Monday, October 19, 2009

Hollywood Historicals

This is a frequent topic of conversation among historians and writers alike. The question is (in a very simplified form), is it good for Hollywood to be making historical films and are those that have been made any good?

This may turn out to be more of an opinion as I stand on my virtual soap box. I have a confession to make...wait for it...

...I am addicted to historical films. Yes, yes. I know. A good historian owning up to this is, well, death. However, I am a writer and storyteller before historian and I state it proudly (it used to be the other way around!). That is not to say that I do not want historical accuracy but it does mean that in fiction or movies, story must come first, then the other bits and pieces. I've already jumped into the topic, I suppose. There are constant complaints from some folks, mainly historians, that movies are horribly innacurate when it comes to the histories they are portraying. There are far too many historical films for me to look at all of them here but there are a few I would like to mention.

If you have seen them, who could forget the films that were made in the heyday of monumental production; films like Ben Hur and Cleopatra, 300 Spartans and Alexander the Great, or Quo Vadis and The Fall of the Roman Empire. Or other films like Robin Hood (Errol Flynn) and Ivanhoe.

The above films were widely popular in their day and most remain so, remain 'Classics'. When I began to really get in to history I was reading everything I could get my hands on but also watching every old film I could find - anything to immerse myself in the past. Now, the thing about the older films to a young viewer is that the film quality might not be that great or the costumes and fight scenes a little cheezy. Indeed they also contained many historical innacuracies, be they with regards to the clothing or armour or historical personages themselves. However, they still manage to draw us in because they have good, human stories, powerful stories that we can relate to, even now, built on themes of love, revenge, triumph in the face of incredible odds etc. Many was the history professor who looked on the older films with great fondness. Who can blame them?

However, some folks who claim to be great fans of the older films look with disdain on today's flashy renditions of these ancient tales. I'll never forget one professor who, upon hearing the excited talk of his students about Braveheart, sneared and said it was complete rubbish and totally inaccurate. Inaccurate it may be in some ways but it got most of the students excited and pumped about history. The medieval setting and the story of love and vengeance and a fight for freedom all resonated with the students and I found that to be quite a triumph on the part of the film makers. The same goes for the much-criticized Robin Hood Prince of Thieves with Kevin Costner. However bad some things might have been (including the accent) that movie sparked something in many young people and prompted them to go into medieval studies, to read more about the 12th century and the crusades (a topic we could still learn a lot from in today's world).

One of the most recent, successful examples of a Hollywood historical making a huge mark is Gladiator. This film resonated with folks across the world and sparked mass interest in ancient history and ancient Rome and was followed by masses of new documentaries. Most importantly, in my opinion, is that it made such an impact that enrollment in university classics programs more than doubled at some institutions. That certainly can't be a bad thing. One fellow said to me after the movie, "Ach, it was ok. The Romans didn't really fight like that though." Fair enough I suppose, but really, who cares? It was a fantastic visual and emotional journey that grabbed most viewers by the throat. Even the film's music (by Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard) has provoked a new style of vocalization in movie music.

This is, of course, my opinion but as a historian, if it hooks people and gets them interested in history, it's great! As a writer, I am happy to be immersed in ancient and medieval settings, to be inspired by a good yarn and to enter a world that is now out of reach. I wish they would make more films like Gladiator, 300, King Arthur, Alexander and Tristan and Isolde.

After all, art truly inspires art and in this intensely visual and modern age that we live in, it is more important than ever to maintain an excited interest in the past in order that we may continue to learn from it.

Photo: Interior shot of the North African amphitheatre at Thugga (Tunisia) which inspired the African segment of Gladiator.
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