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Tag: history

Editorials

Questioning Our History

November 26, 2018
Hacksaw Ridge Screenshot

“History is written by the victors.” The irony of this quote from Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister who led Britain through one of the most documented wars, isn’t lost when it comes to historical accuracy and how Hollywood’s depictions of historical events can shape our understanding of the past.

It is crucial that history is documented and Hollywood re-tellings can make previously unknown historical events accessible to a wider audience. However, issues arise when an artistic license is taken to a new level and scenarios can be changed in order to heighten drama or, a more damaging reason, to portray events from a particular bias.

The popularity of period dramas is undeniable; let’s face it, good period dramas are one of the main reasons the BBC can justify the TV license – not that I’m complaining as it brought Tommy Shelby into my life! Now other platforms are jumping on the historical bandwagon – or carriage – with series three of the Netflix original ‘The Crown’ now in production.

Audience numbers for ‘historical fiction’ films have peaked and dipped over the years. There was a huge increase in 1998, with 16.63% of overall tickets sold being for this genre (Titanic had been released the December before!) while the 2011 rise could be put down to the film adaption of The Help. However, ticket sales have declined rapidly in the past year, from 6.98% in 2017 to just 2.61% this year. So why the drop?

Perhaps the issue is the historical accuracies, or rather, inaccuracies which has caused audience numbers to dwindle. Perhaps it is the whitewashing of historical events which has been prevalent in Hollywood. Perhaps it is the lack of diversity within period and war dramas.

There is a clearly evident issue of harking back to the “good old days”, particularly in older war films. This is often the case with films told from a British perspective. Graham Dawson refers to this as “the pleasure culture of war”; films providing a nationalistic perspective. Although this is to be expected as the winners tell the story, this only provides a very limited narrative to audiences. The issues caused by this “revisionist” history can be incredibly damaging. On a small scale, it might infuriate historians to see a plane being used in a film which wasn’t commissioned until two years after the events it is portraying. But, on a more damaging scale, stories can be told which present people and even social groups in an unfairly positive or negative way.

Zack Snyder’s 2006 film 300 faced a huge backlash; both historically and socially. The film gave the Spartans all the credit when they were actually supported by around 7,000 other Greeks. More worrying is the film’s portrayal of the Persians. The Persians were one of the most advanced cultures within the ancient world while the film depicts them as savage killers who held people as slaves. It was, in fact, the Spartans who held the most slaves in Greece while the Persians had outlawed the practice. The film received a great deal of negativity in Iran due to this factually inaccurate and damaging depiction of the Persians.

Although issues can arise in the making of a film, it is still vitally important that these events are documented, albeit accurately and with fair representations. As  the old adage from George Santayana goes; “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But we still need to remember the actual past, not a fictional one created for heightened drama and box office sales.

World War Two is possibly the most documented war in modern cinema. There have been all sorts of perspectives told on the silver screen; from the battle in the air to the trials and tribulations of those left behind when their loved ones went off to fight. Stephen Spielberg has done his fair share of big budget war movies, most famously Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. (He also directed War Horse – a British story about British soldiers directed by an American – think that’s one for another post!) Both films mentioned have been heralded as incredibly accurate representations of the events they depict. Although Private Ryan wasn’t, in fact, a real person, the artillery used in the film most certainly was. In fact, the opening scene, the storming of Omaha Beach, was so accurate that WWII veterans had to be escorted from screenings. Schindler’s List is another Spielberg film which has been praised for its accurate telling of the harsh realities of Nazi Germany.

Perhaps that is what historical films need in order to be able to fully tell their story: harsh reality. 12 Years a Slave was incredibly difficult to watch because of the brutal violence shown. It has also been deemed one of the most accurate accounts to date by historians. The film was based on the actual experiences of Solomon Northup, a man who was forced into slavery and was able to share his narrative after he regained his freedom. It was a narrative that I was unfamiliar with until the Hollywood adaptation, at which point I read the book. This is why historical re-tellings are important; they provide the opportunity to learn about the lives of people which might otherwise have been lost. However, it is vital that these stories are told with the accuracy they deserve.

Reviews

Review: Outlaw King

November 19, 2018
Warning – there are minor spoilers in this review but as it’s history I don’t think these will surprise anyone.

 

David Mckenzie’s new historical drama about how Robert the Bruce became King of Scotland

What’s Going On?

The film starts with Edward I, King of England, forgiving Scottish lords for rebelling against him. Edward I claimed the Scottish crown after they asked him to decide on should be king and he picked himself (he had no claim to the throne). Not surprisingly many Scottish lords rebelled but were soundly defeated by Edward I. Robert the Bruce, son of a Scottish lord, was one of the leading rebels but he too makes his peace with Edward, possibly only because his father is one of the strongest claimants and they think Edward will make him king. English rule on Scotland is hard with Edward I brutalising Scotland; at one point he refuses to accept surrender from one lord until he’s had a chance to try out his new catapult (this really happened). Eventually, the injustices prove too much to bear and Robert the Bruce rebels despite being hugely outnumbered.

Behind The Scenes

The film is directed by David Mackenzie, who I knew mainly from Hell Or High Water, which is perhaps best described as a modern western, a film I enjoyed a lot. This is a Netflix production and I would say does manage to feel like a “proper” film and not some made-for-tv second rate movie. Obviously, this is based on history and while taking some liberties does a good job of setting the scene and showing how utterly outmatched Robert the Bruce is.

In Front Of The Camera

The film stars Chris Pine as Robert the Bruce and he very much carries the film, it is his story from start to finish. Stephen Dillane is King Edward, probably best known as Stannis Baratheon in Game of Thrones, and it is in many ways a similar performance, certainly not a likeable man but extremely capable. Billy Howle gives a great performance as Prince Edward; an arrogant fool, constantly shoving his exalted status in other people’s face while having mountains of father issues to work through. Florence Pugh takes on the difficult role of Robert’s wife, an Englishwoman who is married to Robert (neither seemed to have much say in it) and displayed the strained circumstances and mixed loyalties she has when her husband rebels.

The Elephant In The Cinema

Inevitably there are going to be comparisons with the hugely successful and Oscar-winning Braveheart. Three of the central characters also appear in that film and it is telling much of the same story but from a different perspective. Braveheart focused on William Wallace who is never actually seen in Outlaw King but his existence is referenced a lot. There are many similarities between the two portrayals of Edward I, both are old but fierce men, with Braveheart’s king being crueller and crazier, seemingly going out of his way to be evil. The big difference is with Prince Edward, in Braveheart a weak and ineffectual man whereas in Outlaw King he is a far more aggressive and warlike man but still was glaring deficits. This change seems to make Prince Edward a more compelling adversary to Robert.

Does It Work?

The film is certainly enjoyable and is a grimmer, less elegant portrayal than many similar films, it feels like 50% of the film is people fighting or walking through mud. Everything and everyone is dirty; even kings. Unavoidably it suffers from the problem that we know what is going to happen but it does as well as it can at maintaining the jeopardy. Certainly, some people will not know the ending or how it all happened. At times Robert is asked specifically how many soldiers he has and you could fit them all on one bus, hardly an army, and it is hard to conceive how he can possibly win. The real problem is one of scale. There is only one large scale battle in the film which is quite possibly the smallest battle in this whole war, with Robert having around 500 men. While this is historically accurate you can’t help but think they chose this battle over, say, the Battle of Bannockburn where Robert had at least ten times that number because the smaller battle would be cheaper. Considering Game of Thrones has battles that feel on a bigger scale this is a real failing with the film. Indeed the film ends with text explaining what happened next and it really feels like they have only told half of Robert’s story.

The viewer’s sympathies do lie with Robert but there is an incident early in the film which does muddy the water a lot. To the filmmaker’s credit, this is something that really happened and permanently tarnished Robert’s reputation and damaged his standing with a lot of people. An equivalent action today would probably be committing a war crime. Robert is portrayed as wanting to act not out of personal ambition but for the good of Scotland and it’s people. In part, though the film makes less of a case for Robert being the good guy but in clearly demonstrating that King Edward and Prince Edward are clearly the bad guys. A good point about the film is I don’t think every English person is shown as thoroughly evil (a problem I think Braveheart has), more than the people in charge have tried to steal Scotland and the foot soldiers are just caught up in it.

Overall I’d say if you like historical dramas you will enjoy this but it certainly isn’t the cultural touchstone something like Braveheart or Gladiator are but in Outlaw King’s defence the film is far more historically accurate than either of those. It’s a two-hour film that was always interesting and enjoyable and a lot of its faults come from comparing it to other films.

Verdict: 3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)