Tag Archives: film review

“Marie Antoinette”: Good Feel, No Context

Marie Antoinette

Released: 2006

Starring: Kirsten Dunst, Jason Schwartzman

Period of history in focus: Marie Antoinette’s time in France about 1770 – 1789

Has it really been two months since I updated?  Wow, what do I do with myself?  Perhaps I’ve spent too much time casually lounging about in my garden.

I chose Marie Antoinette because I have recently read an excellent biography on her (by the fantastic historian Antonia Fraser) and I remembered watching the movie in college but not how accurate it was.  Furthermore, this is a movie starring a woman (which I haven’t done since Anne of the Thousand Days) and is directed by a woman!  The film as a whole tends to get a bad rap for several reasons: 1) It was marketed as this totally hip movie with all these contemporary songs in it! 2) When people watched it, was much more historically based. 3) There is very little talking.

Overall, I think the movie is likeable.  It even touches on some wonderful points and gets completely precise and sometimes ridiculous etiquette of Versailles down.  As a viewer you know that Marie Antoinette did not have time to herself, that she was thrown into this society with all these rules she didn’t know, and that her husband was totally awkward.  Seriously, Jason Schwartzman is fantastic as the beyond awkward Louis Auguste (future  Louis XVI).  The movie also does a fine job of making Marie Antoinette a sympathetic character and not some out of touch bimbo, which I appreciate.  I’ll touch on all this in more detail.

Where the movie fails is in context.  It is so focused on Marie Antoinette that it fails to paint a bigger picture for the viewer.  Why did the French Revolution start in the first place?  We get a grand picture painted of the excesses of royalty but never really get a sense of the growing turbulence in the population.  The film ends at a really lovely moment, but: how many of you really know what led to the deaths of the king and queen?  This could have been summed up in an end note, although I would have at least liked to see the attempted escape from the country.  Other inaccuracies that bugged me: the royal couple had not two but three surviving children, one of whom died as a teenager; Louis XVI and one of his brothers were both portly dudes and that could have helped bring out Louis’ awkwardness and almost outsider status; she did not meet Count Fersen at a random masked ball and that affair was probably not held with so little attempt at discretion.  Also, there were three royal aunts, not two.  Although the film defends the erroneous “Let them eat cake” statement I’ll talk about it in more detail.

With that, let’s get started!

The etiquette of Versailles

For someone who only ever sees pictures of Versailles, this part of the movie helps show the grand extravagance of the place as well as the strict rules that everyone had to follow.  Even before Antoinette reaches Versailles and has to the ceremonial handing over where she sheds everything Austrian before entering France officially, the movie is showcasing how precise the French were in all their preparations.  (It should be noted that many other princesses were forced to go through the same kind of process.  Navigating someone to a new country without putting one in front of the other was tricky business.)

Particularly well done, though, are the scenes when Antoinette wakes up in bed and is tended to by a multitude of the ladies.  The first strength of this scene is that royalty were often surrounded by people.  As Fraser says in the biography (which it should be mentioned, the movie is based on) royal people at this time would really have no concept of modern privacy.  You were never alone with your thoughts, and for a dauphine you were not allowed even to dress yourself.  The second part that’s well done is showing that helping the dauphine get dressed is an honor.  The higher the rank you are, the closer you get to the royal person.  Being a lady-in-waiting to a princess or a queen meant that you were close to their person, so these roles always went to the wives of lords.  You would not have a poor servant woman dressing the queen.  She might help dress lower nobility, but certainly not anyone in Versailles.

At Versailles there were a strict set of rules to follow, and if they meant you had to wait as three different ladies entered the room before the correct one could put on your shift, then so be it.  The movie also showcases this well in the scenes of Antoinette and Louis Auguste eating meals together, where they have to be served in a very specific way.  The only thing I would have liked to see here – which I will address in more detail later on – is the fact that life at Versailles was almost like a spectator sport for the less wealthy.  Nearly anyone could waltz onto the premises and see royalty dining.  While those staying at Versailles had to follow strict regulations, the wife of a merchant, for example, could walk in and wander about as she pleased.  The so called “fish wives” of France could even petition the queen without any formality really in place.

Despite this, I thought the movie did a good job showing how someone new to the system would have a strict set of rules to follow and that, often, those rules didn’t seem to make any sort of sense.

So...uh...you wanna...hmm...do I need permission to speak?

Gambling, clothes, extravagant spending

Gambling was not an uncommon way to pass the time.  Marie Antoinette built up her own circle of friends who would spend nights gambling and talking and certainly drinking.  Louis XVI was not very into this kind of lifestyle, but that didn’t mean that he did not spend money.  Everyone who lived in the palace at Versailles spent what we would all consider an exorbitant amount of money on clothes.  For example, Antoinette got about 150,000 livres for her dress expenses (because it is so hard to translate cost throughout time I don’t have an equivalent into today’s money, but even 150,000 dollars would be a lot).  We have some record of the money spent on clothing and fabric:

Bills were sent in for four new pairs of shoes a week, three yards of ribbon daily to tie the royal peignoir (that is, brand-new ribbon) and two brand-new yards of green taffeta daily to cover the basket in which the royal fan and gloves were carried…The extraordinary amount of new outfits order annually – twelve court dresses, twelve riding habits, and so forth and so on – was in part explained by the privileges of her household to help themselves to these garments once discarded but hardly worn.

All of this tied back into the etiquette of the court.  Who needs green taffeta to cover a basket?  The entire royal family was used to spending this way, as Antonia Fraser notes, Louis XVI’s aunts managed to spend 3 million livres in a span of six weeks.  This is mind boggling extravagance.  You can see why the people would grow to resent a royalty they saw overindulging on everything when they didn’t even have the means to buy themselves bread.

It's such a bother that I've had to wear this dress twice now...maybe I'll buy an extra set of diamond earrings this month.

The movie demonstrates this extravagance, although aside from clothes it also focuses on the food and decadence of eating that was going on.  I would have liked some more context so that the viewer is aware this extravagance is a result partly of the way life of Versailles worked and that Antoinette wasn’t the only one doing all the spending.  She wasn’t the first royal to spend more than she needed and she wasn’t the only one with a spending problem.  Another bit I might have liked to see would be her reasons for indulging.  One aspect I think has to do with fitting in and having friends, but one of the reasons Fraser suggests that the Queen threw herself into these gambling circles with friends was to distract herself from her unsatisfactory (or really, non existent) sex life with her husband.


I was watching this movie with my mom and she demanded to know how everyone at court wasn’t enormously fat.  Well, there actually were a number of people at court who might be considered portly or even obese.  Louis XVI was certainly a rotund young fellow, even as young as when he and Marie Antoinette were married.  One of his younger brothers, the Comte de Provence, was even fatter than him, and possibly had difficulty consummating his marriage due to his weight.  Members of the Polignac set who were known for being rowdy and witty would indulge in too much and might be overweight.  Perhaps it comes as no surprise to anyone that Hollywood avoided representing characters who weigh too much, but it is worth thinking about.  The portrait of Louis sent to Marie Antoinette was a bit “prettied up” if you will and the figure he cut in person was not as impressive, made even less so by his extreme social awkwardness.

Then again, the movie did not focus much on the attraction factor from the side of the French male royals.  Apparently Louis XV was an extremely handsome fellow (I’m afraid Rip Torn doesn’t make the cut here) and two of his grandsons were a let down.  Louis’ other brother, the Comte d’Artois was considered the most handsome of his brothers and I thought it could have been interesting to see how a handsome and sexually active man would have been viewed much more positively than the overweight and awkward Louis.  His lack of eager desire for sex and his faithfulness to his wife made everyone think he was weird, not admirable.

When I look at old portraits I have a hard time distinguishing who is supposed to be handsome, but I'm guessing this is a cut of Louis XVI that is supposed to enhance his natural qualities.

Popularity and arriving in France

Marie Antoinette was actually extremely popular with the people when she arrived in France.  They liked how she looked, how kind she was and the charities she pursued.  People viewed the young couple as a chance to refresh the French monarchy and give it the life that had started seeping out the older and less popular Louis XV got.  There are some pretty wild accounts.  When she and Louis went to take a stroll out among the people they were unable to move forward or backward for three quarters of an hour as the people pushed in around them.  When she visited the opera and insist everyone applaud, the did so (a moment shown in the movie).  She was on display for everyone to see and people watched her and wrote numerous accounts of her grace, her charm, her beauty.

I think the movie missed out on an opportunity to really display this popularity, how Marie Antoinette moved among the people and how much they loved her.  She attended opera often and threw money and effort into her favorite composer.  At one performance she attended the show was held up for fifteen minutes while the people cried out their adoration of her.

This would serve a stark contrast to later opinion.  A combination of royal spending and the common libels at the time – essentially little comics that would show the Queen in pornographic and despicable situations – began take away the glow of popularity.  She became the symbol for everything that was wrong with the country and a good deal of the hatred which was directed at the royalty as a whole found its way to direct hatred for the Queen.  Her appearance and manners, which were carefully cultivated to be proper and noble, began to appear haughty.  People thought that Marie Antoinette was laughing at them and looking down on them while spending the country into ruin.

I hate flowers! Look at the Queen, holding a flower! Why must she continue to torment us!?

This would lead to the eventual storming at Versailles (a tame version is shown at the end of the film) and her imprisonment and execution.  Even without showing the later stages of the revolution, the change in popularity of Marie Antoinette had a lot to do with the changing political situation in France at the time.  It would have really helped give the mob at the end more significance.  If we’ve seen the people lavish praise and adoration on her, that makes their rioting all the more significant.

“Let Them Eat Cake”

This is a brief episode in the movie and won’t get a great deal more attention here, but I wanted to draw attention to it.  Most people associate this phrase with Marie Antoinette and I think even a lot of those people know that she never said that.  A woman who had compassion for the people and at least some knowledge of poverty would never say anything so mindless.

There are records of this line being tied to other French women before Antoinette, and it is likely just a tidy piece of propaganda to use whenever the French people were having a hard time buying bread.  Which, it seems, was the case often.  The other point this quote highlights is really how the public opinion turned on Marie Antoinette, to think that she was so callous and foolish to think that they could eat pastries if they had no bread.  It was part of the campaign to dehumanize her and make her seem like someone who had no empathy or sympathy.  I think this quote is probably one of the reasons modern perceptions of Marie Antoinette might still be that she was a complete airhead and should have pulled herself together.  Any other woman in her position probably would have fared the same fate, so let’s cut her some slack.

The cake is a lie.

Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI’s children

They had three.  First, a daughter, Maria Teresa in 1778.  Then, a son, Louis Joseph in 1781.  Another son, Louis Charles, in 1785.  She did have a child die, as demonstrated in the movie, but they left out the third child who did survive.  The focus of the film is so tightly wrapped up on Marie Antoinette’s experience maybe they felt that including the drama of the children would be too much.  This would be an argument I don’t understand, though.  Antoinette loved children.  She was the sort of woman who could be a full-time nanny or a daycare provider and love every minute of it.  She lavished attention and affection on other people’s children and on her own.  They were a huge part of her life, which makes sense considering that she waited eight years after she and Louis married to finally have one.

For anyone wondering, the long drama of trying to consummate the marriage while everyone around the couple gossips about the nature of their sexual relationship and Marie Antoinette’s mother writes scolding letters to her is done really well.  It was a long and arduous journey for the couple to finally have complete sex (according to the time) and all that time Marie Antoinette really was in a precarious position.  With no heir, her position was basically worthless.

What do you mean I kiss you on the mouth? Then where does this go? Wait...I...uh...

The story of her children is rather tragic.  The oldest son, Louis Joseph, fell incredibly ill and died before his eighth birthday after staying basically in a country retreat away from court for several years.  With the death of her oldest son and the fact that her daughter seemed to prefer Louis led Marie Antoinette to take solace in her younger son, Louis Charles.  At the time of the mob at Versailles in 1789 Maria Teresa would have been 10 and Louis Charles 4.  I’m guessing those are the children shown in the movie, but considering how the third son is never addressed and I am not convinced Maria Teresa is anything close to 10 in that scene, this part is one of the worst historical inaccuracies.

After they were forced to live in captivity for years, Marie Antoinette would be separated from her son and the guards in charge of him would not only ply him with alcohol (he was about 7 at the time) but lead him to give false testimonies about the abuse he received at the hands of his mother and aunt.  Maria Teresa lived into adulthood and even got married but it would probably be too charitable to say that she led a happy life.

Count Fersen and the supposed affair

It would be fair to say that historians are still debating whether or not Marie Antoinette had a sexual affair with the charming Swedish soldier Count Fersen.  It would also be fair to say that the evidence looks pretty convincing that they probably did have a relationship.

The shortest version of it works like this: Fersen kept a good deal of personal correspondence and journals.  It seems that he nicknamed the Queen as Josephine in his notes, although at times he is probably talking about a different Josephine.  Several times he makes notes that he spent the night with her, using the same language that he did when he wanted to indicate that he had spent the night with a woman and bedded her.

Any rumors that her children were not Louis XVI’s and actually Count Fersen’s is likely crap.  Fersen had a lot of affairs with a lot of women and probably knew how to not get them pregnant.  Furthermore, it would be unfair to claim that Marie Antoinette did not love her husband.  Despite this depth of feeling for Fersen she remained completely dutiful to her husband and stuck with them through threat of death even when people advised her to leave.  I think it’s fair to say that Marie Antoinette could love both her husband and Fersen and might even be fair to say that Fersen showed her what sexual fulfillment could be, which was probably not a byproduct of her marriage.

This man seduced countless women. I'm guessing it's the eyebrows.

While I appreciate including it in the movie, the affair fizzles out and doesn’t go anywhere.  They meet at a masked ball – not true, in real life they saw each other for the first time at an opera and it is highly unlikely they had a love/lust at first sight connection – commence to the lovemaking and then she basically never sees him again.  Fersen was a steady presence in Marie Antoinette’s life and lived near Versailles when he was in France.  He assisted the royal family in their attempted escape from the country.  He didn’t go off to fight in the war and then feature in a few daytime fantasies courtesy of the Queen.  This plotline was not handled with a good deal of grace, particularly the blatant disregard for using any kind of discretion.  When having a sexual dalliance as the Queen can get you charged with treason, I’m pretty sure you try to keep those things more under wraps than making out with the guy in your private garden.

Female Friendships

From a young age, Marie Antoinette knew the value of female friendships.  She was close to her older sister, Charlotte, and when she got to France, Antoinette formed close relationships with other women.  Notably, she developed friendships with the Princess Lamballe, the Duchesse du Polignac, and her husband’s sister, Elizabeth.  Keeping these friends close would eventually get Marie Antoinette blasted in the libels as having lesbian relationships with these women.

This fact is unlikely.  Close friendships worked differently than they do in the modern day.  You might marry a stranger and be put into situation where you are surrounded by people you don’t know.  The solution to find something you can use as a confidant and draw them close to you.  Marie Antoinette could use these women as solace in an unfamiliar place, and to replace the affection that she wasn’t receiving from her husband.  Men and women would interact, but a woman couldn’t be alone with a man the same way she could with other women.  These intense close and personal friendships would help carry Marie Antoinette through.

Believe it or not, most female friendships are not based around a mutual love of shoes.

The movie shows this to a degree.  The Queen is often seen lounging with her friends, but I wished their names would have been said more often.  The Duchesse de Polignac made a stronger impression because her character was more outspoken, but the Princess Lamballe made almost no impression at all.  I can barely remember her and I saw the movie two days ago.  It would have been nice to see them more fleshed out.  Also, what about the omission of Louis XVI’s sister!  Elizabeth was devoted to her brother and to her sister-in-law and there was a very real affection between them.  This would have helped serve to get Louis some more humanity (his awkwardness is brilliant but does start to wear) and get Marie Antoinette another female companion.

I know that the movie steers away from the actual violent events of the Revolution in France, but knowing the Princess Lamballe better gives her fate more emotional weight.  After she was killed by a mob for the crime of being friends with Marie Antoinette they actually put her head on a pike and paraded it outside the tower were the Queen was being kept in hopes that she would be completely demoralized and distraught by it.  Even if you consider a monarchy outdated, that kind of violence paints a lot of the French Revolution and generates a good deal of sympathy for members for the royal family.

What happened in the end

The family would get passed around to various places where they were kept under a strict watch.  As the movie shows, they sent away most of their friends so they could escape the worst of it.  Louis also packed up his aunts and sent them away.  His sister Elizabeth stayed with them.  Their time being kept under watch was not always unpleasant – they had food, they could spend time together, at some points they had open courtyards where they could take walks.  However, the fact that they were essentially imprisoned would put a damper on any easy feelings and as time wore on it became more apparent that the feelings of the people were more violent than anything.

A combination of spending too much as royal living accorded, going into debt by aiding the American Revolution, and excluding the poor voices from government (in addition to other nuances – sorry for the basic version) led the people to think that maybe kings weren’t the best way to go.  Louis was not a forceful personality and often had trouble making decisions, which didn’t help matters.

The family finally decided they needed to escape France if they wanted to avoid death.  They made plans to leave where they were being held in Paris and escape to Montmedy.  The atmosphere at this time was dangerous – Louis’ aunts had recently escaped and this made the people paranoid.  They set up an intricate plan which consisted of changing carriages at various locations and having loyal soldiers look over their progress.

Unfortunately, pretty much everything went wrong.  Progress was delayed so that the men waiting for them thought that they were not coming.  Everything fell behind schedule.  When the family reached the village of Varennes-en-Argonne they didn’t know where to go to get their new horse and carriage.  This long delay and the fact that they were recognized led to their capture and travel back to Paris.  It should be noted that Count Fersen aided the royal family in their attempted escape.

This bit would have been maybe too action based for the movie, but sounds like it would make for a great piece of cinema.  Again, a footnote at the end of the movie would have been useful.

"By the way, everyone in this film dies and their lives end in utter tragedy. SURPRISE."

Louis XVI was executed January 21, 1793.  Marie Antoinette was executed about ten months later on October 16, 1793.  The King had essentially been forced to sign over his power and maybe it was an attempt of the revolutionaries to keep the royal supporters from rising up against them, but both trials feel incredibly unfair and the deaths of the monarchs unnecessary.  Louis Charles died at the age of 10 in 1795.

The events of the Revolution after the royal family left Versailles are dark and violent scenes that would not fit the dreamy tone and atmosphere of the movie, which focuses more on the tranquility of Marie Antoinette’s garden getaway, the extravagance of royal living, and an overall lighthearted approach.  Still, it feels odd to me to create a movie about such a prominent historical figure and leave out some of the most important details of her life.  Marie Antoinette is undoubtedly so well known because of her tragic connection to the French Revolution and it seems unfair the issues of the people and their relationship with her were ignored to fit the larger version of the movie.

It is certainly worth watching to get an idea of what early life at Versailles was like.  The costumes are completely beautiful and the scenery is accurate – after all, Versailles is still standing today.  After the film ended, however, I couldn’t help but wish that the darker parts and hints had been included.  Marie Antoinette ultimately did not lead a sugar coated life and a film about her should not ignore the sadness and violence that would accompany her at the end.

But she's too pretty! Must keep everything pretty!


Antonia Fraser. Marie Antoinette: The Journey.  I have to admit that this is the only source I really used for the movie.  As it is the basis for the film and Fraser is a well respected historian, I thought I could get away with it.  The book is nearly 500 pages long.  Cut me some slack.

History Channel website, http://www.history.com/topics/french-revolution.  Includes a brief overview of the Revolution, the people and events surrounding it.  This will help you give you some more in depth information than the brief summary included in this article.

For next time!

Anonymous, a tale of intrigue and stupidity about the true identity of Shakespeare.


“Immortal Beloved”: Ode to…what?

Immortal Beloved

Release Date: 1994

Starring: Gary Oldman, Jeroen Krabbe, Isabella Rossellini

Period of history in focus: early 19th century (specifically Beethoven’s life)

All right.  So, I’m going to do what I can not to let this review devolve into madness.  Many of problems with the movie stem from plot tropes that Hollywood loves and not all of them are historical accuracy complaints.  I guess at heart this blog is truly about being a movie critic, but just a heads up.  There might be yelling about women’s rights.

I chose Immortal Beloved because this romantic idea that swirls around Beethoven that has captured a lot of people’s attention.  For anyone who doesn’t pay attention to centuries old gossip: upon Beethoven’s death in 1827 his buddy and first biographer, Anton Schindler discovered a little bundle of three letters – which are also confusingly kind of like one latter – addressed to an unknown woman.  At one point Beethoven refers to her as his “Immortal Beloved” and he lays on this idea of romance pretty thick.  If they were together life would be better, he hates being apart from her, etc.  The letters have months and days on them but no year, so that has leaved subsequent historians to try and figure out when the letters were written, where they were written, and who the heck he was addressing.

Now, it has been suggested to me that movies about composers should focus more on their music.  How did they learn, what motivated them to write, what was behind their compositions?  I agree with this wholeheartedly.  Say what you want about the atrocious historical fiction behind Amadeus (a movie I will review some day), but that movie focuses on Mozart’s obsession behind his music, what drove him to write certain ways, and what other people thought of what he wrote.  In Immortal Beloved by contrast, we have what I like to think of as the Beethoven hat trick – there are other songs but there is special framing given to the Moonlight Sonata, Fur Elise, and Symphony No. 9.  The motivation behind the first one is a woman, behind the second one is a nephew, and the third is…well.  That’s where the movie falls apart.

Essentially, you can be assured that the movie devolves one man’s life into romanticized nonsense.  That’s about all there is to it.  The powerful moments that highlight his increasing deafness and isolation are immediately contradicted by a movie director deciding he has uncovered the real and edgy “facts” behind Beethoven’s secret love.  Blech.

Piano, why will they never understand our love?

Beethoven’s will

The movie begins with Beethoven’s death, and almost immediately lapses into made up facts to create drama.  At this point director Bernard Rose is coming perilously close to treading on Mel Gibson’s toes with throwing “facts” at you right off the bat to help drive his plot forward.

Beethoven’s surviving brother declares that he deserves all of his dead brother’s money.  After all, he has been named on the will and their other brother Kaspar is dead.  Beethoven’s secretary, Anton Schindler, attempts to fend him off.  There is no money.  Calm down.  Then, amazingly he discovers an envelope addressed to an “Immortal Beloved.”  Inside said envelope we see that he has written a new will which bequeaths everything to this Immortal Beloved AND then he finds the letters.  There may not be a recipient, but there is an address.  The hotel in Karlsbad.

Beethoven’s will was written out to his nephew Karl, who he loved with a sort of tormented horror.  So, his brother would have no right to complain about how he deserved money in the first place.  This also means that the change to the will giving everything to his mysterious woman is completely made up.  Furthermore, the letters had no address on them and some scholars think he might have written the letters at Teplitz instead.

If Schindler really had known for certain that the letters were written at Karlsbad, was able to visit that hotel and get an exact date and signature, as well as eye witness testimony from the woman who worked there, would this whole thing really still be such a big mystery?  Historians still debate when he wrote the letters and where.  If they had a signature, would they really not be able to figure it out?  This trip and account of Beethoven’s hissy fit are pure fiction, I assure you.

What do you mean he dedicated all his music to "That one guy" and wanted to be buried next to "The chick I made out with once but never called again"? This guy is IMPOSSIBLE!

Giulietta Guicciardi

Schindler finally decided to the real biography of Beethoven, that Giulietta (simplified to Julia for the film) must have been the woman.  He based this off of some facts that are not complete crap.  Beethoven and Giulietta were involved in some kind of relationship and might have even been engaged at some point.  He also decided that the letters were dated in 1806.  Then, Schindler learned that Giulietta had been married in 1806 and took the whole thing back.  There are two points I am trying to make here: the argument for Giulietta is not bad, and if someone who actually knew Beethoven and wrote his first biography couldn’t figure it out, neither did the director of this movie.

As far as we can tell the relationship between Beethoven and Giulietta all fell apart because of their different social standings.  It did not hinge on a bet to see whether or not Beethoven still knew how to play the piano.  He seems to have acknowledged the fact their relationship didn’t have a future himself:

For two years, I have once again known some blissful moments, and for the first time I’ve had the sense that marriage can make someone happy; alas, she is not in the same social situation as I and, for the moment, I truly cannot marry.

This doesn’t rule her out completely.  Maybe poor Beethoven was forced to pine after her for the rest of his life.  It’s possible.  The movie, however, must give us a definitive answer, and according to the film, Julia betrayed Beethoven by testing his deafness and he left her forever.

It’s also maybe worth mentioning that two of Giulietta’s cousins also appear in the film – Therese and Josephine – and that both of these women have also been mentioned in connection with the composer.  I mostly wanted to point out that it’s highly unlikely these women tore off their dresses in public places to have sex with a musician.  I highly doubt Beethoven was that much of a rock star.  He was a little too creepy.  And mean.

What do you mean, "kinda intense"?

Countess Anna Marie Erdody

I’m a little perplexed as to why the movie goes this direction.  In fact, it is at this point that the movie starts to veer of its point.  Schindler goes to visit the previous countess Erdody in her native Hungary and we get the story of how she saved Beethoven from public humiliation and how he stayed at her place and how much she loved him.  It is pretty quickly established that is not a contender and in the research done by musical historians she is not really a contender either.  We know that she helped pay to keep Beethoven in Vienna when he threatened to leave.  In this scheme of things, that’s about as good as I have.  Her purpose in the movie really seems to be more of a frame for the audience to learn more about Beethoven’s relationship with his brother, Kasper, his brother’s wife, Johanna, and their son, Karl.

Here’s what I don’t understand: the entire frame of the movie is set up so that Schindler discovers who the Immortal Beloved is and the romance of Beethoven’s life.  Then it goes off on a huge tangent about his hatred for Johanna and the custody battles to get control of his nephew Karl.  All of this information is crucially important for a general biography – Karl plays a huge part in Beethoven’s later life.  It is also crucial for the final conclusion of the film and the discernment of who Beethoven really loved.  But at the time, it feels like the narrative is drifting off into a direction that has nothing to do with anything.  It’s just bad movie making.

They really just needed an excuse to give Isabella Rossellini some screen time.

Johanna Beethoven

Kasper Beethoven died in 1515 and from then on Ludwig van Beethoven was obsessed with gaining control of his nephew and shaping into some sort of musical prodigy.  He went in public multiple times and called Johanna a “whore”, questioning her sexual reputation, and therefore her fitness to be a mother.  Once, he found out that she was seeing her son secretly and tried to make sure she couldn’t even accomplish that.  He was completely awful to this woman and it’s likely that Karl had much more resentment against his uncle than is shown in the film.  However, the basis of all of this is true.

The part where the audience is forced to accept bullshit as the truth comes at the end.  Beethoven was really addressing Johanna.  Not only that, but Karl is actually his illegitimate son.  Congratulations, Bernard Rose!  You have out fake paternity-ied Mel Gibson!

The movie’s contention is that they were supposed to meet at the Karlsbad hotel the night that Beethoven wrote the letter(s).  He penned this on the road and sent a messenger out ahead of him, but Johanna didn’t see the letters because she was too ashamed and had to leave.  The two characters literally pass each other on the stairs.

1) These letters were not written on the road and were not written as a sort of, “Hey!  I’ll be running late, but I will be there.  Wait for me, lover!  Smooches, Louie.”  Instead, they were written over the course of two days and at one point Beethoven apologizes they won’t reach her sooner because he didn’t realize the hotel mailing only went out two specific days of the week:

You are suffering, my dearest creature – only now have I learned that letters must be posted very early in the morning on Mondays-Thursdays- the only days on which the mail-coach goes from here to K.

That is not a man writing a frenzied love letter in the rain while his carriage has broken down.  What about this:

My journey was a fearful one; I did not reach here until 4 o’clock yesterday morning.

Yes, he is describing how he already arrived at the hotel and how that trip sucked.  It’s the equivalent to a phone call once you finish a long car trip and complain about traffic.  It has nothing to do with him racing to get there.

2) The way Beethoven treats Johanna makes no sense.  It follows that he might feel spurned and hurt at what she had done.  If we assume that she married Kaspar because of the missed meeting at the hotel, she would have been about six months pregnant (Karl was born three months after his parents married).  She’s not showing in the movie, so maybe she’s still waiting around for Ludwig to make up his mind?  After they split, Ludwig does everything in his power to be horrible to her.  In real life, he said some of the nastiest things he could, in an effort to drag her reputation through the mud.

If he had really been in love with Johanna and secretly knew that Karl was really is son, did the man not have enough common sense to wait until his brother died to marry her?  It might have been a little creepy for some people, but legal enough, and it would have solved all of his problems.  Instead, he decided to abuse and insult her and take her son away from her.  And after all that SHE FORGIVES HIM?  No, no, no.

Not only is this illogical and a complete leap of fancy, but the message is awful.  If a guy treats you like total crap because he feels hurt by something you did for years on end but then realizes that he did wrong then it’s okay to still be in love with him.

Johanna should have spit in his face and told him he was a prick right before he died.

He called me a "slut"! How romantic!

Family Life and Music

There is a little more that I want to address about this film.  After all, people should be interested in more about a composer than who he might have wanted to have sex with, right?

Beethoven inherited the family trade of music, because at the time that he was born, that’s how musicians were made.  His grandfather was Kapellmeister (musical director of a court or church) in Bonn, as was his father.  Beethoven was not a child prodigy to the extent that Mozart was, but it appears he was never humiliated in front of an audience through his poor playing and then beaten senseless by his father.  In fact, he gave his first concert on 8, and based off his musical promise, began receiving more musical instruction than just his father.

Beethoven’s dad was a drunk, but by the time he had gotten really awful, his oldest son was basically supporting the family.  It is not out of the realm of possibility that his father beat him or some of his siblings, but the presence and importance of this might be a little too much.

I do not understand the decision to make the Ninth Symphony an ode to Beethoven escaping the oppression of his father.  The movie is supposed to be about the woman he loves, then inexplicably morphs into his love for his nephew, and the triumphant note is really about his childhood?  It makes no sense!

One of the major faults this movie makes concerns Beethoven’s composition.  Music was his life.  When he began to go deaf, the man considered suicide, but could not bear to leave his music unwritten:

Such incidents drove me almost to despair; a little more of that and I would have ended my life – it was only my art that held me back.  Ah, it seemed impossible to leave the world until I had brought forth all that I felt was within me.

This is a man deeply dedicated to his craft.  He loves music.  In the film, music largely serves to frame his biography.  He wrote this musical piece for Julia, and that for Karl.  He explains to Schindler that one of his pieces is about a man trying to reach a woman in the rain.  Art is not entirely biographical.  Beethoven’s music might tell beautiful stories and hard ones too, but they do not all reveal who he talked to or things that he did.  The music helps reveal what he was, what he believed was art, what he believed music should be.  Writing this off as dedications and an abusive father seems entirely unfair to a man who practically created the romantic movement.

He really, really scares me.

For the record, the Ninth was based off a poem written by Friedrich Schiller.

One last fact of note: Beethoven died during a thunderstorm.  This might not be fitting with the tone of the movie, but he fell into a coma several days before his death.  On the night of a huge thunderstorm, he woke up, shook his fist at the sky, and died.  This is the most hardcore way to die ever if you are not a superhero.

In conclusion: read a biography of Beethoven while listening to a couple of his compositions.  Unless you want to see Gary Oldman’s awesome hair.  Then watch the movie.


Philippe A. Autexier. Beethoven: The Composer as Hero. This biography is short and to the point.  You will get a general overview of the man’s life and some about his musical background as well.  Contains documents in the back, including those letters.

Maynard Solomon. Beethoven.  A more complete biography.  Solomon draws a conclusion about the Immortal Beloved that other scholars have turned their noses up at, but he does give a thorough and complete look into the man’s life and music.

Biography.com. Ludwig van Beethoven. Another overall summary of Beethoven’s life.  Good for anyone who doesn’t want to visit a library. http://www.biography.com/people/ludwig-van-beethoven-9204862

If you would like a full transcription of the Immortal Beloved letters to check it out yourself: http://www.all-about-beethoven.com/immortalbeloved.html


Shakespeare and the new film Anonymous!

“Gettysburg”: A film worthy of praise


Released: 1993

Starring: Martin Sheen, Jeff Daniels, Tom Berenger

Period of history in focus: American Civil War (specifically July 1-3 1863)

I chose Gettysburg for multiple reasons: to focus on American history, because it is so epic and ambitious in scope, and for the beards.  All right, so maybe not that last part.  Although you have to admit the beards in the movie are all fantastic – even the terrible ones are so obviously terrible that they become amusing.

The first of many shots of facial hair that will bombard you.

The movie is based on a book by Michael Shaara, The Killer Angels, technically a work of fiction, but a lot of research went into it.  The novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974 and covers the battle of Gettysburg from both sides of the war as well as various officers.  The movie attempts this same scope, and it’s an impressive piece of work, but at four plus hours you have to start to wonder: couldn’t they have cut something out?  In the preface to his novel, Shaara acknowledges that he excluded some minor characters in interest of condensing everything and making it simple enough to follow.  The movie, it seems, tried to almost exactly follow the book and in moments suffers for this attempt to leave no novel character behind.

There are some small inaccuracies, but largely these don’t matter.  Many of my complaints surrounding the film (and these are mostly small complaints) focus more on the content of the movie and trying to view it as a real movie, not strictly as a history film.  However, Gettysburg deserves praise for its ambition and its accuracy, particularly:

– The careful attention that went into representing both sides and not demonizing one or the other

– Showing the grounds, having characters discuss why certain parts of ground and certain battle attacks work so the audience understands how the battles work and the advantages and disadvantages each side had.

– Allowing characters to speak their opinions about the war.  While I still believe that the root of the war cannot be divorced from slavery, I appreciate characters speaking out about what they believe and why they’re fighting.  Of course not everybody is obsessed with slavery, and it’s important to note that all conflicts contain complexity.

Let’s start with a couple of complaints.

Seeing as how the movie intends to focus on the officers surrounding Gettysburg and how the decisions they made affected the battle (and perhaps…the outcome of the war?) there is barely any of the “common soldier” in the film.  We do get a brief glimpse when Chamberlain deals with the mutineers at the beginning of the film, but the men who volunteer to join the group after an inspiring speech are quickly forgotten, and everybody else mainly serves as cannon fodder.  I understand the decision – the movie is so crammed with characters and fights already that putting in an additional storyline might feel like too much, but could we get a little more aside from mass mobs yelling?

The Chamberlain brothers had the best facial hair. Focus the movie solely on them.

In an attempt to narrow the focus of his novel, Shaara focused on a core group of men, but the result in the movie makes this disjointed.  Early on we get Chamberlain marching with his men and Buford moving in to defend the high ground.  After this battle, Buford essentially disappears from the film and after the battle at Little Round Top, Chamberlain doesn’t get much of anything to do.  While Longstreet and Lee pull through the entire film on the Confederate side, I felt like connecting with the Union side was more difficult and we never really get to see Meade or any of the other big players in action.  Another result of this decision means that certain aspects of the battle had to be truncated.  Certainly Chamberlain defended Little Round Top (and he deserved his Medal of Honor, HOLY CRAP) but he wasn’t the only one who did.  The battle on day one, where Buford positions himself and his cavalry against bad odds was a moment of great battle planning, but the day wasn’t a resounding victory on the side of the Union.  They lost one of their best generals about half an hour in, and a great deal of men had to retreat through the town proper of Gettysburg, attempting to barricade the streets while civilians crouched in their cellars.  The movie tends to lean toward a view that the South’s mistakes cost them every day, whereas the first day might have almost been considered a victory on Robert E. Lee’s end.

Speaking of the Lee’s mistakes, he certainly acted too brashly at Gettysburg.  However, I didn’t feel like the movie did a good enough job driving a couple points home: the Southern army had won a huge battle Chancellorsville in Virginia only a couple months before.  Going on the offensive had helped Lee to win huge (despite the loss of right hand man, Jackson) and also aided in his decision to move north and try to end the war by bringing battles into new territory.  If Lee had won Gettysburg and managed to swing down into Washington DC before the Union army could get there?  Who knows what might have happened.  Longstreet, who advises caution and defense throughout the film, was not at Chancellorsville and he did not understand Lee’s enthusiasm and complete confidence in his army’s ability.  The Confederate army did view Lee in a form of hero worship.  They loved him and their willingness to fight for him was a definite advantage over the Union army, who had been under several rather ineffective generals.  For people who have not researched the battle or the war, I think Lee can come across as foolish and make a modern viewer wonder why the heck everyone loved him so much.  These psychological factors could be further explored.

Don't worry about the loss, sir. One day you'll be president.

If we explore the psychological ramifications of battle plans (I am sure you are asking) wouldn’t this cause the movie to balloon to five or six hours?  Most likely.  Here’s my suggestion: cut some of it out.  Usually I complain that there’s not enough, they should be more accurate, but in the case of Gettysburg, I think the movie could benefit from less.  Cut out a couple of officers and allow us to really connect to these men.  Longstreet is great, but they don’t ever mention that his three children had died and what cause this had on his personality.  We get only a little bit of Buford and he disappears.  Hancock and Armistead are largely reduced for pining after each other.  The first time I ever watched this movie, I had a hard time telling people apart and remembering their relationships.  The second time, I think I only knew because I’d done the research.  We should get to know some of these men better.  The spy is a fun touch, but is he needed?  What about the single scene Stuart appears in?  What about the single scene the disgruntled mutineer appears in?  Or the single scene the man complaining about Ewell appears in?  These men come in and deliver information and flit out again, surely there’s a better way to center everything.

One final bit before I move onto the (many) admirable qualities of the movie.  This a film mostly about battle, but for that there are maybe two shots of women and a single black character.  One woman speaks and she only gets one line, “I thought the fighting was in Virginia!”  The runaway slave?  Says nothing.  My brother argued that if he spoke they would have had to pay him, but then why include him at all?  Chamberlain and other men on the Union side claim they are fighting to end slavery and free a people, but then when you show a man desperate to gain his freedom you don’t let him speak?  I am uncomfortable with white people discussing the plight of slaves in the first place, and then not letting the one slave in the movie speak seems horribly wrong.  If he’s not going to talk, don’t show him.  There is some role some woman could play somewhere.

Wait.  One more thing.  Why is Lee wearing a blue coat?  I don’t believe this is gray.  Somebody please explain this to me.

Pictured: Blue, blue, and more blue. How is that not blue!?

All right!  Let’s move on.

Showing both sides of the conflict

This is the greatest strength the movie has.  We have to remember (especially me, from a northern perspective) that the southern side was not some demon army full of horrible slave abusing assholes.  Sure, they were in there, but the Union army had it’s share of complete jerks.  Allowing a solid half of the movie (possibly more) focus on Longstreet and Lee gives the audience the perspective that both sides of this army are entirely human.  The movie is not graphically violent in the sense that many modern war movies are – such as Saving Private Ryan – but it does give an idea of the toll both sides endured.

For the South, I was particularly struck by Longstreet’s comments about how the men were running into slaughter and in the aftermath of the battle when Lee tells Pickett to rally up his division, we get what might be the most stand out line in the movie, “Sir, I have no division.”  The look on Lee’s face as it dawns on him what he has done to these men who are completely loyal to him is fantastic.  The solidarity of the men of Virginia gives us a sense of how cohesive the Confederate army really was.

Obviously, this was before the battle. Either that, or George Pickett is Satan.

On the Union side, I think the best bits go to Chamberlain, played wonderfully by Jeff Daniels.  We learn he was a professor, why he feels it is his duty to fight, and a true sense of his character.  While he does a great job playing soldier, I couldn’t help but feel the gentleness inside Chamberlain.  The battle at Little Round Top is a great moment that shows the desperation of the Union side and the horrible position Chamberlain’s men face.  When a couple of the holdout mutineers agree to fight in the middle of this battle and Chamberlain orders to get them guns, his brother replies that there are no guns.  Chamberlain’s response: Wait for a minute, and then there will be some available.  Because the men with the weapons will die.  That filled me with such a sense of horror at war really can be.

The ground and battle tactics

Somebody coming to this movie for mindless action fun is guaranteed to be disappointed.  Part of the interest of the film stems from tactics.  When Buford arrives at Gettysburg with his cavalry (as the first one to establish himself there), he makes sure that his army takes the high ground and positions themselves in a way that the Confederates are forced to basically run down a lane single file before they can arrange properly.  He harps on this point pretty hard, and I laughed a couple times at Sam Elliot’s shouting “HIGH GROUND!” but he got the point across.  Where they position themselves is crucial, especially considering how outnumbered Buford and his men are.  Divisions in the Confederate army were also larger than in the Union, so what might appear to be about an equal fight (say five Confederate to four Union) is actually a substantial man advantage for the Confederates.  The Union divisions marching their way will be traveling quickly and early and will likely be tired upon arrival – particularly Chamberlain’s men.

(Fast forward to about 3:30 to hear Buford)

There is another moment where the audience receives a quick glimpse about the importance of high ground, which concerns Ewell and Cemetery Hill.  This is the man who insists he could have taken it with a small number of men.  The situation went something like this: Lee ordered Ewell to take men to the hill and determine if he could take it.  If not, then he should not charge.  When Ewell approached it was already dark and there were men up there.  He didn’t feel that losing the men he would have to lose to charge up and take the hill would be feasible.  Some people have wondered whether this changed the outcome of the battle.  Having a hill is incredibly important.  It’s why the South also fights so hard in an attempt to take Little Round Top, which brilliantly shows the desperation and loneliness of Chamberlain’s troops.

The final battle in the film also gets into the issue.  Lee wants to charge straight ahead and attack the center.  Longstreet wants to move into a defensive position.  The Union army expects attacks on the right and left.  Lee’s plan here might seem a little suicidal – as Longstreet says multiple times, the Confederate soldiers have about a mile across broad field and THEN they have to climb a fence.  How could this possibly work?  There is one piece of the plan that might have changed the tone of the battle if it had gone as planned: the artillery.  Lee wants to use his cannons to weaken the Union artillery so the charge is not as dangerous.  Unfortunately, he could not foresee that this would not work.  Apparently, the cannons were working off a Virginia made fuse, and the men were used to working with a fuse that was more slow burning, which made their aim all wrong.  Whether they realized this up for question.  The other reason Lee decided on this course of action dealt with Chancellorsville – something that really should have been mentioned more in the film – where Lee had won a resounding victory by sending his soldiers directly into the central flank of the Union army.

You want me to what? Aw, crap. I mean, yes sir!

Longstreet’s defensive suggestion that the army pull back and cut off the Union from Washington DC might have been the more prudent decision, but he hadn’t been at Chancellorsville and Lee was ready to end the war already.

In the end it’s difficult to claim that the Union army won the battle, seeing as how both sides suffered brutal casualties, but Lee was the one who retreated and withdrew to the south.

Why are they fighting?

This is something the movie touches on multiple times, and I think it was a great idea.  As I said earlier, I believe that the root of the Civil War does boil down to slavery, but it was more complicated than that.  The movie starts with Chamberlain giving his speech about freeing slaves, but moves onto a deal of other perspectives.

It’s not entirely fair to call BS on the southerners who claim they are fighting for their rights.  Particularly the poor white men fighting for the Confederates.  It’s easy to think of the antebellum south as the land where everybody owned a plantation and dueled each other.  In truth, an incredibly small portion of people owned that many slaves.  Most slave owners had fewer than ten, and many more than that had none at all.  Poor whites were treated badly.  They were looked down on by “gentlemen” and struggled to keep up their farms.  For awhile, poor white men couldn’t vote because they didn’t own land or didn’t own enough land.  To help rally these men to their cause, the richer white men began to draw in the poor men with promises of having a voice in the government and being a unified people.  Many of the men who ended up fighting wanted to protect their homes.  Keep in mind that most of the fighting happened in the south and the mindset of their culture.  A man was the master of his own little universe.  In his household he had complete control to do whatever he wanted.  So the idea of some foreign government trying to get involved in their personal lives was a slap in the face.

My favorite comment made on this side of the argument comes from Longstreet: We should have freed the slaves before ever declaring war.  What would have happened then?  Could the south have let go, or was it just the men truly fighting for a Cause?  (Fun fact: Robert E. Lee owned no slaves.)

This is an ultimate cause of us vs. them mentality and all of it is intertwined with fighting for basic civil rights and the freedom of people too long oppressed.

Watch the movie!  But only if you have four hours to spend.  I would also recommend getting a simple guide to the battle before watching the movie as it makes everything easier to follow.  And stay true to the beard.

If you don't, General Pickett's scary new Avatar persona will beat you up. (Yes, that is the same guy.)


Michael Shaara. The Killer Angels. The novel the movie is based on.  The writing can be a little off putting at times, but it is a fantastic layout of the characters and setting for the battle.

James McPherson. Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg. The shortest book you will find on the battle, McPherson leads the reader on a fake tour of the battle ground, explaining various aspects and tactics of the battle.

Stephanie McCurry. Masters of Small Worlds: Yeoman Households, Gender Relations, and the Political Culture of the Antebellum South Carolina Low Country. The title might be intimidating, but the book is interesting.  McCurry focuses on the poor white population and explains how their lives worked to help give the reader an idea of what they might have been fighting for when the war started.

Mastervision American History Series. Smithsonian’s Great Battles of the Civil War. If you don’t want to read and see it all laid out before you, watch this!  Includes all of the large battles you could ever want to know about.


The next three episodes of The Tudors while I figure out what to watch.  Suggestions welcome!

“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?


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


– 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.


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.


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.)


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.


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/


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.