Movie Monday: Queen of the Desert (2015)

I saw Queen of the Desert pop up on the Netflix queue and thought to myself “how come I had never heard that there was a biopic of Gertrude Bell, that travel writer, diplomat, spy, archaeologist and all-around clever person?”

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About ten minutes in, I said to myself “ah, this is why.”

Nicole Kidman is pretty good as Bell, and there are some fun additional performances by Robert Pattinson as T. E. Lawrence and Damien Lewis as Bell’s awkward love interest. James Franco appears early on as another love interest.

The problem with Queen of the Desert is that it’s not genuinely about anything. It’s just sort of a collection of facts and anecdotes about the life of Gertrude Bell, some with a point but others not so much. It’s not about Bell working to be accepted by her male colleagues, it’s not really about politics in the middle east, it’s not about the various exciting and adventurous things Bell did (she once nearly died in a mountain-climbing disaster, for instance), it’s just … not about anything.

And whatever it’s not about, it’s not about that in the slowest, dullest way possible. Every scene is played at three-quarter speed, with characters frequently restating the obvious and long, long, interminable pauses in the dialogue.

Can I just say that if you take someone who traveled the world, was partly responsible for the creation of modern-day Iraq, studied archaeology, etc., etc., and you choose to focus a huge amount of the attention on how she’s motivated by her tragic doomed love affair and yadda yadda, I feel like that’s a weird priority.

Things I’ve learned from this film:

  • James Franco, God love him, cannot act while doing a British accent.
  • He also cannot do a British accent.
  • I think Werner Herzog, who also wrote the script, has maybe never talked to a person. There might be some other way to explain it, but I can’t think of one.
  • Everybody likes to see people doing archaeology, but nobody cares about the actual archaeology part of it.
  • You can explain the politics of installing the Hashemite monarchies in three minutes (kinda), but you can’t make an interesting plotline out of it in that length of time.
  • I can in fact get tired of watching camels cross romantic vistas while reedy music plays in the background.

It’s really a shame that this movie is so samey and drab, because Gertrude Bell is a really interesting person who is both a pioneering archaeologist and an important figure in a pivotal moment in middle eastern history. But that’s the only thing Queen of the Desert has going for it.

 

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Movie Monday: Queen of the Desert (2015)

Read this thing I wrote!

I can’t believe I didn’t mention that the cover story of Fortean Times #369, cover date August 2018, is by me! It’s about Lovecraft, history, and archaeology, and if you like that sort of thing I hope you will like it. I’m quite pleased — I have written a lot of reviews for FT, but a big cover feature article like this is a thrill for me.

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I don’t know that you can order single issues directly from FT, but I’m sure you can pick this bad boy up at your local newsagents or bookseller.

Read this thing I wrote!

Movie Monday: Kings of the Sun (1963)

If I’m back on the GHP, there must be another hokey old historical epic on Netflix! And so it seems. The film in question is 1963’s Kings of the Sun, a sword-and-sandal epic inspired … loosely … by the Mound Builder cultures of historic and prehistoric North America.

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So who were the Mound Builders? The term is used to describe a wide range of Native American cultures over a long period, and strictly speaking there’s no such thing as “the” Mound Builders. What these cultures have in common is the practice of building large mounds, often for ceremonial purposes. The similarity of these platforms to the pyramids built by cultures further to the south has often been noted.

Kings of the Sun takes the position that at least one mound builder culture was the result of settlement along the Gulf coast by refugees from the overthrow of the ruling dynasty of Chichen Itza in the late 12th or early 13th century. But although I say that, it’s a pretty silly thing to say about the plot of this movie, which is only very loosely tied to the historical premise.

Anyway, George Chakiris (Bernardo from West Side Story) is the king of Chichen Itza, right, but bad old Hunac Ceel (Leo Gordon) overthrows him and he flees with his motley band of advisers, including a cranky old priest (Richard Basehart) and a bluff warrior guy (Brad Dexter). Along the way they pick up the inhabitants of a fishing village, notably the chief’s lovely daughter Ixchel (Shirley Anne Field), and sail off north, finally making their way to Texas where they meet up with a Native American tribe led by Black Eagle (Yul Brynner). Black Eagle and whatsisface (Oh, OK, he’s called Balam) compete for the love of Ixchel, they fight, they make up, the baddie attacks, they beat him, and Black Eagle dies, neatly solving the love triangle.

Kings of the Sun is a brightly-coloured, thumping-scored, completely disposable Hollywood spectacle, similar in a lot of ways to Taras Bulba and in fact directed by the same guy. It’s just a big loud pile of who cares, but it has some interesting bits in it:

  • The Maya get to wherever they are by sailing across the Gulf of Mexico, but wherever they go, it seems to have saguaro. This is weird because, as we all know:
  • Boy, Hollywood has never found an ethnicity it wasn’t willing to cast Yul Brynner as, huh? Even so, he wears a lot of brown paint in this one and hoo boy it’s uncomfortable.
  • The usual Hollywood history rapemance plotline gets inverted here: it’s Black Eagle who gets captured and wins over one of his captors rather than the lady getting won over by the guy holding her prisoner. There is a lot of Yul Brynner’s oily body writhing around all tied up.
  • It’s sort of charming how much leaping around these guys do. It’s interesting to see a period where action heroes weren’t superheroes — fit, athletic people, obviously, but not as exaggerated as they would later become.
  • There’s a standard science-vs-superstition bit in the middle where our hero, being a right guy, objects to human sacrifice. He objects so hard that Richard Basehart kills himself, even. Yul Brynner talks a lot about buffaloes.
  • There is a pretty good bit where they tell Yul Brynner that they’re going to execute them where he stands and accuses them all, with his face in shadow but the whole rest of his body brightly lit. It’s pretty good. Unfortunately it’s the only time that the corny, melodramatic staging of this movie really comes off.
  • Speaking of Taras Bulba, it is amazing how much they want George Chakiris to be Tony Curtis. In fact, there are a lot of people in historical epics of whom this is true. I dub them: Phony Curtis.
  • Anyway, it’s bright, it’s colourful, it’s bad, it’s not … as racist as it could be, I guess, maybe, but hire a Native actor to play a Native role every now and again, classic Hollywood, would it kill you?
Movie Monday: Kings of the Sun (1963)

Something I’ve been working on!

Other commitments have kept me from updating this blog as often as I’d like recently, but here’s a thing: one of those other commitments is now in a state I can talk to you about! It’s Gaming a Crusader Castle, and it’s a collaboration between an academic historian and a miniatures terrain maker to make wargames scenery based on the crusader castles of the middle east. Not to blow our own trumpet or anything, but it may just be the most historically accurate crusading terrain ever.

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This is from a different Crusades game, and shows a game based on the battle of Lodi Vecchio in 1240, but hey, it’s all connected.

Anyway, I’ll be writing a blog chronicling the project’s progress and providing some related features like scenarios and so on. If you’re interested in historical wargaming, the crusades, or the role of history in the media, please check it out. And tell your friends who might be interested!

Something I’ve been working on!

TV Tuesday: Vikings mid-season

OK, so season 5.1 of Vikings has wrapped up, with the sort of radical narrative centrelessness that we’ve come to expect from this sprawling music video of a show.

When last we left our heroes, everyone was wandering all over the map, with Ivarr and Hvitserk in York, Bjorn and Halfdan sailing around the Mediterranean falling in love, Ubbe and Lagertha being uneasy allies in Kattegat, Floki off colonising Iceland, and Harald wooing Astrid in Norway. I might have that all mixed up.

Aaaaanyway, everyone falls into one side or another of a big alliance, and Bjorn and Halfdan return, replacing their totally pointless Mediterranean side trip with an equally pointless romance between Bjorn and Princess Who Cares (Dagny Backer Johnsen). Spurned, Torvi gets together with Ubbe, which upsets Margrethe, who is sort of trying to do for Aslaug what Ubbe does for Ragnar, i.e. be the Poundland version.

And I guess Aethelwulf dies and Alfred is nominated king instead of Aethelred, which doesn’t make a lot of sense, but then I gave up trying to figure out this show’s approach to West Saxon history long ago.

So the two sides get together for a big season-ending battle, with occasional cuts away to the side plots in England and Iceland. The battle begins with a rousing chorus of The Only Song in Norway, but I can’t hate: the sad singing bit is effectively done, especially since I think the song ends on the line about killing lots of people.

So there is a battle: on the one side, we have Ivarr, Hvitserk, Harald, and Astrid, plus a bunch of Franks, while on the other side we have (deep breath), Lagertha, Torvi, Bjorn, Ubbe, Heahmund of all people, Snaefrid (that’s Princess Who Cares), Guthrum, and Halfdan. Throughout the battle, everyone takes little breaks to have moments of personal recognition and totally trip balls. During the battle, the following people die:

  • Halfdan, having narrowly avoided confessing his love for Bjorn and thereby concluding his lifelong pattern of being witty and fun but not actually mattering or doing anything.
  • Guthrum, who has pulled off the doing nothing and not mattering without the being clever. In fact, I’m totally baffled about why he was in this show in the first place if he’s not going to grow up to be, you know, Guthrum.
  • Snaefrid. We hardly knew ye. No, literally. Also her dad, king of the Ewoks Saami.
  • Astrid, who, in a startling moment of gender equality is a woman who gets stabbed to motivate both a male and a female character! I’ll miss you, Josefin Asplund, and the only expression you got to use this season, Totally Miserable.
  • No one who actually matters.
  • Seriously, not even Hvitserk.
  • Honestly, someone’s going to leave a comment below telling me that And Hvitserk Too died but I just forgot about it, and I’ll believe them. Poor old fluffy-lipped Hvitserk; it’s not his fault. He just wants to be liked while being totally unlikable. Is that so much to ask?

Meanwhile, back in Iceland, the Best Plot is unfolding, because Floki somehow assumed that people super devoted to Norse gods would be a peaceful community united in shared beliefs instead of like the Revenge Killings Fan Club. He has a great speech where he predicts an ever-escalating cycle of feud and murder, or, as I like to think of it, Iceland.

And in England Judith goes all Lady Macbeth, which would matter more if we gave a hoot in heck about Aethelred.

And to wrap it up, Rollo is sailing into Kattegat in a move that makes no historical sense but warms my heart because I like to see Clive Standen as the big meathead doofus who outplayed them all, and because I do like to see the Normans do well. It reinforces one of my favourite themes in media / least favourite themes in real life, You Can’t Fight City Hall.

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Forget about it, Jacques. It’s Vikingtown.

There are points in this show where you want to shout at the screen yes, I get it, I’ve seen Valhalla Rising too, I get it!

Sure looks nice, though!

TV Tuesday: Vikings mid-season

Holiday(?) reading: The Riddle of Chung Ling Soo

Either I picked up The Riddle of Chung Ling Soo by Will Dexter in a charity shop or Allison picked it up for me, but either way it seemed like very much my kind of thing: a history of a weird, obscure subject. In this case, I was aware that Chung Ling Soo was a magician from the late 19th and early 20th century whose gimmick was based on being a “Chinese conjurer” but who was nothing of the kind, and that’s about it.

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For all that most stories about William Robinson (Chung’s real name) focus on his “deception” or “double life,” everyone who knew him, worked with him, or wrote about him seems to have been well aware that he wasn’t Chinese; the media just played along with the bit in order to help drum up publicity.

Robinson is also famous for having been killed in an onstage accident in 1918. He did a “bullet-catching” illusion as part of his act, and one of the gimmick guns malfunctioned, actually shooting out a bullet and killing him. This is the sort of central theme of The Riddle of Chung Ling Soo; there have been a number of sensational books and articles claiming that Robinson was murdered or committed suicide, which the author tries to debunk. Along the way, though, we get an apparently comprehensive history of this famous career.

I suppose I was expecting some Jim Steinmeyer type of stuff, and indeed I see that Steinmeyer actually has written a book about Robinson, but instead I got something written in the 50s from a history-of-magic perspective, very focused on appreciating Robinson as a magician. This meant that the book included one thing I wasn’t expecting and left out one thing I was.

The thing I was expecting, but wasn’t there: the book doesn’t even acknowledge the idea that the whole Chung Ling Soo bit is pretty racist. It even mentions criticisms levelled at Robinson by a magician who actually was Chinese (or Mongolian; the author can’t seem to make up his mind), but doesn’t seem to perceive that those criticisms were, you know, actually true. It’s all understood as part of the expected flim-flam of show business, which … I suppose it is? But that flim-flam traded on some corby, even offensive, stereotypes. I’m not convinced, and I don’t think a modern writer would leave that point out completely.

The thing that I didn’t expect was the information that Robinson seems to have been warmly welcomed by the Chinese community, particularly in Australia. Apparently, in an environment of pretty pervasive anti-Chinese prejudice, a white dude performing corny Chinese stereotypes was seen as a pretty good thing, perhaps since at least they weren’t corny negative Chinese stereotypes. Obviously, no one was fooled by his “my dad was a British missionary and that’s why I look like a white guy from Philadelphia” bit, but they seem to have been happy enough that this cheeseball variety act was drawing attention to Chinese culture, even if in a completely distorted way. So that’s interesting.

One thing I did expect and was not surprised to find confirmed, given the hagiographical tone of the work, is that Robinson’s personal life, largely absent in the book, was pretty shady. For example, there are some nice words said about his romance with his future stage partner, Olive “Dot” Path, but there’s no mention of the fact that when this romance began he was already married and had a child who he basically abandoned to go be Chung Ling Soo. I mean, not much is said about his family life, but you’d think his other family would have got a look in. Oh well.

These kinds of book are always fascinating to me, less for the historical information, which is often unreliable except in overview, but for the look at what the author thinks is relevant. There’s something interesting about reading the perspective of a writer so immersed in a particular subculture that they don’t feel like they have to explain why they’ve chosen to take a certain position. I’m not sure if I’m explaining that well.

Anyway, I read it on the train and it was fun, even if I admit I skimmed some of the descriptions of performances.

Holiday(?) reading: The Riddle of Chung Ling Soo

Trip report: Scythians

On Friday the 5th I went into London to see the Scythians special exhibition at the British Museum. Going into this exhibit, I knew about as much about the Scythians as I think a relatively well-read non-specialist. I was familiar with some of the most famous finds and some of the various ancient textual references, but that’s about it.

I never feel like I can adequately talk about museum trip visits, because they’re so individual, so let me get away from narrative format and maybe just talk in list terms.

Good things: 

The thing you can always rely on with one of these big British Museum exhibits is the collection itself. You’re going to get a lot of real marquee-value items in the exhibit. Here, for instance, we got to see the actual Pazyryk chief, which is pretty cool — even if you don’t really learn more from seeing the thing in real life than you do from the same diagram drawing of the tattoos that’s in every archaeology textbook ever printed.

Context is well-presented. You get a good amount of information on cultures that came before and after the Scythians, and you get some stuff on the context of the collections from the Hermitage that make up much of the exhibit. It is kind of weird that a lot of this information is repeated several times in the early part of the exhibition.

The Scythians are pretty cool. You get lots of interesting artefacts, from weapons and horse trappings to hemp-seed hotbox tents, human remains, clothing and even a couple of little lumps of cheese. It’s a good range of stuff.

I have discovered it’s pronounced SIH-thee-uns and will never have to wonder again.

Bad things: 

One thing the exhibition did a lot was to create comparisons with Iranian, Chinese and Greek art of contemporary periods. It would have been nice to see some of those things in the exhibition as well.

The first half of the exhibition has a lot of “here is a gold ornament showing a panther attacking a deer. Here is a gold ornament showing a mythical predator attacking a deer. Here is a gold ornament showing a panther attacking a goat. I think panther fatigue set in, but then I got into the second area with the horse hats and hotboxes and things picked up again.

On a personal level, I always find these big crowd-drawing exhibitions tough. I went in the afternoon on a weekday, but that doesn’t matter to a tourist magnet like the British Museum (although I should probably not have waited until the last few weeks of the exhibition). Every cabinet basically had a continuous line of people in front of it, and it always feels like there isn’t really time to think or compare or do anything other than go “oh, interesting!” and then go on to the next thing. I am a big clumsy goof and I feel like a traffic obstacle at the best of times, so that didn’t help. So part of it is that honestly the experience of going to a marquee-value exhibition is not as enjoyable for me as it might be, largely for the same reasons that make me want to go to one. But that’s just me.

Overall:

It was good. In many ways, my frustrations stem from the fact that it was good and I wanted more of a chance to appreciate it. But I understand that there’s no Netflix for museum exhibits; they’re not going to bring it round to my house and let me watch it in my jammies. C’est la vie.

Trip report: Scythians