Laurence Olivier’s King Lear

Dearest Anglofilmia readers,

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?

Luckily, the amazing cartoonist Kate Beaton applied her signature, hilariously-eyeballed humor to the topic, and my resulting gut laughter effectively broke down my own mental blockages.


Tee hee!

So, King Lear.

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.)

Roman baths
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.

LEAR
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.

LEAR
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.

CORDELIA
And yet not so; since, I am sure, my love’s
More richer than my tongue.

KING LEAR
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.

CORDELIA
Nothing, my lord.

KING LEAR
Nothing!

CORDELIA
Nothing.

Awkward…

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.

Phew.

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.

In the meantime, I’ll be satisfied with the rest of the Kate Beaton comics on the subject.

 

 

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Top 5 Portrayals of Stonehenge in Film and Television

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:

Bonus!
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.

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!

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.


Cozy!

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.


Fwoomp.

(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.

crush

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.

DSC_0196.JPG

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