birth of
photography. This unwritten codex has a strong resemblance to the
historians' definition of films that are valuable for historical
research. Historians discussed film extensively on international
congresses during the 1920s and 1930s, and an Iconographical
Commission was established to consider what kinds of films
merited archival preservation. According to the Commission,
historically valuable films were only those "which record a
person or period from the time after the invention of cinematog-
raphy and without dramaturgic or 'artistic' purposes: those films
which present a visual record of a definite event, person or
locality, and which presuppose a clearly recognizable historical
interest inherent in the subject matter".(21) According to this
definition, cinema could not describe history before the
invention of cinema, or if it did, it was valueless. In this mode
of thinking, color, of course, was an immediate sign of "artistic
purposes", since it displaced the black and white, instant
roughness of reality. In other words, color meant non-history or
falsified history. Reality had been colored.

Evidently, there must be (at least) two notions of history
operating simultaneously. One code suggests that real history is
black and white, and this code seems to work while describing our
near past, such as World Wars I or II. The other code, on the
contrary, presents history "in color", and openly admits that it
is only a story about, not a window onto the past. This code
seems to work especially while dealing with older history, such
as ancient Greece and Rome.

Color as Metaphor

While reading reviews of American epics of the 1950s and early
60s, the scholar cannot avoid feeling that color was also
understood in a metaphorical sense. The word 'color' is not only
used to refer to visible color effects on the screen, but also
to create a specific vision of history.

Almost all epics filmed in the US and in Italy during those
decades were made in color. The only exception seems to be Julius
Caesar, directed 1953 by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Maybe the producer
wanted to distinguish his Shakespeare adaptation from other
epics, precisely by making it monochrome.

Hollywood epics usually stressed themselves as historical
monuments. Press material catalogued slavishly all the strategic
numbers: how many extras had been used, how many "magnificent
costumes and heraldic trappings" had been made for this "Super
Technirama 70 mm Technicolor epic".(22) Color was presented as
an organic part of this monumentality. Similarly, many reviewers
echoed the magic keyword 'Technicolor'.

In the Finnish reviews of Quo Vadis? (1949), Ben Hur (1959),
and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), the most common
characterization seems to be that they were "colorful" stories
about ancient Rome.(23) One reviewer claimed that The Fall of the
Roman Empire was "the most colorful play" that history could
offer.(24) Here, color is a metaphor which refers to the richness
of events, which is undoubtedly also what these films aimed at.
They present history as a continuous parade where legions march,
masses roar and events flow all the time. This parade could even
be advertised in Leopold von Ranke's words as "history as it
really happened".(25) On the other hand, the reference to
"colorfulness" was also made in order to characterize the many
contradictions of the historical period described, tensions that
seeded "events" and produced history. The use of color as
metaphor implies that just as there are complementary colors or
contrasting colors that create the richness of the spectrum, so
there are also contradictory forces in history, the dialectics
of which pushes the development of history further.

In The Fall of the Roman Empire, an introductory voice-over
underlines that the collapse of Rome was "not an event but a
process". This historical process is, however, focused on some
basic binarities. Even in the first minutes of the film, the
spectator is assured that there is a conspiracy against Marcus
Aurelius (Alec Guinness) which aims to overthrow not only
Aurelius himself but also the peaceful policy he embodies. Later,
the same opposition is represented by the confrontation between
Commodus (Christopher Plummer) and Livius (Stephen Boyd). The
overwhelming plot consists of polarities: war vs. peace, hate vs.
friendship, personal love vs. social loyalty, ethics vs.

These contradictions are brought into the field of visuality
too. In the opening scene, set at a cold, isolated headquarters
on the Northern frontier of the Empire, the sky is covered by
grey clouds. As Jon Solomon writes, the "heavy wooden beams and
thick, snow-covered stone walls remind us that ancient life was
not all marble and eating grapes".(26) After the death of
Aurelius, the film moves from the Danubian frontier to Rome, and
the grey face of the film bursts into colors. The sky is clear
and the magnificent temples surrounding Forum Romanum glisten in
the bright sunlight.

The dialectic vision of history was thus not only a model for
reviewers to comprehend what the passage of time is all about,
but also an idea that guided film makers: A good story had to
consist of contradictions complemented by "colorful" rhizomes.
This can for instance be seen in the press booklet printed to
promote Quo Vadis? to international success:

The dream has come true. Filmed in Rome itself, with
color by Technicolor, on many of the very sites of
Henryk Sienkiewicz's romance of love and faith, of
courage and terror, of lust and luxury, tyranny and
the triumph of freedom even in death, "Quo Vadis" is
offered as a tribute to the finest ideals of the human
spirit, and as a triumph of the myriad human skills
that have gone to the making of a great motion picture
- perhaps the greatest.

In sum, history is seen--or, at least, was presented to be
seen--as an interplay between opposed forces, and the
characterization of epics as "colorful" stories is precisely and
appropriately a metaphor for this historical vision. History was
presented as a huge drama set on a huge stage. The opening scene
of The Robe (1953) is an illuminating example of this dramatic
essence of history. During the overture, credits are shown before
a theater curtain. After the last opening credit, "Directed by
Henry Koster", the curtain is raised and the "colorful" stage of
history revealed to the audience. This kind of multicolor drama,
with its carefully designed white temples and red shields, marble
columns and mosaic floors was often promoted as "something
considerably more than a spectacle".(28)


1. Rüsen, Jörn: Zeit und Sinn. Strategien historischen Denkens.
Frankfurt am Main 1990, pp. 157-158.

2. Salmi, Hannu: "Film as Historical Narrative", in: Film-
Historia, Vol. V, No. 1 (1995), pp. 45-54.

3. More about historical style in Salmi, Hannu: Elokuva ja
historia. ("Film and History") Publisher: Suomen elokuva-arkisto.
Painatuskeskus, Helsinki 1993.

4. Musser, Charles: The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen
to 1907. History of the American Cinema. Vol. 1. General Editor:
Charles Harpole. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York 1990, pp. 86-

5. Elley, Derek: Epic Film. Myth and History. Cinema and Society
Series. London 1984, pp. 173, 188, 200.

6. Early Cinema. Primitives and Pioneers. Vol. I & II. British
Film Institute, Film & Video Library.

7. Debord, Guy: Society of the Spectacle. Black & Red, Detroit
1977; Debord, Guy: Comments on the Society of Spectacle. Verso,
London 1990.

8. Matthew 27:53.

9. Solomon, Jon: The Ancient World in the Cinema. South Brunswick
and New York 1978, p. 112.

10. Elley, op.cit., p.43.

11. Poetics by Aristotle. Translated by S. H. Butcher. Electronic
Text Available through Internet Wiretap (gopher

12. Eisenstein, Sergei: "Colour Film", in: Movies and Methods.
Volume I. Edited by Bill Nichols. Berkeley and Los Angeles,
California 1976, p. 383.

13. This term "cinema of non-attraction" was used by professor
Jan Olsson (University of Stockholm) in a lecture that dealt with
Swedish film censorship and that was delivered in the Conference
of Cinema and TV Studies in Turku, Finland (February 5, 1995).

14. Buscombe, Edward: "Sound and Color", in: Movies and Methods.
Volume II. Edited by Bill Nichols. Berkeley and Los Angeles,
California 1985, p. 88.

15. Ibid., pp. 88-89.

16. "History in Color" is a slogan from an advertisement of an
Italian spectacle Achilles (L'ira di Achille, 1962), directed by
Marino Girolami.

17. Hedling, Erik: "Color and Monochrome in Lindsay Anderson's
if...: An Analysis", in: Lähikuva 1-2/1988. Special issue: Nordic
Cinema Studies - Nordisk filmforskning, p. 63. See also Hedling,
Erik: Lindsay Anderson och filmens estetik. Diss. University of
Lund, Lund 1992.

18. Ibid., p. 63.

19. Camille, Michael: "Reading the Printed Image: Illuminations
and Woodcuts of the Pélerinage de la vie humaine in the Fifteenth
Century", in: Printing the Written Word. The Social History of
Books, circa 1450-1520. Edited by Sandra Hindman. Cornell
University Press, Ithaca 1991, pp. 259-267.

20. Cf. Cole, Richard G.: "The Reformation Pamphlet and
Communication Processes", in: Flugschriften als Massenmedium der
Reformationszeit. Beiträge zum Tübinger Symposion 1980. Hrsg. von
Hans-Joachim Köhler. Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 1981, pp. 139-145.

21. Cit. Aldgate, Anthony: Cinema and History: British Newsreels
and the Spanish Civil War. Scholar Press, London 1979, p. 5-6.

22. Quotations are from the press material of El Cid distributed
by Samuel Bronston's press bureau. General Reader "El Cid", in:
Finnish Film Archive.

23. Cf. reviews in e.g. Turun Ylioppilaslehti (February 9, 1962),
Kotimaa (March 3, 1961), Helsingin Sanomat (March 5, 1961).

24. "Historian värikkäin näytelmä: Rooman valtakunnan tuho", in:
Uusi Maailma 7/1964.

25. Advertisement of The Fall of the Roman Empire, in: Sunday
Times Colour Magazine March 22, 1964.

26. Solomon, op.cit., p. 57.

27. Press book Quo Vadis?, in: Finnish Film Archive.

28. General Reader "El Cid", in: Finnish Film Archive.