Alexander the Great is, of course, one of the greatest generals in history. So Alexander (2004, dir. Oliver Stone) is, naturally enough, bookended with two of Alexander’s most important battles. So let’s look at how Stone handles them.
Alexander had four major battles in his Asian Campaign: the Granicus River (334 BC), Issus (333 BC), Gaugamela (331 BC), and the Hydraspes River (326 BC). Stone starts the movie in 331 BC, thus completely eliminating the first two battles. A viewer could be forgiven for thinking Alexander took down the Persians in a single battle. But I think this omission was a reasonable choice. The film is already quite long, and trying to depict those two battles would probably have added another hour or two to the film’s running time.
At Gaugamela, Alexander (Colin Farrell) confronts the forces of Darius III (Raz Degan), and I think Stone does a fair job of trying to capture what the battle looked like. During the battle, Darius’s main force clashed with Alexander’s left wing, under General Parmenion, while the Persian cavalry on the left flank tried to get around Alexander’s right flank. To prevent that, Alexander led his cavalry against Persian cavalry.
One reconstruction of the opening phase of Gaugamela
Then, when the Persian infantry had engaged the Greek infantry, Alexander led a cavalry charge against Darius’ position, forcing Darius to flee. Alexander could have pursued and perhaps captured Darius, but he received word that Parmenion’s forces had been surrounded by the Persian cavalry, and so he reluctantly broke off the attack to come to Parmenion’s rescue. As a result, he would have to pursue Darius for another year, until the Persian generals killed their own shah.
Overall, this is roughly what Stone offers us, although instead of Darius making the first moves, he has Alexander attempt a flanking maneuver and then encountering the Persian cavalry. But apart from that alteration, the battle plays out roughly according to the sources. Stone gets Alexander’s and Darius’ forces more or less right in terms of what weapon systems they were using. Someone’s posted a sort of epitome of the sequence on Youtube so you can see what the fight looks like.
And, if you jump to about the 5:30 mark, when Alexander is charging at Darius’, you’ll see that Stone has very nicely worked in an allusion to the most famous ancient image of Alexander, the Alexander Mosaic from Pompeii.
The problem with the whole scene comes not with what it depicts, but how it treats the two sides. The Greeks are shown as rigidly disciplined while the Persians are shown as being a disorderly mish-mash of troops. In reality, the Persian forces were highly-disciplined, wore uniforms, and used tools like music to communicate tactics and co-ordinate movements. Alexander inspires his men with a speech in which he compares the freedom-loving Greeks, who are fighting for their homeland and averaging the assassination of Philip of Macedon, with the Persian army, whom he describes as slaves to the shah. But if you think about it, it’s hard to see how the Greeks can be fighting for their homeland when they are the ones who invaded Persia.
Alexander’s speech is not without justification, since in some ways it represents the actual propaganda Alexander used to inspire his subjects. The Greeks certainly saw themselves as a ‘free’ people and the Persians as being enslaved. And a careful viewer will realize later in the film, when we see the flashback to Philip’s murder, that the Persians had nothing to do with the assassination and therefore that Alexander must be lying to his men. But the film doesn’t ask the viewer to think of the speech as propaganda and leaves us to assume Alexander is speaking the truth, especially since his speech fits in quite well with Hollywood’s grand tradition of battle speeches praising “freedom”.
The film bookends Alexander’s campaign with the battle of the Hydaspes River, fought on the Jhelum river (which the Greeks called the Hydaspes) in modern Pakistan. Historically, Alexander decided to force a crossing of the river despite the fact that it was swollen by the monsoon rains. Alexander left a portion of his army facing King Porus across the river, with orders to General Craterus to make feints to lead Porus to think that Alexander would try to cross the river there. Then Alexander led the rest of his forces about 17 miles up-river and crossed unimpeded. He came down the right bank of the river, forcing Porus to move to intercept him while leaving some of his army to face Craterus.
Alexander was able to catch Porus between two wings of cavalry, forcing Porus to further split his forces. The ensuing battle was fought on a muddy plain during a rainstorm. Porus employed about 100 elephants who wreaked havoc among Alexander’s pikemen until Alexander’s javelin-throwers were able to rout the elephants, who then rampaged through Porus’ own troops (it was for just this same reason that the Carthaginians a few centuries later were to nickname their elephants “our mutual enemy.”) After a brutal battle that left a reported 20,000 men dead, Porus was eventually forced to surrender. A year later, after a mutiny by his troops, who were demanding to return home, Alexander reluctantly marched south to the coastline. During a siege, he was badly wounded.
Stone’s Hydaspes, however, comes after the mutiny of the troops. Alexander agrees to let his Macedonians go home, but then petulantly shames them into continuing on, saying that they will be remembered as the ones who abandoned their leader when he marched into India. Then he confronts Porus at Hydaspes. The scene completely omits the river and depicts the battle as a less successful version of Gaugamela, in which Alexander tries unsuccessfully to flank Porus (in the middle of a jungle on a sunny day) and then has to rescue his center flank because the elephants are massacring Craterus’ pikemen. Craterus is killed by an elephant, when in fact he outlived Alexander. Alexander then seeks a confrontation with Porus and comes close to killing him, only to be badly wounded and have his horse Bucephalus killed underneath him. A weakened Alexander decides to return home.
The changes do make a difference in how we understand Alexander. The historical Alexander, after a decade of getting brilliant performance from his troops, finally pushed his men too far, and they were able to force him to bring his campaign to an end. Stone’s Alexander, however, returns home out of his own sense of exhaustion and perhaps a sense of mortality. He remains the master of his troops all the way to the end. So Stone’s version of events is one in which events are shaped purely by Alexander’s personal choices. Had he chosen to continue, he would surely have found a way to get his reluctant soldiers to continue to follow him. This is a Great Man view of history, a common failing of historical biopics.
So while Stone gets the first battle roughly correct, he completely misrepresents the second battle. But at least his battles make sense, unlike some other movie about ancient Greece I could mention.
Day of the Siege: September Eleven, 1683 (aka September Eleven, 1683, 2012, dir. Renzo Martinelli) is a joint Italian-Polish film about the Ottoman siege of Vienna in 1683. It’s notable chiefly for not being especially good or bad, and tackling an important but poorly-known historical event. It reminded me a lot of eggplant; after I was done, I thought, “I could have had something else.” So let’s (reluctantly) dig in.
The Battle of Vienna
The Ottoman Empire conquered the last remnants of the Byzantine Empire in 1453 and by the early 16th century the attention of the Ottoman Sultans had turned to expanding up into the Balkans. In 1529, the forces of Suleiman the Magnificent laid siege to Vienna, but was unable to take the city, and heavy snowfall turned the Ottoman withdrawal into a serious disaster. This failure brought an end to Ottoman expansion into Europe for 150 years.
In the middle of the 18th century, the reign of Sultan Mehmet IV (1642-93) marked a significant turning point in Ottoman fortunes. He surrendered a great deal of his political power to his Grand Viziers, inaugurating a gradual decline in the power of the sultan. Initially, the Grand Vizier Köprülü Mehmed proved a successful military leader, defeating Venice, re-affirming Ottoman power over Transylvania after a brief war with Austria, and waging a successful campaign against Poland.
But a later Grand Vizier, Kara Mustafa, proved less effective in the office. In 1681, Hungarian Protestants rebelled against the Austrian Emperor Leopold I’s efforts to impose Catholicism throughout Hungary, and Mustafa decided to support the rebellion in the hopes of being able to break Hungary away from Austria and eventually absorb it into the Ottoman state. He was able to persuade Mehmed IV’s Divan (essentially, the Ottoman Cabinet) to authorize military action, and in August of 1682, the Ottomans declared war on Austria.
But the timing of this declaration of war was remarkably bad. It was impossible to get Ottoman troops into Austrian territory before the onset of winter, and the result was that Leopold had the entire winter to prepare for war. He concluded alliances with Venice and Poland and was able to call upon some of the major nobles of the Holy Roman Empire to provide troops.
Emperor Leopold I
In Spring of 1683, Mustafa marched about 150,000 troops into Austria, accompanied by a force of 40,000 Crimean Tatars. Leopold retreated to Passau, leaving a garrison of 15,000 in Vienna under Count Ernst Rüdiger von Starhemberg. When the Ottoman forces arrived at Pechtoldsdorf south of Vienna, Mustafa persuaded the town to peacefully surrender, but then massacred the population. This action persuaded von Starhemberg that he had to hold Vienna at all costs, because any surrender would result in another massacre.
Note how close to Ottoman territory Vienna is
The siege began on July 17th, and the Turks succeeded in completely cutting off Vienna, so that the food supply quickly became a problem. But the Austrians had nearly three times as much artillery as the Turks, making it hard for the Turks to launch an effective attack on the city. The Turks attempted to sap the walls, but the Austrians detected the Turkish mines and were able to intercept and destroy them. Von Starhemberg was severely wounded, but was able to maintain effective control of his forces, ordering that any soldier found asleep should be shot.
Then a joint German-Polish army of 80,000 troops arrived. There had been considerable quarrelling about how the troops would be paid and who would lead them, but eventually it was agreed that King Jan Sobieski of Poland would be the lead general.
Jan III Sobieski
Aware of the arriving relief army, Mustafa ordered an assault of the city very early on September 12th (while it was still dark, actually). But the Imperial forces intervened, forcing a land battle. After half a day of fighting, Sobieski achieved a notable tactical success. Noticing that the Turks had not fortified one side of their position because of the presence of the Kahlenberg mountain, Sobieski managed to get 18,000 cavalry and a number of cannons up the opposite side of the Kahlenberg. In the mid-afternoon he led what has been called the largest cavalry charge in European history down the forested side of the Kahlenberg and into the exhausted Ottoman ranks, which promptly fled. Overall, between the siege and the battle, the Turks lost at least 30,000 men and an enormous amount of loot. Completely disgraced, the unfortunate Kara Mustafa was strangled in Belgrade on the sultan’s orders late in the same year.
The failure of the siege of Vienna was only the start of the Great Turkish War, which lasted down to 1699 and resulted in the significant loss of Turkish territory in what is now Hungary, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina. This marked the beginning of the contraction of the Ottoman state in Europe, a process that would slowly continue for the next century, pick up steam in the 19th century, and culminate in the break-up of the Empire after World War I.
Polish Winged Hussars at the Battle of Vienna
The Day of the Siege
The film tells the story of the battle of Vienna by focusing on two main characters, Kara Mustafa (Enrico Lo Verso) and the Capuchin friar Marco d’Aviano (F. Murray Abraham). Mustafa’s story revolves around a recurrent dream that his wife/concubine has that Mustafa will be killed with a hail of arrows. He consults a blind holy man who tells him that there is some truth in the dream and that while much blood will be shed, Mustafa’s blood will not. Are you noticing the subtle hint that his arrogance will get him strangled?
Lo Verso as Mustafa
But the film is more interested in d’Aviano, who is a real historical figure. He was a fairly ordinary friar until 1676, when he apparently healed a nun who had been bedridden for more than a decade. As a result of his he acquired the reputation of a miracle-worker, and people began to seek him out for his blessing. Among those who sought his help was Leopold I, whose wife had been unable to conceive a male heir. D’Aviano became Leopold’s spiritual counselor and remained in close contact with him for the rest of D’Aviano’s life. Leopold was by nature a somewhat indecisive man, and d’Aviano’s more forceful personality helped Leopold make many decisions.
The film shows d’Aviano realizing in 1682 that the Turks are planning to attack. Historically, this is probably because d’Aviano learned of the Turkish declaration of war, which was made in August of 1682. But in the film, the Turks don’t declare war until March of 1683, which has the effect of making d’Aviano a prophet. He goes to Vienna and tries unsuccessfully to persuade Leopold (Piotry Adamczyk) that the Turks are planning to invade, but Leopold refuses to believe him and then basically wets himself when he gets the declaration of war. D’aviano winds up at Vienna and helps rally resistance to the Turks.
Abraham as d’Aviano
The film also exaggerates the military imbalance to make the Turks more threatening. Mustafa commands 300,000 troops, not 150,000, and appears to have way more artillery than the Austrians do. When Mustafa sets up his camp, the Tatar commander warns him that they could be attacked from the Kahlenberg, but Mustafa scornfully refuses to seriously consider the possibility. The Turks successfully sap the walls of Vienna in at least one spot, which doesn’t seem to have happened.
Apart from these deviations, the film basically gets the story right. It focuses at some length on the political complexities of the Imperial side, with the argument turning on German reluctance to allow the Polish Sobieski (Jerzy Skolomowski) to command the troops. Sobieski resolves the dispute by threatening to leave if he is not allowed to command and by declaring his intention to lead his cavalry over the Kahlenberg. Clearly, the screenwriter really liked this whole Kahlenberg issue and wants to make sure that the viewer understands that Mustafa was arrogant and Sobieski was a brilliant commander.
The charge of the Winged Hussars down the Kahlenberg
But the film is weakened by a variety of problems. It invents the detail that when they were both young men, Mustafa met d’Aviano in Venice and saved his life, in exchange for which d’Aviano gave Mustafa a wolf’s tooth as a good luck charm. Do you get the irony of Mustafa saving d’Aviano and then d’Aviano successfully opposing Mustafa so that Mustafa is defeated and gets executed? Do you? Cuz it’s really cool and ironical and stuff, so the film is going to make sure you get it.
And then to add to this, the film invents a Turk, Abu’l (Yorgo Voyagis), whose name is gibberish Arabic, meaning ‘Father of the’. (Abu is a common element of Arab (not Turkish) names, given to a man after his first son is born.) But Abu’l has no children in the film, just a deaf-mute wife who is able to understand people when THEY TALK REALLY LOUD TO HER. No joke. Abu’l lives in Italy for some reason, and d’Aviano saves him from an Italian mob after the declaration of war. But then Abu’l decides he has to leave his wife and go join the Turkish army where Mustafa decides to trust him. As a result, there are repeated dramatic scenes when Abu’l runs into d’Aviano, and then his deaf-mute wife, then d’Aviano again, and then disguises himself as Mustafa and gets himself shot repeatedly by the Austrians, thus fulfilling Mrs. Mustafa’s dream, because foreshadowing and irony and all that.
For me, though, the biggest problem with the film comes with its production values. Normally, I don’t factor in production values when I’m deciding what I think about a movie. Cheap production values do not invalidate a good story (see lots of original Star Trek and Doctor Who episodes). But the producers here clearly decided that their sets couldn’t quite stand up to close scrutiny, so they used very cheap CGI to overlay many scenes with falling snow, billowing smoke and dust, and other atmospheric effects. Not only does this call attention to the cheapness of the production, but it actually makes many scenes hard to see and renders watching them a headache.
Another flaw with the script is that Abu’l is the only character to undergo any appreciable character development, and he’s mostly just a jerk with no clear motivation most of the time, so rescuing his wife from a Turkish rape-stockade looks like growth. D’Aviano, despite being the main character, never really learns anything, and while Mustafa gets an appropriate comeuppance for his arrogance, he never seems to reflect on his mistakes.
The death of Kara Mustafa
Overall, it’s nice that the film wanted to tell the story of what is arguably one of the great turning point battles in Western history. The film gets the job done adequately from that standpoint. But as a movie, the only real drama for the viewer is who’s going to win the battle of Vienna, and the film constantly nudges the viewer in the ribs and says “look at this! Mustafa’s gonna lose cuz he’s arrogant and misunderstands the prophecy!”, which ruins the only suspense the film can generate.
So I don’t recommend this movie because meh. But at least it’s not Dragon Knight.
“Italy. 12th century AD. Northern Italy is ruled over by a German emperor Frederick I Hohenstaufen, known as ‘Barbarossa’. His dream is to conquer also Central and Southern Italy, thus reviving the ancient empire founded by Charlemagne. But in the North a young man from Milan has formed an army of 900 young men from different cities: the ‘Company of Death’. The young man’s name is Alberto Da Giussano. His dream is to defeat the Emperor and to regain freedom for the Northern lands.”
That’s the prologue text to Barbarossa (aka Sword of War, 2009, dir. Renzo Martinelli), a modest little Italian film about Emperor Frederick I’s conflict with the Lombard League, an alliance of northern Italian city-states seeking to achieve a measure of autonomy within the Holy Roman Empire. That prologue text is also a reasonable summary of most of the film, as it turns out.
The Holy Roman Empire
The film focuses on one of the more confusing elements of medieval political history, the complex relationship between northern Italy and the Holy Roman Empire. To simplify a fairly complex history, on Christmas Day, 800 AD, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne Emperor of the Romans, an action that was seen as reviving the western half of the old Roman Empire. When his grandsons dismembered his empire (usually termed the Carolingian Empire), one grandson got the eastern portion, compromising a large chunk of what is today western Germany. Another grandson got the imperial crown and an awkward strip of land running from the Low Countries to northern and central Italy. But that state broke apart over the next generation or two, with the result that the imperial crown eventually passed to the German portion of the old Empire, and with it a claim to rule northern and central Italy. This conglomeration of Germany and much of Italy eventually came to known as the Holy Roman Empire (whose name was clearly chosen to confuse as many 21st century college history students as possible, at least to judge from the exams I get).
The Holy Roman Empire
Unfortunately, imperial control of the Italian portions of the Empire was generally a problem. The emperor’s powerful base was always in Germany, and the Alps were a significant obstacle to the effective extension of control over northern Italy. Additionally, northern Italy had a large number of city-states that resented imperial authority and preferred to be as autonomous as possible. A further complication was that much of central Italy was a state ruled by the Pope (termed ‘the Papal States’), and the popes also naturally wanted to be as politically independent as possible. And thanks to the precedent set in 800, the pope had the unchallenged right to perform the imperial coronation that legitimized the emperor’s claim to his title.
The result was a centuries-long simmering conflict in which the Holy Roman Emperors sought to control northern and central Italy as much as possible while the pope and the various city-states of the region wanted to minimize that control. But naturally, some people in these city-states felt their best interests lay in supporting the emperor rather than their fellow citizens. After the mid-11th century, there was a growing tendency for the pope and the emperor to be political opponents. The result was a long series of wars of varying intensity and a shifting constellation of political factions supporting one side or the other.
In 1158, Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa (“Redbeard”) succeeded in forcing the city-state of Milan into submission and convened the Diet of Roncaglia, a meeting of imperial representatives that declared the emperor to have the right to impose taxes and tolls over northern Italy; Barbarossa also begin to replace the podestas, the governing magistrates, of various northern Italian communities. The Milanese refused to accept this ruling and resisted, but Barbarossa defeated the city in 1162 and ordered it completely destroyed and its residents scattered in all directions. The Milanese, however, managed to retain enough communality identity, however, that they were able to reform.
Frederick I Barbarossa
In all of this, one of Barbarossa’s most important allies was Cremona, a hated rival of Milan. But Barbarossa unwittingly alienated the Cremonese by demanding hostages from them. As a result of this, Cremona began to nurture a conspiracy of resistance to the emperor that led to the formation of the Lombard League in 1164, an alliance of various city-states in Lombardy (roughly, northern Italy). The idea behind the League was that the various member states would avoid attacking each other, and to provide military and diplomatic support. In 1167, a re-established Milan joined the League.
The Lombard League
The emergence of the Lombard League was a disaster for Barbarossa, who was no longer able to play off the various member cities against each other, and he was forced to withdraw from Italy, despite having been able to force Pope Alexander III to submit to him. But he returned in 1174, and enjoyed initial success, conquering the smaller towns of Susa and Asti. But then he laid siege of Alessandria but was unable to take it; Milanese forces helped force him to retreat.
Frederick received German reinforcements, including a very large force of knights. Frederick rode to meet them, and then led them back toward Pavia, where his main force was located, but the Milanese intercepted him before the two armies could meet up, and the result was the Battle of Legnano. The Milanese had built a carroccio, a traditional battle-wagon used by many of the Lombard cities. The carroccio carried a standard for the city, as well as an altar, and it acted a focal point and command center for the Milanese troops, most of whom were infantry. In particular, the Milanese employed a unit of infantry with the rather dramatic name of the “Company of Death”. According to Milanese tradition, the company was founded by Alberto da Giussano, a notary and podesta of Milan and included 900 men. Historians are now mostly agreed that da Giussano was probably a fictional figure created by 14th century Milanese authors, and the Company of Death may have had as few as 300 men.
Frederick succeeded in driving off the Milanese cavalry, but was unable to break the infantry that was formed up around the carroccio. Although high medieval warfare generally favored knights on horseback, infantry armed with pole-arms was always an effective response to cavalry, as long as that infantry was able to stay information. The Milanese, inspired by a desire to avenge the destruction of their city, had reportedly sworn oaths to die fighting Barbarossa and so were determined to stand their ground and not lose their standard. The stalemate was eventually broken when the Milanese cavalry reformed and teamed up with a cavalry force from Brescia. Frederick’s forces were badly defeated; his bodyguards and standard-bearer were killed and for several days it was thought that Barbarossa himself had perished, until he showed up at Pavia.
Legnano was a turning-point for Frederick. Although he was able to build an modest alliance with Pope Alexander, he was no longer in a position to enforce his authority over Lombardy. Finally in 1183, he signed a treaty with the Lombard League that conceded to them the right to elect their own podestas.
A bust of Frederick I
As a result, Legnano holds an important place in Italian history. In the 19th century, it became a rallying cry for the movement to unify Italy. For much of the 20th century, there was a Legnano infantry division in the Italian army. The fictional Alberto da Giussano and an allegorical warrior named ‘Legnano’ have both served as symbols of Italian victory over a foreign invader, despite the fact that Barbarossa had a centuries-old claim to be the legitimate ruler of the region and so was not exactly an outsider (although, as a German, he was most definitely a foreigner ethnically).
Despite the title of the film, Frederick I (Rutger Hauer) is really more of a supporting character in this film. He and his wife Beatrice I (Cécile Cassel) spend much of their time organizing their forces or leading attacks against various cities. His goal, he explains, is to pacify northern Italy and then move on to conquer Sicily so he can re-unite what he calls the “Universal Empire”, presumably the old Roman Empire, even though as ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, Frederick could already have claimed to be ruling the Roman state. (Eventually, Frederick married his son and heir Henry to the aunt of King William of Sicily; when William died without sons, Henry inherited Sicily and his son, Frederick II, inherited both states, although the papacy did everything it could to prevent him from unifying the Italian peninsula.)
Rutger Hauer, looking very imperial
Early on, Frederick has a meeting with his distant cousin the visionary nun Hildegarde of Bingen, who tells him “Beware the water, beware the scythe. The scythe means defeat, the water means death.” The question of what this prophecy means hangs over the whole film. The first half turns out to be a prediction of his defeat at Legnano, The second half, as the epilogue text tells us, refers to the fact that decades later, Frederick drowned during the Third Crusade, having made the mistake of trying to swim in his armor when he was in his late 60s.
Instead, most of the film focuses on the story of Alberto da Giussano (Raz Degan), whom the film presents as very much a real historical figure. He’s the son of a smith, rather than being a notary, who comes to hate Barbarossa after the emperor conquers and levels the city in 1162, killing both of Alberto’s unfortunate brothers in the process. But the real villain of the piece is not Barbarossa, who is actually treated quite fairly in the film. Instead, Alberto must contend with Snidely Whiplash Siniscalco Barozzi (F. Murray Abraham), a treacherous Milanese magistrate who thinks that Milan should support Barbarossa and basically serves to embody the opposite of whatever proper moral choice Alberto makes.
Raz Degan as Alberto da Giussano
Barozzi is a fictional character, as far as I can tell, but he can reasonably be seen as a representative of all the Milanese who wanted to accept the emperor as their legitimate overlord. He’s thoroughly demonized, of course, because in action films actual nuance is not acceptable in bad guys; villains must be evil with a capital Eve.
Unfortunately, the film invents two sisters, Eleanora (Kasia Smutniak) and Tessa (Frederica Martinelli). Eleanora, who loves Alberto, is a psychic; she has visions of the future that always come true. Apparently the film has forgotten that it’s supposd to be history and not fantasy, a common problem with movies about the medieval and ancient past. Barozzi is deeply in lust with Tessa, who hates him to the point of eventually becoming a nun to get away from him; unfortunately that works out badly for her, because Barozzi isn’t the kind of villain who will let a little thing like holy orders stop him. And when it doesn’t work out, he decides to burn Eleanora at a witch.
After the destruction of Milan, Alberto becomes a focus on political resistance and the enduring Milanese identity. It is he who essentially persuades the Milanese to rebuild their city. Later, he forges a bunch of iron rings and distributes them to his supporters, who declare themselves the Company of Death, because they’re rather die free than live under Frederick. Then he rallies men from other cities to his cause and persuades them to form the Lombard League to oppose the emperor (remember, Milan wasn’t a founding member of the League.) Everyone gets to shout “freedom!” a lot, because freedom is a lot like moms, apple pie and kittens. Who doesn’t like having some? As the film puts it, “to live one day in total freedom is worth living 100 days in total slavery.” Or did he say 100 years? That would be much more effective rhetorically. The point is that a smidgen of freedom is much better than a bunch of slavery, whatever the exchange rate.
A re-creation of the Milanese carroccio
And then we get to the battle of Legnano, and things get silly. Apparently the actual events, with lots of determined Milanese infantrymen rallying around the carroccio slowly defeating the German cavalry isn’t enough for this film. It needs to be a flashier victory. So Alberto gets this brilliant idea. The infantry can’t kill the knights because the knights are too high up. So to level the playing field, he’s going to put his soldiers in the back of literal wagons and arm them with scythes. That way they’ll be able to slit the throats of the German knights really easily! And of course it works, because….well, I guess because the Milanese are the good guys. Even after the trick is revealed, the German knights just keep riding past the scythe-wagons because apparently their horses only ride in one direction and at one speed, and because none of the knights are smart enough to think that maybe if they attack the unarmored wagon drivers the whole tactic would go straight into a ditch. So the knights just keep riding to the slaughter until the whole thing degenerates into an infantry battle. Alberto catches Barozzi and slits his throat really, really slowly to avenge his dead brothers and loved ones.
Then the epilogue text tells us that Frederick was thought killed and then mysteriously showed up three days later at Pavia. Eleanora totally didn’t get burned as a witch after all because Barozzi’s men didn’t see the clever plot twist coming when they put two dark-haired women in the same cell and then burned one of them with a bag over her head without thinking to ask her name. This serves as an excuse for everyone to shout ‘Freedom!” again, because I guess freedom means never having to cremate your wife. Instead, the film tells us that Alberto and Eleanora lived a long life together and had several children.
The Politics of Barbarossa
The film draws heavily from Mel Gibson’s Braveheart at certain points, particularly with its emphasis on people shouting “freedom!”. Alberto is Wallace and Frederick I is Edward I. But Barozzi is also sort of Edward I, because he’s got this evil lust for the virtuous women of the story. Eleanora gets to be Murron, metaphorically coming back from the dead instead of literally, and she gets to be supernatural after all, because all of her visions come true with 100% accuracy. Perhaps the most obvious comparison of the Battle of Legnano with the Battle of Stirling Bridgeless, both of which are won with a trick that depends on the good guys not revealing the trick too early. So the film includes a scene in which Alberto gets to shout “Hold! Not yet! Now!” which is pretty damn close to Mel Gibson’s line when his men are about to receive a cavalry charge.
Once I saw the parallels with Braveheart, I immediately began noticing that just like the Scottish movie, Barbarossa also has a meta-level dealing with contemporary politics. Braveheart was filmed in the lead-up to the vote over whether to re-establish the Scottish parliament. Barbarossa doesn’t have quite such an obvious political event to connect to, but it strikes me as more than a coincidence that Alberto da Giussano has been taken as the symbol of the Lega Nord (“Northern League”), a major regional party in northern Italy that advocates for the secession of northern Italy from the rest of Italy, and failing that, for greater independence of the northern cities. The film’s focus on the historicity of the fictional da Giussano, its emphasis on the importance of Milan in the founding of the Lombard League (Milan is the headquarters of the Lega Nord) and its championing of freedom! and independence from control outside of Northern Italy all seem to point toward the film having considerable sympathy with the Lega Nord’s political goals.
Milan’s statue of Alberto da Giussano
The film also occasionally dabbles in downright fascist symbolism. The notion of strength through unity is central of da Giussano’s triumph over Barbarossa, both in organizing the Lombard League against him and in keeping his men under tight control at Legnano, but it also happens to be the essential principle of fascism. At one point, as Alberto is trying to persuade people to join the Company of Death, he resorts to having a man try to break a stick, which he does easily, and then try to break a whole bundle of sticks, which he can’t. This bundle of sticks that symbolizes strength through unity is very close to the fasces, the old Roman symbol of strength through unity that Mussolini used as the basis for his theory of fascism (the term directly derives from the fasces).
Barbarossa isn’t a bad film, nor is it a particularly good film. As I said, it’s derivative of Braveheart, which employs many of the same themes more successfully, although it avoids the Scottish film’s rather offensive sexual politics. It’s nice to see a film made about one of the less famous moments in medieval history, and despite its faults, it gets the sequence of events and facts basically correct, apart from its insistence that Alberto da Giussano was a real person who played a critical role in the founding of the Lombard League. The subplots involving Eleanora and Tessa are boring and predictable, as is the film’s insistance that freedom can only be uttered at the top of one’s lungs. And its depiction of Legnano is a truly unfortunate side-trip into Silly Land. But I’ve certainly seen much worse films about the Middle Ages.
Want to Know More?
Barbarossa is available at Amazon under its US title, Sword Of War.
Medieval Italian history can be sort of confusing for the uninitiated because there isn’t a single political narrative, the way there is for, say medieval England. Every major town was its own state, and that makes telling an over-arching historical narrative a bit tricky. I found Edward Burman’s Emperor to Emperor: Italy Before the Renaissance (History and Politics)to be a good place to start when I was traveling in Italy.
If you’re interested in the history of the Holy Roman Empire, one of the classic works on it is Alfred Haverkamp’s Medieval Germany 1056-1273, although obviously it only covers part of the Empire’s history. I don’t actually know any good English-language works on Barbarossa; if anyone wants to suggest one I’ll be glad to take a look at it.
Today I want to look at the way The Vikings series depicts combat, particularly the raids on Northumbria in the fourth and seventh episodes, because it fundamentally misrepresents how Viking raiding and Viking combat worked.
The Early Viking Raids
The earliest phase of Viking raiding began sometime in the late 780s or early 790s and lasted down into the second quarter of the 9th century. Since the show opens in the 790s, it ought to be depicting this period of raiding. During this period, the standard form of Viking raid, at least as far as the primary sources allow us to see it, was hit-and-run raids.
A group of Vikings sailed into a vulnerable region in a longship, which was perfectly designed for these tactics. Because a longship could be either sailed or rowed, and because it had a very shallow keel, it could operate effectively on both the open seas and in coastal waters, and even on moderately shallow rivers. This enabled the Vikings to scout around for a vulnerable community to attack, one with weak defenses or which could be taken by surprise, and ideally one that was some distance from the next closest community, so that response would take a while. Once they had identified such a location, they came in, beached their ship, and made a fast surprise attack, grabbing whatever wealth they could, and then returned to the longship and sailed away before a military response could be mounted.
A tombstone at Lindisfarne depicting Vikings
That’s why Vikings liked attacking monasteries. Monasteries were typically isolated geographically, often being located on islands cut off from the mainland. The monks were not fighters, and in fact were generally pacifists, so they were unlikely to effectively defend themselves. And monasteries possessed lots of gold and silver in the form of liturgical plate like chalices, crosses, and patens. So they were easy, vulnerable targets that had a fair amount of wealth. (People often assume that Vikings attacked monasteries out of a hostility to Christianity. Far from it.)
This system of plundering made use of the particular capabilities of the longship, but it also was necessitated by the fact that the Vikings were nearly always going to be outnumbered on their raids. A longship might hold perhaps 60 men, although the more men that were brought along, the less space was left for plunder like livestock or slaves. Most targets they raided were likely to have many more people than that, as well as defensive structures like walls or towers that served to multiply the strength of the defenders; as a result, the Vikings had to find ways to counteract the fact that they were outnumbered, and attacking weak targets by surprise was the best way to do that.
As a result, in this first period of Viking raids, the Vikings generally stayed very close to their ships. If they left their ships to go significantly inland, they ran the risk of getting cut off from their ship. Once that happened, they had lost the element of surprise and the element of maneuverability, and the fact that they were likely to be outnumbered meant that they would probably to lose any ensuing fight. Again, the early Viking raids are hit-and-run raids, not land battles.
Contrary to the popular image, the Vikings were not particularly inclined to take risks. Like playground bullies, they generally took the path of least resistance that got them to their goals. They fought when they had to, but they preferred to attack defenseless, outnumbered targets. They preferred to attack from surprise, and retreated when a serious fight was likely to develop unless they were cornered. They preferred to ransom the captives and plundered holy books when they could, because ransom got them money without fighting.
It was only much later, in the middle of the 9th century, that the Vikings seem to have gotten more ambitious. They began to make more aggressive attacks on towns and travelled further inland, using horses to maintain their mobility. In some cases they even launched full-scale sieges of towns. Most famously, a Viking sometimes identified as Ragnar Lothbrok laid siege to Paris in 845 (remember, the series has probably put Ragnar half a century too early); Rollo sieged Paris in 885 (and remember, Rollo and Ragnar were not brothers because Rollo was a half-century later than the people Ragnar was based on).
A Viking Era Stele
The reasons for this shift in raiding tactics are not entirely clear, but it was definitely related to the break-down of political institutions under the pressure of these hit-and-run raids. Kings justified their rule by their ability to protect their people, and the Viking raids were undermining that claim in ways that made maintaining law and order much harder; political weakness made raids easier. Additionally, it’s clear that the numbers of Vikings were increasing, perhaps because of the successes of the early raids inspired imitation. More Vikings meant they could challenge increasingly large and better-defended forces. Eventually, in the second quarter of the 9th century, the Vikings begin ‘overwintering’, camping out on a defensible position like an island and spending the winter there so they could continue raiding the next year without having to sail home in-between.
The Viking Raids in the Series
The first raid, episode 2’s attack on Lindesfarne, is probably a fair depiction of what that event looked like. Ragnar (Travis Fimmel) and his men find a vulnerable, isolated monastery, force their way in, and kill many of the monks, taking a lot of valuable objects and several slaves.
But in episode 4, Ragnar’s crew does something entirely different. They come ashore from their boat (again, that’s probably wrong; they would probably have beached the boat), fight a battle against King Aelle’s reeve and his men in which they slaughter all but one man, who gets away, and then walk inland for a day, camping out near a small walled town. They wait until everyone is at church the next morning, then they go in, capturing everyone in the church, and loot the town. Then they walk back to their ship, where they find that they have been cut off from their ship by a group of Aelle’s men. They fight a full-out battle that they win, and sail off with their plunder.
Vikings looking for a fight on the beach
There’s a lot wrong with this. The second time they go raiding, Ragnar completely abandons the successful tactics of the first raid to do something far more risky. After the fight with Aelle’s reeve when they landed, Ragnar ought to have gotten back in his ship and gone looking for another remote monastery to attack, because he’s lost the element of surprise. The second fight on the beach is entirely predictable, because the survivor from the battle was obviously going to go and alert King Aelle (Ivan Kaye) or the local thane, who would have time to raise a force that would outnumber the raiding party. And that’s exactly what happens. The episode wants to emphasize Ragnar’s cunning, by marching inland and waiting until everyone is at church on Sunday morning. But in fact it demonstrates Ragnar’s stupidity in not leaving after he’s been discovered.
Instead of leaving, Ragnar leads his band at least half a day’s walk from the ship. As I said, this is supposed to be an example of his cleverness, but it overlooks the fact that local residents are likely to spot the longship anchored out at sea (another reason to beach the ship instead, since it would be less visible) and tell the local thane exactly where the ship is.That means he’s almost guaranteed to get cut off from his ship.
Sure, waiting until everyone goes to church is clever, if the Anglo-Saxons are too stupid to leave guards watching the walls during church. This only way this raid on the town succeeds is if the Anglo-Saxons are terminally stupid. Remember, they know there is a party of raiders in the area; the survivor from the fight on the beach has alerted the authorities. And even if Ragnar has somehow managed to outpace messengers on horseback, the town wouldn’t leave itself that defenseless. So Ragnar is being clever only because the script is giving him terminally stupid opponents.
Also, note how inconsistent the episode is about the importance of church attendance to the Anglo-Saxons. It’s so important that all the town guards attend the service, but it’s not important enough that several other people stay behind. Sure, one of them is a bed-ridden old man (they couldn’t have carried him?), but one of the Vikings finds a woman to rape. Why isn’t she in church? Because the script needs her to be standing around waiting to be raped so that Lagertha can intervene and kill the rapist because that will drive the plot forward.
The Second Fight on the Beach
When Ragnar and his crew get back to the beach, they discover what was entirely predictable, that there is a modest force of Anglo-Saxon soldiers waiting for them, and yet they’re surprised. Again, while trying to demonstrate Ragnar’s cleverness, they’ve actually revealed him to be dumb as a post.
Take a look at the scene:
When confronted by the Anglo-Saxons, Ragnar and his crew respond by drawing up into a modified form of a shield wall. A shield wall was a basic tactic in early medieval warfare. A group of men form a tight line with their shields up against one another. The formation is reinforced with additional rows of men behind them, to help keep them in formation and so that if a man on the front line goes down, the man behind him can step in and replace him quickly. That was entirely conventional, and if that’s what Ragnar’s men had done, it would be entirely plausible. (Incidentally, this tactic has been revived by modern-day riot police.)
But instead they form a testudo, a shield wall in which the men in the back ranks put their shields up over their heads to protect the unit from missile fire. But this formation has serious weaknesses. It can only move very slowly and it’s vulnerable to being surrounded. Attacks against it can slowly pick off the men in the front ranks (who are particularly vulnerable to attacks on their unprotected legs). Actually fighting in a testudo is extremely difficult. So it was a formation that was used to protect soldiers from missile fire while they were closing in on an enemy line, not a formation to actually engage in combat in.
This formation has become popular in recent films; off the top of my head, I can think of examples in Troy and 300, and I’m sure they’re not the only ones. But this is an entirely false detail. The testudo was unique to Roman and early Byzantine forces; I know of no evidence that it was employed by the Vikings. There are a couple of reasons for this. First the testudo isn’t very effective with round shields like the ones the Vikings used; there are too many gaps. The Romans used oblong shields that worked much more effectively in this formation. Second, and more important, using a testudo requires an enormous amount of training as a unit, something that was unknown among the Vikings. While a shield-wall is a fairly basic tactic (form a line and stand so close to your neighbors that your shields touch or overlap), the testudo is much more complex (the men have to know which men put their shields forward, which put their shields up and where, and how to maneuver in that formation.) The Romans can achieve it because their soldiers are full-time, highly trained fighters, whereas the Vikings are only part-time amateur fighters with haphazard training. The idea that a random band of Vikings with no special training could pull off a testudo using round shields simply strains plausibility.
Technically I suppose it’s a half-testudo
And Ragnar’s unit uses the testudo in a way it can’t really be used. They fight in that formation. When one of the Anglo-Saxons sticks his spear over Ragnar’s shield, Ragnar grabs it, orders his men to open a gap in the wall, pulls the man through, and then kills him. That’s pretty much impossible. Opening a gap in the ranks gives the enemy a chance to shove a spear through and risks allowing the enemies to force the gap wider.
Additionally, the scene requires the commander of the Anglo-Saxons to be an idiot. First, instead of leading his men from the front, which was expected among the Anglo-Saxons as much as among the Norse, he stands back and just directs the fight. That might explain why his men lose; he’s not inspiring them with his own example of bravery. Worse, he orders his men to charge the testudo. What an actual Anglo-Saxon leader would have done is form up his men into his own shield wall and wait for the Vikings to force the battle by charging, because the side that charges a shield wall typically loses unless they get lucky. So Anglo-Saxon warfare often took the form of two opposing shield walls, each taunting the other to try to get the enemy to break formation and charge. In this specific scenario, the Anglo-Saxons have the upper hand; the Vikings are in hostile territory and have to get back to their ship before further Anglo-Saxon troops arrive. So a smart commander would have formed up his own shield wall and waited for the Vikings to charge out of desperation; if they retreat, he just uses his archers to pick them off.
Furthermore, he has more troops than Ragnar does, and his troops are more mobile because they’re not in a testudo. He has archers, so he doesn’t even need to get close to hurt the Vikings. Instead of ordering his men to charge, he should either have continued the missile fire, slowly picking off the Vikings, or ordered his men to flank the testudo, killing the men behind the shields with arrow fire. And even if he orders his men to charge, they ought to be able to flank the testudo because they outnumber the raiders. So the only way Ragnar wins this fight is if he has the advantage of being the hero and therefore gets to wear a whole lot of plot armor. Ragnar wins purely because his opponents are written as total idiots and he’s allowed to pull off pretty much impossible battle tactics.
The Next Two Fights
In a later episode, Ragnar and company return to Northumbria. Aelle sends out his brother Aethelwulf and a unit of men. They find the Vikings making camp, and the men want to attack, but Aethelwulf inexplicably insists on waiting and watching. That night, the Vikings attack, catching the Anglo-Saxons off-guard because they have apparently not left any guards or watchmen, because, as is becoming clear by now, the Northumbrians are a kingdom straight out of Idiocracy, too stupid to put guards up when they know their enemy is camped nearby. Aethelwulf is so pious that instead of rushing out to fight, he spends the whole battle praying. And this man is apparently the skilled military leader of the kingdom.
Much of the rest of the conflict revolves around the ransom negotiations for Aethelwulf. That’s plausible. The Vikings, as I said, preferred ransoming because it was safer than fighting. There’s some interesting stuff with the Vikings dining at Aelle’s hall, but way too much is made of the linguistic barrier between the Norse and the Anglo-Saxons. The show again wants to highlight Ragnar’s cleverness in learning Old English, but what the show doesn’t understand is that Old English and Old Norse were so closely related linguistically (remember, the Angles came from southern Denmark) that the two languages were mutually comprehensible; they sounded like very heavily accented versions of the other language. For example, the Old English word ‘shirt’ and the Old Norse word ‘skirt’ both refer to the same thing, a long tunic that hangs below the waist. Similarly, what the Anglo-Saxons called a ‘ship’, the Norse called a ‘skip’ or a ‘skiff’. So the Vikings and Aelle’s court would have been able to understand each other more or less without an interpreter.
Ragnar builds a fortified camp, which is something the earliest raiders didn’t do, because the moment you set up a fortified camp, you’ve lost all benefit of surprise and mobility and are vulnerable to being overwhelmed by manpower. Eventually, Aelle’s men attack, charging in on horseback and being tricked by the fact that Ragnar has cleverly concealed a spiked drawbridge.
Here’s the scene (skip over the unrelated scene of Ragnar’s duel with Haraldson; the scene in Northumbria starts about 0:45)
Once again, there are big problems here. First, the Anglo-Saxons didn’t employ cavalry. They used horses for transport, but not to fight from. Exactly why they made this choice isn’t entirely clear; we know that in the early 11th century, they actively resisted cavalry training, but what the issue was in the 8th century is less obvious. Presumably they felt that fighting from horseback was too difficult or that horses were too expensive to risk in combat, but perhaps they felt it was unmanly.
But even if they had used cavalry, it would still be silly, because Aelle doesn’t have to attack at all. All he has to do is set up a guard to keep the Vikings from getting food and then slowly starve them into surrender. Alternately, since he has archers, he can encircle the camp with archers and pick off the Vikings until they come out to attack. Sure, Ragnar is holding Aethelwulf hostage, but if Aelle has decided to attack, he is clearly willing to sacrifice his brother to kill Ragnar.
Nothing I’m saying here is particularly cunning tactically. These are basic ideas that any even remotely competent military leader would have known. But Aelle apparently has all the tactical awareness of Homer Simpson. So again, what the show presents as Ragnar’s cunning is actually just Ragnar’s stupidity being outmatched by the stupidity of his opponents. But it’s easy to win when you have so much plot armor you can’t possibly lose.
The Deeper Issue
One reason I’m harping on this so much is that it demonstrates an underlying trend in action films, one I’ve mentioned before. The historical reason the Vikings were so effective is that they had superior technology (by which I mean the longship; their weapons and armor were no better than anyone else’s) and they employed that technology to its maximum effect. They made extremely good use of hit-and-run tactics in ways that their opponents found hard to respond to, and as much as possible they avoided actually fighting equal opponents, because a pitched battle meant they ran a serious risk of losing, and Vikings were generally risk-averse.
But Michael Hirst, the series creator and main scriptwriter, doesn’t want to show that because it would make Ragnar seem a lot less heroic by contemporary standards. Instead of being a daring warrior, Ragnar would basically be leading a gang of opportunistic, semi-cowardly muggers who run away from a fair fight. It’s hard to look heroic to modern Americans when you spend your time avoiding battle. But that’s because what the Norse found heroic isn’t what modern Americans find heroic. The Norse valued cleverness over brute strength, and modern America, or at least modern Western cinema, values brute strength over cleverness. Modern audiences are trained to want heroes who are extremely strong physically, very aggressive, and above all convinced of their moral rectitude. They win their fights because they know they are right; their enemies have wronged them, and that means that in the fight between good versus evil, good wins because good just wants the victory more and fights harder.
As a result, having been stripped of all the reasons that the Vikings were actually successful, Ragnar wins his fights because he has more heart and determination than his opponents do. But that means the fights don’t actually make any sense, because he’s winning even though he’s outnumbered, pinned down, and facing opponents who have better equipment (the Anglo-Saxons are typically wearing better armor and carrying longbows half a millennium too early). So the show has to resort to rampant idiocy to explain his victories.
This becomes even more problematic when you stop and notice that Ragnar isn’t actually the good guy in these fights; he’s merely the protagonist. Ragnar and his men are viciously attacking peaceful, innocent men and women, killing them, stealing their property, and in some cases enslaving them. They’re ravening wolves attacking bumbling toddlers and being celebrated for it.
The show is clearly following the lead of anti-hero shows like The Sopranos, Sons of Anarchy, and Breaking Bad in which the series follows the exploits of criminals operating within American society and examines the moral complexities of their characters. On the surface, The Vikings is the same kind of show. But these other shows are explicitly set within a context of crime, in which it is clear to the viewers that the protagonists are violating the law and making choices within a range of evils. Walter White has to die for what he’s done, and Tony Soprano either gets whacked at the end or lives a life in which he is forever looking over his shoulder for the people who will eventually kill him. In other words, these anti-hero shows make it clear that on some level the protagonist is a bad guy who will eventually get his just punishment. The shows establish a moral standard even while they watch their anti-heroes deviate from it.
The Vikings, in contrast, is about a bunch of violent men and women who live in a society that actively glorifies stealing from, killing, and enslaving those too weak or too stupid to resist. Ragnar is doing exactly what his society thinks he should be doing. In fact, given Aelle’s viciousness and the monk Aethelstan’s eventual conversion to the Norse way, the show actually asserts that the pagan Norse way is morally superior to the Christian Anglo-Saxon culture the main characters are preying upon. It is actively championing the predatory ethos upon which being a Viking was based, and then occasionally showing how these Vikings are a little less bad, because they occasionally kill rapists, spare old men, and love their sons.
I find this incredibly problematic. On some level I believe it’s immoral to offer literal rapine and murder and present it as morally superior. A show like The Sopranos or Breaking Bad can explore the moral ambiguities of the mafia lifestyle or meth-dealing precisely because it’s clear that on some level the show acknowledges the immorality of the characters’ actions, and that acknowledgement of the immorality creates the nuance on which the show plays. Skyler White comes to function as the voice of morality, forcing her husband to eventually acknowledge the growing evil of his actions, just as Dr Melfi pushes back against Tony Soprano and ultimately terminates her work with him.
(As an aside, I suspect that’s part of the reason that so many fans decided Skyler was a horrible bitch. After all Carmela Soprano was in some ways far more shrewish but never became the object of such intense vituperation and vicious internet memes (although she received a lesser degree of hatred). Carmela is ultimately a venal figure, accepting Tony’s crimes as the price of her life of luxury. But rather than giving in to her baser instincts, Skyler ultimately forces Walter to admit that he is doing evil things purely because he enjoys them. Her character’s moral stance explicitly criticizes the criminal behavior that so many of the show’s fans wanted to revel in, reminding them that they were taking pleasure in something clearly immoral. As a blocking character, she essentially confronts the viewer as well as her husband.)
But The Vikings has no analogous character. Far from pushing back against Ragnar’s actions, Lagertha directly participates in the murder and theft. After his capture, Brother Aethelstan never tries to articulate a Christian critique of his master, and by the end of the season has abandoned Christianity entirely. The blocking characters for Ragnar are Earl Haraldson and King Aelle, both of whom are presented as being more evil than Ragnar is. Haraldson is a villain from start to finish, while Aelle is ruthless; he kills one of his commanders for being defeated, is willing to sacrifice his brother Aethelwulf, and negotiates in bad faith, whereas Ragnar is presented as caring about his men and his brother and negotiating in good faith.
Without any sort of moral standard, the series cannot generate very much ambiguity. Murder, theft, and enslavement are good as long as you’re the hero of the story, because that’s basically the only perspective we’re given to empathize with. About the only ambiguity in the series is the question of Ragnar’s treatment of Rollo and, in the final episode, Ragnar’s disloyalty to Lagertha. And from a moral perspective, I think it’s a serious problem with the show.
I like films and tv series that are willing to explore moral complexity and ambiguity; not all problems have obvious moral solutions, and few people are all good or all bad, so I appreciate main characters who are not entirely moral or immoral. When done well, as with The Wire, or Breaking Bad, or The Sorpanos, moral ambiguity can challenge viewers to reassess their own moral positions and beliefs. But The Vikings is an example of a show that does moral ambiguity poorly, and the result is a series that teeters on the brink of being flat out immoral in my opinion. I’m not suggesting that we need to return to the moral absolutism of the Hays Code, or even 1980s television. But I do think Michael Hirst needs to seriously reassess the way he’s approaching the series. He may be aiming for moral ambiguity, but he’s wound up somewhere much uglier.
Well, except everyone actually. Contrary to a line in Elizabeth: the Golden Age(2007, dir. Shekhar Kepur), the preparations for the Spanish Armada were well-known across much of Europe, and the timing of the invasion was actually a subject of considerable public debate. So when the Armada finally set sail for England, very few people were surprised.
Philip II was not only the king of Spain; he was also the ruler of the Spanish Netherlands. But the Dutch Protestants there had rebelled against Spanish rule in the 1570s, with the active aid of the English government. Elizabeth recognized that it was to her advantage to disrupt Spanish control of a territory that was, after all, directly across the English Channel from southern England; it would be a comparatively easy thing for Spanish forces in the Netherlands to launch an invasion of England.
The plan of the Armada when it finally set sail in 1588 was to sail a fleet of 130 ships up the English Channel to the Netherlands, where the Armada would act as protection for a small fleet of barges that would carry about 30,000 Spanish troops across the Channel to act as an invasion force. Since the English army was mostly composed of new recruits, once the Spanish army landed on English soil, a Spanish victory was almost assured. The English correctly realized that the only opportunity to defeat the invasion was to prevent the Armada from meeting up with the Spanish troops in the Netherlands and thereby prevent a crossing.
When the Armada reached English waters, it had a brief opportunity to trap the much larger English navy in Plymouth harbor (because the tide was against the English), but the Duke of Medina Sidonia, who was in charge of the Armada, passed up the chance, which proved to be the great mistake of the campaign.
The English navy, led by Lord Howard and Sir Francis Drake, led two minor skirmishes, in which they were able to capture a few ships before the Spanish reached Calais and took up a tight formation. But they were unable to meet up with the Spanish army before the English sent in a number of fireships, burning ships filled with explosives. The Spanish cut their anchors to avoid the fireships, and the result was that their formation was badly disrupted.
The next morning, the two navies engaged at Gravelines. Although the Spanish ships had more powerful guns, they were so tightly packed with supplies that once the guns were fired, it was nearly impossible to pull them in for reloading. So in the battle, the Spanish tended to fire once and then seek to close in to board the English ships. But this was thwarted by the superior maneuverability of the English ships, who were able to stay just out of range and repeatedly fire their guns. When the wind changed, Medina Sidonia was able to escape to the north-east, with the result that the Armada, which had only lost a few ships, was unable to meet up with the Spanish land forces. So the battle of Gravelines entirely defeated the strategic goal of the Armada.
The Armada Portrait
Instead, the Armada was forced to begin the circumnavigation of the British Isles. Without anchors, however, the fleet proved vulnerable to the remarkably stormy weather; a number of ships were lost off the Orkneys, and due to a navigation error, a large portion of the Armada was driven onto the rocks of the western Irish coast. Only about half of the Armada returned home. The war itself continued on until 1604, but the major battle of the war had already been fought, and the Spanish had lost.
The Armada in Elizabeth: the Golden Age
The film quite drastically distorts the Armada Campaign. The basic strategy of the Armada is explained relatively accurately. But once the Armada shows up in the English Channel, events start to diverge. The English fight a couple of minor skirmishes with the Armada, but the result is a loss of English ships, not Spanish ships. The film emphasizes that the English ships are outnumbered, and cannot afford any losses, when in fact the English navy was considerably larger than the Armada.
The Spanish drop anchors to maintain a tight formation, and then conduct a massive religious ceremony, which means that they don’t notice the fireships being sent against them. As a result, many of this ships are lit on fire (instead of mostly evading the fireships). Then a large storm sets in, and that’s pretty much the end of the conflict. The actual battle of Gravelines is not shown, although there is fighting before the fireships are sent in. There is no explanation that most of the Armada survived the battle of Gravelines, nor is there a depiction of the Armada circumnavigating the British Isles.
Elizabeth watches the Armada burn
The film inverts the roles of Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen). In reality, Drake was the Vice-Admiral of the English navy and fought at Gravelines, while Raleigh acted as an advisor to the queen but did not actually participate in any of the fighting. In the film, Drake stands in the background and barely speaks during council meetings, while Raleigh is one of the leading captains of the battle and personally (and more or less single-handedly) sails a fireship into the Spanish Armada, leaping off and swimming to safety when it explodes.
When word reaches Philip that the Armada has been defeated, he is immediately abandoned by both his daughter and the clergy around him, and he begins to lament his pride and beg God’s forgiveness. The suggestion is that the war was immediately over, instead of lasting for another 16 years.
The Tilbury Speech
Almost two weeks after the battle of Gravelines, after the Armada had been driven northward, Elizabeth gathered an army at Tilbury, near the mouth of the Thames, in case the Spanish army in the Netherlands found a way to cross over. At Tilbury, she gave what has become the most famous speech of her life, the so-called Tilbury Speech. She was wearing a white dress with a breastplate over it, and was mounted on a white horse.
Three different texts of the speech survive, but most scholars accept that the latest copy of the text, dating from 1624, is likely to be the most accurate one, and this is the version that widely known. Here is a fairly close (though not exact) version of the speech, from a BBC miniseries The Virgin Queen (2005, dir. Coky Giedroyc).
In EtGA, Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett) delivers a speech before the battle of Gravelines. Here the breastplate has become a full suit of armor.
As you can see, EtGA’s version of the Tilbury speech bears almost no similarity to the actual speech, with the exception of Elizabeth’s statement that she is resolved to live and die with her troops. In particular, the speech omits what is probably the single-most famous thing Elizabeth ever said, “I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king”. This is an example of how Elizabeth frequently maneuvered herself across the dividing line between male and female, variously presenting herself in masculine or feminine terms as she found useful. It’s possible that they omitted this line because she makes a similar statement in Elizabeth, but it seems unlikely that the audience would have remembered that.
Instead, the screenwriters have simply invented a new speech for Elizabeth, one that sounds more than a little like the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V. It’s not a very good speech; it reeks of the sort of machismo that has become so common in contemporary action films, and has nothing of the grace of the original speech. Part of the problem here is that the film wants the Spanish threat to end with the defeat of the Armada, doesn’t want to have to point out that the war continued after Gravelines, and and doesn’t want to deal with the problem of the Spanish army sitting in the Netherlands. So instead of showing us the Tilbury Speech in its proper context, the film relocates the speech to before the defeat of the Armada, and uses it as a way of building up anticipation for the coming battle. But the result is a little clumsy, since it prepares us for a land battle that never happens.
What the film’s version of the Tilbury Speech chiefly emphasizes, I think, is a tendency for modern screenwriters to not recognize good historical material when they see it. It’s a little like a film about Abraham Lincoln and rewriting the Gettysburg Address because modern audiences would probably find the original speech dull.
Ancient Greece poleis (city-states) developed a style of fighting called the hoplite phalanx (which I’ve explained in some detail here). The phalanx reinforced the principle of community identity because it required all the members of the phalanx to stand close together (basically, shoulder-to-shoulder) and advance in unison. Each man’s shield covered half his body and half the body of the man to his left, so to survive required each man to stay close to his neighbors and to fight to keep him alive. Indeed, a phalanx typically lost its battle if a hole opened in its formation.
Additionally, the citizens of a polis were its soldiers. Rather than fielding professional armies of full-time soldiers, most poleis required all their adult citizens to fight when necessary. So these armies were more like the US National Guard than the US Army; the soldiers had other occupations (typically, farming) and were part-time warriors when necessary; they were called up for a battle or a campaign, served without pay, and then demobilized and returned to their normal occupations. To ensure readiness, citizens were generally required to own their own weapons and armor and to meet occasionally to drill the fighting techniques of the phalanx.
The Spartan system was much the same, except that all citizen men were required to be full-time soldiers (with serfs doing the farm-work that other Greeks did themselves). Their culture required them to drill regularly in preparation for war. So while Spartan soldiers were essentially professional soldiers (though not paid professionals), their military system still emphasized communal identity. In neither system was there much room for the individual to act on his own, because doing so would have disrupted the phalanx.
Trireme warfare extended this principle to the seas. Greek Triremes (which I explain here) required hundreds of men rowing in perfect unison; failure to maintain unison would result in tangled oars and the ship being motionless in the water. This required sailors to practice unison rowing. In Athens, the only major difference between serving in a phalanx and serving in trireme (from an organizational standpoint, that is) is that rowers were paid a daily wage for their service, thus guaranteeing that the rowers would not be financially ruined by their service. For the Athenians, their naval system was an expression of their democratic principles, one they were quite proud of.
But in 300 and 300 2: Rise on an Empire, the heroes do not fight in unison or formation, even when the result is complete nonsense (in the case of the battle of Thermopylae). Instead, the various characters (mostly the heroic Greeks) fight as individuals. They rarely make any effort at remaining in formation, assisting each other, or in any way depending on each other (although Leonidas’ suicidal attempt to kill Xerxes does require someone for him to use as a trampoline, something I suspect the Spartans would have found deeply insulting).
The result is warriors who win their fights out of sheer heroic bravery and the fact that they are the good guys. They win because they try hard and really care about their cause, rather than because they are actually skilled at what they’re doing. Their skill is to a considerable extent an expression of their moral character, and the lack of skill (the simple killability) of the bad guys is a reflection of their essentially immoral nature. In both movies, there’s only one bad guy who actually exhibits any true combat ability, and that’s Artemisia, who not coincidentally is also the only bad guy we’re encouraged to empathize with to any degree at all.
This, of course, is an example of the American tradition of Heroic Individualism that is so powerful in modern cinema; 300’s Spartans have a great deal in common with the cowboys of many Westerns. This is not entirely anachronistic, since the heroes of classical Greek literature are also Heroic Individuals; Achilles in the Iliad fights much the way that Zack Snyder’s Leonidas does, and with the same ultimate consequence (although Achilles proves more capable of learning from his mistakes than Leonidas does).
But while the Greeks might have loved the Homeric heroes, they recognized that they could not (or perhaps could no longer) fight that way. They developed a system of fighting that required reliance on community and mutual support and which actively had to rein in the individual (in fact, Roman soldiers could actually be punished for trying to be too heroic, because it usually led to them being separated from their phalanx and having to be rescued).
The result of all this is that 300 and 300 2 are unable to tell their stories coherently. Neither film makes much sense because they are unable to reconcile the events they are trying to depict with the need to make their characters Heroic Individuals. As I’ve said, Snyder’s depiction of the Battle of Thermopylae doesn’t even make sense on its own terms, and Murro’s depiction of the naval side of the 3rd Persian War is pure fantasy with incongruous details like cliffs that appear out of nowhere and a general who rides his horse across the sea. In a way, it’s an indictment of the entire ethos of Heroic Individuality that its conventions can’t be merged with historical events in a way that fully makes sense. But then, no one went to see either of these movies hoping to see sensible depictions of anything, did they?
Recently I decided that I needed to review a film on Tudor history. I turned on Netflix and went looking for one of the classics—Anne of the Thousand Days, A Man for All Seasons or perhaps one of Cate Blanchett’s movies about Elizabeth. I discovered two things. 1) Netflix has no films on Tudor history at all, just a bunch of not very good-looking documentaries. 2) Ironclad (2011, dir. Jonathan English). I’m not sure why Netflix suggested this film, because the only thing it has in common with any of the above films is that it’s set in England. But I faintly remembered hearing about it when it first came out, so I watched it.
It’s a small independent film; the financing was apparently such a big challenge that at one point they had to recast all the supporting roles, after Megan Fox dropped out. But despite the modest budget, it’s the largest independent film ever made in Wales. And, a little improbably, it’s based quite solidly in history, albeit with some important liberties.
The Siege of Rochester Castle
On June 15th, 1215, King John reluctantly signed the Magna Carta, a charter of liberties in which he agreed to a variety of restrictions on his powers as king and lord of vassals. Most of the charter was limited to John’s relationship with his vassals and therefore applied only to nobles, but a few details applied to everyone in the country, most notably the establishment of what can be called the right of due process for all non-serfs and the abolition of double jeopardy in trials.
However, soon after John signed it, he repudiated it, and Pope Innocent III declared John released from his oath to support it. This triggered the First Barons’ War, in which the rebellious barons, supported by King Louis VIII of France, essentially attempted to depose John. The rebels were also supported by Stephen Langton, the archbishop of Canterbury.
In October, Langton sent the nobleman William d’Aubigny to occupy Rochester Castle. The castle had been in John’s hands, but the Magna Carta had required John to return it to Langton because it was the property of the archbishopric of Canterbury. John persuaded the castellan, Reginald de Cornhill, to open the gates and D’Aubigny occupied the castle with a small force, much to John’s great frustration. Rochester Castle controlled the southern road to London, which the rebels had taken control of. John could not risk bypassing Rochester, and so he laid siege to the castle for two months.
Rochester Castle. Note how close it is to Rochester Cathedral
John’s forces occupied the city of Rochester and destroyed the bridge linking the city to London, thus making it difficult for the rebels to relieve the siege. For two months, d’Aubigny’s small band of men, variously numbered between 85 and 150, struggled to keep hold off John. John’s forces broke through the outer wall of the castle, forcing the defenders to retreat to the keep. John’s forces sapped the keep, digging a tunnel under it and then burning the tunnel supports. This caused part of the keep to collapse, but the rebels held out in the part of the castle that remained. Some of the less-able-bodied defenders were forced to leave because of dwindling supplies, and some sources report that John cut off their hands and feet. Eventually, the remaining defenders surrendered; John imprisoned all of them, including d’Aubigny, except one archer whom John executed because the man had served him from childhood but then rebelled.
Sadly for John, the capture of Rochester did not improve his position significantly. He was able to force the rebels into a stalemate, but suffered a setback when his baggage train was lost crossing a tidal estuary. He contracted dysentery or something similar and died on October 18th, 1216, about a year after starting the siege of Rochester.
King John was a complex figure. He was widely disliked by his nobles, and his various defeats sharply colored his posthumous reputation, especially in comparison with his more famous and accomplished father Henry II and brother Richard the Lion-hearted. He has been remembered by derisive nicknames such as ‘Lackland’ and ‘Softsword’, and most historical literature treats him poorly; he is, after all, the main villain in modern Robin Hood stories, and The Lion in Winter makes him seem like a pathetic joke.
But in recent decades scholars have tended to paint a more balanced picture of John. They have pointed out that he was an extremely skilled solider; his forces never lost a battle at which he was present, but his great tragedy was that the two most critical battles of his reign were ones he was unable to be at. He was a talented administrator, who paid far more attention to his kingdom than his older brother did. His servants were deeply loyal to him, but he lacked the skills to manage the nobles and clergy who truly mattered politically. Like his father, he was possessed of both enormous energy and a ferocious temper, but at key moments he seems to have been paralyzed by inaction; one historian has suggested that he might have been bi-polar. All in all, I like John, far more than I like his brother Richard.
The plot of Ironclad focuses entirely on the siege of Rochester, and it follows the events of the siege fairly closely, albeit with some significant deviations. The main character is the entirely fictitious Thomas Marshall (James Purefoy), a Templar knight with some sort of dark secret that is never revealed. The film claims that the Templars were the main reason that John was forced to sign the Magna Carta, which is completely untrue. John had good relationships with the Templars, and relied on the advice of Aymeric de St. Maur, the master of the Order in England at the time. Aymeric encouraged him to sign the Magna Carta, but that’s a far cry from claiming that the Templars forced him into it.
Like Arn the Knight Templar, this film seems to suggest that one joins the Templars like one joins the modern military. There are suggestions that Thomas might be allowed to “take a leave” from the Templars, and at the end, Archbishop Langton tells Thomas that he’s “earned his freedom.” But joining a monastic order was a permanent conversion; men did not leave the Order after a period of time. However, an archbishop would have had the authority to release someone from their monastic oaths, although it would have been highly unusual to do so. One of the reasons men joined monastic orders was that it was thought to significantly increase the chance of salvation, so leaving a monastic order would not have been seen as a good thing by most people at the time.
Also, the film claims that Templars had a “vow of silence”. Vows of silence were a real thing, but they’ve been badly misunderstood. In general, monks were expected to focus their thoughts on spiritual matters and to avoid frivolous conversations. Some orders employed a simple form of sign language so that monks could communicate simple ideas without speaking. But most orders allowed monks to talk, at least at certain moments. Monks met regularly in chapter meetings to discuss matters of importance. At meals, they heard texts read to them. Some monastic rules set aside time for the brothers to converse. And of course they sang the liturgy multiple times a day. But these are not formal vows of silence, which was a practice only employed by a minority of medieval monastic orders. The Templars most certainly did not maintain a vow of silence, since as soldiers, they needed to communicate orders on the battlefield. Clearly the screenwriter hasn’t thought this issue through.
Also, Thomas uses a Braveheart-style great sword. If it was too early for William Wallace, it’s way too early for an early 13th century Templar. Thanks, Mel Gibson. Now everybody apparently needs to use great swords.
Purefoy as Thomas Marshall, with his great sword
Early in the film, Thomas and William d’Aubigny (Brian Cox) are sent by Stephen Langton to hold Rochester Castle against John. They do a Seven Samurai number and recruit five more soldiers and then go to Rochester, where they convince Reginald de Cornhill (Derek Jacobi) to let them hold the castle, But Cornhill has only eleven men, so 18 soldiers and a few servants are left to hold off John’s forces. This is an absurdly small group to hold even a small castle; in an actual siege, a group that small would have been overwhelmed on the first day of battle.
Historically, John hired a mixed group of continental mercenaries during the Baron’s War, but in this film he hires a band of pagan Danish Vikings. This is the worst anachronism of the film. The Danes had been Christian for more than 200 years by the Baron’s War. The only purpose served by making John’s men pagan Vikings seems to be to make John look bad, for employing pagans when he’s allied to the pope. It’s an egregiously silly detail in a film that in many respects strives to be true to events.
King John (Paul Giametti) is actually quite well-handled. The script is written to make John seem like a complete asshole, but Giametti manages to capture John’s fierce temper in a way that humanizes him. When John’s forces break into the castle bailey and capture d’Aubigny, John gets a monologue that is written to make him seem petulant, but Giametti transforms it into an angry tirade fueled by John’s quite legitimate complaint that his rights as king are not being respected. It’s a speech that captures something of the actual attitude that medieval kings had about their position.
The best part of this film
The film is also rather naïve about the Magna Carta. It is referenced as being a document “for the people” in a rather vague and unspecified way, as if it were a proto-constitution instead of the peace treaty it actually was. The film frames the Baron’s War as being a conflict between a tyrannical John and a group of nobles who are somehow champions of the common man. John was definitely being unreasonable, but nothing that he did prior to 1215 would have been seen as illegal or tyrannical; rather his nobles felt that he was abusing his rights as their lord, using legal rights in ways they had not been intended.
Despite all these problems, the film does a remarkably good job of following the outlines of the siege. Rochester Castle is realistically depicted (although it’s located out in the countryside, instead of in a city and within an arrow’s flight of Rochester Cathedral). When I watched the film, I thought that the siege details were being a little improbable, but upon researching the actual siege, I saw that the film actually follows the basic sequence of events fairly closely, although it plays with the time-frame of events somewhat, extending the first part of the siege and then compressing the later parts somewhat. But all the major details of the siege in the film have at least some basis in the actual siege, other than Thomas’ romance with Cornhill’s wife, and the deaths of Cornhill and d’Aubigny, both of whom are known to have survived the siege.
An Orgy of Violence
If you decide to watch Ironclad, be warned; it’s extremely violent. I’ve seen my fair share of modern action films, and this film goes somewhat beyond them. The film dwells on graphic violence in ways that I found a little shocking. The camera watches a number of extreme injuries, including the top of a man’s head being chopped off and a man being cut from shoulder to waist. In one particularly graphic shot, a man’s arm is hacked off, with four strokes that gradually hack through the bone. The film also dwells on John’s order to cut off d’Aubigny’s hands and feet.
I’m of two minds about the film’s use of graphic violence. One part of me feels that the film was being true to its nature as a war film and showing what war really looks like. In most Hollywood films, the graphic violence is somewhat ludicrous; limbs are easily chopped off even though most medieval swords weren’t sharp enough to accomplish that feat easily. In this film, the dismemberments actually seem plausible (d’Aubigny’s hands and feet are braced against wooden blocks, for example). The violence is shown as being psychologically brutal to the defenders of the castle; at the end of the film, Thomas and the two other survivors all seem moderately traumatized by what they’ve been through.
However, the other part of me feels that the film is just indulging in the pornography of violence that has become so common in modern action films. Many Hollywood films have decided to take the Grand Guignol approach to storytelling, without paying much attention to the consequences of the violence. So if you watch the film, be prepared for some gore.
Overall, the film takes some liberties with the facts, but fewer liberties than I was expecting. It’s a bit like The Warlord in that it’s a small-scale film, focused on a single conflict within a much larger picture, and it has a similar ending, with the hero worn down by his struggles. While I have some problems with this film, I’d rather watch a dozen films like this than a Braveheartor 300. Now I just have to hunt down a copy of a film on Tudor history.
When Mel Gibson released his Braveheart (1995, dir. Mel Gibson), it proved a worldwide hit. It earned five Academy Awards, and became probably the most successful film about the Middle Ages ever made. Almost 20 years after the fact, a very sizable percentage of my students have seen it. It is also one of the most historically-inaccurate films ever made and a film largely reviled by professional medievalists. Like 300, we’re gonna be feasting on this film for multiple posts. So let’s begin, shall we?
The Scottish Wars of Independence
The political circumstances around Wallace’s rebellion are extremely complex, and can only be summarized here. In 1286, the Scottish king Alexander made the mistake of riding his horse down a rocky slope during a storm, breaking his neck in the process. He left no direct heirs other than a young grand-daughter who died 4 years later, which triggered a major political crisis in Scotland. 13 different nobles put forward claims to the Scottish throne. The two leading contenders were John Balliol and Robert Bruce (often incorrectly termed ‘Robert the Bruce’, a corruption of his French name, Robert de Brus).
Because Scotland was heading for a civil war over this issue, the Scottish nobility invited Edward I of England to arbitrate the dispute. Edward demanded that all of the competitors acknowledge him as the overlord of Scotland. Most of them reluctantly accepted this demand, which was not as outrageous as it sounds today, since Edward’s great-grandfather Henry II had enjoyed this position; in Edward’s view, he was simply claiming a right that had slipped over the past two reigns. In 1292, Edward issued a ruling in favor of John Balliol, a ruling accepted by a majority of the Scottish nobility.
A portrait thought to represent Edward I
In the years following, Edward treated Balliol as a vassal rather than an equal, and eventually in 1296, Balliol renounced his homage. Edward responded by invading southern Scotland and defeating the Scots at the battle of Dunbar. Balliol surrendered soon after. Edward deposed him and sent him into captivity, and proceeded to take control of much of Scotland.
The Scots, understandably, disliked this, and bristled at English rule. In 1297, rebellions broke out in numerous parts of Scotland. Andrew de Moray (or Andrew Murray) seized control of Moray in northern Scotland and began conquering northeastern Scotland in the name of Balliol. About the same time, William Wallace rebelled and killed the sheriff of Lanarkshire in southern Scotland. Wallace’ rebellion struggled to catch up to Moray’s lead; it’s important to realize that at this point, Moray was the leader of the movement, not Wallace.
Edward responded by sending troops into Scotland. He also sent his vassal Robert Bruce, but Bruce chose to side with the rebels. On September 11th, 1297, the English forces, led by John de Warenne and Hugh Cressingham, encountered the joint forces of Moray and Wallace at Stirling Bridge. The Scots took up a position on boggy ground at the north end of the bridge over the River Forth. A sizeable advance force of English infantry and several hundred cavalry under the leadership of Cressingham advanced over the bridge, but then got slowed down by the boggy ground. The Scottish forces seized control of the north end of the bridge and effectively cut the advance force off from the rest of the army. Because of the narrowness of the bridge, the English were unable to get the rest of their army across the river, with the result that the advance force was slaughtered. Warenne chose to retreat, ordering the destruction of the bridge. The unfortunate Cressingham was killed and his body flayed; legend holds that Wallace had a baldrick made out of his skin. Andrew Moray suffered fatal injuries in the battle and died a few weeks later, leaving Wallace as the dominant figure in the war. Wallace invaded northern England and plundered it. After that, he was knighted and appointed Guardian of Scotland.
Modern Stirling. Note the river–it’s going to be important.
Chris Brown, in his William Wallace: The True Story of Braveheart, offers a somewhat different interpretation of the battle based on the idea that the bridge opened out onto a narrow spit of land between two bends in the river. In his view, what the Scots did was simply occupy the neck of the spit, preventing the English from continuing their crossing and forcing the cavalry back into the infantry. In this view, it was not the Scots who prevented the cavalry from retreating, but the English infantry and the narrowness of the bridge. It’s a plausible scenario. The chief problem is that archaeologists have not yet identified the location of the bridge, which makes a definitive interpretation of the battle difficult. There is also disagreement over whether the English made a second attempt at crossing the bridge or not.
This is essentially Brown’s reconstruction of the battle. Other reconstructions put the bridge at the bend by the word ‘river’
The primary Scottish tactic during the war was the pike schiltrom (sometimes called a ‘hedgehog’). This was a formation in which a large number of men armed with pikes (essentially long spears) positioned in a circular or square formation with men facing outward in all directions. This presents a wall of pikes no matter what direction the schiltrom is approached from, and since horses will not run into an unmoving object, it provided very good defense against the dominant knightly cavalry of the 13th century. At Stirling Bridge, the Scottish pikemen charged to the bridge and then formed up a schiltrom, thus effectively separating the two halves of the English army. (If you prefer Brown’s reconstruction, they formed their schiltrom at the neck of the spit.)
However, the schiltrom was essentially a static, defensive formation. Once it had formed up, it could not move quickly because it was only effective as long as it maintained its outward-facing orientation; to move, men on one side would have to walk backwards while keeping in formation. Under Brown’s reconstruction, it could have advanced slowly, since it would not have had to defend its rear, but even if it was entirely forward-facing, it would have to maintain its close formation.
The schiltrom was part of the so-called Infantry Revolution of the 14th century; in the decades after Wallace, it was to help drastically reduce the effectiveness of cavalry. But Wallace and his men were at the forefront of this development, before people had really figured out how to best use pikes.
Stirling Bridge hurt Edward’s war effort, but it was hardly a decisive battle. In the long run, it changed very little strategically. In 1298, Edward came north with another army. Initially, Wallace adopted guerrilla tactics, harassing Edward’s forces but not giving battle. Edward contemplated falling back to Edinburgh but then he got word that Wallace was encamped at Falkirk just a few miles away. Wallace seems to have wanted to retreat from the English forces, which substantially outnumbered his troops, but his men, apparently grown overconfident, insisted on fighting. Wallace took up a position between a woods and a small river. Before the battle, Wallace is reported to have told his men, “I have brought you to the (dancing) ring, hop (dance) if you can.” Not exactly an inspiring speech.
Wallace’ infantry were formed into schiltroms, supplemented by a modest force of cavalry and archers. Edward had a significant force of cavalry and a large number of longbowmen, as well as a sizeable force of infantry.
The English cavalry scattered the Scottish archers but could not penetrate the schiltroms. The Scottish cavalry attempted a counter-attack, but were badly outnumbered by the English cavalry and broke and fled. Then Edward brought forward his archers and proceeded to demolish the schiltroms, which were unable to respond effectively to missile fire without losing their formation. Once the Scottish pikemen had been substantially thinned out, the cavalry charged in and finished them off. Wallace fled into the woods. His reputation ruined, he resigned the Guardianship of Scotland.
The second phase of Falkirk, after the Scottish archers and cavalry were dispersed
Over the next several years, Edward gradually got the upper hand in Scotland. Bruce submitted to Edward in 1301. In 1304, after Wallace was defeated again in a minor encounter, most of the Scottish leadership surrendered, although Wallace did not. Finally in 1305, Wallace was captured near Glasgow. He was put on trial, found guilty, and publicly executed; he was hanged, cut down while still alive, emasculated, disemboweled, beheaded, and cut into four pieces. His head was put on a spike at the Tower Bridge, and his limbs were sent to Scotland for display. That brought Wallace’ rebellion to an end, but not the Wars of Independence.
It’s important to realize that there is no evidence that William Wallace was a particularly skilled general. He only ever fought two major battles, and the victory at Stirling Bridge may have been due as much to Moray’s leadership as Wallace’. He was more successful at guerrilla warfare than open-field battles. At best, Stirling Bridge suggests that he was capable of finding a intelligent way to minimize the English advantage, but attacking when the enemy is disorganized and in a bad position does not require particular genius, just the ability to take advantage of an opportunity. He was smart enough to realize that he was unlikely to win at Falkirk, but lacked the leadership skills to get his men to obey him. In the end, Wallace was a failure as a general; his major contribution to Scottish history was in helping start the process of resistance to English rule, not in delivering a major victory.
Braveheart’s Battle of Stirling Bridge
Braveheart offers versions of both Stirling Bridge and Falkirk, but they’re very different from the historical battles. The first battle takes place on a small plain with low hills and a forest behind the English. There is no river or bridge in sight, and the ground is firm, rather than boggy. Wallace (Moray never even appears in the film) arrays his infantry in a simple line. He instructs his small cavalry force to ride off; in reality this is a flanking maneuver, but it’s intended to trick the English into thinking the cavalry has fled. The English command a mixed force of cavalry, archers, and infantry.
I know there’s a river around here somewhere…
The English commander (who I’m going to assume is Hugh de Cressingham; I’ve watched this movie several times and I’m never clear on this question, but perhaps I’ve just missed something) orders his archers to open fire on the Scottish position, who are taunting them and flashing their genitals at them. The archers inflict a few casualties, but the Scottish miraculously parry most of the arrows with their shields. This is extremely unlikely.
After a second round of Scottish taunting and English arrows failing to achieve very much, Wallace’ cavalry rides off and Cressingham orders a cavalry charge (which is done with a properly dressed line, in contrast to Olivier’s Henry V). The Scots, however, have a trick up their kilts; they have secretly brought pikes with them, which are laid on the ground where the English don’t see them. Thus the cavalry winds up charging not a disorganized mass of general infantry troops but a pike wall that kills their horses and shatters their charge. The Scots massacre the English cavalry, at which point Cressingham panics and orders the infantry to charge in and a formless brawl ensues as both sides charge each other. Then the Scottish cavalry reappears, and the English forces are completely routed; Cressingham is decapitated in battle.
Could a battle like this have happened around 1300? Yes, given a few assumptions. One of the basic rules of medieval warfare is that the side that advances its infantry is at a disadvantage, since the infantry is likely to lose formation (you can see this when the two infantries charge each other at a full run). So the Scots taunt the English in an effort to get them to advance. Instead, Cressingham orders his longbowmen to attack the Scots, who as infantry are going to be particularly vulnerable to archery (they either have to stand their ground and take the hits or advance and risk losing formation). After two flights the English are winning; the Scots are slowly taking casualties and have done no harm to the English. Cressingham’s obvious tactic is to continue exactly what he’s doing because it’s working.
But then we reach the first assumption; for this battle to happen, Cressingham must be a complete idiot and overconfident. When the Scottish cavalry rides off, he foolishly thinks he’s routed them and sends in his cavalry. Had Cressingham been a more prudent general, he would have kept up the missile fire and considered the possibility that the Scots were trying to flank him. The movie present Wallace’ flanking tactic as being extremely clever when in fact it’s actually a pretty basic tactic. Remember, the English have a forest behind them in the movie; they would have chosen that deliberately to prevent a flanking maneuver.
Then we get to the second assumption. The film suggests that it is possible for a pike unit to hide its weapons on the ground until the last minute and therefore trick cavalry into charging it. That’s a huge assumption, and one I’m fairly dubious of. Pikes have to be positioned and braced firmly on the ground using one foot as a sort of backstop so that the pike won’t slide on impact. That’s a complex maneuver, and not one that can quickly done, especially by troops that have never used pikes before (the film shows Wallace dreaming up the pike strategy the night before the battle). And these are cumbersome wooden poles a couple inches around, rather than actual pikes. Also, the film cheats. In all the earlier shots of the Scottish infantry, there are no pikes lying on the ground, but they magically appear just when the Scots are ready to use them. In reality, the English would probably have spotted the pikes on the ground and figured out what the Scots were up to. So the film’s trick is wildly implausible. But if we assume that somehow this trick could be pulled off, what follows is reasonable.
Whoa, dude! Where did these pikes come from?
At this point, Cressingham sends in his infantry. A smarter tactic would have been to stand his ground, resume archery fire, and force the Scots to charge a defensive line under withering arrow fire. Instead, Cressingham panics and orders his infantry to advance. Wallace rather foolishly does the same thing, and the result is a completely chaotic battle in which the Scots have nullified most of the English advantages but have also lost their own unit cohesion. Had Wallace been a skilled commander, he would have stood his ground and let the English infantry charge his pike wall; instead, he gets a lot of his men killed. Perhaps he knows that he barely has control of his army and figures they’ll charge anyway.
So, assuming that Cressingham was an incompetent general and assuming that the trick with the pikes could be pulled off (which it probably couldn’t), this battle could have happened. In contrast to 300’s Thermopylae, this battle makes sense on some level, if you grant a couple of unlikely possibilities. One of Gibson’s concerns is to depict the battle as an extremely chaotic and frightening event, which is a fair assessment of some medieval battles. In this, he is drawing off the same tradition that Kenneth Branagh tapped into a few years earlier in his Henry V.
But Braveheart’s Stirling is certainly not Stirling Bridge, where Wallace and Moray won because they struck the English army at a vulnerable moment and took up a strong position that exploited the narrowness of the bridge and the bogginess of the terrain.
In a previous post, I said that the right question to ask is not “Is this film historically accurate?” but rather “Why is this film being inaccurate about this particular detail?”, and Braveheart illustrates this principle on several occasions. Why did Gibson make up a battle instead of trying to recreate Stirling Bridge the way it happened? On the surface, it seems like an odd decision. The name of the battle is Stirling Bridge, and it’s a fairly well-known event, at least in Scotland, so you’d think that the omission of the bridge would be a problem. And the Scottish tactics at Stirling Bridge were intelligent; the film could have showcased Wallace’ tactical cunning in a more plausible way than it does.
Years ago I saw an interview with someone involved in the film (I don’t think it was Gibson; it may have been the director of photography) who claimed that they couldn’t find an appropriate bridge to use. This is a fairly silly thing to say, since Hollywood routinely builds sets like that all the time.
I think a much more likely reason has to do with how Gibson wanted to present the battle. As I’ve mentioned, in reality, Wallace and Moray won Stirling Bridge because they made good use of the terrain and the bridge. They cut the English forces in two, held off the infantry that had not yet crossed the bridge, and slaughtered the cavalry, which couldn’t maneuver effectively on boggy ground and couldn’t retreat back to the bridge. But that doesn’t fit Gibson’s narrative of Wallace, whom he constantly presents as a plucky, outnumbered underdog who wins his fights through sheer moral force. Showing the bridge would force Gibson to acknowledge that Wallace won because his control of the bridge kept him from being outnumbered; it would undermine the plucky underdog quality Gibson was trying to create. So it seems to me that Gibson’s version of this battle is inaccurate because accuracy at this moment would have violated the point he was trying to make about who Wallace was and who the Scots are as a people. He consciously re-wrote the past to achieve a particular effect.
After Stirling, Wallace lays siege to York, which never happened, and captures it. He executes Edward’s unnamed nephew and sends his head to Edward. Edward’s daughter-in-law, Isabella meets Wallace and warns him that Edward plans to invade, so Wallace is able to prepare for the forthcoming battle.
In Gibson’s version of the battle of Falkirk, the battle again takes place on a small plain surrounded by hills and forest. There is no Westquarter Burn. The Scots prepare the ground by pouring pitch on the ground.
Both sides line up their troops in a line. There is no sign of the Scottish schiltroms. Edward disdainfully decides not to use his archers, and instead orders his Irish mercenaries (of whom there were none at the actual Falkirk) to advance, with the stated purpose of getting them killed to soften up the Scots. The mercenaries, however, switch sides because of Wallace’ cleverness in getting the Irish to support him. Then he orders his archers to use fire arrows to light the pitch on fire after the English have advanced their forces. The English cavalry breaks, and the two infantries collide (again, ignoring the rule to never advance your infantry if you can avoid it). Wallace again seems to be winning.
The Scots charging at Falkirk
However, the Scottish cavalry refuses to engage, and Edward explains that he has bribed its leaders. The film presents this as a villainous trick, ignoring the fact that Wallace has just done the same thing. Apparently it’s ok when Wallace lures the mercenaries to his side, but it’s evil when Edward does it with the cavalry. Edward callously orders his archers to open fire even though it will mean killing lots of English soldiers. This spells Wallace’ defeat. Wounded (he pretty clearly has an arrow in his lung, which would have killed him fairly soon after the battle), he charges Edward’s position, but is intercepted by Robert Bruce, who helps him get to safety.
So, as with Stirling Bridge, Gibson’s Falkirk is entirely wrong. There are no schiltroms. Gibson’s Wallace uses fire where the real one didn’t. Gibson’s Wallace advances his troops when the real one didn’t. Gibson’s Wallace schemes to get the Irish to switch sides and his Edward does the same to the Scots, when in reality neither of them did anything of the sort. The historical flight of the Scottish cavalry becomes conscious treachery. Instead of fleeing in defeat, Gibson’s Wallace fights against all odds until he cannot fight any longer and must be taken off the field against his will.
It’s easy to see why Gibson’s depiction of Falkirk is inaccurate. The historical Wallace was not a tactical genius; he favored guerrilla tactics; his victory at Stirling Bridge probably owed as much to Moray’s skill as a commander as to his. Reluctant to fight but forced to by his troops, he adopted a static position that was bound to lose the battle because of the English archers, and when he lost, he did the smart thing and ran away.
But once again that runs directly counter to Gibson’s preferred vision of William Wallace. Gibson’s Wallace is a clever commander who makes effective use of stratagems and loses only because he is betrayed by a corrupt nobility who are willing to be the English king’s lackeys. This betrayal is heightened by the rank immorality of the cinematic Edward, who is arrogant, treacherous, and willing to sacrifice his own troops for no good reason (and that’s all just in this scene). The Scots had victory within their grasp, and lose it because they lacked moral resolve, not because the English were better at warfare.
In a future post, I’ll talk about how these battles fit into the wider message of the film. Here, it’s enough to say that there is a sharp disjunction between the historical battles and the blatantly moralistic battles that Gibson presents. There is no reason he could not have shown the battles as they actually happened, except that it didn’t fit his purpose to do so.
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Although it pains me to admit it, Braveheartis readily available on Amazon.
The historian who goes to the movies is going to his wedding tomorrow, so this post is shorter than usual and getting put up a day earlier than normal. In my previous post, I looked at Sir Laurence Olivier’s Henry V. In this second part, I consider Kenneth Branagh’s treatment of the same material.
Kenneth Branagh as Henry V
Branagh’s take on Henry V is so far removed from Olivier’s that they almost seem to be different plays (and in a sense they are; Branagh kept much more of Shakespeare’s text than Olivier did). In 1988, Branagh was making his film in a drastically different political context. The Vietnam War had drastically changed attitudes toward war in many parts of Western society including England. More directly relevant to England, in 1982, Britain got into the Falklands War with Argentina. It was a brief conflict, lasting only 10 weeks, but it had a definite impact on Britain. It helped bolster the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher, who was re-elected as Prime Minister the following year. The British press resisted the Royal Navy’s expectations of patriotic coverage, instead opting for a more neutral tone, and there was much more debate about the justification for the war. While World War II could be viewed as a “good war”, the Falklands was seen by many as needless war.
Branagh’s take on Henry V must therefore be seen in a very different context. There was no pressing need for the patriotic tone of Olivier’s version, no need to rally the British to continue with a great struggle. Instead, there was a much wider appreciation of the unpleasantness of war, the moral compromises it requires, and the suffering it produces.
Branagh restored the moral and psychological complexity of Shakespeare’s Henry V. We see Branagh’s Henry as a deeply conflicted man, a man keenly aware of the moral dimensions of his decision-making and not entirely convinced of his right to risk the lives of his men.
Branagh’s treatment of Agincourt fully reflects this. The battlefield is much murkier than Olivier’s; the sky is grey, the ground muddy, and the mistiness of the field suggests that it might be raining (which, in reality, would have ruined the strings of the English longbowmen, resulting in a drastically different battle). Whereas Olivier chose to focus on the French cavalry charge, Branagh focuses attention on the English as they wait to receive the charge. We see the men praying and crossing themselves. Then we watch them prepare their bows and arrows. The French cavalry begins its charge, but then the camera switches immediately to the English. We hear the sound of the charge and watch the tension and fear build in the English faces. These are men who know they are facing death if they fail.
The English launch their first volley of arrows, and then the English men-at-arms engage the French. Branagh makes no attempt to depict the French falling back and running into their own second wave. For much of the rest of the scene, we see a chaotic struggle between the two sides. We repeatedly see the archers loosing arrows and hear the sound of arrows whistling through the air and watch men falling dead. This, of course, is entirely wrong. The English would not have been able to continue firing once their troops had joined the battle, because they would have been killing their own men. Nor do the longbowmen ever enter the melee.
As the scene progresses, we witness the brutality of fighting. Many are covered with blood. We see men having their throats slit, men falling down, men being stabbed, corpses being looted, and one man being held face first in muddy water until he drowns. The Constable is unhorsed, and at this point, the music turns more mournful, as his men struggle to rescue him. The duke of York is mobbed and stabbed to death and we see him vomit blood. The Constable and the Dauphin bemoan the shame of their defeat.
Branagh’s Agincourt is a horrible, bloody conflict in which both sides suffer terribly. The English, although they win, find themselves lamenting their dead. When Henry receives news of the French casualties, he seems appalled at what he has done. The scene ends with Henry and the English walking across the corpse-filled battlefield as “Non Nobis Domine” is sung. For much of this sequence, Henry is seen carrying the corpse of a young boy, and the viewer can see the psychological weight of the body as much as its physical weight.
From a strictly historical standpoint, Branagh’s Agincourt is just as wrong as Olivier’s, both for what he omits (the confusion of the French charges) and for the errors he shows (the archers firing after the melee has started). But the different times in which these films were made led these two actor-directors to adopt very different visions of the climactic battle. Olivier’s Agincourt is a metaphor for British victory over the Nazis, whereas Branagh’s Agincourt is a meditation on the horrors of war, horrors that his audience can contemplate precisely because war is not on their horizon.
Henry V has been the subject of a lot of popular biographies. One of my rules is that I won’t read historical works by journalists or ‘popular’ historians like Desmond Seward or Alison Weir because they tend to really irritate me with their superficial readings of the documents and facts. I haven’t seen a bio of Henry that I thought was really excellent yet, but John Matusiak’s Henry V (Routledge Historical Biographies)is fairly solid.
There are a variety of books on the battle of Agincourt, some of rather dubious value. It’s such a famous battle that it attracts a lot of writing by military enthusiasts, who are often former soldiers who think that because they know what modern warfare is like, they automatically can generalize to medieval warfare. Probably the best recent book is Anne Curry’s Agincourt: A New History. Curry is arguably the world’s expert on Agincourt and she makes good use of administrative records as well as the traditional narratives of the battle.
This week, I want to do something a little different. Instead of looking at one movie, I want to compare two of them. Specifically, I want to compare the depiction of the battle of Agincourt in Sir Laurence Olivier’s Henry V (1944) to Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V (1989). So today we’re looking at the historical Agincourt, and at Olivier’s treatment of it, and in my next post, I’ll explore Branagh’s approach to the same scene. It is a truism about historical movies that movies about the past are always reflective of the time they were made in; in some sense movies about the past are movies about the present. The fact that we have the same historical event depicted in two different films made during very different cultural moments allows us to look at this principle for an interesting angle.
The Historical Agincourt
In 1415, the young Henry V (r. 1413-1422) launched an invasion of France as a renewal of the Hundred Years’ War. Henry landed his army in northern France and after a long siege that cost him perhaps a quarter of his army, he captured the town of Harfleur. Having lost such a significant proportion of his army, he decided to return to England, but did so by marching his forces to the English-owned city of Calais, a considerable distance to the east. This may have been intended as a provocation to the French, to encourage them to offer battle.
The Agincourt campaign
The French, under the leadership of Constable d’Albret, responded and after some maneuvering and delay, the two sides encountered each other between a woods and the small village of Agincourt. Henry’s forces were low on food and suffering from some sickness, perhaps dysentery, with the result that Henry’s forces were at a distinct disadvantage.
As is often the case with ancient and medieval wars, good numbers are hard to come by. Medieval chroniclers routinely over-estimated the size of armies, often by a factor of 10 or more. Modern scholarship has suggested that Henry had a force of around 5-7,000 longbow archers and perhaps 900-1,500 men-at-arms, a type of cavalry that could dismount and fight on foot easily. The French forces were substantially larger, but contemporary estimates of 50,000 men are probably an exaggeration. They had a large force of men-at-arms, perhaps 8,000-10,000, who could certainly dismount and fight on foot but were less adapt at this tactic than the English. They also had a substantial compliment of crossbowmen, and some regular archers. Overall, the English were far more adept at archery than the French were, while the French cavalry were among the best in Europe. The French generally disdained archers and considered them of secondary importance, whereas the English focused a good deal of their military strategy on them.
We have four eyewitness accounts of the battle, but unfortunately we still have some serious problems with understanding the battle. The sources tell us that Henry arranged his troops in a formation called a herce, meaning a ‘harrow’, a large grid-like tool used to prepare the ground for plowing. Scholars have debated the exact meaning of this term since the 1940s. In the 1940s, the prevailing interpretation was that the dismounted men-at-arms were interspersed with the longbow men , so that units of archers alternated with units of men-at-arms.
Here’s a reconstruction of the battle according to the 1940s understanding of a herce:
The 1940s notion of how the battlefield was arranged. The black triangles represent archers
But this interpretation was effectively challenged in the 1980s by Jim Bradbury, in favor of a formation in which the men-at-arms were all in a line, with longbowmen on each wing. To protect them from direct attack, the archers drove sharpened stakes into the ground in front of them, which would have been impossible for cavalry to attack through. If the wings were angled forward slightly, the result would have been a field that slowly narrowed toward the men-at-arms. The English had the woods to their back, and therefore could not be outflanked.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a reconstruction of the battle following Bradbury’s approach. This reconstruction has archers flanking the men-at-arms, but it still has some archers interspersed according to the 1940s model.
Not quite Bradbury’s reconstruction
The field at Agincourt was wet from autumn rains, and it may have been freshly plowed for planting; it was therefore not ideal terrain for fighting in, since it would have been slippery. In particular, it was poor ground for a cavalry charge.
The battle opened with some exchange of arrows, but the English longbow had a better range and much faster rate of fire than the crossbows, and this forced the French crossbowmen to pull back. The French cavalry made a half-hearted charge against the longbow men, but were forced back by missile fire, losing formation and quite possibly losing control of their mounts, who were injured by arrows during the disorderly retreat.
The French men-at-arms advanced on foot, but in poor formation because the retreating cavalry were disrupting them. All the while, the longbow men were able to continue firing. The French had to keep their visors down, because of the arrow fire, and the charge through the mud and the panicking horses must have meant that when they reached the English line, they were tired, demoralized, and in disarray. If the archers were angled slightly forward, the inability to penetrate their wall of stakes would have had the effect of channeling the French into an increasingly narrow zone, which would have made it hard to maintain any sort of order. All of this seems to have cancelled out both the French numerical advantage and the fact that many of the English were sick.
The fighting was fierce, but the tide turned when the longbowmen abandoned their bows and waded into the fight. They were only lightly armored, which must have been an advantage in the muddy field, and they were equipped with long knives and mallets (to make and plant stakes with). The result was that the cream of French chivalry was defeated in considerable part by low-born English longbowmen.
Agincourt was a terrible slaughter for the French. Numbers are hard to estimate, but French sources claim that they lost 6 times as many as the English did, variously putting the number between 4,000 and 10,000 French casualties. English sources claim that the French lost between 1,500 and 11,000 men, while the English lost only 100. The startlingly low total of English dead does appear to have some factual basis, since a close study of records have identified only 110 Englishmen known to have died, although the wounded would have been perhaps 4 times that figure. The French lost two leading royal officers, the Constable and the Admiral, three duke and seven counts, while the English lost only the duke of York and the earl of Suffolk. A large number of French nobles were captured.
Although the battle was an enormous victory for Henry, his army was in no condition to capitalize on it, and he continued his withdrawal to Calais. So while Agincourt was one of the largest English victories during the war, it was not a decisive victory of any sort. But it made Henry V’s reputation as a skilled tactician and strengthened his position both in England and against France. It’s easy to see why Shakespeare focused his play on Agincourt, and then essentially skipped to 1420, when Henry is negotiating the surrender of the French.
Olivier made his version of Henry V in 1944, while the English were still at war with Germany. The BBC, at Winston Churchill’s suggestion, had asked Olivier to make a patriotic film to help inspire the British. Olivier chose Henry V, a play in which the English invade France and fight a battle in which they are desperately outnumbered; few in England would have failed to recognize the parallels with the D-Day Invasion. Indeed, Olivier had made radio broadcasts of some of the film’s speeches during the war, so making a full-scale film was a natural idea (although Olivier was uncertain that Shakespeare could properly be adapted to film). So Olivier’s film must be seen in the context of World War II and as a sort of propaganda piece.
Olivier omitted a number of darker scenes, such as the one in which Henry threatens to inflict rape and infanticide on Harfleur, and the scene in which he orders the execution of men for looting (one of them his good friend Bardolph), as well as the sad epilogue in which the Chorus reminds the audience that the English lost France and descended into civil war a generation later. His Henry is largely a righteous and charismatic hero, with little of the moral complexity of Shakespeare’s Henry. What was left was mostly a patriotic film filled with rousing speeches to inspire the English to go “once more into the breach”. The speeches are directed simultaneously at Englishmen in 1415 and 1944. The cause is just and victory is assured if only the English stand their ground and fight.
These facts strongly influenced Olivier’s depiction of the battle of Agincourt, which he depicts in a surprisingly light style. The sun seems to be shining despite some clouds, the music is lively if not cheerful, and the ground is dry, except for a brief shot of a puddle intended to signify the wetness of the field. This last detail might have been a concession to the safety challenges of trying to film a cavalry charge on wet ground. Stunt work was obviously less sophisticated in 1944 than it is today, so we have to be careful not to project modern expectations of what a battle scene can look like back onto Olivier’s film. By the standards of the day (not to mention the limitations of filming on a limited budget during wartime), Olivier’s Agincourt was an impressive spectacle.
I’d like to offer you the whole scene, but I’ve only been able to find the second half of it on youtube, so I can’t show the opening of the scene. This is unfortunate, because the cavalry charge is both great cinema and worth analyzing.
The scene opens with the French cavalry charge. The French knights wear bright-colored surcoats, and their horses are wearing caparisons, bright-colored cloths than hang down from back to ankle. These were mostly used for show occasions such as parades and tournaments, but they could be worn in war to protect a horse from the sun and, if they were padded they could provide modest protection from injury.
The French cavalry charge
The cavalry charge begins slowly and then gradually increases speed. The music here brilliantly increases its pace with the charge, drawing the audience into the drama of it. The depiction of the cavalry charge draws heavily off then-current notions of how knightly cavalry charges operated. It was wrongly assumed that cavalry charges were not well-organized, so that a charge was conducted in a haphazard style, with no attempt to keep the line dressed (with all the cavalry roughly abreast of each other and none out in front). It is now understood that keeping an evenly dressed line of knights was vital for the charge to have its proper effect. It was also assumed that a charge was done at full gallop, whereas modern thought suggests that the charge was not done at the horse’s top level of speed (among other factors, that would have made it hard to keep the line evenly dressed). So Olivier’s charge is entirely wrong by modern standards, even though it was roughly in line with what scholars thought in the 1940s.
As the cavalry charges, the longbowmen fire once, and then, rather absurdly, run forward, stopping occasionally to fire an arrow. This would have been absolutely disastrous in real life. The reason the longbowmen were so effective is that they could easily fire six to eight arrows in a minute; the best trained longbow archers may have been able to do up to 20, although muscle fatigue sets in very quickly at that point. One calculation suggests that at Agincourt, the English may have been firing around 700 arrows a second. It was this withering barrage that shattered the French charge, not a single volley with occasional fire thereafter. And had the archers advanced from their defensive positions at this point, the cavalry would probably have destroyed them.
The French cavalry is shown milling around, which is a reasonable attempt to simulate what was happening, given that most of the cavalry were extras hired because they owned horses, and not professional stuntmen. The French cavalry retreat and then run into a second wave of cavalry. If you look closely, you can see that some of the extras think they’re supposed to be fighting each other. The English archers continue their advance. The French infantry advance and then just fall down. Again, I think we can overlook the less-sophisticated stunt-work here.
Then something very odd happens. The French charge a group of English archers who flee into a stand of trees. As the French ride through the trees, English soldiers leap down on them from the trees and knock them off their horses. This scene is totally Olivier’s invention, and from a tactical standpoint is unbelievably silly. (Every time I see this scene, I can’t help but imagine Spanky, Alfalfa, and the rest of the Our Gang kids—“Hey guys, let’s go help defend England from the French!” “Great idea, Spanky, we can jump on them from the trees!” Perhaps it’s the incredibly cheerful music.) Then Henry leads a counter-charge on horseback, which is incorrect because we know he was on foot during the battle.
Apart from the constantly advancing longbowmen and the absurd scene in the grove of trees, the main problem with Olivier’s depiction of the battle is that, in keeping with scholarly ideas of the day, he emphasizes the role of the cavalry and almost completely ignores the fact that the English fought nearly entirely on foot at Agincourt. For much of the 20th century, it was assumed that medieval warfare was primarily knightly cavalry, but that idea has been gradually abandoned in favor of an awareness of the importance of infantry even at the height of the dominance of knightly cavalry. But even then, a reading of the sources should have made it clear to Olivier that this was not really a cavalry battle.
Henry V on horseback
In all likelihood, Olivier’s choice to focus on cavalry was probably due at least in part to the fact that he was trying to depict battle as something glorious and heroic. Europeans had already learned in WWI that war was hell, and if they had forgotten, the past five years had done a good job of reminding them. But Olivier’s whole purpose in this film is to help the English forget the horrors of war and take them back to a time when war was somehow good. The last thing anyone wanted to see was how unpleasant war actually is. So at his Agincourt, there is little mud, only brief glimpses of injured men, and the camera cuts away from killing blows. The camera never dwells on dead bodies, and the result is a glorious English victory in which no one seems to actually die. Between the scholarly mistake that medieval battles were mostly cavalry and Olivier’s need for a “pretty” battle, his version of Agincourt turns out to be inaccurate and more than a little nonsensical, although it’s mostly good cinema.
Of course, it’s also important to remember that in the 1940s, violence on-screen was considerably more taboo than it is today, and one way films handled this challenge was to suggest violence more than show it directly. Blood was shown in much smaller amounts, and graphic violence was virtually unheard of. By the time Kenneth Branagh got around to making his Henry V, things had changed a great deal, both in film-making and in the culture. We’ll look at that next time.
Henry V has been the subject of a lot of popular biographies. One of my rules is that I won’t read historical works by journalists or ‘popular’ historians like Desmond Seward or Alison Weir because they tend to really irritate me with their superficial readings of the documents and facts. I haven’t seen a bio of Henry that I thought was really excellent yet, but John Matusiak’s Henry V (Routledge Historical Biographies)is fairly solid.
There are a variety of books on the battle of Agincourt, some of rather dubious value. It’s such a famous battle that it attracts a lot of writing by military enthusiasts, who are often former soldiers who think that because they know what modern warfare is like, they automatically can generalize to medieval warfare. Probably the best recent book is Anne Curry’s Agincourt: A New History. Curry is arguably the world’s expert on Agincourt and she makes good use of administrative records as well as the traditional narratives of the battle.