Are bows the weapon-du-jour for modern heroines?

So, I’ve noticed recently that bows and arrows are cropping up a lot in films. I’ve covered swords in other blogs, and why the Avengers, in general, need to upgrade for the 21st Century, but now it seems we’ve got to have words with the ladies. Because you’ve all gone and gotten tooled up with bows and arrows. And it’s scaring me.

Brave-Wallpaper

Dale at The Fourth Wall makes some interesting observations about the new archery trend, tying it back to goddesses like Artemis, or the Amazons (who allegedly chopped off a boob in order to use the bow better).

While it’s a perfectly acceptable back story, in think there’s probably another explanation. And it lies in what the bow itself represents. I have a slight suspicion that it might stem from a desire to keep our heroines out of immediate danger. However, the two modern ladies I’m going to feature in this article absolutely buck that trend.

img_20140711_224137_by_jionni1986-d7q8xjq

Katniss Everdeen and Lara Croft both go through absolute hell in their adventures. They both suffer such brutal poundings that you can’t really argue that a bow and arrow keeps them out of physical danger.

However, there are other parallels. They both get stuck waist-deep in survival situations, where a simple easy-to-maintain weapon with a reusable ammunition is a massive advantage. Could you consider them a more skilled weapon than a gun? It’s open for debate. But there is (possibly) something more feminine about archery. Just ask Legolas.

So I guess what I’m saying is, can we let the girls explore the armoury a bit? I’d like to see what they do with the maces! And god only knows they’ve been scrounging on the armour…

The Mummy, an appreciation

With the news that there is going to be an unnecessary Mummy reboot, I felt that it was time to reflect on just how good the 1999 reboot was.

My favourite moment of the last franchise was when someone pointed out just how tenuous a concept Scorpion King 2 was. It was a sequel, to a spin-off, of a sequel, to a reboot. Say what you like about the movies, the fact that they could drag them out that far must be an indicator of just how successful they were.

The key to this was, undoubtedly, good writing. The characters were well-rounded, honest and human. Brendan Fraser is perfectly-cast as a rough-and-ready soldier-for-hire with a great streak of humour. Rachel Weisz is perfect as his counterpart who transitions from a timid, clumsy librarian to a kick-ass femme fatale. And there are plenty more moments like it!

John-Hannah-in-The-Mummy

The whole thing is a tour-de-force of half-remembered Egyptian history. There is the army of Arabic guardians, the French Foreign Legion and enough fezzes and pith helmets to shake a stick at.It cuts corners with the factual side of things. But sometimes this approach is actually a good thing. It means that the viewer can instantly relax into the story, rather than having to sit up and figure it all out first.

It is what I’d call a B-movie. It is heavily reliant on CGI, which was not as good as it could have been. It is also a little bit cheesy in places. The rascally coward Beni is way too weasily. And Brendan Fraser’s wisecracking in some life-or-death situations seems pretty insincere. But beyond that, the film is almost perfect.

So beat that, Tom Cruise. I dare you!

Sex in historical media: are we doing it right?

borgias Jeremy Irons

If you’ve tried to watch a historical TV show recently, at some point you probably enjoyed a good bit of on-screen screwing. Perhaps more than any other genre, history media contains a hell of a lot of fucking (though all bets are off in the gaming world).

Why?

Well, the flippant answer is that sex and death are right up there in terms of excitement. One of the main reasons we consume media is to be excited, so any studio looking to reap the most rewards would do well to throw some sex in there. In fact, it would be safe to assume that media like The Other Boleyn Girl and The Borgias specifically sets out to target this market. And if you’re HBO, you take any opportunity to throw some sex in to spice up a boring scene.

Other Boleyn GirlBut the choice of stories should also tell you something as well. Because this is history we’re talking about. Just like death, sex did happen. Like, a lot. It is only fitting that it should crop up in the history books now and then.In fact I’m going to go out on a limb and say there has probably been more in the way of historically-noteworthy shagging in our past than there has historically-noteworthy killing. And just look at how much media there is about that!

And sure, it’s probably more exciting in a scandalous situation because the stakes are upped. But just regular husband-and-wife stuff is all good, too.

However, there is a risk that we end up focusing on the weird stuff entirely, to the extent of distorting historical accuracy completely. For example, HBO’s Rome spent a hefty amount of time focussing on affairs, incest, homosexuality and prostitution, and while the trend may have been real, the extent, or particular incidents depicted, were not.

HBO Rome Lesbianism

The media industry has a serious problem with the glamourisation of sex. They portray sex as a beautiful art, where anything can be erotic, so long as it is lit appropriately. The grunting, sweating and giggling are rarely depicted. On top of this, the fetishisation of exotic sexual situations means that the most scandalous historical gossip is represented as truth for the audience. When there isn’t enough of that to go round, the media will fabricate their own history to fit the bill. And that’s not really the point of history, now is it?

#TheLastKingdom, and the return of the Anglo Saxons

The Last Kingdom

I don’t know how, and I don’t know when, but recently, Anglo Saxons have started getting popular again. I meant to write this post a couple of weeks ago, when The Last Kingdom had its first outing. It was inevitable that a story written by the man who wrote Sharpe, and produced by the team that made Downton Abbey, would be successful. What was not inevitable, was that it would be made in the first place.

Despite the fact that they were the dominant power in England for half a millennia, Anglo Saxons have largely slipped under the radar of popular culture. They were the bad guys in King Arthur, and they sometimes crop up in Robin Hood stories as a way to differentiate Robin from his Norman overlords.

King Arthur's SaxonsHowever, when you contrast that with the sheer exposure that the Vikings, The Last Kingdom’s other main culture, have enjoyed, there’s no contest. So why not? If history is written by the victors, then Anglo Saxons have no excuse. While the Scandinavian invaders did gain a solid foothold, it didn’t last forever. It was their Norman offspring who finally put paid to the Anglo Saxon reign.

Perhaps it’s because, when the Anglo Saxons came to write their own history, the most exciting bit was the bit involving Vikings. Even their humour was better!

Perhaps it is more important to me because I can relate to the places a lot more. When Uhtred treks off to Oxenford to get a sword made, that’s where I was born! I have lived in Reading(ham). Æthelstan’s body is buried in my home town of Malmesbury. The rest of English History always seems to happen in London, or France. Perhaps this disconnect is similar to what Americans feel with much of the rest of history.

Perhaps it was the Staffordshire Hoard that was responsible for this shift in consciousness. Perhaps it is because Alfred earned the title ‘the Great’, over any other English monarch. Whatever it is, I’m happy for it to keep coming. More Saxons please!

Slavery Reparations: Paying For The Past

This week UK Prime Minister David Cameron went on a trip to Jamaica, and didn’t apologise for slavery. He couldn’t apologise because that might open the path for legal action by any country that has a claim to reparations. The UK has been on the recieving end of historic claims for a while; give the Falklands back to Argentina; forgive criminalised homosexuals like Turing and Wilde; give the Elgin Marbles to Greece.

We’re not the only ones. When the EU was attempting to claw back its loans to Greece, the understandably upset Greece demanded unpaid war reparations from Germany. In almost every case, the answer is the same; the nation of the present cannot be responsible for the actions of the nation of the past.

In many cases, this is because the UK cannot afford to set a precedent. If it starts giving things back, making amends, then more claimants will come a-knocking. The power dynamic is also a relevant point. Greece is never going to persuade Germany to just give money back, and the same is true of Jamaica and the UK. For all that we’re no longer the same empire that benefited from slavery, we are definitely in a position to ignore demands like this.

But there’s also the problem of just how much time has passed. There’s no way to wind back the clock on history. Jamaican culture has been irrevocably changed by slavery. If reparations were made, then the native Caribs would be justified in demanding that all those of African descent went back to Africa. And that is plainly ridiculous.

Yes, our antecedents were well out of order. But there are better ways to repay the situation. Possibly not by building a prison and shipping their criminals back them, but still…

Swords in films, what’s the deal?

highlander swords

Can’t live with ’em, can’t hack your way through a mob of peasants without them. What? That’s not how the saying goes? Well, someone should tell Hollywood. The film industry fell in love with swords from the very beginning, and has never really gotten over it. And that’s a shame, because history says that swords really weren’t as important as we have been led to believe.

So, some background. I was inspired to write this post after that one article I wrote for History Behind Game of Thrones, wherein I pointed out just how much the Ancient Greeks loved spears. So much, in fact, that Hollywood went as far as to include spear-based combat scenes in their major Greek films. This is a rarity because the film industry has swords as its default weapon.

Ross Wittenham 300

Swords are, by their very nature, weapons of the wealthy. Contrast with other military tools, such as the bows, spears, or axes, swords are really only meant for warfare. Where an axe can be used for carpentry, and a spear can be used for hunting. Furthermore, a sword uses comparatively more metal, is therefore more expensive, and requires more skill and training to use correctly. With what other weapon do you have to worry about edge-alignment when you’re trying to kill a guy? For Hollywood’s purposes, it is the ideal tool for a noble hero. Ever noticed that bad guys use swords less often than heroes?

Sauron swinging his mace photo LOTRSauron2.gif

However, the counterpoint to this argument is that swords don’t win battles. One of my favourite stories about the superiority of one weapon over another is the Battle of Flodden, where Scots pikemen were defeated by English Billmen. That’s right, they were weilding billhooks. What’s a billhook, you say? It’s a long pole with an axe shaped like a hook at the top. People won battles with bizarre crap like that, not swords. A sword takes a lot of time to learn how to use properly, and is expensive to mass-produce. Other weapons are far cheaper to produce, far easier to learn to use, and pretty much as killy when deployed en-masse.

But there’s more to it than that. If there’s one person who did more than anyone else to bring sword fighting to Hollywood, it’s Bob Anderson. The former Olympic fencer worked on so many major franchises that his filmography reads like a who’s who of swordfighting flicks. To wit: Highlander, Princess Bride, Zorro, Star Wars, James Bond (both official and unofficial), Lord of the Rings (and the Hobbit), Pirates of the Caribbean… I could keep going.

Bob Anderson portrait

However, while all this is impressive, it does also mean that one particular style of combat has dominated the film industry (and influenced other media as a result) for several decades. Fencers are perhaps the only professional-standard swordsmen around, which means that the style of sword-fighting that prevails is the style learned by fencers. For obvious reasons, this wasn’t the style that was prevalent for most of the period that the sword was in use.

But I think what I keep going back to is the fact that there are some truly bizarre weapons throughout history, and these deserve more time on our screens. Perhaps surprisingly, this is an area where the games industry is taking the lead. When your game runs out of ridiculously-oversized swords to give the hero, it’s time to break open the armouries and see what else is in there.

Making memes of unorthodox gods

This was the week that I stumbled across teashoesandhair.tumblr.com. It’s a great blog and that I would recommend to any classical scholar. The reason I came across it was because Anwen posted a very funny series of screenshots detailing what might happen if Zeus got an iPhone.

This all got me thinking, Zeus has been a figure of fun in the circles I move in. Possibly because, if you look at it objectively, Zeus was a complete slut. And plenty of people are looking at it objectively. Just take Happle Tea for example:

But there is an inherent problem here. Zeus, and many others that are gaining meme status, comes from an unorthodox religion. His identity is not concrete, and his mythology comes from myriad sources. In fact, the very fact that Zeus is such a slut is because everyone wanted to believe that their local goddess hooked up with the king of the gods. When these myths convalesced into a single identity, it was that of a guy who had it off with EVERYONE.

The issue is that, for a meme to work, everyone must instantly understand what it refers to. Memes are regularly used as an analogy to explain real-life situations, so the analogy must be relatively concrete. This stands in direct opposition to their unorthodox roots. These guys do not have sacred texts. Their identity has not been handed down to us in a single book. It is made up of a myriad of stories. As such, their identity is flexible. You want a Female Thor? That happens in at least one story, she’s all yours!

Female Thor

And yet, these myths cannot be distorted out of character too much, or your hero loses their defining attributes, and therefore what makes them memeable. This is exactly what happened with Odin in Marvel’s Thor. To be fair, Thor did at least start out as the boozey brawler we know and love:

But there is a lot of doubt in Marvel’s Thor. Something that may not have featured as heavily in the mythology of the character.

I get it; you don’t want an invulnerable character. The Superman-only-hurt-by-kryptonite dynamic gets boring pretty quickly. The mythology itself is fun, but a man with demons of his own is more interesting.

I guess my point is, if you want reliable memes, unorthodox gods are pretty niche.

History We’d Like to See: Rockstar Games’ Court of Henry VIII

Assassins Creed 2

Before you go and get all excited, this is not a thing. I’m just saying it should be. This week Henry VIII was voted ‘the worst monarch in history’ by the Historical Writers Association (HWA), in a vote that was controversial at best. Sure, he did fuck things up for a lot of people, but was he the Worst Ever? A lot of people with a lot of qualifications disagree.

But I’m not here to get involved in that. I’m here to tell you why the world needs Rockstar Games to do a Tudor era video game.

When it comes to historical computer games, few big-league studios are really investing in them to make them major hits. Off the top of my head, you’ve got Assassin’s Creed and Red Dead Redemption in the first-person category, and then a bunch of others like Total War and Civilization in the strategy corner.

And Assassin’s Creed feels like it’s earning diminishing returns.The free running ‘n’ murderin mechanic has been run into the ground, and now it’s time for something a bit different. With the main franchise ostensibly brought to an end, it remains to see whether Ubisoft will revitalize the series with a new offering. But it’ll be an uphill struggle for sure.

And that’s why Rockstar Games are a logical fit for the studio best placed to produce a Henry VIII game. The court of the Tudor megalomaniac would be a brilliant place to stage an environment-based game. A game like Grand Theft Auto, or Bully, or Red Dead Redemption. The games that Rockstar produce so well are the ones where you have repeated interactions with the same people. And each time, the tension grows.

The attention to detail is an absolute must for any studio that is looking to produce a historical game. But equally, it is important to strike a good balance. For example, Rockstar has shown that its games can be fun, in many cases they allow the gamer to dive head-first into a sandbox world and enjoy themselves in their own twisted way. And I like to think that’s something Henry VIII would’ve appreciated.

But equally, Rockstar games understand the narrative of rags-to-riches, often on the backs of others. This is another thing that fit well with the behaviour of the period. Thomas Cromwell and Anne Boleyn came from relatively minor families and built themselves up. They were symptomatic of the times. Imagine a game where you slowly accrue power by bullying monks or seduce the king himself.

The mini-games are another important aspect, and drunken debauchery and mounted jousts make for excellent mini-games. The scions of nobility clearly had a lot of fun in this era if court gossip is to be believed, and it’s exactly this kind of behaviour that makes for fun gameplay.

It wouldn’t have to be black and white morality. As long as you accept the corrupt nature of the court, then Rockstar is great at satirizing a situation. With a wink to the gamers behind the controls, player characters could find themselves in outrageous situations.  Let’s be honest  here; sex, combat and comedy are three of the biggest drivers in the games industry. Here is a situation rife with all three.

So can you make it already?

Film Noir: a Genre Built on Stereotypes

Fallout New Vegas is Noir

In recent years, Film Noir has been a source of inspiration for a broad range of media. In the 40s and 50s, this was a skewed way of looking at culture at the time, which, in part, sprang from cliche-stuffed pulp fiction. These days, it’s a way of throwing a very stylised set of restrictions at a media, and possibly even retrojecting it into the era. Nevertheless, it remains very popular. For example, films like LA Confidential, Sin City and The Spirit all borrow heavily from the genre.

Sin City was one big homage to the genre

Hell, even The Incredibles takes cues from the genre. A lot of the early action happens at night. There are stake-outs, police radios, mysterious ‘dames’, over-the-hill government types, a lot of the action happens in alleyways, yada, yada, yada.

The Incredibles definitely had shades of noir

This may help with the whole Art Deco old-fashioned thing they have going on, but the reality is, the ‘modern’ Incredibles live in a relatively current world. Sure, one where tablets seem futuristic, but not so far into the past that the 40s and 50s would be a relevant time period for Elastigirl or Incrediboy.

In games as well, noir has seen a resurgence. Fair enough, ‘LA Noire’ was always going to be a straight homage to the genre, but even the Fallout series has characters like ‘The Lonesome Drifter’, ‘The Mysterious Stranger’, any number of hookers-with-hearts-of-gold, and so on. The series was built on the premise that the Fallout universe had diverged from ours in the 50s, and the music (and that Art Deco style), among other things, never changed.

A still from the newly announced Fallout 4

Film Noir is absolutely still having a big impact on popular culture. Perhaps this is thanks to its simplicity. Yes, the tropes been been overused to the point they have been cliches. But now that is helpful. When we come across a character called ‘The Lonesome Drifter’, we know what to expect. So when those expectations are subverted, things get interesting.