Monday, July 25, 2011

Historical Films, Pt. 2: Not So Good

1) 300. The seniors in my Greece and Rome elective kept urging me to see this, although with giggles. (They knew enough about the subject to guess my reaction.) It falls into a category I especially dislike: a film that leaves the general public knowing less about the subject than they did before seeing it, having replaced ignorance by falsehood. Certainly a rip-roaring gorefest, but otherwise … ick.

2) Gladiator. This thing won the Academy Award for Best Picture? The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), of which this bloody (I use the word in both the sanguinary and British senses) film is essentially a remake, is much better. Much of this is mere violence masquerading as art.

3) Braveheart. This probably would have been a better film if Mel Gibson were not so intense an Anglophobe. It is largely fiction, and eventually becomes really silly (e.g. the amour between William Wallace and the Princess of Wales). Impressive battle scene, of course; but the Battle of Stirling Bridge was completely different than what we see.

4) Cromwell. This film has scant historical value because the producers decided to portray the English Civil War as a personal confrontation between Charles I and Oliver Cromwell, which it was not. (For example, Cromwell never met the king, nor was he one of the five M.P.s whom Charles tried to arrest in 1642.) However, it is worth seeing because the battle scenes give at least a flavor of musket and pike warfare and because Alec Guinness gives a fine performance as Charles I, right down to the slight stammer and the Scots burr that creeps in when he is agitated. The trial and execution scenes are very well done. The film also gives you a chance to see Albus Dumbledore and James Bond at early stages of their careers (Richard Harris plays Cromwell; Timothy Dalton plays Henry Ireton.)

5) Waterloo. This film—unavailable on DVD for, I suppose, some legal reasons—is hard for me to evaluate. The costumes are perfect and since most of the Russian army was apparently made available for filming there is no shortage of extras. The score is fine. Some scenes are excellent: the Emperor’s farewell at Fontainebleau, the great cavalry charges (with the aerial shots so clearly showing the British squares), Orson Welles as Louis XVIII. I read that Rod Steiger decided to play Napoleon as “a man needing a rest and a hot bath,” which I guess is justifiable. But more should have been done with the Prussians (both at Ligny and on the 18th); Napoleon did not suffer some kind of seizure at the height of the battle, there was no hurricane (I think someone accidentally turned on a wind machine just before Bl├╝cher arrived), and some scenes are not very illuminating, especially the charge of the Scots Greys (a charge that does not hit anything; there is no indication that much of d’Erlon’s corps was rendered ineffective by the charge). I have heard that some hours of film are still available. Grognards like me can only hope that the entire available footage is eventually released.

6) Gods and Generals. The successor to Gettysburg and one of the biggest turkeys ever filmed. Long and boring. Why cover Fredericksburg instead of Antietam? Why spend so very much time on Stonewall Jackson? Seldom has so much effort, such attention to detail, been put into a more unsuccessful film—which shows that minute historical accuracy (e.g. Jackson being wounded in the finger at First Bull Run) does not guarantee a good movie. And what a pity, since its failure prevented the making of what would have been a trilogy.

I hope these two articles have been of use to some folks. Let me know.

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