Signposts: History Films
History is an unending dialogue between past and present. As Jeffrey Richards discusses here, this is as true of historical films as it is about the writing of history. Sometimes it is possible to glimpse not only the world that is the subject of a particular film, but the concerns of the time when it was made.
Most people today learn much of what history they know from popular culture. More enduring and more influential than almost any academic history is the popular cultural memory. This is a heady amalgam of painting, poetry, novels, plays and films, a version of history that is essentially unconcerned with causes and consequences, economics and statistics. It centres firmly on the colourful and the arresting, on battles and boudoirs. It remains true that there are more historical films about kings’ mistresses than about the rise of the gentry, the Industrial Revolution and the Reformation put together.
Feature films can never convey historical truth because of the demands and constraints of the medium. There is a limit to the amount of history you can include in a two- or even three-hour film, particularly if it claims to be covering 20 or 30 years. Also the drama often demands that characters are eliminated or merged, events telescoped, historically insupportable confrontations invented and chronology altered.
Historical films tend to come in cycles, dictated by box office returns. We are currently in the midst of two such cycles: the ancient and medieval epic and the monarchical soap opera. Both cycles confirm the axiom that historical films are always about when they are made and never about when they are set.
More feature films based on the Bible and the history of the Roman Empire were made by Hollywood between 1950 and 1965 than in any other period of cinema history. Why? One reason was technological – the rise of television. During the 1950s cinema audiences halved due to television and the spectacular recreation of the ancient world in colour and widescreen was something cinema could do that television then could not. The other reason was ideological. The United States was engaged in the Cold War with the Soviet Union and its domestic by-product, the McCarthyite purge of Communists, liberals and radicals. So blockbusting epics such as Quo Vadis (1951), The Robe (1953) and The Ten Commandments (1956) explicitly painted ancient empires such as Rome and Egypt as godless totalitarian tyrannies, analogues of the USSR, making heroes of their opponents as God-fearing democratic Christians and/or Jews. When the Cold War thawed and the ancient world epic lost its box office appeal the cycle ceased.
The ancient world epic, defunct for 35 years following the box office failure of Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), was triumphantly revived in 2000 by director Ridley Scott with Gladiator, which basically crossed Fall of the Roman Empire with Spartacus in a stunning visual recreation of second century Rome and the reign of the tyrannical Emperor Commodus. This was made possible in part by the technological development of computer-generated imagery (CGI), which was used to supplement built sets and hordes of extras. Yet the politics of the film were not Roman at all but contemporary. Scriptwriter David Franzoni said: ‘The movie is about us. It is not about Ancient Rome; it’s about America.’ It can be seen as a critique of Clintonian America at the time with a government mired in financial and sexual scandals and embroiled in overseas adventures, while the public wallowed in a culture of sports, entertainment and celebrity.
Scott’s ideological standpoint became clear from his two succeeding epics, Kingdom of Heaven (2005) and Robin Hood (2010). In all these films the hero is a humble-born warrior seeking – wholly anachronistically – to promote democracy. In Gladiator Russell Crowe’s Maximus kills Emperor Commodus and restores the republic, though it is more the Jeffersonian American republic than the old Roman variety. In Kingdom of Heaven, a story of the Crusades inspired by the post 9/11 threat of Islamic fundamentalism, Orlando Bloom’s Balian preaches peace and multi-culturalism and knights all the men-at-arms, undermining the class system. In Robin Hood Russell Crowe’s Robin seeks to impose Magna Carta, the charter of democracy, on the tyrannical King John.
The other cycle is the one centred on the British monarchy. Cinema has always been irresistibly attracted to monarchy. It has concentrated inevitably on the famous and larger than life monarchs, notably Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. The figure of Elizabeth has fascinated film-makers, in particular the idea of the woman whose womanliness is in conflict with her queenly duties and time and again in films she has had to sacrifice personal happiness to her duty: as in The Private Lives of Elizabeth & Essex (1939), Young Bess (1953) and The Virgin Queen (1955).
Elizabeth was back, in the person of Cate Blanchett, in Elizabeth (1998) and Elizabeth: the Golden Age (2007) which successfully blended the excitement of the political thriller with the conventions of soap opera. The Indian director, Shekhar Kapur, admitted basing his interpretation of Elizabeth on contemporary figures, the first on Indira Gandhi and the second on Princess Diana. Producer Alison Owen said of Elizabeth: ‘We have not changed facts but manipulated time periods.’ They have certainly manipulated time periods as they crammed events from a 20-year period into the nine years of the film 1554-63. But they also invented facts with reckless abandon, not perhaps a surprise when you realise that both Elizabeth films were scripted by Michael Hirst, who has also written the four television series of The Tudors in which Jonathan Rhys-Meyers plays an inexplicably slim-line Henry VIII and which treats his marital misadventures with all the gleeful sensationalism of the fondly remembered American soaps, Dallas and Dynasty.
The latest cycle of monarchical films was sparked by the phenomenon of Princess Diana and the much-publicised travails of the current royal family. But these films serve only to strengthen the institution as they simultaneously mythologise and humanise the monarchy. They mythologise by casting famous stars as famous monarchs and they humanise by showing the royals experiencing the same emotional problems as their subjects, with the added burden of public duty and public expectation. This has now extended from the Tudors to the House of Windsor, with Helen Mirren winning an Oscar for her portrayal of Elizabeth II in The Queen and Colin Firth for his performance as George VI in The King’s Speech.
The trend looks unlikely to end.
From the blog: The best historical films
Jeffrey Richards is Professor of Cultural History at the University of Lancaster.
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