Twisting historical realities: more harm than good?

Troy Hector Achilles duel

I  read an interesting blog the other day about Thomas More. You know, that guy in the woodcut:

This, in turn, got me thinking about the various different angles people have approached him from; particularly Wolf Hall. Many people criticised Hilary Mantell’s story as an adaptation of history, rather than the real thing. And it is, in that it only tells one story, rather than EVERYTHING. But was it a corruption of the facts? By leaving out details like Thomas Cromwell’s use of torture, was her story fundamentally flawed?

Well, if you think that’s bad, you’re really not going to like alternate histories. Assassin’s Creed is a classic example of a story that takes history and draws together threads to weave a new tapestry (if you’ll excuse the extended metaphor).

Assassin's Creed I's AltairMany would argue that the storyline is so warped from the actual course of history that it is completely useless as a source of information. But is it? Do we consume media for information or entertainment? In many cases, particularly with alternate histories, it feels like the latter. No matter how much I told myself that watching the DVD box set of ROME *was* useful exam revision, the guilt was still there. It certainly felt more like entertainment. For those of you who are interested, ROME technically was alternate history. Pullo and Vorenus were real people, mentioned only once by Caesar, but in his account they are both Centurions.

And yet, there is plenty to be learned from modern media. It can fill many gaps that academic textbooks cannot. Atmosphere is undoubtedly top of this list. And it is the world of gaming that is best at this. I’ve given games a hard time recently, but the fact remains that games are immersive. As Dara O’Briain pointed out “You cannot be bad at watching a movie. You cannot be bad at listening to an album. But you can be bad at playing a video game, and the video game will punish you, and deny you access to the rest of the video game.” Films and TV you can sit down and relax to. Games you can actually explore your universe.

I feel like I’ve strayed off the topic a bit here. My point is, yes, you will never learn the gospel truth about a topic. Actually, the gospels were not the whole factual history of how things went down either – particularly as only a handful of them even made it into the bible. Regardless of how factually accurate something pretends to be, you *have* to treat it with caution. But there’s no harm in enjoying it for its own sake.

Disney Princesses: The Good, The Bad, The Wrong

Historically accurate Jasmine

It’s time. I’m going there: Disney Princesses. Let’s be blunt here, they’re not historically accurate. They’re so not historically accurate, that it has become fashionable to recreate them as historically-accurate figures. For example, check out Claire Hummel’s depictions of historically-accurate Disney princess costumes, as featured in this blog post. Someone recently contrasted Game of Thrones with Disney, arguing that the fantasy TV series was a more accurate depiction of the day-to-day lives of women than the films, which are frequently based on *actual history*.

So, yes; the reality was more grim, if less overwhelmingly terrifying (I’m looking at you, Maleficent). However, these are children’s films. They can’t be too heavy-handed about things, can they? If that’s your argument, then maybe princesses are just a bad source of subject material overall. The happily-ever-after ideal seems to have been invented by Disney, rather than the Grimm’s, whose stories they adapted. For most women who married into royalty, your future was as a glorified baby-making-factory, with all the risks involved.

Pocahontas Wind Hair
Buzzfeed has a whole list of what Disney princesses would look like with accurate hair

The real issue here, for historians at least, is that Disney is one of the main ways that children first get to grips with history. And it’s setting them up for a fall. Kids aren’t great at telling the difference between the real world and fairytales (which is why that whole ‘If you believe in fairies clap your hands’ ploy always seemed like the most sadistic trick to me). As they get older, the whole notion of a Disneyfied fantasy becomes a kind of escape; an Elysian daydream. It becomes even harder to remind them that there was history behind all this.

I’ve unfairly picked on the girls here, possibly because they are more iconic. However, a similar situation exists for the men, too. The flipside of this coin is the whole idea of knights in shining armour; of chivalry and courtly love. And that is just as bad.

Are we cool with portrayals of religion? It feels like we’re not

assassin's creed church

This article will be picking up where my blog about magic left off. Magic is, by its very nature, open ended, open to interpretation, and really kinda fun as a concept. In contrast, religion is just something we have to deal with if we’re going to portray history accurately. The trouble is, I’m not sure we’re doing it right.

Ben Hur

Back in the golden era of Hollywood, we couldn’t get enough of religion. It was a major feature of films like Ben Hur, or El Cid. Maybe studios weren’t conflicted about showing it. They loved them some piety, and they weren’t afraid to show it. Contrast that with modern films about religion, like Kingdom of Heaven. There’s that classic one-two:

Balian: “I will burn it to the ground. Your holy places; ours. Every last thing in Jerusalem that drives men mad.”

Saladin: “I wonder if it would not be better if you did.”

Kingdom of Heaven

Films are not alone. In almost every TV series, religion has a minimal role. In the BBC’s Robin Hood, Friar Tuck rarely visited a church, and even less often to commune with God. in HBO’s Rome, religion was just another way for the series to go ‘look how weird everything was back then’. Day-to-day lives seem to be divorced from the spirituality that was almost certainly a much bigger deal.

Similarly, games really haven’t figured out a mechanic for religion. What’s the point of it? Is it just a tag that defines allegiances, like nationality? Or is there something more? Many games do have churches and religious buildings as part of their architecture, but you can’t actually go *into* them. Why would you want to do that?

assassin's creed

Somehow, we’ve really gone off religion. We’re now almost scared of it.

Studios are trying to redress the balance. They’re attempting to build historic worlds where religion plays a suitably active role. But they are taking their sweet time about it.

Does Magic Do Anything For Our Perception Of History

A while back, I wrote this post about vampires and history. This time round, I thought I’d focus on magic. This is, in part, thanks to the new Mr Norrell and Dr Strange TV series, which looks at what would happen if magic was around in the Napoleonic 19th century. It also happens to be the weekend I am *ahem* going to the Harry Potter studio tour. So what better time?

Much like vampires, magic wasn’t actually a thing. At least, as far as I know. In fact, any film, TV series, or game, tends to focus on this, rather than the actual – you know – magic. Merlin is a good example of this; the first season made a big deal of the will-he-won’t-he aspect of whether Merlin would reveal his gift to his best friend Arthur. <SPOILER ALERT> He never does</SPOILER>. For this reason, above anything else, it is a useful proxy for talking about secret societies and emergent religions. Early Arthurian legends focussed on the contrast between paganism and Christianity.

Then, of course, you’ve got the animal side of things. Monsters are a major part of the magic genre, up there with castles and shiny swords, and they’ve been around for centuries. I have a theory that magical monsters are really a stand-in for extinct European megafauna. But, really, it is just a great way to talk about the wild and dangerous animals that were out there in our historic past.

But perhaps the single most important thing that magic does, is reintroduce mystery. With magic, you’re never going to know all of the things. You, let’s face it, are a muggle. You cannot do magic, and you don’t understand the limitations of the art. When Harry Potter introduced new elements every year, that was allowed, because no-one said it couldn’t. Things do go bump in the night, but with modern knowledge what it is, it’s harder to be afraid of that. With magic, you get All Of That back. And it’s awesome!

Do you like magic? I like magic!

Men and Gods: Why Greek Myths Rock!

This week I have been thinking about the Greeks a lot. Not all that tosh about democracy. Because, as we know, Greek democracy was propped up by a massive slave underclass, was exclusive to male citizens, and took a lot of commitment. No, I’ve been looking at Greek myths. Because frankly, they’re awesome!

I’ve also written a guest blog about ancient Greece for History Behind Game of Thrones, so let’s give that a quick plug, too.

But the main reason I wanted to cover this subject, is to contrast some of the ways that films deal with the subject of Greek myths, the gods and demigods they portray. Specifically, I have been watching Troy (2004), Clash of the Titans (2010), and Immortals (2011). None are overly faithful to the source material, but they stick to the gods you love, the heroes you know, and the plot arcs you expect.

immortals Luke EvansOf the three, the surprise highlight was Immortals. I had low expectations for a film where Mickey Rourke is the bad guy, but it was visually amazing. Take note, Hollywood! The colour palette was carefully prepared, the CGI was relatively low key (compared to Clash’s giant scorpions at least), and the use of effects like speed ramping were tastefully applied.

Still, nothing is as awesome as Liam Neeson commanding ‘Release the Kraken!’

Clash is much more of a romp, bold, colourful, and unashamed. This is impressive, because it has a lot to be ashamed of. This was a film with Ralph Fiennes and Liam Neeson, and it made both of them seem old and hackneyed. Compared to Troy’s Peter O’Toole, or Immortals’ John Hurt, they’re decidedly wooden.

And Troy? I loved Troy. It set the bar for modern swords and sandals films, but it might honestly be the worst of the bunch. The duel between Hector and Achilles is one of the best I’ve ever seen, but in a lot of other places, the film missed the ball completely.

Troy Hector Achilles duelGiven that the story of Troy is one of the most famous stories ever, the film’s decision to focus on the key plot points as much as the character moments is perhaps the wrong way to go. Time spent with Helen and Paris is, frankly, wasted in my eyes. Both lack any real depth.

I have previously both defended and condemned focus on historical accuracy but knowing that the Trojan War was in the middle of the Bronze Age also affects my verdict. I know that armies would not have been uniformed units, but more akin to heavily armoured lords, with less-well equipped retainers behind them. I could go on, but perhaps I’m being too picky?

Bottom line? Less is definitely more. For example, Immortals’ depiction of the minotaur as a man in a bull helmet was a simple, inspired choice that grounded the conflict, without reducing the threat level. Less armour, fewer men in the armies, fewer characters for me to remember. If you can’t make them utterly unique, interesting individuals, cut them out altogether. Some films do this better than others.

Why poop is the medium for historical comedy

Plebs on the Roman toilet

I don’t want to beat around the bush here (you never know what might be in there) so I’ll just say it; shit is funny. It’s an awkward subject, and rife with tension. Nothing makes for a good punchline like a bit of tension.

But it’s not just that there’s tension, there’s also a lot of weirdness in our toilet habits. Yes, generally, but also historically. The Romans, for all their lauded sanitation, mainly preferred communal toilets, and wiped with a sponge on a stick. Some scholars reckon you could pay extra to get the first use.

Henry VIII had his ‘Groom of the Stool’, a desirable rank, where a member of the gentry could enjoy unparalleled access to the monarch… but also had to clean up afterwards. It is also hinted at that this may be where all those ‘privy councils’ spring from.
Plebs Toilet Rome

Author and Horrible Histories researcher Greg Jenner had this to say: ‘Freud said faeces was funny because it is a childhood obsession, we go through a phase of being hung up on shitting as toddlers. But shit is also a useful metaphor for the distinction between modernity and history – our age is shitless, theirs was shit everywhere. So it’s not just funny in of itself (which it is), but also it serves to heighten the historicity of the setting.’

Finally, and most importantly, crap is a common denominator. Everybody poops. And it’s hard to take someone too seriously when you know they are slaves to the toilet, just like everyone else.

Why @BBCOne’s #TheArk was actually surprisingly good

This week I have been watching the BBC’s new film, ‘The Ark’. This, in itself, is a bit surprising, given my dislike of bible films in general, and Noah films in particular. But something in the trailer gave me hope. I think it was the mud-brick huts…

And yeah, it’s really good. It’s written by Tony Jordan, who has previously covered the Nativity story. It’s suitably light-touch when it comes to biblical stuff, with most of the weight going on the drama that exists within the family. The lead role is taken by David Threlfall, who is best known for his role as another patriarch in Shameless.

One thing you won’t get from the trailer is just how funny it is. There’s a lot of coarse, jokey humour and plenty of family banter. At one point two sons tease a third about how he isn’t getting any in the sack. That may be exactly why the whole thing works. When the family gathers round the table and squabbles over food (which they do at least four times in the 90-minute film) you can really feel the love. When that turns to anger and squabbling, there is a real tragic pathos to it.

The Ark WivesWhere it falls down is on the core elements that you’d expect from an Ark story. The whole two-by-two sequence is taken care of in one silhouetted CGI shot at dusk. The flood itself is represented by a weird CGI sequence with tectonic plates shifting about under the ocean. I would’ve been happier with big murky tidal waves.

It’s also likely to do something that Russell Crowe’s ‘Noah’ spectacularly failed on, which is to satisfy both the believers and the unconvinced. All-in-all, it’s definitely worth watching.

5 Actors Who Can’t Keep Away From History

While everyone else is banging on about gerbils this week, I thought it would be nice to blog about the Oscars. I’ve been particularly thinking about the way that certain actors crop up in historical (and fantasy) films and TV shows over and over. It’s like they can’t get enough of the swish outfits. Here is my pick of the bunch:

Keira Knightley

At some point, fairly early on in her career, Knightley threw on a massive frock, thought ‘My god, I look fabulous’, and never looked back. Her roles to date include Pirates of the Caribbean, King Arthur, Atonement, The Duchess, Silk, Pride and Prejudice, and The Imitation Game.


James Purefoy

You’ll probably remember him as the Black Prince in A Knight’s Tale, or as Marc Antony in HBO’s ‘Rome’, but he also just loves to appear in dodgy straight-to-DVD movies, including Ironclad, and George and The Dragon. Other appearances include Sharpe, Vanity Fair, Solomon Kane, and basically anything where he can wear a huge collar.

James Purefoy Vanity Fair

Russell Crowe

A man who is at his most comfortable when he’s wearing at least one layer of leather, Crowe’s resume includes starring roles in Gladiator, Master and Commander, 3:10 to Yuma, Robin Hood, Les Miserables, and last (and probably, let’s be honest, least) Noah. This is a man who’s not happy if he’s not rewriting history.

Russell Crowe Robin HoodCate Blanchett

If there’s one thing that needs to be stated for the record, Blanchett *owns* Queen Elizabeth. When she’s not busy portraying the body of a weak and feeble woman and the heart of a king, she spends most of her time chilling with Gandalf and the rest of the White Council. Her projects include Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the aforementioned Robin Hood, and the new Jungle Book movie.

Elizabeth Cate Blanchett

Johnathan Pryce

Possibly thanks to the fact that he bears an uncanny resemblance to the incumbent Pope, Pryce spent the summer of 2014 playing religious leaders in major TV series. In Wolf Hall he was Cardinal Wolsey, while in the upcoming fifth season of Game of Thrones, he will portray the High Sparrow. He has also appeared in Pirates of the Caribbean, Cranford, The Brothers Grimm, and the Adventures of Baron Munchausen.


Why horned helmets are the best thing to have happened to Vikings

The first thing anyone learns about Vikings is that they had horns on their helmets. The second thing is that they didn’t. From there, surprisingly, things get easier.

Playmobil's Viking
Playmobil’s Viking

And yet, it seems like most of pop culture skipped that second lesson. They skipped it so hard that this has become the easiest way to identify Vikings. Hell, at an uneducated glance, Vikings are only identifiable by a characteristic they didn’t have.

FYI, that second lesson goes a bit like this: horned helmets, if they did ever exist, were purely ornamental. In battle they add extra weight, for reduced utility. The second someone lands a blow on the horns, it will either jerk your head to one side, or chop the horn off. But they look *so majestic*!

Loki's helmet: practical and classy
Loki’s helmet: classy, if not practical

Hell, the first thing modern culture does, if it wants to portray any kind of historical (or particularly fantasy) northerner, is whack a pair of horns on them.

Skyrim's Dragnborn, recognisable because of his horned helmet.
Skyrim’s Dragnborn, recognisable because of his horned helmet.

My point is this; compared to almost any other foreign culture (remember these guys were pagans, from Scandinavia), they have endured incredibly well. They have made a significant impact on popular culture. And maybe that is, in part, because they are so recognisable.

I’d welcome your thoughts in the comments section. You might also be interested in this blog, where I trash the ‘Vikings’ series.