According to Stephen Fry’s QI, you might not!
Entries Tagged 'Pre-History' ↓
Several weeks ago, researchers announced the discovery of a prehistoric site on the Salisbury Plain near Stonehenge that appears to mirror the structure of the henge.
They’re guessing it was a wooden henge that mirrored the original in its layout and orientation, similar to Woodhenge and Bluestonehenge, both stone circles found within two miles of the original.
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.
When I came up with the idea for Anglofilmia, I thought, “Well, this should be easy! There are movies about everything.”
As it turns out, there are really only a bare handful of films or television programs dealing with human existence after the Homo sapiens sapiens and before the Greeks, despite this period being fifteen hundred years long, and very few are fictional portrayals.
Carry On, Cleo! was a bust. IMDB was no help at all. But then I found a page mentioning a show that seemed like a perfect candidate.
“Living in the Past” aired on the BBC in 1978, and was an early precursor to contemporary “reality shows”. 15 participants lived in an Iron Age settlement and had to survive for a full year, using only tools and techniques known to humans at the time.
Sounds perfect for our project, right?
Unfortunately, the show is 100% unavailable. As far as I can tell, you can’t buy it, rent it or download it.
There was a follow-up show ten years later in which the participants are re-interviewed, so viewers can see how their lives were altered by their experiences. And the BBC created a new version of the show in 2001 called “Surviving the Iron Age”, which included three children of the original series’ volunteers.
But for some reason, that doesn’t sit well with me. I want to see the original before watching any of the derivatives. I want to meet the parents before I watch the children. And so, I must search for alternatives.
The documentation from the original 1978 experiment is available online, so that we can all learn from their lessons.
In the meantime, I’ll be chasing down a promising lead on another series. Stay tuned.
In searching for films that dealt with pre-Roman Britain, I came across a mention of the “Carry On…” films, a series of saucy comedy movies from the 60′s and 70′s.
Not having grown up in England, I missed out on seeing these films growing up, as apparently they’re bank holiday television staples. But I can appreciate a bit of silly innuendo and campy facial expressions with the best of them.
The description stated that Carry On, Cleo had a funny portrayal of cavemen, so I got a copy.
So far, so good…
Wait, are those Romans?…and is that sword made of rubber?
Alas, it turns out the film is set a bit too late to count as part of the pre-civilization part of our Anglofilmia tour. (You’d think the “Cleopatra” part would have given that way, huh?) At least it was good fun watching!
Is there any actor alive as adaptable, yet as instantly recognizable, as Ron Perlman?
He can go from a hulking Homo neanderthalensis to an adult in a child’s body to a red-hued demon-with-a-heart, and still manage to convey the sensitivity under his characters’ rugged exteriors. He does so in English, French (which he doesn’t speak, but learned by rote for “City of Lost Children”), or even using no words at all, as he does in “Quest for Fire”.
Even more remarkable, his role in 1981′s “Quest for Fire” was his first film appearance, ever.
In it, he plays Amoukar, a member of the Neanderthal Ulam tribe. The tribe survives by keeping a fire perpetually burning; they rely on it for light, warmth, to cook their food, and as a source of power and comfort in the primitive darkness. Each night, the tribe’s flame-keeper collects its embers and tends to them so the fire may be re-lit the next day. But when a Homo erectus tribe (the Wagabu) attacks, the Ulam are scattered — and their fire is accidentally extinguished.
The tribe is devastated, but Amoukar and two of his tribe members are determined to persevere, and they set out for an hour-and-a-half-long, dialogue-free adventure.
The trio encounters woolly mammoths and sabre-tooth tigers, quicksand and cannibals. They fight in some surprisingly gory skirmishes with other tribes they come across. And they have sex. A lot of sex.
Back before the original attack, the Ulam only enjoyed rough and random penetration. But after meeting up with Ika, a female member of the Ivaka tribe of Homo sapiens sapiens, the tribe members learn about different types of sexual power exchange. Specifically, Ika teaches Naoh the missionary position. (And how to laugh. And later, how to make fire.)
(Side note: Naoh is played by Everett McGill, who’s Big Ed Hurley from Twin Peaks, the guy who wears flannel and runs the gas station and is married to Nadine, the redhead with the eyepatch and pink fluffy dress.)
It’s surprising how captivating a movie can be without dialogue, and how much humor the actors can convey with just their expressions and body movements. When one of the Ulam is sinking in quicksand, it’s more of a funny moment than a tense one. (And he’s eventually rescued, of course.) Ron Perlman has a great scene where he’s trying to gather a stack of corn husks, though they keep spilling out of his arms.
Wikipedia is careful to point out that the film does not adhere to contemporary paleoanthropology, as it’s an adaptation of a 1911 book, but even considering the possible factual errors it served our purposes pretty well, which was to lend context to the idea of humankind evolving from its earliest forms.
Skulls, from left to right: Homo sapiens (human), Homo neanderthalensis (Neanderthal man), and Homo erectus.
Photos by Pamela Gore, via this very informative site.
Mostly, the issue is that “[a]t no time was there a “triangular” constellation of neanderthalensis vs. erectus vs. sapiens. Homo erectus has died out before 100,000 years ago, and both neanderthalensis and sapiens are likely its descendant species.” (via)
The book was written in 1911, and the film was made in 1981. And to this very day, we’re still learning new facts about our predecessors. Scientists are working to fully map the Homo neanderthalis gene, and just this week there have been articles stating there may be evidence that cross-breeding did occur between groups of early humans — if not with the most likely candidate, the Neanderthal, then with another heretofore undiscovered variant of “archaic hominin”.
Surprisingly, there are only a handful of films that deal with pre-Homo sapiens sapiens species, a period which seems to me ripe for tales of human evolution, not just in body but in spirit and innovation. The Ulam’s journey to overcome their reliance on a single, stationary flame, and how they learn to control the root of their own survival, is a tale that doesn’t need spoken words to convey its message, and one that resonates through the ages.
No, not the giant stadium extravaganza…
Here, I’m referring to the somewhat tamer “Walking with…” six-part television series, done in the style of David Attenborough — that is to say, the film presents dinosaurs as wildlife subjects being observed by an off-camera narrator (in this case, hushed commentary is provided by Kenneth Branagh).
I was pretty pleased when Jey told me that such a thing existed, as Attenborough’s nature documentaries are one of the most familiar and beloved exports of Britain. (According to Wikipedia, “[a]n opinion poll of 4,900 Britons conducted by Reader’s Digest in 2006 showed Attenborough to be the most trusted celebrity in Britain. In a list compiled by the magazine New Statesman in 2006, he was voted tenth in the list of “Heroes of our time”.)
Also according to Wikipedia, the whole “Walking with…” series “used computer-generated imagery and animatronics to recreate the life of the Mesozoic” and strove to keep the focus on the subject, so forewent the use of expert “talking heads”. My generation’s main exposure as children to dinosaurs came from Jurassic Park. So for me and Jey, it was quite a thrill to see the “Walking with…” treatment of dinos in the wild as subjects in their own right, without any human-focused theatrics.
We’ve only watched the first episode of “Walking with…”, but so far it’s a bit like “March of the Penguins” (or any of the several films Disney has been producing using “Planet Earth” footage). Parents struggle to survive. Babies get eaten. Other babies just barely escape.
I know that nature is red in tooth and claw, but it’s still hard for me to watch those parts. There’s something so lovely about birds and reptiles in eggs, isn’t there? Something lovely, but also keenly fragile. I quite clearly remember seeing, as a very young child, a documentary about turtles laying eggs in the sand, baby turtles hatching from the eggs, and their journey across a busy highway to the ocean. Even then, it was all about the life cycle and survival and the inherent hope in self-perpetuation.
So, I guess not much has changed, even since before recorded history.
Of the many (many!) valuable lessons offered in Carl Sagan’s 13-part series “Cosmos”, the one that’s stuck with me, and the one which made me begin the “Anglofilmia” project with this show, is the idea that we humans are both completely insignificant in the long view of the universe, and that the finite, fecund duration of our lives on earth is what gives life its meaning.
This existential self-awareness is, for me, what makes looking at the horizon of the ocean, or gazing into the inky black sky, especially pleasurable. It’s what gave me shivers when I read the lines in T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”:
Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows?…
I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.
But even though learning this lesson as a child has fundamentally shaped my beliefs and my interests (especially my fondness for time travel literature!), no one can say it better than Carl Sagan himself:
“The long, collective enterprise of science has revealed a universe some 15 billion years old: the time since the explosive birth of the cosmos, the Big Bang.
The cosmic calendar compresses the local history of the universe into a single year.
If the universe began on January 1st, it was not until May that the Milky Way formed. Other planetary systems may have appeared in June, July and August…but our sun and Earth, not until mid-September.
Life arose soon after.
Everything humans have ever done occurred in that bright speck at the lower right of the cosmic calendar.
The Big Bang is at upper left in the first second of January 1st. Fifteen billion years later is our present time, the last second of December 31st.
Every month is 1 and a quarter billion years long. Each day represents 40 million years. Each second stands for some 500 years of our history…the blinking of an eye in the drama of cosmic time.
At this scale, the cosmic calendar is the size of a football field, but all of human history would occupy an area the size of my hand.
We’re just beginning to trace the long and tortuous path which began with the primeval fireball and led to the condensation of matter: gas, dust, stars, galaxies, and, at least in our little nook of the universe, planets and life, intelligence and inquisitive men and women.
We’ve emerged so recently that the familiar events of our recorded history occupy only the last seconds of the last minute of December 31st.
Some critical events for the human species however began much earlier…minutes earlier. So we change our scale from months to minutes.
Down here, the first humans made their debut around 10:30 p.m. on December 31st. And with the passing of every cosmic minute — each minute 30,000 years long — we began the arduous journey towards understanding where we live and who we are.
11:46, only 14 minutes ago, humans have tamed fire.
11:59:20, the evening of the last day of the cosmic year — the 11th hour, the 59th minute, the 20th second — the domestication of plants and animals began, an application of the human talent for making tools.
11:59:35, settled agricultural communities evolved into the first cities.
We humans appear on the comic calendar so recently that our recorded history occupies only the last few seconds of the last minute of December 31st.
In the vast ocean of time which this calendar represents all our memories are confined to this small square.
Every person we’ve ever heard of lived somewhere in there. All those kings and battles, migrations and inventions, wars and loves. Everything in the history books happens here, in the last 10 seconds of the cosmic calendar.
We on Earth have just awakened to the great oceans of space and time from which we have emerged. We are the legacy of 15 billion years of cosmic evolution.
We have a choice:
We can enhance life and come to know the universe that made us, or we can squander our 15 billion-year heritage in meaningless self-destruction.
What happens in the first second of the next cosmic year depends on what we do, here and now, with our intelligence, and our knowledge of the cosmos.”