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!
Summer is a time for relaxing by the pool, margarita in hand, Pet Sounds, Wilco and Vampire Weekend on the ipod, breathing in the faint odors of chlorine and sunscreen and lime. Or, if you’re unlucky enough to not be a student or a teacher, it’s a time for working indoors under florescent lights in a building with windows that don’t open. (Guess which one I’ll be doing?)
It’s also a time for theatre releases of the best and worst movies of the year.
Many of my summers as a teen were spent escaping the Texas heat in the blasts of A/C and stale popcorn offered by our many local theatres. It often didn’t matter what was showing, going to the theatre was the point, and that’s my only excuse for seeing House of Wax in cinemas, god help me.
It was also where I honed my taste in films. In high school and college, there were three indie screens in my immediate neighborhood, so I got to take in a lot of limited release pics and special midnight screenings of films I’d never otherwise have been exposed to. I loved piling into the car late on a Friday, full of all those teen feelings of freedom in the hot, quiet night, and heading over to the Inwood to watch Bottle Rocket, or City of Lost Children, or Following.
To this day, I get the same thrill whenever I go to a midnight showing the day before a great film is released. (Toy Story 3 this Thursday at 12:01am, holla!)
I’m mostly ambivalent about the Summer 2010 cinema offerings, but as far as historical fare goes, there are some okay options for moviegoers — though I still lament that there are so few films set in pre-history or pre-Roman Britain.
At least this handful of flicks is taking a stab at history, even if their aim is a bit off.
First up is Centurion, set in 117 AD:
From the trailer, I gather that the film focuses on the last stand of the invading Ninth Legion against the native Picts, and while I applaud the depiction of a lot of kick-ass women warriors, I suspect the film sides with the Romans in the end.
Funnily, Dominic West is one of the stars — he’s been in a lot of historical films and serials lately, but it’s still always strange to hear him using his natural British accent instead of the American one he put on for The Wire.
Anyway, reviews of Centurion have been pretty savage, garnering it a mere 50% on Rotten Tomatoes. I’m not too keen on this one, as others have recommended the 1977 BBC television adaptation of the novel “Eagle of the Ninth” (and another film version of that story will be released in September this year), but I may have to suffer through it for the sake of the project.
US release date: 23 July (Video On Demand), 27 August (cinemas) UK release date: 23 April
Next is Agora, set in 391 AD.
Agora is the fictionalized story of real-life Greek philosopher Hypatia during the clash between Roman paganism and Christian forces in Alexandria, Egypt.
This one is a lot more appealing to me, despite its Rotten Tomatoes reviews (currently it’s at 56%, yowch). I love Rachel Weisz, the city of Alexandria is depicted using real sets and not just CGI (plus they show the sacking and destruction of the library), and I think the premise is pretty interesting — more than just an argument between religion and science. I like the idea that while all of this is happening down here on earth, time and time again, the stars that Hypatia studied remain the same.
“I kept saying the movie is about astronomy and I wanted to express concepts that we study in school—science, mathematics—that don’t show how fascinating the topic is [the way the subjects are taught in modern education]. I wanted to translate [man’s] fascination with the pursuit of knowledge. I wanted to show astronomy and those who study it in the most appealing way. Those are the real heroes of the movie.”
- director Alejandro Amenábar
US release date: limited, possible wide release in December UK release date: 23 April
Then comes the newest incarnation of Robin Hood, set in the reign of King Richard I (between 1189 and 1199).
So, Maximus is in ye olde England, kickin’ butt in that same flippy frame rate as Gladiator and Saving Private Ryan. This version of Robin Hood seems to focus more on his time as a crusader, but it’s hard to tell, what with all the rockin’ guitars.
I wasn’t too excited when this first came out in May, and it’s only got 44% on Rotten Tomatoes. Might be worth seeing when it hits the dollar theatre, if nothing else is on.
US release date: 14 May UK release date: 12 May
And finally, Black Death, set sometime around the 1340s.
Starring Sean Bean and that kid who played Angel Clare in the 2008 version of “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” as various religious figures who go to a small village to investigate why it alone has been spared the taint of the Bubonic plague.
It looks like a zombie movie, or at least a horror film filled with creepy violence and torture, which is a big turn-off for me. I mean, consider the last images in the trailer: Man being drawn by ropes. Woman saying, “Crucify them all.” Man screaming, “I’ll slice you open!” Ick.
But so far, reviews are limited, but fair — 67% on RT. And at least two compare it to The Wicker Man…making it extremely tempting. I’ll wait til I hear about the levels of gore, as I am definitely NOT okay with seing guts and their spillage, but this one has potential…if I can find a copy, since I’m not sure it’ll actually be released in the US.
US release date: Unknown UK release date: 11 June
Want to get into that summer state of mind? Here are two playlists from StereoMood, an internet radio station with stellar playlists based around moods and emotions:
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.
“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.
Like many schoolchildren, I learned the ‘rhyme’ meant to help us remember the six wives of Henry VIII: “Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived”. But it wasn’t until I watched the Showtime series “The Tudors” starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers that I realized the value of actual, human faces to create in my own mind a memorable historical context.
Sure, the show may play a little fast and loose with some events in the timeline, but it also makes these stiff textbook figures real people, with desires and faults all their own. There’s a huge difference in reading Anne Boleyn’s final speech or that the executioner was sympathetic to her, and in seeing his eyes and hearing the quiver in her voice.
So for Christmas last year, I gave my husband Jey a coupon as a gift: “This coupon entitles the bearer to a year-long journey of exploration and education.” (Yes, we’re big dorks who are inclined to give this type of gift.) I included with it a very rough timeline of British history beginning with pre-civilization, and films set in each period.
We’ve spent the past several months intermittently clarifying the dates on the timeline and filling in the blanks with appropriate films and television shows, where possible. There are several periods of history which are notably bereft of film-related content, and several which are so flush that it’s really difficult to narrow down which we’ll actually watch.
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.