High-budget, action–adventure movies that are heavy on special effects tend not to be educational.
While that is true for the recent summer blockbuster “Wrath of the Titans,” its Blu-ray release does provide a mini history lesson on the movie’s use of Greek mythology given by California State University, Dominguez Hills history professor James Jeffers, who was invited to take part in the “Maximum Movie Mode” special feature on the disc.
In Maximum Movie Mode, viewers can choose either the “Path of Man,” where they get a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the movie and what went into the special effects scenes or how various creatures took shape, or the “Path of the Gods” and learn from Jeffers and other experts in classics, archaeology and history about the Greek mythology from which the movie borrows, the importance of those allegorical tales to Greek life, and their lasting impact on storytelling to this day.
“I really liked how they did it,” Jeffers said of the special feature. “I liked the DVD special approach because I could imagine how the audience who is watching this movie, a younger audience, has less background in Greek mythology and might get something out of it.”
An ancient world historian who specializes in the Roman Empire and early Christianity, Jeffers wasn’t exactly expecting a call from Hollywood. However, it turns out that the book he wrote in 1999, “The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era: Exploring the Background of Early Christianity,” caught the attention of producers of the special feature. One of the plot points in “Wrath of the Titans” centers on the Greek decline of worshipping the gods.
“The producers of the documentary had seen my book and were interested in me for several different things, but particularly for the transition from ancient traditional Greek mythology to the Hellenistic embrace of something like monotheism, a movement among philosophers toward believing in a single creator that kind of set the stage for the coming of Christianity,” he said.
Jeffers, who received his master’s and doctorate in history from the University of California, Irvine, said he was initially drawn to a focus on ancient world and religion from his professor, Dick Frank. What interested him most was being able to connect many disciplines—philosophy, religion, history, anthropology and sociology—in trying to “understand the interplay of religion in other aspects of society.”
It’s that cross-disciplinary approach that brought him to CSU Dominguez Hills in 1989 as an instructor in the interdisciplinary studies (IDS PACE) program. He left in the late 1990s for a position at his undergraduate alma mater, Biola University, but returned to CSU Dominguez Hills in 2003 to head another cross-disciplinary program, the Humanities External Degree (HUX) program before making the move in 2007 to the History Department, where he teaches world history, ancient world, medieval history, Renaissance/Reformation, and senior seminars.
Some of what Jeffers says in the “Wrath of the Titans” special feature might be familiar to students who take his classes. He said he brings discussion of mythology into many of his courses in part because the stories, which formed the basis of the ancient Greeks’ belief system and how they explained the world around them, help us better understand them, and also because the myths’ themes still resonate.
“Students read that [Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’] and say ‘I get this,’ ‘I understand what they’re feeling.’… We still connect with it 2,000 years later,” Jeffers said.
Although Jeffers is a fan of mythology, Jeffers would not consider its use in movies his favorite genre. He had seen the 1981 “Clash of the Titans” but not its 2010 remake, of which “Wrath of the Titans” is a sequel.
“When they contacted me about this second movie and if I wanted to be a part of it, I went out and watched the first. I got a pretty good idea of what they were going to do in the second one,” he said, adding that when the interview took place “Wrath” was still in production. “They asked me a series of questions, so it was kind of interesting to think about how they were going to use my responses.”
In the Maximum Movie Mode feature, Jeffers and the other experts recount some of the more well-known Greek myths to help provide further context on who these characters and creatures are in the movie. “Wrath of the Titans” doesn’t follow any existing mythological tale, but draws from its famous characters and creatures to tell a new story. Jeffers said mythology purists might be disappointed by that, but “what they’re doing is what we’ve always done with myth, which is to reinterpret and adapt it to the society it’s being presented to. That’s always been the power of myth.”
Jeffers said the whole experience was fun and interesting, but sadly he didn’t get to go on location or chum with Liam Neeson, who plays Zeus.
“I joke about it,” he said. “We’re right there on screen together.”
Who knows, maybe his next book will have Hollywood calling again. Jeffers is currently working on a book that looks at the life of the common man in ancient Greece and how they lived and interacted with others “as a way of understanding the movements of that time, particularly the growth and birth of Christianity, from the inside. Because my interest is in early Christianity, my interest is in the average person, rather than the elite, how they lived, what kinds of challenges they faced.” His intent, he said, is to give the reader a sense of what it would have been like to live in that time.