The ‘vow to a dying soldier’ cliché

In war, people die. Rather a lot. On camera, people die to propel the main character towards some noble goal that sensible people would otherwise avoid. To prove my point, I have three examples for you:

In the most recent Robin Hood film, Russell Crowe’s ‘Robin Longstride’ promises a dying ‘Robert of Locksley’ that he will take a message to the man’s father. It is presumed that the promise was only meant to ease the man’s suffering. However, Robin accidentally pricks his finger while doing it, and suddenly acquires a sense of obligation.

In Kingdom of Heaven, Orlando Bloom’s ‘Balian’ is taking a road trip to Jerusalem to pray for his late wife. However, when he accidentally gets Liam Neeson’s ‘Godfrey of Ibelin’ fatally wounded, he lets the man knight him, and takes on a tonne of responsibility while sensible soldiers like Jeremy Irons’ ‘Tiberius’ are abandoning ship.

In Sharpe’s Eagle, Sean Bean’s ‘Sharpe’ watches as a superior officer orders a comrade, Major Lennox, into a tactically unsound advance, which sees the major fatally wounded, his unit wiped out and, (!!!) the flag captured. When Sharpe and his men get there, the dying major begs that a French flag (an eagle) be planted in his grave. While Sharpe never vocally agrees to the deal – and his superiors interrogate him on that point – he does, eventually, capture an eagle.

At first I thought that this was based on some notion of chivalric honour. Balian is knighted, and Robin Longstride assumes the identity of a knight. But actually, chivalry really isn’t what we’ve made it out to be, and that’s partly the Victorians’ fault.

According to lordsandladies.org, the Song of Roland breaks down chivalry into tenets, such as ‘fighting for the welfare of all’, and ‘persevering to the end in any enterprise begun’. Chivalry was a big deal back in the day. I have heard one (possibly apocryphal) tale of a PoW, who was allowed to go home to collect his own ransom, because he gave his word that he would be back. That is way more civilised behaviour than exists in any modern conflict.

However, there’s an issue here. Godfrey of Ibelin, Robert of Locksley and Major Lennox are all ‘good’ men. In fact they are, arguably, better men than the heroes. Balian murders a priest, Robin Longstride escapes from the stocks before running across the dying Locksley, and Sharpe is up for duelling a fellow officer, despite his general’s orders. There is a sense that the heroes each ‘owe it’ to the dying man to honour his last request, because he was ‘a good man’. This, then, isn’t chivalry.

The codes of chivalry simply require that a knight will ‘keep faith’, there is no sub-clause about whether the other guy was good enough to deserve good treatment. But then, none of these men have been raised as noble knights. Sharpe and Longstride are professional soldiers, while Balian is a blacksmith (the extended version explains that he is a Da Vinci-level polymath, but the studio cut is more believable). These guys respect people for their actions, not their background.

However, a high level of loyalty and respect did run between real-world comrades as well, even when they weren’t knights. One nice example of honour between fellow soldiers is the burial club culture of ancient Rome. This was basically a co-operative insurance scheme, where each man paid into the kitty, and when one guy popped his clogs, the collective purse paid for a respectable ceremony, along with all the appropriate sacrifices and monuments. When you might die in some corner of a godforsaken province at any moment, knowing that you’ll get a good send-off made it a little more bearable.

Robin Longstride and his comrades-in-arms get upset when they realise that Robin has accidentally pricked his finger, theoretically swearing a blood pact. Historical blood pacts are not uncommon, and have happened in many parts of the world. The red sticky stuff was regarded with a degree of reverence, and blood pacts were considered irrevocable. Robin shrugs off the association, but subsequently keeps faith since he was ‘going that way anyway’.

Oaths are powerful things, and when you factor in the multiplier of a dying man’s last request, they can carry a real emotional resonance. Of the three stories, I think the Sharpe storyline uses this motif the most subtly. Sharpe never verbally agrees to capture an eagle. He knows it would be a bloody hard job to accomplish. But still, he will fight to do right by a good man who died in a bad way.

Naming characters in historical fiction

Character names have been a popular subject in recent months. Way back in January, XKCD wrote this post on the statistics of baby names. Then there was this awesome post (one of two) by Jamie Adair, on why George RR Martin chose certain names for characters in Game of Thrones.  And then I spotted this video by Cracked:

So it seems that names are a big deal right now. I figured, particularly as I spent one of my previous posts absolutely trashing ‘Vikings’ for its choice of character names, it might be appropriate to look at some supposedly historical character names.

Names in The Eagle

The first character I want to discuss is from Rosemary Sutcliff’s Eagle of the Ninth, which was recently released as the surprisingly good movie; The Eagle. The hero of the story is Centurion Marcus Flavius Aquila, and in the film he is portrayed by Channing Tatum.

Jamie Bell, Mark Strong and Channing Tatum as Marcus Flavius Aquila
Jamie Bell, Mark Strong and Channing Tatum as Marcus Flavius Aquila

I have got beef with this name. It’s not that it’s a terribly bad name. Instead, rather like the ‘Captain John C. Shepherd Christ’, his name has certain connotations that just seem a bit too obvious. ‘Marcus’ is one of the most Roman names that also has biblical connotations. ‘Flavius’ is a clear nod to the Flavian dynasty of emperors, who ruled the empire around 100 years before this story was set. I actually have one issue with this, because Marcus’s father is a Legate. I am not convinced that the Roman government would give a member of a previous ruling dynasty command of a legion. Maybe that’s just me though.

But my real problem is the cognomen ‘Aquila’. This literally means ‘Eagle’. This name did exist at the time, but when your book is all about a guy going to find an Eagle, calling him ‘Eagle’, albeit in Latin, seems a bit cheap. The trouble is; since The Life of Brian, giving Roman characters names that foreshadow their role has become a bit of a joke. Now, I appreciate that the book was published in the ’50s, a long time before The Life of Brian, but the subsequent BBC radio drama and the film both came after. One tweak is all I’m asking, here.

Names in Assassin’s Creed

But let’s mix things up a bit here. What about the assassins of Assassin’s Creed? Sure, the series do reference a lot of real historical characters. Sometimes the hero is just bouncing between them, but the heroes are all entirely fictional. The first assassin you play as is Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad. In Arabic this apparently means ‘the bird son of no one’. I don’t speak Arabic, but even I know that ‘Alt’ has certain connotations. In Germanic languages it means ‘other’ – as in ‘alternative’. In Romantic languages it suggests heights – as in ‘altitude’ – I also know this because my Uni’s motto was ‘per ardua ad alta’; ‘through hard work, great heights are achieved’.

Altaïr
A graphic illustration of Altaïr engaging in his favourite pastime

I don’t think this is a coincidence. Altaïr is an ‘other’. He is radically different from the less-well-rendered civilians that inhabit his world. He also likes climbing. He *really* likes climbing. Plus heights. As long as there is a well-placed haystack at the bottom of his climb, he has absolutely no fear of heights. I might be stretching the point here, but I think that Altaïr also sounds a bit like ‘ulterior’, which, given that he is an assassin, may be fitting. It may also be worth mentioning that the second main character, Ezio, goes on to have a daughter, named Flavia. So there’s your segue.

Names in Oscar Wilde

While looking for a third example – and deciding not to include Asterix and company – I came across this, by Listverse. The infamous Dorian Gray is apparently based on John Gray; an acquaintance of Wilde’s. The first name change is possibly a reference to the Dorian Greeks (as opposed to the Ionians) who, yes, liked to have their way with teenage boys. There is also an undertone of this in the book, so this might be a deliberate connotation.

Referencing the Dorians may also be a less subtle way of explaining how cultured the main character is. The book came out in 1891, near the peak of the NeoClassical period. Wilde’s readers would’ve known the difference between a Doric and an Ionic column, but few of them would have had the balls to name their child after the classical cultures. Biblical names, such as ‘John’, were all the rage but Dorian Gray is a stranger animal and the reader is meant to know it.

For what it’s worth

I can’t hate authors too much for using these tricks. I once read a statistic that said something like 10% of all women’s names during the Tudor period can be accounted for by Henry VIII’s wives, and even then there are only three different Christian names. Don’t quote me on this one, and if you do know the real statistic, I would love to read it. My point is that historical names (particularly if they come from the Bible) are very common. It is quite hard to make a character seem ‘of that era’, and when you take the generation gap into consideration, it can be particularly tough to place your hero.

Character names can give a subtle indication of who that person is and where they are going. Far more subtle that most visual descriptions. As someone who has never named anything more significant than a guinea pig, I’m probably not the person to talk about naming real-live tiny human beings, but I think that many parents pick a name that they think will reflect who that person is, or who they hope that person will become. Those who create fictional characters do the same thing, with the added complication that their character must seem at home in the world around them. We know the past better than we know the future our children will grow up in.

Does heritage benefit the community?

National Trust Places

Recently, a report from the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) has highlighted that the UK fails to make the most from our heritage. It begs the question of how beneficial is heritage and how should we utilise these assets?

Whilst we consider our historical sites to be culturally important to us, sadly heritage is usually the first sector to be battered by financial cuts.

Last year, the government announced further cuts to its investment into the heritage sector. These cuts were not the first. When the Coalition government came to power in 2010, heritage took an initial battering of cuts from the Comprehensive Spending Review.

When times are hard, governments deem it more important to spend money on more ‘essential’ services like hospitals and infrastructure.

Although, it is wrong to think that heritage sucks up money thus depriving community development. In a previous NTPlaces blog post we have seen…

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Alan Moore – Writer; Shaman; Guardian of History

This week, all kinds of hell were raised when Northampton Borough Council tried to auction off an Egyptian statuette that had been donated to the Northampton Museum and Art Gallery, and a boycott began against the new Hercules movie. In both cases, Alan Moore was a vocal figure; denouncing the shadowy figure of The Man, and calling Him out. But who the hell is Alan Moore, and why should we care?

This is Alan Moore. He’s speaking at the UK Institute of Contemporary Arts in 2009, but I like to think he’s rolling his lucky D20 in 1980.
Published under CC BY-SA 2.0 licence, courtesy of Matt Biddulph

In the context of the news stories, it is important to note that Moore is one of Northampton’s most famous sons. He is known for his work as a comic book/graphic novel writer. ‘V for Vendetta’? That was his idea. ‘Watchmen’ too. Also ‘League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’, and so on. FYI, he really hates the film adaptations of his work, and refuses to watch some of them. He’s also a wizard, and has written books on the subject. He’s also a pagan, and an anarchist, and lived with two wives for a bit, but none of this is important. What is important is that he only really surfaces when he is riled. Personally, I wouldn’t get him riled if I was you. He knows more about Cthulu than you do. Right now, he is riled. Let’s have a look at what has got him into this state.

Selling off the treasures

I’ll be honest, I can’t completely see what all the fuss is about here. The Northampton Museum and Art Gallery is trying to raise money to build a new wing, and in order to do so, it is auctioning off a single part of its collection. The item in question is a statuette of Sekhemka, a royal inspector of scribes during the fifth dynasty. It was given to the museum as a private donation, so they do own it. But there are museums that simply cannot afford to store all of the artefacts they receive, much less display them. Alan Moore’s objection seems to be based on the fact that he has donated some of his own possessions to the museum, and that he doesn’t like the idea that they could just be flogged off by the council with little-to-no notice.

Maybe it’s a fair point; if you give someone a present, there is an expectation that they won’t re-gift it. If an artefact is donated to a museum, there is an assumption that they won’t just flog it off to raise more money. But Moore has displayed this kind of naivety before. When he sold off the film rights for some of his graphic novels, he claims that he had no expectation that they would actually be turned into movies. So maybe Moore should have been a bit wiser to the ugly realities of the world. His graphic novels have no problem depicting the darker side of life, but it seems to be something he doesn’t expect IRL.

But he’s not the only one who’s got beef here. Arts Council England has also piped up. The Arts Council has donated hundreds of thousands of pounds to the Museum over the last couple of years. I guess if I’d given someone that much I would be pretty pissed that they had flogged one thing and raised over ten times that amount. But it also turns out that this contravenes some of their stricter ethical guidelines to do with preserving the past for future generations. So the Arts Council are now looking at retracting the museum’s accreditation, which would mean that it would receive fewer grants in future and have to sell more stuff; spiral of destruction etc. etc.

But the sale is also now being challenged by the Antiquities Ministry of Egypt. TBH, if this challenge is anything like any of the related cases, where countries try to reclaim ancient objects that were removed centuries ago, then I don’t hold out a lot of hope. If Sekhemka wants to go home, he’s going to have to hope for an Egyptian-sympathetic bidder to beat the odds. However, all this attention won’t be doing the museum any good. The loss of accreditation could be devastating, and altruistic rivals with positive uses for Arts Council grants will gladly oust the Northampton Museum from the queue. The dread lord works in mysterious ways.

Boycotting Hercules

Confusingly, there are three Hercules films coming out this year. The Legend of Hercules has already come out, and Hercules Reborn will be out in Hungary later this year. Neither stars anyone I’ve ever heard of, and both look like a poor man’s rehash of all the more memorable swords-and-sandals blockbusters of the century. This seems to happen a lot in Hollywood but, ultimately, they aren’t important. The one we’re talking about is just Hercules, but it’s an adaptation of the comic book ‘Hercules: The Thracian Wars’, which was written by Steve Moore, who is a friend, but not a relation, of Alan Moore. He was also one of the founders of the Fortean Times, so he was a pretty cool bloke.

If you want all the salacious dirt, check out the Bleeding Cool interview with Alan, but to cut a long story short, Steve got screwed over by the industry, and didn’t get a penny from the movie. He wasn’t happy about that, but accepted that the screwing-over was legally sound, and simply asked to have his name removed from the film. Except he had a terminal illness and has since passed away. However, when the obituaries started pouring in, the film’s marketing people took notice, and started trying to use it to drum up attention for the film. Real classy, guys. Oh, and then they claimed that it was the film that was paying for his medical care during the last few years of his life. Despite the fact that that wasn’t a true fact in any way. And that’s why Alan is trying to raise a boycott of the film.

Steve Moore’s name is used prominently in the poster.

I couldn’t find any of the obituaries that really stretch that last point, and they may have been taken down by now. However, most of the news stories abut Steve do mention the upcoming film and the posters all seem to use Moore’s name. This post particularly seems to sum up the hype. So I can definitely see Alan’s point on this one. I had half considered going to see this movie. It does have some really good actors in it, even if they are only going to be people for The Rock to fight/hate/rescue/watch die etc. But really, I could probably save the inevitable £12 it will cost to get into the film and buy myself three or four very nice pints of beer instead, and that will be just as memorable.

Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger.

A Quiet Word With: Historical Cosplayer and Complete Polymath @JanineSpendlove

Janine's Wonder Woman costume

I have a new favourite person. She’s a high school history teacher turned US Marine/pilot/published author, but that’s not why I approached her. Her name is Janine Spendlove, and she designs historical versions of historical twists on iconic fictional costumes. One of the projects she has been working on is a renaissance-era Justice League of America. For reasons.

Janine's Wonder Woman costume

History Mine: How exactly did the idea for the Renaissance Justice League of America occur?

Janine Spendlove: At Dragon*Con 2009 our little group of friends all got together for our traditional Monday night dinner (since it seems we rarely get to see each other during the course of the weekend) and we were discussing all the cool steampunk groups we’d seen. We all liked the concept, but none of us were that into steampunk. My husband, Ron, had been trying to convince us to do a Justice League group for a while, but many of us were not keen on running around in skin tight outfits. So then, and I’m not sure quite how it happened, but Ron ended up jokingly saying “Instead of a steampunk JLA, we should do a Renaissance JLA.” And the idea caught fire.

By the end of the dinner we’d had a ton of people say they wanted to do the group, and claiming their characters (Ron and I immediately jumped on Superman and Wonder Woman, our favourites). By the next year many of the original people who wanted to do the group couldn’t, but over the years some people have added in, and others have left. It’s a really fluid group, and any one is welcome to join us. Honestly the only requirement is that you do a Renaissance version of a DC character costume (villains included) – we want to be as inclusive as possible with this group.

HM: How much research did you do?

JS: I knew next to nothing about historical costuming, so I consulted my friend Maggie at Costumer’s Guide, and she pointed me in the right direction. I narrowed down the era and the country I wanted to go with and then settled on a dress that was fairly historically accurate (I ended up picking an Anne Boleyn dress). From there I printed it out in black and white, and coloured it to get the looks and colours I wanted.

Since we couldn’t see Wonder Woman’s iconic boots, I thought using the overskirt to call back to them would be good, so I went with red, lined with two thick white stripes on the outer skirt. This also minimized how much blue with stars there would be on the under-skirt, since I didn’t want to look like an American Flag. I also wanted to have her bracers, so called back to them by having the sleeves lined in metallic silver.

HM: What are your favourite touches from each of the JLA outfits?

JS: This is hard because I really love all aspects of all the costumes. But I’ll name a couple things. For Superman it’s got to be the red striped poofy pants. They make me laugh, and really remind me of Supe’s ‘manties’. For both Batman and Hawkgirl it’s their lovely leather masks – so perfect! The Wonder Twins… their entire costumes crack me up! Jimmy Olsen’s sketch pad so he can draw us is brilliant. Cyclone’s simplicity and focus on her gold logo is perfect, and for my own wonder woman, my favourite part is my lasso!

HM: There isn’t much of a convention culture here in the UK, so could you tell us about it? It seems like you’re changing outfits a lot!

JS: I’m usually at conventions as a writer now, so 99% of the time when I go, it’s to work. Because of my costuming background I do end up judging a lot of costume contests. But, 5-10 years ago there were days at Dragon*Con where I’d wear five different complicated costumes in a day. I honestly don’t know where I got the energy to make all those costumes and change into them and actually get some quality time in them!

Conventions like Dragon*Con have a lot of group meet-ups and it’s a lot of fun, and I wanted to be a part of as many of them as possible. These days, if I take a costume to a con, it’s usually something to compliment my daughter’s costume, or something subtle (like Disney Bounding). I do always take a big costume to Dragon*Con. Lately it’s been my Thor costume for my Avengers group. SO MUCH FUN!

HM: You based the ‘historically accurate Snow White’ outfit on Claire Hummel‘s cartoon. What was the particular appeal of that outfit for you?

JS: I love Snow White and she’s my favourite Disney princess. I took one look at Claire Hummel’s historical version and was like “I MUST HAVE THIS DRESS, LIKE; YESTERDAY.” It was a very visceral reaction. I loved it! This dress is actually my fourth different Snow White costume, so pretty much if you make awesome Snow White fan art, I’ll probably try to find a way to make a costume of it.

 

HM: How much wardrobe space do you need?

JS: HAH! When I was at my peak (sewing a ton of costumes and wearing 15 different costumes at a con) I had an entire room dedicated to storing my costumes and their accessories (in all fairness, like a third of the costumes were my husband’s since we like to do ‘couples costumes’). Then we moved away from the countryside and our large house to a tiny apartment in the city, and had to get rid of a lot of stuff, so I culled down my costumes. So I’d say that my costumes now fill up an entire hanging closet plus four to five large bins of accessories. And I haven’t even touched shoes…

HM: Could you tell us a bit about your books?

JS: I write all kinds of fiction, military sci-fi, horror, fantasy, and more. But what I’m best known for is my fantasy trilogy; War of the Seasons. It’s about a girl named Story who falls into a world filled with trolls, dwarves, elves, dryads, and really nasty faeries that try to kill her a lot.

My favourite part about writing is the research aspect of it, because whether I’m writing fantasy or non-fiction, I’ve always got to dig into history somewhere. For example, my War of the Seasons trilogy is deeply steeped in Celtic mythology, and that was an absolute blast to research not just the mythology itself, but the time period. My next book series will be based in Norse mythology so I’ve been studying up on Vikings; absolutely thrilling!

HM: How the hell do you fit the time in?

LOL! Well, I have written a blog post about that. The big thing is I prioritize my time. For example, with both my Renn Wonder Woman and Snow White I was in the middle of working on a novel I had to finish. There are only so many hours in the day and there was just no time to do both. So in this case, since no one else could write my books, I hired a friend of mine, Jess, to sew my costumes. She had the time, needed the work, and I knew she’d do an amazing job because I’d seen her other work first hand. Win/win for both of us. There are some costumers out there who turn their nose up at people who don’t sew their own costumes. To that I say I’m very sorry for them and their snobby, cliquey attitude. Costuming should be inclusive, not exclusive.

Thanks very much to Janine for chatting with us. The first book in the War of the Seasons trilogy is available to read for free on Wattpad. You check out Janine’s costumes here and her author website is JanineSpendlove.com. She is on social media as JanineKSpendlove or JanineSpendlove.

If you enjoyed this blog then you might also like some of the other interviews I have done, such as the one I did with the ladies behind Manfeels Park, or my chat with historical Lego modeller James Pegrum.

Can history have suspense if we know how it ends?

Theory: It is impossible to make a ‘big history’ film work, because everyone knows how it’s going to end.

Evidence: From my ‘dark ages of film‘ spreadsheet, here are some examples of films where you probably already know the basic plot, or at least a major event:

  • Gandhi
  • The Charge of the Light Brigade
  • The Young Victoria
  • The Alamo
  • Marie Antoinette
  • Elizabeth: The Golden Age
  • The Other Boleyn Girl
  • Braveheart
  • The Passion of the Christ
  • Alexander
  • Troy

We know that India eventually gains its independence; we know that the Light Brigade is decimated, we know that Victoria shacks up with Albert and they have lots of sex. We know that Davy Crockett and the Texans are wiped out, but that Texas resists Mexican occupation. We know that Marie Antoinette gets the chop (but she doesn’t say ‘let them eat cake’, and neither does anyone else). We know that the Spanish Armada is defeated and Elizabeth dies single. We know that the ‘other Boleyn girl’ doesn’t end up with Henry. We know that William Wallace dies, but that Scotland gets independence (in its defence, I didn’t know this before, but I was only seven when it came out). Jesus dies at the end. Alexander conquers loads and then dies. Paris and Helen briefly shack up before Troy is crushed.

This blog is partly inspired by the show ‘Conversations With Myself About Movies’. In particular, the episode about Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’, because most of the events of the film are common knowledge. We all know how the story of Abraham Lincoln ends.

Maybe I’m being too critical here. I mean, I doubt I’d have the same problem if I was reading a book. Almost all of historical films are adapted from one or more books. This is just another means of telling a story, right? Well… no. Films have set themselves up as more than that. They are entertainment; excitement even. The stories are supposed to be gripping. If you know how the story is going to end, then all you are wondering is, how are they going to show it?

With non-history films, let’s just pick an example; the Matrix. The first time you watched that film, you really didn’t know how it was going to end. Micro-histories like Aguirre, the Wrath of God are also fine. You don’t necessarily know the story, so you can engage with it on a deeper level.

And to that, I have two words; ‘Inglorious Basterds’.

Yeah, you didn’t expect Tarantino to be the saviour of historical movies, did you? If you haven’t watched it, the premise is this; Brad Pitt and a squad of Jews break into Nazi-occupied France and go on a rampage, before using a film premier to try and kill Hitler. Meanwhile a French Jew and her black projectionist boyfriend also come up with another plan…

So this starts off looking like a micro-history. I know Hitler didn’t die in a cinema, so I’m not thinking about the climax. When Pitt and his guys are trying to bluff their way round, pretending to be Italians, I am genuinely concerned for them. And then they go and kill Hitler. Suddenly I can’t approach historical films with such confidence any more. I can’t be certain that they will end the way I think. At any moment, someone could machine-gun a Nazi before his true downfall has come.

What do you think? Do you enjoy historical films on the same level as others? Have a read of my anachronism post, and see whether it gets you worked up.

Do vampires do anything for our perception of history?

I have recently stumbled upon the trailer for ‘Dracula Untold’, which actually looks vaguely historical. Don’t get me wrong here, I know vampires aren’t actually a thing, and if they were they wouldn’t have half as many teenage fangirls. But Dracula did exist. We call him Vlad Țepeș, and he impaled Turks for a living. The upshot of this trailer is that it looks like the film will feature Turks and spikes. So, at a stroke, this is likely to be one of the most historically accurate Dracula films we have seen in decades. That’s a little troubling, considering that this is a trailer where a guy one-punches an army with a horde of bats.

With all this in mind, I thought it might be interesting to have a look at vampires, and ask whether they have actually been a positive thing for students of history. The short answer is ‘no’. Vampires are not a real thing. At best, they will give you a twisted version of events. That said, vampires can be used as a vehicle to discuss common historical themes that are otherwise avoided by mass media.

Disease

Some people have drawn links between the fictional vampirism and real-world congenital disorders. This is a link that the Elder Scrolls games, in particular, have played on. The idea of a treatable disease is also a significant subplot in the Blade films, among others. Disease is a major problem worldwide and, historically, it was much more of an issue. However, this is often ignored. I blame The English Patient.

I once watched most of The Painted Veil, but films about disease don’t really appeal to me (at some point I will watch The Black Death, but only because it looks completely bonkers, and I know that Sean Bean will still be acting seriously serious). Getting back to my point; I don’t think I’m alone. Real-world disease is a box office buzz-kill, but the sexy vampire (along with its cousin, the zombie) is a legitimate target. Vampirism acts as a totem for all the real-world diseases out there.

Culture

From Blade to 30 Days of Night, vampires speak a different language. Maybe this is to emphasise their ‘other-ness’. They are not like us, the English-speaking audience. Or possibly it is there to suggest that their culture is older than the human culture they are now hiding within. If you couple this with species names like ‘hominus nocturna’, then the whole thing starts to remind me of the Neanderthals. Think about it; an ancient race, which predates humanity, and is back for revenge. It’s a studio exec’s wet dream.

Plus, with vampires, you can’t be accused of being racist (even though, that’s really what the undertones here are all about) because everyone knows that vampires are evil, and they are the aggressors. There are whole swathes of our history where race and culture has been used by one group of people to subjugate another. In this case it is worth giving a nod to Interview with a Vampire and Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter for working the subject of slavery into their narrative.

Religion

In the original stories, vampires were heavily linked to Satan. They were unholy, and could be destroyed by holy water or crosses. Over the years, this link has been diluted and increasingly used for comic effect. In The Lost Boys, the tooling up sequence is broken when the protagonists barge into a church service to fill up their bottles at the font. In the farcical From Dusk Till Dawn, holy water condom ‘hand grenades’, crucifix-inscribed bullets, and a cross made from a shotgun and a baseball bat are all used to maximum effect. Vampire films are probably still the most common place to find religion, but I’d like to see a bit more variety than Christians=Good, Vampires=Bad.

Where From Dusk Till Dawn gets it right is in the closing seconds, when the camera pans back, and we see that the Titty Twister bar is actually just the top storey of a Central American pyramid. It turns out that the Aztecs were completely psycho when it came to their gods, so it follows that a temple would be just the place to house the local tribe of immortal blood-drinkers. This is a theme I could really stand to see more of.

Vampires are not a reflection of a historical reality

So, vampires are less likely to teach you about the historical past they are set in, and more likely to teach you the kind of things that the mass media would rather not present with a plain face. But, if you read between the lines, there are lessons to be learned.