Why historical media is the best genre at portraying death

Caesar's Assisnation HBO ROME

Pirates of the Caribbean suffered, right from the very start, from the fact that none of its characters would stay dead. One of the most successful franchises of recent years is the Avengers series. But if it has a flaw, it is that death isn’t taken seriously. Yes, one guy died in the most recent installment, but given the sheer amount of world-ending jeopardy invoked in both major films and the individual installments, the actual threat is fairly minmal. The Lord of the Rings trilogy was pretty similar. Only three significant characters died in the whole trilogy; Boromir in Fellowship, and the two kings in Return. Considering all that vague ‘one ring to rule them all’ threat, the good guys get off waaaay too lightly.

But if we’re talking about Sean Bean, one series that bucks the trend, is Game of Thrones. Major characters die ALL THE TIME in that series. In fact they do it so often that new major characters have to be introduced to keep the action going. Game of Thrones is an anomaly; most TV series will only offer one or two token deaths every so often. So much is invested in characters that their creators are reluctant to off them. GRRM has no such qualms.Ned's execution Game of Thrones

On the other hand, historical media has to confront death all the time. People, factually, are mortal. All of the historical people who have ever existed, have all died. What’s more, historical characters tend to die at the most inappropriate times – Richard III springs to mind. As a result, death is one of the major plot features that history, as a genre, focusses on. Saving Private Ryan is a classic example; that film is all about Death Vs Life. Yes, it’s ostensibly about war. But in reality, death is a lot more familiar to us. The central characters almost all die, just so that Ryan can live. And they do not go gentle into that good night. They go out kicking and screaming, in a pool of their own blood, desperate to finish their business.

Saving Private Ryan

TV is rapidly catching up. HBO’s ROME featured a large number of deaths. The two heroes Pullo and Vorenus carved their way through a hugh number of fighters without so much as a backward glance, but there were also a large number of deaths that the show spent a lot more time on.  For the sake of variety I have included a still from the death of Julia; Caesar’s daughter and Pompey’s wife. Her death was the catalyst for the split between the two men, and it is an emotional affair. HBO’s focus on death in all it’s complexity is a major part of what saved this series from being just a blood-n-sex-fest.Julia's death HBO ROME

Video games, by comparison, have a long way to go. Enemies are dead as soon as their last health point is hacked away. They fall to the floor, and (sometimes after a few seconds) fade into invisibility – leaving you just enough time to loot their body. This totally avoids dealing with things like the twitching, gurgling enemies on the floor, who grab at your heels as you march over them, or just how tricky it is to strip armour from a corpse.

The historical genre leads the way when it comes to portraying death. It is emotional, paradigm-shifting, and very, very final. And that is how it is portrayed.

What kind of company uses the memory of WWI to sell products?

If you’re not from the UK, Sainsbury’s is a leading chain of supermarkets. It has received a fair bit of criticism for releasing a Christmas advert that focuses on the events of the 1914 ‘Christmas Truce’.

The criticism largely rests on the fact that a supermarket chain is exploiting an emotially-charged piece of history in order to promote its commercial offering.

However, there are also some flaws in the history as well. The Christmas Truce is a legend that keeps growing.

But there is also a positive side to all this. When the rival firms are exploiting the emotionally-charged first brushes with romance, it is refreshing that a company has decided to focus on a historic event. It is a particularly bold step to take when that event happened in the middle of a war, and your primary range of goods is groceries. I think Sainsbury’s should be rewarded for its boldness by more publicity, like this.

#LightsOut and why we try to remember

A couple of months ago I wrote this blog, about whether it is appropriate to deliberately forget history. I thought that, in the wake of this week’s 100th anniversary of the beginning of the First World War, it might be appropriate to look at why we conduct such massive memorials, and whether we still need them.

The first thing to address, particularly in the case of WWI, is that we do not do this for those who fought, and died. The last veterans of the conflict have since passed on, and the whole thing is nearly beyond living memory. The dead cannot hear us, and the living would probably rather forget about that time altogether. I have heard at least two veterans over the last week say that it is probably about time we stopped these grandiose memorials, and, against the backdrop of conflict in Syria, Iraq, Gaza and the Ukraine (among others), this doesn’t necessarily seem appropriate. In my earlier blog I implied that ‘the war to end wars’ was a huge misnomer, and that still rings true with tragic irony.

But if we’re not doing this for those who died, then who is it for? Almost every family has lost people in conflict, but in the developed world those wounds are now healing over. All of the ceremonies and memorials that I have seen, from the ice soldiers slowly melting in central Birmingham, to the fields of ceramic poppies outside the Tower of London, to the vigil service that I attended in a local parish church, all seemed to be particularly haunting affairs. The people behind these things worked hard to create a deeply affecting ritual.

Lights Out itself was the centrepiece for this ritual. The idea, conceived by the Royal British Legion referred to the words of the then Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, who said: “The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” The RBL asked that, between 10pm and 11pm on 4 August, people turned off all their electric lights, and left a single candle burning. To their credit, most places, including the local pub where I went for my vigil, joined in. I heard about a service at Bath Abbey where the final song was “A long, long way to Tipperary”, but the men of the choir filed out of the Abbey during the song, and their part grew quieter and quieter. The congregation left in silence, in ones and twos.

These memorials allowed people to express their creative side, in ways that we would never try with a funeral for fear of appearing crass, or over-dramatic. We haven’t gone in for ostentatious mourning since the end of the Victorian era, so maybe public ceremonies are a way to channel that side of our spirit. Even so, I don’t think that we conduct public memorials simply to provide an outlet.

One thing that has struck me, is that these ceremonies are all about the past. If they were about remembering so that we do not repeat the same mistakes, then there would be at least some focus on the future. A pledge, perhaps, that we would all work together to prevent such barbarism from ever occurring again. But there isn’t.

The two World Wars are the last time that conscription was used in the UK. The ugly realities of war were common knowledge to almost every household. For those veterans who are still alive, they would probably rather not remember. They had many comrades who died in battle, but most have also had quite a few friends who have died since.

I think that, whatever the memorials started out as, they have become a way for people who were not there to get a sense of what it might have been like. It will not be a complete picture; I’m sure there were moments of laughter in the trenches; times when the traditional picture of war broke down. But those of us who were not there want to understand how it felt for those who were. Rituals such as Lights Out give us that opportunity.

The ‘vow to a dying soldier’ cliché

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.

Google and D-Day; is it appropriate to deliberately forget history?

Google was recently ordered by the European Court of Justice to grant members of the public the ‘right to be forgotten’. This will allow individuals to exercise more control about what appears about them (or doesn’t, in this case) in the public domain. Google has expressed disappointment, and I know that many historians will be uneasy with the implication that a company could be legally compelled to remove a piece of information if asked.

The destruction of history has been going on for a long time. One of the craziest figures of Egypt’s 18th Dynasty was Akhenaten, who tried to remove the power of the cult of Amun by worshiping the Aten instead, and making himself the god’s main intermediary. It was all very Henry VIII. So anyway, things eventually went south for Akhenaten, and his rivals managed to hustle in Tutankamun, who may or may not have been Akenaten’s son, as a puppet ruler. They also committed damnatio memoriae by removing his name from a bunch of monuments, and this is one of the main reasons why our knowledge of the guy is so shaky. That said, we do still know who he was.

Akenaten and family, courtesy of Wikimedia commons.

So, damnatio memoriae doesn’t exactly work. However, I thought it might be interesting to contrast Akenaten with Hitler. They definitely aren’t a direct comparison. Akhenaten did not, to the best of my knowledge, deliberately round up millions of ‘undesirable’ minorities and murder them. However, he did preside over a period of massive upheaval and was subject to a consensus criticism. The big contrast for this topic is that while Akenaten’s successors thought his ideas were so dangerous that they should be forgotten, the attitude to the Nazis has been that their crimes should never be forgotten, so that they are never repeated. Mein Kampf is available to buy on Amazon.

For me, the attitude towards Hitler and the Nazis is one that respects the power of history. There is an acceptance that the past cannot simply be whitewashed over. Furthermore, by suppressing the transmission of potentially dangerous ideas, you are acting like the very people you have sought to overthrow. That said, this is something of a false comparison, between two people separated by over 3,000 years, and very different circumstances. The whole world was involved in WW2, whereas Akhenaten and his successors were probably removed in a palace coup. It is much harder to whitewash over history when the whole world knows about it.

It was also the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings recently, and the memorials surrounding the event reminded me of something that has sat a little bit uneasy with me. ‘Least we forget’ and ‘Never again’ are phrases that are often used in conjunction with the two ‘World Wars’, but there have been many other wars with massive death tolls that are not similarly remembered. As we begin to slip out of living memory of the First World War, is it time to stop commemorating it – at least on such a large scale? It very much depends on our reasons, but if the main reason is something along the lines of ‘to make sure it never happens again’, then we have already failed. This was not ‘the war to end all wars’. I would put money on the probability that your country is currently involved in an ongoing conflict.

With the Google case, the important thing is that individuals can only exercise this right on their own behalf.  The Conservatives can’t duck out of their embarrassment quite so easily. Furthermore, it seems as though there are caveats that the information has to be ‘irrelevant’ or ‘outdated’. That said, this does not seem to be the case with the precedent case, which was brought by a man called Mario Costeja Gonzalez, who was annoyed that a search of his name brought up an old story about debts that he owed. Ironically Mr Gonzalez will now be suffering from Streisand Effect in that, by trying to suppress information about himself, he has made himself far more notorious.

Of course, this ruling only applies to the search engines that Mr Gonzales asks to remove links; not to the websites that host the pages themselves, or to other search engines, or to internet archives. The actual teeth of this ruling do not cut particularly deep into the facts of history, but they do set a nasty precedent; one that could lead to individuals censoring the section of the web that relates specifically to them.

If you have any thoughts on this topic, please share them in the comments section, below.

The Mystery of George Clooney and the Elgin Marbles

This story has been developing through the week, and I thought it was about time we featured it on History Mine.

On Saturday, at a press conference for his new film ‘The Monuments Men’, Clooney was asked by a Greek journalist whether he thought the Elgin Marbles should return to Greece. He agreed that he thought they should. George! What have you done? The dispute over the marbles has been rumbling on for decades, if not centuries. With the official position being that they aren’t about to go anywhere, the argument isn’t likely to be resolved any time soon, so all this does is remind us that there is an argument in the first place.

My initial reaction was something along the lines of ‘Why the hell does George Clooney, an American actor, feel the need to make his opinion on this subject heard?’ But maybe that was a bit unfair of me. After all, here I am expressing an opinion on the subject and I don’t possess anywhere near the antiquarian and diplomatic expertise needed to resolve the issue. Plus he was asked his opinion by a journalist instead of forcing it upon the world.

Plus he was at a press conference for a film which deals with the subject of the destruction and relocation of artworks during the Second World War. It’s not an exact analogy, but the reason the marbles were in the UK in the first place is because the British Ambassador to Greece two centuries ago, Elgin, ‘rescued’ them from the Ottoman Empire. Clooney spent several weeks portraying a guy who did something similar. So maybe he does have an insight into this subject that is worth hearing.

Anyone who has a passionate argument in this debate tends to be sitting on the ‘send them back to Greece’ side of the fence. This is mainly because, as adults, it’s hard to really get behind a counter-argument that seems to amount to ‘Shan’t!’

Yes I appreciate that there are all sorts of patronising arguments about whether the Greeks are ready to have them back. Frankly I couldn’t care less about the rocks. It’s not like someone is living on them (which is more than can be said for the time Sean Penn said Britain should give the Falklands ‘back’ to Argentina). Even if this isn’t the destruction of their culture on the same scale that the Jews faced during the holocaust, I can see why it gets them riled.

The real reason behind the ‘keep them’ argument actually seems to be very similar to the one relating to Britain’s overseas territories. If we give one back it will set an ugly precedent. We give the Marbles back and suddenly the British Museum will be half empty, because most of the stuff inside it isn’t actually British at all. But if we’re talking about giving things back to people whose ancestors owned it a couple of hundred years ago, why not start with the US, and the Native Americans?