Hollywood History: Episode 2 – Attack of the Historians…

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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…

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Hollywood History: Episode 1 – The Phantom Authenticity…

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One of the questions that I get asked by some of our regular visitors to Peterborough Museum goes something like this:

‘Have you seen (insert name of film or television drama set in at some period in history) yet?’

A cautious yes will then inevitably lead to the follow up question:

‘So is that what really happened then? Was it really like that?’

It’s something I have an interest in personally, not just with my historian’s hat on, but as someone who enjoys films and is a regular cinema-goer. I enjoy historical movies, as well as dramas on the television and, more often than not, manage to switch off my historical faculties and just try to enjoy the drama for what it is. Even so…

The question of accuracy in the dramatization of historical events on the screen is nothing new, but it has recently been featured in a number of News stories. As has been the case in the last few years during the run up to the Oscars, there have been attempts to question some films fitness to win the Best Film award based on a perceived lack of historical accuracy. Here in the UK there has been a frenzied debate in recent weeks about the way that the First World War should be taught in schools, triggered by comments from the Education Secretary that it was too much of a negative view, particularly as he alleged that teachers were relying on excerpts from dramatized versions such as ‘All Quiet on the Western Front‘ and the television comedy ‘Blackadder Goes Forth‘.

As such, I thought I’d type a few random and rambling thoughts on how history is portrayed dramatically on the screen. In true current Hollywood fashion I’m going to stretch this out over a trilogy, this part looking at criteria for judging film and TV historical dramas, episode two will look at what in my view are some good, bad and ugly examples of historical accuracy in such dramas, and part three will ask whether it matters anyway and to what extent such things can be used as source material in historical study.

Before I go into my criteria then, I thought I’d better put in a few qualifications and disclaimers…

1) This is about historical drama only, that is the dramatization of historical events, adaptation of a novel or creation of an original drama set against the background of a period in the past. It does not include any historical documentaries as that, frankly, is a whole other can of worms. There are some excellent TV documentaries on the television, any fronted by Simon Schama, Michael Wood, Janina Ramirez or Helen Castor are pretty much guaranteed to be of good quality. On the other hand there’s a lot of dross too, mostly some channels endlessly wringing yet another poor quality documentary out of a very obscure part of the Nazi regime. I’m expecting Channel 5 to start screening something entitled ‘Battle Underpants of the Waffen SS’ any day now…

2) This is purely my set of judgements on said films or TV shows, feel free to disagree, but they are my views. That includes my personal prejudices, including that (apart from for the film ‘Gravity’) 3D is a gimmick and complete waste of time. Deal with it.

3) That any review or criticism is, by it’s very nature, subjective. It will depend on the personal interests and biases of the reviewer. An historian of the Early Modern period is likely to be a kinder reviewer of a film set in World War II than an historian of that period, as the latter has more expertise to draw on to find faults (the eternal cry of the historian of ‘it’s not my period!) Likewise expectation will play a part, as the film critic Mark Kermode has observed. One is more likely to be critical of a film that you go into with high expectations but proves to be very average, as opposed to one that you go into with low expectations which are exceeded. As Dr Kermode has been heard to observe on some of his Radio 5 film reviews, ‘I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed…’

4) That some historical dramas will have higher production values and a greater chance of historical accuracy than others by their very nature. Some periods of history or events are considered sacrosanct even by film-makers for fear of offending people. This is particularly the case with events in living memory (back to and particularly including World War II), but also applies to the works of particular authors such as Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. Woe betide the film-maker who interferes with the authenticity of the Regency period in a production of ‘Pride and Prejudice‘, lest they cause the wrath of the ‘Jane-ites’! The medieval period, on the other hand, seems to be fair game for film-makers to do what the heck they like with and, with a few honourable exceptions, seems to be interfered with and misrepresented more than most.

5) That by the nature of drama, there are of course going to be some changes and alterations to events, characters and places as part of any dramatization. That’s perfectly normal and understood to service the needs of the drama and story. Some alterations still manage to beggar belief though…

So with that in mind, I go and see a film at the cinema or watch a television drama. How, as an historian, do I assess what I’m watching? Well, to my mind, there are four criteria, only two of which actually have anything to do with history.

Entertainment value – am I enjoying this film or television programme? It could be argued that this is the most important criteria of all. Even if it’s pure cheese, appalling production values and is pants historically, a film can still be enjoyable. Conversely, I’ve sat through some things which have been very worthy, beautifully produced, but so devoid of entertainment that it’s felt like watching the entire Hundred Years War in slow motion, backwards whilst blindfolded…

Is it a good film? The other crucial one. Is it well written, with a good cast who are acting their socks off, well directed with a great storyline? Is it beautifully shot, with high production values and a cracking good score? Is it more likely to win an Oscar or a Razzie…?

Historical Accuracy – the first of our two historical ones, and the easiest to assess. Does the film portray events in the correct order, and historical characters consistently with the known personalities of the people concerned? Do the actors look like the people they are portraying? Are the costume, manners, set dressing, props, battle scenes, locations, manner of speaking and so forth correct to the period the drama is representing? Or are the actors all wearing wristwatches in the Roman Empire or using a World War II landing craft to do a beach landing in the 12th century…?

Historical Authenticity is rather more indefinable, the sense that even though much of the accuracy and detail may be wrong the drama still conveys a sense of time and place, that you are still transported to a different world in the past that is more than just about costume or location. This can be instantly discounted for any film where Keanu Reeves is asked to do an English accent.

So that’s my criteria, based on these what do I think makes the historical grade, and who should be sent off to copy out Gibbon’s ‘Decline and fall of the Roman Empire’ a hundred times in penance for their cinematic historical atrocity? For that, you’ll have to tune in to the next exciting installment. In the meantime, feel free to comment with your thoughts, or any nominations for good or bad historical dramas….

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