Stories, history, Movie Monday: an example

Imagine that it is the moderately distant future and you are a historian. Some highly specific catastrophe has wiped out historical records except for films (let’s say a cautious film buff built a very secure archive on the moon). Your task is to reconstruct the history of the Second World War, but the only tool you have available is war movies.

You would actually be able to get quite a lot, I should think: for instance, you’d be reasonably easily able to work out the dates, the places and the major combatants. You would be able to identify characters who almost certainly existed (Churchill, FDR, Hitler, various generals, various celebrated heroes, villains or victims). You could probably reconstruct a lot of the uniforms, equipment and technology, even some of the slang and language. You would know that there was a lot of fiction in your sources, but there would also be a lot that even the fantastical sources would agree on.

You would probably get a very exaggerated idea of the role of the US and Britain relative to the USSR, but you’d be a smart, critical person and you would think to yourself that this might be because of the much larger English-language film industry. You would know a lot less about the war in

When it came to specific incidents, though, it would be a lot harder. There are plenty of major battles that have several films about them, so it wouldn’t be hard to pin those down, but I suspect that there are a lot of quite real people and incidents which appear in only one film. You’d be unsure about those: you would know that “based on a true story” was a literary trope (with only a film archive surviving of Earth’s culture, you’d be something of a film-studies expert, after all) and not automatically credit it. So there would be a huge range of stories where you just wouldn’t be able to tell whether they were real or false.

You’d wind up arguing about historical events largely as works of art: so, for instance, Kelly’s Heroes has all the tropes of a comedy film, and comedy films are typically not historically accurate, so that one is probably unlikely. But there would be debate about it in each case. And there would be a huge number of events which were important but which, because they were simply never made into a movie, were completely lost to your knowledge — people whose actions influenced history greatly but who no one of your era would ever hear of.

You would be very conscious that you were studying, not a thing, but the stories told about that thing, and understanding those stories would be a challenging task in itself, requiring its own specific expertise.

This is — a little bit — what it’s like being a historian in most periods.

Now, I’m not saying that Movie Monday is anything more than just an excuse for me to mock things for the kinds of stories they tell about history. I just thought it was a fun analogy.

Stories, history, Movie Monday: an example

I fought the Milanese and the Milanese won

I don’t usually write about gaming on this blog, seeing as how I have a whole other blog for just that purpose. When history and gaming interact, however, I do post about it here. And they interacted for me this past weekend, when I went to the UK’s largest miniature wargaming convention, Salute.

In addition to all the shopping and chatting to friends, I spent much of my time playing a game of Lion Rampant, a medieval wargame. We were refighting the Battle of Lodi Vecchio, a 1239 clash between Milanese crusaders and the inhabitants of the town of Lodi, backed by the forces of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. You can read a blog about the game’s development here.

The game was only part of a larger project being run out of the University of Edinburgh about gaming and history. They hosted a roundtable discussion last year, which got a write-up in Wargames Illustrated. You can read about that here.

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This is a topic that comes up a lot — lots of historians are gamers, after all, and plenty of gamers are history buffs — and I think it’s interesting to see it explored. A lot of people think of gaming and history as sort of … putting some sugar on top of boring old history to get dumb kids interested in it, which I think a) doesn’t work, b) is kind of insulting and c) assumes that one part of the equation is the most important.

On the other hand, it clearly sort of works. Every year in my history class, I get one kid who is surprisingly knowledgeable about the military history of the ancient world. The first time this happened, I thought it was just weird but when it happened twice I realised that the kids were just big Total War fans. And although they get some funny ideas, they are genuinely pretty well-informed, so clearly something is working.

The other question that gets asked is whether we can use gaming to learn something about history, and here I’m a little more skeptical. Ultimately, simulations encode assumptions about reality, from kriegspiel to its digital descendants. The ideas is to teach people practical skills based on your real-world knowledge. But I don’t know how you take that and turn it into a research tool — creating the terms of the simulation requires provisional answers to the very questions you’re asking. I suppose you could just run a bunch of simulations with different assumptions and see how they come out differently, but even then I have some gut reservations about games as simulations.

I do actually use a simplified wargame in one of my history classes, but I’ve never used miniatures in it, if only because it would be a pain to transport them from class to class and I wouldn’t really have a place to put the map in one of my classrooms. Perhaps that will be different in the coming year? I would just need to paint some Turks and Egyptians.

Maybe.

I fought the Milanese and the Milanese won

Movie Monday: Hysteria (2011)

Well! This one’s a little bit risqué, at least by the standards of Movie Monday. Which is to say not very.

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OK, so, Hysteria is a 2011 rom-com and/or sex farce about the history of medicine. Hugh Dancy is Dr Mortimer Granville, an idealistic youngster who gets a job with a prosperous doctor (Jonathan Pryce). Pryce has two daughters (Felicity Jones and Maggie Gyllenhaal), with predictable results. But the real twist is that Pryce’s specialty is hysteria, which he treats by way of genital massage. This was a real thing, more or less, and it’s mainly what I want to talk about — that and the technological development that goes with it.

So, whimsical Victorian comedy — and idealistic Victorian political subplot — aside, this is a really fascinating period in the murky history of public sexuality. The literature of sexuality had been trending away from the moral literature of the middle ages throughout the early modern period, resulting in a blend of moral and medical writing that gradually came to be dominated by the medical side. That included a lot of quack medical finger-wagging about how you should avoid impure thoughts and sit in cold baths and zap yourself with electricity if you started to think about sex, but it also created this weird moment where a certain class of medical practitioner basically made a living as a licensed and respectable prostitute.

Now how common this was I couldn’t tell you. I believe the standard popular work on the subject is Rachel Maines’ The Technology of Orgasmwhich I haven’t actually read. But it’s interesting to note that this change from moral to medical, which still preserved the usual fierce condemnation of masturbation, essentially created an inadvertent loophole that allowed this strange side hustle to exist for a while.

There is a dark side, though: medicalising masturbation took it out of the realm of the penitential and into the realm of, y’know, surgical intervention. Take, for instance, the case of Isaac Baker Brown. Baker Brown subscribed to all the contemporary theories about masturbation — basically, that it was responsible for everything from indigestion and bad posture to heart disease and insanity. When faced with women who suffered from it, then, the obvious answer was clitoridectomy. He operated on a number of women between the early 1860s and 1867, when he was kicked out of the Obstetrical Society. His opponents don’t necessarily fill you with confidence, though — one critic said that doctors “have scarcely more right to remove a woman’s clitoris than we have to deprive a man of his penis,” which is a weird statement.

So as funny as the concepts behind this film are, it’s not all fun and games in the world of Victorian sexual medicine. In retrospect I sup

As for the movie, it’s funny and full of anachronisms. It’s sufficiently light-hearted that you can’t really criticise it for any of those lapses, though!

Movie Monday: Hysteria (2011)

TV Tuesday: Tokyo Trial (2016)

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Everyone knows that at the end of the Second World War, the victorious Allies put the leaders of Nazi Germany on trial for various war crimes — indeed, not only the traditional violations of the laws of war, but for crimes committed by the regime against its own people and for starting the war in the first place. In Japan, too, the Allies put the leaders of the defeated nation on trial, but the trial is much less well-known outside Japan. Now we have Tokyo Trial, a four-part English-language miniseries created by Japanese broadcaster NHK in cooperation with various Canadian and Dutch bodies.

So what’s it like?

Well, the drama is primarily about the behind-the-scenes deliberation of the justices in the trial, viewed through the eyes of Bert Röling, the Dutch judge on the tribunal (Marcel Hensema). Some parts of it are bits of documentary, presenting actual testimony from the trial. There are personal subplots relating to the experience of postwar Tokyo, but most of it takes place in a conference chamber or courtroom.

Hoo boy, it is worthy. And I don’t necessarily mean that as a compliment. One of the problems of approaching really grim, serious subjects of massive historical importance — a huge, multinational war-crimes trial, for instance — is that any hint of action or excitement might be seen as disrespectful, and the historical characters are so important that introducing personal drama into their narratives might not be appropriate. That means that some historical films descend into a certain confining stateliness — slow, with grandiose music and lush cinematography, but fundamentally history lessons. Most historical movies that get away with this are war movies, because battles are dramatic, spectacular events no matter how serious you’re being about them.

But Tokyo Trial has a further challenge, which is both one of the most interesting and the most challenging things about it. It is a totally international production, with cast members from all over the world, and a presumed audience likewise. Which is good, great, but it does mean that the English you are listening to isn’t quite the English you speak, if it’s English that you speak. If you watch a lot of Indian or Chinese films, think about the way you hear English in them. It’s English, of course, and presented for an audience that can sometimes be quite fluent, but who still don’t have the intuitive familiarity that a native speaker would. So it’s a little slower, with longer pauses, and things are explained very clearly. Again, that’s a good thing — it makes it accessible to a wide range of English ability levels — but it doesn’t exactly make for gripping drama.

It’s also very specifically educational — like, there’s a scene in the first episode where the Chinese justice (David Tse) explains to Röling why the Japanese occupied the Dutch East Indies, like he wouldn’t already know. I expected them to go “I know that.” “I know you do, Justice Röling — but the audience doesn’t.”

I also don’t think there’s a character in this thing who is a genuine character rather than a mouthpiece for a particular viewpoint. Occasionally we do get little moments that humanise characters, or bits where a performance gives life to a set of stock phrases (Irrfan Khan is strong as Radhabinod Pal, for instance). But most of the dialogue is just the various arguments of the trial, which is not … not ideally suited to being expressed in the form of a television drama, shall we say?

Which is a shame, because it does try to be thorough in its exploration of the issues: the division between civilian and military leadership, tensions between the different Allied powers, the implications of the judgement for colonialism, the lack of an existing body of international law, the thorny issue of the Emperor’s culpability. I was interested to see where those would go. In my limited understanding of the popular view of this period in Japan, these are all tricky issues. MacArthur (Michael Ironside) even talks about the role of the emperor in the post-war reform program, which I started but never finished an undergraduate dissertation on back in 1998.

It also does a pretty good job of portraying a group of justices who are on pretty shaky legal ground and under intense political pressure while also trying to find some kind of just outcome. International law is a dicey proposition at the best of times, and much more so back then than now. It’s difficult to avoid the impression that sound technical legal arguments were overruled by the argument of might, but that nonetheless there were sincere attempts to reach a decision that furthered the interests of justice and world peace.

I mentioned Radhabinod Pal earlier, for instance. Pal is an interesting and complex figure, whose objection to the trial verdict seems to have rested partly on procedural questions about the tribunal’s legal validity and partly on an anticolonialist interpretation of the 30s that viewed Japan’s response to American economic pressure as not that unreasonable. He believed that war crimes had been committed, but that they could be addressed under existing war crimes statutes. Pal definitely gets the hero treatment here, which is in line with how he’s viewed in Japan today — he’s very popular in particular with Japanese nationalists. I made the “hrm” face, although the show doesn’t suggest that Pal’s position was all that simple. Author Michio Takeyama (Shin’ya Tsukamoto) is given the role of being critical of Japan’s wartime response to militarism.

Some of the events are really rushed — for instance, the American judge, Higgins, leaves partway through — which really happened — but his reasons are given very short shrift. He says “I have made proposals and they have been rejected,” but we see him sort of disagreeing with the group once for about thirty seconds. Perhaps that’s symptomatic of a general issue: things are explained much more than they’re shown.

It does give you some sense of the scale of the trial, especially toward the end: years of work, huge teams of assistants writing thousands of pages of opinion. The ending of the story goes on and on about sentencing, particularly the sentencing of Togo. The result is that it’s a bit long.

It has the unfortunate quality of some historical shows in that it gets better as it goes on, which means that the first episode doesn’t give a fantastic impression. But still, it’s long, talky, self-important and a little undramatic. It’s clearly intended to be educational, so maybe it’s for people who want to know more about Japanese history but don’t know much about it? It seems like the kind of thing you might watch in class? But it’s nearly four hours long, so maybe not.

TV Tuesday: Tokyo Trial (2016)