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All About Freedom

  • Dec 15, 2008
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            The most prevalent theme of Sondheim's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is freedom.  This is made evident in numerous metatheatrical devices.  It begins with casting.  Most of the major players in the film are members of marginalized groups in America; British character actors, Jews, liberals, and the obsolete silent film star.  Freedom is demonstrated in the employment of blacklisted actors Zero Mostel and Jack Gilford who manage to break the taboo set against them.  While the delightful metatheatrical song "Free" from the original show had to be cut from the movie, the medium of film allowed director Richard Lester to evoke freedom in a new way.  He was able to break free of the "traditions" of the Roman epic films of the past by poking fun at them.  In a sense, he inverted Hollywood's standards.  There are many elements of the classic epic film present in Forum, but they are mocked.  None is quite as noteworthy as the frantic post-funeral chase which demonstrates freedom by taking the liberty of poking fun at previous films.

            The chase begins in a gladiatorial school, as Pseudolus rushes in to rescue Hero and tell him that Philia is still alive.  It seems fairly evident that this scene is meant to parody the gladiatorial training from Spartacus.  The trainer who is instructing his pupil in the art of hitting someone on the back of the head seems reminiscent of Batiatus, even in his folly as he ends up being crushed by his own "creation."  When Pseudolus is forced to engage in a fight with the pupil, Gymnasia saves his life in the same way Draba saves Spartacus; by throwing a trident.  Lester, however, reverses the use of the trident from Spartacus.  In Spartacus, the trident is thrown from the arena, directly into the Roman box, at the audience.  In Forum, the standard is reversed and Gymnasia throws the trident from the audience, into the arena.  Lester has liberated his film from what the audience calls familiar.

            The chase scene shifts from a parody of Spartacus to a stab at Ben-Hur as Hero takes off in search of Philia.  Like Judah, he drives a team of white horses, but since nothing's easy, he only obtains these horses after losing the ones he initially wants.  After rescuing Philia from sacrifice (as Marcus Vinicius "rescues" Lygia in Quo Vadis), they take off in a less than dignified climb to return to the chase.  As Judah and Messala clash chariot wheels, Hero too must endure having a Roman soldier try to wreck him, but in a bit of a comic reversal, the soldier has his chariot catch on fire from the friction and ends up tumbling to the ground with a handful of horse hair.

            This race isn't a formal contest, as in Ben-Hur, so Lester throws in elements that one wouldn't normally see in a Roman epic chariot race.  Erronius runs through the scene, absolutely clueless as to what's going on around him.  Homage is paid to Roman Scandals when Hero, after falling out of his chariot, runs while squeezing a duck to get people out of the way and Pseudolus "skis" on the broken baseboard of his chariot.  Cyrino calls this a "send-up of the much more deadly incident in the chariot race in Ben-Hur where Messala is thrown from his chariot and dragged behind his team of horses."  This may be, although it should be noted that Hero is dragged behind his chariot several times during the chase.  Regardless of how the water-skiing interpreted, it's not something you see in a typical film set in Rome, demonstrating once again the theme of the freedom to break out of the established norms.

            Since Forum was produced during the rise of the civil rights movement and the rise in unpopularity of the military due to the war in Vietnam, Lester took plenty of opportunities to mock the army, especially with Miles Gloriosus, the "braggart soldier."  In the chase sequence, Miles' chariot is caught on a grinder and begins spinning around in circles without getting anywhere, much like the military.  This thrills and delights the farmer making his grain, much to the expense of Miles' dignity.

            The music playing during the chariot race sequence, and much of the movie in general, seems to echo the triumphant strains from earlier epics.  During the chariot race, it is a jazzed up version of the opening song, "Comedy Tonight."  Since the movie so metatheatrically emphasizes the theme of freedom by breaking free of epic form, it seems suitable that the music playing during the lengthy chase should be a proud remix of the song about theatre and comedy itself.  After all, when it's sung the first time, the cast promises the audience "funerals and chases."

            Lester breaks free from convention once more, at the end of the chase.  While Judah wins a group triumph for the underdogs and Marcus Vinicius arrives to rescue the frightened plebeians, the end of the chase in Forum is anti-climatic.  Pseudolus flies into the Captain's chariot and when he stops, all the other chariots crash together.  With a pathetic whimper, Hero is thrown to the ground by the Captain, the bad guy, who wins the day.  The bad guy isn't supposed to win, and while, in the end, Pseudolus and Hero eventually triumph, for the time being, this goes against every convention.

            To conclude, Forum muses on its own theme of freedom through metatheatre.  In the same way that Pseudolus manages to eventually become free, the movie too becomes free from the slavery of the epic structure.

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Quick Tip by . August 24, 2010
Loved this film, and I am not a lover of the musical genre. Probably one of my favorite musicals because of the comedy of Zero Mostell which is superb. What a shame he was blacklisted, I would have liked him to do more work.
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Jessica ()
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It is my ultimate literary goal in life to be to ancient Greece what Philippa Gregory is to Tudor England. Only better.
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A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the forum was based on the Broadway musical of the same name.  With music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a hilarious script by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, this 1966 movie, directed by Richard Lester lampoons the traditional Roman epic while at the same time making commentary on American society.

Starring Zero Mostel and Jack Gilford, reprising their respective stage roles, the movie was filmed in Madrid, Spain.  It tells the story of Pseudolus, a Roman slave who, through a series of complicated schemes, hopes to win his freedom by winning his master Hero the girl he's in love with, the young Philia.  Complicating matters are Marcus Lycus, who owns Philia, and the great Miles Gloriosus, who hopes to marry the girl himself.
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