Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Yonda Lies The Castle of My Fodda

In his recent New Yorker review of the Jake Gyllenhaal epic Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, film critic David Denby decried the application of what he called "Oxford English" to films depicting the ancient world. 

I actually have more of a problem with the trend of video games being translated into films -- it used to be the other way around until the wildly successful Lara Croft franchise -- than with filmmakers finding a unified voice for their ancient or mythological characters. There's always going to be a lack of dimension in a universe built out of an electronic game; by definition the characters start out flattened and dull and struggle to take form within the medium of film. But perhaps that's meaningless to an audience willing to shell out ten bucks for any extension of a game that's become an integral part of their lives. I don't know -- I stopped playing video games when Millipede disappeared from bars.

But since the introduction of Talkies in the late 1920s, historical pictures have supplied their ancient Romans, Greeks and Egyptians with crisp, theatrically British accents. At least it gives us all a neutral platform from which to absorb the story. Imagine, for example, if the gladiators in the Coliseum spoke in some mishmash of modern-day Italian: "I'm-a gonna get you with-a my sword, you!" 

Worse still would be to have the actors state their lines in flat American tones or regional dialects. That actually happened in one very notable film that will forever live in infamy, the excruciatingly bad Tony Curtis vehicle from 1952, Son of Ali Baba. Rounding a bend in the road in Crusades-era Persia, the former Bernie Schwartz cried out in his unmistakably Bronx intonation, "Yonda lies the castle of my fodda!" Somehow he wasn't laughed off the screen. He even got the girl -- Janet Leigh -- and managed to remain married to her for eleven whole years. 

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