Latin in Hollywood
Although certain Latin words and phrases have been accepted wholesale into English – think of de facto, per capita, magnum opus, etc. (et cetera is another one!) – Latin is still capable of providing a certain gloss to a statement. When a politician talks about the vox populi rather than the ‘voice of the people’ or ‘public opinion’, they climb to a slightly higher level of intellectual discourse. When a demonologist invokes a Latin phrase, it rings with a mythical distance that would otherwise be hard to achieve with plain English. So … is there any Latin in Hollywood?
Of course there is! Not surprisingly, Hollywood loves a nice dab of Latin here and there. In the world of film and television, Latin has served (and continues to serve) an interesting role: offering the ability to shift a character’s level of discourse, reference a religious perspective, or provide a memorable motto.
Knowledge and power
It was not so long ago that Latin, along with Greek, was one of the definitive markers of someone who had received a higher education. In fact, up until 1960, a Latin exam was part of the admissions process for all students wishing to attend the University of Oxford. With that in mind, it makes complete sense that dropping some Latin into a film script immediately offers a gloss of respectability, or higher thinking, upon the character(s).
One of the most famous cinematic examples of Latin has to be the confrontation between Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer) and Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn) in the 1993 western film Tombstone. (Holliday, by the way, did study Latin, and was known to have been fluent). The exchange in the film deals in several well-drawled Latin phrases:
Doc Holliday: In vino veritas. (In wine there is truth.)
Johnny Ringo: Age quod agis. (Do what you do.)
Doc Holliday: Credat Judaeus Apella, non ego. (Let Apella the Jew believe, not I.)
Johnny Ringo: Eventus stultorum magister. (Experience is the teacher of fools.)
Doc Holliday: In pace requiescat. (May he rest in peace.)
All of the Latin phrases are well-known sayings. In vino veritas is cited as a proverb by Erasmus, and refers to the idea that drunk people unwittingly show their true feelings. Age quod agis can be traced back to St Augustine and other early church founders, and is often used to express the idea of concentrating on what you’re doing in the moment. Credat Judaeus Apella, non ego is a quote from Horace’s Satires, with ‘Apella the Jew’ referring to a generally credulous person. Eventus stultorum magister has also been cited as a proverb by Erasmus from the Roman historian Livy. In pace requiescat goes back to the Venerable Bede.
The world of horror
The use of Latin in The Silence of the Lambs makes sense for another reason: if there is a genre of film and television that Latin can call home, it is horror. Since the wildly successful 1973 film The Exorcist, which features an exchange of Latin and French between a possessed child and a Catholic priest, Latin has been invoked as a sign of communicating with spirits, demons, and other spiritual entities. Latin has appeared in a wide range of horror films including The Conjuring (2013), The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005), and The Sixth Sense (1999).
Often when you hear Latin in a film, it is being spoken by a member of the Catholic clergy in some ceremonial context, such as at a funeral. In these contexts, the speech is usually being directed at God.
For an instance of a non-clergy member speaking to God in Latin, there is President Bartlet’s (Martin Sheen) famous diatribe against God in the West Wing episode ‘Two Cathedrals’. Bartlet’s angry speech begins in English, but ends up in Latin; the Latin text and an English translation are below:
‘Gratias tibi ago, domine. Haec credam a deo pio? A deo iusto, a deo scito? Cruciatus in crucem. Tuus in terra servus, nuntius fui. Officium perfeci. Cruciatus in crucem. Eas in crucem!’
I give thanks to you, O Lord. Am I to believe that these things are from a pious* God? A just God, a wise God? I am crucified (or tortured) on the (or a) cross. I was your servant on earth, your messenger. I did my duty. I am crucified on the cross. May you go to the cross!
*Pius is a complex word in Latin. Before Christianity came along it was really about doing your duty, however painful.
Another way that Latin is used by Hollywood is in the form of a catchphrase or mantra. The most famous Latin mantra in film history is probably Robin Williams’s cry of carpe diem! in the 1989 film Dead Poets’ Society. ‘Carpe diem’, which means ‘seize the day’ in Latin and comes from the poet Horace, is used by English teacher John Keating (Williams) as a rallying cry to get his students to make the most of the present.
But Keating/Williams are not alone in grabbing Latin for a mantra. In the 2012 film Silver Linings Playbook, Pat Solatano (Bradley Cooper) uses the mantra ‘excelsior’ in his struggle with bipolar disorder. Roughly meaning ‘higher’, excelsior is the Latin motto on the seal of the State of New York. American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow later used it as the refrain of a popular poem, as an ‘expression of incessant aspiration after higher attainment’.