If you haven’t noticed, counterfactual histories are *so* hot right now

Dracula Untold

While it’s not required reading, I have previously covered some elements of this topic in my article about how knowing history can undermine the plot lines of historical stories. It might be worth reading that article before you read this one.

Dracula Untold is out in cinemas this weekend. As I have already mentioned, the film looks like it will sit somewhere between genuine history and straight-up fantasy. This makes it a prime example of a ‘counterfactual history’; a ‘what if…’ scenario where we tweak one or two facts and see what happens. ‘Dracula Untold’ asks ‘What if vampires actually existed at the time of Vlad Țepeș?’ and then draws the logical (but also bat-shit crazy) conclusion.

DraculaUntold

This new release is just the latest in a wealth of counterfactual films, games and TV shows that have come out in recent years. Now, media producers tend to tweak facts in almost every single historical story. For example, that classic Braveheart is riddled with historical inconsistencies, from the tartan kilts to the people who were present at the battles. This is done for convenience, rather than to twist the course of events, so these examples don’t really constitute counterfactual histories.

One of the early big hitters in this list is 2004’s ‘King Arthur’, which took the titular myth and twisted it to fit a Roman/Saxon theme. Arthur himself became a Roman; Guinevere was now a Briton, and Lancelot and the other knights were Sarmatian auxiliaries. The story itself was within the realms of possibility, and was definitely grounded by the manly camaraderie between the knights. The love triangle is played down, and the whole thing works pretty well. The only slightly unbelievable area is when the audience is supposed to believe that there is a peaceful transition to a Romano-British kingdom under Arthur.

It’s not as if they had Boudicca riding an elephant into the Forum Romanum.

‘Ryse: Son of Rome’ is a major counterfactual leap away from reality. In the game, Nero has two sons; ‘Basilius’ and ‘Commodus’, who incite a rebellion in Britain that sweeps all the way back to the streets of Rome. The player goes on to kill those two sons, and also Boudicca, and finally Nero. None of these things actually happened. In combat games, there is a need for boss battles. But over a limited period of time, it is hard to introduce new characters and give them a detailed back story. Ryse cuts corners here by using historical figures out of context; ultimately, the story suffers for it.

But let’s move away from Romans. Another game series that relies heavily on counterfactual history is Assassin’s Creed. The premise of that series is that Earth was previously inhabited by a race of aliens who left artefacts of immense power, which two rival secret societies are fighting over. The series then posits that several significant historical events have been used as a cover for these conflicts. As far as counterfactual histories go, this one is pretty high maintenance.

But what if we go further than that? The eminent History Behind Game of Thrones blog argues that the entire premise of Game of Thrones might be based on counterfactual questions. For example, several female leaders, from Anne Boleyn to Lucrezia Borgia, have been accused of incest. What if those rumours were actually true? What if Richard III really didn’t murder the princes in the tower? Would the Middle Ages have been a less bloody time period if chivalry hadn’t existed? Sure, Game of Thrones is a fantasy, and as the seasons progress, I suspect the dragons and white walkers will have a bigger part to play, but without those historical questions it would be a lot shorter.

Ultimately, counterfactual histories are a way to have some fun with history, to engage with it, and ask *why* things happened the way they did. If you change one detail, what subsequent events also would have been altered?

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A Quiet Word With: The Enigmatic Australians Behind @WtfRenaissance

The acerbic wits behind WTF Renaissance are not the first people to notice how ridiculous Renaissance paintings were. But they are possibly the first people to highlight that ridiculousness by contrasting pictures with droll C21st captions in a very successful Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook trio that has spawned many imitators, but no equals. For this reason, we thought it was high time that History Mine had a chat with the mysterious individuals.

History Mine: Who are you?
WTF Renaissance: The artist(s) choose/s to remain anonymous to protect her/his/their privacy.

HM: What inspired you to create the blog in the first place?
WTFR: A terrible combination of art school, comedy writing and having not much else on. Plus, these paintings are ridiculous.

HM: Do you come across renaissance paintings a lot in your daily life?
WTFR: Only when we Google search them every day.

HM: Does the painting inspire the caption, or the reverse?
WTFR: Both. Sometimes we’ve got some Taylor Swift gear that will not quit. Other times, someone in a painting has weird eyes and we want to talk about that.

HM: What is it about the pictures that makes them comic gold?
WTFR: Our fully sick captions. Actually, we don’t know. But if we don’t laugh while we’re writing them, they don’t get posted. There are a lot that didn’t make the cut.

HM: Will you ever run out of weird renaissance paintings?
WTFR: Never. Sometimes we use non-renaissance paintings and people lose their minds. Their insane comments are far funnier than anything we could ever write.

Everything else will remain a mystery. If you’ve enjoyed this interview, be sure to check out WTF Renaissance on Twitter, WTF Renaissance on Tumblr, and WTF Renaissance on Facebook. You might also enjoy some of our other off-beat interviews.

Why the Avengers belong in the Dark Ages

Ok, that title is pretty confrontational, so I’m going to dive right into this. The six core members of the Avengers (as depicted in the record breaking film) are Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, The Hulk, Black Widow, and Hawkeye. Reading between the lines, their signature attributes are; a shield, armour, a hammer, big muscles, a female body, and a longbow.

Captain America versus ThorThese things have been around for donkeys’ years. Sure, you can add caveats; they have gadgets and gizmos, Black Widow packs a pistol, Iron Man’s suits are powered by advanced power sources, and use an AI OS. Two of them can fly, and a third can apparently jump really, really far. The Avengers don’t really belong in this century. Kick them back a millenia, strip them of those caveats, and they will feel a lot more at home.

In fact, the same sort of thing can be said for Guardians of the Galaxy. In that squad, two individuals use bladed weapons, and a third uses his tree-fists(?). The bad guy waltzes around with another war hammer. It’s almost like Marvel doesn’t think the toughest people in the universe would want to use guns. The most relevant weapon in that movie was Yondu’s yaka arrow, which he controlled with the pitch of his whistle.

In The Avengers flick, the most interesting weapon was shot, what, once?

Seriously, just arm your planes with these bad boys; no Avengers needed.

Of course the real reason why there are so many brute force weapons in this squad is because the comic book industry thrives on physical combat. Gunfights tend to end quickly. But when you’ve spent many pages building protagonists and antagonists up, the real test of who is the toughest will come in a mud-wrestle to the death. And there will be many fake deaths.

Doing wrong by Native American cultures

The other day I was watching Cowboys and Aliens. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a great concept, with top actors, great CGI, and terrible writing. Case in point? At one point the posse stumbles upon a paddle steamer. It is upside down, “500 miles away from any river big enough to hold it”. No further explanation is given, and, if this is supposed to be an indication of just how messed up things have gotten, there are no other examples.

cowboys and aliens

But the point I wanted to make is about the film’s portrayal of  the Chiricahua Apaches. Their introduction comes via a swift ambush on the beleaguered posse. When the unconscious protagonist comes round they are being shoved around the camp by a mob of ululating braves. A dead member of the posse is aggressively thrown on the fire, and things look like they’re going to go south pretty quickly. [SPOILERS] occur, and attention shifts before things can get out of hand. Eventually, an alliance is formed, and the Chiricahuas heal the protagonist’s amnesia with psychedelics.

My point is, the tribe only seems to be there to drive the plot. The main character needs to start of with amnesia because the plot demands it. But when the writers needed a way to heal that amnesia quick, they got them some of that Injun magic. I’m no expert with psychedelics, but I’m pretty confident that they can’t just heal unspecified mental trauma on demand. Still, the confident way the Chiricahua chief  says “they will take care of that” implies that they’ve done this thousands of times.

At the end, the main town of Absolution becomes a [SPOILER] mining town. This is despite the fact that the major deposits of [SPOILER] that we know about (because of plot) are right in the middle of Apache territory. I have a hard time believing that the Chiricahuas would just roll over and allow that. I also have beef with the fact that the white men are willing to let the fugitive protagonist ride off into the sunset because of their shared experiences, but presumably run the Chiricahuas off their land despite the fact that THEY ALSO SHARED IN THOSE EXPERIENCES.

But let’s stop picking on this particular film. These are actually some pretty common themes.

For example, in the Call of Juarez game, an Apache medicine man called Calm Water appears as a quest giver. Because of him the protagonist, Billy,  learns how to use a bow and horse, and climbs up a steep mesa to retrieve an eagle’s feather.  Billy goes on to become a braver man; facing his inner turmoil and standing up for himself and those he cares about. Yay for Apache-sponsored spiritual growth. Calm Water is subsequently killed for helping Billy, possibly because the plot demanded it.

Calm Water
Calm Water née Running River

Want more examples? I didn’t play Assassin’s Creed 3, and neither did any of my gamer friends, so I can’t really talk about Ratonhnhaké:ton, the Mohawk-English protagonist of that game.  You’ll also notice I haven’t really gone into Red Dead Redemption. Again, this is because I haven’t played it, much as I would like to. But from all I’ve read, the old tropes are alive and well there. Neither do I want to talk about Fallout New Vegas: Honest Hearts, or the Twilight franchise because neither is set in the past. That said, they do comply with several of the common tropes associated with Native Americans. Oh, and while I’m on the subject, Star Wars’ Sand People and Avatar’s Na’vi are both proxies for Native American cultures. And they both stink.

I did watch Appalloosa, the Ed Harris-directed film about two marshals who are trying to bring peace to a lawless town. While the two heroes are on the trail of their quarry, some more of those pesky Chiricahua turn up to ransack the bad guys, and carry off their guns, horses and wimmun. After a shoot-out, Viggo Mortensen resolves the thing by giving them a horse.

Another film I watched recently was A Million Ways to Die in the West. If there’s one thing that film did right it was to knowingly admit that the indigenous peoples were treated terribly by the settlers. But then Seth MacFarlane does drugs with them and grows spiritually so that he can go back and face the bad guy. Oh, and also, they provide him with [SPOILERS] so that he can outsmart that bad guy.

I could also go into Disney cartoons with Pocahontas and Peter Pan, but I think I’d probably get more hate there for ruining your childhoods. Suffice it to say, it’s always the white guys who end up with the minority women, and never the other way around. No wonder Save the Last Dance felt so progressive…

But anyway, Native American cultures are still suffering persecutions to this day. This frequently comes in the form of the erosion of their territories and reservations. However, it is also in the reduction of their culture to that of a plot device. They are inserted as one more hurdle for the inevitably white male protagonists to overcome. Hell, one reason I enjoyed True Grit so much was that it was told through the eyes of a 14-year-old girl. Switching things up a bit. History has not been kind to the more-than 500 different First Nations peoples. They had an oral culture, which has not often made the jump to the written word. Furthermore, their place within American society has very much been determined by others.

In media terms, Native Americans generally crop up in ‘Westerns’, which are dated to a specific era. It is very rare to find them depicted outside of this time period, and even when they do, such as in Twilight, they are generally portrayed as savages. They are shown as animals, who are defined by their curse, not by their mastery of it. And that sucks. I really want to see something different. No more magic, no psychedelics, no brave warriors. There has to be a whole side to that culture that I know nothing about, and I want a bit more balance, please.