I have a habit of getting periodically obsessed with things that I neither know anything about nor have any reason to care about. For the last couple of months, it’s been competitive fighting games. I have barely played a fighting game in my life, except for a little Soul Blade (then called Soul Edge) at university and the usual unsuccessful Street Fighter II button mashing in junior high. So why am I watching videos of gameplay on Youtube? I have no idea.
However, it did inspire a few thoughts. For one thing, I think the characters in some games are really charming. Take, for instance, Dudley from Street Fighter III and IV:
An English boxer with rolled-up sleeves and a curly moustache who tells people they have no dignity? J’approve.
The old-timiness of Dudley made me think about other fighting games. Did you know for instance, that there’s a homebrew fighting game based on Les Miserables? It’s called Arm Joe, for reasons that make sense in Japanese. You can choose from a cast of characters including Javert, the Thenardiers (who are a single character), Valjean, Enjolras, Marius, an unnamed policeman, Robo-Valjean, and loveable bunny(?) Ponpon. So there are some deviations from the canon is what I’m saying. Anyway, observe:
Anyway, the spectacle of a fighting game character just straight shooting a dude with a musket inspired the thought that I like games where you get to play historical characters. I know you have leaders in games like Civilisation, where the fact that Gandhi is a murderous psychopath is a running gag. But I mean actually playing those characters as your characters. And a fighting game could actually be a fun way of doing that!
The obvious person who springs to mind as a potential character is Abraham Lincoln, or, as he’s known in these parts, “American Major General Abraham Lincoln.” (This is a joke that like three other people, including my wife, will get.) Lincoln himself was a big dude with some history in the grapplin’ business.
Long reach, mostly throws, I’m guessing.
So yeah, now I want to see this game, in which major historical figures brawl to determine who is the greatest.
Plato was also a champion wrestler, as it happens. I’m just sayin’.
Small countries, particularly small countries with big tourism industries, can sometimes find themselves weirdly associated with a sufficiently colourful minority. Take Jamaica for instance; the image of the typical Jamaican in most people’s minds is probably of a dreadlocked rasta, even though Rastafari make up about 1% of Jamaica’s population. Similarly, the popular image of Scotland is of a kilted highlander, even though the majority of the population even in the 18th century when this image was solidified didn’t fit the stereotype at all. I don’t consider myself Scottish enough to speak knowledgeably about questions of national identity (I was born in Scotland, but my family moved away when I was four years old) but even so I bet that the average person from Edinburgh or Glasgow loves the fact that teuchters are the public face of the country.
(If it turns out that “teuchter” is genuinely offensive this bit might get changed.)
And there’s probably no single figure more associated with this representation than Robert “Robin” “Rob Roy” McGregor, 17th-18th century Highland outlaw and all-purpose swashbuckling hero. His story’s been filmed three times at least, but the one we’re looking at today is the 1953 Disney production. A tip of the bonny blue bonnet to friend of the blog Chris for linking me to this … historical curiosity.
So, what I found interesting was the poster’s claim that “every minute flames with furious action,” which is really not true. We actually get quite a lot of backroom politicking, wooing, Highland dancing, and fat comedy uncles. Which, you know, fair enough. Even at a svelte 82 minutes, if every minute were furious action it would be a little wearing.
The basic story is familiar in outline: Rob Roy is imprisoned by the rotten old redcoats for taking part in a rebellion, gets busted out, woos and wins the beautiful Helen Mary, gets chased down by the government some more, jumps over a waterfall and engages in some acts of derring-do which end up with him getting to meet the King.
Rob looks like this:
His battle cry is, no fooling, “Ahoy there!” This leads me to conclude that Rob doesn’t know the difference between “being in a fight” and “seeing a boat.” Travel by water must be fun.
The baddie is the villainous Marquis (although I think they call him a Duke in the film?) of Montrose, here represented by Michael Gough:
Unlike proper, upright Duke of Argyll, Montrose is an Anglified sissy. Surprise.
Rob Roy is supported in his adventures by his love interest, Helen Mary, his mum, Helen Mary’s comedy Uncle Hamish, and various MacGregors, who may in fact all be called Donald.
Two things surprised me about the film: the first was that it’s surprisingly on-point about the ambiguities of the politics of the age. The main villains are Scottish rather than English (although England was certainly involved, the Jacobite rebellions saw Scots on both sides), and they’re up-front about the complexity of the situation. It was also nice to see that Rob is presented as a rich dude rather than a champion of the oppressed. Comparatively rich, anyway. This is accurate — the historical Rob McGregor was outlawed for failing to pay back a loan for the whopping sum of £1,000.
The second thing that surprised me was how much of this was repeated in the 1995 film — well, at least the iconic waterfall jump. Perhaps that’s in Scott’s novel, which I haven’t read.
What didn’t surprise me:
Rob Roy’s outlawry represented as an act of noble rebellion rather than a money squabble between tycoons.
Godawful Scottish accents on a mostly-English cast.
A lot of picturesque mooning about in bens and/or glens.
Everyone except the principals being super greasy.
Most of the reason people care about Rob Roy instead of some other ruffian is Walter Scott’s novel about him, which was presumably inspired by a 1723 (that is, during his life) book called
The Highland Rogue: Or, The Memorable Actions of the Celebrated Robert Mac-gregor, Commonly Called
Rob-Roy: Containing a Genuine Account of His Education, Grandeur, and Sudden Misfortune; His Commencing Robber, and Being Elected Captain of a Formidable Gang; His Exploits on the Highway, Breaking Open Houses, Taking Prisoners, Commencing Judge, and Levying Taxes; His Defence of His Manner of Living; His
Dispute with a Scotch Parson Upon Predestination; His Joining with the Earl of Marr in the Rebellion;
His Being Decoy’d and Imprison’d by the Duke of ——–, with the Manner of His Escape, &c
People had a lot more time to read titles in 1723, I’ll tell you what.
Now, the link I have to this text says it’s by Defoe, but I think that is an older theory. Which is a shame.
Anyway, so yeah, this is a charmingly bland and brainless Disney adventure film, but it’s not like terrible terrible, it’s just old.
I know exactly what I did, too — I had some Coke Zero about seven hours ago. In any case, since I’m sitting here in the dark wondering when it’ll be OK for me to get up and have breakfast, I thought I would do another post, in this case mainly about what I’ve been reading recently.
I seem to have been reading a lot of stuff about comics recently. I read Sean Howe’sMarvel Comics: the Untold Storyrecently, along with biographies of Alan Moore and Jack Kirby. And very informative they were too. It got me to thinking about obsession and how people’s obsessions fascinate me even though I don’t really have any myself. Not real obsessions.
I have a shelf of books about comics — not too many, but more than one. The Howe, the Kirby bio, Gerard Jones’s book, a few other bits and pieces, some of them history and some of them academic analysis. In most rooms I spend time in, I probably know the most about comics and their history and criticism. But obviously I spend a lot of time reading the books and blogs of people who know much more than I do, people who’ve really put in the hours and the money to build some mastery. So my perception is that I know very little about it. Similarly, I greatly enjoyed Jon Peterson‘s superb Playing at the World, a history of the development of Dungeons and Dragons, but obviously I’ll never have the patience or dedication to research the details of its origins to the level that Peterson displays in this terrific video:
So while, again, I probably know more about the development of D&D than a randomly-selected room of people, just by dint of having read the book and hung out with some people who do really care about the game’s complex history, I could hardly call myself an expert.
And then I think I can say that about my “proper” academic interests as well: I have a pretty good grip on my period and field, I like to think, but I’m not one of the great experts. I’m not even sure that I could hammer out a really great piece on my thesis topic these days; I don’t feel like I have the level of focus and energy the task would need.
The more I look at the range of my interests, from archaeology in general to folklore to early medieval history to, heck, history in general to Lovecraft to geek stuff to my (small but beloved) collection of vintage typewriters I sort of see myself as … I don’t know … as having like a B in everything and maybe a B+ in some things. I guess that makes me a dilettante.
Perhaps this is an exaggeration; it is, after all, five in the morning and most of my thoughts are taken up with Pop Tarts. And it’s certainly true that self-confidence is (and has always been) an issue. If I thought I could really achieve mastery in some one field I might be more motivated to put in the time and effort.
But then, on the other hand, is it so bad to be a dilettante? I know a moderate amount about a lot of things; I can happily teach the Thirty Years War section of my class even though that’s not my specialist topic and I haven’t done a whole huge ton of research for the purpose, because I know the basics well enough. And it’s not bad at parties; I usually know enough about whatever’s being discussed that I can at least follow along.
The question, the real question, is how you get paid for being a dilettante without also knowing anything about sports.
Anyway, I have blathered long enough, so as a reward for you making it to the end of this post, have some fun stuff:
This map shows Anglo-Saxon placenames on a map of Anglo-Saxon London. It is fun to think about that city’s development, much of which has been relatively recent. I remember reading recently about some Elizabethan person becoming successful enough to buy a little country place in … Fulham. Which is not quite how you think of Fulham today.
In light of the recent Strawman Arena about the centennial of the First World War, I was looking around at recruiting posters. This poster is not from WWI, but it’s so goddamn weird that I thought I’d put it in.
That’s from 1972, when apparently the US Navy was trying to persuade the parents of bewildered-looking African-Americans skeptical of the military’s good intentions to sign them up for it. I think what really makes this poster perfect is the young man’s expression. He looks confused and unhappy, which is not exactly what you’re going for in propaganda in general.
I have high hopes that Movie Monday will be on an actual Monday this coming week. Thanks for keeping me imaginary company on a rough morning.
Now, it is not an actual rule here on Movie Monday (what can I tell you, it’s been a hell of a week) that we only review bad movies. I never said that or set out to do it. But bad movies are so much funnier, as a rule. However, this week we’re talking about a legitimately good film, 1987’s The Untouchables, directed by Brian De Palma, written by David Mamet and starring Kevin Costner, Sean Connery, Andy Garcia and Robert De Niro. With a score by Ennio Morricone, yet!
It is a pretty good film, and you should probably watch it. But I’m not here to talk about the quality of the film. I’m here to talk about a completely ridiculous pet peeve I have with it.
My pet peeve is Frank Nitti.
Now, in case you did not know it, Frank Nitti was a real guy. He was born in Italy and moved to the US in the 1890s. He was pals with Al Capone’s brothers and eventually became part of his gang, rising to become one of his top goons. He was called “The Enforcer,” and he basically ran Capone’s muscle division.
This is he.
In the film, Nitti is a dapper assassin with a sardonic smirk, played by veteran bad guy actor Billy Drago (if, like me, you are me, you may remember him from The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.).
Not too much of an obvious resemblance.
At the climax of the film, Nitti talks shit about Sean Connery, whom he had killed, and Eliot Ness chucks him off a roof, killing him. And maybe this is a small thing, but I find this completely bizarre.
See, the real Frank Nitti didn’t die during the Capone tax investigation. Far from it! He was convicted alongside his boss, but only served a short sentence. Nitti eventually wound up becoming the nominal head, or at least the face, of his criminal organisation. He died in 1943 — in fact, he killed himself, terrified at the thought of going back to prison (Nitti had severe claustrophobia).
So why the hell kill him in the film? It adds something to the story, I guess, but having him be called “Frank Nitti” doesn’t — he doesn’t really resemble the historical Nitti, and it’s not like Nitti is really famous. No one’s going to be all “oooh! Frank Nitti!” in a movie that’s already about Al Capone.
You’ll be surprised to learn there weren’t all those shootouts either, I’m sure.
I apologise, readers, but due to the pressures of work and other commitments, Movie Monday has been postponed to Tuesday this week (I was just so attached to the title that I ignored the fact that Monday is my busiest day. I should have called it Film Friday or something). However, as a consolation, here is a short post about names, a subject that you know I enjoy.
After the horse got tired and I dismounted the boss said he would give me a job and pay me $30.00 per month and more later on. He asked what my name was and I answered Nat Love, he said to the boys we will call him Red River Dick. I went by this name for a long time.
“Red river dick” sounds absolutely awful. I do not want to think about “red river dick.”
It’s not like his name was Szmyrzlyn Nrasznafrsjowicz or something: it’s “Nat Love.” “Red River Dick” is longer.
This type of thing happens all the time. If you subscribed to the ODNB Life of the Day like I told you to, you’ll see there are all these entries that are like “Tom Smith, known as Raymond Smith, was blah blah blah…”. Why?
RED RIVER DICK.
Or check this out:
Christmas, Dec. 25, 1872, is a day in my memory which time cannot blot out. I and a number of friends were in a place called Holbrook, Ariz. A dispute started over a saddle horse with the following result. Arizona Bob drew his forty-five Colt revolver, but before he had time to fire he was instantly killed by A. Jack. Then a general fight ensued in which five horses and three men were killed.
It was a sad thing for me to see my friends dead in a corral on a Christmas morning, but I helped bury the dead and took care of the wounded. The names were A. Jack, Wild Horse Pete and Arizona Bill.
I can only assume that “A.” stands for “Arizona,” since we already have a gunfight that involves both Arizona Bob and Arizona Bill.
Also, “deadwood dick” doesn’t sound too good either. I’m just saying.
I do not have an opinion on this topic; I’m just thinking out loud here. I don’t have a solid view about how wargamers think about history, or even how I do in this context.
As will be no secret to anyone that knows me, I am a wargamer, albeit more of a prepare-to-wargamer. I paint little metal and plastic models, I build little scenery for their battles, etc. In short, I’m not at all cool, but then if you thought I was:
Thank you, but
you really haven’t been paying attention so far.
Anyway, so. On the one hand, I have lots of little orcs and ogres and mutants and Cthulhu monsters and so on, but it’s not them I want to talk about today. It’s more, as befits the blog, historical models. Like these guys:
I seem in particular to have quite a lot of vikings: I have viking armies in 6mm, 15mm, 1/72 and 28mm scales. That is quite a lot.
But I have also played various Late Roman dudes, Crusaders, and occasionally some WWII Brits and Americans.
But playing a game about Vietnam would really creep me out. Or a game about modern-day Afghanistan. I mean, people play them and that’s fine; our creep lines are all in different place. But they would creep me out.
Now, I’m under no illusion about the Viking Age being somehow nicer than Vietnam or whatever. This is just another case of the pirate thing.
(My pitch for this series is that these guys steal a boat and they go around robbing people. And if the people turn out to be Catholics they torture them. No, no, it’s cool, they have cool hats.)
But somehow it’s weird and I don’t like the idea of playing in those conflicts.
Now, this is a series of system-agnostic sourcebooks that posit the abdication crisis erupting into a full-on civil war in Britain, with the anti-Edward Anglican League clashing with the BUF and then various worker’s militias and so on also piling in. It’s interesting to see how people interpret this. For some people, the situation is played as farcical, with the Anglican League being uptight English stereotypes and the BUF resembling Roderick Spode’s blackshorts:
Now, you could say that in one way this represents its own bias: an English Civil War in the 1930s is inherently funny; that stuff happens elsewhere.
But there are some other ones where the scenarios are played a little bit more straight, and these have engendered controversy of their own. For instance, I once read a scenario in which the BUF were raiding a neighbourhood, with their intention being to round up all the minorities and other social undesirables and march them off to the camps. People were very weirded out by that, and I’m not sure I’d want to play that side in a game. And it’s not that I like to play good guys in general — I play bad guys in a lot of games.
So why is that so weird? Is it because it’s closer to home? Many people base their VBCW campaigns in and around the places they actually live, so that could be it? It’s not because it’s something that really happened, which is why people usually explain why they don’t like playing the Nazis but they don’t mind playing worshippers of Khorne the Blood God.
I don’t know. But I think it’s an interesting thing.
Mind you, I love the VBCW concept, and I love the amazing work people do in building their armies. My personal preference would lie on the farcical side of things, but I think it could be a lot of fun to play. Might do it in 1/72, though. Cheaper.
I am sure I had one other but I can’t remember what it was.
My study is currently a terrible mess, and miniatures I am waiting to paint are on the bookshelves. I feel kind of bad about my little toy soldiers being in front of this big row of depressing-ass books about the sufferings of millions in WW2. There may be a post in here about being a historian and a wargamer; I don’t know.
In the 5th century, the Roman Empire — which was split into eastern and western halves — spent a lot of its time fighting off a series of barbarian invasions. One of the largest was the invasion of the Huns, under their leader Attila, which was thumped by the Romans at the battle of the Catalunian Plains, also called the Battle of Châlons, in AD 451. The name of the Hunnic leader, Attila, is a byword for savagery and cruelty throughout the west — and if you were about to say that in Hungary Attila is remembered rather differently, you were probably paying attention to our conversations about Dracula or Genghis Khan or, for that matter, the last time we did a film about Attila.
Anyway, I’m not going to go over the history of Attila, other than to point out that if you were to just watch this movie you’d assume that he was a Generic Barbarian Hero, which I guess is what we get when we consider that not a huge amount is known about him — and bear in mind that we have much better sources for the life of Attila than we do for your typical non-Roman of the era.
Before we even get started, let me get this off my chest: what the fucking fuck is the point of making movies based on history if you’re just going to change the history to be more like the movies?
So then: Attila.
Unlike most Movie Monday movies, I’m not going to go into too much detail on this stinkburger because it is three hours long — it was originally a TV miniseries, and in fact I saw it back when it aired. It’s weird that we say aired, isn’t it? I think it was on cable even then.
But let’s say hypothetically I were to tell you that we were reviewing a TV movie about the life of Attila, you might make a checklist that included the following elements.
Attila will be wild and brave and free.
There will be a beautiful and fierce woman for Attila to woo and win. Bonus points if she starts off as his enemy.
Civilised Roman women will think Attila is sexy sexy.
Romans will be English.
Non-Romans will be hell of greasy.
There will be a lot of shoddy wooden structures on fire.
No surprises here, then.
Except maybe among the cast! For starters, Attila is Gerard God Damn It Butler, not yet famous but already shit. I cannot represent his baffling accent in a photograph, but believe me it is weird. Is it Scottish? Is it American? Is it like phony Eastern European? Incidentally, he played a good warlord in Coriolanus, so it’s not like he can’t, but he hasn’t got a lot to work with here.
And Flavius Aetius, the Roman general who put a stop to Attila’s shenanigans, is played by no less than Powers Boothe, who never saw something he couldn’t stare goggle-eyed at while rasping like he can’t decide whether he wants to murder it or have sex with it. And if you think that’s a criticism, you do not know me. Powers Boothe!
Aaaanyhow, we follow the life of Attila from a youngster, being raised by his dad Mundzuk, getting orphaned, having some kind of prophecy about being a great king, being adopted by his uncle Rua, feuding with his brother Bleda, capturing and falling in love with feisty warrior woman N’Kara (what the fuck kind of name is that supposed to be?), etc. Meanwhile, the Romans, represented by stiff general Felix, clever queen mum Placidia (Alice Krige, better known to dorks everywhere as the Borg Queen) and airheaded western emperor Valentinian III fret about it. They don’t know what to do to stop him, so they release Aetius from durance vile (where he never was in reality) and give him a swell hat. He goes off to get the Huns on side …
… oh, sod it. This is going to take too long even if I tell it out in the bare bones — we’re not even an hour in yet.
Right, so, here are some notable things about this film:
the Roman princess they try to set up with Atilla, Honoria, wears my hand to God a corset.
there is all kind of pagan hoo-hah in Rome despite the fact that it’s 450 and they’re all Christians.
Attila goes to Rome, which is not a thing that happened.
the eastern emperor, Theodosius, is Tim Curry!
the Visigothic king, Theodoric, is Liam Cunningham, which is cool but not as cool.
And people change sides, and Bleda tries to steal N’Kara/Ildico away from Attila, and he finds the magic sword, and in the end there’s a big battle, and I think my main problem with the movie is this. Here’s the Roman army getting ready to fight the Visigoths or whoever:
I know the photo isn’t great, but look at them! They look like they’re about to go chasing around the countryside after Asterix and Obelix. It’s the fifth goddamn century. That’s like if in the beginning of Saving Private Ryan all the GIs had morions and arquebuses. Arquebusses. Arquebi. Hackbuts.
And it’s the same with everything: the scheming Emperor’s mother, the orgies, the foppish youth on the throne, Aetius’s low-rent Julius Caesar costume — it’s just a bunch of corny stereotypes about “Romans” based on I, Claudius and where it’s right (Gallia Placidia appears to have meant business, for example) it’s a fucking coincidence. Oh, and Theodosius II died in 450, which I think Sign of the Pagan at least got close to right.
The 5th-century Roman army, as I mentioned when I talked about King Arthur, looked crazy as hell, and instead of that, instead of doing something that is both visually exciting and challenges people with an unfamiliar view of a familiar concept, these tiresome sons of bitches decided to make a movie that just showed people what they expected to see, even if they had to make a botch of the history in order to do so. And that just goes for the whole thing.
I’ve made the point before that the phony, screwball versions of various disciplines actually have a much longer pedigree than their more evidence-based counterparts: astrology is much more venerable than astronomy, chemistry comes from alchemy, quackery is the original medicine and people have been talking self-serving bollocks about the past much longer than they’ve been actually trying to understand it.
One thing I do is write reviews of history-related books for a magazine that covers not only history but also the paranormal, the esoteric and the generally weird. Sometimes this means that I get to review books that are about quirky and odd history, which I enjoy, and sometimes it means that I get to read books about how the folk tale of the Green Children of Woolpit (a local tale about people finding some green children) is clearly about how genetically-engineered photosynthetic human space colonists came to earth in the middle ages. Barmy as it is, that’s reasonably entertaining, but somehow the ones about how all of ancient history was really a sophisticated network of megalith-centred trade networks are even more frustrating, because … I can’t explain why. I think it’s the fact that they’re structured in such a way that it’s easy to knock down the premise (to wit — there is no evidence for this whatsoever, and it’s highly suspicious that you haven’t demonstrated this idea with any actual stone circles) but you know it won’t make any difference; there’s an infinite amount of special pleading in the Special Pleading Bin.
There are those who take great joy in the whackjob theory of the “alternative” historian or archaeologist, and in theeeeeeory I can enjoy them. I often do in the abstract. But the process of actually reading one of these goddamn things borders on the painful for me.