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 (Historical documents suggest their relationship was sexual as well as erotic.)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.
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.
As I mentioned in “The search for Living in the Past”, there’s a huge gap in film coverage of pre-Roman Britain. But I have managed to find a few offerings, mostly through the kind help of strangers on the internet.
Y Mabinogi, aka Otherworld, is an animated version of the Welsh mythological record Pedair Cainc y Mabinogi (the Four Branches of the Mabinogi).
Since it was an independent Welsh production with a limited run, we can’t easily get ahold of a copy of it in time for us to watch it in the right timeline order. Which is a shame, because it looks like something I’d enjoy (naked ladies portrayed above not withstanding), and it’s a famously complicated story to portray, with its four interwoven narratives. I hold out hope for future viewing though.
Another helpful internet stranger, Sara C, recommended that we week out the BBC documentary series “A History of Britain” with Simon Schama, which ran from 2000 to 2002. The series looks great, and even better, is available through Netflix (though it’s also on YouTube for those of you who are feeling impatient). Nobody does historical documentaries like the BBC does historical documentaries. A highly valuable new addition to the timeline.
And finally, I never would have found the 1983 version of King Lear without the advice of Phanx, who pointed out that this particular production adheres to the appropriate setting (Stonehenge) for the myth of Leir of Britain.
This project wouldn’t be possible without all the helpful advice and collaboration we’ve received. Cheers to all of those who have helped so far!
Next up in our Heroic Age cycle is Troy, an interpretation of Homer’s classic epic poem “The Iliad”. We’re watching these as a bit of background leading up to the Roman invasion of Britain.
During a diplomatic trip to Sparta, while his brother Hector (Eric Bana) is busy with negotiations, Trojan prince Paris (Orlando Bloom) falls in love with Spartan queen Helen (Diane Kruger), and they decide to run away together.
Her husband Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson), king of Sparta, is understandably pissed off, so he recruits his scheming and powerful brother, King Agamemnon (Brian Cox) of Thessaly. Agamemnon’s had his eye on Troy for a long time, so he brings along his army and his best warriors, including Achilles (Brad Pitt) and Odysseus (Sean Bean).
There’s the usual buff manly men…
The dialogue is so-so, and there’s some improbable stuff like everyone stopping in the middle of a battle to watch a significant personal duel. But the one-on-one fighting is actually really exciting. Achilles’ fighting style and spear-throwing is especially cool.
A lot of reviewers got down on this film because it completely removes the Greek deities from the story, except for a brief appearance from Achilles’ mother Thetis.
But it’s fine by me. Epic stories like The Iliad tend to be a bit inscrutable for modern audiences, because we can’t really grasp what motivates the characters, nor are we meant to.
When someone announces that they’ve received a message from the gods and everyone has to get in a boat and sail around the world, never seeing their families again, people just do it, instead of firing him, or inching away from him as quickly as possible.
Or, when someone’s brother leaves his partner, kidnaps a rival’s wife and sneaks her into the country, they don’t punch him in the face and turn the boat around, because they don’t want to spurn a gift of the gods, and it’s all been prophesied anyway.
So, by removing the immortal elements, divine intervention and prophecies, the film is able to show much more reasonably why such an event might have occurred — in this case it’s the usual suspects: greed, jealousy, pride.
Despite this excoriation, when the film isn’t showing battle scenes, it’s subtly about the struggle of belief; characters are astonished when Achilles removes the head of a statue of Apollo and isn’t immediately struck dead, and the Trojan council members who rely on interpretation of symbols instead of military strategy only hurry along the city’s doom.
Yet in the end, Paris takes up a bow and strikes Achilles in the heel with an arrow, preventing his escape and ultimately killing him. Was it random luck that Paris, admittedly skilled, was able to strike the impervious-by-legend warrior? Or was it the will of Apollo, the god of archery, having his revenge in the end?
As far as epic war movies go, I thought this film was satisfactory, mostly because it shows people involved who were not kick-ass warriors (Paris), or who were insubordinate and in it for personal glory (Achilles), or who willingly followed what they knew to be flawed orders out of a sense of duty, knowing it would result in their death (Hector).
“‘Are you too cowardly to stand up to the brave man whom you wronged? You would soon find out the kind of fighter he is whose lovely wife you stole. Your lyre would not help you at all, nor Aphrodite’s gifts … But the Trojans are too soft. Otherwise you would have been stoned to death long ago for the evil you have done.” (Hector 1 to Paris. Homer, Iliad 3.45).” (via)
In the film, without the divine pot-stirrers, he’s merely short-sighted, selfishly stupid, and a total wimp.
“You left me for THIS?” Menaleus bellows, as Paris scrambles away and literally hides behind his older brother’s legs during a duel. Menaleus has a valid point.
(For some reason, the film chose to ignore the story of Paris’ birth. He was prophesied to be the downfall of Troy, and so was “exposed” — left out in the wilderness to die. He survived by suckling on a she-bear for nine days before being rescued.)
Troy also shows how the war affects the women of the city, though in this case they’re all wives or partners of fighters who end up dying, and all the ladies do is take turns having sex, getting kidnapped, nobly mourning, and fleeing the city.
And speak of Trojan women, this film also leaves out the character Cassandra, a sister to Hector and Paris. In her original story, she’s blessed by Apollo with the gift of foresight, but when she spurns his advances, he curses her so no one will believe her prophecies.
In this immortal-free version of the story, this is perhaps a good thing. She’d either be River Tam or Bertha Mason Rochester, and either one would have meant a very different film.
Finally, Sean Bean plays Odysseus, so when he comes up with the idea for the Trojan Horse, I couldn’t help but picture him in his Lord of the Rings role.
In the classic tradition of Greek epics, the story starts when a king (Pelias) tries to prevent his eventual overthrow by killing off potential prophesied usurpers before they can come of age — but in doing so, he only succeeds in laying the path for the thing he feared the most.
Twenty years later, a grown-up Jason fishes Pelias out of a river, and the king decides to encourage him to take on a dangerous quest, hoping he’ll die without Pelias having to do it himself.
After some posturing and discus throwing, Jason recruits a bunch of his buddies and they sail off in a specially-designed ship, the Argo.
Then they do some hero stuff, but the rest of the movie is basically an excuse to show off the incredibly awesome stop-motion work of genre master Ray Harryhausen, who considered this his best film. And I agree.
Skeleton children of the hydra:
The awakening of Talos:
The skeleton clip lasts four minutes, but it took more than four months to create. Every tiny movement is the result of the touch of a human hand. Incredible.
A giant merman
Harpies that torture a blind man
I’m resisting posting videos of the other cool stuff, so that I don’t overwhelm this post with clips. But seeing these makes me feel like the Cat from Red Dwarf. YOW!
Anyway, back to the story — most of the heroes die in the battle, but Jason escapes the spookies, gets the girl and returns home, where he gets to rule two kingdoms and have a lifetime of adventures.
But what does all that matter, when you remember that we’re all (literal!) pawns of the immortals, eh?
The Heroic Age, as it is known, indicates a generation of men created by Zeus that overlaps the Bronze (2700 – 700 BC) and Iron (700 BC – 43 AD) Ages. It deals mostly with heroes/demigods, children of one immortal parent and one human parent.
A bit of background: the Golden Age was the first race of mortals, who lived under the titan Cronos, never aging or suffering. Then Zeus and the Olympians overthrew the Titans, creating a new, less noble generation: the Silver Age.
The Bronze Age followed, with the war-like Brazen people created from ash trees. Then, finally, the Heroic Age.
(After the Heroic Age follow the Iron and Gold Ages — like at the end of Lord of the Rings, the elves sailed into the Gray Havens and ushered in the age of Man, who is, in short, violent and stupid. It may not surprise you to learn that this is meant to be our generation.
Via this supplemental source: “The gods will forsake mortal men, letting bitter sorrows fall upon them; and being defenceless like children in the wilderness, they will not find any help against all evil they themselves created.”)
For the next phase of our project, we’ve chosen three films set in the Heroic Age: Clash of the Titans, Jason and the Argonauts, and Troy.
Each of the films represents a different aspect of the age – Clash of the Titans is about the dealings of the immortals on Olympus, Jason and the Argonauts is about a quest undertaken by demigods in the regular world, and Troy is about a wholly human war (though it does include the barest hint of immortal influence).
So why is Clash of the Titans crossed out on our list?
Well, reader — we’re both currently in the middle of the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan, a contemporary re-telling of the myth of Perseus. As you can probably tell by now, I’m a big fan of stories that let me put a face to the name, so to speak, and Percy Jackson does this exceptionally well.
The books are full of action, but they’re also quite funny. They bring the demigods and immortals effortlessly into the modern sphere, and I love how they’re shown to fit into the world today:
“Come now, Percy. What you call ‘Western civilization.’ Do you think it’s just an abstract concept? No, it’s a living force. A collective consciousness that has burned bright for thousands of years. The gods are part of it. You might even say they are the source of it, or at least, they are tied so tightly to it that they couldn’t possibly fade, not unless all of Western civilization were obliterated. The fire started in Greece. Then, as you well know—or as I hope you know, since you passed my course—the heart of the fire moved to Rome, and so did the gods. Oh, different names, perhaps—Jupiter for Zeus, Venus for Aphrodite, and so on—but the same forces, the same gods.”
“And then they died.”
“Died? No. Did the West die? The gods simply moved, to Germany, to France, to Spain, for a while. Wherever the flame was brightest, the gods were there. They spent several centuries inEngland. All you need to do is look at the archi tecture. People do not forget the gods. Every place they’ve ruled, for the last three thousand years, you can see them in paintings, in statues, on the most important buildings. And yes, Percy, of course they are now in your United States. Look at your symbol, the eagle of Zeus. Look at the statue of Prometheus in Rockefeller Center, the Greek facades of your government buildings in Washington. I defy you to find any American city where the Olympians are not promi nently displayed in multiple places. Like it or not—and believe me, plenty of people weren’t very fond of Rome, either—America is now the heart of the flame. It is the great power of the West. And so Olympus is here. And we are here.”
However, the books also preserve the spirit of the mythic tradition — the immortals are cold and powerful and impenetrable. They have their spats, and humans are unwittingly dragged into them, whether they like it or not. (This is something which the movie version of the first book completely and totally ignores. Avoid the movie version at all costs.)
Ever since reading the books, I keep spotting Greek symbols everywhere. It’s like that scene in Alan Moore’s From Hell where a character points out Masonic symbols all over London, which drives the coach driver insane.
You know, in addition to all of our politics, language, mathematics, philosophies and government, these peeps are all over the place!
Looks oddly familiar, eh?
I did jury duty recently, and the judge described the scales of Justice (– okay, she’s Roman. But based on the Greek goddess Dike!) The American Medical Association still uses the (highly stylized) Rod of Asclepius as their symbol.
It’s actually pretty cute.
The Olympics. Marathons. Nike.
I did a 5k pretty recently. I couldn’t walk straight for three days after.
We even use descriptive terms based on Greek locales: Brazen, Spartan, Thespian, Lesbian.
But perhaps the most definitive example is that even now, thousands of years later, we’re still telling their stories — and embracing them as our own.
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Seeing humans survive terrible conditions is a pretty good excuse to take stock of myself. I like to think I’m pretty handy with tools, but living where we do (Texas) I have to say that I’m a big fan of air conditioning, and I’m bound to get lost if I don’t have my iPhone with Google maps at hand.
But if I were stripped of all these modern contrivances — or even the more basic conveniences like matches, ready shelter, underwear — and dropped into the middle of an icy moor of Scotland, well…first, I’d weep. Then I’d curl up into a ball. And then I’d likely starve to death. If I wasn’t eaten by wolves, killed by exposure to the elements, or infected with a fatal disease.
I get the feeling that my Stone Age predecessors had little time for such indulgences.
It’s a modern conceit to think of those that came before us as mouth-breathers who crouched in their mud huts, unknowing and unthinking. Like, when your parents were kids, their socks didn’t even have elastic in them. Primitive, am I right?
I guess it’s no surprise, given that I’m here writing this, and you’re there reading it, that our ancestors were pretty adept at keeping themselves alive. But as “What The Ancients Did For Us” teaches, they did a lot more than just bare survival.
The program covers the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages, and offers a fantastic glimpse into their innovations and inventions, mostly through demonstrations of exactly what it would have taken for even relatively simple-seeming tasks.
Building an Iron Age roundhouse, a carefully-constructed and geometrically considered enterprise, from its woven walls to its peaked roof, takes us about 3 months.
(Speakers in the program also gleefully relate that they once built a roundhouse just to burn it down. Total time to escape alive: 4 minutes. But because of the aforementioned geometry, such a scenario was fairly unlikely, due to the smoke dispersal and collected carbon dioxide keeping sparks to a minimum.)
A flint handaxe has many uses.
Forging an iron sword.
Smelting and pouring a bronze sword. Re: the latter picture — yes, it’s that kind of show.
They demo the creation of flint hand-axes, the forging of bronze and iron swords, panning for gold using sheepskin, and even nautical navigation — using boats which were woven together, as nails didn’t yet exist. And don’t even get me started on the making of chariot wheels!
…Okay, you’ve convinced me. While all the stuff in “What The Ancients Did For Us” is incredible, my favorite part was watching them transform ash poles into circular, spoked wheels.
Click the image to view it larger — it encompasses each step of the wagon-building process.
They estimate the process of making a single chariot would have taken about a year. With all of our technologies like pressure cookers, readymade tools like clamps and hammers, and four or five strong, skilled dudes, it can be done in just a few months.
Further, when Julius Caesar arrived in around 55 BC, the chariots of the native Britons proved a significant advantage over the Roman legions’ style.
“Their manner of fighting from chariots is as follows: first they drive in all directions and hurl javelins, and so by the mere terror that the teams inspire and by the noise of the wheels they generally throw the ranks of soldiers into confusion. When they have worked their way in between the troops, they leap down from the chariots and fight on foot. Meanwhile their charioteers retire gradually from the battle, and place chariots in such a fashion that, if the warriors are had pressed by the enemy, they have a ready means of retreat to their own side.” (via)
The Romans were eventually turned back, and didn’t return to Britain until 43 AD, nearly a hundred years later.
No wonder people were buried with their chariots.
Oh, and speaking of burials, I’ve been fond of the Beaker people ever since visiting Stonehenge during my semester abroad in London.
These days, you can’t get close enough to Stonehenge to see the stones, which may be a good thing, in terms of erosion. Did you know they’ve even been re-set with new foundations in order to reconstruct part of the circle? Weird, huh?
Luckily, though, the nearby Avebury Henge has no such restrictions.
I’m not among those who believe that aliens had a hand (or a tentacle) in the construction of these henges…I prefer to believe in the astounding ingenuity of human beings. Like this man, who demonstrates how a single person can move stones the size of these henges:
All of the people involved in the demos in “What The Ancients Did For Us” are clearly experts in their fields of specialization, which makes it all the more amazing when you think that at least a few people in each tribe or village would have had to possess one of these skills or another, just in order for the group to make it to the next year — and moreso when you realize how much of this information was subsequently lost to the ages, with various advancements of technology and culture brought on by invasion, occupation or its simply dying out.
As a side note, this episode is the ninth in a nine-part series, which also covers the cultural contributions of the Islamic world, the Chinese, the Aztecs, Mayas & Incas, the Romans, the Indians, the Mesopotamians, the Egyptians, and the Greeks. We haven’t yet watched the other eight parts, but if they’re even halfway as fascinating and educational as this one, it’s well worth the investment of time. Highly recommended.
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.