The Viking Queen is a delightfully terrible Hammer film produced in 1967, near the end of their filmmaking run. Although it’s loosely based on the (frankly pretty awesome) story of Boudica, the Iceni queen who gave the Romans what for when she raised an army and razed several cities, pretty much everything is wrong about it–Druids pray to Zeus, “vikings” are about 700 years too early, the Roman soldiers are (allegedly) wearing wristwatches, and there’s a white woman in body paint portraying a “Nubian girl slave”. Let’s just say that it’s clear nobody’s watching this film for historical accuracy; the whole exercise seems to exist as a loosely veiled excuse to display partially-obscured female breasts.
Anglofilmia has been on hiatus for a while, mostly due to work, but I’m going to start posting again shortly. Over the past year, we’ve been watching a few of the films on the Timeline, and are now into the 800s, with the invasion of the Vikings. There’s a lot of work to be done to catch up, but I’ve been compiling links, photographs and book recommendations all the while. Stay tuned!
After Alexander and Macedonia, our next Anglofilmia stop was Isreal, to visit Judah Ben-Hur, in our first entry for our Roman Britain section (43 AD to 410 AD: they came, they saw, they conquered). (Note: we’ve selected it to provide historical context to the events of the time, as it doesn’t actually take place in Britain.)
Unlike Alexander, this epic actually delivered in story, character and scale. Check out our five observations about the film, a re-edited, contemporary trailer and a recap, below.
We’ve been watching a lot of Father Ted lately, and I was delighted to find that Craggy Island has its own Wikipedia page, which describes such “Places of note” as “The Field: While not actually a field, the area has fewer rocks in it than most other places on the island.”
The “real” Craggy Island, the one in the helicopter shots shown in the opening sequence, is Inisheer, the little one on the right.
The whole thing is tucked away in the Galway Bay:
That got me to thinking about the most outlying points of the British Isles, and sure enough, there’s a wikipedia page for that too. Did you know that the first person to visit each of the most outlying points of Scotland is also the only person to do so? He did that in 2007. He’s also the only person to sleep on all of them, a feat accomplished in 2009.
Luckily Jey came to my rescue, sharing with me this video which was apparently making the rounds not too long ago. It explains in a very clear and concise manner the difference between Great Britain, the United Kingdom, the Crown and a whole mess of other titles of ownership I had no idea even existed. Enjoy!
I realized I haven’t written much about exactly how we’re going about this process beyond what’s on the timeline, so while we’re between films I thought I’d devote some blog space to discussing it.
What’s taking so long?
Most of the films we’re chosen are on the timeline because they’re great works of art, or tell a fascinating story. Others are there because they’re the only available option. This makes for some slow movie watching periods, because it’s hard to make time to sit and watch something we know we probably won’t enjoy all that much.
Where are you on the timeline now?
We’re currently eight films ahead of the blog, meaning we’ve just watched the film about St. Patrick, while I’ve only written up to Alexander (a gap of about 800 years). This is mostly because we’ve been settling into our new house, and I’m going to make an effort to catch up on writing before we get too much further along.
Where do you find copies of all the films?
Some of the movies we’ve chosen for the timeline are rare, from a small release, or aired on television many years ago, and frankly lots are nearly impossible to find. Our sources are, in descending order: Netflix discs and Netflix Instant (the American equivalent of Lovefilm), DVDs rented from the library, series posted to YouTube or other video-sharing sites, and torrents.
It’s frustrating when we can’t find copies of something (I wrote a bit about that here and so far that list includes the animated Y Mabinogi, Vercingétorix, the 1978 BBC series “Living in the Past” and a TV version of St. Patrick’s story narrated by Liam Neeson)…but most of the time it’s a fun little treasure hunt.
Do you watch everything in order/what do you do when a new film is released?
We watch everything in order, with some backtracking allowed where necessary (for example, we are waiting for the DVD release of The Eagle).
There have been some fantastic films about British history released recently, including Bright Star, The Young Victoria and The King’s Speech. We have watched none of them. (If you know about my passion for Romantic and Victorian literature, you’ll understand the level of my commitment to this project.)
Is the timeline complete?
I created the timeline with a lot of online research, but as we begin a new period I have another look and try to add things I missed the first time around. The History of Britain series by Simon Schama is one of the things I discovered after we’d finished with pre-history, but it’s proven very useful as a primer on the Saxons and Normans, and that’s only the first episode.
Also, I’m wondering if I should create a timeline with the films intermixed with significant events or artifacts like the Lindow Man. Thoughts?
How has it been so far?
We both agree that even though we are only just now getting into post-Roman Britain (with a side journey into Europe, for context) we’ve already learned a massive amount about Britain’s history. Britain is wonderful in that many of the artifacts of even these earliest periods still exist, from henges to the Roman roads and beyond.
Any other questions about how the project is run? Post a comment below.
I’ll start my review of Oliver Stone’s Alexander by stating a simple fact: the story of Alexander III of Macedon is too epic – in both scale and badasssery – for one film to contain. That doesn’t stop Alexander from trying.
The real-life Alexander (356-323 BC) is fascinating, to say the least. Alexander’s mother (played in the film by Angelina Jolie) groomed him from childhood to believe it was his destiny to rule. He began his command at the age of 16, a period when most of us are writing in journals about how much that song reminds us of this boy we’re crushing on, omg. By the age of thirty he had created one of history’s largest empires. At the time of his death at age thirty-three, he was undefeated in battle and today “is considered one of the most successful commanders of all time”.
This film tries to cover all of that in its 175 minute run time, focusing mainly the miscellaneous battles he engaged in as he took over the world, as well as his relationships to his mother (confused), his male lover (tender) and his wife (raw).
A lot of reviews of the film point out how well-received it was outside of the United States, and Stone himself said Americans are too squeamish about homosexual love. But you know what? I think people didn’t like it because it wasn’t gay enough.
The film sets up a contrast between Alexander’s true love Hephaistion (Jared Leto) and his political wife Roxane (Rosario Dawson). Supposedly, Alexander and Hephaistion are as close as two souls can be, having grown up together, and they now remain always at each others’ sides, while Alexander and Roxane marry only for the sake of proving he’s down with people from “barbarian” nations.
Yet the film devotes a significant amount of screen time to an uncomfortable, not-entirely-consensual sex scene between Alexander and Roxane, in which you see her partially nude. The most action poor Hephaistion sees during the entire 2.5 hours is some hugging and a whole lot of wistful gazing. They don’t even kiss.
Agape vs. eros? (Historical documents suggest their relationship was sexual as well as erotic.) Studio meddling? Whatever the case, this handling of their relationship was a mistake so large the film simply couldn’t overcome it.
Aside from the disingenuous handling of the character’s sexual relationships (and did I mention, there seems to be an implied sexual tension between Alexander and his ambitious, scheming mother?) I thought the casting left something to be desired.
I like Colin Farrell a lot and he’s an electric actor, always roiling with a kind of nervous energy. Supposedly the real Alexander had a violent temper and an impulsive nature (attributed, by Plutarch, to his penchant for drink). But he was also a statesman, a general and a man possessing great intelligence and dignity (and, dare I say it, gravitas). For me, Farrell always manages to come off as a lovable rogue, and that just doesn’t work for a character that’s supposed to be the ruler of 90% of the known world.
The film looks great, and it’s a treat to see wonders of the ancient world such as the Library of Alexandria and the gates and palaces of Babylon. But there’s an excess of narration and the battle scenes are cumbersome and blend together.
And there’s also the issue of the portrayal, as in 300, of the Persians as barbarians in need of Occidental civilizing. There’s the usual amount of Hollywood whitewashing, with Alexander appearing as the traditional-but-misinformed Nordic blonde, and barbarian Iranian Roxana as dark-skinned when she would apparently have been from a northern tribe of blue-eyed, blonde nomads.
Detail from the Alexander mosaic from the House of the Faun, Pompeii, c. 80 B.C.
National Archaeologic Museum, Naples, Italy
A lot of this is due, naturally, to drawing from Greek historical sources, which aren’t going to be particularly subtle in their praise or their condemnation. A lot of ink has been spilled over the other historical inaccuracies in this film, and I won’t add any more to it except to say that viewers should keep in mind that the Persians were pretty great at empire-making, themselves.
It’s interesting to note that Stone released an extended final cut of the film in 2007, in which he restores every piece of cut footage and subplot that had been edited out of the original and the 2005 director’s cut. The total running time is 3 hours 40 minutes, with an intermission between the two acts. (Our next entry Ben Hur clocks in at 3 hours 32 minutes.)
Surprisingly, given how we chafed under the length of the original, if I were to ever watch Alexander again, it would be this longer version. There’s a thorough review of the lengthier film here, and while the review says the movie still “doesn’t exactly gel”, it notes the film has been re-edited to help the narrative flow and give a lot more time to the human influences on Alexander’s life. Even if his political and militaristic motivations are made “hopelessly muddy” by the reshuffling, at least there’s this:
While there still isn’t much physical expression of their affection, the relationship between the king and Hephaistion is not shied away from. Their liaison is quite clear. Expanded scenes of Hephaistion counseling Alexander also show their connection is more than physical.
And finally, I can’t wrap up this post without discussing my own first exposure to the myth and legend of Alexander, which came through the animated series Reign: The Conqueror (Alexander Senki). It was designed by Peter Chung, whose Liquid Television series Aeon Flux started me as a child on the path of appreciating animation as an art form, and gave me a taste for shows of the the surreal and mind-bending variety.
Reign follows in the same vein, drawing as much on metaphysics, Euclidian geometry and the Pythagorean cult (believers in a mathematic mysticism, of sorts, and forebearers of hermeticism, gnosticism and alchemy as well as modern physics) as on the actual historical legend of Alexander.
300 is another of the Anglofilmia movies that touches on several familiar concepts: natives fighting invading forces, the appeal of a glorious death in battle at the peak of one’s life, and the resulting immortality in story form throughout history (see also: Troy).
I’m sure by now you’ve seen the film, and if not, you’re at least vaguely familiar with the story, if for no other reason than its advertising was ubiquitous when it was released in 2007.
But just in case: 300 is based on a Frank Miller/Lynn Varley comic of the same name, which tells the story of the baddest-ass group of fighters in history, in their baddest-ass epic battle, shown in bad-ass stylized form. It’s an eye-melting spectacle of battle glory and sweaty, ripped abs and lots of men yelling. And then everyone dies. (Except one guy, who’s the one telling the story.)
All caught up? Good. Since we’re all familiar with the story, a bit of context is also necessary.
2007 was a great year for stylized (or at least stylish) movies. For indie hipster color, we had Juno, Superbad, Lars and the Real Girl, Dan in Real Life, and Hairspray (does that count as indie?). On the other end of the tones spectrum, repping for washed-out cool, we had Sweeney Todd, the Orphanage, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and There Will Be Blood.
Blockbuster comics movies seemed to be nearing the end of their run (though in retrospect we know better), with X-Men: the Last Stand in 2006 and Spider-Man 3 standing in stark contrast to 2007′s Persepolis. It was as if filmmakers realized a comic page made a pretty sweet-lookin’ storyboard without any meddling, and Frank Miller’s oeuvre was still ripe for the picking.
As it turned out, 300 became a blockbuster in its own right, raking in over $200 million at the box office. Comics movies are still going strong.
The movie currently sits at a 60% critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes, compared to a 90% user rating. It makes sense that there’s such a huge gap. The film turned out to be one of those that you either love or you hate. People get into the flashy stylishness, the deliberately over the top battle scenes, the comic panel framing, and the rigorous training undertaken by the actors, or they loathe the historical inaccuracies, the portrayal of Persians and the disabled, and the posturing.
In short, 300 doesn’t try to be anything but itself, which is to say it doesn’t let truth (or historical accuracy) get in the way of a story, and there’s a lot of very shiny battle scenes, and it matches the comic very, very closely. Ultimately, war stories are written by the people who won, and we can’t help but project our contemporary sensibilities onto the stories. Whether you can accept those elements will determine your feelings on the film.
So what of the actual Battle of Thermopylae? Learning about the actual event, it’s such a cool story that it doesn’t actually need much (any?) embellishment to be downright fascinating. But while 300 throws in some magic, demons and depicts Xerxes as “an angry bald giant“, as far as the general sketch of events goes, 300 doesn’t actually deviate all that much.
The primary source for information on the wars is Herodotus, and other accounts line up with his telling. The Persian Wars took place between 500 and 479 BC. Wikipedia tells us it was “fought between an alliance of Greek city-states, led by Sparta, and the Persian Empire of Xerxes I over the course of three days, during the second Persian invasion of Greece.”
Persia was mounting its second invasion of Greece, who mostly agreed they weren’t keen on the idea. The armies launched a two-pronged defense, blocking the army at the pass of Thermopylae and the navy at the Straights of Artemisium.
Around 7,000 Greeks (Herodotus says 4,200) held off approximately 100,000 to 300,000 Persian soldiers for three days of battle, with Spartan king Leonidas at the pass itself, a strategic stronghold.
Two days in, a local named Ephialtes revealed the location of a small path that bypassed the Greeks and allowed the Persian army to flank them. Leonidas saw what was happening and sent most of the Greek army away, leading around 1,400 in the last stand.
The Greek navy withdrew after learning of the defeat, and the Persian army captured Athens. But several months later, the Greeks attacked and defeated them, causing Xerxes to withdraw his army from Greece, and the following year he gave up his quest for Greece after a massive defeat at the Battle of Plataea.
(300 begins at the beginning of the Battle of Plataea, at which the story of the Battle of Thermpylae is told in order to rouse the troops, with all its attendant exaggerations.)
After Plataea (479 BC), the Greek city states went on the offensive, Best estimates put a peace accord some time around 466 BC. Herodotus wrote his Greek histories around 440–430 BC, ensuring Leonidas and his soldiers a place in legend.
Funnily, the film begat a legacy all its own, in the form of memes derived from the over the top line deliveries from the film trailers, like “THIS IS SPARTA!” and “TONIGHT WE DINE IN HELL.”
As for me, I know what I’m being next Halloween.
Support Anglofilmia by purchasing 300 on DVD or Bluray, or the Frank Miller and Lynn Varley graphic novel on which it’s based, through our Amazon Affiliate links.
Picking up where the schools left off - by watching movies!
We are learning about the whole of British history by watching films sorted into chronological order. In this way, we hope to place history's figures and events into a visual context, for easier understanding and retention. Our comprehension is supplemented by research and reading.
We started with Carl Sagan's Cosmos and films about cavemen, and we'll end with movies set in the future (Brazil, if..., A Clockwork Orange, Children of Men).
We will also be doing a branch of American history films when we reach that point in the timeline.
View our film list and offer us suggestions by commenting or emailing us at lehall-at-gmail-dot-com.