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:
- The Charge of the Light Brigade
- The Young Victoria
- The Alamo
- Marie Antoinette
- Elizabeth: The Golden Age
- The Other Boleyn Girl
- The Passion of the Christ
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.