TV Tuesday: Frontier

I have only watched one episode of Frontier, the new Canadian historical drama showing on UK (and presumably other) Netflix, so this isn’t really a review of the show. It’s more of a commentary on what on earth is happening in the world of entertainment and what that means for historians and history lovers.

So, first things first, I don’t know if this show is any good yet. It is definitely an attempt to fit into the gritty-historical-violence school of things. I watch Netflix shows with the subtitles on, and the captions were all bloodcurdling scream and wet stabbing sound for much of the show. It starts with three dudes getting their throats cut and pretty much goes from there. So it’s definitely going for that RomeGame of Thrones audience, I suppose. Jason Momoa plays a half-Irish, half-Native American fur trapper operating rogue outside the limits of the Hudson’s Bay Company monopoly, with Alun Armstrong as the Company official sent to stop him. Those are your big names (well, apparently Raoul Trujillo is also in it) but then there are various scrappy thieves, drunk priests, up-and-coming businessmen, world-weary barkeeps, ambitious young officers, desperate Native American warriors, beardy voyageurs and so forth in the rough and tumble 18th-century wilderness.

Now that sounds like a pretty good premise for a show, and it’s entertaining enough, although pretty predictable for the most part. But what is completely bizarre is that I stuck this thing on my Netflix list and later that day said to my wife “oh, I added this new show where Jason Momoa and Alun Armstrong play fur trappers in 18th century Canada.” I mean, just think about that statement. That is nuts.

It’s not that there have never been historical television shows before; of course there have, your I, Claudii and so on. The BBC churned them out to a consistently high standard. And there are definitely certain genres that keep recurring: westerns, for instance. But I do think it’s weird that there’s a … what looks like a relatively high-budget … adventure show about fur trappers in 18th-century Canada. I mean, at least Black Sails is about pirates. Everybody loves pirates. Do Canadians think about fur trappers in the same way as everyone else thinks about pirates? Canadian readers of this blog, I’d love to know. Because, I mean, I’m going to watch it, obviously, but it seems like a tough pitch for most people. Or maybe the pitch is just Jason Momoa smouldering at the camera.

It just seems like an era for this kind of thing, and in a way that is sad, because it means that some quite good shows get left behind. It’s like … if you had told 12-year-old James that in his adulthood there would be so many DC Comics TV shows that he literally wouldn’t have time to watch them all, he would have laughed at you. But it’s true! And there are more coming! And the same applies to weird little historical dramas. Of course, thanks to Netflix I can just stick ’em on the list and catch up at my leisure. Perhaps that’s the difference; with a transformed model of TV viewing, you can target directly to your history buff audience or what have you.

I don’t know; I just thought it was an interesting example of a change I’ve been noticing.

 

TV Tuesday: Frontier

Movie Monday: The Siege of Jadotville (2016)

I tend to just stick any historical film that turns up on Netflix in my list with the aim of writing about it for this blog, even if I don’t really know anything about it. That was the case with The Siege of Jadotville, a 2016 Irish movie about the, er, siege of Jadotville, in which a force of Katangan militia and mercenaries attacked a force of Irish UN peacekeepers in 1961. The film is based on a 2006 book about the battle, which reopened interest in a battle that had basically been overlooked for many of the intervening decades.

The whole thing was part of the Congo Crisis, specifically the Katanga secession, in which a mineral-rich southern province seceded from the newly-independent Republic of the Congo, backed by European mining interests. Bloody civil war over mineral rights in a Cold War context, with massacres, incompetence, and so on. Ugly stuff, today mainly remembered for the death of UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld in a possibly-suspicious plane crash. I suspect that the murky political nature of the conflict — and the fact that the defenders ultimately surrendered to forces that weren’t a real army — is the reason for the general silence about the event, but I’m not an expert.

In terms of war movies, this definitely is one. A tough, smart commander (Jamie Dornan), a bunch of mildly-individualised squaddies, and the double-dealing SOBs back at headquarters who hang the men out to dry. Some historical context, some scenery, plenty of exciting battle scenes and a couple of bigger-name actors in supporting roles (including Mark Strong as Conor Cruise O’Brien, here given a very unsympathetic treatment).

It’s nice to see a movie about a lesser-known conflict. It’s also nice to see a movie that focuses on soldiers who are explicitly not a bunch of battle-hardened tough guys. Indeed, much is made of the fact that this is the Irish army’s first real overseas deployment. You definitely get the appropriate sense of desperate, improvised heroism, like a more frantic Zulu: historians estimate the defenders of Jadotville killed about 300 of their attackers for losses of, er, zero. Whether that’s true or whether they see double when they’re counting enemy bodies as has been the ccase in various conflicts around the world I don’t know.

Anyway, it’s not exactly ground-breaking stuff, but it’s an enjoyable, well-made war movie about an interesting conflict that’s (mostly) effectively evoked. If you like war movies and feel like watching one some evening, this is definitely worth your time.

Movie Monday: The Siege of Jadotville (2016)

More reading: The Traitors’ Pit

So as part of my reading over the holidays I finally read The Traitors’ Pit by V.M. Whitworth, which I bought over the summer but never really had time to get around to. I wrote about the first of these books, The Bone Thief, back in July or so.

20170104_103143

Once again, we’re following the adventures of Wulfgar, a West Saxon cleric working for Aethelflaed, the famous “Lady of the Mercians,” in the early 10th century. I like Wulfgar because he’s a very unusual protagonist for an early medieval novel — neither a heroic warrior type nor some kind of transplanted Sherlock Holmes figure. He’s just this guy, you know? Whereas the last one was about the capture of the relics of Saint Oswald, this one is about politics and war along the Northumbrian-Mercian frontier, with politics and justice (if that’s the word) back in Winchester. It’s fascinating stuff.

I enjoyed this novel a great deal, partly because it’s, you know, good, and partly because it does some things that I wish more books set in the period did: for starters, it puts Christianity at the centre of its lead character’s worldview in a way that feels authentic and complicated. This comes through in the scenes that surround one of the main plot lines, in which one character takes an ordeal to prove that another character was innocent of a crime — only the alleged culprit is dead. It’s a great way of illustrating how concern for a person’s soul in the late Anglo-Saxon world continued after death.

On a personal note, this book filled me with a sort of pleasant melancholy. So much of it is about things I immersed myself in for years: late Anglo-Saxon society, its religious imagery, its justice system and above all its burial customs. I can see how different parts of it sprung from the research the author did for her Dying and Death in Later Anglo-Saxon England, a book I read over and over again while I was doing my PhD. It was a sort of privilege to be able to see the background of it, but it was also a somewhat gloomy reminder of back when I was a promising young scholar. Or at least after a couple of drinks it was.

Anyway, what can I tell you? It was good, I liked it, I’m gonna read the next one.

More reading: The Traitors’ Pit

New reading for a new year

Happy new year, everyone. I have been mostly cleaning my study to create space for some new arrivals, but I wanted to take a moment to mention some new additions to the bookshelves here at head office.

20161230_151743

It’s Larry Gonick’s two-volume Cartoon History of the Modern World, which is in turn the conclusion to his three-volume Cartoon History of the Universe, about my love of which I have written before. I loved the early volumes when I was a kid, and while there are some bits you want to fact-check (and, as in history, maybe a few things that aren’t quite appropriate for younger readers, although of course younger readers love that sort of thing), I think that for the level of detail they contain they’re actually pretty good basic history books. And, of course, they’re a lot of fun. There are five volumes in total, plus a Cartoon History of the United States, which I had at one point.

Anyway, I’ve already started on these and I’m looking forward to getting them done, although I’ve shelved them for now.

20161231_120922
So satisfying.

 

New reading for a new year

Holiday reading: The Dig

It’s kind of a Christmas tradition for me that over the holidays I catch up on the books I got for my late-October birthday. One of those this year was The Dig by John Preston, which came out in 2007 but which I had never heard of until my parents recommended it to me.

3512039

It’s an interesting novel: it covers the summer and autumn of 1939, when the famous Anglo-Saxon burial at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk was being excavated. The perspective shifts between several different characters, including the initial excavator, Basil Brown, the landowner, Edith Pretty, and archaeologist Peggy Piggott (who was Preston’s aunt).

The story of the excavation itself is pretty complicated, and the tensions it revealed (including the conflict between academics and non-academic professionals and the old one between the British Museum and the provinces) are interesting, but that’s not really what this book is about. It’s less narrative-driven and more about mood, specifically the sense of the mysterious connection with the past in the shadow of an uncertain future.

I enjoyed it, but then those themes are very close to my heart. It’s an interesting view of the process of archaeology as a social and emotional process, and you know I like it when everyone is sad and emotionally repressed.

Holiday reading: The Dig

TV Tuesday: the saga continues

So it’s been a few weeks since the last time I wrote about my continuing … love-hate relationship isn’t right. Enjoyment-bafflement relationship? … with Vikings. So let’s take a look at what’s been going on since then.

So Lagertha and Aslaug are set up as rivals this season, a rivalry that gets off to a good start when Lagertha imprisons Ubbe and Sigurd and takes Kattegatt back from Aslaug. In the meantime, Ivarr and Ragnar get shipwrecked on the English coast. The irritated crew mutiny, but Ivarr stabs them up to reinforce the point that he is not to be messed with. Bjorn, together with Halfdan and Harald plus Floki, rocks up to Rollo’s castle to meet the kids. Rollo decides to tag along on Bjorn’s Mediterranean adventure because, I dunno, he longs for the old days of sailing the wide world etc.

historys-viking-season-4b-episode-12-lagertha-threatens-aslaug

Anyway, Ragnar and Ivarr arrive in Winchester only to find out that Ecbert isn’t home, the one thing they were not counting on. Aethelwulf does what Aethelwulf does and has them locked up. Aslaug gets one of yer Viking funerals that everyone loves so much while Lagertha gloats. Ecbert comes home and gets Ragnar out of the dungeons to do some devious Ecbert stuff with him. Young Magnus shows up for the first time in his older version, and Ragnar says he never had sex with whatsername, which messes things up a little. There are a lot of children of dubious parentage at the West Saxon court, aren’t there?  Anyway, Ecbert has a good old jaw with Ragnar about the absurdity of religion or destiny or something, or maybe just their shared love for Athelstan. Ragnar sets up his plan to introduce — dare I say it? — the main plot of the series! And only 40-whatever episodes in.

This show has a real problem with deviousness, which I think is a combination of budget concerns and the influence of Game of Thrones. See, in Game of Thrones, everyone is always going into negotiations with uncertain allies and then getting assassinated. This is because the setting of Game of Thrones is a functional medieval society that is now falling apart. So people keep relying on outmoded concepts of law or political influence to protect them and discovering that they no longer apply, while a new breed of bastard and/or hero thrives.

But we’re supposed to believe that this is pretty much how things work in Vikings. And logically, all the characters should know that. That being the case, why doesn’t anyone act like it? Lagertha makes a peace agreement with Aslaug — who is, remember, widely believed to be descended from a literal god — and then shoots her in the back as she walks away. In front of everyone! That has got to be a blow to her reputation, surely.

(Does that mean that when Aslaug was sleeping with Harbard she was having sex with her own grandfather? Ick.)

Anyhow, my point is — given that Ubbe and Sigurd presumably know that anyone could turn on you at any time, why would they just walk into a trap like a couple of idiots? If Aslaug knows (and remember, she’s supposed to be the politically savvy one) that Lagertha, a famous general with a full-sized army, can march into her town without anyone knowing until she’s forming a shieldwall at the city limits, then why on earth would she allow Bjorn to sail off with all the warriors? (Unless Bjorn’s in on it, of course, which would be kind of neat, but still.) Over and over, this show sets up a political dispute and then has it resolved by someone getting knifed in ways that make dramatic sense but little real-world sense.

Now, I’m not saying people don’t get assassinated or massacred in real life. But successful assassinations and massacres as means of ending conflicts are probably quite rare. Usually killing one guy or even one group of guys doesn’t solve the problem like you’d hope it would. Whack a Viking warlord, and you may find that they have uncles, cousins, brothers, followers, whatever, who will come back to haunt you. Those people (usually) don’t exist in this show because of principles of narrative economy, but I dunno, it feels like a cheat. I’m aware I’ve said this before.

TV Tuesday: the saga continues

TV Tuesday: Narcos

So Narcos is this show Netflix keeps trying to push as some kind of big prestige drama, but nobody I know seems to be watching it. I thought I’d give it a spin, since these days shows set in the 80s and early 90s are historical shows. And it’s … interesting.

It’s a bold move, frankly, and I’d be interested to know more about why Netflix decided to make it the way they did — are they pushing into Spanish-speaking markets? Because, I mean, this thing doesn’t have anyone really famous in it, and about two thirds of it is in Spanish. Which makes sense, but it’s not exactly a formula for success in the Anglophone world.

It’s a dramatisation, not a historical retelling, and it’s up-front about that fact. Some of the characters are real, but others are fictitious or based on real people. So the reporter, Valeria Velez, is based on a real reporter, Virginia Vallejo, but their fates are very different between the show and real life. Similarly, Colonel Carrillo from the first part of the show is fictitious, while the guy who replaces him, Colonel Martinez, was real.

There’s an American POV character who is treated like the hero of the story to begin with but whose importance declines as it goes on; he kind of reminds me of Marco in Marco Polo, the increasingly unnecessary point of viewer identification. But the main attraction is clearly Wagner Moura as Pablo Escobar, and he’s good.

narcos2

Its most obvious model is The Wire — a crime drama that’s really an exploration of a particular setting built up of many small strands — and like that show it also succeeds in evoking a look and feel in a way that’s impressive (I mean, I wasn’t in Colombia in the 80s, but this feels like it could be what that looked like).

It also showcases some of the flaws in historical storytelling on television, especially in the contrast between its first and second seasons. The second season covers a year or two in which the cops, rival drug cartels and paramilitaries are all hunting for Escobar after he escapes from jail. It’s a relatively short period of time with a cast of characters many (though not all) of whom were developed in the first season, and it’s compelling. But it comes at the expense of a first season that covers over a decade of history and has to introduce almost all of those characters. As a result, the first season feels a little more disjointed and grab-baggy. It has a lot of great scenes and performances, but it’s the weaker of the two — which is a shame, since it’s the first one people will see.

Anyway, it’s definitely worth watching as long as you either don’t mind giving a show your full attention or speak Spanish.

TV Tuesday: Narcos