The blog is going to go on sporadic-posting mode for the next week or two. Work has gone absolutely crazy, and I’ve got a big event coming up that I need to prepare for. Never fear, I’ll be back; it’s just that other stuff is taking up far too much of my time right now. I will try to do the occasional small post, but no big ones. Never fear; normal service will be resumed shortly.
Apologies for the lack of posts over the weekend; coming back from a trip, I missed the last train out of London and had to rely on a friend to pick me up. Thanks to her kindness, I did get home eventually, but not until very late at night, so no post on Saturday. Then I spent Sunday preparing for class and, er, sitting around in my pyjamas playing video games.
Anyway, as is the custom of our people, Monday is Movie Monday, and today’s film is 1954’s Sign of the Pagan, a movie I chose on no more recommendation than that it has Jack Palance playing Attila the Hun.
Yeah, you heard me. The first thing that leapt to mind was of course John Arsing Wayne in The Conqueror, but as we will see Palance is not quite so terribly miscast, although there were … interesting wardrobe choices. In fact, this movie is earlier than The Conqueror, which I was not expecting. If it was an inspiration for that crapfest, those guys had better hope the Lord is merciful.
Anyway, as with most of these old historical epics, it’s on YouTube, so you can follow along.
Here we go!
Now, the historical Attila is kind of a murky figure. He played a major role in an eight-volume history by a contemporary writer called Priscus, but unfortunately it was lost, so all we have are references to it from other sources. There’s some disagreement among the textual sources, but the basic outline of Attila’s campaigns against the Roman Empire and/or the Visigoths is clear. However, there’s much we don’t know about the historical Attila, and a lot of legend has sprung up around him.
The film takes an odd approach. Some of the time, it’s writing about the legend, and a lot of the time it’s just doing “for ‘Attila,’ read ‘generic barbarian’ throughout.”
Anyway, we begin with Marcian (utility Western star Jeff Chandler), a Roman soldier of humble origins, later to become the Emperor Marcian (reigned 450-457). In fact, the historical Marcian was originally a soldier of humble origins, although he probably didn’t look like a painted plaster statuette of Julius Caesar like this dipshit does. Marcian gets captured by the Huns while riding to deliver a message that displays a spectacular misunderstanding of what the separation of the Empire into its Eastern and Western halves meant.
The Huns are led by Attila, who …
… who …
… is Jack Palance in brownface.
This is a Bad Idea. Such a bad idea. But we’re not done with the story of this Bad Idea, although I’m not sure I took any pictures of it. Oh wait, I did. See, Attila has a daughter, Kubra (Rita Gam), who is not so bad. She’s like feisty and fierce and stuff, but she’s kind of nice. There is goodness within her. You can tell because:
She’s way whiter than he is. And she’s going to be whiter yet as the film progresses. So, yeah. 1954 won’t let us get through this movie without at least one dispiriting reminder of pervasive racial prejudice.
Aaaanyway, Marcian tricks Kubra into letting him escape, and rides to Constantinople to report in with General Paulinus. Who is a stock General, but he gets a mention here because:
It’s Jeff Morrow! Exter from This Island Earth! Look everybody, it’s Jeff Morrow!
The Eastern emperor, Theodosius II, is a cowardly schemer who plots to ally with the Huns and their various barbarian vassals while leaving the Western Empire to its fate. He also bullies his sister, Pulcheria. Now, when I saw this name, I laughed, but Theodosius II did in fact have a sister named Pulcheria, who ruled as regent when he was a kid. So there you go.
Pulcheria flirts a bit with Marcian, asking him what the women in Rome are wearing and generally setting herself up as the goodie. He gets all flustered because he is a simple soldier and she is a princess; you know the drill. Then Attila turns up, crashing a banquet to which Theodosius has invited a bunch of barbarians with swell hats, and things get complex. Attila and Theodosius strike a deal, Kubra and Marcian flirt some more, and Kubra starts to get concerned with Christianity. Attila and Marcian are opposed to each other, but each honours the other as a plain-speaking, manly tough guy. All clear so far?
It’s a neat little diagram, actually. Kubra is the tragic love interest, Pulcheria is the proper love interest, and Attila is the stab-happy elephant in the room. Attila plans to attack Rome, knowing that Theodosius won’t do anything about it. Marcian suggests warning Rome, but Theodosius has him locked up. Paulinus and Pulcheria spring Marcian, they overthrow Theodosius and all march to the defense of Rome.
Meanwhile, Attila is getting more and more obsessed with prophecies and religion and worrying that the Christian God is going to fuck him up for defying Him. He has a confrontation with Pope Leo I in which Leo scares the shit out of him by knowing about a time one of his pet soothsayers got struck by lightning. He obsesses over a dream in which he died with the shadow of a cross over him. When it turns out that Kubra snitched him out to Leo, he loses his shit and kills her.
Marcian has arrived with his troops to defend Rome, but it turns out not to be necessary, because Attila, crazed with grief, guilt and superstitious terror, has ordered his men to retreat. Marcian and his guys lay an ambush for them, and in the fighting, Ildico, one of Attila’s wives, shanks him up a treat. The result:
Marcian and Pulcheria get married, Rome is saved for another … little while … and goodness triumphs over badness, except for Kubra, but she’s only a girl.
So, the good and the bad: first up, obviously the costumes and sets are pure Hollywood fantasy. I might make an exception for some of the wall paintings, but I have a hunch they’re actually in a later style, although I don’t know enough about Byzantine art to say for certain without looking it up.
Some high-quality hats and beards, though.
Some of the history is kinda-sorta right. Like, for instance, Marcian did get to be emperor by marrying Pulcheria, but the invasion of Italy that Marcian intervened in — and in which Attila encountered Leo I — happened after that, not before it. And, of course, Marcian didn’t come riding to the rescue of Rome directly. He sent troops to menace the Hunnic homeland, possibly causing Attila to fall back to secure his own bases. And all this stuff about Christianity … it’s like The Robe up in this bitch.
What else? It’s weird that Theodosius and Pulcheria both have accents, but pretty much nobody else does. The battle scenes are what you’d expect; lots of guys in minidresses clanking tin swords together. It occurs to me that much of the “historical” aspect of 1950s historical epics is that they’re based on 19th-century novels (in general, rather than always specifically). I was surprised that the story of Honoria wasn’t in there at all, nor the whole thing with Aetius.
Jack Palance as Attila is … pretty good. He doesn’t play him as a “passionate barbarian,” even in the bit where he flirts with / molests Pulcheria. He’s nicely restrained most of the time, even funny and easygoing when it suits him. The dialogue is, as always, ludicrous.
So there you have it: I had no idea this movie existed this morning, so now I am more knowledgeable, if not exactly wiser. I hope you are too.
Sometimes this comes up in a gaming context, I guess because there’s some utility to this kind of document in gaming terms … but not as much as you might think. The classic example is probably Greg Stafford’s masterful King of Sartar, a collection of jumbled and enigmatic letters, sagas and historical texts relating to the life of the possibly mythical Argrath. However, although I’ve personally had a lot of use from this book at the gaming table, I think that the parts that are useful — the backgroundy stuff about Heortling society — and the parts that are compelling — the mysterious debate surrounding the existence or otherwise of the historical Argrath — are almost completely different. However, I’m not here today to talk about Glorantha. You can tell because I have other plans for the evening.
What I do want to talk about is Motel of the Mysteries.This is my shit right here. It’s a 1979 book by David Macaulay about some future archaeologists excavating and interpreting a motel from the “modern” era (and again, you get that thing where you have a modern era which is now 35 years in the past, so even then there’s another weird layer happening). It is told with tongue firmly in cheek and is beautifully illustrated.
Like, check out this reconstruction of one of the burial chambers. Or this image of someone wearing one of the headdresses found at the site:
In order to understand why I love it so much, you have to understand my relationship with the works of David Macaulay. When I was a kid, David Macaulay was producing a lot of great educational works: big, lavishly-illustrated black and white books about the creation of ancient and medieval buildings. There was Castle and Pyramid and Cathedral and so on, and they had lots of cutaway illustrations, which always seemed to exercise a particular fascination for me when I was young.
I love that sort of thing.
Anyway, some of them were also made into a series of programs for PBS, which was the main TV that was watched in young James’s household back in the 80s. Starring Macaulay and Sarah Bullen as themselves, these things combined a little documentary (mainly aimed at younger viewers) with an animated story, often including the voices of notable British character actors. For instance, Castle has Brian Blessed narrating. I think they actually hold up pretty well, but you can judge for yourself!
I’m sure there are some inaccuracies and they’re a bit outdated now, but I still have a lot of love. And I think the mixture of fact and fiction is very effective, much more effective than in most things that try to do it.
Now, most of these postdate Motel of the Mysteries, but I didn’t really encounter them until they were all already out, and then I ran into the historical ones first. Because they were cartoons about the middle ages on PBS in the 80s, obviously; I have probably seen Castle 12 times, and I had the book too. I think the others came from the library. Come to that, I think I checked out the video of Cathedral from the public library on VHS not long after my wife and I started dating, probably slightly perplexing her.
So for me, then, David Macaulay’s art was what historical stuff looked like. And when this weird-ass, mysterious, humorous archaeology thing with such spot-on illustration — which was also kind of a sci-fi story, since obviously it’s set in the future, even if only nominally — swam into my ken, I was hooked.
It sits on my bookshelf even today, and occasionally I just take it out and look at the pictures. Such a strange thing to exist. Well worth taking a look at.
So, as you may recall, I wrote on Monday about Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and how kind of weird it is that the “modern” bit seems so dated — more dated, in its way, then the faux-historical sections. It made me think of this article, linked by a friend on G+, which shows the shopping malls of the 1980s. The passage of time is remarkably visible in a way that it isn’t when viewed continuously. No surprises there, of course, but still interesting to see.
I have no larger point, except that I have been reading a lot lately about the 1980s, largely as part of hobby-nostalgia. In fact, though, it’s the nostalgia of an age cohort slightly older than me, for a perceived golden age from about 1983 to 1989. I got into the hobby in about 1992, so by the time I encountered these things they were already memory-laden. I received them at second hand, in fragments, in an aura of used-book-smelling mystery, or, in one memorable case, in a giant cardboard box on my doorstep.
There is something always intriguing to me about old and fragmentary things; if you’ve read any of the vague, rambling personal posts on this blog you’ll know that I’ve spoken about it before. When I was a kid, comic books and roleplaying games and Doctor Who gave me that hit, and so did history and good writing. And then I studied archaeology; big surprise there.
Tomorrow I promise something more like actual content. Tonight it is late and soon it will be my bedtime.
You remember when I said that Movie Monday was going to be about movies that were allegedly based on historical events? I lied. There comes a time when it’s one-thirty in the morning and you’re staring dully at a Steve Reeves movie about the Battle of Marathon that you have to ask yourself what you’re doing with your life. (Mind you, it might still be on next week.)
In short, then, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.
And if you are interested in some nostalgia (or, what the hell is wrong with you, haven’t seen it) you can follow along here:
First, a personal note. I was 11 and living in California in 1989, so some aspects of this film are very familiar to me, although I lived in Northern California, not Southern California where the movie is set. In fact, to begin with I wasn’t aware that the way the two main characters talked was meant to be funny, because every guy I went to school with talked like that. (Not every, but enough.) In fact, this may very well just have meant that all my school friends had seen the movie before I had and were imitating it; I am pretty sure I only saw it later on television or video, although it can’t have been that much later just judging by my memories of it.
Anyway, the plot is simple: two amiable dolts, in order to avoid failing their history class, go around history rounding up famous people and dragging them back to San Dimas, California in 1988. There’s a bit more to it, but basically the comedy comes in two halves: you start with the two modern idiots not knowing what to do in a variety of historical settings, then switch to historical idiots not knowing what to do in a modern setting. It’s pretty funny.
Because Bill and Ted are charmed fools, watched out for by a benevolent time-traveller, Rufus (George Carlin) and because their basic natures are free from vice, they actually do OK in history, where all good people they encounter know that they’re good. This plot device is rather like how Doctor Who works. And, in fact, as in Doctor Who, it sometimes seems that Bill and Ted don’t visit history, but movies — so, for instance, their trip to the Old West is really a trip to a Western: a saloon, a poker game, a bar fight, a chase and away. There are a few (but not many) little meta references in this bit, for instance:
There are also some clever little gags about the way that Bill and Ted study history — and not just that they’re oafs, but that their class is all focused on certain types of people. Like, the moment they arrive in medieval England, they run into a bunch of labouring serfs, look right at them and say “Excuse me! Do you know where there are any personages of historical significance around here?”
So that’s pretty funny. Anyway, they run around collecting people — Joan of Arc, Socrates, Beethoven, Freud, Abraham Lincoln, Billy the Kid, Napoleon and Genghis Khan.
I know I said that the Billy the Kid set is clearly a film set, but by contrast the medieval set is clearly a museum, with rows of armour standing on display.
I’m a little concerned about Genghis Khan. On the one hand, he’s played by Al Leong, and I approve of movies that have Al Leong in them:
However, when they see Genghis Khan, he’s like eating a giant piece of chicken and groping a serving girl, and he is greeeezy. Now, I’m not denying that, it being the middle ages, Genghis Khan would have been greasy as hell by modern standards. But everyone else in this film is nice and clean, so why is Genghis so foul? And why does he have a big-ass comedy barbarian club? They lure him with a Twinkie, and he goes grunting and panting after them. Hmmm.
Still, I love this movie. I mean, it’s stupid as hell, but it’s a little clever about how stupid it is. The bit where the guys try to pretend that the visiting historical personages are just their friends (“uh … Maxine of Arc … Herman the Kid … Bob Genghiskhan … So-crates Johnson, Dennis Frood, and, uh … Abraham Lincoln”) and Missy just smiles and nods is great. Likewise the fact that they consistently treat “The Kid” and “of Arc” as if they were those characters’ last names.
I think what I wasn’t prepared for watching this was how much of a period piece it is itself. Obviously, the gag is “historical people in the modern day / modern people in history” but this movie’s “modern day” is 25 years ago, and it’s very, very of its time. There’s a big aerobics scene, Missy has one of those headset radios, the band references, of course … it’s set around a culture whose defining locations are the mall and the water park. It is very late-80s. So there’s an added weird feeling of detachment, like this movie that is full of jokes about history and modernity is now about history and history. Which I guess is the fate of all such documents; no one thinks A Connecticut Yankee is like a scathing satire of modern mores or whatever.
So, I meant to post this on Friday but I ran out of time. Never mind: Friday’s loss is Sunday’s gain! I proclaim it Free Stuff Friday, the day on which I talk about things that are both good and free and which are related to history.
This week’s free history stuff, at least for me, has been related to my shiny new Kindle, for which all sorts of free crap is available. I believe there are various Kindle apps, so you can read .mobi files on whatever, so even if you aren’t in tiresome love with a new device you can read these things. My current list includes such gems of 19th-century relevance as:
Chapters in the History of the Insane in the British Isles
Old English Sports, Pastimes and Customs
Authentic Narrative of the Death of Lord Nelson
The History, Manufacture and Religious Symbolism of the Scarabaeus, in Ancient Egypt, Phoenicia, Sardinia, Etruria, etc.
The Life and Adventures of Nat Love Better Known in the Cattle Trade as Deadwood Dick
The Mormon Menace
The Expedition to Borneo of H.M.S. Dido For the Suppression of Piracy
So yeah, if you have access to a Kindle app or Kindle and you like obscure 19th-century historical narratives, you could do a lot worse than to go to the Kindle store, select “history” and sort from £0 up.
The second thing, and one that I’ve talked about before, is The Appendix. I have only been reading this little online history journal for a little while, but I am in love with any publication that includes a history of tattoo removal and a discussion of the 17th-century porn-educational tract The School of Venus. (Not safe for work, which is not bad for the 17th century)
My question to you is: what is your favourite free history thing? I know there’s a lot of great material out there on the web that I don’t know about, so share the ones you like the most with me. What should I have seen that I haven’t seen? Answer in the comments below, and the best answer will receive a Gonzo History prize pack full of … well, full of cheap junk. But hey, who doesn’t like prizes?
OK, so I know I said that I’d do the giveaway today, but I may be running out of time — it may come later or even tomorrow. Never mind, eh? Here are a few pictures from the sadly no-longer-with-us Marvel kids’ cartoon The Superhero Squad, showing that the fascination with the Sphinx continues.
Here, Hulk is battling Hyperion (yeah, Hyperion from the Squadron Supreme. Basically, we live in a permanent state of being inside the rabbit hole now).
Anyway, when I saw the Sphinx I was just reminded of the Monstrous Antiquities conference and thought I’d throw these pictures up here. More tonight if I get a minute.