#WarAndPeace – does it suck?

BBC One’s new six-part serialisation of War and Peace has been on our screens for two weeks now, and it’s time for us to sit back and take stock.

It might seem inevitable that I would love this series. It’s set in that Napoleonic era that I love, where everyone wears an awesome costume, there’s action, connivance, romance… Hell, War and Peace has been described as ALL OF THE ‘7 Basic Plots’ rolled into one. But, while I am enjoying it, it’s not perfect for me.

Part of my problem might be the casting of Paul Dano as central character Count Bezukhov. I have never found him to be a sympathetic character in any of his films, and I’m starting to think that might be his fault, not the casting directors. It’s obvious that the BBC has thrown a fair bit of money at this production; hiring big names like Brian Cox and Jim Broadbent. I can’t shake the feeling that maybe a few more Russian names might have helped ground the production in reality.

War and Peace cavalry charge

We’ve seen plenty of historical TV in the last few years, so it’s not as if this gives us something we’ve been missing. It’s always good to see stories from a different perspective, and that Russian view is something the west could appreciate right now. However, War and Peace feels as though it is holding out on us. As of yet, we’ll hold judgement til the series has run its course, but I still think it has a lot to prove.

Rhodes, Ba’al, Bel, and the destruction of heritage

In 2015, ‘so-called’ IS militants captured the ancient city of Palmyra. They promptly destroyed some of the most historic buildings in the world, using the destruction as part of elaborate executions for added levels of atrocity. At the centre of this, was the temple of Bel (or Ba’al, I am confused about this point). To most in historical circles, this destruction was particularly upsetting. Indeed, it’s one of the reasons I have avoided writing about it until now.

However, to put a positive spin on such a shitty story, it’s nice to know that part of that temple is to be recreated as part of a temporary exhibit in Trafalgar Square, London.

(And if one positive story isn’t enough, you should also check out the Army, which is signing up ‘monuments men’ to go into war zones and rescue at-risk heritage.)

However, this is not the only time in recent history where the subject of destroying historical objects has reared its head. In America, over the last year, the subject of race relations on campus has been especially heated. Among the many changes that students are demanding is the removal of mascots, crests, statues and names of racist founders. This mirrors the banning of Confederate flags as symbols of white supremacy.

In the UK, one of the focal figures for this campaign is Cecil Rhodes, a man who played a huge role in the development of the British Empire. He was also, as were many of his peers, massively racially prejudiced. Fun fact; he also started the De Beers diamond company, who are also pretty shady characters. But, he also gave a lot of his money to education, including things like the ‘Rhodes Scholarships’, which has provided more than a few future heads of state with the chance to study at Oxford University.

This is what the UK’s imperial history looks like; a fat white dude who probably rendered at least one species of animal extinct

So, should Oxford University tear down Rhodes’ statue? Think very carefully, because if you said ‘yes’, that’s a similar sort of logic to that of those ‘so-called’ IS chaps. Granted, you probably weren’t going to murder anyone in the process, but that’s because you’re actually a pretty decent person, rather than a homicide-tourist.

IS destroys statues, temples and ancient monuments because these don’t agree with the IS philosophy. Are we going to damn the memory of our own historical figures because they don’t agree with our modern philosophy? On a day when Germany is finally reprinting Mein Kampf, should we monumentalise only our heroes? Or should our villains stay on plinths as well, so that we might never forget them?

This will always be an impassioned subject. We remember when Iraq was overthrown, images of the statue of Saddam Hussein being toppled. However, in the Ukraine, which is currently still engaged in conflict with Russia, a different reaction has taken place. Rather than tear down one statue of Lenin, a local artist has turned it into something radically different:

Lenin Vader Statue

Perhaps the best way to maintain our history, is to accept that it did happen, but that it can still be relevant to the world we live in today.

Things we did to history in 2015

So, another year on, and more of our past lovingly screwed with. It’s time for our annual rundown of the 12 things you most enjoyed reading about this year.

#12 Swords in films

Even in sci-fi, we cannot get away from the fact that swords are popular in Hollywood. Too popular. On the battlefields of medieval Europe the sword was a bit of a niche weapon. So why is it so popular now? I dig a little deeper!

highlander swords

#11 Men and Gods; why Greek myths rock!

I ain’t saying that Greek myths are the best stories. It’s just that, in many cases, they are. I sat down with a mixed bag of DVDs and some popcorn, and thoroughly enjoyed myself. Now I want Henry Cavill to be the next Bond.

immortals-battle

#10 Time Team vs Restoration Man

When it comes to historical documentary programming, you can’t escape the fact that Channel 4 can put out a belter. With suspense, drama, and (occasionally) utter catastrophe, both Time Team and Restoration Man follow this trend. But which is better?

Time Team Vs Restoration Man

#9 A quiet word with New Byzantine designer Andrew Gould

Over in the US, there is a fantastic architectural design studio called New Byzantine. They are doing really cool things to revive colonial architecture, and give the States some style. I interview designer Andrew Gould.

otranto house
The Otranto House was what first caught my attention. Look how awesome it is!

#8 Five actors who can’t keep away from history

If you watch historical TV shows, films, and the like, you may have noticed that a few faces keep cropping up. I went through a top five regulars to look out for, and the kind of things you can catch them in.

The-Duchess

#7 Classical swag

Sometimes I just see something awesome that I have to share with you. This was one of those occasions. Red figure converse anyone?

Ancient Greek Converse

#6 Why horned helmets are the best thing to have never happened to the Vikings

Were it not for the horned helmets, Vikings would probably be best known for their love of looting monasteries. But somewhere along the line (looking at you, Wagner), someone thought they weren’t interesting enough and added some extra details. Now they are best known for something that wasn’t true.

Playmobil's Viking
Playmobil’s Viking

#5 Why Blackbeard was never the big bad

Blackbeard was a pirate captain, but he lived in an era when the best pirate captains had seats in the house of lords. I look at some better candidates for top villain of the seas. And come to the conclusion that, whoever they were, they were probably Welsh.

Blackbeard

#4 What’s wrong with Wolf Hall?

This was the year that Wolf Hall came to our screens. It was big, it was bold, it wasn’t very bright. But that’s what you get when you film by ambient candlelight. It was a good series, but there were a couple of things that need to be straightened out before we get another one.

Wolf Hall
That classic blank face we saw so much of.

#3 The Musketeers and their place in history television

We love the Musketeers. It’s so cheesy. The bad guys are bad, the good guys are good. No-one important gets shanked on a whim (curse you GRRM)! Does it deserve a place in historical media though? That’s for you to decide.

BBC One Musketeers in uniform, on horseback

#2 A reality TV show set #10000BC

A weird one, Channel 5 decided to dabble in the trend for reality TV  survival shows. The premise; a mix of people would be sent to live in a prehistoric camp. Shit went down.

10000BC

#1 A quiet word with @SPQRBlues

The most popular blog this year was our interview with Carol Burrell, AKA Klio, the author and artist of the SPQR Blues webcomic. The series has just had a successful Kickstarter campaign, and should eventually be available as an IRL thing. Check it out!

SPQR Vesuvius

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!

@ComedyCentral’s Drunk History: Late to the Party

Some basic housekeeping to get out of the way first: this my 100th post on this blog! Woo! History Mine has been a thing for nearly two years, and while I have occasionally neglected to put in a weekly update, I haven’t gotten bored and jacked it in either. So that’s nice…

Secondly, I was introduced to Drunk History last night.

History, comedy and alcohol seem to be such close bedfellows that this can’t just be coincidence. Take, for example, History Showoff, which takes a bunch of historians and turns them into entertainment. While I haven’t yet attended one, I suspect drinks are in high demand. Probably gin.

Drunk History is another twist on the same idea. This time they got comedians rat-arsed and made them recite history. And it was a goldmine!

Half-remembered history is brilliant. Especially with the sub-title corrections. Can we get more in the way of passive-aggressive subtitles please? I think they’d really enrich our media-consuming experience.

That said, I did actually learn some things from these. Maybe not stuff I’d be willing to repeat as fact, but certainly some details that round out my own understanding of history.

Drunk History hanging

Maybe it’s the fact that history is one of the most inherently human of all fields of study. Ridiculous, stupid, things have happened throughout history. Mainly because our leaders behaved as though they were drunk; ego-maniacally shambling from one crisis to the next, all the while having to deal with the embarrassing limitations of being themselves.

So yes, I would recommend you check it out! This has, however, been going on for a while: Here’s one from 2007. So, I’ve really missed the boat on this one. You probably already knew about it. And for that, I salute 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!