A gang of slaves

A funny thing happened . . . .

on the way to the forum

An account of my deservedly short career
as a Roman slave

Years ago when this writer was a lot younger and still curious as to what this planet is all about, he got involved in the production of a motion picture. As this is the sort of thing most people don't do very often, I decided to commit my memories to  paper and record the history of my all too brief stardom on the silver screen.

At the time I was hitch-hiking across the Iberian peninsula and found myself in the Catalazete youth hostel, just outside Lisbon. As usual my lack of funds was in inverse proportion to my need of sustenance, but it was almost impossible to find work in Portugal at that time - the sixties of the previous century - and one was more than willing to grasp at any straw in order to eat. A rumour came my way that Universal Studios in Madrid were shooting a movie about the Vikings and that they were looking for blond extras to impersonate marauding barbarians slaughtering the rest of Europe. 'Not exactly my line of work' I thought, but beggars can't be selective and hungry bodies need food.  I grabbed my pack-sack, said 'Obrigado' to all those who deserved it and hit the road to Madrid.

A week or so later I arrived in the Spanish capital and headed for the youth hostel. This was situated in a large park outside the town - the Casa del Campo. The hostel was a strange place - all the spotlessly clean dormitories were kept locked until visiting Franco youth groups needed them and one smelly and never cleaned double dormitory was keep for foreign visitors - of whom I was one. Mind you, it was well past summer, so all the tourists had left and only professional hitch-hikers remained. It was a very interesting if penniless company I joined.

I found the address of various film studios and enquired about a film about Norsemen, but nobody even knew what I was talking about. Discussing this with some of the other hostellers at night, they decided that working as an extra in a movie was quite a brilliant idea - hence the next morning more than a handful of us continued the search and we hit pay dirt almost immediately.

At the Samuel Bronston Studios outside Madrid they were looking for slaves - another line of work I had never even considered. They were making a movie called "A funny thing happened on the way to the forum" and needed a set of twelve matched northern-looking males to carry a sedan chair. Another sedan chair would be carried by a matched set of southern looking  gentlemen. Trust the Romans to have a fashion in slaves! Pay was to be 600 Pesetas a day and a bus would pick us up early every morning in the town centre and drive us to the set somewhere outside Madrid. Guess what: we all took the job. After a celebration lasting most of the night we set out at an unearthly morning hour and took the early Metro train into Madrid. We were duly picked up near the Plaza de España in the centre of town and an hour later we arrived at the plot.

This was like a new world to me. On the way to the main set I noticed various classical looking buildings in different parts of the landscape. I remember a temple, a Roman villa and something that looked like an amphitheatre. At the time I didn't know that parts of the set were the left-overs of the film “The fall of the Roman empire” which had been shot there in the previous year. The buildings had been left standing and some of them were to be used in this new production. The crew quarters and service huts were outside the the main Forum set and all one could see from there was tall scaffolding and the back of a cardboard town.

A crew member directed us to the costume department where we were stripped of all items of modern life: watches, rings, glasses and all other items that might betray our current century were ruthlessly removed and we were then dressed in our slave outfits. This consisted of a large sack with holes cut into strategic places: one for the head and another two at sides for those people with two arms - as well as a large opening at the bottom to get into the thing. This fetching looking outfit was completed – in my case – with a rather silly looking wig and a fancy pair of sandals. I really liked the foot-wear. The straps wrapped around one's legs right up to the knee. Unfortunately this looks good in pictures, but as soon as one walks, all the strapping  follows gravity and ends up around the ankles, thus becoming a tripping hazard.

One of my fellow slaves was an American and he told me with dreamy eyes that he had come all the way from the USA to be here because he so admired Phil Silvers and his Sergeant Bilko. Unfortunately my own early education had been conducted entirely in Germany and without the help of a television set. Hence I was entirely unfamiliar with both the famous sergeant and his impersonator. I had read through the list of the cast and crew and the only name I recognized was Buster Keaton, whose last motion picture this was going to be. Some years later, when I had been thoroughly Anglicized (and liked it) names like Zero Mostel, Phil Silvers and particularly Michael Hordern and Michael Crawford meant a whole lot more to me. The director of this version of the successful Stephen Sondheim Broadway musical was Richard Lester – who was well known as the director of the Beatles films or – as they were known in Spain at the time - Los Be-at-les.

The market squareOnce properly dressed I was free to explore the set. When the scaffolding was out of sight it all looked most realistic. It depicted an ancient town square with a market area in the middle. Everything look so realistic that I caught myself knocking against walls to see if they were real. The hollow sound told me that there is nothing paper mache can't be persuaded to imitate. Even though cameras were strictly off limits, one of my American friends had smuggled one in and he took some pictures – the only evidence I have of my short-lived career as a Roman slave! The shot on the left shows one side of the colonnaded market square populated by a tribe of Spanish extras.

The rest of that day and till the end of the week was spent exploring this new world of make-believe. As far as I could see, making a movie consisted of lots of talking, rehearsing every once in a while, doing all sort of mysterious things all over the place but to only use  those big movie cameras very rarely for just two or three minutes at a time.

 When finally a scene was about to be shot, life could be very dangerous for us slaves. Even though we were in Spain and the sun was shining from a cloudless sky, several large arc lamps were used to make things even brighter. These were on tall scaffolds and handled by two men each who – standing on two ladders on either side of the lamp - controlled the electrodes which produced the bright electric arc. These two fellows also had to manhandle the contraption to the next location. If you got into their way whilst they did this, it was just too bad. None of your polite “Please get out of the way, kind sir” or even “Get lost you bleeding idiot!” was ever even bothered with - those boys just continued shoving their load right over you. Presumably a bleeding corpse or two lying in a Roman street gave the look of the production an extra touch of realism. Needless to say, we quickly learned to get out of the way pretty rapido.

All sorts of tricks were used to achieve special effects. I remember that whenever a paved road surface was required, two crew members would transform a dried mud road into a paved Roman street in minutes. One of the men carried a iron tipped stick with which he scratched the outline of crazy paving in the dry clay. The other carried a watering can filled with black liquid and poured the stuff carefully into the scratches outlines. The final effect looked unbelievably realistic.
Two slave - myself on the right
The set was part of  a large site containing an amazing amount of landscape. Massive electric generators were far out of earshot of the set and cables were lying about everywhere. There was even a little river  - bone dry - but a large water tank could supply it with a stream of gurgling water on demand.

The crowds milling about the ancient town were a wonderful sight to behold. There were slaves, citizens, street traders, market stall holders and soldiers. There were goats and sheep, donkeys and horses, caged birds and lots and lots of buzzing flies. A  slave market stocked with beautiful girls and less nubile looking Spanish matrons was also to be seen. Mingling with this crowd in ancient dress were members of the film crew running errands. They looked strangely out of place in their modern dress. Costume people distributed drops of sweat, fixed hair and toga before every shot and devised ways to disguise the wedding rings of the female extras – most of whom were culturally reluctant to take them off. Apparently bright rings can reflect a lot of light which, when it flashes across the camera lens, can spoil a shot entirely. It was a wonderful world to explore and every minute revealed a new surprise.

On the right is the second of my forbidden photographs. I'm the slave on the right with a foot on the wagon wheel. Notice the un-Roman looking crew member sitting in the background, He at least was allowed to wear sun glasses!

The director - Richard Lester - known for his sense of fun, was not beyond using a few sly tricks to get the results he wanted. For instance, one scene called for a noisy fight amongst the market traders. Everything was got ready on the sly. The cameras were rolling without the preliminaries of clapper-board and shouts of "Action!". Two old men - previously primed - started to shout and attack each other. Everyone instantly rushed in to either watch the fight or stop it, depending on personal inclination and current state of boredom. This could have worked very well but unfortunately those members of the film crew who were not in on the secret also rushed in to stop the fight - and their modern clothes looked very un-Roman indeed and obviously spoiled that particular shot.

After a few days loafing  duty called. Special care was taken with our make-up, sweat was sprayed onto our foreheads, visible bits of skin were checked for anything glittering or anachronistic and we were finally declared fit fodder for the cameras.  Our scene was quite a complicated one. Two moving sedan chairs meet in the market square, both come to a halt, are set down and the occupants start their dialogue. The problem was that nobody thought of training us - we were just told to come to a halt when a sign was given, put the sedan chair down and look exhausted.

Our sedan chair was occupied by Phil Silvers and a hyena! As hyenas aren't naturally friendly creatures, the animal was connected to its keeper via a metal chain, carefully hidden out of view of the cameras.

That yyena

On the word go, the twelve of us lifted the sedan chair and carried it at speed to the designated point – cameras whirring. Michael Hordern in his role as a hen pecked Roman senator accompanied by the just mentioned hen were in the sedan chair approaching us.The command 'Stop' rang out – and this is when disaster struck. The six men on the left of our sedan chair lowered their load slightly earlier than the six on the right. This of course had the effect of tilting the contrivance – its occupants slithered to the lower side, the chair tilted some more and finally gravity won and the whole contraption tipped over. Pandemonium ensued. Phil Silvers landed on the ground, the hyena attacked the actor, the super structure of the sedan chair - which was held together by a couple of nails and a lot of optimism - collapsed and fell on those wriggling below, half the crew rushed in to save the actor – the other half rushed away to escape from the hyena.  My friends and I watched all this with open-mouthed astonishment. 

Luckily nobody was hurt, but shooting had to stop until the sedan chair was fixed. An inquest into the accident was held and in order not to blame themselves for not training the crew, it was decided that the reason the chair had tipped over was the fact that I was the tallest of the twelve slaves and that my end must have been too high up in the air, thus causing the accident and Phil Silvers' near demise. When the scene was shot again, my place at the right back carrying handle was taken by another, much smaller extra. Phil Silvers refused to have anything more to do with that hyena so our ferocious friend also found himself without a job.

In the final cut of this scene use was made of both takes so that my contribution and the presence of the hyena were not entirely lost to the movie-going public. The accident unfortunately was cut out entirely. In the end justice prevailed and I was not given the sack but told to turn up on the next working day and they would think of something else for me to do.

Thus ended my only week of slavery.

When I reported to the management  next morning I was in for a pleasant surprise. I was given a chit of paper for the wardrobe proclaiming my new job. I had been promoted from ordinary slave to "Doo-ble de Miles". I quickly discarded the idea that I had to run a double mile every day and it became clear to me that I was to be a double for Miles Gloriosus. Miles – ably played by Leon Greene – is a swaggering soldier, as gormless as he is vain – who is one of the main characters of the film. It was he who raped Thrace thrice. His literary ancestry goes  back to Plautus, famous writer of ancient Roman comedies. I was instructed to hang about the set dressed in the same kind of outfit Miles wore. Whenever there was a scene requiring Miles, I was to step forward so that the cameras  could be set up and focussed, the lights could be adjusted and so on. Whenever all this had been achieved,  Leon Green would replace me and act his part.

This sounded like fun, particularly when they kitted me out with a wonderful Roman uniform. A blue tunic and a classy leather breastplate. This impressive-looking outfit was completed by a more than usually rusty Roman broadsword and a wonderful crested helmet, which I wore proudly under my arm. As soon as I was kitted out I swaggered about the set so that my friends – common slaves to a man – could admire me in all my glory. My new job gave me plenty of time to hang about and watch the goings on. I quickly found out that with this splendid uniform I had risen in social eminence. The camera men and those rough and ready arc-lamp wielders now asked me politely to kindly step out of their way when they dragged their gear about. What was even better – all the girls wanted to talk to me, even though I had no more to say than before. To top it all, a nice Eurasian girl who played the dancer Tintanabula informed me that doubles rated refreshments at the cantina – and so they did!

The rest of my time on the set was so interesting and pleasant that it passed in a flash. One or two incidences come to mind. I remember trying to show off my swordsmanship to my friends. One of them threw an orange in the air and in my youthful exuberance I pretended to try and hit the thing with my trusty rusty Roman short-sword. Unfortunately I not only made contact, but I hit the fruit smack in the middle and it sped through the air at high speed, describing an impressive parabola which ended on the rump of a rather surprised looking mule. The animal had been dozing peacefully in the noonday sun. Surprise changed into terror - and if the animal had not been tethered, it might have taken off at high speed, charged right into the scene that was being filmed only thirty or so yards away, tumbling the arc-lights onto the camera men, panicking the actors and finally knocking the director out of his impressive director's chair - never to rise again. Luckily the creature was securely tethered and nobody had seen where this fruity missile had come from, which explains how I managed to hang on to my job for another two weeks.

On another occasion I watched one of my friends - who was still a slave - standing near a cardboard well and looking into the distance in a rather pensive mood. The actor Zero Mostel - who had a reputation for this sort of thing - approached him respectfully and bowed low. He straightened after three or four seconds, took a close look at my friend and declaimed with a totally serious expression:

"I'm so sorry - I thought you were Jesus".

Zero had a point of course - my friend did indeed look rather biblical!

It will readily be seen that I was very sorry when this dream job finished after about three weeks. A year later, when “A funny thing happened on the way to the forum” was shown in London to open the brand new Marble Arch Odeon,  I and my beloved bought tickets for the opening night. To my great surprise it turned out to be a very funny and excellently crafted movie. Right with the opening titles at the beginning of the film I saw my friends and me carrying our load at high speed. There was no sign of the hyena – I only spotted a short sight of the animal much later, when I step-framed through the scene on a DVD.

In conclusion: even though my actual appearance in the finished movie can only be counted in seconds, the fact that I carried a sedan chair containing the leading actor, clearly proves that I had a supporting role in this great movie!

If you wonder whether I am visible on the title picture at the top: Mine is the little face between the front and back uprights of the sedan chair.

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Tudor with sign