Why spoof history > real (fake) history

I think we can all agree with one self-evident truth: history would be better if there were more jokes in it. I’m not saying it’s not funny. Just that the bits that we tend to remember are the scandals, diseases, wars, civil wars, religious wars and general persecution of the powerless by the powerful. Hardly a recipe for frivolity.

So if you can’t laugh with history, why not laugh at history? Films like Life of Brian, Blazing Saddles, and Robin Hood: Men In Tights are cult classics.While their telling of history may not be a 100% realistic version of events, films never are. What’s more, they have stood the test of time well when compared to spoofs of other genres, like horror.

Moreover, the fact that they are not trying to tell a ‘history’ story gives them extra reason to ground themselves in the reality. To tell a good joke, you have to have a convincing stooge. The realism has to be there before you can add comedy to the mix.

Most serious historical films are, well, dark. Seriously dark. For some reason I keep thinking of Kingdom of Heaven, so let’s take that as an example. Balian’s wife has committed suicide before the start of the film after miscarrying their child. Her body is buried without ceremony, but after the priest (in the extended cut he is Balian’s brother) has stolen jewellery from her and ordered her head to be cut off. Balian then murders the guy in a fit of rage. Then finds out that he was a bastard of not-quite-rape. Then his newfound father is killed. So far we’re only about half an hour in…

Kingdom-of-Heaven

I realise that Life of Brian ends on the cross, and Men in Tights starts in a Middle Eastern dungeon, but in both situations there is a lot of levity. The past wasn’t a bad time. Sure it didn’t have our fantastic modern amenities, but neither did it have our modern worries. Good times were there to be had. So let’s focus on them for once…

Life of Brian

Colour palettes in historical movies

In 2000, the Coen brothers released ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou’, a film set in depression-era Mississippi. The film was a landmark, in that it took advantage of colour correction techniques. Previously this had been used for, well, colour correction. However, in the George Clooney flick, it was used to wash colour from the entire film, giving it a largely sepia-toned appearance.

Oh Brother, Where Art Thou

This was seen as a positive step by film studios, to the point where pretty much every film studio used this technique to reduce their films to just two colours: teal and orange. There are many reasons for this, but largely it’s because these two contrasting colours look good together. And, I suspect, if you live in an arid state like California, these are colours that you are used to seeing.

Back to the sepia tone, though. This is actually a very popular palette for historical media. In the UK, for example, all signs for historical places are brown (technically all tourist signs are brown, but that might undermine my argument somewhat, so please ignore it).

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My theory is that this is inspired by archaeology. Bones, mud, and terracotta are all part of the sepia spectrum. Add in elements like wood, leather and parchment, and our lazy assumption is that the past must have been a browner time. Forget seeing things through rose-tinted spectacles, our view of the past is plain muddy.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in films about war.For example, while ‘Saving Private Ryan’ was released a couple of years before ‘O Brother…’, it overwhelmingly uses a palette of greys and browns.

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You might expect war films like this to make more use of reds, with blood, fire, and explosions. In fact, these are kept to a minimum, with the colour only used for shock value. The ‘desaturation’ of colour is regularly used in war films, and those set in communist-era Eastern Europe to suggest a grim reality, devoid of the colour of normal life.

In contrast, period dramas tend to use a combination of rich dark shades, and pastel highlights. This tends to suggest an opulent setting, with delicate features.

danish girl

Of course, the biggest issue with colour manipulation in this way, is that it doesn’t always reflect historical reality. True, palettes have changed throughout history. As new dyes became available, so new colours became fashionable. However, there simply wasn’t the narrow band of colour that is presented today.

Costumes in historical media: how much do they matter?

BBC One Musketeers in uniform, on horseback

Does costume matter in historical media? Quite possibly, but you can get too hung up on the details. Last week the Telegraph made this very point when it queried the wardrobe of the BBC’s War and Peace six-parter.

War and Peace cast

Outfits are perhaps one of the most important parts of any historical drama. Certainly more important than the scenery, they ground the story by convincing you that the characters themselves accept the truth of the situation they are in.

Witcher Soldiers

No-one in their right minds would dress like this today. The fact that a character in the film/game/show/whatever is, and is acting like it’s totally normal, reinforces the historical setting.

We don’t even need to push it that far. Most people are a bit rusty when it comes to the history of clothing. They won’t know which exact dyes, fabrics and fashions were popular at each particular setting. And it’s likely that media studios count on this in order to cut corners.

On the other hand, could also push this idea to it’s logical conclusion, and argue that costume can convince us to accept a counter-factual story, when we know that the reality would be different.

300 Soldiers Outfits

I have previously blogged about how the Spartans of ‘300’ would, in reality, have worn much more armour. In Frank Miller’s original comic book, the boys in red were full-frontal naked – in reflection of the way Greeks depicted their heroes. The tiny brown thongs were likely introduced to get the film past modern movie censors.

One of the more pertinent points made by the Telegraph was that historical media often reflects the era it was produced, as much as the time it is set. This might be through production values, design, or fashion. I swear mullets have ruined several films for me…

robin-hood-prince-of-thieves-mullet

The experts are always going to be frustrated by costumes in historical media. This is because they will notice tiny details that are all wrong. And there will always be tiny details.

That said, if anyone else tries to dress Victorian ladies in purple KKK robes, I am going to be very upset.

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

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!

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.

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.