Hollywood History: Episode 2 – Attack of the Historians…


In my last blog, I talked about ways in which one can assess historical dramas in film and television, both in terms of their quality as a production and form of entertainment, but also for historical accuracy and authenticity.

What do you mean, you can’t remember what I said…? Go back and read Episode 1 then…

Caught up now? Excellent!

I said I’d spend this second post applying some of those criteria to some films and television dramas, highlighting what (in my opinion) have been some of the good, the bad and the most definitely ugly productions in quality, entertainment and historical veracity. I have had to be very selective, choosing an exemplar for each, but there are many more I could talk about (frankly I am tempted to do a whole ‘Hollywood History’ by time period at some point). Anyway, enough of my waffling, here we go…

Where to start? Well, let’s begin with an example of a film that ticks all the boxes, which for me is Peter Weir’s 2003 film ‘Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World‘. An adaptation of many of the scenes and stories from Patrick O’Brien’s novels set during the Napoleonic Wars, this is a beautifully shot and produced movie that succeeds on many different levels. The film is enjoyable, funny in places (“Lesser of two weevils”), poignant, tense and shocking in its brutal depiction of a sea battle of the period. It also makes (as I can attest from one showing I went to) British audiences let out a suitably patriotic cheer! It boasts cracking performances from its cast, particularly the two leads, ship’s captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) and surgeon Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany) and has a superb soundtrack. Nominated for ten Oscars (it won only two, being up against the juggernaut of ‘Lord of the Rings: Return of the King‘ that year), it is a great piece of cinema.

‘Master and Commander‘ is also a wonderful evocation of a time and place in history. The detail is exhaustively researched and impeccably accurate – the list of historical advisors at the end reads like a who’s who of naval historians. Having sat with devotees of the period through the film, we could find only one fault with its historical accuracy, in a scene on the Galapagos Islands when cricket is being played and the bowlers bowl over arm (something that didn’t happen until the Victorian period). More importantly the film establishes an astonishing authenticity in terms of a sense of time and place. From its opening scenes where the camera goes through the ship at night, with shots of the closely packed hammocks, cannon with graffitied names on, livestock and more, it sucks you into an utterly convincing recreation of life on board a ship in Nelson’s navy. Anyone making an historical drama should be forced to watch this film as an object lesson in how to do it properly.

Some productions may struggle with some of the detail, but still provide an incredible view of the past in terms of an authentic atmosphere. A classic example of this, to me at least, is the BBC’s classic 1976 television dramatization of Robert Graves’ novels in the series ‘I, Claudius‘. Today the production values seem very dated and of its time, being virtually entirely studio bound, and the historical accuracy is somewhat suspect. Costuming, set design and props are based on Hollywood stereotypes rather than any real depiction of Ancient Rome, and the script makes significant changes in terms of events thanks, not least, to the source novels. Having said that, the cast is superb, not least Sian Phillips as the manipulative Livia, John Hurt as a suitably deranged Caligula, and of course Derek Jacobi in the titled role. The drama is superb, and it provides a wonderfully convincing atmosphere of the power politics, backstabbing, murder and general debauchery of the early Imperial Roman court. Gripping stuff.

My next candidate is, I suppose, inevitable. If I’m going to pick a film that may be a great movie, but has no historical accuracy whatsoever, then it really has to be Mel Gibson’s 1995 film ‘Braveheart‘. Let me say that I enjoyed it at the cinema when it first came out as an entertainment (switching my brain off). It’s a great adventure yarn, well filmed, emotive and has some good performances (not necessarily Mr Gibson himself, who sounds like a Rangers supporter channelled via Sydney…). It was critically applauded at the time, nominated for ten Oscars, of which it won five, including Best Film and Best Director.

There’s just a small problem with ‘Braveheart’. Historically, it’s complete crap. Seriously, other than that there was a bloke called William Wallace who fought against the English, pretty much everything else is nonsense.

William Wallace was from a lowland Scots gentry family, not brought up in a Highland bothy as portrayed in the film. As such he would have been dressed and equipped much as the gentry and knights of the period, not as a blue-painted highlander. Besides this, there is no evidence for war paint in this period, nor the wearing of a plaid or kilt prior to the 16th century. Contrary to the assertion that England had occupied Scotland for centuries, in fact the two countries had been independent and at peace for over a century until the last King of Scotland had died and Edward I had been asked to adjudicate. The costuming and set design is awful, such as castles that seem to be composed of sticks and glorified garden sheds. Wallace did defeat the English at Stirling, but at the battle of Stirling Bridge. The bridge was the decisive part of the battle – it’s lack of inclusion actually devalues Wallace’s achievement. Wallace never got as far south as York, let alone sacked it, nor did he sleep with the French princess, who was 3 years old at that time. Edward I did not defenestrate his son’s homosexual lover, nor did he die at the same time as Wallace, but over 18 months later… For anyone who suspects me of an English bias by the way, Scottish historians are as equally, if not more vociferous in their condemnation. If you watch ‘Braveheart‘, enjoy it but don’t believe a word of it. Interestingly, as I’ve noted before, in the run up to the Oscars nowadays films are judged on or criticized for their lack of historical accuracy. On that basis one wonders whether ‘Braveheart‘ would win so many awards now…

Moving on to consider historical films which have no real accuracy, authenticity or quality other than pure entertainment value, my nomination in this category is the Jerry Bruckheimer produced 2004 movie ‘King Arthur‘. The film has a script which makes little sense, is oddly edited (although the Director’s Cut is better), and has some very dodgy performances, not least from its star Clive Owen, who makes the least charismatic Arthur imaginable. His inspirational speeches sound less Shakespearian in their delivery and more like he’s reading a rail timetable for all the passion he puts into them.

Historically, the film is nonsensical. In the opening prologue we’re told that this is based on archaeological evidence (it’s not), that historians agree on a real King Arthur (they don’t) and that it’s 476AD and the Roman army is about to leave – a clever trick as in reality it pulled out in 410AD. For some reason the Saxon army has landed in Scotland and is marching South; they must have been terribly lost as the Saxons actually landed in England. The costume is either based on earlier uniforms (the Roman infantry) or apparently Lord of the Rings (Arthur’s Knights)… And so it goes on… And yet, I enjoy it. It may be complete bobbins and pure cheese, but it’s fun and watchable, one of those films if I’m channel hopping on the television that I come across, I’ll inevitably end up watching. It has a fun supporting cast – Ray Winstone, Ray Stevenson and Mads Mikkelson, a cracking soundtrack (note how many TV documentaries use bits from it) and Keira Knightley in a floaty Pre-Raphaelite dress…

Then we come to the final category, which is where I look at a drama which fails as a piece of entertainment, as a quality production and as a realistic depiction of the past both in terms of detail and atmosphere. This is always going to be subjective, and for many people what I’ve chosen may be unfair as they may well have enjoyed it. But, assessment is, as I’ve said before, often a matter of expectation and of this I had high hopes which I felt were cruelly dashed. So therefore, I give you what is (at the time of writing) what for me is scraping the bottom of the historical barrel, the recent BBC dramatization of the Wars of the Roses, ‘The White Queen’.

I should explain. It’s a period of history I’m fascinated with and have long since wanted to see brought to greater prominence, particularly, as a closet Yorkist, with a more balanced approach to Richard III. This, however did not provide that. With one or two exceptions (Aneurin Barnard wasn’t bad as Richard), the cast were miscast. Max Irons was dreadful as Edward IV – a man who was charismatic, intelligent and irresistible to women, but at the same time was a six foot three one-man battle tank and the greatest military commander of his time. Irons conveyed none of that, whilst the actress playing Elizabeth Woodville was positively wooden. The script was risible and reduced one of the most complex, fascinating and rich periods in English history to an incoherent and turgid mess. Historical accuracy was non existent. Costume seemed to be mostly held together by Velcro and zips, with one hilarious sex scene between Edward and Elizabeth where all their clothes were on the floor in two seconds, which anyone who has ever worn replica costume will tell you is impossible in less than five minutes. Nobody seemed to ever wear a hat – something virtually mandatory for all stations of society in the 1400s – except Cecily Neville, whose hat was so large it seemed, as a friend of mine commented, to be auditioning for its own chat show. The series was filmed in Belgium and just succeeded in looking that at best it was in 15th century Belgium as opposed to England, at worst filmed in a museum, given the faded tapestries that should be bright and new, and the dark ancient furniture. The battle scenes were filmed with twenty extras in plastic armour (Bosworth bizarrely was in a wood with snow on the ground – neat trick for a Leicestershire field in August). This is all before we even get to any broader historical facts. Important characters such as William Hastings or John Neville were missed out, others figures were completely misrepresented. Margaret Beaufort was reduced to being portrayed as a deranged woman trying to get her son to be king from his birth, an idea as ridiculous as Shakespeare’s wilder assertions as Richard III, and a disservice to one of the most intelligent, cunning and remarkable women of her age. Buckingham appeared in 1484 (played by Rory from Doctor Who with a comedy stick-on moustache), a clever trick as his rebellion and subsequent execution took place the previous autumn. I could go on….

Ok, so this seems a bit of a rant, but my expectations were dashed and it could have been so much better (perhaps adapting Sharon Penman’s ‘Sunne in Splendour‘ rather than Philippa Gregory’s novels would have been a start). Filming in the UK and using many of the Wars of the Roses re-enactors to do the battle scenes might have been another. Much of the criticism couched at the makers when it came out was answered by saying that it was a fantasy based on the period, and that events and characters had to be simplified to allow the audience to follow the story without it being too complex.

In answer to the first, why bother filming a drama that is based on the events of the Wars of the Roses if you are not going to stick to what actually happened? Why not just make something up, and with something as rich as this historical material, why would you bother? As to the second defence, that can be countered with three words: Game of Thrones. If people can follow the labyrinthine plotting, complex drama and about 50 major characters in George R.R. Martin’s fantasy, then they should have no trouble with 15th century English history. The two are not entirely unrelated….

So that’s some examples of what, in my opinion, are good and bad depictions of the past in filmed drama. But does it matter? Why should filmmakers try and get it right anyway? Well, for my thoughts on that, you’ll have to wait for the third and final installment…

What’s your view? What makes a good historical movie and what do you think are good and bad examples? Let me know in the comments section…


2 thoughts on “Hollywood History: Episode 2 – Attack of the Historians…

  1. I completely agree ‘Master & Commander’ was amazing,’Braveheart’ was American dross. I thought of Game of Thrones before you mentioned it. We need a good War of the Roses dramatisation made with a big budget.

    • Thanks Adrian, glad you liked it!
      Couldn’t agree more. After the great job they’ve done with Game of Thrones, would love HBO and the same production team with a similar budget to do a miniseries version of Sharon Penman’s ‘Sunne in Splendour’, to my mind the best novel set during the Wars of the Roses. It might also expunge the memory of the awful ‘White Queen’ last year…

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