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Some of the best stories ever told have reached us in the form of myth. It is only logical, then, that filmmakers turn to classical mythology to look for great movie ideas. For this list, we have taken into account films that are based on Greek mythology.
Period pieces such as Oliver Stone’s Alexander (2004) and the heavily fictionalized 300 (2006) were accordingly left out. Finally, we have sorted them in chronological order, from earliest to latest. With that said, here are our top 10 movies about Greek mythology.
Helena (1924, Manfred Noa)
Helena is a silent epic masterpiece by German director Manfred Noa. Although not devoid of problems, it may be nonetheless the best adaptation of The Iliad ever made. With a running time of over three hours, it had to be released in two parts: the first one covers the Rape of Helen by Paris, which angered her betrothed Menelaus and effectively resulted in the Trojan War.
The second installment narrated the Fall of Troy, concentrating on the actual content of The Iliad. The highlights of the movie, apart from being fairly true to the source material, are the epic scale of everything in it. The enormous number of extra actors Noa hired put a strain on the studio’s finances. The beautiful scenery, constructed in the finest style of German Expressionism, is also a standout.
This movie is often considered to be the first depiction of mythology on screen.
Orpheus (1950, Jean Cocteau)
Jean Maurice Eugène Clément Cocteau was a thoroughbred artist: poet, playwright, visual artist, journalist, scriptwriter, designer, novelist, and of course filmmaker. As a result, his films have the distinct mark of the poet, being non-linear, dreamy, and surrealist. His debut film from 1930, The Blood of a Poet, was also the first installment of his notorious ‘Orphic Trilogy’, continued in Orpheus (1950) and Testament of Orpheus (1960).
Orpheus tells the story of the titular Orphée, a Parisian poet and also a troublemaker. When a rival poet is killed in a café brawl, Orphée and the corpse are carried off to the Underworld by a mysterious princess.
From here, it follows the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice almost to the letter, except it is mid-20th century Paris and the boat which is supposed to take the hero to the Underworld is a Rolls-Royce.
Black Orpheus (1959, Marcel Camus)
Another metaphorical take of the Orpheus and Eurydice story, this time in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. Orfeu is a young black man, who meets the love of his life during the carnival only to lose her. He then has to descend into the Underworld to recover her.
The colorful setting is enhanced by the use of technicolor, a technology that was still not very common at the time. Regarding the more technical aspects of the film, not only the impressionist camera work is to be praised, but the soundtrack is also superb, full of excellent bossa nova tunes by Luiz Bonfá and Antonio Carlos Jobim.
Antigone (1961, Yorgos Javellas)
Who would better capture the essence of Greek mythology than the Greeks? This adaptation of Sophocles’ tragedy Antigone follows the play closely, only differing in the end.
Irene Papas is superb in the role of the titular character, the daughter of Oedipus, king of Thebes. When he steps down from the throne, a bloody struggle for succession ensues and Oedipus’ two sons, Eteocles and Polynices, are killed. The new king, Creon, forbids their burial, and after Antigone buries her brother against the king’s orders, she is ordered to be walled up alive.
This is where the real tragedy of Antigone starts, and its portrayal in the film is excellent. The music by Argyris Kounadis is also commendable, and it was rewarded with the Best Music prize at the 1961 Thessaloniki International Film Festival.
Jason and the Argonauts (1963, Don Chaffey)
Now we move from a very human tragedy to the supernatural adventures of some demi-gods. Probably the best work of stop-motion legendary artist Ray Harryhausen (his last film, Clash of the Titans, was also a strong contestant to enter this list), its fantastic creatures such as the hydra, the harpies, and the iconic skeleton warriors were impressive achievements for the time.
The story it is based on is the tale of Jason, a young warrior who seeks the golden fleece in order to gain power and build an entourage that would let him claim the throne of Thessaly. He and his followers embark on the boat Argo (thus the Argo-nauts) and go through several perils and adventures in their quest for the legendary pelt.
Medea (1969, Pier Paolo Passolini)
Medea is based on the same myth of Jason and the Argonauts. In this film, Medea is played by the famous opera singer Maria Callas, although she does not sing in it. Medea is Jason’s lawful wife, but over the years he grows tired of her and seeks to marry a Corinthian princess, by the name of Glauce.
But betraying Medea is not a particularly sound choice, as she is well versed in the dark arts and plots revenge against him. This is told in a tragedy by Euripides, which the film follows quite closely.
The Odyssey (1997, Andrei Konchalovsky)
The tale of Odysseus (Ulysses in Roman sources) is so complex and long that it could not be told in a single film. This is why Andrei Konchalovsky directed this miniseries, with a total running time of almost three hours and impressive proximity to the story Homer wrote over 3,000 years ago.
We follow Odysseus from his call to arms to fight the Trojan War to his return to Ithaca. In the middle, he fights his way against cyclopes, sea monsters, and various dangerous goddesses. Worthy of mention is the cast of Sir Christopher Lee in the role of the blind sage Tiresias, and the original Antigone, Irene Papas, as the queen of Ithaca.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000, Joel and Ethan Coen)
This is another adaptation of the Odysseus story, but this time on a comical note. Directed by the Coen brothers, and starring Coen films regulars George Clooney, John Turturro, and John Goodman, this film is often referred to as a modern satire.
Instead of the Mediterranean and the Greek islands, O Brother… takes place in Mississippi, in 1937. Clooney, Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson are three escaped convicts who escape the various dangers of the American South during the Great Depression and seek to retrieve a ring lost by Penelope (named Penny in this version of the story).
Troy (2004, Wolfgang Petersen)
This film is famous for its star-studded cast, complete with the likes of Brad Pitt, Eric Bana, and Orlando Bloom. Unfortunately, while it does a poor job following the events of the Trojan War, it does so spectacularly.
The special effects were certainly impressive at the time, and they still are. But the fact that it concentrates too much on the romantic involvements of the characters and not on the war itself may confuse some Greek mythology purists. Overall, it is an enjoyable and entertaining Hollywood blockbuster with an ancient Greece theme and loses ties to the original myth.
Wonder Woman (2017, Patty Jenkins)
The most recent entry on this list is also, unfortunately, the only one to be directed by a woman. Patty Jenkins does a good job in capturing the essence of a myth not often told in film, the story of the Amazons.
Diana (Gal Gadot) was raised on the island of Themyscira, home of the Amazons. These were a race of highly trained female warriors, created by Zeus to protect humankind from the vengeful god Ares. The film takes place between a mythical time where the Themyscirans live, 1918, and the present, but the telling of the Amazon myth is priceless.
Many Greek myths have been adapted to the silver screen, some of them multiple times, such as the Trojan War, Jason and the Argonauts, and the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.
Some modern retellings of the old myths adapt them to modern-day settings, but some others try very hard to capture the essence of antiquity. In any case, Greek mythology enthusiasts are bound to enjoy every installment in this list.