The Fury Of The Footnote-Men: Evaluating History In Film

In the wake of the Oscars (19/24. Meh. Stupid sound editing/production design), a great hue and cry has been raised among the punditry over films and history and historicism and anachronism and I LOVE IT, y’all. There’s a great piece over at NPR about the historical accuracy of language in things like Lincoln and Downton Abbey, while CinemaBlend’s running a pithy argument for why Argo’s loose approach to authenticity allows it to transcend “truth” and work better as a film than the more serious Zero Dark Thirty and Lincoln.

lincoln film studies url-5


Really, you think?

This idea – that getting things wrong can actually makes them more right – is contingent upon a pre-agreed upon set of criteria for success. What those criteria are and how films and TV shows set up their own individual contracts with their viewers are fascinating to think about. Is it this chillingly realistic portrait? Or is it a bearded Ben Affleck and film stock? There’s a huge difference of attitude and tone between very conscious historical dramatization and what I like to call hashtag history, which evokes historical periods, events, and persons without any pretension towards accurately portraying them.

film studies robin hood

A fascinating example is Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, which can’t make up its mind what it wants to do with its historical setting and its ahistorical literary tradition. The closest people you can get to a historical Robin Hood are probably Eustace Folville and James Coterel, medieval gang leaders in and around Leicestershire and Derbyshire who may have had Lancastrian sympathies but certainly were all-purpose extorters, kidnappers, and murdurers, and survived because they acted on a freelance basis for the local nobility and clergy rather than on behalf of a stricken, oppressed peasantry.  While Coterel and Folville were gentrymen,  and probably had the lay of Sherwood forest,  unfortunately the first extant references we have for a ‘robbehood’ or ‘robehaud’ predate them, appearing in the late 1220s, almost thirty years after the death of Richard I, as placeholder names for itinerant felons. The Folville and Coterel gangs were active during the reign of Edward II and III, in the early fourteenth century, and the first literary reference to Robin Hood occurs in Piers Plowman, written towards the end of the same century. So in conclusion, no, there never was a Robin Hood.

This is because, if you read any of the actual early ballads and stories about Robin, he’s terrible at being Robin Hood. What he actually does is act as a foil for representatives of various medieval castes and tests them, exposing the corruption and hypocrisy of clergymen and nobles, the cruelty of minor town functionaries, stuff like that. Everyone beats him at archery and swordplay, even Marian ties with him, and he’s constantly getting captured by the evil sheriff and Little John and Much the Miller’s Son are constantly having to rescue him. And rescuing him means killing people. A lot. And then misrepresenting yourself as the person you killed before the King. And then freeing Robin and killing all the guards and stealing the tax chest. No mention is made of its distribution to the poor. Check this out: John smote of the munkis hed / no longer wolde he dwelle; / So did Moch the litull page, / Ffor ferd lest he wolde telle. Or, John struck off the monk’s head / no longer does he dwell; / So did Much the little page / for fear that he would tell.  Less “Huzzah!” and more “Take the Canoli,” right?

film theory robin hood

This is why I was initially excited about the 2010 Robin Hood trailer. Because it doesn’t really matter if you have the historical or literary background, but incorporating the legend’s darker origins would be wicked.  The film looked violent and full of glowering, a reconsideration of the romantic Robin legend solidified so concretely by 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood. The trouble is, whether you order green tights or not, you have to acknowledge the generic baggage you have in making a Robin Hood film. We’re looking for stuff. Where’s Little John? Maid Marian? The Sheriff? Prince John?  What is this version of Robin Hood’s general attitude? Does oppression get him down, or do you kind of suspect he’d be in the Greenwood anyway? In creating your forest hideout, you have to know where to place the trees around the secret entrance.

Scott’s Robin Hood is so caught up in reconsideration for its own sake – Richard is dead! And Robin’s a commoner! And the Merry Men can be feral children! And Marian gets to fight in a pitched battle! – that by the time it gets around to the pseudo democratic, “Rise up, good people, and defend justice and liberty!” themes that go along with Flynn’s feathered cap, they seem completely out of place. It gets neither the history or the myth “right” in terms of accuracy, nor sets up the grounds for us to take them as drama for its own sake. I mean, I’m thrilled whenever Elinor of Aquitaine shows up in anything, but by the time there’s, like, a reverse D-Day French invasion of England complete with medieval Higgins boats, you have well and truly broken the tether of your source material. The key is that by foregrounding the entire endeavor with a promise of “real” history or some sort of accuracy, that tether matters, and we as an audience want it. Another Ridley Scott historical gloomfest, Gladiator, gets its facts wrong too, but the film’s focus is not on the politics of the Nervian/Antoninian dynasty. It paints in broad, bloody strokes.

film studies lincoln

Lincoln is, in a sense, at similar cross-purposes. The film wants to portray the man as he really lived and to honor his legend. This is ambitious, and I think on the first front the film succeeds in a spectacular way. It offers us a repurposed view of an iconic image, a person about which we have certain assumptions, and its a view that acknowledges those assumptions and shows us something thrillingly new. The humane, burdened, slyly hilarious Lincoln that Day-Lewis turned in will be the authoritative version in all our minds for a good long while. Portraying the Importance, sending him off to The Ages, as best represented by that, ahem, obvert John Williams score, casts contrasting shadow on the film’s story itself. Argo has no such concerns about posterity. It ends on a storyboard with meaning to the emotional story of the protagonist. It could have been any hostage crisis, really, that facilitated that growth and exposed that level of silent sacrifice of extractor Tony Mendez, just so long as Ben Afflect could sport his full and many beard. The terms are less stringent. It’s easier, which is why what Lincoln did accomplish feels more like, you know, an accomplishment. Historical drama is very hard to get factually and emotionally correct. When you do it, though, the past comes alive;  for beings with existences as fleeting as ours, that’s not an ignoble endeavor.

the vikings tv studies

This is why, in conclusion, The Vikings, the History Channel’s first scripted effort (aside from Pawn Stars, but that’s another topic), will be fascinating to watch. It looks pretty damned narrative and involving and entirely a dramatic enterprise, but it’s airing on a network called The History Channel. We’re expecting both accuracy and truth. Where will it place its flag? How will it navigate these issues? Will Gabriel Byrne be scary-cranky or adorable-cranky? Will that hot Australian find Canada? I’m excited to find out. 


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