As is well known (as the New York Times likes to say), we stalwart, stout-hearted men of the Left have an inordinate fondness for men in tights. No, I don’t mean Mel Brooks’s Robin Hood and his very merry band of merry men in tight! tights, some of whom are now major studio executives. Rather, I’m talking about role models from an earlier period in human history: ancient Rome.
Time was when togas, breastplates, swords, sandals, and leggings were staples of American movies, especially in the 1950s, when The Robe and Demetrius and the Gladiators gave us a good long look at Victor Mature’s pecs along with the charms of Jean Simmons and Susan Hayward. Of course, nowadays here in Hollywood we no longer consider the Bible a fit subject for motion pictures — too divisive, too judgmental, too un-PC and possibly offensive to the Muslim world — so we no longer celebrate the conquest of paganism by Christianity. If we were to remake either film today — which, thank Gaia, we won’t — we’d kill off Marcellus Gallio and Demetrius in the first reel and turn the rest of the movie over to a real role model: Jay Robinson’s Caligula.
You may not remember Robinson, but for my twelve bucks — and far more than Richard Burton or Michael Rennie or even the great Vic himself — he’s the guy who made those movies so much fun. Robinson didn’t just play Caligula, he inhabited Caligula, preening, strutting, screaming, and practically spitting in Burton’s face as he demands that Gallio, the converted tribune, “renounce your misguided allegiance to this dead Jew” at the end of The Robe. Later, he goes full nuclear on Simmons, as Diana, when she tells him: “I have no wish to live another hour in an empire ruled by you.” And off the lovers go to get their express tickets to Heaven punched by the imperial archers. (If you don’t believe me, check it out on YouTube.)
What got me thinking about ancient Rome lately are all these czars that my president and yours has been creating lately as he gradually changes America from the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire, starring himself as Octavian. (You may not realize this, but the word “czar” actually has its origins in “Caesar,” as does the German word for emperor, “Kaiser.” The things you learn at Columbia!) We’ve got auto czars, energy czars, drug czars, urban czars, a compensation czar, even an internet czar — all unelected, not subject to Senate confirmation, and accountable only to the Emperor BHO II himself. Naturally, a few of the elderly senators have raised some polite objections about the transformation of the United States of America into Augustan Rome, but like the senators in The Robe, they’ll soon get used to taking orders from the Boss if they know what’s good for them — or else Bo the Dog will be sitting in Robert Byrd’s seat as the new senator from West Virginia.
Some of you wingnuts might object that a petulant, half-witted autocrat trapped in perpetual adolescence with the full force of the state behind him, who also thinks he’s a god, is nobody for a progressive liberal to admire. But the more I think about it, the more I and my compadres have begun to rearrange our position; Caligula was basically no different from your average studio suit, and we deal with them every day. Plus, there’s something awfully attractive about being able to get what you want when you want it. And after all the bother we’ve been though about tied elections, recounts, vote theft, ACORN, and the New Black Panther Party standing in the schoolhouse doors, we’re frankly getting sick of this whole democracy thing. There must be a better way. And, luckily, there is.
After all, as your very own Jonah Goldberg pointed out in his hateful book, Liberal Fascism, Benito Mussolini was all the rage among progressive liberals and songwriters in tights until he hooked up with that Schickelgruber fellow, and, now that we take a second look at this obviously misunderstood leader, we like what we see: the atheist pretending to be a Christian, the heroic poses, the jutting jaw, the close-cropped hair, the narrowly focused eyes — wait a minute, I’m swooning . . . .
Anyway, one thing you can say for Mussolini is that he didn’t let troublesome things like elections get in the way of making the trains run on time. Beginning as a Marxian socialist and then working his way up the revolutionary ladder, bello Benito inherited a mess in 1922 when his National Fascist Party ousted the prime minister and forced the king, Victor Emmanuel III, to recognize him as the supreme leader. Acting swiftly to centralize power, Mussolini explicitly harkened back to happier times in Roman history — namely, the empire — and the crowds went wild. Italians felt good about Il Duce, good about the way he took charge, good about the way he roughed up the Ethiopians, good about everything. Until they didn’t, and then he wound up hanging upside down alongside Clara Petacci on meathooks.
Okay, not every story has a happy ending, but we can fix that in the rewrite: The Return of Caligula: This Time, It’s Personal. I have no idea what Jay Robinson’s doing these days, but he’s only 79, and if Clint Eastwood can keep working, so can he.
– David Kahane loves movies about ancient Rome, men in tights, puppies named Bo, and long walks on the beach. You can join him at firstname.lastname@example.org or befriend him on Facebook.