Movie Monday: The Vikings (1958)

Ohhhh boy. 

I first saw this one back in my undergraduate days, possibly around the time I was first really studying the Viking Age. It is … veeeery … loosely based on The Tale of Ragnar’s Sons, which is even more tangentially related to the Viking invasions of England in the 9th century. You may say that this violates my own rules, to which I say yeah, probably. 

Image

The whole thing is on YouTube, actually: 

Anyway. We begin with … oh Lord, you know what? I’m not going to recount the whole story. Basically England is being invaded by Vikings. Ragnar (presumably Ragnar Lothbrok, I guess?), played by Ernest Borgnine, rapes Queen Enid and she gets pregnant. She knows King Aelle, the successor and baddie, will go after the child, so she sends him away, but oh no, he gets captured by the Vikings, who, oh the irony, don’t know who he is, and he grows up as a slave in Ragnar’s village or whatever, pushed around by Ragnar’s shithead of a son, Einar, whose name sounds kind of like Ivarr and who has a wicked evil eye (kind of like Sigurd, maybe, sorta?) after Erik (our hero) has a bird poke it out. Confused? You will be. 

Right, a quick who’s who. 

Erik is our noble hero, kept in slavery so long that he still has the nappie he was found in, or something. 

Image
Presented for your delectation: the buffalo shot.

 

Einar is the baddie, and he is Kirk Douglas. 

Egbert is kind of also the baddie, maybe, I guess, and he is the sneering English traitor. 

Ragnar is Einar’s dad, and he is kind of ambiguous. I think you are meant to like him, even though he has this cheerful soliloquy about raping women. I don’t think they thought that was what they were writing — I think they thought it was funny and romantic — but listened to coldly it is pretty wrong. 

Ragnar Lothbrok is one of those characters where there is not a lot of history and a tonne of legend surrounding him. In the History Channel show Vikings, he looks like this: 

Image

 

But in tonight’s film he looks like this:

Image

 

The Vikings throw axes at people and sort of roister, and they scheme up a plan to kidnap Morgana (Janet Leigh) who is Aelle’s fiancee, and they pull it off, but wouldn’t you know it, both Einar and Erik fall in love with her. Erik and his band of misfit sidekicks steal her away and sail to England and there’s a boat chase and Ragnar dies and blah blah blah but the main thing I want to point out is the prow-best on Einar’s ship, whom I call Derpy the Dragon: 

Image
Hyuk-a, hyuk-a, HIYA, kids! It’s your ol’ pal Derpy!

Also during the sea battle where they kidnap Morgana, there is a bit where one of the Vikings is just incredibly excited about headbutting a dude. 

Image

Anyway, Erik gets his hand cut off, but on the plus side he gets some trousers, and he and Einar put aside their differences and go try to save Morgana from Aelle, but of course then they fight over her and Einar dies, but not before he has put on the dumbest hat in history: 

Image

 

That’s Egbert looking surly on the left there. 

There is a big fight on top of a castle, and given the number of times they fall over, I’m super glad they decided to issue Erik some proper legwear. 

Image
Thank you, tiny baby Jesus.

And then Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh live happily ever after, I guess, and Einar gets a big Viking funeral and then there are end credits which, like the intro narration (by Orson Welles!) are based on the Bayeux Tapestry.

Image

So, I think the main thing that I took away from this movie was the rape thing. Like, the bit with Enid is pretty tasteful, but the stuff with Morgana is just … I mean, Borgnine gives this speech about how sex is only good when women fight back as hard the last time as the first time, but it’s OK because they secretly want it, and then Kirk Douglas is all “I wouldn’t want a woman who wanted me, seeing how ugly I am and all” and then he marches out of the feasting hall all boasting about how he’s going to rape Morgana. And then when he gets there she’s all like “oh I have such an ambivalent attitude about your sex crimes”. And even when she’s legit falling in love with Erik and just waffling about how she’s a Christian and he’s a pagan, he does make it very clear that he’s abducted her and that she isn’t necessarily free to leave.

And it’s just … I don’t _think_ it’s mean to be creepy, I think it’s meant to be hot. So yeah. 1958, everybody!

There’s a lot of good scenery in this movie, and the view from the top of the castle, which is totally anachronistic, is really nice, and there’s some fun bits where they run from oar to oar on the Viking ship as it’s arriving. Basically any part of it where there’s no women in it or women being talked about, that’s OK, but like 4/5 scenes with a woman are about a woman being threatened with, or dealing with the consequences of, sexual violence.

I’m aware that the “rape but not really” thing is a whole romance-novel trope, of course, and I guess that’s what we’re dealing with here? But I’m not sure that women who have that fantasy really want to think about Kirk Douglas rubbing his leathery, greasy face on theirs (which literally happens), but on the other hand maybe I shouldn’t speak for them?

Note that the poster for this movie shows Tony Curtis in his last-scene costume with two hands (not in the film), shows Janet Leigh tied to a stake in some kind of shift (ditto), and has the world’s hugest Viking ship filled with fighting dudes (not in the film) … but did see fit to preserve authenticity by including Derpy. 

Oh, in the movie Ragnar gets eaten by wolves, but in the sagas it is snakes. Taking something properly Viking and replacing it with something that fits the stereotype better? Big Red X, Hollywood.

Movie Monday: The Vikings (1958)

Mummy portraits are sad and lovely

This summer, my wife and I celebrated our anniversary by (among other things) going to the Pompeii exhibit at the British Museum, which I recommend seeing if you haven’t. While there we also picked up a little book on some of their mummy portraits. 

Now, these aren’t the mummies you’re probably thinking of, with the impassive gold faces and whatnot. These portraits are from the Roman period, and they’re much more naturalistic, very much in the Greco-Roman idiom. This sort of thing fascinates me — it’s an example of a way in which both Hellenistic cultural elements and much older traditional Egyptian ones are blending to create a distinct new thing. I love that stuff. 

Some of these portraits are hauntingly personal: 

Image

 

That’s from the Er-Rubayat site, and it’s … I don’t know about you, but I find it kind of chilling and uplifting at the same time. But actually this portrait is not really typical of the Er-Rubayat portraits, it’s much more the type of thing that you find at Hawara, another mummy site with similar portraits — so much so that some scholars think a family from Philadelphia (the community served by the Er-Rubayat cemetery) may have called in an artist from Arsinoe (the community served by Hawara). The portraits attached to the Er-Rubayat mummies are much more like … well, like these: 

Image

Image

Image

 

I think it’s the middle one that gets me the most. You can tell it’s of a specific person rather than an idealised formula, someone who was known and cared for and missed and whose legacy is that art scholars talk about how crude her portrait is compared to the pretty girl at the top of the page. I know it’s wrong to project modern emotions onto the past blah blah _blah_ but remember what I said about using the bullshit you have to hand to cope with the worst feeling you’ll ever have? This is the thought that keeps coming back to me, the Roman-Egyptian equivalent of some humiliating conversation in a funeral director’s office where you have to try to make whatever coins you happen to have match this godawful grief and just pile the bitter indignity of being poor on top of the kick in the heart of losing someone you love. 

But what the hell do I know? Maybe they thought that was a _bitchin’_ mummy portrait. Maybe that was just what they wanted. Maybe that wasn’t their artistic tradition. The hand holding the flower looks like some older Egyptian representations of hands; maybe it was just customarily rustic. I like to think so. 

Whatever; tomorrow I’m going to make fun of Tony Curtis’s underpants. 

Mummy portraits are sad and lovely

What I Did Today (Includes Spiders!)

My wife’s family are in town, so today we went around Cambridge and looked at some of the museums, including the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences. OK, actually just those two, since both the Whipple Museum of the History of Science and the Zoology Museum were closed. Whatever. 

Here are some things I saw: 

Some meteorites which are like 4.6 billion years old or something, older than the actual earth. Just the other day I was complaining that prehistorians have some big-ass numbers to deal with, but geologists have them beat hollow. 

Megarachne, the biggest spider ever: 

Image

 

A Mexican black magic manual, “provenance unknown” (my suggestion would be, y’know, the Devil): 

Image

 

Charles Darwin’s gizzat: 

Image

 

And some elaborately-sheathed Sapmi knives once owned by Baron Anatole von Hugel, plus also some Fijian (I think? Maybe Tahitian?) “flesh forks,” otherwise “cannibal forks,” allegedly used for the consumption of human flesh. 

Image

 

Image

 

Now, fer sure some of these forks were used for the consumption of human flesh, but as I understand it, and I am not an expert, there are a suspicious number of these so-called “cannibal forks,” and the consensus theory seems to be that as word got around that European sailors and explorers and whoever were interested in collecting these cannibal forks, maybe a lot more of them got carved than ever actually got used — for the collector’s market, like. 

Similarly, the display remarks that the use of a full-on antler as a sheath for von Hugel’s knife is really rare and odd, and raises the possibility that rather than an authentic artefact from that culture, what he has is basically just a souvenir. Now, of course, that fact is interesting in itself!

Also, I saw this. Sadly, I am unlikely to be able to go: 

Image

What I Did Today (Includes Spiders!)

People will do unbelievably fucked-up things with corpses: 2

So, if you have been on the webbernet over the last few days, you have no doubt seen a story about jewelled saints’ skeletons sent by the Pope to bolster Catholicism in Germany. And they look pretty amazing!

Image

 

Of course, these are far from the only completely mental medieval reliquaries; they’re just articulated and therefore mess with our sense of propriety somehow. But viewed with the correct perspective, many other medieval forms of venerating a saint are also unbelievably fucked-looking. 

Image
Skull from one of the two rival bodies of St Valentine.

 

Image
St Yves, apparently.

Bling all the hell over the place is just what a proper medieval church looks like. Consider if you will the hanging crown or votive crown. Kings would offer these to churches as offerings of thanks or demonstrations of favour or whatever. The best ones are from Spain, part of the Treasure of Guarrazar. They are amazing. I was going to say they were gorgeous, but by most modern aesthetic standards they’re actually hideous. Just vulgar as hell. But they’re gloriously vulgar. 

Image

 

Encrusted with sapphires and all hanging with gold and shit, this is the crown of king Recceswinth, a Visigothic Spanish ruler. The hanging letters read RECCESVINTUS REX OFFERETActually, it says ECCESVINTUS, one of the Rs having fallen off at some point since the Dark Ages, but whatever. You get the idea. 

But reliquaries aren’t just for the middle ages. There are also some modern artists doing examples of the form that are baller as hell. This is Al Farrow’s “Reliquary for the Extended Family”. 

Image

 

I want one. You know, for my mantelpiece. Except my mantelpiece is already covered in toy robots. 

People will do unbelievably fucked-up things with corpses: 2

Witch trial!

Remember when I talked about Francois Villon and that somehow-authentic sound  that old court records seem to have? These ones are from Little Oakley in Essex, which was the site of one of the burials I studied in my thesis. If it weren’t for the fact that people got the jail and even died, witch trials would be some funny stuff. Consider, for instance, this excerpt from the testimony of Annis Herd, an accused witch: 

The said Annis Herd saith, that she told one of her neighbours that the churle (meaning Cartwrite) had carried away a bough which she had laid over a flowe in the high way, and saide that she was faine to goe up to the anckle every steppe, and that shee said hee had beene as good he had not caried it away, for she would fetch as much wood out of his hedges as that doeth come unto. And she saith also that she remembreth she came unto goodman Wad, & telled him that she was presented into the spirituall court for a witch … 

Also she confesseth yt Lannes wife gave her a pinte of milk & lent her a dish to carie it home in, & that she kept the dishe a fortnight or longer, & then sent it home by her girle, & also that Lannes wife came to her for ii. d. which shee ought her. 

… but denieth that she hath any imps Aveses or blackebirds, or any kine called Crowe or Donne: And all and every other thing in generall, or that shee is a witch or have any skill therein.

On the one hand, it’s comedy gold: a pint of milk? Crime of the century. The 16th century, that is. But on the other hand … look, if you are a 16th-century Essex housewife, maybe do not tell anyone that you were presented into the spirituall court for a witch. Like, that’s almost weirder than thinking you’re a witch, isn’t it? Going around saying you are? 

Mind you, not all contemporaries were convinced by this whole witch idea, either on evidentiary or theological grounds. This excerpt comes from another 16th century source, a pamphlet called The Discoverie of Witchcraft

My question is not (as manie fondlie suppose) whether there be witches or naie: but whether they can doo such miraculous works as are imputed unto them … O Maister Archdeacon, is it not pities, that that which is said to be doone with the almightie power of the most high God, and by our saviour his onelie sonne Jesus Crhist our Lord, should be referred to a baggage old womans nod or wish, &c? … If witches could helpe whom they are said to have made sicke, I see no reason, but remedie might as well be required at their hands, as a pursse demanded of him that hath stolne it. But trulie is is manifold idolatrie, to aske that of a creature, which none can give but the Creator. The papist hath some colour of scripture to mainteine his idoll of bread, but no Jesuiticall distinction can cover the witchmongers idolatrie in this behalfe. Alas, I am sorie and ashamed to see how manie die, that being said to be bewitched, onelie seeke for magicall cures, whom wholesome diet and good medicines would have recovered.

Again, I have nothing to say here except that I adore the insult “baggage” and would like to see it used more often. 

Don’t forget! My talk at Treadwell’s is coming up on Monday!

Witch trial!

Context

Sometimes I phrase things to my students like “if you were to live in ancient Athens…” or whatever. 

Now, obviously, this is just a thought experiment, and I’m not suggesting they could have. After all, if they lived in ancient Athens, they wouldn’t be them. They’d be Athenians, right? 

I sometimes wonder how pronounced the differences between me and some me-analogue in some past culture. About ten years ago, I wrote this while struggling with getting a visa to travel to Russia: 

You know, like a hundred and fifty years ago I’d just have a letter from some old school-mate (of Bene’t College) saying that I was a Capital Fellow, and I’d breeze through passport control by giving the fellow there a hundred kopecks and joining him in a dish of tea. On the down side, my trip would take like six months and I’d probably die of typhus, or the cholera morbus. On the up side, my travels could be made into a book, called something like Travels of an Archaeologist in European Russia, or, Into the Unknown with Derringer and Electrocromatophorogram. On the down side, my travels could be made into a popular ballad, called something like An Irish-Man in Muscovy, or, Paddy and the Knouter.

So I guess it all balances out. Mind you, weren’t we at war with Russia around 150 years ago? Nope! Not until 150 years ago next year. So I guess I dodged a bullet there. 

Of course, I wouldn’t have had a letter from an old boy of Bene’t College 150 years ago because they didn’t admit either Catholics (the religion of my family) or atheists (the non-religion of my day-to-day existence). Plus I would probably screw up the dish of tea. 

Every time I buy something online, I wonder if I would have had better social skills if I had come of age in an era where every commercial transaction started by walking into someone’s warehouse and going “what price Eastern spices today, fellow?” or something. 

That is all. 

Context

I Forgot It Was Monday: Zulu Dawn (1979)

OK, so maybe I have an appetite for stodge. I watched this a couple of weeks ago on Netflix while doing something else. And it’s … it’s OK, I guess. 

Image

 

Ironically, the thing that makes Zulu Dawn not very interesting is the history: although the battle of Isandlwana was a very important turning point in African history, the story of the battle itself isn’t actually all that dramatically interesting, at least not for the kind of big-pageant epic this is trying to be. 

So, OK, our story really starts in 1964, with the success of Zulu. Zulu told the story of the battle of Rorke’s Drift. Now Rorke’s Drift, which happened shortly after Isandlwana, is stirring action-movie stuff. A small number of British defenders, led by a couple of officers neither of whom were exactly badasses at first glance, held of a vastly numerically superior Zulu force, using improvised defences and their advantages in training, discipline and (hem hem) firepower. Just to cap it all, Zulu is a deeply ambiguous film, simultaneously a rousing war movie and a movie that’s very skeptical about the value of war and of the Empire in general. This was just the thing for audiences of the day — it was an old-fashioned war movie, but not so old-fashioned you had to feel guilty about it. It could be appreciated on multiple levels. 

1979 was the 100th anniversary of Isandlwana — and Isandlwana was a very different story from Rorke’s Drift. After the British high commissioner, Sir Henry Bartle Frere, picked a fight with the Zulus as a pretext to kick their asses and roll them into a united South Africa, the British launched an invasion of Zululand. Reckoning that they had guns and the Zulus mainly just had spears, they were reasonably confident of success. As an added fuck-you, they launched their attack at harvest time, when they reasoned that the Zulu army wouldn’t be able to fully mobilise. Unfortunately for them, they mistimed this a bit; the Zulu troops were already mustered. Bad scouting, bad organisation and the mixture of bad luck and incompetence that lead to this kind of defeat allowed the Zulus to get the jump on the British at Insadlawa; the British troops, very tough nuts to crack when ready, were hit by surprise by a Zulu force that outnumbered them 16:1. The battle initially went pretty well for the British, but as the day wore on and supplies ran low, they began to fall back to their camp. They were outflanked, surrounded, overrun. It was the most shocking defeat the British army had suffered since … maybe since ever. 

Now the British, being the biggest bullies in the world, were well aware that the way to get a bully’s respect is not to beat him up unless you can do it reliably every time. So rather than going “whoops, that was a bad idea” they tooled up and came back, and if you want to learn how that one ended, go look for Zululand on a map. But just because the British were the 19th century’s bullies par excellence, let’s not get too sentimental about the Zulu kingdom, which was a proper kingdom, ie a bunch of similar bullies, just without the advantage of steamships. There’s an interesting parallel to Little Big Horn, which was only three years earlier in 1876.

So Zulu Dawn has got its work cut out for it. Everybody knows how the story ends, and it ends with all the British characters getting killed or running away. Interestingly, it doubles down on this, spending its first half showing what a bunch of dickweeds they are. It has a lot of good performances (Burt Lancaster, Peter O’Toole), but it’s very hard to bring yourself to care about the characters, even the Obvious Hero, because they’re mainly dirtbags or nonentities. Some of them are a bit more sympathetic, I suppose. 

It’s not bad or anything — it’s just very matter-of-fact. I mean, think how many lines you can quote from Zulu. A few, right? Maybe a dozen, if you’re that kind of person. Now, quick, if you’ve even seen it, how many lines can you quote from Zulu Dawn? There’s a lot of humour and charm in Zulu. But interestingly, the stuff that creates it is all total fiction: the personalities of Bromhead and Chard are scriptwriters’ inventions, Hook was a teetotal lay preacher rather than a malingering drunk, and the hard-as-nails colour sergeant was 25 years old, the youngest colour sergeant in the whole army. The whole Welsh thing is bullshit: the 24th moved its depot to Wales in 1873, but most of the troops at Rorke’s Drift were English — it didn’t really become a Welsh regiment until the 1880s. 

And yet somehow that lack of bullshit is what makes Zulu Dawn ultimately kind of unsatisfying. It looks great — no substitute for the actual scenery and thousands of people and horses streaming across the landscape. You get a sense of the scale, which you don’t in so many war movies. So that’s cool. It’s worth a look; it’s just no Zulu

I Forgot It Was Monday: Zulu Dawn (1979)