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Hollywood hangs on to chaps in straps

London, Dec. 29: Hollywood is preparing for battle. Elephants are to be pitched against Amazons. Achilles will struggle with Alexander the Great. The men of Troy, Sparta and Carthage are being sent to fight it out for the biggest opening weekend at the box office.

It is a war that will feature hundreds of horses and chariots and catapults. Flags will be hoisted over conquered lands and men with swords caked in fake blood will issue heroic calls to arms while dressed in sandals and pleated mini-skirts.

After almost 40 years in which the sword and sandals historical epic languished unloved and almost forgotten by Tinseltown, the genre is back in favour.

Having tired of science fiction, overdone the gangster opus, and moved on from their brief obsession with the Second World War, the studios are falling over themselves to transport us back to ancient times.

At Warner Brothers Wolfgang Petersen, director of The Perfect Storm, is filming Troy, an adaptation of The Iliad with Brad Pitt as Achilles. Universal is sending George Clooney to lead his 300 Spartans into battle against the Persians at the Battle of Thermopylae.

Sony Pictures has Hollywood’s latest favourite action hero, Vin Diesel, in Hannibal, taking his elephants on a jaunt across the Alps.

James Cameron is working on a story about the Amazons and two separate films are in production about Alexander the Great. Oliver Stone has hired Colin Farrell for the title role, after being turned down by Tom Cruise, while Baz Luhrmann has earmarked Leonardo DiCaprio to play the conqueror of nations.

Luhrmann, fresh from the success of Moulin Rouge’s nomination for Best Picture Oscar this year, is set to start filming in Morocco this spring. He may not yet have a guaranteed leading man, but he has the cooperation of Morocco’s King Mohammad VI, an Alexander the Great buff who has promised to provide 1,500 soldiers for the battle scenes.

There will be no musical interludes or legions of dancing Macedonians. Instead. Luhrmann says he wants to do justice to the scale of the achievements of the man he has described as “the world’s first rock star, a fantastic freak of nature”. By the end of 2003, audiences everywhere are going to be wallowing in gallons of Persian blood.

It is a remarkable turnaround for a genre that had seemed destined to become a footnote in film history. The darling of the 1950s cinema, when films such as Ben-Hur and Spartacus won awards and raked in millions, it fell from grace as quickly as Cleopatra fell out of cinemas on its 1963 debut. The film had cost £30 million to make, or £180 million in today’s money.

Titanic, credited with being the most expensive to make, in comparison cost £135 million when it was completed. When Cleopatra failed to earn back a quarter of its cost, the studios were unwilling to touch anything that carried with it the risk of a similar financial disaster.

But every fable needs its hero and for the historical drama its white knight came by the name of General Maximus Decimus Meridius. Ever since Gladiator stormed the world 18 months ago and snared £300 million of box office booty, every executive in Los Angeles has been trying to decide if Sandra Bullock would make a good Helen of Troy or Jean-Claude Van Damme could hack it as Augustus.

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