Movie Monday: A Man for All Seasons (1966)

A few weeks ago I wrote about the recent TV version of Wolf Hall. This week we’re back in the 16th century with the 1966 film version of A Man for All Seasons, a much more flattering portrayal of Thomas More.

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And of course it’s a classic, with every son of a gun in the world in it: Orson Welles is Wolsey, Paul Scofield is More, and, well, I mean, just look at that poster up above.

It’s good, of course — won Best Picture, full of great actors, lush visuals, all that kind of thing. Robert Shaw shouts like anything. Leo McKern is a fantastic counterpoint to Wolf Hall‘s version of Cromwell; a real devious son of a bitch but without the motivating principle.

So what sort of picture of More are we painting here? Basically one that portrays him as an example of principle, principle writ large. And that naturally means glossing over all the stuff More did that, while it might very well have been an expression of his principles, rather clashes with ours (More burned heretics, but everyone burned heretics). In essence it builds up to the moments of principled defiance that characterised More’s end and made him famous. There is a fantastic line where the Duke of Norfolk calls his behaviour “disproportionate” as if it’s the worst thing he can think of.

And that’s not a bad eye on an aspect of 16th-century society that has some parallels in a lot of societies — the idea that “go along, get along” is actually a principle rather than a shameful compromise. Not that it’s an original observation, necessarily, but it’s expressed well.

Anyway, it’s a story about moral conflict where Wolf Hall is essentially a political story that presents the moral compromises that result from the political strategies used to serve moral agendas. It’s an interesting contrast between interpretations of a time that has become synonymous with moral conflict.

I’m impressed by the fact that claims to be “a motion picture entertainment for all times,” which is … I’m not sure about that. It’s a little bit of a historical pageant, and visually it doesn’t have much to distinguish itself other than lots of velvet. But this is the kind of thing they put on movie posters back i8n the day.

So I liked it, but you don’t need me to tell you that a movie that won Best Picture is good.

Movie Monday: A Man for All Seasons (1966)

Post-apocalypses

I’ve written before about the way movies about the middle ages tend to present the era as one of just fundamental lawlessness, when individual might was the thing that mattered most. And, of course, that’s pretty much nonsense. The early middle ages — and you could probably generalise this to periods of lawlessness generally — was a time when people thought very much in terms of collective identity and regarded the possibility of destabilising violence as something very real and very, very dangerous. There’s a lot of caution and compromise going around.

But, of course, people who make movies about the early middle ages aren’t really making movies about the early middle ages, they’re making movies about primal humanity, and in their minds, primal humanity is brutal and rapey rather than clannish and, er, well, rapey-but-in-a-less-obvious-more-insidious-way.

I was just thinking about this in the context of post-apocalyptic narratives, your Mad Maxes and so forth. Like the typical Viking movie, most of these are individualistic narratives (although, stick a pin in this, they’re often about characters who are individualists against a tribalist backdrop), and they tend to feature groups that are largely composed of BDSM bandits rather than, say, Amishy farmers. They have a lot in common with the stories we tell about the early middle ages, which makes sense because in a lot of ways you can consider that era a post-apocalyptic one.

But if we can think about the early middle ages (and lots of other periods in history) as post-apocalyptic, you’d think that we would then conclude that we can come to some conclusions about what post-apocalyptic societies would be like by looking at the history of the early middle ages. Instead, we seem to be mainly basing our sense of the early middle ages on stock “uncivilised” narratives.

I wonder if this is something to do with people’s unwilling to acknowledge that hardworking communities of farmers and what have you are actually not such great guys on the whole. They have form in terms of organised violence against other communities, not respecting people’s autonomy, the whole bit. The Magnificent Seven notwithstanding, it’s the farmers you want to look out for. Those guys are mean.

Post-apocalypses

What is this? The Age of Charlemagne?

I didn’t have a prompt for today’s post, so I asked on social media and friend Bob suggested:

Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire.

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One of the things that a couple of historical TV shows have been doing lately — I’m thinking of Marco Polo and Vikings — is keep a single historical figure looming over the story. Obviously, that’s Genghis in Marco Polo, although disappointingly he’s showed up a time or two. Most of the time, though, he’s just a shadow over Benedict Wong’s Kublai. In Vikings, in the French sequences, it’s Charlemagne, who exists to show how his descendants have failed to live up to his mighty reputation.

And I think that’s probably fairly accurate for the way the emperors — who went on to style themselves Holy Roman Emperors — saw Charlemagne.

I always had a bit of a funny perspective on Charlemagne, and I wonder if I was unusual. He’s not something we really covered in school in the US, and when I was at university I started out seeing him as a sort of who-cares figure: dwarfed by the power of his Byzantine contemporaries, and, for all his achievements, hardly the equal of the Roman emperors whose title he claimed. Obviously, once I got to learn more about him and his age, I changed my view, but I think I never really appreciated how important he was in early medieval — and indeed proper medieval — Europe, not only as a person but as a person to think with.

I think it was the Song of Roland that really drove that home for me, in which Charlemagne is portrayed as someone with literally superhuman powers. By the time that was written, he was, I dunno, 2-300 years in the rear view mirror and had already passed into legend. And the importance of that legend persisted into the modern day; I firmly believe that all supernatural malarkey theories about the Spear of Destiny are based on not grasping how emotionally important the Holy Roman Empire was to the Nazis. It wasn’t that the Nazis thought it belonged to Jesus — it’s that they thought it belonged to Charlemagne.

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Now, maybe I’m the weirdo, and maybe everybody else always had the right kind of appreciation for the power of Charlemagne as a symbol in medieval Europe. But when you say “Charlemagne and the Holy Roman Empire,” that’s what pops into my head.

What is this? The Age of Charlemagne?

Ingroups and outgroups: the historical stuff

So I promised I’d write some stuff about historical topics I think are relevant to the things I worry about in the modern day! Now, the relevance of these posts might not always be obvious, but I think that’s a good thing. I’m not trying to make political points, necessarily — just put political questions in a (very loose, very broad) historical context.

We are all us

The period that I studied for my MA and PhD was the Anglo-Saxon period, which is usually dated from the late 5th to the 11th centuries. My particular focus was on the later Anglo-Saxon period, which I guess begins around 900 or so, but I paid attention to the whole range, of course.

The interesting thing about the Anglo-Saxon period — well, one of the interesting things — is that it is a period of ethnogenesis in two senses. Ethnogenesis means “birth of a people,” and it often refers to a group’s foundational myth. “The Scots are originally from Scythia,” or whatever. It can also refer to the process of national unification — the means by which, I dunno, Prussians and Swabians and Franconians and what have you all begin to think of those identities as secondary to being Germans.

The Anglo-Saxon period is like that in two ways: first, English writers of the 19th and 20th centuries tended to view the Anglo-Saxon period as the birth of the modern English nation, and to attribute to the Anglo-Saxons the qualities that they perceived in themselves. Charles Kingley said that Anglo-Saxon heritage had given him:

… a calm and steady brain, and a free and loyal heart; the energy which springs from health; the self-respect which comes from self-restraint; and the spirit which shrinks from neither God nor man, and feels it light to die for wife and child, for people, and for Queen.

Now, the idea that being English meant you were super purely Germanic fell out of favour during the 20th century for sooooome reason, but the idea that the English nation was a natural product of what happened in the Anglo-Saxon period was a pretty widespread one.

Authentic historical bullshit

But the interesting thing is — and I’m really summarising here — that something not too crazily dissimilar is happening in the Anglo-Saxon period itself. When you look at the history and archaeology of the period, you can see that an identity of Englishness is being formed out of a bunch of different, disparate identities. We even have the sort of … wreckage of unsuccessful attempts to construct alternative identities. At least that’s one way to look at them: like, the Sutton Hoo burial has been interpreted as an attempt to fuse a bunch of different heritages into a source of legitimacy for pagan kingship. Didn’t work out in the end, of course.

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And I tend to think that the weird coins you get from York that have both pagan and Christian symbols on them are attempts to create a multi-ethnic, multi-religious Northumbrian identity. On the one side, the heirs of Alfred the Great saying: “you may be a Northumbrian and I may be a West Saxon, but we’re both English and we’re both Christians, and we’re going to get rid of these pagan Danes,” and on the other side the kings of York saying “you may be English and I may be Danish, but we’re both Northumbrian and we’re going to resist West Saxon rule.” That’s an oversimplification, obviously, but something like that.

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Saint Peter on one side, hammer of Thor on the other. Pretty cool.

So the period that later writers invoked to justify English identity was formative in the creation of English identity, all right, but perhaps in a way they didn’t anticipate. It wasn’t the period when the noble, manly English came over from Germany and Denmark and what have you, it was the period (roughly) in which these groups went through the processes that made them the (noble, manly) English.

OK, but so what? 

You will hear people say sometimes that things are “just a social construct.” This is often taken to mean that these things aren’t real, appealing to some nebulous definition of real that nobody really understands. They may mean true, which is a different story and one I don’t know if I can address. But social constructs are like other kinds of construct: they get constructed, and then there they are. A treehouse is just a physical construct. It didn’t grow there; the neighbour kids built it. But it’s there now, and they don’t want to let girls in because they’re a gang of little snots.

Like … take race. The division between black people and white people as practiced in the US takes one very diverse group of people and treats them as a homogeneous mass compared to another very diverse group of people who are also treated as a homogeneous mass. It is a super messy mess when it comes to anybody whose heritage is not 100% either, which is lots and lots of people. But it’s real, because people believe in it and behave accordingly. You can’t walk around modern America and act like it isn’t.

Aside: some people who profess to believe that social constructs aren’t real are instead saying they think they shouldn’t be real and exemplifying the point by behaving as if they weren’t. This is fair enough and a pretty good strategy if you can get it to work. I don’t want to 

And while some people may feel that social constructs mean nothing, others think they’re destiny. Conservatives often to suggest that different groups can never live together peacefully, and people on all sides of the political spectrum like to act like certain modern trends are just inherent to the groups you find them among, even when the changes have occurred in living memory. Like, I’m only moderately old, and I remember when the big terrorist threat was a socialist national liberation movement.

As you can see, I think that view is obviously false. There are plenty of other examples of constructs that Americans (to return to my previous example) don’t treat like they’re really real, which in other times and places would have been real as hell. The ancestors of many modern Episcopalians and Presbyterians absolutely thought that the difference was worth shooting someone over. But in modern America … eh. Not so much.

I guess what I’m saying is that the Anglo-Saxon period is a fascinating example of a social construct — England — being constructed. And it’s constructed in different ways at the same time, and I doubt that anyone ever sat down and went “OK, guys, we need to forge a national identity here.” I think that if you’re interested in how ingroups and outgroups are formed, it can be interesting to look at the way groups that we just think of as a permanent part of the landscape form.

More thoughts to come in a future post: this is just a bit of an introduction, albeit one that got way out of hand.

Ingroups and outgroups: the historical stuff

Only the end of the world again

Has there ever been anyone who couldn’t say, with at least some degree of accuracy, “we live in uncertain times?”

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I mean, I guess we didn’t think nuclear annihilation was uncertain.

And, sure, we do live in uncertain times. I’ve written before about the terrible feeling of history happening, about the idea that Europe is sliding into bad old habits, America is teetering on the brink of large-scale crazy at worst and bad old habits at best, and I personally am never going to have the kind of career stability that results in not being painfully nuts at least some of the time. And that’s without taking into account the environmental questions, which are the ones that really keep me awake at night. But what does that mean in terms of what we’re supposed to do? Like, Viktor Orban gives me the willies, but it’s not like we can sit down and have a chat and he’ll change his mind. So what does the stirring of the old enemy mean for me personally?

The other day, a friend sent me a link to this article by a historian who clearly shares some of my fears. And I agree with some of it. I’m not sure about the cycles per se — I think that historical cycles are what you get when you decide to focus on the similarities between events and ignore the differences. I do think there are ways in which we can use our knowledge of history to illuminate the situation we’re in, but I don’t think that makes it predictable (which, in fairness, is not quite what he’s saying). I’m also not sure I agree with that thing about how liberal intellectuals have the right idea and if only everyone else would just listen to them, but that is, again, a slightly different point.

Some of this particularly connects to the way I feel as a person who came of age during the 90s. At that time, it seemed … not that, in Francis Fukuyama’s terms, history had ended, but at least that things were, for the west, entering a period of essentially stable, somewhat boring normality. I remember being disappointed by the 2000 election results, but thinking “ah well, it’s not like anything important is going to happen.” In those exact words. I like to think my knowledge and understanding have changed since then — I don’t expect that everything has quieted down now. But I feel like, perhaps, my instincts and reactions evolved during that period, so I sort of … react as if I still thought that way, even though I don’t. I don’t think that way, but I feel as shocked by what goes on around me as if I did.

Life’s unpredictable; no big insight there.

Any, a lot of westerners have begun to feel that we live in a fundamentally unstable and insecure world. Sometimes I get so sick with worry that I don’t know what to do; it seems like any action is pointless and that life is just a track that leads us all into a poison cloud of a future.

But that’s very much just a consequence specifically of my brain chemistry and more generally of my personal position. Consider:

  • my background and education make me think of history primarily in terms of nations and wars and foreign policy; that’s just where my mind goes first.
  • and in that sense perhaps we could say that I grew up in an idyllic period — a very long age of relative prosperity and really quite remarkable peace in my part of the world.
  • but what if I were, say, an LGBT person? I wouldn’t look at the late 1980s and 1990s in America with such fondness then, would I? Instead, I would think that, while obviously much remains to be done, at least today there were more countries in the world with fewer ways to discriminate against me.
  • or what if I lived in, I dunno, Iraq? I certainly wouldn’t see the 1980s and 1990s as a time of idyllic peace and plenty. Maybe by comparison to the 2000s, I guess.
  • so if we look at the world we see that the divisions between stability and chaos, or between good times and bad, aren’t permanent. Like everything else, they come and go and they depend on your perspective. What I remember as times of peace and stability might be times another person thinks of as really bad, and vice versa.

I guess what I’m saying is that big-issue unpredictability is a thing that happens. History is a moving target, and no society is a finished product. This isn’t a thing that inevitably leads to chaos and Europe’s cities aflame or whatever, but it is a thing that leads to chaos sometimes, and there may not be anything we can do about it as individuals. Indeed, I think our reaction to the threat of chaos is often not to practice the tolerant, pragmatic virtues that respond well to it but to tighten up and fight back, even against things that don’t need fighting back against — but that might be a story for another time.

Again, I’m not claiming that as any great insight. I’m just trying to work out how I, in particular, stop myself from going crazy in the face of things that will not be improved by me losing my damn mind. So it is not a question of fixing chaos — I can’t fix chaos. That’s a job for, I dunno, Marduk. Instead, it’s a question of changing my attitude toward chaos and focusing on doing what I can, both for myself and those around me and for the world in general, rather than fretting that I can’t fix everything.

I can’t influence history in the kind of way that history records, I don’t think. But in the day after that horrid panic attack, I asked myself what I could do, and I basically thought: “well, I should probably teach history.”

So there’s that.

Only the end of the world again

Movie Monday: Rudhramadevi (2015)

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OK, so this 2015 Telugu film about a famous 13th-century queen turned up on UK Netflix a while back and I added it to my list — but it’s two and a half hours long, so I never really sat down to watch it. On Saturday, though, it was rainy, so I watched this bad boy in my pyjamas while eating waffles and petting the neighbour cat and it was very enjoyable. I believe the version on Netflix is dubbed into Hindi (I think?), but I don’t speak either Hindi or Telugu so it doesn’t really make a difference to me.

I don’t know how many Indian historical epics you’ve watched, but just imagine if the people who made Chinese historical epics said “y’know, this is pretty good, but it could have a little more jingoism and sentiment and maybe a little less fidelity to historical fact. And some dance numbers.” That should give you a rough idea of how these things operate. It might not necessarily make a good movie, but it’s a pretty entertaining way to pass a rainy Saturday morning.

You get a lot for your money in two and a half hours: scheming villains, a fairytale story about a princess pretending to be a prince, elephant fights, battles, speeches, the aforementioned dance numbers, a lot of pageantry, a lot of religious allegories (a lot), a little feminism, a smidgen of history, lots and lots of costumes and some of the best moustaches ever committed to film. Also some very, very ropey CGI. Very.

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But the moustaches are pretty great.

Have I mentioned that there’s a framing narrative in which Marco Polo explains the story to the … the king … of Italy? I guess? As a feminist parable? In a set that is very reassuring about the fact that goofy stereotypes of other cultures are not exclusively a western thing.

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I feel like two and a half hours of inspirational historical glurge is a lot to get through, even though crazy stuff keeps happening, so it actually might be best to watch this thing in five thirty-minute chunks or similar.

So what about the history? Well, there certainly was a Rudrama Devi (“lady Rudrama,” more or less) who ruled the the Telugu-speaking Kakatiya kingdom in the mid-late 13th century. And she was crowned as co-ruler while her father was still alive in a move that displeased many of the local chiefs and stuff. And she did marry a guy who has the same name as her love interest in the movie, although I suspect the resemblance may end there.

I get the impression — and I am far from an expert — that she sort of represented herself with traditionally masculine aspects to lend her rule legitimacy, although I’m not sure that quite translates to being disguised as a boy like she is in the film. So basically this is a fairy tale that incorporates some elements of the history — the Kakatiya dynasty were apparently pretty apathetic about the caste system, for instance, which comes up in the film as another sign of the heroine’s personal virtue — and uses them as a springboard for a full-on fantasy adventure story. That may represent an existing folkloric tradition, in the same way that if you make a movie about Billy the Kid or Robert the Bruce you have a whole lot of not-historical-per-se material to draw on.

Quite a lot of the architectural detail, statues and so on comes from actual remains of Kakatiya dynasty art and architecture:

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Like, there are a lot of these gateways in the movie. I do wonder if some of it is presented out of context. For instance, there’s a sculpture on what seems to be a bit of a ruin that I’m pretty sure is a ruin now — but was it a ruin then?

Irrigation is very important in the film, which I believe is pretty true to the concerns of medieval India.

Anyway, as I say, it’s pretty nuts throughout; bits of it look gorgeous, bits of it look stupid and a lot of it looks gorgeous and stupid. It’s very pageant-y, very much of an older school of filmmaking, and I probably wouldn’t sit down and watch the whole thing with undivided interest from start to finish, but it’s enjoyable.

Movie Monday: Rudhramadevi (2015)

Ongoing projects and self-promotion

Lots going on at the moment as the school year begins anew! My foreign students and private tutoring always start a couple of weeks after the beginning of the academic year, so while proper teachers are already at full tilt I’m just getting up to speed, but I have more courses this year, so there is a fair bit of preparation to be doing.

However, that doesn’t mean I’ve been neglecting other fronts completely. New book to review for Fortean Times arrived yesterday, and I am looking forward to getting to grips with it:
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Also, I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before, but if you’re in Cambridge on 22nd October, why not come by ExiliCon 2016 and hear me giving my talk on archaeology in the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft. Updated! A little bit shorter! All that kind of thing!

As always, the podcast and the gaming blog are chugging along; we just had a history-heavy episode of the podcast, in which I compare the culture of Restoration England to disco space fish criminals.

Ongoing projects and self-promotion