Cheers, mate!

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).

Wow, though, Paris is pretty awful. He’s a lame fighter even in The Iliad, but at least he has the excuse of being personally selected by the gods to be a patsy.

“‘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.

Jason and the Argonauts

Ohhh, I have been excited to watch this movie for a long, long time.

Ostensibly, Jason and the Argonauts is the story of the hero Jason — hero being defined in this case as a demigod — who embarks on a quest to recover the golden fleece.

(A note on the golden fleece: practically, the description of this (fictional) artifact might have emerged from the real-life practice of collecting gold from running water by laying sheepskins in the stream. Just as they demonstrated earlier, in “What The Ancients Did For Us”!)

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

The Hydra!

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?

Ha ha, suckers!

The Anglofilmia guide to Summer 2010 historical films

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:

Mood: Summer

Mood: Sunny day

The Heroic Age

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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What The Ancients Did For Us

Quite a bit, as it turns out.

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.



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Book via Amazon US (DVD not available), DVD via Amazon UK, book via Amazon UK

The search for “Living in the Past”

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.

Carry On, Cleo

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!



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Quest for Fire

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.



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Walking with Dinosaurs

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.

Life in the Mesozoic is tough.

So, I guess not much has changed, even since before recorded history.



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