The power of the cinema to promulgate myths which resonate for years and never really go away even after they have been brought into the light of reason has never been more illustrated than by the character demolition of Captain Bligh.  Bligh was never more or less a disciplinarian than his fellow MGM logo Captains in the Royal Navy, he was highly respected by Lord Nelson, was one of his Band of Brothers and had voyaged extensively throughout the world without a single blemish to his name prior to the Bounty. During the voyage to Tahiti it is well documented that Bligh did his best to attend to the welfare of his crew and although he had a blistering tongue ordered floggings only as a last resource.
It is largely forgotten that after Bligh was set adrift in a longboat many of his officers joined him voluntarily and he brought them to safety across 3,500 miles of ocean in a feat of navigation unparallelled to this day.
The truth of the Bounty mutiny is that after the cold and damp of England, the rigid rigours of ship-board life and the social constrictions of their homeland the crew of the Bounty must have thought they had died and gone to heaven in the sunshine of Tahiti. Allied to the casual sexual habits of the beautiful Tahitian girls and the slackening of the routine of work is it any wonder that many of them did not wish to return to the harshness of their lives. If Bligh was guilty of anything it was inCamera allowing the crew to taste too many of these forbidden fruits.

Much of the Bligh myth can be laid at the feet of two ex First World War fighter pilots who wrote a novel about the Bounty in the early 20's which became a best-seller at the time but is now out of print. James Nordhoff and Charles Hall wrote their entirely fictional book through the eyes of a mutineer in such a way that it appeared to be his true version of events. The story was written in such an authentic and documentary fashion that it became an accepted truth spread by word of mouth from those who had read the novel to those who were too lazy to do so.
Matters might have ended there and the fiction may have dissolved in time if it had not been for a Hollywood version of the book which copied each chapter to the letter. Even before anyone saw the finished movie the very casting automatically delegated Captain Bligh to the villain and Fletcher Christian to the hero --even his name has a heroic ring to it. While Charles Laughton's Captain Bligh was highly entertaining it was a gross distortion of the character of the real Bligh and gave him not one redeeming quality as a human being. On the other hand, Clark Gable's ever cheerful and twinkly-eyed Christian made the mutineer out to be somewhere between Billy Graham and Saint Peter. But audiences everywhere loved it and throughout the Western world The Mutiny on the Bounty, Hollywood style, became the true and definitive version of a historical event.
Nordhoff and Hall wrote another book { again out of print } ---this time more loosely based on incidents in the South Seas in the early part of century. It did however follow faithfully the same theme as Mutiny in that there was an overbearing martinet played by Raymond Massey and an innocent islander as the subject of his wrath. There was little to distinguish them from Bligh and Christian, but this time redemption was the final theme when the heroic islander saves the life of Massey's wife. The native was played by Jon Hall in a very enjoyable black and white called The Hurricane -well worth seeing if you ever get an opportunity.
I have used the above as a perfect example of how history can and does become distorted and blurred by the media and it is illustrative of just how much power the media wields. In this instance it was a novel which was the prime culprit but there have been many ways throughout the years ; the lewd pamphleteering which brought about the downfall of Marie Antoinette, propaganda via the radio during the war, television, newspapers and so on.  There is little doubt that Hollywood myth-makers have distorted the truth deliberately for no other reason than to make a film  more exciting and very little has changed since Bounty was made. Witness The Da Vinci Papers which is  filmed in exactly the same way, in the belief that the novel is a new and true realism of the Holy Grail story, when in fact it is little more than a jumble of half-truths and vivid imagination.

Do these mangled histories really matter ? Hollywood in the main doesn't care, apart from the exceptional director who will research the subject diligently. But I believe that it matters and I believe that if you set about making a film about historic incidents then you should be at pains to ensure that all the facts are presented as honestly as possible.
It has to be said that most of the historical movies emanating from Hollywood have rewritten history freely and indiscriminately and with a very broad brush.  In a more enlightened age people are less likely to accept "faction" and demand that some thought is given to their intelligence but even so, given half the chance, Hollywood will go for the lurid and salacious and heroic but the paradox is that real life contains more of all these elements than any screenwriter can dream up.

 

 

 

Mutiny on the Bounty { 1935 }Mutiny on The Bounty poster 1935
Director : Frank Lloyd
The movie was made in black and white and the theme throughout is the same ; 
Bligh { Charles Laughton } is bad, Christian { Clark Gable } is good and the crew are all jolly tars.
The pretentious essay at the beginning, written in what passes for Olde English script, states pompously that the events to follow improved the British Navy --- just how is left to the imagination.

Right from the beginning, Bligh's name is touted as being feared throughout the navy and even before the ship sails Bligh orders a flogging is carried out even though Bird in flight the sailor is dead !
Christian, all cheery charm and bonhomie unsuccessfully tries to stop the sadistic Bligh sending a midshipman aloft in a gale and the next day Bligh orders a keel-hauling even though the practice had been banned years previously.
Floggings take place daily with the inference that Bligh would flog the ship's cat if it purred.
In between being flogged,  keelhauled and sent up the mast in gales, Bligh is also systematically starving the crew to death having allegedly left most of the ship's stores in his pantry before the Bounty sailed.

Throughout a program of sadism which would have made the Marquis de Sade proud, Christian retains his boyish grin and the crew are as jolly as can be. They are all made even jollier when they arrive at Tahiti and find a bevy of Hollywood beauties all in soft focus, fresh from the casting couch and sporting sarongs from Fredricks. So, now we have Fletcher Christian, the cTahiti printrew and the whole of Tahiti versus Captain Bligh.

Anyway, the crew have the time of their lives  but somehow or other the job of collecting breadfruit plants is finally finished { in which time Christian has become a father, which was a good trick considering the ship only stayed 5 months } the monstrous Bligh orders the crew back on ship to carry out their mission and surprise, surprise nobody wants to go. Christian and his mates take the ship and sail away leaving Bligh in an open boat and 3500 miles to go.
A few minutes later and Bligh has fetched up back in England where he is immediately ordered to return on the Pandora to capture the mutineers. --- in reality, a Captain Edwards commanded the Pandora.

At the trial, in the final scenes and true to his character, Bligh is spitting venom, while Christian's Dad expresses outrage which is a pretty good trick considering he had been dead for the previous fifteen years.
In real life, Charles Laughton was disliked by Gable who was averse to working with homosexuals -- which prompts the question why. 
Mutiny on The Bounty won Best Picture Oscar for 1935 ---which also prompts the question -why?


Mutiny on the Bounty { 1962 }
Director :  Lewis Milestone
This version was hardly worth bothering with because it added little to the Gable film apart from being filmed in glorious Technicolour.  In fact the film may not be in black and white but the portrayal of the characters certainly is with Bligh even more inhumane and sadistic and Fletcher Christian is so "good" that he might as well have donned a white stetson --- even that would not have been out of place among the bizarre outfits he wears,  presumably borrowed from Liberace's wardrobe.
Palm trees
The casting of Brando in the role of Fletcher Christian is a blatant example of utilising a top Hollywood name to sell a film and the result is nothing less than hilarious --- Brando's Christian is a parody with his foppish mannerisms and his odd accent which may have impressed American audiences but is straight out of the Dick Van Dyke school of elocution which also left British audiences in howls of laughter.  It's difficult to believe that this is the man who left us in awe as The Godfather.
Trevor Howard's Bligh is the same old tired caricature of the underhanded, devious, cruel and inflexible sadist who is unique among men in having not one redeeming quality.
The opening paragraph of this page states that one of the main reasons why the crew of the Bounty mutinied was the allure of the beautiful and amoral island girls so it is a supreme irony that Brando himself fell for his co-star Tarita and they subsequently married.
In a memorable feat of the director's art, Lewis Milestone has gathered together a crew of excellent character actors 
{ including Richard Harris } and turned them into a crew who would have been more at home in The Pirates of Penzance.  The best thing that can be said about the whole thing is that the scenery is good.


Mutiny on the Bounty
{ 1983 }
Director : Roger Donaldson

Mutiny on the Bounty with mel Gibson and Anthony HopkinsThe last Bounty film to date was at the opposite end of the spectrum in it's depiction of the famous story and gave a far more balanced and coherent view of events. The film unfolds with Bligh { Anthony Hopkins } at his own court martial, narrating his version of how the ship came to be taken, to a formidable Edward Fox presiding, alongside Laurence Olivier as Admiral Hood. As Bligh tells his tale, flashbacks illustrate any discrepancies in his story and Hopkins fleshes out the character of Captain Bligh, subtly illustrating the many facets of this complex character. The one-dimensional view of the man as a monster and a bully is put to rest as the film probes the reasons for the mutiny. A combination of many factors led to the mutiny, with Bligh vainly trying to keep control of events spiralling out of his control --- intelligent enough to realise that they were but unable to prevent them.

Before reaching the Pacific, his officers, who should be his greatest allies, are shown to be less than dependable. His second in command, Fryer { Daniel Day-Lewis } is openly insubordinate and disliked by crew and fellow officers alike and the surgeon turns out to be a habitual drunkard.
Fletcher Christian { Mel Gibson }, as always, is played as a handsome, well-rounded-fellow, popular with his fellow officers and crew alike. There is a great deal of truth in this but what is never stated is that Christian was immensely strong and athletic which alone would have won him a great deal of respect.  He had sailed with Bligh before and under his tutelage had risen to become a well-respected officer.  He took Fryer's place as second in command and Fryer never forgave Bligh.

Throughout the voyage, Bligh tries to look after his crew and occasionally wins them over but a major watershed in their indiscipline is Bligh's intractable and stubborn resolve to shorten the voyage by rounding the horn. After thirty days of incessant storms they are forced to go via The Cape of Good Hope. Bligh's reputation is diminished by this incident more than any other but what the crew were never aware of was the Admiralty's dilatory manning of the ship had caused them to set sail far later than anticipated.
Eventually reaching Tahiti, they spent from October 1788 to April 1789 { a total of 23 weeks } potting and loading theDolphin breadfruit plants. In all this time, the crew were exposed to what must have seemed like heaven on earth with sunshine, freedom from duty and best of all the bare-breasted and free-wheeling sexual attitudes of the flirtatious Tahitian girls and unsurprisingly they did not want to leave.

The indolent days spent in Tahiti went to make up an unhappy group of sailors when they were forced to return to their duties and the ship sailed away. Bligh's dignity had been eroded by the nature of the natives and his authority had been eroded accordingly as he attempted to bring his crew back into line. Christian had always been an ally but he now found himself in the unenviable position of attempting to carry out Bligh's orders while maintaining his popularity among the lower decks. SharkHis was a classic case of having authority over men and being one of them at the same time. As a result, Christian became highly stressed. Driven by Bligh, manipulated by the crew and the siren call of the island all proved too much for Christian and his stress levels became so intolerable that he finally snapped.

His hysterical screams of
" I have been in Hell" as Bligh pleads for sanity tell it all.

The film is a great adventure story with Hopkins making a great Bligh. Mel Gibson is excellent as the bewildered Christian and the supporting cast with many British actors making up the crew are top-rate.  The crew are far from the 1935 and 1962 versions and Liam Neeson, etc go to make up a glorious gathering of villains. Proves the case that you can make an exciting, colourful, adventure film and not deviate from the known historical facts.



Ben Hur { 1959 }    
Director : William Wyler
written by General Lew Wallace in 1880 was a novel with fictional characters interwoven into historical backgrounds and was so thoroughly researched and carefully translated onto the screen that the integrity of the director William Wyler shone through. The film garnered an unprecedented eleven Oscars and was an instant box-office success. In those days few people owned T.V. sets consequently cinemas were always full but the mixture of romance, history, action and great story-line led to cinema queues all over the western world for
Ben-Hur and it was always the chariot race that was spoken of with awe. The cast followed a well-trod path, mixing Hollywood stars and respected character and / or classical actors { usually British } in order to give the usually heavy dialogue the necessary gravitas. It should be noted that it took a great deal of courage to create films of this genre and any one of them could turn out to be a laughing stock if the sets were poor or the costumes looked silly or worst of all, an accent sounded out of place.

Charlton Heston, fresh from his success in
The Ten Commandments, was ideal in the starring role of Judah Ben-Hur, a Ben-Hur posterJewish Prince, and Stephen Boyd an ideal foil as Messala, the Roman Procurator. Hugh Griffith, Jack Hawkins, Andre Morell and Finlay Currie play their parts superbly and it is to the director's credit that he has avoided even a trace of a Brooklyn accent which can sink a film such as this.
As a history lesson, films such as
Ben Hur are at one and the same time, educational and inspirational and far superior to poring over a text book. The colour and dialogue bring to life a Roman garrison on the outskirts of the Empire. We learn in the first few minutes the difficulties in maintaining that garrison as Stephen Boyd frets over his responsibilities and we see immediately that the embossed metal chest-plates of a Roman general are extremely heavy as he sighs with relief on removing it. The hostile undercurrents engendered by the presence of the Messiah are subtly in place and life in a Jewish city under an occupying power are also clear. So, even in the opening few minutes a whole gamut of information is flashed graphically onto the consciousness of the audience who would possibly reject such information presented in textbook format. The lesson is that to learn history you must make it exciting and to do that you must "bring it to life" and in a way when watching films such as this we are living for a short time in a re-creation of life 2,000 years ago.
The whole film carries on in this manner ---- we learn that leprosy was commonplace and the life of a galley-slave was virtually unendurable and life was incredibly difficult but always worth living.

The most enduring set-piece in the film is the chariot race and the Director has spared no effort to make it nail-bitingly exciting and historically authentic. The sets are superb, from the seated sections of the arena to the dusty elliptical floor onto the magnificent Spina in the centre. A whole encyclopedia of descriptive text could never surpass the learning experience represented by just this one section of the film.
When Hollywood put its mind to it they produced works of art. Ben-Hur is an outstanding example of an entertaining and educational voyage into the past and its quality is there for all to see.

Ben Hur is one of the better examples of the endless line of historical epics turned out in the 50's and 60's ranging from the absolute pits such as Demetrius and the Gladiatiors, the highlight of which was Victor Mature rolling around in the arena with a tatty rug; the terminally boring The RobeCleopatra which was just a vehicle for Taylor and Burton to reproduce on-screen what they were doing in real life ---lovin' and fightin' ;  Fall of the Roman Empire which took just a little more than two hours.  And the interminable list went on and on with actors such as Charlton Heston and Stephen Boyd seemingly indispensable if there were togas to be donned.  Even Charlton Heston wasn't immune to the odd turkey and whole audiences were known to have died of terminal boredom at showings of El Cid.  Here and there, a little gem came about and Spartacus became a classic as audiences tired of all that gravitas.

Spartacus { 1960 }
Director : Stanley Kubrick
Throughout the 50's and 60's T.V. had not yet taken the hold that it does today and many people could never afford a setSpartacus poster anyway so it was a reasonable bet that when a new epic came around then the queues would extend around the block and often did. The sense of anticipation was electric and it was always with a sense of triumph and relief that you paid for your ticket and gained the sumptuous foyer where glamorous usherettes held armfuls of souvenir booklets. These were inevitably colourful, informative and expensive and if you were with your girl-friend it looked a bit mean not to buy the book but if nothing else it did add to the occasion by giving a sense of attending the theatre rather than merely " going to the pictures". Spartacus was just such an occasion and the little-known story of the Slaves Revolt for once did not disappoint and has quite rightly become acknowledged as a cinema classic.
At the time of the film's release, the Slaves Revolt was known mostly to historians only, but the story captured popular imagination and is a prime example of entertainment and information combining to be educational. Most of the learning process is subliminal and we owe a great debt to those unsung heroes the costumiers and the props men for painting pictures of past times which are far more vivid than any text book could ever be.


The advent of Spartacus was like a breath of fresh air to audiences weary of pretentious Biblical epics with interminable orations which droned on and on ---and the combination of a fascinating story and non-stop action drew universal applause wherever it played. The age-old tale of the downtrodden underdog winning the day is always irresistible and Spartacus was the epitome of a heroic fight against a repressive regime. Karl Marx knew the story and valued it enough to attempt to enrol Spartacus, the man, into the pantheon of Communist heroes.
Kramer had a great screenplay, a wonderful action/adventure and a fine leading actor ----Kirk Douglas with just the right balance of athleticism and intelligence was Spartacus. He also had some established Hollywood stars such as John Ireland who played Crixus, a historical character who fought alongside Spartacus and there was Jean Simmons as the great man's wife. Little is known of the wife of Spartacus and the name Varinia is fictional but it is likely that the version of her in the film is very much the same as she was in real life. The part of Draba played by Woody Strode is fictional but his muscular and sensitive Nubian gladiator is an outstanding performance by an actor who never failed to excel in every part he played. Despite all these great players, Kramer was intelligent enough to realise what many directors had found before him ----that American accents were acceptable in the action roles and in fact enhanced them but when it came to members of the Roman Senate they just sound ludicrous. In such cases, it's almost obligatory to call upon British character actors and it was these additions that gave the film its final polish and took it to another level. Laurence Olivier and Charles Laughton provide the necessary gravitas for the parts of Crassus and Gracchus but Peter Ustinov steals every scene as Batiatus, the owner of the school for gladiators. Wheedling and sly in the market place, brutal and overbearing to his slaves and ingratiating and obsequious to his masters, Ustinov provides a master-class in the art of acting and won himself an Oscar for his trouble.
Gladiator helmet  
Spartacus is unusual among Roman epics in that there are no mentions of the glory of Rome ---rather does it concentrate more on the daily lives of a cross-section of Roman citizens. What comes across quite clearly is that the whole structure was a class-ridden and repressive police state where plebeians had little or no rights whatsoever and human beings were "owned" and regarded as no better than cattle.
When the Spartacus Rebellion began and 120,000 slaves followed and then fought several Roman Legions to a standstill the whole of the Republic was shaken to the core. The extent of their fear was apparent when the slaves were finally defeated and in a cruel act of vengeance they crucified 6,000 of them along the Appian Way. This scene is one of the most poignant in the whole film and the words ;
"I am Spartacus" repeated over and over again have reverberated down into movie history.

 

One Millon Years B.C. { 1966 }
Director : Don Chaffey

As a historical film you would have to go a long way to find a more inaccurate representation of an era and this must be the definitive example "how not to do it". I suppose Director Don Chaffey could argue that it was so long ago that how does anyone know with any accuracy how things were, but two things jump up and bite you right away ---one is theOne Million Years B.C. poster with Raquel Welch undisputed fact that the dinosaurs had died out 60 million years previously and the other is that the bikini was not invented until the 1950's. Nevertheless, the film was quite popular not least for the presence of Raquel Welch and England had won the World Cup that year so most people were walking round with beatific smiles anyway. Apart from Raquel, the other attraction was Ray Harryhausen's dinosaurs which were state-of-the-art at the time but have now become as archaic as their subject matter with the advent of computer-generated images. One of the highlights of the film is Raquel being carried off by a pterodactyl, in fact most of the highlights have Raquel in there somewhere.
T-Rex
The definitive "caveman" movie is still out there awaiting production and I am surprised that Steven Spielberg has not attempted it yet. Two of the major obstacles in making this kind of movie are the names such as Tumak and Ahot and so on ---for some reason they can be most off-putting - and the monosyllabic speech interpretations such as Ugh and Grumph don't ring true either. Having said that, perhaps Spielberg has done the "caveman" movie in his own inimitable manner and instead of taking us into the past has brought the past to us in Jurassic Park, thus eliminating the problems I have outlined.Pterodactyl

Any one of us can only have a glimmering of how life was at the dawn of man but it definitely wasn't like this.

The 50's and 60' s spawned any number of Hollywood Epics which ran into millions being spent on production costs. The costs were accrued on lavish sets, numberless extras, big-screen formats and not least, extravagant fortunes paid to acknowledged Stars guaranteed to bring in the crowds. Those Directors who are still around must stand in awe at the computer graphics creating finer sets than any craftsman and any number of "extras"required . The only thing that hasn't changed are the exorbitant sums paid to the Stars, unless of course a Director is willing to take a chance on an "unknown" which often sees a new star enter the firmament or alternatively cause a film to go into freefall.
The spiralling costs of the great Epic movies eventually brought about their demise --- it only needed one poor showing at the box-office and millions went down the drain. But, in recent years there has been a renaissance in the production of Epic movies, brought about by the comparative ease with which computer graphics generate whole cities and armies at the push of a button.



Waterloo
 
{ 1970 }
Director : Sergei Bondarchuk
Waterloo is a rarity among historical films in that there are no fictional elements whatsoever --- the film is a completely factual account of the battle and the events leading up to it.  As such, it is not to everyone's taste { my wife hated every Waterloo poster minute of it } but for anyone interested in the Napoleonic era it is de rigeur entertainment.  Bondarchuk has gathered together a first class selection of actors, each depicting his or her role with painstaking accuracy but it has to be said that acting honours always take second place to the monumental battle scenes.  
The film begins with Napoleon's tearful farewell to his Imperial Guard in the courtyard at Fontainbleau and swiftly changes to his dramatic escape from Elba.  Rod Steiger plays the part well but concentrates a little too much upon Napoleon's dramatic side { Steiger always did go in for "emoting" }  displaying little of  the charisma which persuaded Marshall Ney { Dan O'Herlihy } and his troops to change sides in that famous confrontation.

It cannot be emphasised too much just how accurately this film recounts the story even down to the Duchess of Richmond's ball on the eve of the battle which introduces many of the major players on the British side.  As the dance goes on, the rain pours down outside onto the bay windows and Bondarchuk has reproduced the weather conditions which were as much a factor in the battle as any of the tactics.


When the battle begins, all the major pivotal events of the battle are shown in the sequence in which they occurred commencing with the French attack on Hougoumont which ebbed and flowed for most of the day --- one small criticism is that Bondarchuk has missed the opportunity to illustrate the desperate hand-to-hand fighting at the besieged farmhouse.  The attack on La Haye Sainte and Blucher's diversionary tactics precede one of the highlights of the battle { and the film } which is the Charge of the Scots Greys made famous by Lady Butler's fine painting.  The vigour and energy of the Scots Greys were to lead to their downfall as they raced too far and were left stranded deep within the French lines only to be cut down by the French Lancers --- yet another British action to become more renowned for it's glorious disaster than any victory.  Bondarchuk has not neglected to recount the poignant death of Ponsonby { Michael Wilding } bogged down in the mud and speared by French Lancers meeting exactly the same death as his father before him.
If the Scots Greys were foolish then Ney countered with a foolishness of his own using his cavalry in a pivotal part of the battle which had Napoleon tearing his hair out at Ney's profligate waste.  Wave after wave of French Cuirassiers charge across the battlefield, washing up against the British squares and breaking time after time against hedges of bayonets in scenes in  which Bondarchuk has brought Lady Butler's and Felix Phillipoteaux's paintings to life.French flag

The final act in the drama is the attack by the Old Guard sent in to administer the coup-de-grace and they confidently advance up the hill towards Wellington.  Bondarchuk gets it spot-on when he has Wellington shout " Now Maitland ---now is your time !" and the Redcoats rise from the long grass to fire withering volley after volley into the Guard and for the first time ever the Imperial Guard breaks and runs.  Both Bondarchuk and Cambacérès retrieve a little of the Guard's tattered honour refusing to surrender what remains of the elite troops with a riposte of "Merde" and being blasted into history by the British cannon.

Christopher Plummer makes an excellent Wellington with Rupert Davies as Lord Gordon, Orson Welles as Louis and Terence Alexander as Uxbridge all outstanding despite such little screen-time.  As a historical account Waterloo has few rivals --- none of the famous quotes have been omitted and the research has been thorough and accurately translated onto the screen.   To his credit,  Bondarchuk has resisted a temptation which few have ever been able to and omitted any fictional love affairs turning out in the process an entertaining and informative historical account accurate enough to stand as a teaching device in any academy.

The Last of the Mohicans { 1992 }
Director : Michael Mann
From the novel by James Fenimore Cooper
Written in 1826 and universally acknowledged to be a classic, Fenimore Cooper's most famous novel is virtuallyLast of the Mohicans poster unreadable today ---- it's too slow for the modern reader and the quaint phrases and sentences are testimony to how much our language has changed over the years. But in it's day, Mohicans was a best-seller all over the world, enthralling its audience with a thrilling tale of love and adventure among the exotic tribes of Indians in what was still a wilderness which few had seen.  Although the book has become antiquated the story and its heroes endure and will hopefully do so for many years to come.

As the film begins and even before the credits come up, drumming can be heard in the background becoming louder and louder and rising to a crescendo when the film opens onto the mountainous scene before us. Think ' Ravel's Bolero' and you have some idea of the stunning beginning to Mohicans and throughout the film the music of Randy Edelman, Clannad and Daniel Lenois is a feature of the film, changing the mood from foreboding to exultation to sadness as required.

Central to the story are Hawkeye { played superbly by Daniel day-Lewis }, Chingachgook
{ Russell Means } and Uncas ( Eric Schweig } who are free spirits in the forests of New York State,1857, where the French and British are fighting it out for possession of America and subsequently Canada. The historical and geographic backdrop could hardly be better to tell the story of Hawkeye's love for Cora { Madeleine Stowe} providing some great action scenes set against the rugged beauty of the woods and waterfalls of Carolina complementing the real events which took place.

The battle for Fort William Henry is a brilliant re-enactment of the French siege and is quite detailed down to the mortars which the French used to good effect, the letter which went astray and the non-appearance of General Webb.  The Marquis de Montcalm { who was to die three
years later at The Heights of Abraham } was generous in allowing the British to keep their colors and leave the fort with dignity intact.  Montcalm was not to know that his gesture was to have unfortunate consequences by at the hands of his disgruntled Hurons who melted into the woods.  The ensuing massacre as the Huron attack the British in a picturesque meadow is one of the most gripping scenes in the film and a graphic account of an historically factual event. The Huron were essentially a peaceful people but from the days of Champlain they had been cultivated by the French for their skills in trapping and pathfinding which was eventually to bring about their downfall at the hands of the Iroquois who fought for the British.

Peaceful nation or not, Magua the Huron is vengeance personified --- cruel, without an ounce of compassion or humanity he is the epitome of savagery in his implacable hatred of Colonel Munro. Wes Studi was made for this role ----he has done nothing before or after to equal his part in this film ---- he is Magua. Despite the formidable presence of Daniel-Day Lewis and all the other players the part of Magua is pervasive throughout the film --- you just can't take your eyes off him.
Just as the beginning of the film demand your attention the finale is just as memorable in a bloody fight to the finish upon a cliff top where Cora loses her sister and Hawkeye loses his brother in the conclusion to a fascinating film.

Without the music Mohicans would be a tremendous film by any standards ---add the perfect background music which the Director has utilised to perfection and you have a tour de force in the illustrious career of Michael Mann and the rarity of cinema as a true art form.



Braveheart { 1995 }
Director : Mel Gibson

I have to confess that before seeing Braveheart I was filled with trepidation as to how Mel Gibson would represent William Wallace, a legendary warrior in the cause of Scottish Nationalism. On a first showing, I was not too impressed but little by little I have come to revise my opinion.Braveheart poster
The story of William Wallace is polarised between the years 1297, when his star was in the ascendant and 1305 when he was put to death. These years are documented to a degree but the years prior to this are shadowy and fragmentary and as a result have become subject to variances and conjecture as illustrated in the film. The screenplay is based upon a novel of the same name by Randall Wallace which in turn is drawn from an epic poem called The Wallace by Henry the Minstrel or Blind Harry as he is better known. This would be all well and good apart from the fact that Blind Harry's version of the story was written nearly 200 years after the death of Wallace and is itself flawed. Other sources such as Andrew Wyntoun's Originale Cronykil of Scotland { 1420 } and Walter Bower's Scotichronicon { 1440 } are simply, hero-worshipping, eulogies of the man. Sources from English writings are unsurprisingly, vitriolic diatribes calling Wallace " a thief ", " a bandit" or " a pillager of Holy Shrines" as the fancy took them. So it can be seen that much of the story is either shrouded in mystery or lost in the mists of time and the screenplay necessitated a great deal of conjecture and imagination to fill in the gaps.


There is a perfect example of this at the beginning of the film ; it is established that Wallace came from humble origins, it is believed that his mistress lived in the Lanark area and it is fact that he killed the English Sheriff of Lanark, William Heselrigg. The writer has cleverly brought these seemingly unrelated facts together to explain in a dramatic and action-packed manner just why Wallace became such an implacable opponent of the English. The inter-relation of the known facts, as entertaining as it is, has no basis in fact but certainly makes for a great start to the film. Just to make sure that noWallace statuebody is any doubt as to the righteousness of Wallace's cause the factual massacre of the Scottish Lords which took place at the Barns of Ayr is also portrayed as well as the emotive Droit de Seigneur by the venal English.
The focus of Wallace's hatred is Edward 1 { nicknamed Longshanks because of his height } ably played by Patrick McGoohan, Longshanks is portrayed as a cruel warmonger. This is somewhat one-dimensional as he did attempt reconciliation with the Scottish aristocracy but his other sobriquet of The Hammer of the Scots was not without foundation.

Having provided a wonderfully entertaining opening, the film entered into the years when Wallace's impact upon Scottish Nationalism was to become legendary and the scene is now set for his first major victory against the English at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297. The Director dispensed with the need for a bridge and created a set-piece medieval battlefield in which both sides hacked each other into bloody pieces using fiercesome battleaxes and broadswords. The action is both exciting and excruciating and is probably as realistic a representation of a medieval battlefield as can be seen anywhere. One minor fault is the use of the plant derivative, woad { isatis tinctoria } to make the Scots look even fiercer than than they were. The use of woad was restricted to the ancient Britons, 1,000 years previously. Scottish soccer fans have always painted flags of St. Andrew on their faces but since Braveheart the practice has become even more widespread.

Wallace was made famous by this one battle and entered into the world of the Scottish Lords and Scottish politics which was in time to bring about his downfall. For the time being though, he could do no wrong and was knighted by John Balliol. After Stirling Bridge, Wallace became bolder and bolder in his raids upon English garrisons culminating in his advance into towns in Northern England. In the film, Wallace's army actually sack York but in reality they never got further than Durham. Nevertheless, the raids which were carried out while Longshanks was preoccupied in France, stung the English into responding in kind and an army was despatched to bring the Scots back into line. The two armies finally met at Falkirk and with Wallace's reputation at an all-time high he felt confident enough to face the English in a set-piece pitched battle { which Stirling never was }. It was at Falkirk that Wallace employed the use of thousands of long stakes forming his troops into four groups of "hedgehogs" bristling with spears but in Braveheart, Mel Gibson sets this device at the Battle of Stirling. The Scots were no match for the English archers and cavalry and as shown in the film Wallace was comprehensively defeated.
There is a scene at the end of the battle where Robert the Bruce is fighting on the English side and has Wallace at his mercy but lets him go. The whole of this scenario is pure fiction and derives from the Bruce's father who was allied to the English and fought on their side at Falkirk.
Robert the Bruce appears throughout the film as a tortured soul vacillating between diplomacy or even alliance with the English and the pure patriotism of many of his fellow Scots. There is possibly a great deal of truth in the film's suggestion that Wallace was finally his inspiration to tip the balance in favour of opposition to the English and that Wallace was therefore, indirectly responsible for the victory of Bannockburn.
The scene at Falkirk where the Irish, fighting in the ranks of the British army, go over to the Scots is also fiction but has its basis in a mutiny by the large Welsh contingent who were never content to be vassals and were also near to starvation.

The final scenes where Wallace has been betrayed and taken for trial to London are both harrowing and moving which is no mean achievement. The practice of  being" hung, drawn and quartered" was not an uncommon punishment in those days and illustrates graphically just what a barbaric age it was.   After various tortures Wallace's body was cut up and sent to the four points of the compass and his head impaled upon London Bridge.  Mel Gibson's handling of these gut-wrenching scenes could hardly be bettered and the scene where he is on the cross presages his latest role in the controversial Jesus of Nazareth film.  

The only really jarring note in the whole film is Wallace's affair with Princess Isabella, the wife of the homosexual Edward the Second.  There is no question that this event never happened and is simply the director bowing to the Hollywood tradition that the leading man is obliged to have a love interest or maybe Mel just fancied an excuse to cuddle up to the delicious Sophie Marceau.  Given that the whole tale has become distorted with the passage of time is it too fanciful to wonder if in another few centuries historians will revisit the story and take Braveheart as the literal truth and have Princess Sophie having Mel's baby ?
One other small point is that when Princess Isabella arrives to marry Edward the Second, one of the characters, knowing that he is gay says that Longshanks probably wanted her for himself.  The fact is that for all his admitted harshness and cruelty he loved his wife Eleanor of Castile to the point of distraction.  When she died in Lincoln the whole court travelled with her bier in a cortege to London.  The journey was a long one in those days and at each of the twelve stopping points Edward decreed that an ornate building with Eleanor's statue be erected.   They  were called Eleanor Crosses and there are only two remaining, the finest of which can be seen at Charing Cross.

Despite the latter paragraph, Mel Gibson created an exciting re-creation of  William Wallace's life and times and the parts which were patently not true--- well they should have been.


The Patriot
{ 2000 }
Director : Roland Emmerich
If The Last of The Mohicans represents the finest in fiction based on a historical background then The Patriot's combination of historical inaccuracies and Mills and Boon screenplay can only be described as the worst.The Patriot
When Mel Gibson read the script he must have thought that the metamorphosis from dedicated family man and rocking-chair craftsman to a guerrilla leader in the American War of Independence would be a challenging role. But both incarnations are so ludicrously over the top as to be laughable. In the guise of family man Benjamin Martin bringing up seven kids with only some kindly Swanee River-type black folks to help out, the sentimentality is mawkish to say the least, while on the other hand, cast in the guise of a fighting militiaman smacks more of Conan the Barbarian in his wholesale destruction of the British army. There is one distasteful scene in particular where after slaughtering a regiment of Redcoats { aided by his two barely teenage but deadshot sons } he hacks at the body of a soldier with a tomahawk in a complete frenzy, emerging covered in blood. This scene was distasteful to say the least, made even more so by Martin's return to normality with a rueful expression as if he had just killed a chicken.

When Martin is not covered in gore after hacking yet another Redcoat into little pieces he is pontificating about the awfulness of war or indulging in some sentimental nonsense with his cute-stroke-brave brood or chuckling patronisingly over some running joke involving blackened teeth.
Possibly the worst part of this dreadful film is the role of Colonel William Tavington { Jason Isaacs } who is quite obviously a thinly-disguised parody of the real life Banastre Tarleton. Tarleton was an English, Lieutenant Colonel of Dragoon Guards and was active in many battles in upstate New York. He was feared by the American militiamen for his ruthless efficiency and vilified for allegedly giving no quarterBanastre Tarleton at the battle of Waxhaws. He was in fact no worse than many American officers and much of his reputation was propaganda ---
he returned to England as a hero. In this version of events Tarleton {or Tavington ---if it's true then why not give him his real name?} has been demonised into a latter-day S.S. officer who thinks nothing of shooting children in the back and committing atrocities too numerous to mention. One particular scene has him gleefully burning down a church full of men, women and children --- an event which was a total fiction and an insult to the British army. The fact that The Patriot was originally based upon the career of Francis Marion, The Swamp Fox, until somebody pointed out that he was not averse to massacring Indians and raping slaves, makes the portrayal of Tarleton even more unedifying.

With its ludicrous stereotypes of dim-witted Redcoats, ever-cheerful, black slaves, naïve but courageous militia and cute little kids, added to sugary sentiment and extremely heavy-handed humour The Patriot could only ever appeal to another Patriot.
The only people who emerge from the wreckage with any credit are the costumiers and technicians with both sets and scenes second to none --- it's just a shame that the rest of the film did not live up to their excellence.

When making films with a historical background it is important that the audience recognize which is fact and which is fiction --- there are people out there who will take it as read that this is a factual account of what happened. In this instance, the director has completely relinquished any responsibility to ensure that the historical sections are accurate which is at best just downright lazy and at worst is dangerous slander.


Gladiator
{ 2000 }
Director : Ridley Scott

Comparisons with Spartacus are inevitable but it is a tribute to Kubrick that it has taken all of 40 years before anything approaching the quality of his epic made an appearance. There are many similarities between both films and one or two of them are quite uncanny but there is a major difference in that Spartacus took a historic event and sprinkled it lightly with a smattering of fiction while Gladiator took a fictional story and added a dash of historical background. Unfortunately, the historical additions do not stand up to close scrutiny and several of them have beeThe arenan altered radically in order to heighten the dramatic effect. With that in mind, Gladiator remains a memorable and entertaining movie and from a historical perspective, if it does nothing more then it provides a colourful splash of Roman life and a beautiful computer generated reconstruction of Rome itself.

In many ways, the opening scenes are the best part of the film and promise a great deal as the Roman Legions face the Germanic hordes in a dark and brooding forest clearing. The images of the troops facing the bloodthirsty barbarians are an accurate portrayal of front-line Roman soldiers and the difficulties they faced in the name of the Empire. On this occasion they are victorious but there were many occasions when they were not and it was one of the most dangerous postings in the Roman army.
The portrayal of Marcus Aurelius by Richard Harris is excellent and a fine interpretation of the Philosopher Emperor who spent much of his life holding back the barbarian tide on the Rhine frontier. He did indeed try to train and advise his son Commodus to take up the reins when he died but there is no evidence whatsoever that Commodus speeded him on his way into the afterlife. Marcus Aurelius's handing command to a general is of course fiction.

The part of Commodus is one of the most difficult and pivotal roles in the film ---- the deranged Roman Emperor is now a stereotype and has been done so many times it is difficult to imagine anything new can be added but Joaquin Phoenix manages to give a beautifully understated performance as the petulant, deranged and dangerous emperor. He steals many of the scenes which is quite an accomplishment considering the exalted company he is in. Another stereotype is the Roman matron conspiring behind the scenes and Connie Neilsen as Commodus's sister Lucilla also manages to break through the constraints of her role and add another dimension to her part as a woman living nervously alongside an unpredictable maniac and attempting to shield her son from his aberrations.
Once again British actors were chosen to play the parts of Senators { since I,Claudius Derek Jacobii is always in the forefronGladiator helmett } and just as in Spartacus the owner of the gladiator school { Peter Ustinov } has a singular and eccentric personality. Oliver Reed who must be the most under-rated actor in British cinema put in a sterling performance and vies with Ustinov for the best lanista---sadly he died during filming.

The focal point of the whole film is of course the Gladiator himself played by Russell Crowe ---
"my name is Maximus Decimus Meridius" --- who brings all the attributes necessary to the role. 
Enjoyable on-screen for most of the time, there are several occasions when Crowe is involved in dream-sequences which would have been better omitted. Dream sequences rarely work and are for the most part boring and on this occasion the cruelties imposed on his wife and child would have had far more impact if left to our imaginations.
It would be easy to think that the final scenes in the arena were the most historically inaccurate of all with Maximus fighting a Roman Emperor merely a figment of the imagination but Commodus did in fact make it a practice to fight in the arena. However, he was not slain by a gladiator but was assassinated.
Spartacus took place circa 79 B.C. and Gladiator circa 180 A.D. testifying eloquently
To the Roman fascination for the games and if they took place today there's no doubt that there would be no shortage of patrons which is also an eloquent testimony.



Kingdom of Heaven
{ 2005 }
Director : Ridley Scott
In tackling a story of the Crusades Ridley Scott set himself an even more difficult task than Gladiator and if nothing more the film is a triumph for the costumiers and props men who have produced an authentic backdrop of the era.  the filmKingdom of Heaven follows the same formula as Gladiator but unfortunately Orlando Bloom lacks the necessary qualities and gravitas to carry such a demanding role and only just about gets away with it.  In the present climate of Islamic and Christian tensions any portrayal of either religion as being at fault in any way could have been construed as Jingoism at the very least but the director has given a fair and balanced account of events and in fact most of the Islamic fighters, particularly Saladin, emerge as far more civilized than the Templars and Hospitalers.  The big problem is that the film is very wordy and the plot is thin ---- Scott would have been far better advised to have concentrated on a particular momentous event than trying to capture the grand sweep of the times.  The Crusades are a fascinating subject and once again the point is proven that historical events are far more strange and interesting than anything Hollywood can dream up.

The D.V.D. version of the film is extremely interesting and possibly unique but it sets an example which others would do well to follow.  On the disk the whole film is reproduced in its entirety and each time something occurs which is of historical interest there is a detailed explanation right down to the customs and practices of everyday living.  In some ways this film is more fascinating than the main one ----certainly giving an insight into many medieval habits, tools and mores and it was revealing at just how much of the film had passed me by.  Ridley Scott has illustrated clearly just how much research goes into a historical drama such as this and even though the film is in the main a fictional account there is so much historical detail of every kind that even subliminally we are learning of the Crusades and having a picture painted of how it used to be.



The Last Samurai
  { 2003 }
Director : Edward Zwick
Ok, at first glance the storyline looks ridiculous ----7th Cavalry meets Samurai warriors --but take no notice of the critics who rarely enthuse about anything and at best can only muster a jaded and half-hearted enthusiasm for something which takes their fancy, The Last Samurai is a compelling adventure story of the old school set to a background of a Japan in tumult.
The costume department should take a bow for the obviously loving care that they took in recreating the diverse armour and weaponry of the Samurai warriors and similarly the unsung research department for their painstaking research in the mores and customs of the Japanese at that time.  But perhaps the honours should go to the stunt arrangers whose martial arts scenes are superb culminating in a set-battle at the finale which excels in every way.

The Last Samurai The story itself is complex, with many twists and turns, but the overall theme is the regret for the passing of a people and culture many thousands of years old and not least for the manner of its passing which was genocidal.  Captain Algren 
{ Tom Cruise } is the embodiment of that regret and when we first meet him he is reduced to taking part in a carnie side-show in between drinking bouts.  We learn in flashbacks that Algren took part in atrocities and massacres in which women and children were shot down indiscriminately and it is fairly obvious that the Washita is referred to ---- a slaughter of the innocents which Custer claimed as a battle honour which stands comparison with Chivington's shameful Sand Creek massacre.  A monologue in which Algren rails bitterly against his Commanding officer, comprehensively destroys the myth of Custer and the legend of the 7th Cavalry .
When Algren is requested to travel to the then mysterious country of Japan in order to train the army of the Emperor he reluctantly agrees.  In their first battle with the enemy Samurai warriors, Algren is taken prisoner and lives among the Samurai for many months.  He comes to realise that their way of life is thousands of years old, that they have ancient customs and courtesies which are worthy of retention, that they are very much in a minority, and most of all he learns that they are being victimised.  The comparisons with the Sioux are obvious and Algren realises that if he carries out his contract to train the Emperors army then he will be once again taking part in a genocide against an indigenous people.

Algren comes to love and respect the Samurai and although he knows that it is certain death this time he takes their side in an act of redemption which will purge his soul for the guilt he carries for his previous misadventures.
The final battle is brilliantly done  with intriguing set-piece battle scenes in which the medieval swords and bows of the Samurai defy and very nearly defeat the modern howitzers and gatling guns of the Imperial army. As the sole survivor, Algren limps into the Imperial court and in the penultimate scene he passes the caul of guilt onto the Emperor.
Billy Connelly appears in a cameo role at the beginning of the film and once again shows that he could probably could have become a better actor than stand-up comedian if the cards had fallen another way.  But Timothy Spall steals the acting honours for his portrayal of an eccentric Englishman in the Imperial court, somehow managing to combine timidity and courage and an intellectual interest and affection for the Japanese way of life.  The Japanese actors are brilliant with Ken Watanabe outstanding as Katsumoto and Masato Harada sufficiently evil as the underhanded Omura.
Japan, circa 1876, is little known historically to westerners and so to present an adventure story with such a background is out of the usual run of historical features.  Combined with some great action scenes this is the way I like my history represented.


Gods and Generals
{ 2003 }
Director : Ronald F. Maxwell
Much of this page rails against the liberties taken whilst making historical movies but that's not a criticism that could ever be levelled at Gods and Generals which presents the facts as they happened in almost documentary fashion.  Sadly, that's about the only accolade that could be given to this film which takes the always fascinating subject of the American Civil War and turns it into a boring and long-winded diatribe.  For Civil War buffs, Gods and Generals is required watching but even they must admit that the film attempts to cover too much ground in looking at the war from both sides and over too many years.  

The worst part of the film is that everybody involved seems to be infected with an unnatural verbosity and whether it's a slave, soldier or general, all of them have this strange compunction to break into lyrical speeches about war, family, life and death and so on and so forth ---- all of it while staring into the middle-distance or looking up at a starry sky.  Jeff Daniels even finds time to recite an epic poem in full about Caesar crossing the Rubicon in his part as Col. Chamberlain as he directs his men into battle and his wife Fanny {  Mira Sorvino } not to be outdone, puts both her husband and half the audience to sleep with her speech while they are in bed together.  But the worst one of all is the Shakespearean monologue by the black slave, Jim Lewis to a mounted Stonewall Jackson ----both horse and rider are visibly wilting as Jim rambles on about patriotism and the American dream and the wonders of slavery in the New World ------- Frankie Faison who played Jim had quite obviously been heavily influenced by re-runs of Gone With the Wind.

In between all these archaic utterances the battle scenes  provide some light relief although they are all very similar in many ways, with the infantry steadfastly  walking into a hail of cannon fire a common theme.

Gods and Generals was made as a prequel to Gettysburg by the same director and the two films are similar in many ways although Gettysburg, made in 1994, is far superior.  For a start, the dialogue is more snappy in Gettysburg and the director is concentrating on just one subject and while the film is also made in near-documentary fashion it still retains some element of excitement.

The best thing that could be said about Gods and Generals is that it does give some flavour of what it was like for officers and men to go into battle during the Civil War and illustrates clearly that the war on land was little different to battles fought in Europe 200 years previously. Robert Duvall stands out as Robert E. Lee and is head and shoulders above others in the film who are all stilted and wooden.
Although it flies in the face of everything said before ---given the choice between factual dramas such as these or the fictional Shenandoah then it has to be said that the latter is far more entertaining and instructional about the American Civil War.


In the pipeline are a number of Hollywood histories -----one is a biography of Marie Antoinette with Kirsten Dunst in the title role.  I hope I'm wrong but the opportunities for the salacious myths and lies about that sad personage will I fear be too much of a temptation for the film makers not to omit. 
Similarly, Scarlett Johansson is pencilled in to play Betsy Balfour who played a minor role in Napoleon's final exile on St.Helena.  Betsy was aged 14 when she lived on St.Helena and befriended Napoleon who she saw as a kind of "uncle" and had little knowledge of his impact upon the world.  There is no suggestion whatsoever that there was ever anything other than a platonic relationship between the two but already screenwriter Benjamin Ross has stated that ;

"The facts of what happened are very interpretable.  I'd be delighted to get historians jumping up and down".


Given the above statement and the fact that the makers are hardly likely to make a film about Napoleon playing blind man's bluff with a child, the accuracy of this film would seem to be very much in doubt.  With Al Pacino reputed to be playing Napoleon I hope for all our sakes that the temptation to play such a challenging role is balanced against a critical reading of the screenplay.
The  lesson for Hollywood is that history is fascinating in its own right and requires no embellishment but it is a lesson that is consistently ignored.        

 

 

 

 

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