Movie Monday: The Witch (2015)

“But James,” you say, “although it has a historical setting, Robert Eggers’ debut film The Witch isn’t a historical film per se — it’s a horror movie.”

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Well, OK. You’ve got me there. But unlike a lot of the movies I watch for this thing, it’s pretty good — the rare Movie Monday film that I wish I’d seen on the big screen, not for the visual spectacle, but just because I wouldn’t have been constantly distracting myself with other things as one does in one’s living room.

So, fine, whatever, it’s a horror movie that I liked, which is a rare enough thing. But the really interesting thing to me was the way in which The Witch uses its historical setting as part of its horror.

There are plenty of historical horror films, of course, and they’re mostly pretty dire: zombie movies but with knights, or things that presume all kinds of nonsense about witches and witch hunting. But this one tries to use its historical setting as an aspect of its horror.

That’s interesting because … hmm. This is tough to discuss if you haven’t seen the film.

A lot of horror movies deal with the idea of belief in the supernatural. You might get a film that’s couched in a belief in supernatural evil like The Exorcist, something where a supernatural evil takes out a bunch of materialistic moderns who don’t believe in it, like your typical mummy movie, or one where people’s belief in the supernatural is what leads to horror in a mundane world, like The Wicker Man.

The Witch doesn’t precisely follow either of those models. I don’t want to spoil the film, but this is a story where the historical mindset is genuinely relevant to the plot and characters, but neither the modern worldview nor the historical one is really “true.” Indeed, the audience’s presumed modern worldview is kind of … implicated isn’t the right word but I don’t know what the right word is … in the development of the horror.

This is interesting, because I think that’s quite rare for a historical piece that isn’t itself an adaptation of an older work. I’m not saying it’s some perfect evocation of 17th-century thinking; it’s a two-hour movie and I’m hardly an expert on that subject anyway. But it seems to be at least taking its effort to analyse and empathise with a pretty alien way of thinking seriously, which is something I’m always interested to see.

Anyway, tl;dr it’s pretty good.

 

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Movie Monday: The Witch (2015)

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)

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)

Movie Monday: The Physician (2013)

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I seem to watch a lot of very long, worthy European historical dramas. This one is … well, it’s OK. It’s the 11th century, and young Rob (Tom Payne) is an orphan who gets raised by an itinerant barber-surgeon/quack (Stellan Skarsgård). Deciding he wants to go be a proper doctor after seeing a Jewish physician pull some advanced stuff, he sets off to Isfahan to study with the great Ibn Sina (Ben Kingsley). Along the way he has all kinds of adventures, with sandstorms and religious fanatics and daring rescues the Black Death and whatnot, and solves medical puzzles and falls in love with a girl (Emma Rigby) who is wedded to another and all that kind of thing.

And, you know, it’s … average. It has that general feeling of just slight predictable inadequacy that a lot of otherwise fine movies I cover here on movie Monday have.

Like a lot of films set in the middle ages, it takes a few central points (medicine in the Muslim world was very advanced compared to Europe in the 11th century, Ibn Sina is one of the greatest minds of the era) and expands them into a pretty by-the-numbers medical/personal drama with a little bit of action.

I understand that the portrayal of 11th-century England at the beginning is just meant to look like, you know, darkness, illness, ignorance, superstition and poverty, but it would help if it looked more like an ignorant, superstitious 11th-century. How did this dude wind up being called Rob? Was the author of the novel (I assume he has the same name in the novel) just too tired to Google “Old English name” or something? (I accept there may have been some people in England called Robert, I dunno, but it’s like setting your novel in modern-day Kentucky and calling the hero Etienne-Laurent de Saint-Luc. You’d only do it if you were making a point.

Anyway, I know this is short but I don’t have much to say about this. It is an OK average historical adventure movie.

Movie Monday: The Physician (2013)

Movie Monday: The Girl King (2015)

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Queen Christina of Sweden is a fascinating character; the only surviving child of the great Gustav II Adolph, she inherited the throne when he died in 1632. Once she came of age, she led Sweden out of the Thirty Years’ War and generally established a reputation as one of Europe’s weirdest and most interesting monarchs. She loved philosophy and learning, corresponded with Descartes, had all sorts of court intrigues, rejected the dress and behaviour expected of her as a woman, refused to marry and ultimately converted to Catholicism and abdicated the throne.

The problem of this film is, of course, that Christina’s actual life is much stranger and more interesting than this film wants to make it. It has a lot of good bits, but ultimately a voyage of philosophical discovery just isn’t all that cinematic an experience. It has a couple of additional problems: it’s in English, but most of the actors aren’t native English speakers, so it feels a little stilted and clumsy. It doesn’t feel like it can assume much knowledge about Swedish history on the part of its audience (probably fair), so it explains everything from the ground up, necessarily simplifying it. It’s also committed to telling as much of the story of Christina’s reign as possible, which means that everything feels a little … compressed.

Of course, the thing that attracted the most attention about this film when it came out is that its central love story is between Christina and one of her ladies in waiting, Countess Ebba Sparre. This is one of those suspected relationships that is impossible to prove but looks not unlikely, and it seems to be the thing about this film that made the most lasting impression on fans and critics — both because it’s a historical drama with a relationship between two women at its centre (rare enough) and because it’s the only part of the plot that the film really gives any weight to, which is weird considering there’s all this fate-of-nations stuff going on.

But there are discrepancies in this plotline, presumably created to make Christina more sympathetic. For instance, in the film Sparre’s marriage is shown as something ginned up to separate Christina from her lover. In reality it happened at Christina’s instigation, which suggests a more complex attitude on the queen’s part.

So The Girl King feels rushed, and rushed in a way that gives it a weird emotional tone; it can only hit the highlights, so everything is turned up to 11 all the time. It lurches from exposition to crisis to confrontation to more exposition, with too little time to let its setting and characters breathe. It has some good performances, including Malin Buska as Christina and Patrick Bauchau as Descartes, but overall it feels jumbled. And it still leaves out most of her life, an eventful time that would just retroactively complicate things further.

I did like the little touches: the flock of sheep outside the cathedral was my favourite.

Movie Monday: The Girl King (2015)

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

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)