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.
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.
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.
Very excited for this contemporary adaptation of Eagle of the Ninth, with Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell (who’s now turned into the adult Billy Elliot you see at the end of that film), and Donald Sutherland. It looks compelling, and the battles seem realistic but not too over the top.
And, I didn’t realize it was being released so soon. When I first heard about it (last year), 2011 seemed so far away… Guess I’d better get on with the book before the film arrives.
Hooray! Colin Firth’s latest film is out now and it’s a perfect addition to the Anglofilmia timeline.
“After the death of his father King George V (Michael Gambon) and the scandalous abdication of King Edward VIII (Guy Pearce), Bertie (Colin Firth) who has suffered from a debilitating speech impediment all his life, is suddenly crowned King George VI of England.
With his country on the brink of war and in desperate need of a leader, his wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter), the future Queen Mother, arranges for her husband to see an eccentric speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). After a rough start, the two delve into an unorthodox course of treatment and eventually form an unbreakable bond.
With the support of Logue, his family, his government and Winston Churchill (Timothy Spall), the King will overcome his stammer and deliver a radio-address that inspires his people and unites them in battle. Based on the true story of King George VI, THE KING’S SPEECH follows the Royal Monarch’s quest to find his voice.”
I’ve been struggling to write this post for something like two months now. How do you tackle something as complicated and epic as Shakespeare’s King Lear, especially when it’s acted by one of the greatest actors of all time in one of the best performances of his life?
Shakespeare made him famous, but the story of King Lear dates back to pre-Roman Celtic mythology. Leir of Britain was a contemporary of the Biblical prophet Elijah, putting his reign somewhere in the 9th century BC.
(For the record, Leir was also the son of Bladud/Blaiddyd, who built Caervaddon, more commonly known as Bath, where he built the hot springs. Using magic.)
Approximately 2450 years later, William Shakespeare turned his hand to the legendary leader’s tale.
But wait, you say — you don’t know the story of Lear? Allow me to illustrate using the excellent 1984 production, apparently the only one that actually places the performance in an appropriate pre-Roman setting (instead of Shakespearean? Will have to research and amend this post…).
Lear had three daughters and no male heirs, and was living a pretty happy life of power and riches, hanging out with his beloved Fool.
“I love you, Fool.”
But as he approached the end of his 60 year reign, he decided to divide his kingdom between his progeny, so that he could retire and be taken care of by the three, dividing his time between their houses.
Give me the map there. Know that we have divided
In three our kingdom: and ’tis our fast intent
To shake all cares and business from our age;
Conferring them on younger strengths, while we
Unburthen’d crawl toward death.
Cordelia, the favorite
Goneril and Regan, two stone cold ladies
His two eldest daughters Goneril and Regan flatter him unrelentingly, but his youngest and by far the most favorite Cordelia can’t bring herself to speak meaningless words of flattery when her affection for him is so great, and nothing exists for her to compare her love.
Tell me, my daughters,–
Since now we will divest us both of rule,
Interest of territory, cares of state,–
Which of you shall we say doth love us most?
That we our largest bounty may extend
Where nature doth with merit challenge.
And yet not so; since, I am sure, my love’s
More richer than my tongue.
Now, our joy,
Although the last, not least; to whose young love
The vines of France and milk of Burgundy
Strive to be interess’d; what can you say to draw
A third more opulent than your sisters? Speak.
Nothing, my lord.
Lear obviously doesn’t take that blow too well, and casts Cordelia off with no property. Then he gathers up his cohort knights and decides to live in the house of his daughter Goneril. Little does he know that Goneril and Regan both decided he was an old fool, and both ladies team up to force him to reduce his party of knights and submit to their power.
Consumed with impotent rage, he bursts out onto the stormy heath, strips down, and goes mad.
Meanwhile a subplot about a power struggle between an illegitimate son and his father (who gets his eyes gouged out!) has brought about a huge battle, which the British win…but not soon enough to prevent the deaths of 99% of the characters.
King Lear was so amazingly engrossing and dramatic, I’m shocked I’ve never had cause to see or read it before now. And this particular production was astoundingly powerful.
For an audience to buy into the portrayal of a king, the actor has to possess the right mixture of bravado, reckless self-confidence and gravitas. I think Jonathan Rhys Meyers nailed this for The Tudors, and I think a lack of weight was what sank Colin Farrell’s Alexander.
Lear seems to be a definitive role for elderly male actors, the one that gets bragged on or quoted as a kind of proof of authenticity. So seeing Laurence Olivier have his turn is really something special.
The Fool, played by John Hurt, is amazing, and Brian Cox puts in a very convincing Burgundy. (Side note, kinda weird to see him so young in this, having seen him so old in our last film, Troy.)
Now that I’ve been exposed to it, I find myself kind of obsessed with the story. I think the story could easily translate to a contemporary corporate setting, with the relationships, lessons and drama intact.
But even without an update, there exist multiple versions of the play, including Shakespeare’s rough draft and a variety of endings, and there are all sorts of performance variations to check out. Up til the early 1800s the ending was revised into a happily ever after for Lear’s youngest daughter, even seeing her married off to the wrongly-exiled Edmund despite her having married the King of France in Act I.
And there are so many versions out to consume that if I were to pursue them all right now, we’d never move further down the Anglofilmia timeline. I’ll watch the latest version with Ian McKellen, though, and Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, plus a version with Al Pacino due in 2012.
Most excitingly, this discovery came within the first two weeks of the researchers’ three-year landscape survey using new imaging technology, so there’s no telling what other new finds lay on the horizon.
To keep us going in the meantime, I’ve put together a list of the best cameos of Stonehenge in films and television programs.
5. King Lear
To start us off, here’s a little preview of our next film post!
Shakespeare’s “King Lear” is drawn from the myth of Leir of Britain, a pre-Roman Celtic ruler. Most productions of the tragedy costume the players in Elizabethan garb, but Laurence Olivier’s 1987 production for the BBC takes the story back to its source.
A great deal of the action takes place in and around the Stonehenge monument, not just to place the story in its correct prehistoric setting, but to provide a stable center for the story’s swirling points of chaos: the assumed savagery of life on the misty heath, the king’s life amongst battles and political intrigues, and Lear’s mind as he eventually descends into madness.
4. Doctor Who, “The Pandorica Opens”
The penultimate episode of the latest episode of Doctor Who, starring Matt Smith (11th Doctor), Karen Gillan (Amy Pond), Arthur Darvill (Rory Williams) and Alex Kingston (River Song) has a lot of Stonehenge action. (Spoilers to follow, so skip ahead if you haven’t seen it yet.)
Doctor Who has often drawn upon various elements of English history and culture to inform its stories, and “The Pandorica Opens” is no exception. In this episode, the monument is surrounded by Roman legionnaires, though it conceals something far older and with deeper implications for the Doctor and his friends.
3. “Tess of the D’Urbervilles”, 2008
Like Lear, Tess Durbeyfield is a tragic figure. At the conclusion of the Thomas Hardy novel, she and Angel, finally reunited, flee through the misty countryside and come upon Stonehenge. Exhausted by her flight and her trials, Tess rests on a sacrificial alter stone, a victim of the will of the gods or her fatal flaw, neatly tying together the novel’s themes of modern development vs. mankind’s close relationship with the earth, and contemporary religious belief vs. nature-worshipping paganism.
“I don’t want to go any further, Angel,” she said, stretching out her hand for his. “Can’t we bide here?”
“I fear not. This spot is visible for miles by day, although it does not seem so now.”
“One of my mother’s people was a shepherd hereabouts, now I think of it. And you used to say at Talbothays that I was a heathen. So now I am at home.”
2. National Lampoon’s European Vacation
The National Lampoon series of films is the American equivalent of the British “Carry On” movies — colorful, goofy, cheeky slapstick comedies. In European Vacation, the Griswold family stumbles awkwardly around England, France, Germany and Italy, causing chaos and insulting the natives at every turn.
Their visit to England includes a day-long trip around a roundabout and several near-death encounters with Eric Idle, hapless bicyclist. Idle is, of course, unfailingly polite, despite having been run over by a car:
“It’s just a flesh wound, honestly.”
Their visit to Stonehenge goes as well as one might imagine, given the above. Clark Griswold delivers a thoughtful speech about the significance of the venerable rocks and their importance for future generations, before…well, see for yourself.
1. This Is Spinal Tap
Perhaps the only movie on this list to pay an appropriately epic tribute to the monument, at least in theory, This Is Spinal Tap is a biting, hysterical mockumentary about a fictional British rock/metal band, consisting of four of the least self-aware humans to walk this planet.
The Spinal Tap Stonehenge moment is supposedly based on a Black Sabbath stage set that was built to scale, ending up too large to fit inside the building. The scene speaks for itself. Enjoy:
Stonehenge has, naturally, appeared in many films. Here’s a notable few that didn’t quite make the cut for the Top 5…
Night of the Demon: You know that line in the opening of Rocky Horror Picture Show that goes, “Dana Andrews said prunes/Give me the runes”? That’s a reference to this 1957 horror flick. Half Wicker Man, half hard-boiled detective story, this film is one of the more innovative creepy creature features of the era.
Shanghai Knights: A buddy cop flick set in Victorian England with a steampunk twist. Stonehenge has a cameo role here when the two main characters crash a car into it, exclaiming, “Who the hell would put a pile of stones in the middle of a field?”
Stonehenge Apocalypse: A made-for-TV movie about all the mysterious ancient monuments of the world…coming to life? Fighting aliens? Not exactly sure on this one.
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.