The Eagle: Worst Prologue Text Ever

Tags

, , , , , , , , ,

The Eagle (2011, dir. Kevin McDonald, based on Rosemary Sutcliffe’s The Eagle of the Ninth is at least the third movie set in Roman Scotland (along with King Arthur and Centurion), and it’s by far the best of the three. There’s a lot of things to like about this film, but the prologue text is not one of them. It might, in fact, be the worst prologue text to a historical film I’ve ever seen, because virtually every element of it is problematic.

The-Eagle-2011.jpg

Here it is:

“In 120 AD, the Ninth Legion of the Roman Army marched into the unconquered territory of Northern Britain. They were never seen again. All 5,000 men vanished, along with their treasured standard…The Eagle. Shamed by this great loss, the Emperor Hadrian ordered the construction of a giant wall that cut off the North of Britain forever. Hadrian’s Wall marked the end of the known world.”

Normally in historical films, a prologue text is used to provide important historical background for audiences unfamiliar with a particular historical setting. Some films also use them to set a mood or establish the film’s viewpoint on the setting, but they almost always provide a little basic fact to orient the viewer.

With that in mind, let’s take this prologue text an element at a time.

“In 120 AD, the Ninth Legion of the Roman Army marched into the unconquered territory of Northern Britain. They were never seen again. All 5,000 men vanished, along with their treasured standard…The Eagle.”

As I’ve discussed before when I looked at Centurion, this isn’t historical fact at all. It’s entirely the invention of British children’s author Rosemary Sutcliff. When she wrote The Eagle of the Ninth, she offered an interesting explanation for what happened to the 9th Legion, which disappears from the historical record in the early 2nd century AD after being stationed in Britain. Her theory that the Legion was sent into Scotland and subsequently destroyed is certainly a possibility, but there’s literally no evidence for it. It’s more likely that it was destroyed during a rebellion in Roman Britain. There’s a bit of weak evidence that it was redeployed to the Rhineland. Perhaps it was just disbanded for administrative reasons. But it’s important to realize that the film’s scenario is entirely made-up.

3132vygB7zL._UX250_.jpg

Rosemary Sutcliff

“Shamed by this great loss, the Emperor Hadrian ordered the construction of a giant wall”

If the Legion’s debacle in Scotland didn’t happen, it should be obvious that it wasn’t the reason Hadrian built his famous wall. We don’t actually know what Hadrian was thinking when he ordered the construction of the wall for the simple reason that we don’t have any documents about that decision. We can certainly make some reasonable inferences based on Roman policy toward its European frontier, but it’s not provable what the intention was.

Also, calling it a ‘giant wall’ is a bit misleading. It was a very long wall, but ‘giant’ suggests size more than length, and as far as we know, the wall probably wasn’t more than 10-12 feet tall. The surviving ruins don’t allow us to know much about its height or battlements, but what survives doesn’t really suggest that the wall was unusually tall, just very long.

8mcastle39.jpg

One of the mile castles on Hadrian’s Wall

“that cut off the North of Britain forever. Hadrian’s Wall marked the end of the known world.”

This is just nonsense. Hadrian’s Wall did no such thing. The Wall is the best surviving example of what the Romans called a limes, which as essentially a wall marking a frontier. But it’s not unique. Similar structures (at least in function) existed in North Africa and in Eastern Europe. Although it was garrisoned at small posts called ‘mile castles’ along its length, it probably was not primarily intended to repulse an invasion, for the simple reason that the small garrisons were a mile apart, and the individual garrisons were probably not staffed by more than a half-dozen men at a time. It would have been very easy for an invading force to simply climb the wall in between mile castles, and it would not have been too challenging for a decent force to overwhelm the garrison at a particular post. Furthermore, sailing around it wouldn’t have been too difficult. As a military structure, the Wall would simply have slowed down an invasion a little, giving the Roman forces stationed further south advanced warning of an attack.

Instead, a limes was much more like a customs station than a truly defensible position. Each mile castle had a gateway running through it (although some of the gateways opened onto such steep slopes that they can’t have been seriously intended to handle much traffic). Those gates (one of which the film shows) allowed regular passage between Roman Britain and what we’ll anachronistically call Scotland. It served to allow the Romans to control (and perhaps tax) trade with the tribes to the north of the Wall.

The Romans had no intention of cutting off all contact with the tribes of Scotland. Their first line of defense against those tribes was to maintain regular contact with them. It was standard for the Romans to reward a few tribes beyond a limes with the Roman version of ‘most favored trading status’. By singling out a couple of neighboring tribes to receive trade and periodic diplomatic gifts; this gave the rulers of those tribes privileged access to exotic goods from within the Empire, like wine, silk, and silver tableware. In exchange those tribes provided the Romans with intelligence on the other tribes and might ally with the Romans against hostile tribes. If an allied tribe became a problem, the Romans would simply make one of their enemies the most favored trading partner. By playing the tribes off against each other this way, the Romans rarely had to actually defend their frontiers.

Far from marking the end of the world, Hadrian’s Wall regulated Roman interactions with southern Scotland.

Also, Hadrian’s Wall didn’t create a permanent boundary (except in the sense of a physical wall that still survives). His successor Antoninus Pius decided to push the Roman frontier northward. He built a second wall, the so-called Antonine Wall, that ran between the Firth of Forth and the Firth of Clyde. He ordered construction to start in 142 AD. For unknown reasons, the Antonine Wall was abandoned around 162 AD, when the Empire pulled back to Hadrian’s Wall. Then in 208, Septimius Severus decided to re-occupy southern Scotland and ordered the Antonine Wall repaired. This occupation was abandoned just a few years later, at which point Hadrian’s Wall became the permanent frontier for the rest of the Roman period.

5135579782_3fec04de8d.jpg

Remains of the Antonine Wall

Whereas most films use prologue texts to establish the actual historical context, this movie uses its prologue text to assert a set of blatant, nonsensical falsehoods.

Let me summarize the problems with this by rephrasing the prologue text to demonstrate just how nonsensical it really is. “In 2017, the American army marched into the unconquered territory of Mexico. They were never seen again. All the men vanished, along with their traditional standard, the American flag. Shamed by this great loss, President Donald Trump ordered the construction of a giant wall that cut off Mexico forever. Trump’s Wall marked the end of the known world.”

Want to Know More?

The Eagle  is available on Amazon. Sutcliff’s original novel (and its two sequels) is too.

If you want to know more about Hadrian’s Wall, you might try Patricia Southern’s Hadrian’s Wall: Everyday Life on the Roman FrontierAmazon also has a lot of guides for walking the Wall; it’s one of England’s top tourist destinations. Having visited the Wall myself years ago, it’s definitely worth the visit if you’re in Northern England.



The Girl King: How to Dress a Lesbian Queen

Tags

, , , , , , , , ,

One of the standard clichés of royal biopics is the conflict between the monarch’s duties as sovereign and their desires as a private human being. Usually, the monarch yearns for their true love but then has to give that person up for the good of the kingdom. So we get this nice drama in which royal success is founded on royal misery. But occasionally we run into a monarch who goes off-script and chucks royal duty out the window.

thegirldvd_front_newroute_v6

Queen Christina of Sweden is one of the most unusual monarchs in history. Her father, Gustavus Adolphus, had made Sweden one of the great powers of Europe through his military leadership during the 30 Years War, but in 1632 he died on the battlefield when she was six, leaving her his heir. She was well-educated and proved to be a remarkably bright girl; by the time she was an adult, she had studied Greek, Latin, French, German, Dutch, Danish, Italian, Arabic, and Hebrew, as well as philosophy and theology. She took a keen interest in the emerging sciences of the Scientific Revolution, as well as art and history. She corresponded with various artists and scholars. She invited the legal scholar Hugo Grotius to become her librarian but he died before taking up the job. More importantly, she corresponded with the great French philosopher Rene Descartes and invited him to organize a scientific academy, although when they met they did not hit it off and he only saw her few times.

Her biggest challenge, however, is that like Elizabeth I of England, there was enormous pressure on her to marry, and she had a deep distaste for the idea. She disliked feminine things and became known for her unkempt hair. All her life she comported herself in decidedly unfeminine ways; she was a tomboy as a child, insisted on riding astride rather than side-saddle, and enjoyed fencing and bear hunting. She favored men’s shoes. Later in life, she took to wearing a justacorps (the fore-runner of the man’s frock-coat), a cravat, and a man’s wig. At the end of her life, however, she had returned to wearing women’s clothing, including gowns with a scandalously low neckline.

220px-Swedish_queen_Drottning_Kristina_portrait_by_Sébastien_Bourdon_stor.jpg

Scholars have struggled to understand Christina’s sense of her own identity. In addition to her mannish habits, her style of dress, and her rejection of marriage, there is some evidence that she was attracted to women. She wrote passionate letters to Ebba Sparre, her lady-in-waiting, but that was a common style of letter-writing at the time; she also once introduced Sparre to the English ambassador as her ‘bed-companion’. But she seems to have disliked most of her other ladies-in-waiting, considering them overly feminine. However, in her late 20s, she socialized so freely with men, including Cardinal Azzolino, that there was much gossip about it, and she wrote passionate letters to him as well. In 1541, one of her subjects accused her of being a ‘jezebel’, which got him executed.

There is no actual evidence that she ever had sex. So historians have variously classified her as heterosexual, bisexual, lesbian, asexual, and even intersex. (When she was born, she was so hairy that she was mistaken for a boy for several days.) It’s even been suggested that her refusal to follow social conventions might be evidence for Asperger’s Syndrome.

But Christina is most famous for her decision to abdicate her throne in 1654 when she was 28 years old and to abandon the Lutheranism she was raised in for Catholicism. Her interest in science seems to have led her to question Lutheranism, and long conversations with the Portuguese ambassador, a Jesuit, drew her to Catholicism.

ebba_sparre

Countess Ebba Sparre

Her decision to abdicate appears to have been the result of a complex set of issues. The constant pressure for her to marry and produce an heir was unpleasant for her. She slowly became more unpopular because of her decision to ennoble more than 300 families, all of whom had to be gifted with property to help them live a suitable lifestyle, and that property had to come from the Crown. Despite being a very hard-working monarch, she was accused of living a life of sport and indulgence. In 1651, she seems to have had a nervous breakdown from the stress of her office. And as queen she had to be a Lutheran. All of this fed into her decision early in 1654 to announce her abdication. She had already named her cousin Karl Gustav as her heir in 1649, so the transition was a relatively easy one.

She was granted a pension as well as revenue from a number of estates. She settled in Rome, although she undertook a number of visits to France, Naples, and Milan, as well as two visits to Sweden after the death of Karl Gustav. She contemplated trying to regain the throne, but was rebuffed because of her religion. She died in Rome in 1689 at the age of 62 and was buried in the grottos beneath St. Peter’s Basilica.

The Girl King

The Girl King (2015, dir. Mika Kaurismäki) follows Christina from her coronation to her abdication and does a reasonably good job of trying to condense the complexities of her story into a 90-minute film. Malin Buska’s Kristina is a strong-willing and highly intelligent woman whose free spirit is slowly choked by the demands of her situation. The film emphasizes her unconventional clothing, showing her frequently dressed in pants and men’s vests, although the historical Christina seems to have only adopted men’s clothing on a regular basis after her abdication. She fences, hunts, and regularly wears a sword.

movie-the-girl-king-thumb6.png

Malin as Kristina addressing her subjects for the first time

The film is also interested in her intellectual interests. She acquires Grotius’ library after his death, plans to build a 500,000-volume library, and demonstrates her linguistic knowledge several times. The film claims that she became close friends with Descartes and that he helped lay the groundwork for her rejection of Lutheranism. As already noted, Christina and Descartes were not friends, and she didn’t agree with many of his teachings. But the film uses her friendship with Descartes as a short-hand for all the intellectual pursuits that undermined the faith of her childhood.

Any film about Christina has to decide what her sexuality was, and in this film she’s a lesbian. The moment she meets Ebba Sparre (Sarah Gadon), she is smitten by the woman, and as the film goes on she falls more in love with her. She declares Ebba her ‘bed-warmer’ and flirts with her increasingly. When Chancellor Oxenstierna (Michael Nyqvist) gives her several dresses as a way of trying to get her to marry his son Johan (Lucas Bryant), Kristina gives them to Ebba as an excuse to have her undress. Eventually, Ebba reciprocates her love, but just as they consummate their passion, Johan stumbles onto them. Jealous of Ebba, he kidnaps her and pressures her into marrying her long-time fiancé. The film suggests that Ebba’s choice to marry was such a deep betrayal of Kristina that it set in motion the queen’s choice to abdicate. This is going far beyond what the historical evidence will support, but it presents a coherent narrative out of the rather confused and indeterminate evidence of Christina’s complex motives.

sarahgadoninthegirlking

Gadon as Ebba

The film certainly oversimplifies. Although it acknowledges a decade passing by, it still manages to compress the events of Christina’s reign into what seems like 18 months; no one in the film ages perceptibly.

And despite its deviations from fact, the film does an impressive job with a lot of little details. For example, the dress that Kristina gives Ebba is identical to one in an actual portrait of Ebba Sparre (compare the two images of Sparre above). Kristina seduces Ebba by showing her the Codex Gigas, the so-called ‘Devil’s Book’, supposedly written by a medieval monk in one night, with the aid of the Devil. The film references Descartes’ interest in the pineal gland and correctly shows foreign ambassadors encouraging Christina’s interest in philosophy as a way to seduce her from Lutheranism (although in this film, it’s the French ambassador, not the Portuguese one). So although the film gets a lot of things wrong, it makes an effort to include a lot of small details that are true.

The film also does a nice job with Christina’s sexuality. Its portrait of a young lesbian fumbling her way toward her first love at a time when lesbianism was taboo is sensitive, not sensational. It presents her desires as natural but still acknowledges that her society cannot accept them, while avoiding exploitation of the subject matter. So if you only see one movie about a lesbian, cross-dressing queen, make it this one.

Want to Know More?

The Girl King is available on Amazon.

There don’t seem to be any scholarly works on Christina that are both scholarly and accessible to the general reader. Veronica Buckley’s Christina Queen of Sweden is probably your best bet. Buckley isn’t a scholar, but she’s been praised for a very readable style.


The Agony and the Ecstasy: Watching Paint Dry

Tags

, , , , , , , , ,

Many films have attempted to capture the artist’s creative technique. It’s a challenge because making art is by nature usually a solitary act and a very internal one, and it’s hard to find drama in that; as a result, a lot of artist biopics try to mine their drama from the turbulent relationships the artist has. The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965, dir. Carol Reed, based on the novel by Irving Stone) tries to dramatize Michelangelo’s painting of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by focusing on the tense relationship between the artist and his patron, Pope Julius II.

51IEJiy+JEL._AC_UL320_SR234,320_.jpg

Before we start, I feel obligated to explain that the Sistine Chapel was so named because it was built on the orders of Pope Sixtus IV, Julius II’s uncle and the holder of one of my favorite papal names simply because it’s amusing to say.

Charleton Heston’s Michelangelo is a brooding man with a profound sense of artistic integrity. He sees himself as a sculptor and resists the efforts of Julius (Rex Harrison) to force him to work in fresco, but having given in, he gradually embraces the project. He refuses to follow Julius’ plan (which just involved painting the 12 Apostles in the triangular pendentives that support the vault, and instead eventually hits on a more sweeping vision. The ceiling will depict scenes from Genesis, the pendentives will depict men and women who prophesied the birth of Jesus, and the zones above the windows will depict the ancestors of Christ.

From that point on, Julius impatiently presses him to finish the work, or at least take the scaffolding down so that people can see whatever work has been done, while Michelangelo defiantly declares he will finish when he finishes. He doesn’t want to take a break because he wants to get the project over with so he can get back to his work as a sculptor.

pope_julius_ii

Julius II

That’s not really enough to hang a 2 hour and 20 minute movie on, so the film has to invent more drama. Michelangelo has a chaste romance with Contessina de Medici, the daughter of his Florentine patron Lorenzo, who chides him for obsessing about the work and not attending gatherings in his honor. Later he falls ill and she has to nurse him back to health. Julius tells Michelangelo that he is going to transfer the commission to rival painter Raphael, but this turns out to be a ruse to goad Michelangelo to getting back to work. (In reality, according to Ascanio Condivi, one of Michelangelo’s students, Raphael attempted to replace Michelangelo on the project, forcing Michelangelo to plead his case before Julius.) Julius periodically threatens to or actually does revoke Michelangelo’s commission, before the two men gradually come to understand each other. Although Julius certainly did lean on Michelangelo to speed up the work, the film seems to be exaggerating the number of obstacles the artist faced, and the relationship with Contessina appears entirely fabricated.

On the other hand, first-hand descriptions of Michelangelo’s process describe how physically grueling the work was. Giorgio Vasari, who wrote an important collection of biographies of Renaissance artists, discusses how hard the work was on Michelangelo’s neck, arms, and eyes, and the film captures that quite well. The film is rather interested in the mechanical process of the frescoing, and it gives the viewer a fairly good sense of the basic technique that Michelangelo used.

The other source of tension in the film is Julius’ military campaign. The film provides virtually no explanation at all of these events, but in 1508, Julius sought to counter the rising power of Venice in Italy by forming the League of Cambrai with France, Aragon, and the Holy Roman Empire. By 1510, the League had succeeded in its goals, but then the alliance collapsed and Julius found himself allied with Venice against France in a Holy League. In 1512, Julius was able to temporarily force the French to withdraw from Italy. He died the next year, and thus did not see the French return to Italy triumphantly in 1515.

Rather than delving into this conflict as a subject in its own right, the film simply depicts Julius as struggling to create a Papacy independent from outside control. He fights unsuccessfully against the French, suffering a wound that gradually weakens and presumably kills him. Thus the film contrasts Michelangelo’s successful effort to complete the frescos with Julius’ unsuccessful efforts to create a political order that will outlast him. It’s an interesting idea, but it’s not developed well enough to be really compelling, since the film just milks Julius’ defeats for more obstacles to Michelangelo’s work. Will Julius find the money to pay for the frescos? Will the French destroy the Sistine Chapel as Julius predicts?

Probably the biggest problem, however, lies in its two stars, who are both miscast. Heston’s famously histrionic acting style leaves no room for subtle characterization, and he is unable to convey any sense of an artist finding his inspiration. The thing that finally gets him on-board with Julius’ project is seeing a cloud formation that rather absurdly suggests that famous Creation of Adam fresco. What drives this Michelangelo is unknowable because Heston can’t show us his process beyond what the script tells him to say.

the-agony-and-the-ecstasy-charlton-heston-1965.jpg

Heston failing mightily to demonstrate nuance

Harrison does a better job as Julius, coming off as a highly-cultured and ambitious man, but ultimately he seems too much a 20th century Englishman to be a 16th century Italian pope. I kept expecting him to tell Michelangelo about the precipitation on the Spanish plains. Harrison bears a strike resemblance to Iain Glen, who certainly could have pulled off what the film was going for with Julius. So maybe it’s time a remake?

agonia-e-extase.jpeg

Heston and Harrison arguing about Eliza Doolittle the Sistine Chapel

The film also makes the bizarre choice to open with a 13 minute lecture about Michelangelo’s work as an artist. I certainly applaud the film’s desire to educate the viewer about art history and give them a context for the film, but honestly, just fast forward past this bit; it’s deathly dull and nearly kills the whole film.

Want to Know More? 

The Agony and the Ecstasy is available at Amazon. So is Irving Stone’s biographical novel of Michelangelo. Ross King’s Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling is a non-fiction treatment of these events and a good corrective to the film. Giorgio Vasari’s 1550 work, The Lives of the Artists is one of our most important primary sources about the great Renaissance painters and their age.



Gotham: Just a Small Point

Tags

, , , ,

Fox’s Gotham doesn’t have a lot to do with history, but there is one small detail that catches my eye every episode, so I figured I’d explain it, because I’m guessing it slips by most viewers.

In Bruce Wayne’s study (the main set for Wayne manor), this painting hangs prominently on the wall.

Jacques-Louis_David,_Le_Serment_des_Horaces.jpg

It’s The Oath of the Horatii by Jacques-Louis David, painted in 1784. It currently hangs in the Louvre.

David painted it in the 1780s, half a decade before the outbreak of the French Revolution. The original idea for the painting was to have it emphasize the principle of loyalty to the state and therefore to the monarchy. But the work that David actually produced was much more politically revolutionary.

The scene that it illustrates is from early Roman history, as recorded by the Roman historian Livy. According to Livy, during the Monarchy, the Romans got into a war with the Sabines. Rather than have the two armies fight each other, each side chose three warriors to fight the battle for them, with the winning side being the one whose warriors eliminated the other side. The Romans chose triplet brothers from the Horatian clan as their representatives, while the Sabines selected triplets from the Curiatian clan for theirs. In the fight, the Curiatii slew two of the three Horatii, but the third, Publius, managed to kill all three of the Curiatii single-handedly, thus winning the battle for the Romans.

David’s painting depicts the three Horatii brothers swearing an oath to their father that they would sacrifice their lives for the good of Rome. By removing the Roman king from the scene and making the elder Horatius the recipient of the oath, David made the painting about the need for self-sacrifice for the good of the community. It was one of many stories Livy tells that emphasize the idea that a good Roman puts the needs of the community ahead of the needs of the individual.

The choice of this painting in the show is a subtle way of foreshadowing young Bruce’s decision to put Gotham’s need for a crime-fighter above his own personal happiness and to devote himself to his life as Batman. And the elder Horatius naturally acts as a stand-in for Bruce’s death father Thomas. It’s a sly touch that makes its point without being heavy-handed.

Want to Know More?

You can real about the early history of Rome (or at least the stories Livy has about the period) in Livy’s Early History of Rome

The Witch: Fear and Loathing in Puritan New England

Tags

, , , , , ,

The Witch (2015, dir. Robert Eggers) got a lot of buzz when it came out last year, but I only got around to watching it tonight. It tells the story of a Puritan family living in rural New England struggling against a machinations of a malicious witch.

Unknown.jpeg

The film is set in 1630 in an unspecified plantation in New England. It is probably Massachusetts, but could possibly be New Hampshire or Maine. William (Ralph Ineson) is a devout Calvinist who is forced out of the colony because of a never-explained theological dispute within the church of the colony. He takes his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) and his children, who include teenage Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), Caleb (Harry Scrimshaw), and young twins Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson), and sets up a small farm on the edge of a remote woods about a day away from the plantation.

Katherine gives birth to a baby boy, Samuel, and that’s when things start to go wrong. Thomasin is watching the baby one day by the woods when he simply disappears. The film makes it clear that he has been stolen by a witch and sacrificed to make a flying ointment. So the film immediately establishes that this isn’t simply in the minds of the family. There really is an evil force hell-bent (quite literally) on destroying them, although we only rarely see it.

Unknown.jpeg

Taylor-Joy as Thomasin

Although the troubles in the film are clearly caused by the witch, the film is really a study of a deeply devout and conservative Christian family trying to cope with the trauma of (literally) losing a child. Katherine grieves inconsolably and cannot stop praying, and William struggles to hold the family together and make this marginal farm thrive. But the crops do poorly, he proves an ineffective hunter, and the family’s nanny goat starts giving blood instead of milk. Mercy and Jonas’ misbehavior start to wear down Thomasin’s patience, and young Caleb, who is only about 9, tries to be the hunter his father cannot be. The family inevitably spirals down to their destruction; this is a horror film, after all.

The film really impressed me from a historical standpoint. It has a lot to recommend it. The film-makers worked hard to capture the material culture of the period, consulting with museums and historians of the period, and Eggers only filmed with natural light outdoors and candle-light indoors. Much of the dialog was lifted from 17th century documents, and the cast does a great job making the archaic language sound real. Even the children turn in excellent performances and make the dialog work.

The film tries to capture genuine 17th century Puritan beliefs of witches. Nearly everything supernatural that happens has a solid foundation in the writings and trial records of the period. The disasters that befall the family are not wild Hollywood spectacle but simple rural crises–the corn grows badly, they keep seeing a rabbit they can’t catch, something kills their dog– that prey on the family’s economic vulnerability. Witchcraft was always primarily about economic and personal disasters, and Eggers does a great job getting us to understand that.The witch’s malevolence is simply a given; she destroys the family purely because she is evil, and that’s where the family’s religious anxieties come in.

images.jpeg

Ineson as the strict but loving William

The film also does justice to the Calvinist beliefs of the Puritans. As William teaches Caleb, they are deeply sinful people, and only Christ’s redeeming sacrifice can save them. Caleb, understandably unnerved by the implication that his baby brother was a horrible sinner, begs his father to tell him what sin the infant committed. William replies that he does not know and that he cannot know that the baby was saved, because they must simply pray that they are among God’s Elect. As a result, what mattered for Puritans was having a spiritual experience that shows them that they truly are one of the Elect. While most movies and tv shows (cough Salem cough) treat such beliefs with contempt and assume that Puritans simply didn’t love each other, The Witch accepts Puritanism as a genuine belief system and shows how deeply William and Katherine love their children and desperately desire their salvation. But prayer isn’t enough to stop the evil assailing them because if it was, this wouldn’t be a horror film.

A big part of the reason that New England saw so may witchcraft charges is that in the 17th century, the American colonies were small and precarious. Life was genuinely hard for these people, and witchcraft provided an explanation for the various things that could go wrong. Additionally, the Puritans saw themselves as God’s tiny minority of the Elect under siege from the forces of Satan. Native Americans were understood to literally worship the Devil, so Satan’s agents lurked just beyond the tree line, unseen but waiting to strike. And witches were the embodiment of many of the moral failings that Puritans struggled against–lust, envy, disobedience to authorities, resentment. So as Thomasin tries to be a good Christian girl and cope with the tragedies befalling her family, her struggles slowly push her into the suspect category of witch.

All in all, I’d have to call The Witch one of the best historical films I’ve ever seen. The cinematography is gorgeous, and Eggers is willing to take his time building the tension for both the family and the audience. The film avoids the usual cheap tricks of horror films, like sound spikes, false scares, and gore, in favor of drawing the viewer into the growing fear and madness of the family, and making you squirm over the way the family inevitably turns against itself. It is certainly the best depiction of early modern witchcraft beliefs I’ve seen on screen.

Got a specific movie you’d like me to tackle? Please make a donation and tell me what movie you’d like me to review. If I can get access to it, I’ll review it for you.

Want to Know More? 

The Witch is available on Amazon.

If you’re looking for an introduction to New England witchcraft trials and beliefs, you can’t do better than Carol Karlsen’s The Devil in the Shape of a WomanIt’s hands down the best thing I’ve read on the subject.


The Admiral: Lots of Naval Battles

Tags

, , , , , , , , ,

In my previous post, I summarized a lot of 17th century Dutch history so I could make a post about The Admiral (aka Michiel de Ruyter, 2015, dir. Roel Reiné, Dutch with English subtitles). The film in question follows the career of Michiel de Ruyter (Frank Lammers) both as a naval commander and as a figure in 17th century Dutch politics. Because de Ruyter’s career is to some extent tied to the political career of Grand Pensioner Johan de Witt (Barry Atsma), the film also looks at him a good deal.

Unknown.jpeg

The film, which opens in 1653 with the Battle of Scheveningen during the First Anglo-Dutch War, gets the basic Dutch political tensions correct. De Witt and therefore de Ruyter are correctly shown as representing the Republican position and therefore being in conflict with the Orangists. It’s clear that the Orangists want Prince William (Egbert-Jan Weber) to have more power in government, but the film never really gets at what is at stake for these two factions beyond which group will run the country. The film makes only the briefest allusion to the conflict between the strict Calvinist and tolerant Calvinists when de Witt says during a speech that his country is free because every many is free to decide how they will worship God. This is, in fact, a loosely correct expression of de Witt’s actual position, and it’s nice to see a historical film that actually explains what it means by ‘freedom’ (cough Braveheart 300 cough).

It likewise gets the basic facts about the Dutch conflicts with England correct. It makes it clear that commercial rivalry played a significant role in these wars, although it doesn’t connect de Witt’s party to the wealthy merchants who stood to benefit the most from long-range trade. Perhaps because de Witt is allied to de Ruyter, the focus of the film, de Witt’s motives are presented as being entirely good and without self-interest while the English and the Orangists other than Prince William himself as shown to be more self-serving and malicious. Charles II (a well-cast Charles Dance) at one point tried to bribe William by offering to make him king of the Netherlands, an offer William indignantly rejects.

images.jpeg

Ever wonder what Ron Jeremy would look like is he were a 17th century Dutch admiral? Wonder no more

The film is particularly proud of the Netherlands’ Republican history. It opens with the false claim that the Netherlands is the “only republic in the world”. This ignores the fact that Venice was also a republic throughout the 17th century (and had been for centuries), and that in 1653, England was a republic as well. Given that Charles II is a key villain in the story, the film-makes probably decided to ignore the story of England’s unsuccessful experiment with republicanism simply because explaining why England is a republic at the start of the film but a monarchy a few years later would be a distraction from the main story.

Not only does William refuse to subvert the Republic, de Witt orders the execution of an Orangist who was plotting with Charles. This is a reference to Johan Kievit, but in the film it’s not Kievit who does the plotting, because Kievit (Derek de Lint) is, along with Charles, the master villain of the piece. Throughout the film, Kievit malevolently scowls at de Witt, plots to remove him in favor of Prince William, supports Tromp against de Ruyter, and orchestrates the murder of the de Witt brothers. His motives are never explained beyond general villainousness.

9o28jejzalhmoj2kp5n5q2yjzks

Kievit (de Lint) and Prince William (Weber)

The film also plays fast and loose with chronology. Although Prince William was only 3 years old in 1653, he’s an adult in the film. The film covers 23 years of actual history, but no one ages. De Ruyter’s children are still children at the end of the film. The film repeatedly compresses events, giving the sense that the First Anglo-Dutch War, the Second Anglo-Dutch War and the Third Anglo-Dutch War all took place over the course of perhaps a year, instead of the 20 years they actually took. Charles II signs of the Peace of Breda (1667) and then immediately schemes with Louis XIV to invade the Netherlands, even though that happened in 1672. This makes no sense at all, since he signs the Peace of Breda because he’s lost his whole fleet and therefore cannot continue fighting.

One of the better elements of the film is that it works hard to make naval combat intelligible. It shows a half-dozen battles, and frequently cuts to a bird’s eye view so the viewer can get a sense of how the ships are maneuvering. It spends a great deal of time on the Four Days’ Battle, showing crewmen doing a wide range of jobs and demonstrating just how terrible a problem wooden shrapnel was in naval combat. If you’re looking for a movie about wooden ships and what it takes to run them, you’ll like this movie.

Screen-Shot-2015-12-8C03B4.jpg

Unfortunately, it also takes substantial liberties with the facts of the battles. For example, the film collapses the Four Day’s Battle and the St. James’ Day Battle into one event, moving Tromp’s decision to break the line and pursue the English from the latter battle to the former and making that decision the reason that de Ruyter lost the Four Days’ Battle, when in fact the Dutch more or less won that. In the film’s version of the Battle of Texel, de Ruyter orders Tromp to break the line, thus tricking the English into sailing too close to the Dutch coast, which causes the ships to haul over to one side, leaving them vulnerable to Dutch cannon fire and giving the Dutch a decisive victory that forced the English out of the war. That bears little resemblance to the actual Battle of Texel, which was more like a stand-off. The Raid on the Medway involved several days of cannon fire and a large group of marines, not a midnight sneak up the river with a handful of men.

So from a historical standpoint, the film is something of a mixed bag. It gets the big picture broadly correct, but fudges a lot of the details in the name of a simpler narrative. It also smacks a bit of Braveheart-style nationalistic chest-thumping, but without the histrionic speeches. However the topic is refreshing. How many movies about 17th century naval warfare have you seen?

 

Want to Know More?

The Admiral is available on Amazon.

I couldn’t find anything on Michiel de Ruyter, but if you want to know more about Johan de Witt (who was an important philosopher and mathematician as well as politician), take a look at Johan de Witt: Philosopher of ‘True Freedom’

The Admiral: More about Dutch History Than You Ever Wanted to Know

Tags

, , , , , ,

If there’s one genre that’s absolutely been done to death, it’s the 17th Century Dutch Naval War genre. But I hope you can handle another entry into that storied category, in the form of The Admiral (aka Michiel de Ruyter, 2015, dir. Roel Reiné, Dutch with English subtitles).

Unknown.jpeg

The film looks at Dutch politics and conflicts with England in the mid-17th century by focusing on the life of Michiel de Ruyter, one of the Netherlands’ greatest naval leaders. In the 17th century the Dutch were one of the great naval and commercial powers of Europe, because their wide maritime commerce network made them far wealthier and more powerful than their small size would suggest. This tended to bring them into conflict another of the major naval and commercial powers of the era, Great Britain.

17th century Dutch politics revolved around the nature of their state. In 1588, after the Dutch rebelled against Spanish rule, they declared themselves a republic. Their rebellion was couched in terms of defending their medieval rights, so they needed to adapt medieval political concepts to their new situation. Each of the seven rebellious provinces was given the right to elect a Stadhouder, or Steward, to administer it, and over the course of the next half-century, there was a tendency for one man to receive the stadhouder-ship of several provinces. In the 1640s, William II of Orange was stadhouder for five of the seven provinces. In 1648, the Dutch secured a final peace with Spain that acknowledged Dutch independence, but afterward William alienated many Catholics in the country by trying to impose the strict Dutch Calvinist Church on them and by refusing to disband the large army he had maintained.

Republiek_der_Zeven_Verenigde_Nederlanden.svg.png

The Netherlands in the 17th Century

When William died suddenly in 1650, leaving only a posthumous son, Prince William, five provinces declined to elect the infant William as the new stadhouder and let the office fall vacant. Instead, the Grand Assembly (essentially, a Dutch Parliament) turned for leadership to the Grand Pensionary of Holland, who was technically only an administrator for the province of Holland, but in the absence of a new stadhouder, he came to function as a sort of Prime Minister for the Republic. In 1653 the office was given to Johan de Witt.

De Witt emerged as the leader of the wealthy mercantile faction in Dutch politics, who favored aggressive protection of Dutch commercial interests overseas, as well as moderate Calvinism and toleration. The opposing faction were the Orangists, mostly less wealthy businessmen who worried about the political dominance of the wealthy merchants and who therefore favored the rights of the House of Orange as a counterbalance. This faction wanted to see William III appointed as stadhouder and wanted a most strict adherence to Calvinism.

When De Witt signed a peace treaty with England in 1654 to end the First Anglo-Dutch War, there was a secret rider forbidding William III to ever be appointed as stadhouder, because England’s leader, Oliver Cromwell, worried that, since William was the grandson of the recently-executed English king Charles I, the Orangists might support a return to English monarchy. And since both countries were republics at the time, it seemed reasonable to expect that they would remain at peace and perhaps even develop an alliance.

adriaen_hanneman_001

Johan de Witt

Unfortunately for that, in 1660, the English ended their experiment with republicanism and restored their monarchy, bringing Charles II, the uncle of Prince William, to the throne. In 1665, tensions over trade resulted in the Second Anglo-Dutch War. The English fought a massive battle with the Dutch at Lowestoft; more than 100 ships were involved on each side. After the Dutch flagship exploded, killing Admiral Van Obdam, the Dutch position collapsed and the English routed them in the worst naval defeat in Dutch history.

De Witt salvaged a desperately bad situation by appointed the commoner Michiel de Ruyter as admiral, much to the irritation of the Orangists, who wanted Cornelis Tromp, the son of a previous admiral. De Ruyter proved a brilliant naval leader. De Witt also dedicated an enormous amount of money to rebuild the Dutch navy. In 1666, the Dutch navy fought the English in the Four Days’ Battle, one of the longest naval engagements in history. De Ruyter inflicted so much damage on the English fleet that they eventually had to retreat, but de Ruyter lacked the gunpowder to pursue them.

A few months later, the St James’ Day Battle went against the Dutch. De Ruyter made a tactical error and found his portion of the fleet becalmed and unable to prevent the English from destroying a large section of the fleet. Tromp, commanding the Dutch rear, avoided de Ruyter’s mistake, broke line, and destroyed the English rear, pursuing it through the night, in the process losing all sight of the Dutch fleet and nearly being captured the next morning. Only the Great Fire of London prevented Charles II from following up on the victory.

800px-bol_michiel_de_ruyter

Michiel de Ruyter

After the battle, de Ruyter blamed Tromp for the defeat, faulting him for breaking from the line to pursue the English ships. The Netherlands split over the issue. Tromp allowed his brother-in-law, Johan Kievit, to publish his version of events. It was soon discovered that Kievit was plotting with Charles II to put Prince William into power; he fled the country and was sentenced to death in absentia. A Tromp supporter attempted to assassinate de Ruyter but failed.

De Ruyter brought the Second Anglo-Dutch War to an end in 1667 by launching an audacious raid on the English shipyard at Chatham on the Medway river, where the English fleet was laid up for repairs. De Ruyter and Cornelis de Witt, Johan’s brother, fought their way past several English fortifications, broke a chain across the river, destroyed 13 ships and stole the English flagship, the Royal Charles. Lacking any heavy ships, Charles had no choice but to sign the Treaty of Breda.

De Witt used this triumph to abolish the stadhouder-ship for Holland and get William declared ineligible for the office in three other provinces by instead giving him a key military office. This provoked growing Orangist outrage. In 1672, when the English and French attacked the Netherlands in what the Dutch called the Disaster Year, de Witt narrowly escaped assassination, and found it prudent to resign as Grand Pensionary, William was made stadhouder of the Netherlands soon thereafter as William III.

But this did not satisfy the Orangists. Cornelis de Witt was arrested on charges of treason, tortured, and sentenced to exile. When Johan went to the prison to bid his brother farewell, the civic militia in the Hague attacked the two men in what most scholars think was an orchestrated riot. They were shot, stripped naked, and hung up in a public square; the Orangist mob literally roasted their livers and ate them. Responsibility for the killings has never been pinned on anyone, but William III had acted to order the withdrawal of a Dutch cavalry regiment from the area just hours before, leading many to suspect that he may have known about the plot. Tromp and Kievit were certainly involved, and William later on promoted both men, including arranging for his uncle to give Tromp a baronetcy.

jan_de_baen-_de_lijken_van_de_gebroeders_de_witt

The corpses of the De Witt brothers hanging in a town square

In 1673, the English attempted to launch of the Netherlands, but de Ruyter and Tromp fought the English to a stalemate, inflicting enough casualties that the English were ultimately forced to sue for peace after the Spanish agreed to join the war. In 1676 de Ruyter took a Dutch fleet into the Mediterranean where he fought an encounter with the French at Stromboli. It was an inconclusive battle, but de Ruyter lost a leg to a cannon ball and died, leaving the admiralty to Tromp.

In 1688, three years after the death of Charles II, William III led a revolt against Charles’ brother James II. Crossing over to England with a small force after the English Parliament appealed to him for assistance against the openly Catholic James, William forced James to flee the country, even though he was married to James’ daughter Mary. Parliament declared that William and Mary were the new monarchs. William didn’t even have to change his numbering, since he was the third William on the English throne.

Now that I’ve summarized what actually happened, in my next post, I’ll talk about The Admiral.

Want to Know More?

The Admiral is available on Amazon.

I couldn’t find anything on Michiel de Ruyter, but if you want to know more about Johan de Witt (who was an important philosopher and mathematician as well as politician), take a look at Johan de Witt: Philosopher of ‘True Freedom’

Robin Hood: The Movie That We Didn’t Get

Tags

, , , , , , , , ,

Over the past several posts, I’ve looked at Robin Hood (2010, dir. Ridley Scott) and tried to figure out its insanely convoluted and somewhat absurd plot, as well as its misappropriation of the Magna Carta and its silly climactic amphibious beach assault battle. Nearly everyone agrees that this isn’t a good film, although it deserves points for trying to do something new with the Robin Hood story. And what makes this particularly said is that the original script was, by all accounts, a much better idea.

Unknown.jpeg

The film began its life as Nottingham, a script by Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris, who created the TV series Sleeper Cell. Their concept was to write a lighthearted movie focusing on the Sheriff of Nottingham, who is trying to locate a “terrorist” who is robbing people. The Sheriff would use what passed for forensic science in the 12th century, like following the trajectory of the arrow back to where it was loosed from. Robin is a less virtuous figure, and he and the Sheriff become embroiled in a love triangle with Maron. It’s essentially CSI: Sherwood Forest, and while it’s a totally anachronistic idea, since 12th century law enforcement operated very differently from modern American law enforcement, but it would certainly have been a very fresh take on the material, because it treated the traditional villain of the story as the hero. Given the popularity of forensic crime shows on TV, it might have been quite successful at the box office.

The Sheriff was based on Robert of Thornham, one of Richard the Lionhearted’s lieutenants, who helped lead the conquest of Cyprus during the Third Crusade and whom Richard appointed as one of the island’s administrators. The script opened with a siege of a castle, a detail that somehow managed to survive the massacre that awaited the rest of the script. They also included Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard’s mother, because she was an important figure in England at this time and she had never been used in a Robin Hood story. For a lot more about the original script, here’s an interview with Reiff about it.

reiff1.jpg

Ethan Reiff

The script became a hot commodity in Hollywood, and a bidding war broke out for it. Eventually, the Reiff and Voris earned seven figures on their script, and Russell Crowe was signed to play the Sheriff, perhaps because he shared the same agent as Reiff and Voris. Crowe’s involvement meant that the studio needed to get a director that Crowe was comfortable with, and so Ridley Scott was brought in. But Scott didn’t like the script and insisted on a substantial re-write. Reiff and Voris were dismissed from the project, discovering that they’d been fired when they learned that there was opening for a writing assignment on their own movie.

Scott felt that the script didn’t have enough archery in it and wanted the archery to be the focus of the film, because apparently the archery focus of literally every other Robin Hood story ever filmed was fresher than never-been-done medieval forensic science. Despite the fact that the script had been highly sought-after, he declared that “It was fucking ridiculous…It was terrible, a page-one rewrite.” Crowe also stated that he “just wasn’t into doing” CSI: Sherwood. So basically, Crowe and Scott decided that they knew better than the rest of Hollywood (granted, not necessarily implausible), threw out the script, and started massaging the concept into something they liked more.

Unknown.jpeg

Ridley Scott

Scott brought in Brian Helgeland, the writer of LA Confidential, Payback, A Knight’s Tale, and Mystic River, to rewrite the script. The Sheriff was now Richard the Lionhearted’s lieutenant, who returns to England after Richard’s assassination, only to find that John is tyrannically trying to establish the whole concept of taxation in England and that an outlaw is inciting anarchy. So the Sheriff would be caught between two unreasonable men, trying to do what’s right. That’s still an interesting take on Robin Hood, although Scott found an absurd way to twist things. Robin Hood and the Sheriff are the same man, so the detective is chasing the killer without realizing it’s him. Given that this is the plot of Oedipus Rex, it’s striking that Scott thought what is literally one of the oldest plots in Western drama was somehow fresh.

Scott envisaged this script as the first in a series of films in which Robin battles the villainous King John repeatedly, with the storyline culminating in the signing of the Magna Carta. So that’s how the whole Magna Carta/Freedom element crept into the script.

v1-bjs3oda0nzg7ajsxnze5nzsymdq4ozm1mds1nde

Brian Helgeland

Eventually, however, someone talked sense into Scott and made him realize that his ideas were dumb. In July of 2008, when filming was supposed to have started for a movie that would open in November of 2009, Paul Webb was brought in to do another rewrite, perhaps because he had written a well-received play about the 1170 assassination of Archbishop Thomas Becket; Webb would go on to work on the scripts for Lincoln and Selma. In this draft, Robin becomes the Sheriff of Nottingham after he sees the Sheriff killed in a battle, and then later returns to banditry. That’s where the whole ‘Robin pretends to be Robert Loxley’ bit came from. The script also lost its humor and became much more serious at this point.

Filming started, but then Scott decided he didn’t like Webb’s script, so he brought back Helgeland for yet another rewrite during which the film took its current sewn-together form. But the script at that point was a Frankenstein’s Monster of dialog from at least five different rewrites. Reportedly, Robin’s personality veered so wildly that he seemed to have Multiple Personality Disorder. So the studio brought in Tom Stoppard to rewrite the dialog as the movie was being filmed. At this point, the script had pretty much become the exact opposite of what Reiff and Voris had penned and Crowe and Scott had signed on for. The filming process was so fraught with difficulty that it reportedly severely damaged Crowe’s relationship with Scott.

Unknown.jpeg

Tom Stoppard

The result, as we’ve seen, is a movie that’s ‘fresh’ in all the wrong ways, like raw kumquats on your dinner plate (something I experienced as a child and will never forget). Perhaps, some day, someone will find a way to resurrect Reiff and Voris’ original script and get it made, not that I’m holding my breath. This is Hollywood we’re talking about.

This is, I expect, my last post on this movie. I’d like to thank Lyn R for her generous donation that made this series of reviews possible. If you have a particular movie that you’d like me to tackle, please make a donation to my Paypal account and let me know what film you’d like me to look at. As long as I think the movie is appropriate and I can get access to it, I’ll give you a review.

 

Want to Know More? 

Robin Hood  is available on Amazon.

It’s not like there’s a book on the making of this movie. I had to piece together the story from a host of sites across the internet. But I’ve got a lot of work to do, so I’m going to be lazy and not document my work. But the place to start is this blog.

Robin Hood: The Battle on the Beach

Tags

, , , , , ,

 

After a lot of exam grading and brief digression for Westworld, it’s time to get back to the Russell Crowe Robin Hood (2010, dir. Ridley Scott). The film culminates in a battle on the beach somewhere along the southeast coast of English. The evil French are launching an invasion, and it’s up to Robin Hood to help King John stop them.

Unknown.jpeg

You can watch the scene on Youtube.

There is so much wrongness here it’s hard to know where to begin. So let me just count the problems.

  • The French are using amphibious vehicles to get their troops onto the shore. This is technology way beyond anything medieval people had. The earliest amphibious vehicle was built in 1787. I’m not aware of one being used for military purposes until World War II.
  • Initially, the English forces are on top of the cliffs watching the French land. They have archers, and open fire on them. But then they decide to send their troops down to the beach to fight. This is just dumb. Up on the cliffs, the French can do nothing except take casualties until they can get up the cliffs somehow. But sending troops down to the beach means that the archers need to stop firing to avoid hitting the English soldiers. So the English forces throw away their advantage for no reason at all.
  • Robin Hood (Russell Crowe) is an archer. That’s what he was doing on crusade. There’s no evidence that he has any military experience beyond that. He’s a lowly foot soldier. He’s certainly not a knight, since his father was a stonemason. So why the hell is he given command of the English forces?
  • The English charge on the beach is totally undressed; there’s no line of horses to allow a lance charge to have a massed impact. These knights clearly don’t know how to make a charge as a unit.
  • Why is Friar Tuck (Mark Addy) fighting?
  • Why is Marion (Cate Blanchett) fighting? Why did they even bring her to a battle? So she can be attacked and inspire Robin to fight harder?
  • Why does Robin jump off his horse and tackle Sir Godfrey (Mark Strong)? On horseback, he has an advantage over Godfrey; on foot he doesn’t. He immediately draws his sword, so he doesn’t jump because he has no weapon.
  • Why does Sir Godfrey suddenly turn, jump on a horse and ride off? There’s no sign the French are losing, although some of their boats are crashing together. And where the hell is he riding to? He’s riding away from the boats. Is his horse going swim back to France?

Basically, there’s no way this battle ever happened anywhere in the Middle Ages.

This review was made possible by a generous donation from Lyn R. If you want me to review a specific film, please donate $10 or more and tell me what movie you’d like me to review, and I’ll do my best to track it down and review it, as long as I think it’s appropriate.

Want to Know More?

Robin Hood  is available on Amazon.

A Few Thoughts about Westworld

Tags

, , , , , , ,

I’ve been watching Westworld, HBO’s new prestige series that they’re probably hoping will become their next Games of Thrones. So I figured I would take a break from my thoughts about Robin Hood to say what I’m thinking about this show. Back to Robin Hood next time.

Unknown.jpeg

For those who haven’t watched the series, it’s based on the 1973 Michael Crichton thriller of the same name. It focuses on an immersive playground, Westworld, in which android ‘hosts’ simulate the Wild West of the 1870s for the amusement of human ‘newcomers’ (the paying customers). The hosts are programmed to live out a set script that repeats itself every day unless a newcomer intervenes, in which case the hosts improvise appropriate reactions. Many of the hosts offer a ‘mission’, a unique storyline that provides adventure for the newcomers. The newcomers are allowed to do anything they want to the hosts. Some newcomers choose to be ‘white hats’ (signified literally with headgear), meaning that they are ‘good guys’ and deal with the hosts in pro-social ways, while other newcomers can be ‘black hats’, meaning that they may work with the various villainous hosts or engage in whatever mayhem they chose to direct against the hosts.

Unfortunately, some of the hosts are beginning to achieve sentience. Of these, the series focuses on Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), the classic Western ingenue daughter of cattle-ranchers who are fated to be murdered unless a newcomer intervenes, and Maeve (Thandie Newton), the madame of the local brothel and saloon, who tends to get caught in the crossfire when violence breaks out there.

Unknown-1.jpeg

Wood as Dolores

Most of the rest of the cast are other hosts or the human staff who maintain the park, repair the hosts every night, and program the hosts with new stories and personality traits. But I want to talk about a third category of characters, the newcomers. Thus far the show has focused on three of them

  1. The mysterious Man in Black (Ed Harris) a long-time visitor who knows the park by heart and who is searching for a mysterious ‘next level’. He’s solidly in the Black Hat camp, slaughtering any host who gets in his way.
  2. Logan (Ben Barnes), another veteran newcomer who likes the park for the immoral hedonism that it allows him to indulge in.
  3. William (Jimmi Simpson), Logan’s brother-in-law and first-time newcomer. William almost instinctively gravitates toward a White Hat, despite Logan’s attempts to get him to indulge his more primitive urges. William decides to defend the confused Dolores once her awakening consciousness leads her away from her programmed story-line.
  4. We see a couple of other newcomers who don’t get names. In particular, there is what appears to be a husband and wife couple that turn up in a few episodes.
westworld_1x05_logan

Barnes as Logan

The series makes no pretense of actually trying to recreate 1870s America. The park is clearly built around common clichés of the Western genre: gunfights, bandits, and whiskey flow in abundance. What interests me is the show’s missions.

Over the first several episodes we get to see some of the set storylines that hosts offer the newcomers. Mostly we see these from Logan and William’s point of view, but we also get to see the storylines that Dolores and Maeve fit into. The missions include

  1. Rescue Dolores when bandits murder her parents. Black Hats can join in with the bandits, and can rape and kill Dolores if they want. If no one intervenes, one of the bandits does that.
  2. Hector Escaton (Rodrigo Santoro) rides into town with a gang and shoots the place up to get what’s hidden in Maeve’s safe. Newcomers can kill his gang or, presumably, join Hector’s it.
  3. Hunt down various bandits and trouble-makers who are, of course, Wanted Dead or Alive.
  4. One minor host character offers a chance to find lost treasure.
  5. A hard-to-reach villain offers a mission to rob a group of American soldiers of a cargo of nitroglycerin they’re escorting.

What’s striking to me about this list are two things. First, it’s a very male-centric list of adventures. All of them are built around the opportunity to employ violence, either in pro-social (stop the bad guy) or anti-social (help or be the bad guy) ways. The only non-violent activity in Westworld seems to be having sex with a prostitute. Perhaps this is a reflection that the series creator decided to focus exclusively on male guests (Logan and William are obviously modeled on the two main characters in the 1973 version of the story). The husband and wife newcomers decide to pursue one of the bandits who needs capturing, but the wife either gets bored or finds the mission to0 physically uncomfortable; she rides back to town while her husband continues with the mission. There just don’t seem to be any missions that might appeal to women more than men.

images.jpeg

Maeve and Hector

The female hosts seem to reinforce this sense of masculine urges as the point of the park. Dolores needs to be rescued from the bad guys, while the more worldly Maeve offers the opportunity for sex and seduction. Apart from these two, we only get to see two other recurring female hosts, the prostitute Clementine and the sharp-shooting bandit Armistice (Ingrid Bolso Berdal), a member of Hector’s gang with a brutal past. So all the female hosts apart from Armistice fall into very traditional feminine roles from the Western genre.

The show seems to acknowledge that the park is all about sex and violence in one episode when the park’s creator Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins) comments that originally there were an equal number of dark and ‘hopeful’ missions, but no one wanted to do the hopeful missions, so they were dropped in favor of darker ones.

images.jpeg

Hopkins as Ford

But I don’t think the show is simply indulging in the standard HBO formula of violence and sex. Rather, I think what the show is (perhaps unintentionally) doing is demonstrating just how profoundly masculine our vision of the Wild West is. When we think of stories set in the Wild West, they are always stories of masculine violence: men seeking violent revenge on the bad guy who killed their family, men coming to town and violently protecting the defenseless residents from bandits or other villains, men drifting from town to town until they find the woman who gets them to stay and make a stand. With a few exceptions, the stories we (or rather Hollywood) choose to tell are overwhelmingly about (mostly white) men doing traditionally masculine things and saving the day.

Occasionally we get a movie about Calamity Jane or Annie Oakley, who are chiefly interesting because they act like men; they can shoot guns and ride horses well. We don’t tell a lot of stories about the female bandits like Pearl Hart or Belle Starr. Hollywood mostly bowdlerizes the rare story about Western madams or prostitutes like Poker Alice, making them into mostly sexless ‘hookers with hearts of gold’. Little House on the Prairie purported to tell the story of pioneer woman and prot0-libertarian crank Laura Ingalls Wilder, but presented her in a traditionally domestic role that rarely acknowledged the grueling physical hardships and social isolation that pioneer women struggled with. Hollywood doesn’t acknowledge the more deviant figures like the cross-dressing Charley Parkhurst, who lived as a man and drove stagecoaches for a living, or Cathay Williams, who served two years as a Buffalo Soldier under the name William Cathay after having fought in the Civil War. Black women like Williams are particularly invisible in our popular memories of the Old West.

Cathay_Williams.gif

Cathay Williams

Westworld, however, isn’t so much ignoring the highly sexist nature of Wild West mythology  as meditating on it. I said earlier that the show isn’t just indulging the HBO formula of violence and sex, in part because there’s very little actual sex shown on-screen. Logan indulges himself with a couple of prostitutes and in a later episode he, William, and Dolores discover a massive orgy. That’s it so far over 5 episodes, when that would be about half an episode’s worth of sex on Game of Thrones. And while the hosts are frequently shown nude, as the park staff repair or reprogram them, the nudity acts not to sexualize them but to highlight their profound vulnerability to the staff’s manipulation.

With the sex considerably downplayed, the show is about violence. But it’s not just about letting us watch violence for titillation and shock. The show seems to be developing a critique about the effects of violence. Logan and William are offering us a story about the corrupting power of violence, while Dolores and Maeve both flash back to earlier ‘lives’ that ended in terrifying violence. They struggle to understand the effects of violence on their existence, a violence that matters even though they cannot clearly remember it. The original Westworld was a parable about the dangers of hedonism coming home to roost, and the new series seems determined to explore that in a far more intelligent and thought-provoking way than Game of Thrones ever has. Violence, the show seems to be saying, always has consequences, even in a place where violence isn’t supposed to have consequences.