This essay examines occurrences of classical literature in selected American and European films about twentieth-century war. Homer’sIliad and Horace’s line fromOdes 3.2 quoted in the title provide the starting point for an analysis of the influence of the ancient code of heroism on modern education and on attitudes toward war. In the films chosen for discussion, classical models appear as justification for and exhortation to military service or, by contrast, as a means to question blind patriotism and to criticize military irresponsibility.
All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), rightly regarded as the greatest of all anti-war films, shows the common view of Horace’sdulce et decorum to be false, not only in the story it tells but also through quotations from Homer, Ovid, and theGesta Romanorum. The Dawn Patrol (1930) andGrand Illusion (1937) deal with the end of chivalrous heroism in World War I. Simonides’ epitaph on the Spartan dead at Thermopylae is the starting point for an examination of the traditional heroism of World War I inTell England (1931) andKing and Country (1964) and of the American involvement in Vietnam inGo Tell the Spartans (1974).The Thin Red Line (1998), set in World War II, refers to Homer to criticize military elitism and incompetence. But the greatest variety of the use of antiquity in the war film, both verbal and visually, occurs inPatton (1970), illustrating the continuity from ancient to modern warfare. Briefer discussions of classical maxims in connection with two films by Stanley Kubrick (Barry Lyndon, 1975;Full Metal Jacket, 1987) round off the paper. All these films show that, to varying degrees, antiquity is a constant point of reference in the cinema.