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History professor analyzes masculinity in epic films set in ancient times

Dr. Jerry Pierce assistant professor of history.
Dr. Jerry Pierce, assistant professor of history.

Alexander the Great conquered the world, but he couldn’t win over moviegoers, writes Dr. Jerry B. Pierce, assistant professor of history at Penn State Hazleton.

Director Oliver Stone failed to give his conqueror the traits of a manly warrior that audiences in the 1950s and ’60s had come to expect of heroes of epic films set in the ancient world. While trying to explore Alexander’s ambiguous sexuality and his subservience to his mother – a relationship on which history is murky – Stone gave his hero traits that audiences typically associated with a villain, Dr. Pierce writes.

Where Stone’s 2004 movie “Alexander” drew small crowds and poor reviews, the rebirth of ancient epic films, starting with “Gladiator” in 2000, proved more productive for Dr. Pierce.

A lecture that he gave at a 2010 conference of the Center for the Study of Film and History gained him an offer to contribute the chapter about Stone’s Alexander to a book that came out this year, “Screening Love and Sex in the Ancient World.”

Dr. Pierce wrote a chapter on dying and performing manfully in epic movies for a 2011 book, “Of Muscles and Men: Essays on the Sword and Sandal Film.”

The next article he plans to write will analyze the Starz television channel series “Spartacus.”

In classes at Penn State Hazleton, Dr. Pierce interspersed screenings of Mediterranean films with readings of classics like the “Iliad.” During an interview in his office, he pointed to a stack of DVDs such as “Dr. Strangelove” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” that he was screening before a history class reached the Cold War.

Dr. Pierce said his analysis of film rubs off on students previously accustomed to remaining as intellectually passive as their popcorn during a film.

“They can never watch a movie the same way,” he said.

Students have opportunities to undergo changes at Penn State Hazleton because class size lets them get to know professors, like Dr. Pierce, most of whom have the highest degrees in their field and share their research with their students.

For Dr. Pierce, his research springs from a desire to learn the context of historical events, such as how Martin Luther started attributing specific evils to the devil after suffering persecution.

Dr. Pierce seeks context whether analyzing a movie character for historical accuracy, reading Italian and Latin texts obtained through Penn State’s inter-library loan, or kicking around northern Italy in search of monuments to heretics long dead.

He plans to write an article about the monuments, which he found while researching a book about the heretics published last year, “Poverty, Heresy and the Apocalypse: The Order of Apostles and Social Change in Northern Italy, 1260-1307.”

The book looks behind the eradication of a group led by an end-of-the-world prophet.
Most texts report that the sect in the region of Valsesia succumbed after the Catholic Church sent armies against them.

“Standard histories,” Dr. Pierce said, tend to point out the fate of fanatics “without any context. I want to point out that context.”

Through study, he learned that the group started 40 years before the military campaign. The group’s first leader was executed for failing to obey Rome rather than any doctrinal faults. Peasants, who had moved to Valsesia to maintain their political independence, supported the sect more because of their tradition of rebellion than because of their religious beliefs, Dr. Pierce said.

At Penn State Hazleton, he imparts context while explaining how themes of persecution, resistance and economics play out across eras, while counseling a student for whom he has designed an independent study, or while comparing a film character with a historical figure – like Alexander.

“Alexander,” he said, “was decisive and effective – and reckless, but reckless in a way that emboldened his men … His men followed him from Macedonia, to Greece, to India. That’s pretty effective.”

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