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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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).
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.
But 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.
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?
This was the year I started this blog and, looking at how popular it has been, I think it was a good time to do so. 2014 has been a very interesting year for history. We really won’t just let it stay in the past. We insist on bringing it up again and again, and we don’t mind distorting it for our own entertainment. With that in mind, I thought it might be interesting to run down the top 12 posts of the last year for your consumption.
This February blog argued that, if Middle Earth is supposed to be set in prehistoric Europe, the tomatoes, potatoes and pumpkins are completely out of place. What’s more, strictly speaking, it probably should be cannabis they are smoking, not tobacco.
When it comes to history in popular culture, counterfactual histories (which did not happen, and would’ve changed the course of history if they had) are pretty damn popular. Don’t be surprised if we revisit this topic later. Hat tip to Alternate History for linking to this article.
2014 has also been the year of the Lego brick, with the franchise releasing a major blockbuster this year. In much the same spirit, I had a conversation with James Pegrum, who specialises in building historical Lego models. Since that conversation, he has set up a group, called Brick to the Past, and they go from strength to strength.
We are very lucky to have spoken to a large number of creative history fans this year. One man who embodies this trait is Scott Maynard, the illustrator behind the Happle Tea web comic. If you’re into crude humour and interesting historical facts, this is the place for you.
As someone who is interested in film and history, I can’t help but notice that some time periods just don’t get the same kind of coverage that others do. In this blog, I got all analytical and worked out exactly *how* neglected those periods are. Verdict? There’s plenty of scope for more films throughout our earlier history, but that imbalance isn’t likely to be fixed any time soon.
Bored with modern celebrities? The lovely Historical Honey gave us a guest blog about what the heroes and villains of our past would get up to if they were around today. Would they slink to the shadows? Or are they more likely to grab the limelight, ever the attention grabber? What do you think?
One thing that I definitely needed to address this year is just why Anne Boleyn is so popular with the world of web historians. Because she is. If historians anywhere need a figurehead, this woman is, apparently, the one to go for. Thanks again to Historical Honey for the inspiration.
Alan Moore is, primarily, a graphic novelist. But he’s also a wizard, and a cult icon, and he really doesn’t like it when people get taken advantage of. So when he cropped up in the news twice in one week, in historically-related areas, I figured it was only fair we had a look at him, and why he matters.
If there’s one vaguely-historical thing the public loves, it’s vampires. They’ve got that whole neck-nibbling thing going on. What with them being immortal, any film, TV series, or game that features them could quite justifiably see itself heading into the past at some point. But how helpful are vampires as a medium for history?
Epic Rap Battles of History is an important part of modern culture, inasmuch as it teaches young people about important historical figures through the medium of confrontational music and aggressive posturing. With that in mind, I felt it was only appropriate to get one of the show’s creators in to discuss the hows and whys of the show.
Janine Spendlove is a high school history teacher/US Marine/pilot/published author/mother/historical cosplayer. While all of those things are pretty impressive, and combined they’re are totally awesome, it was that last one that particularly interested us. We had a chat with the woman behind the outfits to find out how she does it.
By far my most popular blog this year has been the time I interviewed Erin and Morag from Manfeels Park. The web comic combines quotes from actual comment threads and combines them with art from Jane Austen films, to highlight just how silly they are. Further comment threads ensue.
There are filming locations across the UK and, on Thursday, I set out to see some of the ones that were closest to me. I chose Luckington, Castle Combe and Lacock for various reasons. I had never been to Castle Combe before, but had heard big things about it. It is supposed to be the ‘prettiest village in England’, and it is nice. Luckington and Lacock I have been to, but I also had a film fanatic with me, who I thought might appreciate them.
Directions – you have to know where you are going. At any point you may have to turn off a 60mph road with no signposts and no warning. Directions will spare the drivers’ nerves.
DVDs – Watch the films first so that you’ll recognise places and can say the appropriate catchphrases at the right times.
Research – Find out if the locations are actually visitable, how different they look IRL, and whether any other cool stuff happened in the same place. Luckington Court is a private house, and we totally missed the fact that the original ‘M’ is buried in the church graveyard.
I can see where the ‘prettiest village in England’ thing comes from. It is a very idyllic place, and quite hard to get to at that. As such, it does a good job of representing everything wholesome and English. In films like ‘the Wolfman’ it is a place to protect, whereas in ‘Stardust’ it is a place to escape. A young person like Tristan Thorne might appreciate the rolling countryside, but would feel stifled by the sheer lack of things to do.
The last place we went to was Lacock. Over the last month or so I have been volunteering at Lacock Abbey on the National Trust’s ’50 Things to do Before You’re 11 3/4′ project. As a result, I bang on about the place quite a lot, post pictures of all the cats there (there are loads!) and generally get very enthusiastic about it. There have been a lot of films shot at Lacock Abbey, most recently the upcoming Wolf Hall movie.
After finishing this tour, I went to a party where I met a conservator whose job includes liaison with the film industry around the use of National Trust properties. In an age of greenscreen, it is a good thing that the film industry is willing to incur the hassle of filming in these historic locations. I, for one, appreciate their dedication.
In war, people die. Rather a lot. On camera, people die to propel the main character towards some noble goal that sensible people would otherwise avoid. To prove my point, I have three examples for you:
In the most recent Robin Hood film, Russell Crowe’s ‘Robin Longstride’ promises a dying ‘Robert of Locksley’ that he will take a message to the man’s father. It is presumed that the promise was only meant to ease the man’s suffering. However, Robin accidentally pricks his finger while doing it, and suddenly acquires a sense of obligation.
In Kingdom of Heaven, Orlando Bloom’s ‘Balian’ is taking a road trip to Jerusalem to pray for his late wife. However, when he accidentally gets Liam Neeson’s ‘Godfrey of Ibelin’ fatally wounded, he lets the man knight him, and takes on a tonne of responsibility while sensible soldiers like Jeremy Irons’ ‘Tiberius’ are abandoning ship.
In Sharpe’s Eagle, Sean Bean’s ‘Sharpe’ watches as a superior officer orders a comrade, Major Lennox, into a tactically unsound advance, which sees the major fatally wounded, his unit wiped out and, (!!!) the flag captured. When Sharpe and his men get there, the dying major begs that a French flag (an eagle) be planted in his grave. While Sharpe never vocally agrees to the deal – and his superiors interrogate him on that point – he does, eventually, capture an eagle.
At first I thought that this was based on some notion of chivalric honour. Balian is knighted, and Robin Longstride assumes the identity of a knight. But actually, chivalry really isn’t what we’ve made it out to be, and that’s partly the Victorians’ fault.
According to lordsandladies.org, the Song of Roland breaks down chivalry into tenets, such as ‘fighting for the welfare of all’, and ‘persevering to the end in any enterprise begun’. Chivalry was a big deal back in the day. I have heard one (possibly apocryphal) tale of a PoW, who was allowed to go home to collect his own ransom, because he gave his word that he would be back. That is way more civilised behaviour than exists in any modern conflict.
However, there’s an issue here. Godfrey of Ibelin, Robert of Locksley and Major Lennox are all ‘good’ men. In fact they are, arguably, better men than the heroes. Balian murders a priest, Robin Longstride escapes from the stocks before running across the dying Locksley, and Sharpe is up for duelling a fellow officer, despite his general’s orders. There is a sense that the heroes each ‘owe it’ to the dying man to honour his last request, because he was ‘a good man’. This, then, isn’t chivalry.
The codes of chivalry simply require that a knight will ‘keep faith’, there is no sub-clause about whether the other guy was good enough to deserve good treatment. But then, none of these men have been raised as noble knights. Sharpe and Longstride are professional soldiers, while Balian is a blacksmith (the extended version explains that he is a Da Vinci-level polymath, but the studio cut is more believable). These guys respect people for their actions, not their background.
However, a high level of loyalty and respect did run between real-world comrades as well, even when they weren’t knights. One nice example of honour between fellow soldiers is the burial club culture of ancient Rome. This was basically a co-operative insurance scheme, where each man paid into the kitty, and when one guy popped his clogs, the collective purse paid for a respectable ceremony, along with all the appropriate sacrifices and monuments. When you might die in some corner of a godforsaken province at any moment, knowing that you’ll get a good send-off made it a little more bearable.
Robin Longstride and his comrades-in-arms get upset when they realise that Robin has accidentally pricked his finger, theoretically swearing a blood pact. Historical blood pacts are not uncommon, and have happened in many parts of the world. The red sticky stuff was regarded with a degree of reverence, and blood pacts were considered irrevocable. Robin shrugs off the association, but subsequently keeps faith since he was ‘going that way anyway’.
Oaths are powerful things, and when you factor in the multiplier of a dying man’s last request, they can carry a real emotional resonance. Of the three stories, I think the Sharpe storyline uses this motif the most subtly. Sharpe never verbally agrees to capture an eagle. He knows it would be a bloody hard job to accomplish. But still, he will fight to do right by a good man who died in a bad way.
The first character I want to discuss is from Rosemary Sutcliff’s Eagle of the Ninth, which was recently released as the surprisingly good movie; The Eagle. The hero of the story is Centurion Marcus Flavius Aquila, and in the film he is portrayed by Channing Tatum.
I have got beef with this name. It’s not that it’s a terribly bad name. Instead, rather like the ‘Captain John C. Shepherd Christ’, his name has certain connotations that just seem a bit too obvious. ‘Marcus’ is one of the most Roman names that also has biblical connotations. ‘Flavius’ is a clear nod to the Flavian dynasty of emperors, who ruled the empire around 100 years before this story was set. I actually have one issue with this, because Marcus’s father is a Legate. I am not convinced that the Roman government would give a member of a previous ruling dynasty command of a legion. Maybe that’s just me though.
But my real problem is the cognomen ‘Aquila’. This literally means ‘Eagle’. This name did exist at the time, but when your book is all about a guy going to find an Eagle, calling him ‘Eagle’, albeit in Latin, seems a bit cheap. The trouble is; since The Life of Brian, giving Roman characters names that foreshadow their role has become a bit of a joke. Now, I appreciate that the book was published in the ’50s, a long time before The Life of Brian, but the subsequent BBC radio drama and the film both came after. One tweak is all I’m asking, here.
Names in Assassin’s Creed
But let’s mix things up a bit here. What about the assassins of Assassin’s Creed? Sure, the series do reference a lot of real historical characters. Sometimes the hero is just bouncing between them, but the heroes are all entirely fictional. The first assassin you play as is Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad. In Arabic this apparently means ‘the bird son of no one’. I don’t speak Arabic, but even I know that ‘Alt’ has certain connotations. In Germanic languages it means ‘other’ – as in ‘alternative’. In Romantic languages it suggests heights – as in ‘altitude’ – I also know this because my Uni’s motto was ‘per ardua ad alta’; ‘through hard work, great heights are achieved’.
I don’t think this is a coincidence. Altaïr is an ‘other’. He is radically different from the less-well-rendered civilians that inhabit his world. He also likes climbing. He *really* likes climbing. Plus heights. As long as there is a well-placed haystack at the bottom of his climb, he has absolutely no fear of heights. I might be stretching the point here, but I think that Altaïr also sounds a bit like ‘ulterior’, which, given that he is an assassin, may be fitting. It may also be worth mentioning that the second main character, Ezio, goes on to have a daughter, named Flavia. So there’s your segue.
Names in Oscar Wilde
While looking for a third example – and deciding not to include Asterix and company – I came across this, by Listverse. The infamous Dorian Gray is apparently based on John Gray; an acquaintance of Wilde’s. The first name change is possibly a reference to the Dorian Greeks (as opposed to the Ionians) who, yes, liked to have their way with teenage boys. There is also an undertone of this in the book, so this might be a deliberate connotation.
Referencing the Dorians may also be a less subtle way of explaining how cultured the main character is. The book came out in 1891, near the peak of the NeoClassical period. Wilde’s readers would’ve known the difference between a Doric and an Ionic column, but few of them would have had the balls to name their child after the classical cultures. Biblical names, such as ‘John’, were all the rage but Dorian Gray is a stranger animal and the reader is meant to know it.
For what it’s worth
I can’t hate authors too much for using these tricks. I once read a statistic that said something like 10% of all women’s names during the Tudor period can be accounted for by Henry VIII’s wives, and even then there are only three different Christian names. Don’t quote me on this one, and if you do know the real statistic, I would love to read it. My point is that historical names (particularly if they come from the Bible) are very common. It is quite hard to make a character seem ‘of that era’, and when you take the generation gap into consideration, it can be particularly tough to place your hero.
Character names can give a subtle indication of who that person is and where they are going. Far more subtle that most visual descriptions. As someone who has never named anything more significant than a guinea pig, I’m probably not the person to talk about naming real-live tiny human beings, but I think that many parents pick a name that they think will reflect who that person is, or who they hope that person will become. Those who create fictional characters do the same thing, with the added complication that their character must seem at home in the world around them. We know the past better than we know the future our children will grow up in.
Theory: It is impossible to make a ‘big history’ film work, because everyone knows how it’s going to end.
Evidence: From my ‘dark ages of film‘ spreadsheet, here are some examples of films where you probably already know the basic plot, or at least a major event:
The Charge of the Light Brigade
The Young Victoria
Elizabeth: The Golden Age
The Other Boleyn Girl
The Passion of the Christ
We know that India eventually gains its independence; we know that the Light Brigade is decimated, we know that Victoria shacks up with Albert and they have lots of sex. We know that Davy Crockett and the Texans are wiped out, but that Texas resists Mexican occupation. We know that Marie Antoinette gets the chop (but she doesn’t say ‘let them eat cake’, and neither does anyone else). We know that the Spanish Armada is defeated and Elizabeth dies single. We know that the ‘other Boleyn girl’ doesn’t end up with Henry. We know that William Wallace dies, but that Scotland gets independence (in its defence, I didn’t know this before, but I was only seven when it came out). Jesus dies at the end. Alexander conquers loads and then dies. Paris and Helen briefly shack up before Troy is crushed.
This blog is partly inspired by the show ‘Conversations With Myself About Movies’. In particular, the episode about Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln’, because most of the events of the film are common knowledge. We all know how the story of Abraham Lincoln ends.
Maybe I’m being too critical here. I mean, I doubt I’d have the same problem if I was reading a book. Almost all of historical films are adapted from one or more books. This is just another means of telling a story, right? Well… no. Films have set themselves up as more than that. They are entertainment; excitement even. The stories are supposed to be gripping. If you know how the story is going to end, then all you are wondering is, how are they going to show it?
With non-history films, let’s just pick an example; the Matrix. The first time you watched that film, you really didn’t know how it was going to end. Micro-histories like Aguirre, the Wrath of God are also fine. You don’t necessarily know the story, so you can engage with it on a deeper level.
And to that, I have two words; ‘Inglorious Basterds’.
Yeah, you didn’t expect Tarantino to be the saviour of historical movies, did you? If you haven’t watched it, the premise is this; Brad Pitt and a squad of Jews break into Nazi-occupied France and go on a rampage, before using a film premier to try and kill Hitler. Meanwhile a French Jew and her black projectionist boyfriend also come up with another plan…
So this starts off looking like a micro-history. I know Hitler didn’t die in a cinema, so I’m not thinking about the climax. When Pitt and his guys are trying to bluff their way round, pretending to be Italians, I am genuinely concerned for them. And then they go and kill Hitler. Suddenly I can’t approach historical films with such confidence any more. I can’t be certain that they will end the way I think. At any moment, someone could machine-gun a Nazi before his true downfall has come.
What do you think? Do you enjoy historical films on the same level as others? Have a read of my anachronism post, and see whether it gets you worked up.
I won’t do it. I refuse to compromise on this. I love Sharpe and Hornblower. Screw qualifying statements. I know some of you think that Sharpe was way better, or that the series make for poor historical documentation, or that they are incontrovertibly flawed in a myriad of ways, or whatever. I’m not interested. For me, they represent a high water mark in popular programming. And, in my best drunken man rambling style, I’ll tell you why.
Both series depend on a central, relatable character. Contrast this with more recent series, such as HBO’s Rome, where two heroes clamour for our attention, or the History Channel’s Vikings, where the central character is a wide-eyed weirdo. The bromance between Rome’s Vorenus and Pullo is actually pretty similar to the one between Sharpe and Sgt Harper, but it is very obviously Sharpe’s show.
Sharpe and Hornblower both have elements that we can, or would like to, see in ourselves. They have human frailties and strengths that reflect their social class. Working class Sharpe has a quick temper, while middle class Hornblower frequently doubts himself. Nevertheless, they are both honourable, cunning, tenacious and brave. They espouse values that still ring true. Hell, the only thing truly unbelievable about them is how often they manage to cheat death.
Yes, there is a lot of cock in these series. Without carrying out a lot of careful scrutiny, I feel pretty confident in stating that neither would pass the Bechdel test. But fuck it, these series are about life in the armed forces during the Napoleonic wars. How many women were you expecting? Series like Rome and Vikings have tried to balance this out by having more ‘back home’ scenes, but we’re not really interested in the domestic stuff.
Besides, these are shows about manly men, being manly together. They’re not over-egging the pudding like Spartacus: Blood and Sand did. I’m not sure exactly how to explain my point here, so I’d be gratified if anyone could help me out in the comments. These are ‘boys own’ stories, and the Hornblower books come from the same era; with endorsements from people like Ernest Hemingway and Winston Churchill.
The most fun TV is when you know who the bad guys are. With English heroes like Sharpe and Hornblower, the baddies are obviously French. There is an ethnic rivalry between us, and the massively cliched ‘frogs’ are the perfect foil to our ‘rosbif’ heroes. And there are also the Spanish ‘dagos’, who crop up as allies and enemies. Furthermore, there are the Irish, who appear as major characters in both series, and who sometimes turn against the English heroes.
For those of you who might take me too seriously, the division of good guys and bad guys isn’t as clear-cut as all that, but it is nice to have an obvious threat to focus on, who wear a brightly coloured uniform. This is definitely more fun than the hordes of potential enemies in Vikings, who all wear mismatched leather armour, or the multiple Roman armies of Rome, who all wear the same gear. By clearly signalling who is on which side, you can also have fun by getting the heroes to go undercover just by changing outfits.
There are two things I want to mention here; first up is corn syrup. Both series are all about practical effects, and they don’t skimp on the fake blood. On the downside, they don’t often use blood squibs, which means that it is often a clean soldier who ‘dies’. To cover this up, the action scenes are often cut together quickly. They spend a beat on someone firing, a beat on his mate and a beat on their targets falling over.
When it comes to cannon fire, the practical effects usually involve a powder explosion buried into the ground. What is brilliant about this is that it may take the extras an unrealistically long period of time to realise that the explosion has gone off, and to throw themselves to the ground. Again, this stuff is cut pretty quickly, but the juxtaposition of the ham acting of the extras and Sean Bean’s utter seriousness is brilliant.
What is great about both is that you know roughly how things will go. It’s not quite as predictable as the BBC Dr Who off-season fillers like Robin Hood, Merlin and The Musketeers, but it is in that direction. After an hour and a half of shooting, cannons, anger, travelling, and the handful of songs that the production company has the rights to, Sharpe will march off into the sunset with his men, turn and look back with a melancholy look, and they’ll crank up ‘Over the Hills and Far Away’. Old friends might have died along the way, but the main guys will prevail, with more scars and a promotion to prove that they’ve been doing Important Things for king and country.
I could go on, but I don’t think I need to. If you want to agree with me, please leave your comments below. If you don’t want to agree… I’m not sure this is the place for you.