The Dark Ages of Film

This afternoon, apart from watching a very enjoyable Game of Thrones episode, I have been attempting to compile a reasonably thorough list of all the historical films. This is a hard thing to do. My list was compiled from two Wikipedia pages; its list of historical drama films and (because this has to be separate for some reason) its list of Asian historical drama films. What I was trying to do, was establish whether there were any periods that cinema actively avoids. I found out a lot more than that.

Dark Ages of Film

This graph shows the 600-odd films that I included in my data, stacked cumulatively so that you can get a general impression of when these films are set. Get your head round that while I delve into the boring stuff. If boring stuff isn’t your thing, feel free to skip right to ‘Dear film industry’.


I feel slightly obliged to go into this for anyone who might want to use this data for more serious uses. I should say up front that there was a fair bit of fudging. Wikipedia is not the foremost resource for serious number-bashers, even if it is very useful for a mildly-interested blogger. I could find no better resource in the short amount of time I wanted to dedicate to this project.

I copied the data directly from Wikipedia, and edited it so that the dates the films were set in would display as data points. This meant that any film that took place over a number of years had to be cut down to one year. I went for the earliest year, because this is usually the year that gets a subtitle at the start of the film. I also used negative figures to indicate dates BCE.

I did the same thing for the dates the films were produced in, and tinkered with the titles a wee bit. There are still a lot of inconsistencies in there, but for my purposes it works. I then formatted the two numerical columns with colour scales so that a casual observer could draw some easy conclusions.

Dear film industry

One of the immediate conclusions I drew was that when historical films started popping up in about 1903, you weren’t making many films about the Watergate scandal. This is perhaps obvious; the film industry has been trying to predict the future almost since it’s foundation, but it hasn’t nailed it just yet.  I didn’t want this to interfere with my conclusions too much, so I decided to make 1903 the cut-off date for ‘history’. Sorry late-modern fans.

Trying to find out whether there was a ‘dark ages’ of film kind-of reminded me of the following scene from The Invention of Lying. Essentially, Ricky Gervais’s character exists in a world where people can’t lie, and no-one has an imagination. He works at Lecture Films, which produces films about historical periods, read from a manuscript by a lecturer. Gervais has been covering a ‘boring’ century, so his scripts suck.

The reality of the situation is very different. Film makers aren’t historians, so they don’t know about the cool stuff that is going on in each century. More often than not, they are remaking films that they already have the rights to, or are covering stories that have been famous from antiquity, possibly just from a different angle.

On the curve of my cumulative graph, there is a clear decrease in the number of films from about the turn of BCE-CE. It increases  from about 600-1300CE, and again from 1700 onwards. Draw your own conclusions, but to me, this suggests that historical films tend to follow the source material. This may or may not be a bad thing. On the one hand, film makers are sticking to what is attested, and relying on primary source material. On the other, it means that a great story-telling medium such as film – which can be used to invent stories which fit into what we know about an era – is neglecting history. Please let me know what you think.

If you are interested in having a look at my data for yourself, please check out my Dark Ages of Film spreadsheet.

Edit 12/06/2014 Randall Munroe’s ‘What If’ blog has answered the amusing question of whether any wars were shorter than the combined film filmography about them. It is worth checking out.

Swords, sandals, and guilty pleasures: in defence of ‘300 ROAE’

Four days ago ‘300, Rise of An Empire’; the sequel to the Zak Snyder’s adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel ‘300’ was released in UK cinemas. For those of you who missed the first film (and you call yourselves history geeks) or for those who need a quick recap, here is How It Should Have Ended:

That last line is particularly relevant because, at least in some circles, there has been some hang-wringing over how historically accurate the film is. This article by Cambridge professor Paul Cartledge is probably the most high-profile criticism out there, but it certainly wasn’t the only one. I’m arguing that focusing on whether it is historically accurate is completely the wrong approach. As the HISHE film subtly suggested, ‘300’ was never meant to be an accurate depiction of how things went down circa 480BC. This ain’t no fly on the wall documentary.

In my last post I came down pretty hard on the suspension of disbelief; arguing that pumpkins and potatoes should not have existed in the Lord of the Rings and that, yes, Gandalf was a dope smoker. This week, I’m going in the opposite direction. I’m arguing that there is no way you can sit down to watch a film like ‘300 ROAE’ and expect the story to follow the consensus historical narrative. To write a critique of a story like this on the basis of its historical accuracy is to be willfully disingenuous. It’s also a helluva way to set yourself up for frustration every time you watch a vaguely ‘historical’ movie.

Ross Wittenham 300
Yours truly, as ‘Themistokles’

Full disclosure; I haven’t seen ‘300 ROAE’ yet, and I probably won’t do for a while. This is for personal reasons, not because I consider myself above the genre. I really don’t. Swords and sandals movies are one of my guilty pleasures. The only one I really disliked was that godawful Colin Farrell ‘Alexander’ movie, and that doesn’t count because everyone everywhere hated it.

I love ‘historical’ films even if they bear little resemblance to the events they purport to depict. I also love historical documentaries, but I am smart enough to know the difference. So is everyone. No-one, no matter how clueless they are, goes into an action film like this and believes that what they see is what really happened. In a discussion that followed the publication of my last blog post, I highlighted the ridiculousness of my own problems with historical accuracy: I was quibbling the choice of foods, but had no issue with the existence of wizards and dragons.

This is probably the real root of Paul Cartledge et al’s issues. Just like me, they love the swords and sandals genre. But over the years, as they have gained more expertise in the history surrounding the stories, they have started to spot things that they know aren’t right. This breaks (sod it, hands up, I’m guilty of this too) our suspension of disbelief. We want to talk about how awesome the film is, but because we are human, and English at that, we also feel the need to complain when something distracts us. So we raise our voices in the hope that filmmakers will hear them, and will focus their dabbling on things that will only make the film more awesome.

And we are not alone. There are geeks from other walks of life who are equally frustrated that their subject is being willfully ignored in the pursuit of storylines. Check out, for example, Movie Code. Or, just because I’ll take any opportunity to illustrate an argument with XKCD cartoons, check this out.

Somehow, I doubt that the filmmakers are going to hear us. Swords and sandals films have probably been popular for longer than ones featuring science or code, and we’re still suffering the same problems. We stand on the shoulders of giants like ‘Ben Hur’, all our complaints have got us precisely nowhere. So what can we do?

In one of the bonus features on the original feature film, someone had the audacity to argue that Greeks often depicted their heroes as nudes, and that this was why the film featured so many naked dudes. The suggestion was that this film should be seen as the extension of a traditional Greek oral history, as told by David Wenham’s narrator ‘Dilios’. I prefer to think of it as an homage; a nod to the original events, with lashings of artistic licence. It’s a story worth telling, so let’s not get hung up on the details.