“The Tudors” Season 1, Eps 1-3

The Tudors

Season one aired: 2007

Starring: Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Sam Neill, Natalie Dormer

Period of history in focus: Tudor England (specifically reign of Henry VIII)

First, I’d like to apologize for the ridiculous delay in posts.  I shouldn’t have tried to promise a post over a four hour movie that required a bunch of research at the same time I started a new job.  But!  Now that I’ve settled in and started working things out, I can say that there shouldn’t be another delay so long.  Hopefully I will continue being able to put out a post a week, but this might change depending on how much I have to do.

With that said, let’s move onto the show!

For anybody who has seen The Tudors but doesn’t know anything about the time, I’m sure you still managed to discern that most of what happens in the show is fantasy.  It’s really a pretty show, and some effort was taken to determine characterization and drama, but it seems the writers took no efforts to make those characterizations accurate to what we know about the historical figures.  Some facts in this show are wrong on so basic a level I have to question what the writers and producers could have been thinking.  Why change what Henry VIII looks like when we clearly know what he looked like?  I’ve heard a rumor that Jonathan Rhys Meyers refused to wear a fat suit for the show and that is why he doesn’t gain any weight in the later seasons.  Who thought this an acceptable decision?  Aside from all his marriages the thing people know about Henry VIII is that he was hugely fat.  WHY NOT MAKE HIM FAT?  It’s so inane it infuriates me.

In these first three episodes of the series we already get a look at some absolutely ridiculous storytelling that falsely portrays a good deal of things that we know happened.  Let’s start with the basics.

Casting/Appearance

We’ll start with the guy who is the focus of attention: Henry VIII.  When he was younger, he was considered the “golden prince.”  Athletic, tall (more than six feet), golden haired (with tinge of red), Henry was attractive and intelligent.  Why then would they cast a guy who doesn’t reach six feet, has dark hair, and – while he’s not scrawny by any means – isn’t an impressive muscular force?  This is exactly the wrong type of casting.  It’s just awful.  Not to say that I don’t like Rhys Meyers, but he looks nothing like he’s supposed to.

There is no picture of this guy that doesn't show him fat. He wasn't fat once, I promise!

Katherine of Aragon

She may have been Spanish, but Katherine of Aragon didn’t look it.  With blonde hair and fair features she would have looked more English (perhaps even moreso than the actually English Anne Boleyn) than Spanish.  Antonia Frasier suspects this might be a reason for why the English people took to her so quickly.  In addition to being fair, Katherine was quite short – but this did not make her petite.  She would have had attractive curves in youth that would become plumpness with age and pregnancies.  Katherine was six years older than Henry VIII and repeated failed pregnancies might have made her look even older than that.  The show doesn’t officially state in what year it begins, but because they begin planning for the Field of Cloth of Gold in episode one, it’s safe to assume 1520.  Katherine would have been 35 years old, Henry 29, and their daughter Mary 4.  The Katherine in this show plays her part well, but is too tall and dark haired.

The young Katherine, before she had to marry that colossal dick.

Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk

Born in 1484, Charles Brandon was a year older than Katherine of Aragon and seven years older than the king.  At the start of the show he would be about 36 years old, and by that time, already sporting an impressive beard.  Brandon was attractive to women his entire life, and the Henry Cavill, the actor who plays him the show, is good looking enough for the role, but has no beard, is too young, and generally goes about like a leering frat boy.  How is his character in the show attractive to anybody with all his betting over whether or not he can sleep with somebody?  It creeps me out.

That, my friends, is a beard.

Anne Boleyn

I talked about this in my post on Anne of the Thousand Days, but there is some to debate about Anne Boleyn’s age.  If she was born in 1501, she would be about 19 at the start of the show.  If she was born in 1507, then about 13.  For the sake of avoiding creepy thoughts, let’s go with 19.  Her sister Mary was probably about a year older than her.  For the most part I like the casting for Anne, but wanted to point out one thing.  We know that she probably wasn’t super attractive.  Certainly, for the standards of the time she didn’t fit the bill for beauty – women were supposed to be blonde and fair and Anne Boleyn was brunette with an olive complexion.  Her great physical piece of attraction, it seems, were her eyes, which were described as “black and beautiful.”  Anne Boleyn in this show has blue eyes, which counteracts the appeal of her dark gaze, but it’s not as big a deal as the other roles.  I will say that it’s difficult to pick someone who needs to look 19 in the first episode and look 35 a year later.

Costumes

The costumes in this show are rather gorgeous and well made, but they are not accurate.  I speak mostly of women’s costumes here.  Men would have worn tights and silly puffy pants – but it seems that in an attempt to make the show appeal to the modern viewer it has over-sexualized the time.  In Tudor England, as well as pretty much any period of time, young people flirted and fell in love and probably partook in an inappropriate dalliances outside of marriage.  However, the amount of sex had in the show starts to reach ludicrous levels, and the amount of cleavage shown is absolutely absurd.  Having grown up in Spain, Katherine of Aragon was used to a strict household.  This would have included behavior and religion, but also in dress.  Women must dress modestly and not too ostentatiously, which meant that dresses were not too low cut and would have lace or other kinds of fabric on the bust to hide any cleavage.  Every dress in this show seems designed to show off any boob that the women have.  Particularly the dresses that come off the shoulder, which would have been far too scandalous for Katherine’s lady, and for the sensibilities of the time.

Pictured: far less boob for gentlemen to leer at creepily.

Other than dresses, headgear was also important.  The Spanish headgear would have been in the form of a hood, which covered most of the hair.  The French hood, on the flip side, sat farther back on the head and showed more hair.  Anne Boleyn preferred the French style, which the more strict women did not approve of, but no woman would have gone around with no head covering at all.  The number of young ladies wearing only pearls in their hair is not accurate, particularly for the strict rules of clothing and etiquette at court.  This is not as pleasing or natural to the modern eye, of course, but it’s the way things were.

The hoods had almost a pengtagonal shape to them, and then a cloth would have flowed out behind to hide hair.

 

This hood shows some hair and is rounded to fit better with the shape of the face. Note that it still has cloth in the back to hide hair.

All those scenes of Henry looking down women’s dresses as they curtsy to him and then summoning them to his room for some sex?  That is what the male writers of the show dreamed they would have been able to do if they lived in the past.

Characterization

Where to start?  I have never been a big fan of Henry VIII, and I don’t try to hide the fact that I think he was a jerk.  However, the show starts him on such an unlikeable bent that even I think it’s unfair.  We know that in his later years Henry VIII became a horrible person: he executed people who probably weren’t guilty of much, threatened and executed advisers closest to him, fell into terrible fits of rage, and demanded that everything go his way.  Having an open festering ulcer on his leg and his growing weight probably did not help this temper.  Before he began divorcing and beheading wives and gaining weight, however, he seems to have been a content and even happy man.  He cared for Katherine of Aragon for many years and their marriage would have been largely peaceable (until the end of it).  He trusted in the fact that his wife could bear him more sons.  He was intelligent and well-liked.  Why should he be in a bad mood?

From the first moment, this Henry is serious and making moody demands of people.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t come across as intimidating or imperious, but mostly whiny and overly cruel.  His treatment of women is abhorrent – from his abusive undertones toward Katherine, to his seducing women on a whim before ignoring them completely.  The fit he throws in episode 2, where he tears apart an entire room at the Field of Cloth of Gold most certainly did not happen.  Henry was quite capable of losing his temper, of yelling at people who annoyed him, or crying over emotional hardships, but he would have known better than to throw a temper tantrum.

I understand that show wants to start when things are going bad: showing a happy marriage and a confident king does not make for great drama.  If the writers had followed true chronology as opposed to their fantasy timeline, they could have succeeded in producing drama without turning Henry instantly into a complete jerk.

My other main complaint of characterization in these first three episodes lies with Mary and Anne Boleyn.  It does seem that Anne was more serious minded and more intelligent than her sister, but this does not mean that Mary has to become a giggling idiot.  Nor that she has to be as sexually promiscuous as some rumors seem to suggest.  Would the king of France really lean down in front of a great deal of people and tell Henry that he was having sex with Mary?  At a political event where both men were paying tribute to their wives?  Absolutely not.  In the first sexual encounter between Henry and Mary did the writers really have to turn that into a scene of oral sex, being a trick that Mary had learned at French court?  It’s disgusting.  Mary should be developed into a real person, who might be a little dim witted and fun loving, but who has feelings other than mindless flirtation.

We need more blank stares from you, Mary! Stop trying to pretend you have the capacity to think!

Anne, on the other hand, is sultry and sly.  She gazes at the people around her mysteriously, a smile playing at her mouth.  If we know that Anne wasn’t a great beauty, and that her main appeal was her wit and ability to use her knowledge to attract the men around her, why doesn’t the show let her do this?  In episode 2, Anne largely stands around and stares at people, and in episode 3, Henry falls in love by looking at her (and that obscene dress she wears).  I don’t think they exchange any dialogue other than her telling him her name.  I really wish the show would have allowed her to show her charm and wit and how a man can fall in love with a woman for something other than her looks.

This dress is so awful, I cannot begin to explain to you how awful this dress is.

I would have also appreciate more characterization from Bessie Blount.  Henry sleeps with her in the first episode, but she gets so little screen time, and so little personality, that it’s hard to recognize her when she appears again.  By all accounts, Henry was attracted to Bessie because she was vibrant and fun, but the Bessie in this show is so serious and mopey it’s difficult to get a read on her.  She stares blankly and cries and claims she loves the king, but that’s hard to determine from seeing them together for all of a minute or two.  As a side note: the sex scene between Bessie and Henry quickly devolves into what we know in the common parlance as “doggy style”.  Sex at the time was considered appropriate only in the missionary position.  Other positions were a sin and shouldn’t be done.  If a woman had a miscarriage, she could be blamed for it if she had sex with husband with her on top instead of him.  Henry, as a religiously minded man, probably would have followed this trend.  Not to say that nobody in Tudor England ever had sex in any other position, but mostly they would have stayed with what the church accepted.

It should be noted that I love the casting for Cardinal Wolsey, and I think his characterization is good too.  He might not have been quite as grasping as he is in the show, but his character is dynamic and – I think – likeable.  Same goes for Thomas More, although he tends to be pitched as a little too good in the first three episodes.  His comment that he thinks it will soon be common for all girls to learn?  He might have agreed with that, but he did comment that he wished his oldest daughter would have been a son.  Despite her intelligence and his favoritism to her, More did still think men more capable of intellectual feats.

Chronology

This is also, unsurprisingly, screwed up, but I’ll do with it what I can.

The Field of Cloth of Gold took place in June 1520, and the Duke of Buckingham was executed in 1521.  The show follows these events in the correct order, although it is unclear if a year has passed.  One of the main problems with the chronology is that the show does little to inform us of the passing of time.  From Henry declaring war with France to deciding on peace, to executing Buckingham, to being entranced with Anne Boleyn it’s unclear whether weeks or months or years have passed.  I’m going to give some landmark years and explain what happened.

1514 – Mary Tudor married to Louis XII

Henry VIII had two sisters, not one.  Their names were Mary and Margaret.  Margaret was married to the King of Scotland, and Mary was married to the old and ailing King of France.  She was about 18 when this happened.  Henry NEVER had a sister who married the King of Portugal – he wasn’t even in the discussion.  Mary went to France to marry the old king as was her duty, although it seems Henry had promised her she could marry whoever she wanted after he died.  It didn’t take Louis long to die, as he was incredibly sick, and Mary was widowed.  Within the year she married Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, in secret, which infuriated the king.  Couldn’t the show have opened with this event?  Katherine had a son in December of 1514, but he did not live long.  The opening episode could deal with the marriage, the death of Henry’s beloved and long awaited son, the death of Louis and the secret marriage.  That’s some drama.

Like most women on the show, Margaret's potential eventually boils down to sex object.

1516 – Princess Mary is born

Mary was the only surviving child of Katherine and Henry.  Her birth came right around Katherine’s 30th birthday, and would not have heralded doom, but hope.  If Katherine had finally given birth to a surviving girl child, surely she could do the same with a boy.  Henry, who loved his wife, would not have given up hope, and as far as we know, continued to visit Katherine’s bed often, even into the 1520s.  His first course of action would be to do everything he could to get his wife pregnant and have a son, not to sleep around with other girls or look for a new woman to marry.

1519 – Bessie Blount gives birth to Henry Fitzroy

Unlike how it is depicted in the show, Bessie Blount gave birth before the Field of Cloth of Gold and well before the Duke of Buckingham was executed.  Henry did recognized the boy, but that would not have been shocking or scandalous.  At this point, Henry and Katherine had not fallen out yet.  He continued to show his wife attention and try to produce a legitimate son.

1520 – The Field of Cloth of Gold

Even if Mary and Anne Boleyn attended this, they would have been especially pointed out.  We cannot be sure Anne was there, and if she was, she garnered no attention, as there is no record of her attendance anywhere.  Henry and Mary’s affair was after 1520, probably in the 1523-24 range.  It appears in the show as if they sleep together for only a week or two before he decides to throw her off, where it was probably longer than that.  It’s impossible to know how many mistresses Henry VIII had, but it seems like he didn’t have many, and the only two that we can be entirely certain of are Bessie Blount and Mary Boleyn, so they must have been around at least a little longer than the others.  If, in fact, there were any others.  (Some people like to say that Henry VIII is the only king who has more wives than mistresses.)  At the time of this meeting with Francis, Henry and Katherine had already been talking to Emperor Charles V, which makes the engagement of Mary and the dauphin questionable.  Henry might have already been looking to engage her elsewhere, and he certainly didn’t petulantly make the decision to talk to Charles.

You might be surprised to discover that his ridiculous chin is entirely accurate.

1521 – Execution of the Duke of Buckingham

The Duke of Buckingham did seem a real threat to the king.  As a wealthy man who owned a good deal of land and had royal blood he would have served as a real threat to the Tudor dynasty.  Henry VII had won the throne in battle and his claim was not as secure as it might seem.  If Henry VIII didn’t have a son and really secure the Tudor line, other nobles with royal blood could step forward and attempt to take the throne for themselves.  However, it seems unlikely from the evidence we have that the Duke of Buckingham was actually foolish enough to try to create assassination plots against the king, and his execution was more likely the result of his uppity behavior and threatening ancestors.

As for Henry and his wife – there is no sign he thought about divorcing her until 1526-7, when he was entirely enthralled with Anne Boleyn and Katherine had almost certainly gone past child bearing age.  He would not have raged about not having a son and refused Katherine’s bed so cruelly in 1520, and for a number of years it seemed he would try to marry of his daughter in the best way he could to secure the throne without the need of a son.  Katherine NEVER would have suspected that Henry might divorce her.  She didn’t believe it when he did tell her and spent the following years fighting it with everything she had.  The idea of divorce probably seemed impossible, and for a number of years Katherine truly believed that if Anne Boleyn went away, Henry would come back to her and forget all about the divorce.

As for Anne Boleyn – there is no way she captured the king’s attention so soon.  In the early 1520s her father was trying to arrange her engagement to James Butler in Scotland, and after that fell through she and Henry Percy entered into a tentative betrothal.  It is beyond me why the show decided to put in Thomas Wyatt instead, who was rumored to be romantically involved with Anne, but it was was never proven.  Henry Percy is a solid dalliance – although we will never know whether they consummated the relationship – and she did not catch Henry’s eye until after that affair, which would have been in 1524

Face it, Henry. You're a complete asshole, I'm a mysterious vixen, and our relationship will be built entirely on sex. We can have conversations and read stuff off screen.

For the first three episodes, there is almost nothing right.  Wolsey is pretty good, Thomas More is good, and everything else should be looked at with a highly raised eyebrow.

Sources:

Antonia Fraser. The Six Wives of Henry VIII.  Fraser looks at each woman in Henry’s life, digging into great primary sources and taking everything with a grain of salt.  Recommended.

Lacey Baldwin Smith. This Realm of England 1399-1688. Helps gives context to England at the end of the Medieval era, how the Tudors rose, and the culture and religion at the time.  A good survey for positioning anyone unfamiliar with the time.

NEXT TIME:

I am going to try really really hard to get a post up on Wednesday to set up Gettysburg.

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“The Eagle”: Making a lot out of a little

The Eagle

Released: 2011

Starring: Channing Tatum, Jamie Bell

Period of history in focus: Roman Britain (specifically 140 AD)

I remember seeing the preview for The Eagle for the first time and giggling to myself.  Another terrible Roman epic was on the horizon.  Then, I promptly forgot the film and went about my business.  To my surprise, the film received decent reviews when it was released.  It wasn’t terrible?  This began generating my interest and for the past several months I’ve been interested in watching the film.  This might ruin my credibility, but: I didn’t hate it.  Yes, the acting is not great, and there are points of the plot the don’t work very well, but overall The Eagle has a solid premise and it’s executed fairly well.  This isn’t to say that it’s also historically accurate, because it’s not.  I’m willing to cut it some slack because it is based off a novel, but you know how I am about letting movies saddle people with inaccurate impressions.

Most people probably don’t know much about the Roman occupation of Britain.  Maybe you’ve heard of Julius Caesar and his conquests there.  This was in the 50s BC.  He didn’t actually accomplish that much, and certainly didn’t conquer the island.  Part of this had to do with the fact that when a Roman fleet of ships sailed across to the island, a storm whipped up before they were able to land and took most of the ships out.  Both sides saw this as an omen – although the Romans took it as a negative one and the Britons saw it in a more positive light – and the Romans more or less left Britain alone for awhile.  Other reasons they weren’t terribly involved: Britain is far away from Rome, Italy, the center of the empire; the Romans had to deal with rebellions in Gaul, which was closer to home; did I mention Britain is far away?  This didn’t dishearten the Romans completely, as they are a people who really enjoy their conquests, and sneaking into the 40s AD, they returned to make their conquest happen.

The main rebellions happened in the 60s AD, including the one you might have heard about: Boudica’s rebellion.  Following these rebellions, the Britons started to realize that they couldn’t win against Rome.  As ever, the Roman army was a well oiled machine and the British tribes that were trying to fight them off simply couldn’t unify or make a cooperative effort.  Rulers of various tribes at this time started to see the benefits of allying with the Romans, including increased social status and the agreement that the army wouldn’t kill their people and burn their villages.

I told you to give them fealty and agree to honor their gods, but YOU said we should maintain our independence.

The tribes in the north of Britain (or Scotland, if you prefer) always gave the Romans headaches and they never quite managed to establish themselves there.  But by the 100s AD and following, most of the big rebellions were quashed and soldiers largely had nothing to do.  That’s where we can begin to address the premise of this film.

There were three or four legions in Britain, keeping a hold on things.  One of these was the Hispania IX, or, Ninth Spanish legion (called the Ninth Roman legion in the film).  For awhile it was believed that this legion of men disappeared somewhere in northern Britain under mysterious circumstances – as if a legion of soldiers could disappear under mundane circumstances.  The reason for this is that records show the Ninth Spanish legion as being in Britain, taking up the fort at York.  They left York at around 108 AD, and a new legion moved in around 122 AD.  There aren’t really anymore records of them.  So what happened?

Both the anthologies that I read claim the idea that they somehow disappeared in Britain is not credible.  Perhaps they were disbanded and the men sent to other legions.  Perhaps they were sent away from Britain.  There are records from later years which might refer back to the Ninth Spanish Legion somewhere in the Netherlands.  It’s not really certain, but the big exciting mystery seems to be a fabrication.

Whatever the case, the disappearance or disbanding of this legion certainly did not serve as the catalyst for Hadrian’s Wall, as the film claims.  The opening narrative to the film informs the audience that the humiliating defeat of the Ninth Roman Legion caused Hadrian to build a wall so Rome could never face another embarrassing defeat, by separating the Romans from the barbarians.

Couldn't they just...climb over it?

The official story was that the wall would act as a barrier.  But, considering how far North the wall was, there were many thousands of native Britons living among Roman soldiers, building towns around their forts and in some cases making families with the Romans.  This, in effect, makes the wall kind of useless for separation purposes.  The more practical reasons for the construction of the wall have to do with boredom and travel.  As most of the major rebellions had already been over and done with for awhile by 122 AD, many of the soldiers didn’t have much to do.  Some of the forts had begun to slack in their duty, and when Hadrian visited Britain he noticed that parts of the army had gone sloppy.  Ordering a wall would serve as metaphorical border, but would also give soldiers something to do, and a reason to start whipping them into shape again.  The wall was intended to cross the width of the island, and with the forts and towers in the wall close to roads, it seems that the true purpose was to regulate traffic and movement north and south.

For these reasons the wall wouldn’t seriously be considered the end of the world.  Particularly because there were forts and roads occupied by Romans north of the wall.  Not to mention that Antoninus Pius built another wall twenty years later, even farther north.

Antoninus cheated to make himself look cool. His isn't even as long.

Now, this movie begins in 140 AD, which is two years before construction on the Antonine Wall began.  So I’ll cut it some slack for making business about Hadrian’s Wall being cooler.  However, we have Marcus Flavius Aquila (played by Channing Tatum and his abs) being transferred to Britain as a cohort commander somewhere in Roman occupied southern Britain.  Within his first several days he has to deal with the grain delivery being delayed, an assault on the wall, and then the patrol he sends out for the grain being kidnapped by yet another tribe and whipped by some over the top Druid.  This is exciting, but a little nonsensical.  If this is truly south of the wall, then this sort of thing seems unlikely.  Furthermore, I don’t know why this Druid is wandering alone.

First, from the limited amount I know about Druids, it seemed they banded together.  Secondly, back in the 60s AD when all the big rebellions were going on, Roman leaders noticed that the Druids were a threat.  They acted as enforcers of law as well as a potential focal points for the tribes around them.  Most dangerously, the Druids were literate.  The Romans moved in and destroyed their stronghold in Anglesey, which effectively helped them gain more control over various tribes.  Overall, I found the beginning of the film to be entertaining, but not very believable on a historical level.

Look at that army, Marcus. They are what's known as a "plot device."

The battle that follows just outside the fort looks like what you might expect by now from a film that involves the Roman army.  They march out together, and use their shields to create the turtle formation.  The difference here is that Marcus gets injured and is sent away, never to see the real fighting force of the Roman army for the rest of the film.  What the audience doesn’t get to see is history.

That’s okay.  I don’t have a problem with a film dipping into fantasy.  So long as you realize that Marcus and his slave, Esca, traveling north to retrieve that lost Eagle of the Ninth is mostly absurd.

From here on out, I have a few small issues I’d like to address.

North of the wall

The scenery in this movie is beautiful.  Most of northern Scotland would be gorgeous highlands and largely unoccupied areas.  However, as I already mentioned, Hadrian’s wall did not mark the end of Roman occupation.  Marcus and Esca would have passed some forts and settlements by Romans north of the wall, and probably would have encountered some roads too.  The soldiers at the wall would never have said something stupid like, “Don’t you know this is the end of the world?”  This really irked me.

The Eagle (or the standard)

This is actually a thing.  For anybody who has seen the television series Rome, you might remember a similar plot about retrieving the lost standard.  This was extremely important and a symbol of Roman honor, and the film actually hinges around an idea Romans would fight for.

Esca, I know you despise Rome and the Eagle represents Rome, but you'll still help me get it back, right?

Esca

I like the introduction and treatment of Esca throughout the film.  He is treated with proper disdain by most of the Romans around him.  For anybody who didn’t read my posts on Gladiator, slaves were reviled by the Romans.  As people who were forced to do labor and accept physical and verbal punishment, they were considered as lowly as someone could be.  I like the idea that Marcus grows to respect him.  What I would have liked more, was to see Marcus be more biased against him from the start.  He shouldn’t trust him, and should treat him worse to begin with to make their transformation into best bros more profound.

Another thing I struggled with was Esca’s role north of the wall.  I can believe that enough tribes speak a similar enough language to allow them to communicate, but we already know that the tribes warred each other as much as Rome.  Why do they all accept him?  Why doesn’t somebody try to kidnap him?  I found it dubious that the fierce tribe in the north accepts him as an honored guest.

All those dirty, unwashed barbarians are basically the same, right?

The size of the legion

An entire legion all told would have about 5,000 men.  What confused me was that Marcus said his father was in charge of the first cohort of the Ninth legion.  A cohort would be considerably smaller than a legion.  At the most basic organizational level of the army you had centuries.  Each century typically had about 80 men.  A cohort would be made up of six centuries, for a told of about 480 men.  The beginning of the film tells us that all 5,000 men of the Ninth legion disappeared, and everybody blames Marcus’ father.  But, in charge of a cohort, he would only have been responsible for 480 of those men, and therefore wouldn’t be the center of disgrace.  The numbers don’t really add up.

The survivors

Marcus and Esca run into a man from the destroyed legion who saved his own life by fleeing the scene.  He explains what happens by saying that four tribes converged on them and owned them heartily.  Why did these four tribes ban together?  Why do we only get to meet one of the tribes?  Also, why are they such huge dicks?

He's really just jealous that Marcus has better abs than him.

As for the survivors, they have all made lives and families with various northern tribes.  The guy we meet, Lucius Cauis Metellus, or Guern, even delivers a diatribe about how Roman expansionist policy is bad.  If these men now have families in the north and have grown to see what sucks about Rome, why do they fight to protect the standard at the end of the film?  Perhaps their Roman values are too deeply ingrained in them, or maybe they were moved by Esca’s plea to help save his best bro, but what kind of honor do they have to preserve if they have been operating off an entirely different system of honor for the past twenty years?

You're saying I can die for an empire I no longer believe in, or stay at home and live with my family? Hmmm...that's a tough one.

The lack of women

I think the only women in the film are the several we see in the village way up north.  One of the tribesmen attacks Marcus for looking at his sister.  At this point I realized that we hadn’t heard a woman speak the entire movie, and we didn’t get to from that point forward.  I understand the argument that a war focused movie might not have women, but there’s a chunk of time spent at Marcus’ uncle’s villa.  Maybe the senator we meet could have brought his daughter and her spout ignorant crap instead of whoever that guy was.  Then at least we’d get to hear a woman talk.

At it’s heart, The Eagle tries to be a buddy film.  It’s about the Roman Marcus learning that he should respect the Britons, and he does so by his alliance with the British Esca.  Both men realize the value in honor in both cultures, and although they return the Eagle to Rome, they end up blowing everybody off to go…well, we don’t know what.  My guess is hold hands.  This message gets lost as neither Marcus or Esca is allowed too much conflict within themselves or with each other.  The film is entertaining, but uses history as a fun backdrop to cause the drama of a specific man, rather than, you know, as history.

A surprise appearance by Donald Sutherland helps a lot.

SOURCES:

Guy de la Bedoyere. Roman Britain. This book covers the conquest of Britain and the years following in the first part and spends the rest of the time covering cultural aspects of Roman rule, such as money, governing, slavery, and religion.

Peter Salway. The Oxford Illustrated History of Roman Britain.  This takes a chronological approach to things, following the early Romans in Britain up through the fourth century.

FOR NEXT WEEK:

I’m going to tackle Gettysburg.  This will likely take a lot of reading (the movie is based on a book which analyzes the battles). I will try to get this done in an efficient manner, but if I don’t then I might do a review of the first 3-4 episodes of The Tudors.  Before talking about Gettysburg specifically, I would also like to do a cultural post that talks about the start of the Civil War and some of the battles leading up to this big one.  Expect one of the following two schedules.

Plan A: Wednesday/Thursday – cultural post on Civil War, Saturday/Sunday – review of Gettysburg

Plan B: Wednesday/Thursday – review of some of The Tudors, following Wednesday – cultural post on Civil War, Saturday/Sunday – review of Gettysburg

Party on, dudes!

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure

Release Date:1989

Starring: Keanu Reeves, Alex Winter

I love this movie.  It is an absolutely ridiculous piece of 80s culture that delves into the truly psychotic, but at the heart of the movie there’s a message that you can learn from history and love it too.  Also, seeing a young Keanu Reeves adds some entertainment value.

Surely the screenwriters didn’t try too hard to make this movie accurate, but I thought it would be fun to touch on because it does portray a lot of incredibly famous historical figures and display the common myths and stories everybody knows about them.  So, the following is a list of the characters, their role in the film, and a little bit about their actual lives.

Napoleon Bonaparte

The first figure Bill and Ted pick up is Napoleon in Austria, the year 1805.  He actually was there at the end of the year, fighting off Austrian and Russian troops who had sided with Britain against France.  He had officially been the Emperor of France for about a year – being granted the title in May 1804 – and had been the King of Italy for about seven months.

For anyone trying to pinpoint this exact moment against their bullet point knowledge of Napoleon, here’s a little bit of context:

– Napoleon was born in 1769, graduated from his studies in 1784 (at fifteen), became a Second Lieutenant in 1785 (at sixteen), the French Revolution happened in 1789 (when he was twenty), defeated the Royalist Insurrection in 1795 (at twenty-six), married his wife the following year, took an expedition to Egypt in 1798 (at twenty-nine – notably, this group discovered a great number of things that we still value today, including the Rosetta Stone), became a consulate around 1800, fought the War of the Third Coalition in 1805 (at thirty-six), attempted to invade Russia in 1812 (at forty-three), forced to abdicate in 1814 (at forty-five), and died in 1821.

– He was the cause of a lot of change in France, as well as military and tactical approaches.  There’s simply too much about him to summarize it all here, but if you’re interested, there’s a lot of information out there.  Let’s just say that the French don’t have a complete history of military failure.

– In the movie, Napoleon is left with Ted’s little brother while the two teenage boys go to collect more historical figures.  These moments of Napoleon in present day crack me up more than they should, probably, but I love the image of a Ziggy Piggy button pinned onto his jacket along with military medals (for eating a giant ice cream sundae), and going down waterslides at a park aptly named Waterloo.

A portrait of Napoleon. Unfortunately sans a Ziggy Piggy button.

– Predictably, the movie makes fun of his height.  In truth, Napoleon was not that short.  The British sometimes tried to portray him as tiny in an effort to humiliate him and generally make the people less afraid of the threat of his army.  Furthermore, according to Wikipedia (a paragon of accuracy), he comes to a different height when measured in the French pouce (2.71 cm) and the British inch (2.54 cm).  He was about 5 foot 7 inches, which is on the short side for a man today, but not by much.

I like to think he would act exactly the way he does in the movie.

Billy the Kid

Bill and Ted pick him up in New Mexico, 1879 during a bar brawl.  Born in 1859, Billy would have been about 20 at the time of his adventure to San Dimas California, and I’m sorry to say that the actor playing him (Dan Shor) was 33 at the time the movie was made.  It doesn’t really get across this whole “Kid” aspect of the guy, who could only have been nicknamed such for having a complete baby face.

Also, he looked totally goofy.

At this time, Billy – or William Henry McCarty, or William H Bonney – had already been running around with hard living people for quite some time.  He got into the career at about the age of 16.  Essentially, after moving to New Mexico in 1877, Billy got caught up in a group of people hired by John Tunstall and Alexander McSween to act as cattle guards.  Tunstall was killed by some men in a competing faction (who worked for some men who were business rivals).  The men hired under Tunstall and McSween formed a band to find Tunstall’s murderers and dubbed themselves the Regulators.  Originally trying for revenge (or justice, if you want to look at it that way), the Regulators became the bad guys when a new governor came into town sided with the men who were anti-McSween.  Billy was soon after busted out of jail, which led to a couple of murders and then a couple of shoot outs, which led to the Regulators to hiding out with McSween at his house.  In July 1878, the house was set on fire, McSween was gunned down and the Regulators ran for it.

Billy was offered amnesty for his actions during this time, but due to political dealings was forced to run for it again and scrape together a living.  Keep in mind all of this happened when he was a teenager.

His legend has partly to do with his badassery and also the legend of how many men he killed.  In truth, killing a lot of people is different today than it was a hundred years ago.  The number for Billy the Kid has been pegged as high as 26 – but seems to have been between four and nine.  When he was put on trial in 1881 for the murder of a Sheriff (done during his prison escape), and when sentenced, he managed to escape before his execution by killing both of his guards.  This was horrifying, and led to his death later that year, when he would have been about twenty two years old.

The thing that would cause me to raise eyebrows the most is that Billy enters the bar where Bill and Ted venture by himself.  He’s looking for me.  It seems that he always had a posse or group on hand, so why would he need Bill and Ted?  My favorite fact is that in addition to speaking Spanish, Billy was a huge hit with the Latina culture in the west and had a lot of friends were not white.  I’d have loved to see this.  Still, his overall charm and quick adaptation to what’s happening to him, and all the fun he’s having seem to chime with his character.

Socrates

In one of the best gags in the movie, Bill and Ted persist in calling him “So-crates” from the time they pick him up in 410 B.C. and manage to impress him by quoting “Dust in the Wind” lyrics back at him.

If you’ve ever had to deal with discussions in an English class, you are likely familiar with the Socratic method, which deals with asking questions about the book and people in your class then talking about those questions.  If you’ve ever been in a philosophy class, you are familiar with Socrates through the writings of Plato, who was his student.  According to Plato’s writings, Socrates’ method of philosophy was asking a lot of question until the person he was talking to eventually circled their logic around to align with what Socrates thought.  A clever method, but also incredibly annoying.

"What do you love most in the world? Why do you choose a puppy? Is it not true that puppies poop on the carpet? Then it follows that you hate puppies?" DAMN IT, SOCRATES.

We know about Socrates through the writings of other philosophers, as he did not write down his own work.  Due to that fact, it’s difficult to determine much about the historical Socrates.  The dates I can find for his life, though, are 469-399 B.C.E. which would have put him at age 70 when he died.  At the time Bill and Ted find him he would have been just less than 60.  The grand picture of Athens presented, which is common, is that of majestic white columns and steps and statues.  Some archaeologists believe that ancient statues were painted brightly, which means that time has worn off all the paint leaving us with this image of white statues as being this noble and impressive force.

I can see why people prefer the unpainted ones.

Socrates was sentenced to death in 399.  There are a number of reasons, such as his positive comments about Sparta, who Greece was fighting at the time.  More prominently (probably) were his social and cultural beliefs, which were corrupting the youth of the city.  This makes Socrates sound like an awesome old hippie.  Some of his friends made plans for his escape, but Socrates decided instead to accept his punishment and drank poison.

Sigmund Freud

Picked up in Vienna, Austria in 1901, Freud was working for the University of Austria at the time and was 45 years old.  His main purpose in the film is to poke fun at what we know best about Freud – the Oedipal complex, and phallic jokes.  At the mall in San Dimas 1989, he approaches a couple of girls holding up a corndog.  When they reject him, he visibly lowers the corndog.  GET IT?  After the historical figures are arrested, Freud pesters the cop questioning him by saying, “Tell me about your mother” and at the end of the film, during the big presentation, he does a session of psychoanalysis with Ted.  When he asks Bill if he wants to talk, Bill dismisses him, “Nah, just a minor Oedipal complex” (his step mother is four years older than he is).

It’s perhaps unfair to categorize Freud the way we have, but the man really was obsessed with the penis and developed another theory he termed “penis envy” which consists of all women wishing they had a penis.  There is something to be said for his contribution to the idea of conscious and subconscious and his observation that everybody is motivated – whether consciously or not – by sex.  There has been a lot of debate over where psychoanalysis is a valid method, or whether it’s mostly nonsense.  Does having someone talk at length really allow someone insight into repressive childhood memories?  I seem to recall hearing that this type of therapy is thought to sometimes cause patients to remember things that never really happened.  After all, traumatic events in childhood cause neuroses.  They must have had some.

Beethoven

Picked up in Kassel, Germany 1810, the first and foremost tragedy in his representation in the movie is that he is caught playing “Fur Elise.”  A song that most people know because we learn the simplified version during elementary school piano lessons, this song has become overplayed and therefore too popular.  I would have liked to hear Beethoven playing something else that we hadn’t heard, but that at least sounded difficult.  He would have been 50 years old in 1810, and according to accounts, probably already hard of hearing although not entirely deaf.

I don’t want to say too much about him, because I am planning on reviewing at least on Beethoven biography film (Immortal Beloved) in the future, but I will say that his use of synthesizers in the modern day mall are hilarious.  It’s baffling how he discovered 80s sounding guitar licks, but he does cause the least trouble out of the all the historical figures, drawing a crowd as he plays (which pisses off the person at the store for some reason).

Joan of Arc (Jeanne d’Arc)

The only female representation for history in the movie, Joan is picked up in Orleans, France in 1429 when she was about 17.  Joan’s life is a seriously interesting story, and the movie doesn’t get into it much, although it nods at her praying a couple of times.  At about the age of 12, Joan received a vision telling her to drive out the English and get the Dauphin (prince) his coronation.  This was during the Hundred Years’ War, which consisted of a lot of fighting between the British and French, and poverty as well as dynastic struggles in France.

As a girl, and as a girl from the country, it seems unbelievable that Joan could have risen to prominence like she did.  Believing that her visions were the will of God, Joan determinedly fought to go to the French court, and some of the things she did amazed the wealthy and older men she faced.  First, Joan correctly predicted the outcome of a battle near Orleans, which granted her a private meeting with Charles (who would be Charles VII) and an opportunity to fight.  At this time, France had been so demoralized in their beating, that Charles was willing to try anything.  She joined the army at the Siege of Orleans in April 1429 when it had already been going on for five months.  Nine days later the siege ended with a French victory.

In your faces, England! I'm seventeen and illiterate! You suck at war!

She became a co-commander of the army and succeeded in prevailing Charles VII to his spot on the throne.  In 1430 the English army captured her, put her on trial, and found her guilty of heresy.

My favorite bit in the movie is her involvement in calisthenics, which Bill and Ted tell the audience during their report she will start applying to her army.  This part is true!  Joan did have the army regularly exercise, although probably not as the result of her time traveling.

Genghis Khan

Bill and Ted find him in outer Mongolia in 1209, although they claim in their report later in the film that they got him in 1269.  Considering that he died in 1227, the first date is accurate, and would have put Khan at about 47 years old.  As the only non-white representative of the bunch, my roommate was taken aback at his first appearance.  Eating voraciously, and then grabbing a slave girl, presumably to have sex with her.  That was crazy racist!  Perhaps, but it also fits the modern day picture we have of Genghis Khan, as a man who was incredibly violent, and pillaged Asia to his heart’s content.  Furthermore, through a test of Y-chromosomes, it’s predicted that as many as 200,000 people in Mongolia (out of the 2 million who live there) could be descended from Khan, and that about 8 percent of men in that region of Asia have a chromosome present that could be linked back to Khan.  If this is true, the guy must have slept with a lot of women.

It’s unfair to simplify him that completely.  After all, this is a man who had lead to a series of intelligent military campaigns.  Winning in battle doesn’t make a person a violent killer, but it does indicate intelligence concerning strategy and battle plans.  Furthermore, he established peace between warring confederations of Mongolian rulers, which brought peace to the country and allowed the army to go forth and start conquering others.

The exterior says "badass" but the interior says "complicated political manuevering."

In the modern day, Genghis Khan spends most of his time at the sports store, hitting people with bats and wearing football pads.  It is funny, but not fair to what Genghis Khan did, although we do get a short nod to his accomplishments in the presentation at the end.

Abraham Lincoln

Snatched from the White House in 1863, Abraham Lincoln’s main purpose in the film is the speech he gives at the end of the presentation.  Which starts with “Four score and…(checks watch) seven minutes ago…”  Hey!  It’s the Gettysburg address!  Why would you pull this guy out of the White House during a serious national conflict that needed his full attention?  Come on, Bill and Ted.

No doubt this movie is ridiculous.  But I love the star quality of the presentation at the end, how enraptured everybody is by the glory of history.  When else is an entire auditorium full of high schoolers completely wrapped up and interested in history?  I love this image so much, it ultimately makes the movie.  Not to mention, giving an oral presentation on history which asks the students to theorize how historical figures would react to society at the present, getting people to dress up and act the parts is a brilliant idea.  Granted, in this case it’s the actual figures, but you catch my drift.

The typical response to a history presentation.

Can I also state how much better this presentation is than the end of the one we see given by another student?  She draws parallels between Marie Antoinette and pre-Revolutionary France in California 1989 claiming there is the same dichotomy in both eras, where the few possess much.  All right, that’s true.  Then, she says that instead of saying “Let them eat cake” she might instead say “Let them eat fast food.”  This is a horrible connection.  The purpose of this “cake” line was showing how disconnected Marie Antoinette was with the French peasants.  They don’t have bread, then they can eat cake.  Fast food is at the bottom of the totem pole, and nobody really has any problems getting to eat it.  Maybe it would be similar to saying, Oh, the common man doesn’t have fast food?  Let him eat a REAL GODDAMN HAMBURGER.  But that’s just me.

I recommend the film.  It’s good fun.  Plus, it has an excellent message: Be excellent to each other.  Party on, dudes!

A movie pretty much worth it for the clothes alone.

Sources:

General internet searching.  This was mostly for fun.

UP NEXT: I should be receiving “The Eagle” from Netflix in a couple of days.  A review should be up shortly after.  I’ll update you via Twitter when the live tweeting session will take place.  (Follow me @hhistrionics.)

“The Last Samurai”: Shortchanging Japanese history

The Last Samurai

Released: 2003

Starring: Tom Cruise, Ken Watanabe

Period of history in focus: the Meiji Restoration in Japan (specifically the Satsuma Rebellion 1877)

I chose The Last Samurai because it is a look in Asian history, which Hollywood doesn’t do very often, and because I thought I could clear up one point.  When the movie was set to be released I remember everyone complaining about Tom Cruise’s role in the film.  How could he be the last samurai?  He’s not Japanese.  Was Hollywood going to pull some horrible Tom Cruise is Japanese racist nonsense?

No! I exclaimed.  He’s a captured solider, surrounded by Japanese men who are the last samurai (samurai is both the singular and plural).  Surely he is just a witness to this story.

Then I watched the movie.  Tom Cruise might not technically be the titular “Last Samurai” but he does practically serve at the reason for all their honor and rebellion.  Hollywood produced a different kind of racism in this film.  By turning a story of Japanese history and struggle with western modernization into a film that audiences can only relate to if it stars a white man.

The film does not claim to be “based on a true story”, although it is based on the Meiji Restoration of Japan and the Satsuma Rebellion of 1877.  That means that when the events don’t follow exactly as they did in real life, that the filmmakers can claim they shouldn’t be penalized as much as they would be otherwise.  Maybe I am being too harsh, and you might think that.  But after watching the film I was appalled by how matters were carried out, and the blatant Americanization of an event and time in history that has little to do with America.  If you’re going to dramatize history, at least pretend to have done some research.

I’ll start with a little bit of background on Japan before I get into the movie.

The Meiji Restoration of Japan

For many hundreds of years Japan remained isolated from western cultures.  Countries like Britain and Russia kept poking at the island, but they kept repelling all insistence that they become part of the world at large.  There is nothing wrong with rejecting this outside attention, particularly when they could see that China was suffering greatly at the hands of western intervention (the Opium Wars).  They were a little harsh, perhaps, sometimes killing or forcing suicide upon leaders who supported opening up their borders, and killing anybody who washed up on their shores.   This debate between remaining isolated and interacting with the west began to create conflict, and then in 1853 America showed up to ruin everything.

Seriously. We ruin everything ALL THE TIME.

Matthew Perry (not the one from the sitcom) essentially forced Japan in the 1854 Treaty of Kanagawa, which opened up trade with the US.  Other countries quickly followed suit, and because Japan was not equipped in the ways of western country dickery, most of these treaties were completely unfair.  This caused more unrest in Japan (as you might imagine), and people began to fight over whether they should maintain an old system of government or whether a new one should take hold and start fixing things.

In 1868 a rebellion against the shogunate in power succeeded in taking hold, putting a 15 year old emperor on the throne.  They then began to change up how Japanese society was run.  Among some of the most important things they did (or at least relative to what happens in the movie) included changing up Japan’s strict social caste system.  Whereas lords in the country had previously owned tracts of land and had groups of samurai loyal to them for fighting purposes, land now became nationalized and the social hierarchy changed.  No longer were occupations restricted to a certain class, commoners were allowed surnames, and with the idea of an imperial army growing out of conscripts, the idea of samurai began to get outdated very quickly.

Most samurai were encouraged to take up other professions.  They received a certain amount of income from the government – this could either be taken in monthly, decreasing amounts, or in a lump sum – but this would let them maintain a lifestyle.  Some did go into business or government, and it should be noted that the Emperor’s main advisers were samurai who had helped put him on the throne.  However, many didn’t know how to do much, felt that their honor was being completely compromised, and lived off their little bit of government money, disillusioned and upset.  Keep in mind that this wasn’t some group of 200 angry guys.  The samurai could have numbered into the hundreds of thousands.  In addition to all this insult, in 1876 samurai were officially banned from wearing swords, which was like a final slap in the face.

In addition to this social change, the government also adopted a policy of adopted from the west.  The last article in their Charter Oath stated that they would learn from the west to strengthen their country.  As a result they hired men from various countries to help them in specialization of technology, military, etc.  These men were given contracts of about three years and paid at an incredibly high rate.  In addition, they were not taught the language, but would pass their knowledge on through a translator to men who would then pass the information on to a larger group.  They were not only American, and it should also be noted that their military tactics were largely gained through the French and Germans.  Immediately, the premise of this movie becomes incredibly shaky.  It should also be noted that these experts that were brought in were never intended to become part of Japanese culture, and were almost being exploited for Japanese benefit.  A clever bit on the side of the Japanese, who were interested in becoming a superpower without compromising their culture or people.  Today, Japan is one of the most homogenous nations.

"Please, tell me everything you know about western culture. Then I will laugh at you and point."

How the film gets it wrong

There are a number of things in the film that could be criticized.  If based on the Satsuma rebellion, why is it nothing like the rebellion?  I’ll leave some of these points alone and instead focus on the bits of history that are almost insulting, and then some cultural things about the movie that were poor decisions.

– The movie wanted to pit the “modern” government against “traditional” samurai, and for this reason made some artistic choices that changed history.  For example, the samurai did not decide they were too proud or honorable to use guns and instead insist on fighting the army with swords, bows and arrows.  No matter how the effect might come off in the film, you are still left with the ridiculous notion that these men could come off as equals or win in a battle against guns.  It’s almost impossible.  In the scene were Katsumoto’s son dies, fighting armed soldiers off with his sword, I laughed in the dramatic moment.  How could he run down a bridge with a sword raised and have the soldiers miss him?  It simply doesn’t work.  The samurai used more modern weapons.  Saigo Takamori – the real man who the character Katsumoto is based on – created a number of schools to train samurai, this included weapons’ training and an artillery school.  Part of his loss had to do with is forces losing their more modern weapons.

– Also in vein with the “traditional” choices: the samurai at this time would not have been wearing this old armor.  Apparently the costume designers were aware of this, but the film was trying to make a point.  The armor of traditional samurai warriors does look impressive, but they had moved on to more modern garments.  In fact, Saigo, who had been part of the Meiji government before effectively retiring in 1873, wore his uniform when he fought.

Pictured: artistic interpretation insulting the audience's intelligence.

– Why in the world would the Japanese government hire Nathan Algren (played by Tom Cruise) to help their army?  He’s an alcoholic, and terrible.  This makes me so incredibly angry.  Not to mention that Algren mopes along in his journal trying to act sophisticated, while he in truth is just incredibly racist toward Native Americans and ruins everything.  More on this later.

– The ninjas attack Katsumoto and his men.  Ninjas.  Why did this movie use ninjas.  WHY.

Fending off ninjas. Ninjas. FUCKING NINJAS.

– The token female character this movie used, in the form of the delicate and lovely Taka, is an awful portrayal.  Why would her brother force her to take care of the man who killed her husband?  Why would the screenwriters have her fall in love with the man who killed her husband?  Most importantly, why would she ever have Algren wear her dead husband’s honored armor?  This is beyond ludicrous, and I despise every moment of it.  Making Taka soft-spoken and demure, at least to Algren, is okay as far as a Japanese woman might treat a stranger.  But to keep her like this throughout the film, denying her far more lines, thoughts, feelings, and a three dimensional character, and reducing her to a woman who falls in love is not okay.  At all.  Taka deserved more development, far more lines, and the opportunity to stand up against her brother, who she caved to earlier in the movie.  Either that, or they should have taken out the romance plotline altogether and not forced us to watch a woman fall in love with the man who killed her husband.

WHY MUST YOU RUIN EVERY GOOD THING?

– When Algren enters the samurai camp, he learns that they train with swords diligently, trying to become perfect.  I would like to know, then, how in the course of a winter he manages to become on par with the great swordmasters of the village, and how he is able to fight off ninjas.

– When the real life Saigo tried to go to Tokyo to talk with the Emperor and vie for peace, he was forced to fight along the way.  Thousands of his men got killed over a nine month expedition, from January to September 1877.  He tried to ask for peace several times over the course of this fighting, but the government continued to persist, disturbed by what this powerful samurai victory could mean, and who Saigo might become if he succeeded.  Finally, the government offered him the chance to surrender, but surrender at that point would have been dishonorable and he had to fight to the end.  Without their modern weapons, he and rest of his followers were easily killed by the larger and more equipped army.  It did not happen in the span of week.  It did not happen on snap decisions.  This rebellion and fight between different factions in Japan was the result of complicated and rich relationships.

Over-simplification and the white element of history

This is my main complaint about the film.  I don’t care that much that the Satsuma Rebellion was different than it was in actual history.  I do care that it was dumbed down to what it was, and it became about a white guy.  In the end, these samurai are completely honorable.  They fight because they have to, and when they are mowed down by automatic weapons, the Japanese conscripts are so moved that they kneel down and honor the men.  The one general/capatain/leader of the Japanese army who is not moved by the sight of these brave men is stripped of his money at the end by the Emperor, who grows some balls and rejects an alliance with America.

The samurai had a good reason to be upset and perhaps even to rebel.  Their way of life was threatened, they were afraid, their money was lessened.  Also, their honor, which was incredibly important, was being squashed.  This does not make the samurai mythical good guys, and it does not make their way of life some untouchable wondrous thing.  Some of the movements the samurai protested were attempts to democratizing the country.  Remember that the caste system was changed and peasants and commoners were given more rights.  This is part of what the samurai lashed against.  In truth, they were social conservatives, and all the “traditional” ways they supported were not what was necessarily best for the country.  This movie undoubtedly overly romanticizes these men.

All you peasants are good for is farming and not having last names. Also, getting killed by me!

Furthermore, the use of Nathan Algren is incredibly insulting to Japanese history.  I understand that in telling a story, movies like to use an outsider learning the ways of this new culture or world, so that the audience can be introduced to it too.  However, Algren rarely tells us anything of importance.  We learn that they strive to perfection, and they fight well with swords.  We don’t learn anything about their code of honor – which, by the way, was not based on right and wrong, but a set of expected things to do – or the way they raise families, or how they have reacted to social changes and the law that does not allow them to wear swords.  They remain untouched, almost mythical.

If they wanted to use an outsider, why not use a Japanese actor?  Maybe the young son of a samurai warrior, learns about the way things used to be as he is raised in this world where everything is changing.  Maybe he wants to be a samurai like his father and spends some of his childhood learning how to fight and other codes of honor.  Maybe he is old enough to accompany his father into battle, or hears accounts, or somehow witnesses the final stand.  Then, we will have the Japanese experience framed through Japanese eyes.  We can take this culture on its own ground and respect them enough to let them be the main players in their story.

Instead, we have a white man gain the respect of everyone around him.  We have a white man help save Katsumoto’s life, and then convince him to stand up in honorable rebellion.  We have a white man wear the traditional samurai armor.  We have a white man help set up traps to lend to victorious fighting.  We have a white men help lead the samurai into their final stand.  We have a white man help this great samurai commit seppuku.  Ultimately, the only man who survives is white, and he is the one who inspires the Emperor.

The faces that changed Japan.

On the battlefield, when Saigo (the real figure, remember) was dying, it is reported that his friend Shinsuke Beppu cut off his head for him as the final act of honor.  Why give this over to a white man?  Why not let the Japanese characters show us the final strength and honor of this act?

Also, why let Nathan Algren be the only one to survive this horrific slaughter, when nobody survived it in real history?  Why have him survive machine gun fire and kill all the Japanese men?

It fills me with so much anger, I can’t even describe it to you.  Ultimately, I do not recommend The Last Samurai because instead of honoring Japanese culture, I think it simplifies history and frames a story of Asian conflict in the eyes of a white American.  Come back to me when you demonstrate Japanese history with Japanese actors, Hollywood.

This is just stupid.

Sources:

Not surprisingly, my library had a dearth of books on specific areas of Japanese history, so I checked out a lot of surveys.  I liked two of them, but the other ones, I won’t bother.

HistoryNet.com. Satsuma Rebellion: Satsuma Clan Samurai Against the Imperial Japanese Army. From a published history magazine, this gave me the specifics on the rebellion, and also some of the knowledge that made this movie ridiculous.  Read it at: http://www.historynet.com/satsuma-rebellion-satsuma-clan-samurai-against-the-imperial-japanese-army.htm

Kenneth G. Henshall. A History of Japan: From Stone Age to Superpower.  I thought this book did a good job setting up the cultural background and conflict between government and samurai.

Louis G. Perez. The History of Japan.  Another survey, but overseen by a number of  history professors.  The overall book is concerned with placing Japan in the contemporary world.

FOR NEXT WEEK:

Another foray into Roman history with The Eagle, which came out recently and features Roman Briton.

The week following, I’d like to touch on the American Civil War.  Any suggestions, as always, are welcome!

“Ray”: An oversimplified biography (Guest article)

(Before the article in question starts today, I just want to extend my thanks to the lovely Ashley Hirt for writing the article!  If anybody else wants to write a guest article, please let me know.  With the said, read the review.)

Ray

Released:  2004

Starring:  Jamie Foxx, Regina King, Kerry Washington

Period of history in focus:  1950s – 1960s America (Birth of Rock & Roll)

A few vital facts about “race music” –

  • Rhythm & blues, soul, gospel, and jazz were all labels for the music that would become known as rock & roll.
  • The term “race record” was first used in 1922 and was primarily a marketing term, advertising music to African Americans.
  • As seen in the film, there was a great deal of resistance to the “secularization” of African American religious music. Ray Charles built his fame in large part by co-opting gospel techniques into his popular music. Today, we think nothing of hearing hymn-based chord progressions in our music. But at the time, this concept was pretty controversial in the black community.
  • The events in this film were only a decade or two removed from the era when black musicians were not welcome as guests in the sold-out clubs they performed in – and vestiges of this Jim Crow-era racism were still around in the South as late as the 1970s.

The formula for success when tackling racial issues in Hollywood seems to be simple: daring to even make a “controversial” racial film is a radical, searing, bold move and is Oscar-worthy in itself.  Movies about the struggles of minorities are typically universally adored because hey, who wants to admit they hated “The Color Purple?”

The only controversy stems from the fact that Hollywood ineptly portrays protagonists of color as either flawed redemption seekers or squeaky-clean paragons of virtue, as if having an anti-hero of color is somehow going to draw accusations of racism.

Hollywood’s black characters are too often one-dimensional.

Because Hollywood holds actual racial dialogue in complete disdain and invests itself instead in clichés, stereotypes, and pandering, the tendency exists in the film industry to trivialize and over-sentimentalize subjects of color.

Whitewashing. Heh.

The most recent example of this is “Ray,” the 2004 biopic of Ray Charles that established Jamie Foxx as a legitimate acting/musical threat and triggered a wave of films depicting the titans of black popular music (“Dreamgirls,” also starring Foxx, and “Cadillac Records” followed in 2006 and 2008, respectively).  This is the music that triggered radical social change and, in some cases, racial turmoil.  Taylor Hackford, the director of “Ray,” focuses his film not on Charles’ tremendous trail-blazing musical accomplishments but instead invests substantial screen time in the schmaltz of Charles’ various family tragedies and struggles with heroin addiction. This, predictably, concludes with Ray conquering his demons and assuming his rightful place in musical legend as a result. The truth is slipperier than that.

At the beginning of the film, Hackford focuses on Ray’s relationship with his mother. Aretha Robinson is portrayed as a tough-loving, hard-working sharecropper and the sole nurturer of Ray’s tenacious streak. According to Ray’s biography, however, another woman guided his early years. The ex-wife of his absent father, Mary Jane was the softness to Aretha’s toughness, the nurturer foil to Aretha’s tough-love approach.  Ray’s stubborn sense of independence was surely derived from his biological mother, but his pleasure-seeking instincts were a result of Mary Jane’s indulgence.  Aretha made certain to keep Ray dependent only on himself, assigning him daily chores to perform even as he lost his sight.  These two women contributed the traits that made Ray Charles such a complex human being.  Hackford never deigns to acknowledge this dichotomy of parenting or the effect it had on Charles’ psyche.

Instead, Hackford depicts Ray’s love of drink, women, and heroin as a numbing agent for the loss of his younger brother George. While George’s death was a significant trauma, Ray never really suffered immense grief until the loss of his mother while he was away at a school for the blind.  “The death of my mother Aretha, that had me reeling. For days I couldn’t talk, think, sleep or eat. I was sure enough going crazy,” he told David Ritz. This disconnect from his support system was a defining moment in Ray’s life.

Ray was fortunate to attend an incredible institution, the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind, where he channeled his talent and grief into a formidable musical education. Here, he excelled at playing Chopin and Mozart and developed skill on the clarinet; it was here that he learned a critical trait for his future success: arranging. He was steeped in a classical style and became proficient at classical theory, a skill that he would creatively develop with infusions of gospel and soul.

Hackford’s film, instead of mentioning any of this character-building background, focuses on an odd subplot where Ray hangs out with Quincy Jones and later fires his first manager for skimming his money. Far be it for me to criticize the creative decisions of a Hollywood director (snort), but it seems to me that there is a fascinating subtext to Ray’s story that already exists. Why fabricate a schmaltzy redemption tale centered around Ray’s brother, when the true details of his youth are far more interesting?

Ray’s early years are dramatically depicted as a gradual swan dive into heroin addiction and conflicts with equally strung-out band members. This is not a “Trainspotting”-esque portrayal of heroin addiction; Ray’s life of drugs is surrounded by velvet pillows and women, not Exorcist babies.

The film doesn’t exactly portray Ray’s cadre of women in a positive light either; his female backup singers are just sassy, slutty window dressing.  In fact, most of Ray’s associates and sidemen are given a less-than-accurate depiction, but hey, the movie’s about Ray, right?

You’re stereotypes, bitches – this is storytelling!

Perhaps the most egregious offense made by the film is the faux racial tension it fabricates – why make up racial issues when the truth was definitely worse than fiction?  The scene where Charles arrives at a Georgia performance venue and is met by protestors is pure fiction.  In reality, Charles received word from a group of black students about the promoter’s policies, and he never traveled to Georgia, preferring to simply cancel the appearance.  The assertion that he was “banned” from performing in Georgia is also a complete fabrication.  The promoter did sue Charles, but the idea that he was somehow banned from the state for making a racial stand is absurd.  Why would the state of Georgia choose Charles’ hit “Georgia On My Mind” as its STATE SONG if the man was persona non grata in the state?

Not pictured: kilos of brickweed

This is just sloppy writing, but it’s typical of the Hollywood attitude toward race relations – things were certainly bad, but it’s simply insulting to make up events of discrimination. In “Dreamgirls” a record producer, also played by Jamie Foxx, engages in the practice of payola to get his girls on the radio.  Payola was the act of pay-for-play – disc jockeys held considerable power in the era before corporate radio, and producers of “race records” were known to slip a few bills under the table to get a record in rotation.  In “Dreamgirls,” this action by Foxx’s character is what eventually causes his downfall, and the film treats this revelation as sweet redemption for the victims of the producer’s underhanded tactics.  They sure showed him!

What that film neglects to mention is that payola was common practice at all levels of music, including plenty of white artists.  Payola was only pursued as a crime after it was revealed that black artists were resorting to bribes to hear their music on the radio.  Low-level bureaucrats were sufficiently outraged enough to make a federal case out of payola, and those disc jockeys that pocketed money for spinning “race records” were censured and humiliated.  DJ Alan Freed was a vocal supporter of African American music, and was the most notable casualty of this sudden disdain for music industry bribery.

That's what you get for promoting black devil music, apparently.

A common music business practice only became taboo when African American artists used it to disseminate their art into the mainstream.  Stay classy, America.

Much of the latter half of “Ray” is devoted to Ray’s struggle to kick heroin.  If the film is to be believed, Ray quit the habit and was forever a squeaky-clean musician who sprouted wings and a halo for the last decades of his life.  He is also portrayed as settling down and remaining steadfastly faithful to his wife.

Ray Charles was a complex man, a bit of an anti-hero.  He was disgustingly talented, but self-destructive.  He was a loving man, but a womanizer.  The film desperately scrambles to resolve all of the threads of tension it spins, putting a bow on the story of an American icon.  Everyone leaves happy, Ray is suitably redeemed, and Hollywood gets their stock happy ending.

You know where I’m going with this.  Complex characters don’t magically become boring and upright.

Heroin was no longer a part of his life, but Ray spent the rest of his days drowning in gin, and smoked kilos of marijuana every day.  As David Ritz writes, “he was hardly a spokesman for sobriety.”

Ray Charles was certainly a vital component of the development of American rock & roll.  He mixed jazz, gospel, and blues styles into a highly original and unique concoction that hasn’t been successfully imitated.  He was also a tenacious, complicated man, fighting against his own handicaps and racial undercurrents to find success in the bare-knuckled brawl that is the music industry.

It’s just puzzling that Hollywood would choose to reduce such an individual to a neat, box-office-friendly package, rather than depict the true complexities of Ray’s character.  Instead, this film positively DRIPS with schmaltz and sentimentality.  Ray Charles was many things, but sentimental was not one of them.  Jamie Foxx’s portrayal rightfully earned great respect, as Foxx managed to capture the dichotomies of the man with aplomb.  Imagine if the writers had been brave enough to give him some real material!

Of the film about his life, Ray said: “Hollywood is a cold-blooded motherfucker. It’s easier to bone the President’s wife than to get a movie made. So I say God bless these cats… And now that it’s happening, maybe I’ll have a better chance of being remembered. I can’t ask for anything more.”

Doesn’t really sound like a sentimental man.  Too bad that’s what we got.

Sources:

David Ritz, “It’s a Shame about Ray.” Slate Magazine – http://www.slate.com/Default.aspx?id=2108507

Grove Music Online, “Ray Charles.” This site is subscriber-only, but is the go-to music encyclopedia.

Guthrie P. Ramsey, “Race Music.” Terrific book about the birth of black music and rock & roll.

Katherine Charlton, “Rock Music Styles: A History.” Good overview text of all styles of rock music.

IMDB, Ray. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0350258/

NEXT WEEK:

Expect an update on “The Last Samurai” starring Tom Cruise.  I am planning on watching the film on Wednesday or Thursday (you can find updates about this at my Twitter feed at the right side of the blog or at @hhistrionics) and posting soon after.

“Shakespeare in Love”: All inspiration stems from twu wuv

Shakespeare in Love

Released: 1998

Starring: Joseph Fiennes, Gwyneth Paltrow, Judi Dench

Period of history in focus: Elizabethan England (specifically the year 1593)

Originally, I was going to try to tackle a film on Asian history for this week’s review, but I settled on Shakespeare in Love instead because that gives my first four reviews the honor of having all been nominated for Best Picture.  Three of these films also happened to win Best Picture (including this film).  I think this gives nod to Hollywood’s tendency to reward historically focused films, regarding them as a higher art form than other films, despite their inaccuracies or other faults.  (Don’t get me wrong, I loved The King’s Speech, but did it really deserve top honors?)

This film in particular caused a great deal of controversy when it beat out Saving Private Ryan at the Oscars, which in hindsight seems kind of silly.  Not to say this film isn’t good.  It is quite entertaining.  The screenplay – co-written by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman – rightly deserved its Oscar for some really good, clever writing.  (This is not completely surprising.  Tom Stoppard has written some phenomenal and funny plays, particularly Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.)  However, the overall plot is not terribly serious, and the whole film is constructed in a way as if to wink at the fact that it knows the historical accuracy is not there.

Nonetheless, considering the film’s popularity and the fact that I think most people don’t know a whole lot about Shakespeare’s writing process, the film is worth considering.  I’ll mostly be addressing issues of writing and inspiration in the post, but I will start with some cultural things.  For anybody who read my previous post on Elizabethan Theater, some of these inaccuracies are ones that you would have been able to find yourself.

Things that probably would have never happened in Elizabethan England

– Gwyneth Paltrow‘s character, Viola de Lesseps, would never have auditioned for a play.  The movie addresses the obvious problem, being that she’s a woman.  However, what made no sense to me in watching the film, was that a woman of high standing with a good family name and a lot of money would ever want to find herself involved with the horrible scandal that was the theater.  Even if she did, how in the world did she hear about the auditions that Shakespeare was holding?  This makes little to no sense, and the idea that she could have participated in rehearsals because her parents were out of town for three weeks is also absurd.  I find it unbelievable that her parents would have left her on her own and not taken her with them, or at least left her in the hands of a prominent family friend.

Furthermore, everyone in the movie is unbelievably stupid for buying her as a man.

– Say that Viola did audition for the play and got cast.  She probably would have been able to do the performance before her parents ever got home.  Rehearsals would take place after a play was completed and might only last for a week.  Actors in the Elizabethan period could memorize lines like nobody’s business.  Shakespeare would probably not be allowed to creatively work on scenes while the troupe memorized lines.  The man who agrees to finance the whole production at the beginning of the film plans on two performances of this new play.  Which would not be out of the ordinary for a run-of-the-mill play.  However, if plays became popular, the performances could initially run for much longer than that (a little like Broadway).  Viola believes Shakespeare to be the true heart of poetry.  Did she ever think that she could be screwing everybody over by only being able to do those first two performances?

How does her hair fit in that boy's wig?

– I know the film is supposed to parallel Romeo and Juliet, which is why Viola and Shakespeare immediately fall in love and then into bed with each other.  Even though Juliet gave it up after two days, at least she had the common sense to demand marriage first.  A woman of Viola’s standing in Elizabethan England would never have the privilege of having sex with a man she wasn’t married to.  The film speculates that Lord Wessex is so desperate for money that he will marry Viola no matter what.  If he knew for a fact that she was sleeping with another man, he would never marry her.  He would drag her name through the mud and she would never be able to find a good match.  (Which, considering the horrible guy she marries might not be such a bad thing.)  I happen to find it highly unbelievable that she doesn’t least say something about her virtue before they have sex the first time.  On a less historical note, I also can’t believe she’s almost immediately ready for another go.  You can at least pretend to be sore.

Seriously, how does her hair fit in that wig?

– Concerning the marriage between Wessex and Viola: I like that she ends up marrying him.  That’s realistic.  However, the idea that he would approach her while her parents are gone and announce that they will be married is ridiculous.  Her response: “But I do not love you, my lord” is even more ridiculous.  Viola’s father would have told her about the arrangement, and she would have known as the daughter of a wealthy man that it was her duty to get married for economic benefits.  Viola’s obsession with love is tilted the wrong way.  A young woman of her standing could certainly have dreamed that she might make a love match, but I don’t think she ever would have expected it.

– A playhouse shut down due to plague would not be re-opened within a day.  They were shut down if a certain number of deaths happened, not for giggles.

– Queen Elizabeth would never condescend to attend a common theater.  The theater would always come to her.  No exceptions.  (Especially Judi Dench’s Elizabeth, who I love dearly.)

This bitch is too fierce for your rustic "playhouses."

About writing, Shakespeare, and inspiration

I’ve already said that I like this film.  However, I think it’s unfair for Hollywood to draw the conclusion that the only way somebody can become a great writer is through some sort of emotional transformation.  In this film, particularly, falling in love is what starts producing great works from Shakespeare.  I really don’t want to burst anybody’s romantic bubbles, but – all right, that’s a lie, I’d love to burst your romantic bubbles.

At the beginning of the film we are introduced to the dashing young Will Shakespeare (played by the wonderful Joseph Fiennes) who is struggling with writer’s block.  We know that he’s already written at least one play, Titus Andronicus, and get a wink from the screenwriters when he says that he still needs to get paid for One Gentleman of Verona (as opposed to the Two it really is).  Other than that, we don’t get the sense that Shakespeare is really known at all, or that he’s written much of anything that’s good.  He lies on a couch in a shrink’s office and talks about his problems.

Aside from the fact that this form of therapy would not have been happening, this idea of writer’s block and lack of creative inspiration isn’t true to the time.  Playwrights in the Elizabethan world were borrowing from all kinds of sources.  Anybody who could read and write would have received an education heavily steeped in Latin works, which provided the basis for a lot of plot ideas.  Particularly dull playwrights could take a poem and turn into dialogue to be performed on the stage.  Most of Shakespeare’s plays are borrowed – some more heavily than others – from older works.  This writer’s block would probably not have been an issue, and if it was, it wouldn’t have stemmed from that fact that he and his wife are estranged.

Anybody this attractive has to be good at what they do.

Romeo and Juliet was not a new and exciting concept.  There are several older stories that can account for the plot, but the one that Shakespeare likely used was Romeus and Juliet by Arthur Brooke.  I love all the fun that stems from constant references to Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter, but alas, that was never a working title.  The Brooke work would have been fairly well known in England at the time, and the play that stemmed from it would have been a plot mostly recognized by a good deal of the crowd.  The actors in the play would never have sat around transfixed as Shakespeare explained the newest plot points.  This, of course, does not make for great drama, so there’s a reason the movie isn’t called Shakespeare Painstakingly Reworks an Arthur Brooke’s Poem for the Stage.

That scene in the bar where Christopher Marlowe helps him plot?  Perhaps some form of that could have taken place, but not in the way it does in the film.  I thought that scene was cute, but it also makes Shakespeare look like a bit of a hack.  Marlowe gives him the idea for the play to be set in Italy, for Romeo to be constantly in and out of love until he meets “the girl” daughter of his enemy, for Romeo’s best friend to be killed in a duel, and that the friend’s name should be Mercutio.  With this, and the added fact that most of his romantic scenes stem from interactions with Viola, it’s amazing that Shakespeare ever wrote another good play.  Did he also enter a money deal with someone who threatened to cut out a pound of flesh, try to divide his kingdom between his daughters, and suddenly become Scottish and talk to witches?

With the amount of cross dressing he wrote, I'm guessing there's a cute lacy bra underneath that doublet of his.

Aside from this issue of where Shakespeare got the idea for Romeo and Juliet and the assertion that falling in love unlock his power to write, is the idea that he was relatively unknown and that his earlier plays are kind of crap.  After all, we know (or can guess in an educated manner) that he wrote Titus Andronicus earlier.  This play, which is a blood bath of fun, is obviously less mature, but the crowds ate it up.  Titus was wildly popular – probably because of all the blood – and would have helped make a name for him already.  It’s difficult to pinpoint an exact chronology of Shakespeare’s plays, but in general it is possible that he wrote a great deal of work before Romeo and Juliet: see Two Gentleman of Verona, The Taming of the Shrew, Henry VI parts 1, 2, 3, Richard III, The Comedy of Errors, Love’s Labour’s Lost, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Some of them might come after, but from this body of early works, Shakespeare was already likely pretty popular.  Also, and this is impossible to pinpoint exactly, he could already have been part of Lord Chamberlain’s Men upon writing the play.  He certainly would have been part of a company, and a steadily paid writer – not the potential boy genius searching for a job.

Also, and this is not just to be harsh, but Romeo and Juliet is not the pinnacle of Shakespeare’s writing career.  It has certainly become one of his most well known plays, and an easily identifiable one.  Most teenagers’ first encounter with Shakespeare will be this play (earlier it would have been Julius Caesar.  Can you imagine this movie focusing on him falling in love with a man who gets stabbed to death?  Maybe…Christopher Marlowe?).  This doesn’t change that the tragedy was written a little earlier on and is usually not included in the pantheon of his great plays.  Not to mention that for a couple hundred years the real star roles of the play would have been Mercutio and the Nurse.  I remember reading in an English textbook somewhere that most actors would not want to be cast as Romeo, considering his character offers a considerably lesser challenge.

More Mercutio would have called for more Ben Affleck, but even that would not have lessened the pure greatness that is a guy who makes puns while he's dying.

He also didn’t write Twelfth Night directly after Romeo and Juliet either.  Partly because his plays were based around who was acting for him at the time – his early comedic actor was more clownish and outright funny while his later comedic actor gave rise to clown roles that were more musical and less outright slapstick.  Partly also because he wrote it right around the same time as Hamlet, which is at a much more mature part of his career.  There is no doubt that Twelfth Night is a more mature play than Romeo and Juliet, even if you happen to like the latter play better.  One nitpicky note: the opening of the play does not begin with Viola speaking on a desolate shore.  It begins with the totally ridiculous Count Orsino being totally ridiculous.  That’s something we can point to and definitively say is just wrong.

The sonnet he writes Viola about midway through the movie is one most everybody knows: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”  This was not a sonnet written for a woman, but for a man.  Which would make sense if Shakespeare in the film was in love with a man and wrote him a sonnet not knowing that he was secretly Gwyneth Paltrow.  But this Shakespeare is unquestionably heterosexual.  Sorry to anybody who doesn’t like the idea of Shakespeare writing sonnets to a man, but that sonnet is addressed to a man.  Shakespeare’s sonnets were also written in a sequence, and while it’s possible that he wrote some here and there and then connected them all together, it’s more likely that he would have written that in the midst of a larger project, not because he wasn’t to get into some rich girl’s pantaloons.

Quoting the ladies a little me works every time.

I’d like to end this post on a brief discussion of sexuality.  There is no way of knowing if Shakespeare slept with both men and women.  We can look at his sonnets and the fluidity of the sexuality of his some of the characters in his plays and make guesses.  However, it’s foolish to assume biography from fictional works.  It’s also completely wrong to label Shakespeare as gay or bisexual.    At that time there was no concept of categories of sexuality, and even a man who slept exclusively with other men – as we think Christopher Marlowe probably did – would not be considered “gay.”  Sex was what you did, it did not make up part of your identity.

That being said, it is interesting to think that Shakespeare could have dabbled with multiple people of multiple genders.  In studying for my English thesis, I stumbled across a little bit of a gem.  In the book Unhistorical Shakespeare: queer theory in Shakespearen literature and film, the author Madhavi Menon opens a chapter by talking about this movie.  The Shakespearean scholar Stephen Greenblatt was approached by Marc Norton (co-writer of the screenplay) and asked what in Shakespeare’s life would translate well to film.  We don’t know much about his life, and therefore do have to do some amount of fictionalizing for cinematic effect, but Greenblatt suggested something a little different for Hollywood:

Why not have Shakespeare, whose sexuality was ambiguous, have an affair with Marlowe and then become involved, in some way or other, with Marlowe’s death…You could have that death serve as the turning point of Shakespeare’s career, since the truly great plays began to emerge later.

Menon goes on to interpret this a bit:

Such an imbrication between literary genius and sexual orientation could suggest that Shakespeare’s “masterpieces” are either a result of being involved with Marlowe, or with finally being rid of him.  Greenblatt clearly meant to suggest the former possibility – for him, a queer Shakespeare is a good Shakespeare, or at least, a good cinematic one.

How awesome would that have been?  That story would have been much more daring and risky than a love story between a man and a woman, but when a scholar hands you an idea with that, you should at least consider running with it.  Think about it: instead of being remembered as the film that shouldn’t have beat out Saving Private Ryan, it could be remembered as the film that helped to change the way sexuality is portrayed onscreen.

What do you mean, "Hollywood is heterocentrist?"

Sources:

Stephen Greenblatt. Will in the World.  An exploration of how living in the Elizabethan world helped inspire Shakespeare and give him the fodder to write his plays.

Peter Ackroyd. Shakespeare: The Biography.  Another look into the man’s life.

The Norton Shakespeare: Based on the Oxford Edition.  This a complete works, with a great introduction about Shakespeare’s time, including theater, politics, and gender relations.  It also has good editions of all the plays with helpful footnotes.

Norrie Epstein. The Friendly Shakespeare.  This is a good book for anybody who doesn’t know much about Shakespeare.  Epstein introduces bits on Elizabethan theater and society, as well as providing some pretty interesting tidbits on most of his plays.

No Fear Shakespeare: A Companion.  This is for people who are also Shakespeare novices.  It lays out Elizabethan theater and bits of biography, as well as summaries of all the plays.  This particular series can be helpful for people who really struggle with the plays.

Madhavi Menon. Unhistorical Shakespeare: queer theory in Shakespearean literature and film.  I would only recommend this book for people who are really into Shakespeare.  It looks at several of his plays, as well as an epic poem, and gets into pretty dry and technical talk sometimes.

Elizabethan Theater

For some reason I thought that I would be able to do a full update plus movie despite the fact that I spent the weekend moving and am leaving on vacation tomorrow.  Whoops!  As it stands, I am going to dish out some info about Elizabethan theater, and maybe a little bit about Shakespeare.  I plan on watching Shakespeare in Love while on vacation, and then posting when I return.  Hopefully on Monday.  Following that, I will have a guest article about the movie Ray!

When discussing Shakespeare, I always want to start with the authorship question.  Even people who know nothing about the man will know enough to say, “Did he really write his plays?”  This is a question I wanted to delve into, but unfortunately, it doesn’t really fit with the tone of the film, which more covers the silly romantic comedy aspect of his life.  I’ll leave that discussion for October when the movie Anonymous rears its head.  Filmed by Roland Emmerich, the same man who gave us the historical gems The Patriot and 10,000 BC, the movie will likely be some kind of hot mess.  My friend Anthony Funari and I will be live tweeting from the theater and likely making everyone angry.  (For the interested, Dr. Funari runs his own quite excellent blog Renaissance Matters and has posted a couple times about Shakespeare.)

So!  Barring authorship, what is there to talk about?  Let’s look a little bit at the play scene at the time and how theater worked.  (Alternatively, theatre, but I’m not too picky.  There are like a hundred names to spell Shakespeare.)  Why is this important?  Whatever the impression you may have received from a teacher in the past, Shakespeare did not write in a vacuum.  We view his works as genius today, but that is partly our doing.  His work is not some shining perfect monument to literature.  There are multiple copies of multiple plays, and each version of the same play will differ for some reason (added scenes, deleted scenes).  Shakespeare was part of an acting troupe and he wrote for the actors that he knew – particularly Richard Burbage.  Furthermore, several of his works are now widely considered to be the result of cooperative writing – such as Two Gentleman of Verona.  Did any of you get the impression that Shakespeare wrote everything on his own?  Even the plays he didn’t co-author are taken from older plots and stories.

I’m trying to diminish Shakespeare’s works.  I personally love picking them apart and looking at the significance of certain lines and actions.  What I really want to emphasize, though, is that this man wasn’t some magical being.  He’s a product of his time in a lot of ways.  When you look at him from that viewpoint, does it really seem so miraculous that someone who had a decent education and good writing chops happened to pen the most famous plays of all time?  Hard work and circumstance.

He can't be an unquestionable genius, or else he would have grown back his hair with the power of sonnets.

What follows is a semi-complete crash course of Elizabethan theater:

– The theater was wildly popular in Elizabethan society.  Without movies or television or football, theater was one of the modes of popular entertainment, and for the “common” person it was relatively affordable.  The working class people would show up and pay their penny to stand in front of the stage – which is how they adopted the name “groundlings” – while wealthier people would pay for seats, and the truly wealthy earned the equivalent of box seats.  That’s why plays of the time will contain the pretty poetic language, and then delve right into the bawdy puns.

Standing places were also called penny seats, because they cost a penny - a day's work for an average laborer. How rich would you be if you time traveled back to the 16th century?

– Despite its popularity, theater was not considered a “high class” form of entertainment.  Kind of like gladiator fights in ancient Rome, theater provided entertainment, but not culture.  It didn’t help that the theater district existed outside the city limits, and were often amidst prostitution, bear baiting, and gambling.  This was one of the reasons Puritans abhorred theater and thought it corrupted people.  You have to admit, they had a little bit of a point.  Prostitutes would sometimes enter shows and get clients in the playhouse.

– The theater set-up was not like today.  The stage jutted out and theaters were circular so that the audience could see from multiple angles – hence, today’s concept of presenting Shakespeare “in the round”, which some people consider more authentic.  There was also no disconnect of the stage, space, and then an audience.  Groundlings would stands at the edge of the stages, sometimes resting their arms or food on it.  Performances also took place during the day, which allowed the natural lighting of the sun.  Indoor theaters would be developed in later years (read: early 1600s, toward the end of Elizabeth’s reign), but largely it would be an open air venue.

This is the reconstructed Globe theater. You can tell because the people look generally washed.

– Audiences were not silent and complacent.  If you lived in Elizabethan England, nobody would care if your cell phone went off.  People held conversations, and ate, and yelled at the actors to their hearts content.  This gives further reason for “common denominator” jokes, to grab people’s attention so they shut up.  Part of the reason a lot of people think Shakespeare is boring today is because productions try to cover up all the raunchy, fun bits, and make it all regal.

– Really, the Puritans hated theater, and did what they could to get rid of it.  They succeeded during Oliver Cromwell’s years, but when Charles II took over the throne with the return of the monarchy, he brought Restoration with him.  Before Restoration theater, women were not allowed to act on the English stage, which meant female roles were played by boys.  Some of the older women might be played by men, but most would be covered by boys who had not yet hit puberty.  Considering some of the amazing roles women had, those must have been some talented boy actors.  The audience of these plays would have full knowledge that a boy was playing the role, and Shakespeare had fun alluding to the double role these boys played.  Of course, the Puritans didn’t like this solution much better than putting women on stage, because it meant that audiences watched two boys falling in love.  Oh, the homoeroticism!

The Brits still love a man in a dress.

– Each play had to be reviewed by the Master of Revels.  He would cut out parts of your play that he deemed too radical.  Due to the popularity of the theater and the kinds of people who went and saw plays, authority figures worried it could cause civil unrest.  Shakespeare, who wrote about a deposed king in Richard II toed the line with this.

– The world had to deal with severe bouts of plague in the 13th-17th centuries.  When the plague swept through England and began to kill off huge numbers of people in the cities, authorities would close down theaters, as they were viewed as places were the disease could spread.  From a modern viewpoint, this was actually pretty prudent of them.  Troupes would be forced to tour in more sparsely populated areas.

– Finally, due to the way society viewed plays, you could not act unless sponsored by a wealthy patron.  Otherwise, you were dirty vagabonds.  Shakespeare’s troupe started as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and when James I became king, he was lucky enough to become the King’s Men.  Which meant the man earned personal props from the king.  (It probably helped that he wrote a play set in Scotland for a king originally from Scotland.  And that the same play contained witches, which were sort of an obsession for the king.)  I should add that the king or queen would not be caught dead going to see a play at the Globe.  The acting troupe would pack up and go to court and perform there.

It would be like writing Barack Obama a play starring strong black characters who supported universal health care.

Hope that helps set the stage for the upcoming review!  Alas, due to a lack of internet, I will probably not be able to provide live tweets.  But hopefully the review will make up for that.  I get a little nutty when it comes to Shakespeare.