Movie Monday: Taras Bulba (1962)

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OK, here’s the scene: it’s a rainy Sunday afternoon in December 1962, you’re all tired out from a hard week at work and you just want to go see a movie. So you go to the cinema, you’re looking at the ads, and you find a movie with a silly name, but you think, y’know, it’s Yul Brynner and Tony Curtis, it’s got horses and swords and jumping off things and Panavision … this will pass the time.

By those standards, Taras Bulba is a fine film. It’s got everything you want, really. Landscapes, swordfights, grappling, betrayals, a love story, people charging around on horses, poorly contextualised stunts, Tony Curtis looking intently at stuff, battles, explosions, feats of strength, a daring break-in or two. Heck, it’s even got a few songs. It’s big, it’s bright, a bunch of stuff happens, and no one was ever meant to take it seriously. It’s got a heck of a good score, too.

There’s a lot of this kind of thing, by the way: if you don’t like people brandishing sabres, this is not the movie for you.

So anyway, as I have said, by the standards of the big-screen historical epic, this definitely is one. Better than The Conqueror, I’ll tell you that much. But I have to admit I lost interest by the end; by modern standards there’s quite a lot of padding on it, and the corny stereotypes are distracting.

I’ve talked before about how much the historical epic genre owes to 19th-century Romantic nationalism, often in the form of 19th-century novels, and this one is no exception. It’s based on a short novel or novella by Gogol, which is in turn loosely based on the history of various conflicts between the Zaporozhian Cossacks and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The film turns a lot of the ethnic hatred in the text into generic free-people-versus-tyranny stuff, and also leaves out the Jewish stereotypes, which is nice. It also ignores quite a lot of the rest of the story, at least as I understand it (I haven’t read the novel). The book had two editions; an 1835 one that the Russian authorities considered too Ukrainian, and an 1842 one that was more solidly pro-Russian. The film just ignores all that stuff, not mentioning either Russia or Ukraine anywhere.

I don’t think you’ll learn anything about Cossack culture or Ukrainian history from this, to be honest; it’s just the usual Hollywood barbarian stuff. They’re wild! They’re free! They love life but live by a strict code! They have virtues that snooty city folk ignore! You know the kind of thing.

So, yeah, it’s OK; it’s just a mostly content-free adventure movie with a Romeo-and-Juliet love story in it and lots of guys in sheepskin hats waving sabres. But if you’re our guy in December 1962 who’s decided he wants to see a big sweeping epic movie in which people ride around on horses and it’s bright and beautiful and there’s drama and great performances, and you’re looking at the movie ads in the paper, well, you know what’s only been out for eight days at this point? Lawrence of Arabia. And as much as Taras Bulba is an OK film, well …

… you know?

Movie Monday: Taras Bulba (1962)

TV Tuesday: Versailles (2015)

We are now several years into the “like Game of Thrones but in [blah]” era of historical television, and it’s been … well, interesting. Some good, some bad, like everything. This one is an interesting fusion of the traditional “admire this ballgown” genre and the newer “boobs and murders” genre. I’m talking about Versailles, which I have so far watched the first couple episodes of. Basically, it gives Louis XIV the treatment, which I guess at least fits the traditional view of that court as a hotbed of intrigue, conspiracy and seduction.

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As with all of the high-budget (well, high-budget-looking; I dunno) historical dramas I write about, it does have a good set of opening credits. Performances are varied, from interesting to merely line-reading. I do like the way they give Henrietta a weird accent to indicate that she is from the exotic land of England, while all the French people have English accents.

Something that always bugs me about these shows is that although they give the characters attitudes that are not in keeping with modern attitudes, they’re carefully selected ones. So obviously everyone is always banging on about nobility and guilt and sin and whatnot, since those are 17th-century concepts we find quite cool and romantic. But you never hear Louis talking about, say, how it would be a good idea to oppress all the Protestants. Well, at least you don’t in the first four episodes. Now, I know that Louis’ early reign was marked by more conciliation toward Protestants than his later years, but I also suspect it’s partly to do with the fact that this would be seen as an unpopular view today …

… and just as I’m saying that a plotline turns up in episode 5 about how some of the characters are hiding the fact that they’re Protestants. Oh well.

TV Tuesday: Versailles (2015)

Doing some hands-on history

This week, I started volunteering at the Centre for Computing History, a small museum here in Cambridge that records the social history of computers and computing, especially in Britain. It has a load of old arcade machines and games consoles that you can play, a classroom where they run computing workshops for students, and lots and lots of items from the history of computers. If you’re at all interested in the history of technology, you should definitely go.

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The infamous ET landfill story, including some of the actual landfill!

Anyway, in addition to the usual setting up tables and moving things around, I’ve been working behind the scenes sorting out archive and collections material — which at present just means storing and labeling stuff in a new storage space. But that provokes some very interesting thoughts about digital heritage, which I hope to write about in more detail soon. For now, I just recommend that you check it out if you haven’t!

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This 1970s office represents the era when computers started to appear in ordinary offices.
Doing some hands-on history

Movie Monday: Anthropoid (2016)

Many years ago, maybe in 2002 or so, I was at the Imperial War Museum in London. There was an exhibit on about irregular and guerrilla tactics, and I was struck by the section on assassination. There was a whole big placard that asked whether assassination as a tactic could ever be justified. And then right next to it, there was a huge photo of Reinhard Heydrich, to a nicer guy than whom it could not happen. This is known as framing the question.

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Anyway, this thought came to mind as I was watching Anthropoid, Sean Ellis’ 2016 movie about, you guessed it, the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich by Czechoslovak soldiers in 1942. Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan play two guys parachuted into Czechoslovakia by the British with the goal of killing Heydrich. They make contact with the local resistance and gradually plan the thing, navigating the tactical challenges of the job as well as the political challenges of dealing with the resistance and others.

OK, first: it’s good. Well-directed, good performances, and quite a lot of historical accuracy. The assassination and the subsequent manhunt are depicted in great detail, with minor characters based on historical people and (apparently) careful reconstructions of just about every move of the whole thing. This does have the effect of making it weird when there are fictional characters: for instance, Cillian Murphy’s love interest plays a historical role similar to the real Anna Malinova, but is a different character. For the most part, though, it’s very plausible (I don’t know about “realistic,” but watching it you can definitely see how it could have happened that way).

Historical accuracy in a film about an assassination by resistance fighters means things are pretty brutal in Anthropoid, and the movie doesn’t shy away from depicting the horrible consequences for the main characters’ contacts and allies, and indeed for Czechoslovakia as a whole. Indeed, the whole second half of the film is just the aftermath of the killing: the roundup of anyone even kind of connected to anyone involved, the brutal reprisals, the betrayals, the doomed last stand against the advancing Germans. Thousands were killed, which raises the question of whether killing one guy, no matter how big a villain, was worth it. It puts the relevant arguments in its characters’ mouths a little, but particularly at the end it leaves you to draw your own conclusions about whether it was a good idea to blow Heydrich up. It keeps the patriotism to a minimum, too: some Czech characters are seen as defiant patriots, while others are cautious and responsible, self-interested, or just tired of the occupation.

So Anthropoid is a good movie, even if it’s not exactly a laugh a minute with its suicides and torture and severed heads and civilian casualties. It’s well-executed; the minutes before the assassination sequence are almost sickeningly tense. What it isn’t is particularly innovative — it’s a wartime spy drama, and it’s pretty much like every wartime spy drama. That makes sense considering that this is the actual event that a lot of wartime spy dramas are based on.

Unlike a lot of the historical tosh I watch on here, it’s not really a lot of fun but it’s definitely worth a watch. If you don’t know much about the Heydrich assassination, you’ll actually learn some things from it — I was surprised when I did my usual post-film lookup to find how many historical details were replicated. If you do know a lot about it, you probably won’t learn anything new, but it’s still a tense, interesting story.

 

Movie Monday: Anthropoid (2016)

More from on the road

As I mentioned earlier, my wife and I took a trip to York and Durham. I’ve already written about going to the Yorkshire Museum to see their Vikings exhibit. While we were in Durham, we also dropped in to the museum in the Palace Green library.

We didn’t check out the main exhibit, but we did look at the archaeology gallery. It’s an archaeology gallery, for the most part. You know the drill: prehistory, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, etc., etc. But the really interesting thing about this one is the organising principle that runs through the display. It’s all about decay. There are lots of little sections that show how different materials decay and what they decay into. There’s even a cute decay mascot.

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It’s Mouldy the Mould Spore, the sensational new character of 2017!

I thought it was really interesting to see archaeology presented as all about the process of decay, which, in a sense, I suppose it is.

Also we bought a robot, which is a thing we do.

More from on the road

On the road

It’s been quiet around here lately, not because I’ve been doing nothing but because I have been busy. Last weekend, to celebrate our anniversary, my wife and I went back to revisit old haunts in Durham, although we stayed in York, it being easier to find a place on that busy weekend.

Anyway, I’m sure some of these things will come up over future posts, but today I wanted to talk about our visit to the Yorkshire Museum for their Vikings exhibit.

Some years ago I went to that fancy Vikings exhibit at the British Museum, and with all the respect in the world for the Yorkshire Museum, this was never going to equal that in scale. Still, I found it interesting.

Initially, I wasn’t too impressed. Perhaps it’s just that the exhibit is aimed at a slightly younger audience, which the British Museum one, with its slightly churchy atmosphere, definitely wasn’t, but for the first third or so I was feeling a little unmoved. Basically there was a lot of the same stuff you see in every exhibit about the early middle ages, and the Coppergate helmet, which is very nice indeed but not an exhibit all by itself.

But things turned around, pleasingly, and I found that the intro bit had been the least exciting — for me, but then, the intro bit is not usually for me. I was pleased by the way the process of discovery turned up in so many of the exhibits.

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Here’s the Gilling Sword, which is lovely, even if not technically a Viking artefact. I’m pleased that it was on display next to its Blue Peter badge!

It was nice to see various hoards and smaller artefacts. There were a couple of ordinary whetstones I found fascinating because I’m a weirdo.

I really liked the section on Vikings in popular culture, which included some Warhammer 40,000 models:

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Frivolous as that might sound, I actually think the Space Wolves are a pretty good example of how Vikings turn up in science fiction: they start as just regular folks with a slightly wolf-y gimmick, become full-on cartoon space vikings and then gradually turn into a more complex and nuanced culture, much as we might see the public perception of early medieval Scandinavians evolving over time but with a decade or so’s lag.

It was a fun exhibit, not huge but a good mix of things. I don’t know that I would have gone out of my way to see it, but I’m glad I got the chance to while I was in town.

On the road

Trip report: in search of the historical Amphibalus

If you know me, you will know that I have been fascinated with the engimatic Saint Amphibalus ever since someone (my MA supervisor, maybe) told me about him back when I was doing my MA. If you’re not familiar with Amphibalus, here’s the scoop:

Saint Alban is one of the most important British saints; I think he’s the oldest? If not, he’s close. He was (the story goes) a guy in Roman Britain who protected a priest fleeing from persecution. Observing the priest’s humble, self-sacrificing piety, Alban was moved, converted to Christianity and wound up getting martyred, as one does. In most of the early sources, the mysterious priest is just called “the priest.”

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In the 12th century, good old Geoffrey of Monmouth is writing The History of the Kings of Britain, and in it he gives the priest the name Saint Amphibalus. It’s amazingly unlikely that Geoffrey had access to some evidence about the guy’s real name, assuming he ever existed at all, but what we don’t know is whether he just made the name up or whether he was recording what people were calling the priest at the time. The name may be a mistranslation based on a word for “cloak” — there’s a bit in the story where Alban and the priest swap cloaks to help the priest evade capture, I guess?

About 40 years after Geoffrey, the abbey of Saint Albans discovered the body of the saint, presumably in an effort to kickstart a lucrative relic cult that would help them out of their financial difficulties. That kind of thing happened all the time in the middle ages. Some historians believe that the bones dug up and identified as Amphibalus belonged to a pagan Anglo-Saxon burial, which I think is speculative but not implausible.

Anyway, why do I mention this? I mention it because this past weekend I was in Saint Albans visiting family, and I got to go to the cathedral for the first time. Now, there’s a lot to write about about that cathedral, much more than I can really cover in this post: it’s got a lot of preserved 12th-century material! It reuses Roman stuff! It’s sited outside the Roman settlement on a cemetery location! Christina of Markyate! In short, it’s got all the things I love about a medieval cathedral.

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It’s got medieval wall paintings!

And it’s also got the shrine of Saint Amphibalus:

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As you can see, the shrine is pretty beat up, but that doesn’t mean that Amphibalus is no longer popular. Dear me, no! In fact, we happened to turn up during the festival that celebrates the feast day of Saint Alban, so we got to see some proper material expressions of popular piety in the form of the huge puppets and various costumes used during the procession.

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Here’s the saint himself.
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Here’s the executioner’s eyeballs, which pop out of his head to larn him for killing Saint Alban.
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And here’s Amphibalus looking quite cheerful!

I know it sounds like I’m making fun, but it’s actually nice to see Amphibalus still part of the life of the community. He may be made-up, or at least heavily embellished; indeed, he may be a combination of legend and pious fraud, but I’m awfully fond of him and I’m glad he’s still around.

Trip report: in search of the historical Amphibalus