Historical film ‘reconstruction’

I suppose I should begin by explaining my historic film ‘philosophy’. I study the ancient world and have put a lot of person-years into examining the graphic arts where they represent warfare, warriors and soldiers, and into the elucidation of ancient military equipment. Put simply, I believe that getting such things ‘right’ on film actually looks more arresting and makes for a more impressively cool film. Costume designers ‘seem’ to assume that their target demographic (the US movie/DVD-going public) is pig-ignorant of such things, while revealing their own ignorance. In fact there is an army of leisure historians, wargamers, military students (small ‘s’ – they don’t have to be attending military academies!) and others who know very well indeed just what a 2nd century AD legionary or gladiator really looked like, and how they fought.

Ancient armour, weapons and fighting styles evolved the way they did for a spectrum of practical, economic, ritual and cultural reasons, but they did so because they worked. Frankly, making it up illogically for film does not work, unless the wardrobe researchers have a secret, subversive mission to stage such preposterous creations that the public is driven to read up on the reality because they cannot believe Greeks/Persians/Romans could possibly have been so daft.

Stormtroopers from the Star Wars franchise

I think I will leave the full-flavour rant about gladiators to a future blog about the forthcoming movie Pompeii! However, it is my belief that what amounts to a courageous leap-in-the-dark is needed for sword-and-sandal films by actually portraying ancient warriors realistically (albeit with some tailoring to enhance). They would look so much more ‘awesomer’! Something similar has, of course, been done before in a parallel galaxy, far-far-away. Putting the imperial stormtroopers of Star Wars films in white armour was a stroke of utter, counter-intuitive (back in the ‘70s), genius. Incidentally, I also often use an image of such stalwarts in Roman army lectures to show what Roman soldiers did not look like – not to emphasise the Roman lack of beam-weapons and a fatal inability to hit any slow-moving ‘goodie’ target placed directly in front of them, but to underline the lack of Roman equipment uniformity (and, indeed, a lack of cloning, if one follows the narrative of the god-awful SW prequel films!).

My standpoint crystallised during the course of an evening, just after Gladiator (2000) was released, which involved a hammer-and-tongs difference of opinion with Maria Wyke, a doyenne of Ancient World Reception-in-Film Studies. The discussion started wedged into the back seat of a colleague’s tiny car, extended over an increasingly wine-fuelled dinner-party, and well into the night. It was based on a misconception that I was arguing as a train-spotting (true), pedant (not so true, I like to delude myself) who wanted film to be reconstruction archaeology (definitely mistaken). I probably did not express myself very well to this very sharp and articulate scholar, wine and the still-coalescing form of my ideas doubtless contributing to this in no small part. However, my central tenet was, and remains, that ‘real’ clothing and equipment looks so different from the predictable, usual, ignorant short-changing by film costume/props designers, and from the normal pap endlessly served up to film audiences, that it would look über-cool and arrest public attention.

Why bother, I hear people ask? After all Gladiator made a mint and even won costume design awards(!). I suppose my answer is that we have the information, the products look damn good because they were based on practical world reality, so why not use them to make a visually finer film? It also engenders a feeling of depression over the shear impoverishment of imagination: Gladiator, 2000, feeds into HBO Rome, 2005, into Spartacus Blood and Sand, 2010 (‘Spartacus B-S’, more-like!), and Pompeii, 2014, with a constant inflation of unintentionally comedic rubbish. This extends not just to military themes, but the ludicrously impractical costumes draped around (or half-off, in the case of Lucy Lawless) female players.

For reasons that escape me, no real effort is made to show ‘ancient’ people as real, despite the wealth of knowledge about them. There is no noticeable progress from the original, silent, sword-and-sandal outings at the very start of movie-making. This is in utter contrast to the modern staging of later periods which have become iconic in film. Although acceptable in the 1950s and 1960s, no self-respecting film-maker would make up uniforms and hardware for World War II (in the style of US tanks with black crosses on the sides in Battle for Anzio, 1968!). Hence the visual feasts of realité represented by Saving Private Ryan (1998), Band of Brothers (2001), Letters From Iwo Jima/Flags of Our Fathers (2006), The Pacific (2010), and a gem I recently discovered, Battle of the Pacific (2012). Even yet another vehicle for Mel Gibson’s Anglophobia, The Patriot (2000), made a credible effort to portray not just the uniforms but the linear formations of armies during the American Revolution. It is unique also in featuring bouncing rather than exploding cannon-balls, with decapitating effect! Even less would an American Civil War film now pass muster with made-up uniforms – witness Glory (1989), Gettysburg (1993), Gods and Generals (2003) and Lincoln (2012).

Purists can quibble with details of all these films (in Private Ryan, ‘killing’ a Tiger tank by shooting directly through the driver’s vision port – ignoring the perspex window and periscope – don’t get me started!), but the creation of a richly credible environment does nothing but enhance. Add boot-camp training for the cast in dress, weaponry and tactics, and even the body-language of players radiates authenticity.

‘Authenticity’ does not by itself make an outstanding film. Patriot deservedly bombed, in part because it was so ludicrous with Mel running around waving a tomahawk, and the British did not stuff churches with American ‘webels’, then burn them down (Americans did do so with Native Americans, later, however). Master and Commander (2003), on the other hand, is a masterpiece of historic cinema, a ‘Frenchie’-bashing movie undoubtedly helped by its fortuitous release at the height of the ‘freedom-fries’ frenzy!

So, the thing to do is institute a star-rating for authenticity, in the understanding that this is independent of whether or not the film is good. Thus Master and Commander would rate five, whereas 300 might achieve 1.5, or less.

 – Jon Coulston, lecturer, University of St. Andrews

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