Movie Monday: Glory (1989)

glory-movie-poster-1989-1020191708

A recent stock-up of historical films on Amazon.co.uk reminded me that I had meant to write about Glory back when I was reading another officer’s memoirs in late 2013, but couldn’t find it online. So while doing some other work today, I rewatched it.

Now obviously, this isn’t the kind of historical howler that I usually watch; it’s both a good film and reeeeeeeeasonably good history. So I’m going to assume that you know that it sticks mostly pretty close to the story of the life of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and tells the story of the 54th Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. Mostly. Rather than dissecting the film’s narrative, I want to talk about some points that occurred to me while watching it.

1. Frederick Douglass. When I saw the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Science’s Darwin display, I was struck by the image of a young Darwin — which is something we hardly see, apart from the occasional Paul Bettany. And I recently had reason to be talking to one of my students about Douglass and his writing, and so I was alert to the appearance of Iconic Frederick Douglass in this movie. Let me show you what I mean. Here’s Douglass as he appears in the film:

douglass

And here is the famous image of Douglass that he makes you think of:

WAR AND CONFLICT BOOK ERA:  CIVIL WAR/BACKGROUND: SLAVERY & ABOLITIONISM

The problem is that that photograph of Douglass is from 1874, over a decade after the film is set. At the time of the scene in the film, Douglass had (probably) just turned 45. Does that dude look 45 to you? But if he didn’t look like that, he wouldn’t look like Frederick Douglass. Here’s a photo of Douglass from the 1860s:

640px-Frederick_Douglass_c1860s

It’s a small point, but it’s just a revealing example of how a single image of a person usually looks “right” to us, despite the fact that obviously people’s appearances change throughout their lives.

2. Everybody is made up. 

Shaw was a real person, of course, but almost all the other characters in the film who aren’t generals or reporters — that is, almost all of the black characters — are fictitious. Which is weird, because there were some quite famous people in the regiment, including two of Douglass’s sons, Lewis and Charles.

3. The ol’ Narrative Problem. 

Glory ends with a tear-jerking version of the Second Battle of Fort Wagner, at which (spoilers for something that happened 150 years ago) Shaw is killed. Weirdly for a film that’s all about the heroic role of the black volunteers, this is the final note of the film. It’s kind of a downer; it isn’t even really a story of heroic sacrifice, because the assault in which everybody gets killed is unsuccessful.

800px-The_Storming_of_Ft_Wagner-lithograph_by_Kurz_and_Allison_1890

But the death of Shaw, although always identified as a tragedy, is not particularly the end of the 54th’s story. They continued to serve throughout the war (although I don’t think they were in such a large battle again). But that’s what you get when you try to impose a narrative structure on historical stuff. You have to (or do you?) try to make it fit into a narrative structure it doesn’t always easily fit into. And, yeah, the narrative ends with the death of the white saviour. I think that’s a valid criticism, but this film isn’t a particularly egregious example of that. It is a little odd that the tale of African-Americans finally getting the chance to show their valour is — and some people would say must be — told mainly from the perspective of a white guy.

Oh, and the timeline is all compressed and mixed up. Like they show Shaw announcing that the Confederates have said they’ll execute black troops — but that happened months before the 54th were even formed. But that’s the usual thing where everything has to happen in the story.

4. Stereotypes aren’t permanent. 

So one thing that is interesting about the narratives of white officers in black regiments during the Civil War is that they respond to a stereotype about African-Americans that is no longer current. Today, racist images of African-Americans, especially young men, tend to portray them as thugs, given to violence and possessed of reckless, indomitable courage. The positive but patronising stereotype is of brave, tough black soldiers who are great infantry but lack leadership qualities. You always see a tough old black sergeant in movies, but seldom (although it’s changing) black fighter pilots or what have you. In the 1860s, however, this wasn’t the case at all. The stereotypical view of African-Americans was that, although they could be strong and sometimes dangerous, they lacked courage or discipline or whatever quality the speaker needed to give them to justify slavery. It was thought that they weren’t brave; that they wouldn’t fight. “They’re little children,” one of the characters in the film says.

So having African-American troops was a huge symbolic statement; if black people could fight, could be soldiers, they could be citizens; they weren’t by nature servile. I can’t say it any better than Ta-Nehisi Coates has done, but it’s interesting to see that portrayed in the film. I don’t think I registered that when I saw it as a kid (I watched it in junior high history class c. 1991, I believe). You could do worse than read pretty much everything Coates has ever written about the Civil War, by the way. He’s unflinching about things.

Now the reality is that racism changes things up on you in ways people don’t expect — because most of its details are rationalisations, not reasons. So the image of black people who could fight suddenly became, not the equals of brave, disciplined white soldiers, but scary brutes at worst and stoic peasants at best, and most of the people who were supposed to learn from their previous model of race being totally wrong just came up with ways to think around it and ignored the obvious dissonance. Because history is unbearably depressing sometimes. I guess I’m glad that was not in the film, because it would have been even more of a downer.

5. This cast!

Yeah yeah Denzel Washington, yeah yeah Academy Award. Whatever, he’s good; no surprise there. But Andre Braugher! I’m a big Andre Braugher fan.

6. On the nose? Patronising? 

I don’t know if I’m qualified to judge. Well, OK, definitely on the nose in places.

Anyway, with the caveats I mentioned, it’s pretty good — one of the few worthy, pious historical films that mostly holds up both as instructive material and as filmmaking. It has some moments of patriotic glurge, but the muddiness and the ambiguity of the ending serve to keep them in check.

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Movie Monday: Glory (1989)

Movie Monday: Waterloo (1970)

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After weeks of sandals and plumes, it’s time for boots and, er, plumes as we plunge ourselves into the grand pageantry of Sergei Bondarchuk’s 1970 epic Waterloo, which has a fuck of a lot of horses in it and also like one or two characters. As always, you can follow along with me if you like. I hope you like splosions.

So what’s interesting about this movie for me is that it’s actually pretty slow, and a lot of the scenes are sort of … placeholders. Bonsai. Especially the bits with Blucher, which are very much “Mein name ist Blucher! Ich bin ein Prussian general!”

It’s like … I think obvious comparison is a pageant. You can almost imagine it as some kind of performance given not long after the battle.

FOR ONE NIGHT ONLY

A Faithful and Accurate Recreation of

THE VICTORY AT

WATERLOO!!!

15,000 Soldiers! 2,000 Horses!

The Costliest Such Recreation EVER PRESENTED.

With many splendid reenactments of battle scenes.

Featuring a special performance by

Mr. Christopher PLUMMER

as the Duke of Wellington.

Yeah, I can believe it.

And in short, it’s good at what such pageants are good at. Observe:

landscape serriedranks squares chirarge!

Those parts of it look absolutely spectacular. Somehow, when you had to get 15,000 Red Army soldiers and make them all march around, you made sure to get lots of lovely shots of them. Modern films seem to create huge CGI armies with painstaking detail and then blend them into a murky brown mass such that they needn’t have bothered.

However, one of the cinematic techniques is a bit daft, namely that of putting an actor on a little rocking horse in front of the camera and then having the cavalry thundering away in the background, looks completely stupid. I took a picture, but you have to see it in motion, really:

dafty

It looks OK in the photo, but believe me, when it’s moving it looks ridiculous.

History-wise …

… I dunno. It gives a good sense of the scale and the mayhem, which is nice in a war film. It speeds up the end of the battle, having the Prussians just appear and then SHAZAM it’s all over, which is not quite right. It doesn’t give us much of the fighting around the farms, which is a shame, because I would say those are quite cinematic moments. But in general it’s not bad, and the fact that the battle proper doesn’t start until about an hour in does build a little tension.

I don’t think I learned anything, but it was nice to see the scale and … sloppiness? … of the old style. I don’t think there’s a comparable modern Napoleonic film, but it’s not really my field, so I’m prepared to be corrected.

Also, for some reason Orson Welles.

welles

Movie Monday: Waterloo (1970)

Movie Monday: Hannibal (1959)

I hope you are like this guy:

download

 

Not that kind of marching, obviously, but there is a lot of fucking marching in this movie. Which is a bit of a shame, considering its completely over-the-top poster:

Hannibal movie poster

 

Would you be surprised to learn that the savage orgy of destruction this poster promises does not appear in the film?

OK, so, Victor Mature is Hannibal, and he is invading Italy in 218 BC. Target: Rome!

noplacelikerome

 

Check it out, guys, Rome! Oh, look, it’s the Colosseum! That’s pretty cool how it travelled back in time to be there 300 years before it was built!

We get like a minute of the Senate fretting about the invasion, and then it’s Hannibal and his men crossing the Alps. And, I am not kidding, this scene goes on for like ten minutes. Just ten minutes of guys and elephants struggling through the mountains.

Now I am sort of torn about this, because on the one hand obviously the crossing of the Alps was a big deal and took a long time — and, to add to that, I really like that the army on the march has loads of supply wagons and herds of livestock and all the stuff an ancient army would really have that you so seldom see in films. On the other hand, this movie is only an hour and forty minutes long, so literally 10% of the running time is just guys marching through the mountains while officers shout “keep going!”

eeheehee

 

This guy here takes like a second-long warm up before shouting some encouragement.

Anyway, we do have a little dialogue here, and we get to meet Hannibal. Hannibal is smug:

smug

 

Hannibal is greasy:

osogreezy

 

Hannibal meets some Gauls:

beardyhat

 

The Gauls are never seen again.

Hannibal meets a Roman girl and takes her captive but then falls in love with her. In a weird coincidence, it’s Rita Gam from Sign of the Pagan.

Hannibal fights some confusing, unconvincing battles with the Romans in which they clash their tin swords against each other. Hannibal loses an eye, but not in battle, just to an eye infection. This was a really serious problem in the ancient world, and if you don’t believe me, look at any Roman army medical record. It’s nothing but eye inflammations from hell to breakfast.

The Senate waffles around a bit, and Hannibal wins another vague and confusing battle. He romances Rita Gam a bit more. There is dissension among the Carthaginian officers, and one of them tries to have Rita Gam killed, but fails. He then fights Hannibal, using a … thingummy …

wtf

 

It’s like a shield with a big old spiky spear coming out of it … I have no idea.

Anyway, Hannibal is victorious, and he celebrates by having like five or six half-naked guys punch each other, which the Carthaginian crowd seem to think is super-duper exciting. Way out of proportion to its actual excitingness, considering their camp is full of elephants and stuff.

theworsthug

 

Anyway, in Hannibal’s hour of victory, dissension in the ranks comes back to bite him in the ass; promised reinforcements from Carthage don’t arrive, but his wife and kid do, exposing him for the greasy philanderer he is. One of Hannibal’s brothers gets killed in a scene that’s played like we’re supposed to know who he was. Rita Gam runs off back to Rome and kills herself. The end. Hannibal’s last lines are just him saying “march!” over and over again, which is sadly appropriate.

The movie is more-or-less historical in its outline, plus or minus a shoehorned-in love story and a bunch of simplifications for brevity. It’s meant to be a spectacle, I think, with lots of big battles and scenery and elephants, and it certainly has elephants, I’ll give it that. But for a giant historical spectacle, it’s also just really boring, with a lot of guys in minidresses clanging tin swords against each other.

Partly it suffers from the historical movie problem of trying to fit real events into a cinematic narrative when the actual story of Hannibal’s invasion of Italy is really kind of anticlimactic; all the good stuff is in the beginning and middle, and the end just kind of fizzles out.

Oh well.

Movie Monday: Hannibal (1959)

Movie Monday: Sign of the Pagan (1954)

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.

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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 …

numberoneguy
Yooou … are my number one … hhhhhhaaaguy ….

 

… 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:

familyresemblance

 

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:

Jeff Morrow!
Jeff Morrow!

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. 

guiiiiido

 

whatthewomenarewearing

 

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:

fuckyouattila

ohsnap

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.

haaaaaats beards

 

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.

Movie Monday: Sign of the Pagan (1954)

Movie Monday: The Conqueror (1956)

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Oh, mama. Oh mama this one’s going to hurt. John Wayne plays Genghis Khan. Genghis actual Khan. 

And, as Chris Sims might say, brother, it is not very good

Now, this film is dire on several levels. Let’s talk about Level 1 first. 

Level 1 is that it is just bad. Some of it is sort of competent, I guess, in a kind of goofy hybrid of a Western and a Hollywood sword epic sort of way. But there’s one gigantic fly in the ointment that stops it being a just-kind-of-sucks Hollywood 50s epic, and that’s The Duke. John Wayne could not be more miscast in this movie. Observe this d-bag: 

Image

 

He looks exactly like John Wayne in a stupid hat with a stupid little moustache, and he talks like it too. Here’s an exercise: put on your best John Wayne voice. Warm up with a few classic phrases: “the hell I ain’t,” “fill your hand, you son of a bitch,” that kind of thing. Now say something like: 

What woman’s talk is this, my mother?

or

On, brave suitor — would you desert your bride unkissed? On, craven, the Tartar wench awaits you!

Congratulations; you have now seen The Conqueror

Now, I like a good John Wayne movie as much as the next guy, but he is completely awful in this. Just … just dire. And, of course, he is the whitest Mongol known to man. He’s not the only instance of that in this movie, though. There’s also his “love” interest, a “Tartar” princess played by Susan Hayward: 

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Ah, it’s like I’m transported to the steppes of Central Asia right now. 

So, on the one hand, on a pure artistic level, this movie is hilariously awful. But what about the history? Well, let’s move on to Level 2. Well, Level 3 actually, but you need to understand Level 2 to understand Level 3. 

So, Level 2 is the movie’s creepy-as-hell sexual element. This movie is basically all about rape and how if you threaten a woman with rape enough she’ll fall in love with you. And I mean, seriously, that’s the driving plot of the movie. 

So Temujin and his blood-brother/sidekick/the smart one Jamukha are out riding and they run into Targutai, Baddie No 1, who is about to marry Bortai. Temujin kidnaps Bortai, who it turns out is the daughter of wossname, the guy who killed his father, and he puts her in a tent and then is all offended when she says she doesn’t love him, so he doesn’t actually rape her, but then when Targutai tries to get her back he does, but it’s OK because partway through she decides she likes it? And then he takes her on a diplomatic mission to the requisite Cowardly Fat Guy, Wang Khan, and there is a dance performance that last, oh, approximately one million years, during which Temujin deploys the ancient Mongol art of negs, all talking shit about how Bortai can’t dance, so she does a sexy dance and then throws a sword at him … and it just goes on and on

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And then, for basically no reason whatsoever, she decides she loves him, turns on her father, betrays her people, makes peace between Temujin and buddy/rival Jamukha and goes around saying shit like “his love and loyalty for you are no less than my own,” despite the fact that he’s been a bullying douchebag at best and a sadistic tormentor at worst the entire movie. 

But then, maybe I’m judging too harshly. What woman wouldn’t be moved by this example of manly beauty? 

Image

I mean, I’m not even gay, but damn

OK, so, anyway, on Level 2 you look at this film and you see that it was produced by notorious Sex Weirdo Howard Hughes, and you’re like, well … 

On to Level 3. 

“But wait, James,” I hear you say, “it’s fucked-up that there’s all this rape and forced marriage and stuff in this movie, but that’s surely historically accurate, right?”

Well, in some cases? Yes. But in this movie, as it happens? Not really. And it’s interesting to me, because I have a sneaking suspicion that the filmmakers made a historical epic because they wanted to get in a “healthy” dose of rape-’em-til-they-like-it, but in some ways the actual history is pretty against it. 

Image
Uh huh.

Now, we do not have very many written historical sources for the life of Genghis Khan — the main one, The Secret History, was written after his death and is filled with folklore and heroic exaggeration. But that’s what we’ve got, so. 

And the Secret History tells us that Temujin and Borte (Bortai in the film) had an arranged marriage; they were engaged at 9 and married as teenagers. Nonetheless, from the little we know, they appear to have been actually close. (Temujin’s mother was abducted by his father, though.)

“Oh, OK,” you may say, “but you can’t expect the movie to be a history lesson. They had to add some drama!”

See, the thing is, here’s the thing: early on in their marriage, Borte was in turn abducted by the Merkits (those same baddies from the beginning of the film). Temujin and Jamukha teamed up with another local ruler and went after them, eventually rescuing her. She went on to be his empress, although he did have other wives. 

So the “historical” story of Genghis Khan involves two buddies-turned-rivals teaming up to fight a dangerous enemy and rescue a princess. That’s some action-movie shit right there. And that’s what we lost to have it replaced by “yer hatred will kindle inta luv.”

Mongol is pretty good and is like a fiver.

Movie Monday: The Conqueror (1956)