Hannibal on Houston Street
He brought war and devastation to the Mediterranean for a generation — but don’t ask him about his personal life.
On a sleepy Monday evening in early December, I wandered along Houston Street toward the Film Forum, one of the few low-key, local institutions left standing in this neighborhood. The Film Forum has sponsored a “Roman Hollywood: American Movies go to Italy” series, screening films like ‘It Started in Naples,’ ‘Gangs of New York,’ ‘Ben Hur,’ and two showings of ‘Roman Holiday’ for good measure. The night I went, they were screening the 1959 Italian production ‘Hannibal.’ Going in, I knew very little about the film. Mainly I was hoping to see some ginormous elephants plodding across the Alps, and that’s exactly what I got. Elephant expectations, fulfilled.
The best parts of the film for me were its rather impressive recreations of the moments that historians continue to marvel at. A good fifteen minutes or so of footage is (appropriately) dedicated to Hannibal’s incredible stunt of crossing the Alps with an army of tens of thousands of soldiers and a herd of elephants in 218 BC. Watching infantrymen clambering up snowy cliffs with what looked like hemp-wrapped feet to varying degrees of success was a surprisingly gripping string of scenes. The reenactment, though not perfect, has the intended impact: you are left in awe at this feat of human genius and perseverance. Similarly, seeing the battle of Cannae and the infamous “pincer movement” — a tactic that is still taught in military academies today — being acted out by 20,000 extras was quite a treat.
Some of the more confounding elements have since been explained with some quick Wikipedia-ing. During the film, I noticed a small lag between sound and picture for some of the actors. It turns out that this was not due to bad technology, or at least not in the way I was thinking of. ‘Hannibal’ is an Italian production, so apart from the two lead actors of Hannibal (Victor Mature) and his Roman love interest, Sylvia (Rita Gam), all of the actors were Italian and their lines were dubbed into English in post-production. Between the Italian actors playing English-speaking roles, the 20,000 extras, and, of course, the elephants, this film set must have been quite a scene to witness in itself.
While the audience was on the whole rather sleepy (sometimes literally, with a resounding snore interrupting more than a couple of intense scenes), there was one specific moment during the fictionalized romantic narrative that elicited a reaction from everyone in the theater. When Hannibal’s Carthaginian wife unexpectedly shows up in the camps to the dismay of his lover who betrayed Rome to be with him, Hannibal, played by a leathery Mature (who might as well be the doppelgänger of “Sex and the City”’s Chris Noth) attempts to win Sylvia back by telling her, “I do not have to explain my personal life to anyone.” Baffling as a wooing tactic, totally anachronistic in its phrasing, and a stark contrast to the present context of the “Me Too” movement, this line got a massive laugh from the (mostly male) audience.
I could go into more detail and outline the historical inaccuracies and anachronistic references to “history,” but what’s the fun in that? I think 20,000 Italian extras and a couple dozen elephants may get you a pass on historical rigor. Watch out for that 1950’s misogyny though, that’s the kicker.