Random thoughts on historical films

A couple of weeks back, I reviewed Genghis Khan (1965). Before that I’d reviewed Halaku (1956). In the nearly five years this blog’s been in existence, I’ve watched and reviewed dozens of historical films in various languages—from La Grande Guerra to Zulu, from Taj Mahal and Jahanara to Shahjehan and Humayun. I’ve reviewed films set in the ancient world, in the Middle Ages, in the 19th century.

As you can see, I’m a history buff. And, by extension (since I am also a movie buff), a keen watcher of historical films.

Madhubala and Dilip Kumar in Mughal-e-AzamWhich is what leads me to the reason for this post. While watching Genghis Khan, I was struck by the fact that while the film had a lot going for it—a cast that included some of my favourite actors; extensive research; good sets and cinematography—it just didn’t deliver. The research, while obviously there, had been used in bits and pieces, with facts being distorted to the point of becoming unrecognizable. Events and relationships had been shifted around. And, even then, not to any good purpose, since it didn’t really add much to the overall experience.

I set out, therefore, to try and analyze how I like my historical films. And how I don’t like them.

To begin with, what I think a historical film should be. (This, by the way, is an adaptation of what I had once defined— when asked in an interview—as historical fiction). A historical film is one that is set in a time period before the time at which the film is made. So a World War II film, like Bataan, Escape, Night Train to Munich, or Foreign Correspondent (all of which were made while the war was still being fought) would not count as a ‘historical’ in my lexicon.

Robert Taylor in Escape
Then, the different types of historical films (important note: I do not count fantasy/sci fi/mythological films as historical, even when they are set in a historical or quasi-historical setting). Basically, I’d divide historical films into two broad categories:

1. The primarily fictional

2. The primarily factual

To begin with, the ‘primarily fictional’. By this, I mean films like Ben Hur, Quo Vadis, War and Peace and Shichinin no Samurai (to name some of the better examples of this subgenre): films that are set in a definite time period and place (respectively, the Middle East and Rome; early 19th century Russia; and medieval Japan, in the examples I’ve listed). In some of these, famous historical characters may appear briefly (again, in these examples: Jesus Christ, Pontius Pilate, Nero, Poppaea, Napoleon).

But the primary story is fictional. While Ben Hur may feature the crucifixion of Christ, or War and Peace may include scenes of Napoleon invading Russia in the heart of winter, the main story in these is not of Christ or Napoleon respectively: they are there only to lend a sense of verisimilitude (or form an important pivot for the plot, as in the case of Nero in Quo Vadis, or Césare Borgia in Prince of Foxes).

Orson Welles as Cesare Borgia in Prince of Foxes
Next, the primarily factual. These, of course, are the films that are basically a dramatic depiction of something that actually happened in history. I divide this particular subgenre into two further categories:

2a. The historical event

2b. The historical figure

When I talk of the ‘historical event’, I mean a depiction of an event that was historically important—the event being more significant than the people involved, at least as far as a cinematic adaptation is concerned. Examples that come to my mind, and which have been depicted onscreen, include the Allied invasion of Normandy (depicted in The Longest Day); the Battle of Rorke’s Drift (depicted in Zulu); and the Battle of Thermopylae (depicted in The 300 Spartans, and given a mythical-fantasy makeover in 300).

Then, there’s the historical figure—a person, whether well-known or not, whose life was found interesting enough to merit a cinematic representation. The majority of the ‘historical figure’ films tend to be about the famous:

– Powerful rulers and/or conquerors (Genghis Khan, Halaku, Humayun, Shahjehan—and, in more recent years, Elizabeth, Jodhaa Akbar, etc)

Vivien Leigh as Cleopatra in Caesar and Cleopatra
– Inspirational figures (this one can include a wide range of people, from artists—such as Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy to Toulouse-Lautrec in Moulin Rouge, to musicians such as Mozart in Amadeus, to sportspersons, writers, and—since cinema does tend to dwell on itself—actors, actresses, and directors, in films like Hitchcock, or Gods and Monsters).

Charlton Heston as Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy
Not that it’s essential for the subject of a ‘historical figure’ film to be famous. For instance, Dr Kotnis of Dr Kotnis ki Amar Kahaani was not a household name (in fact, I’d probably think it was V Shantaram’s film that actually helped people know about this remarkable doctor). Similarly, the determined and courageous Gladys Aylward—portrayed by Ingrid Bergman in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness—was no celebrity, and neither was Eddie Chapman, safe-breaker and thief-turned secret agent (and the subject of the Christopher Plummer starrer, Triple Cross).

Note: When it comes to the ‘historical figure’ film, there seems to have been a proliferation of these in the recent past, with everybody from Margaret Thatcher and King George VI to Alfred Hitchcock, Milkha Singh, Paan Singh Tomar and Nigel Slater being made the subject of films based either on their entire lives or on significant episodes from their lives.

With that ‘classification’ out of the way, let me move on to what I expect out of a historical film.

That’s a thorny subject, and comes with its own issues. How much, or how little, should one allow a historical film to tamper with history?

Robert Bolt (who wrote the screenplays of two of the greatest English-language historicals, Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago), is supposed to have said—in the context of historical films depicting facts—that if you want to learn about history, you should read a history text book.

Fair enough. I do not expect a historical film to be a blow-by-blow depiction of history, simply because most real life events, no matter how earth-shattering or thrilling or hilarious, are difficult to portray as is on screen.

You will, necessarily, have to edit out the boring bits and the not-so-savoury bits (would anybody who saw Stewart Granger starring in the 1954 film Beau Brummel really have liked to know that the eponymous Brummel, instead of dying a dignified death of what appears onscreen as a mysterious illness—possibly consumption—had actually died insane, penniless, and of syphilis? Not very romantic).

Stewart Granger in and as Beau Brummel
You will also have to edit out the bits that dilute the drama. Zulu, for example, while a fabulously exciting film about the Battle of Rorke’s Drift, distorted the characters of some of the people, making perfectly exemplary soldiers into drunks who were redeemed by their bravery in battle, or by ironing out the wrinkles in the characters of officers who were less than exemplary in real life. The end product is gripping, inspiring, dramatic—but not absolutely factual. Yet I like it.

A scene from Zulu
Why, then, did I kick up such a fuss when I watched and reviewed Genghis Khan last month? Genghis Khan, after all, also messed around with facts. It retained some, it twisted others, it totally turned around a lot.

After some mulling over this topic, I’ve come to the conclusion that what matters to me is a combination of factors:

(a) The level of messing around

(b) How that messing around impacts the way the story plays out, and

(c) The overall script

To illustrate, I’ll go back to Genghis Khan. The script here retained only the bare bones of the Mongol conqueror’s life: his marriage to Börte, his unification of the nomadic Mongols, his invasion of China (and further afield), his enmity with Jamuga. Those were all there, but terribly distorted: Jamuga (actually, Genghis Khan’s bosom buddy before they fell out) was depicted as an arch enemy from the word go; the Chinese were shown to be effete, gullible fools who let Genghis Khan walk away with their territories. Even the age at which Genghis Khan died—and how he died—was wildly off the mark.

Omar Sharif and James Mason in Genghis Khan
And what did that changing of the story achieve? For me, not much, really. This was a somewhat tedious film, which gave the impression that one of the all-consuming passions of Genghis Khan’s life was to somehow kill Jamuga (and vice-versa).

On the other hand, Zulu—even though not totally true to reality—was a far better film. It seemed to have been written keeping in mind the fact that though this was a historical event being depicted, at the end of the day, this was a creative work, more creative than a documentary about the Battle of Rorke’s Drift might have been. A film that had to be interesting, and entertaining.

(This is where films not based on historical events or historical figures have an edge: they don’t need to accurately depict history, since that’s not the focus of the film. The sacrifice of Sidney Carton, or the adventures of the Scarlet Pimpernel or Zorro—these are all played out against historical backdrops, but since they’re primarily the stories of fictional characters, as long as the history is more or less believable, that’s what really matters).

Tyrone Power as Zorro in The Mark of Zorro
Linked to this is the matter of how much we know of a historical event. Try to mess around too much with a well-known event or character, and the chances of having the film fall flat are higher. For example, just the other day, I watched the 1955 Maureen O’Hara starrer, Lady Godiva of Coventry. Just about anybody who knows anything about medieval England will be able to tell you that Godiva’s claim to fame was in riding naked through Coventry to protest against the extortionate taxes imposed on the populace by her husband, Leofric, Earl of Mercia.

And what does the film do? It turns the tale completely on its head, and gives Godiva’s notorious ride a totally different motive from what it had actually been.

Maureen O'Hara in and as Lady  Godiva Of Coventry
On the other hand, look at a historical character from an unusual point of view—which perhaps not many would have known about, or which hasn’t been chronicled—and you might well have a winner on your hands.

While I don’t usually cite the examples of new films, I’ll have to mention one which I especially liked in this sense: Jodhaa-Akbar. Little is known of Akbar’s personal life, obviously, and that was what the film focused on—thus, actually, making it a more or less fictionalized conjecture of the Mughal emperor’s relationship with his Rajput queen.  The attention paid to detail regarding the actual facts—down to what Akbar was doing when his future father-in-law came to meet him—made this film a pleasant blend of fact and fiction.

Hrithik Roshan in Jodhaa Akbar
So, which are the historicals I love or like?

The primarily fictional:

Ben Hur (1959), Quo Vadis(1951), War and Peace (1956), Shichinin no Samurai (1954), La Grande Guerra(1959), Where Eagles Dare (1968), North West Frontier (1959), The Enemy Below (1957), Paths of Glory (1957), High Noon (1952), The Mark of Zorro (1940), The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), and The Sound of Music (1965): even though the gist of the story—the von Trapp family, their singing, and their escape from the Nazis is based on real life—much of the film is, as anybody who’s seen it would guess, quite fictional.

The chariot race scene in Ben Hur
(I could go on and on with the Westerns and the war films, because there are plenty in those two subgenres of historicals that I like).

A few more recent ones: Lagaan (2001), Jodhaa-Akbar (2008; despite being centred around very prominent historical figures, I’d still classify this as primarily fictional), A Room With a View (1985), Babette’s Feast (1987), The Scarlet Pimpernel (1982) and The Winslow Boy (1999). I must also mention, in this context, the large number of period TV series, miniseries and TV movies that have been made over the past couple of decades. The Magic of Ordinary Days (2005), Pride and Prejudice (1995), Cadfael (1994-96), Lark Rise to Candleford (2008-11), Jane Eyre (2006) and North & South (2004) are among my favourites.  

Richard Armitage in North & South
The primarily factual:

Zulu (1964), Triple Cross (1966), Sink the Bismarck! (1960), The Longest Day (1962), The Agony and The Ecstasy (1965), and Bronenosets Potyomkin (1925).

—and a bunch of relatively new films: Schindler’s List (1993), Apollo 13 (1995), The Ghost and the Darkness (1996), The King’s Speech (2010), and (to some extent) Julie & Julia (2009).

Plus, there’s a host of other ‘new’ historical films that have been released, some of them good, but which I either haven’t watched yet, or didn’t like enough to actually include in my list:  Elizabeth (1998), The Iron Lady (2011), Hitchcock (2012), J Edgar (2011), Argo (2012), Paan Singh Tomar (2012), Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013)…

It does make me wonder why there’s such a sudden glut of historicals, especially based on real life. Because every film maker wants to (and can often afford to) outdo his/her competitors when it comes to research and authenticity? Or because audiences today are perhaps more voyeuristic than they were some decades ago (and won’t be fobbed off with prettified distortions of the truth)? Or what?

Frankly, I don’t know. But I’m not arguing. As long as there are historicals made, I say, bring ‘em on!

A scene from War and Peace
What do you think? Do you like historicals? What are you willing to forgive when it comes to the alteration of facts? What do you look for in a good historical?

And, most important of all, which are your favourite historicals? I’d love some recommendations!


42 thoughts on “Random thoughts on historical films

  1. Hmm, you left out a category of films (#1-#4 below) that I loved and fall in the historical genre – not sure if you would categorize them as fiction or not – since I am not sure of the veracity of the history in them. All of these are great favorites of mine since I like this genre:
    1. A man for all seasons *ring Paul Scofield, Dame Wendy Hiller – my favorite film of all times, up there with “To kill a mockingbird” – not sure where this would fit btw.
    2. The lion in winter – superb performances by Peter O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn
    3. Anne of a thousand days – *ring Richard Burton and Genevieve Buchold
    4. Becket – *ring Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole
    5. The King’s Speech – *ring Colin Firth – about a historical person
    6. Lincoln – *ring Daniel Day Lewis – was mesmerized by this film and his acting
    7. Amadeus – *ring Tom Hulce and a brilliant F Murray Abraham – totally fiction
    You have already pointed out Ben Hur which I love despite not liking Charton Heston – I am very fond of the second half of the film. And one other that I like is Spartacus *ring Kirk Douglas.
    There was an obscure film called “Nicholas and Alexandria” about the last czar of Russia that I remembered liking quite a bit. Have not seen it in years since it is hard to get a hold of (have not checked Netflix recently).

    In HIndi cinema, I am not a huge fan of the genre since I find it more caricature-esque. Though I loved Mughal-e-azam – such an improvement than the unwatcheable (other than the music) “Anarkali”. You have mentioned “Lagaan” and “Jodha Akbar” both of which were very good. Another film that I really loved though it did not do well in the box office was Gulzar’s interpretation of “Meera” *ring Hema Malini. I remembered liking the film a lot when I originally saw it as a child. So I rewatched it recently just to be sure – and I was pleasantly surprised to find that I liked it just as much even now.
    “Gandhi” may not count as a Hindi film, but I thought it was extremely well made and fairly accurate.

    Coming to your final questions, I am generally willing to forgive some liberties with the story in the interest of film-making. But I do have an issue with modifying fundamental facts (like you talked about in the case of Beau Brummel) since it seeks to sterilize facts. Hollywood did that a lot with stories about the native Americans and it always bothers me.
    Okay, I have rambled on long enough.

    • You make some very interesting points in your comment, sangeetbhakt, so I’m going to respond in two separate comments. This one is going to be about the films you’ve listed. There are lots there that I haven’t yet got around to watching (including some which I own, but which are still lying in my ‘to-watch’ pile, such as Spartacus – yes, I have to admit I still haven’t seen it).

      Since I haven’t seen either A Man For All Seasons or Becket, I’ve no idea what category you mean these to be. Any suggestions? Both, from what I know, are about historical characters, but whether or not they’re fictitious or largely factual – you’ll know more about that. For instance, while Jodhaa Akbar, Genghis Khan and Lady Godiva of Coventry are all about very real people, I’d still classify all three as ‘primarily fictional’, because the stories of all three films are fictitious, with only a few similarities to what really happened.

      Thank you for the recommendations! I’m adding these to my list. :-)

      • Both “A man for all seasons” and “Becket” are based on real people – the former about Sir Thomas More, the Lord Chancellor of England who will not go against the Pope and agree to an annulment of the king’s marriage. The latter is about Thomas Becket, a friend of King Henry II, is appointed Archbishop of Canterbury and then opposes the king.
        Both films have taken apparently taken cinematic liberties with the original characters, in order to showcase the central conflict in the film and polarize black and white.

        • Yes, I do know on whom A Man For All Seasons and Becket are based, even though I’ve not seen either film. What I meant was that I don’t quite understand your comment about my having left out a category – which one would this be? Historical figure + primarily fictional? (In which case I’d still put these films under ‘primarily fictional’)

          *a little confused*

          • Sorry, should have clarified. I forget that others are not in my brain. My bad. I did not mean a category of historical fiction, but a category of films made in the 60s about the British royals – Henry II, Henry VIII, etc. And these 4 films all fell in that category.

            • I see what you mean. That would probably be a different type of classification, not quite as broad as I’ve gone with. Probably a classification that would also include categories like ‘spaghetti westerns’, ‘sword and sandals’, ‘paella westerns’, and ‘World War II films’.

              Actually, now that I think of it, films about the British royalty seem to be coming back in fashion. What with Elizabeth (also the one about the present queen), and a forthcoming one on Diana. Plus, of course, The King’s Speech.

    • I like your point regarding Hindi films. Yes, most Hindi films (barring, perhaps, some of the more recent ones) are guilty of really messing up history. Look at something like Shahjehan or Anarkali – not only throwing historical accuracy to the winds, but also not entertaining films by themselves. In that context, I tend to forgive Taj Mahal, because even though it’s very romanticised, it does show quite a bit of historical accuracy.

      I must admit I prefer the ‘faux historical’ (or the ‘raja-rani‘ film, as Anu would put it): stuff like Kohinoor or Lala Rookh, which is in a historical setting, but an undefined one – and is thoroughly entertaining.

  2. A fantastic post and a subject after my own heart. Yes, I agree, a bit of playing around with facts, what they call cinematic liberty, is okay as long it does not go haywire. If you ask me I absolutely did not mind the fictional part of Sound of Music one of my favourite films, of course another of my all time favourite is Where Eagles Dare. There is another film based on a novel by Alistair Maclean and that is Guns of Navaronne, it is strictly not a true story but is based on historical events that took place at that time. I loved the film and of course Gregory Peck is my favourite. I have mentioned this before another of my favourites is Night Crossing. When you watch the film now In the the year 2013 it is a historical of sorts for it is based on an incident that took place when Germany was divided into east and west, a very thrilling film and I must say a must watch.
    I also liked Legend of Bhagat Singh starring Ajay Devgan for it touched upon certain facts which was not done in the earlier versions. I found that quite interesting—Shilpi

    • Thank you, Shilpi! I too don’t mind at all the fictional part of The Sound of Music, because I do love that film a lot. I must admit to not being especially fond of The Guns of Navarone (despite being a fan of Peck), mainly because I hate sad endings.

      Also, I’m glad you mentioned The Legend of Bhagat Singh – I agree that was a very good film. Excellent acting, and well-scripted.

      I remember you mentioning Night Crossing earlier, yes. I must look out for it; haven’t gotten hold of it yet.

  3. A fantastic and absorbing post indeed! Some of my favorite historical films films are Rani Laxmibai(1948) by Sohrab Modi Hameer Hath (1964),Mirza Ghalib (1954) starring Bharat Bhushan & Suraiya, Mangal Pandey-The Rising(2005) & of course The Legend of Bhagat Singh(2002) IMO which portrayed some historical facts not touched upon by other films made on Bhagat Singh.

    • Sohrab Modi was good at the historical, wasn’t he? One of his films which I liked (even though I’ve not mentioned it in my list) was Nausherwan-e-Adil, which I thought was quite good. Haven’t seen Rani Laxmibai or Hameer Hath, though. And not even Mangal Pandey, actually. Mirza Ghalib (as is the case with a lot of old Hindi historical films) I remember more for its superlative music than anything else – even though its depiction of Ghalib’s life – down to details like his love for mangoes – is accurate in many places.

      • I recall watching a Sohrab Modi film on TV years back called (I think) “Pukaar” about people who could ring a bell when they had a problem and the king would respond. While it was old fashioned in its style, it did do a really nice job of the genre. “Prithvi Vallabh” by him did not appeal to me as much – a bit too over-wrought.

        • I must admit I’ve watched neither Pukaar nor Prithvi Vallabh, though I remember reading the reviews of both on memsaabstory. Since you recommend Pukaar, I must put it on my list.

          Incidentally, that thing about the bell which commoners could pull to alert the king to their plight, so that he would listen to them, is true of Jahangir (I think – or was it Akbar? Definitely one of them).

  4. Madhu,
    Nice reflective post. If you don’t mind my somewhat clichéd statement – to me what matters is that it has to be good cinema.

    ‘Schindler’s List’: A historical film with some embellishments. What remained with me was Liam Neeson’s wry humour, sarcasm and contemptuous way of dealing with the sadistic Camp Commandant; his soliloquy in the end which shames the Germans in sparing the lives of ‘his people’. Brings tears to my eyes.

    ‘Life is Beautiful’: Historical background, but primarily fictional. They could have called it ‘The movie is beautiful’ – lyrical, funny and poignant in a stark background.

    ‘Escape From Sobibor’: Concentration camp again, nothing lyrical about it. Yet there was something charming about the movie. Many years later I saw the multi-starrer ‘The Great Escape’, but for me the escape remained the one from Sobibor.

    ‘Gandhi’: Purely historical, almost documentary. But love it, again less for history but more for cinema – when the wave after wave of Stayagrahis are felled down by the cops, Martin Sheen in emotion choked voice reports to his paper that whatever moral case the British had for the empire they lost it that day; or when the Judge rises from his chair and bows at Gandhi and says, nothing would have pleased him more than to set him free had it been in his power, but he was helpless because of the law of the crown; or the simple Dandi March – a small band of followers with Gandhi growing into hundreds of thousands as people on the way keep joining the brisk march to the sitar strains of Ravi Shankar; or the funeral with a sea of humanity with a voice-over that here was a man who was neither a head of state nor a monarch nor held a public office, yet… The power of the movie lies in its ability to move you deeply. Among many times I have seen the movie, once it was in the US. The standing ovation at the end was to be seen to be believed – you would not see anything like that in India.

    ‘Guns of Navarone’: is not my favourite either. But I am a huge fan of ‘From Here to Eternity’ and ‘An Officer and a Gentleman’. And ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’! – love it. The British sense of honour which Alec Guinness personifies; when Colonel Saito is forced to release him, he blinks his eyes to adjust to the bright light after the dark cell, the British soldiers lift him on the shoulders in joyous celebration; their music and dance (some in drag) in the night at the ‘happy’ turn; and in the end the conflict about the Bridge – a symbol of British pride of engineering, but of strategic value in the war for the Japanese – everything about the movie is great cinema.

    I do like pure history too. Everything on History channel, especially the period after the first/second WW, which has relevance to the world as we know today. Anything on Indian history from the British period onwards for the same reason – it connects to India today. Liked ‘Mountbatten: The Last Viceroy’ too.

    You might ask what is the point I am making. I don’t know myself, except that I love cinema.


    • “You might ask what is the point I am making.

      The point was not to make a point, AK. The point was to think about things, which was what I was doing. And to share thoughts, which I’m glad you and sangeetbhakt and Shilpi and coolone160 have done! Thank you. :-)

      I agree completely with you about the crux of the matter being whether or not the film is good cinema or not. While I may appreciate the superb music of a film like Mirza Ghalib, Taj Mahal or Jahanara (and many, many other Hindi historicals made in the 50s and 60s), the number of films that were good cinema can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Sad.

      I will admit that I haven’t seen An Officer and a Gentleman or even From Here to Eternity yet – and I saw Escape from Sobibor so long ago, I remember nothing of it. But I love all the other films you’ve mentioned in your post. Especially, I’m glad you talked about Life is Beautiful – I remember coming out of the cinema hall with tears in my eyes and a smile on my lips, because it was such a lovely movie.

  5. I haven’t seen most of the films you’ve written about, but you’ve wxpressed your thoughts beautifully as always.
    Since ‘songs of yore’ talks about historical (fiction) on television I can write something :-) – about my favourie series Chandragupt Maurya. There were two of these and I liked both.An earlier version called Chanakya stuck to whatever information was available, and so there were unexplained things happening.
    The one called Chandra Gupt Maurya wove fiction around the information adding their own interpretation and coming up with an extremely thrilling series. There were a lot of plot holes. But….
    These two are set in my favourite period of Indian history – the vedic period.
    My interest in Indian history ends with the coming of the Britissh, a little earlier even, at about the time of Shah Jehan. Muzaffar Jung just made it :-)

    While writing I also remembered Shahrukh Khan’s two films. One historical ‘Ashoka’
    and the other a fictional one set in those times, Paheli.

    I love both these films. If a film can really take me back to the period being portrayed I
    love it regardless of plot holes.

    Then of course my obsession – the regency period in Britain and all things Jane Austen.
    I do like the later Victorian period too like Jane Eyre – all these are fiction of course .
    Most of the adaptations are great, but the latest one tend to dumb them down thus losing the essence.
    I’m controlling my self in case I go off into a rant here ;-)

    Thanks for this opportunity DO for being able to just express my thoughts about historical fiction, my favourite genre.

    • I haven’t seen Chandragupta Maurya, though I’ve heard a lot of praise for the series. ;-) I do remember watching parts of Chanakya all those years ago, but perhaps as a result of my being too young to appreciate it, I didn’t really care for it. Ended up not watching it after a while.

      Yes, Ashoka and Paheli were good, too. It’s been a long time since I watched both of them, but I do remember liking them both – in different ways.

      “I’m controlling my self in case I go off into a rant here ;-)

      Feel absolutely free to go off on a rant – that was the intention of this post! I want to know what’s wrong with adaptations that we come across, whether they’re new or old.

      • And how could I forget Amrapali ? I liked the film so much. Of course it’s more on the lines of Mughal e azam, a romance set in that time.

        The period just after the vedic period interests me a lot, and so I really like Amrapali, and chandragupt Maurya. I don’t know if there are other films/TV series.

        I do remember watching parts of Chanakya all those years ago, but perhaps as a result of my being too young to appreciate it, I didn’t really care for it.

        I can well imagine. It was rather dull in following the historical information available quite strictly. I guess that’s why they made CGM later.

        I haven’t seen Chandragupta Maurya, though I’ve heard a lot of praise for the series. ;-)

        hehe. Try a couple of episodes. Maybe you’ll get hooked. :-) It’s the other extreme. Sometimes OTT, but never dull or boring.

        AS for the regency adaptations of Jane Austen novels, the later adaptations were bad because they were just making hay while the sun shone.
        1995 onwards the craze about her and her novels was a minting maschine for a lot of people coming up with adaptations (like the ITV collection) and sequel after sequels.
        When that was exhausted there were those other modern ‘regency’ oriented stuff and even horror ones.

        So in this atmosphere you can imagine the stuff that came out :-(

        IMO the last good adaptations were around mid 1990s and later a Sense and sensibility and Emma in 2000s (can’t remember exact dates) were not as good but still one could watch them. Kera Knightley Pride and prejudice was OK for a film on the big screen IMO.

        • “The period just after the vedic period interests me a lot

          I’ve always been a little wary of approaching that period. Not so much when it comes to watching films or TV series (I also like Amrapali a lot, by the way), but even writing about it. I’ve written stories based in a lot of varied historical settings, but that era is one I steer clear of, because I’ve never come across any good accounts of day-to-day life in that period. Not that I’ve looked, but… (Incidentally, have you read Saradindu Bandopadhyay’s book By the Tungabhadra? Total potboiler, set in the early medieval period in the Deccan, Much fun, even though it’s rather politically incorrect for now).

          I agree with what you say about some of the more recent adaptations of period drama. I am nowhere close to you when it comes to being clued into the literature of that period, but I remember not at all liking some of those ITV adaptations either.

          • Interestingly Budhist and Jain literature written at that time do write about the kings then and things about their way of life.

            Chanakya’s niti, arthashastra give an insight into the goings on then. They have been freely quoted in CGM. Some of the information given there has been elaborated and a story built around it in this serial. Like Chanakya was known to play around with poison, trying to make one immune to it. CGM shows quite a team of vishkanyas taking part in his scheme of dethroning Dhanand.

            The rise of CGM and before is mentioned in Greek writings beause of Alexander and Selucus, where CGM is known as Sandrocotus or something like that.

            Not that I’m a scholar of that period or anything, but I do love to read anything that I come across.
            Another film that comes to mind is Chitralekha

            • “CGM shows quite a team of vishkanyas taking part in his scheme of dethroning Dhanand.

              Yum. That sounds thoroughly exciting! I have – in the distant future, somewhere – a plan for writing something along those lines. Now I know whom to turn to for inputs on research material! ;-)

              Hmm. Chitralekha is another film I’ve not seen for many, many years. I have only the faintest recollections of it.

              • Now I know whom to turn to for inputs on research material! ;-)

                No, as I said CGM has a lot of ‘fictitious’ stuff woven around points available from texts (what little there is available in material from accounts written by people from that period, like chanakya himself), and coming up with quite a delicious product.
                You are my guru in these things, DO. :-)

                • …points available from texts

                  See? And I don’t even know which texts, though you obviously have some idea, since you refer to them in your previous comment. In this case, you will be my guru, pacifist! :-)

                • >since you refer to them in your previous comment

                  No, no. That poison thing is not a quote. Just a juicy legend. :-D Yes there’s controversey regarding who wrote what, but that it is in written form must provide some clue.
                  My views (and random at that) are ‘only’ about films, serials etc. If it is mentioned that the people who made it referred to this text or that I accept it. Honestly speaking it doesn’t bother me. :-)

      • Am I getting confused between ‘historical’ and ‘period’?
        JA adaptationd would be ‘period’ I guess and the other historical fiction?

        • I am not sure… what would be the difference between ‘period’ and ‘historical’? I would think they’d be sort of synonymous, no? Unless one goes by the theory that since Jane Austen (as an example) wrote about what was contemporary for her, her works wouldn’t be ‘historicals’. On the other hand, since these films or TV series are being made now, I’d think they were historicals.

  6. Interesting discussion on ‘period’ and ‘historical’. I don’t think they are synonymous. A ‘period’ film can be purely or mostly fictional. ‘Historical’ has to have close relationship to some recognised period or events in history. Hindi films have this whole class of Raja Saheb/ Rani Sahiba films – King/Queens of what period or which dynasty? Where do you place them in history? Some of them can be given a dignified label of ‘period’ film. A ‘historical’ film would be necessarily ‘period’ film; but the reverse is not true.


    • Would that make Jane Austen adaptations historicals? The dates and who ruled England etc are very clear.
      Could one define period as only being set in a certain period without any connection with any historical event or character, like the Raja Rani films. They may not mention which dynasty, or king, but clearly they are set in a period of ‘kings’ (some small kingdom perhaps), but without connection to historical even or character.

      • I agree with your definition of ‘period’, pacifist. Something that can vaguely seem historic, but which isn’t actually attributed to any specific period in history. The raja-rani films and some of the 1950s-60s films set in ‘medieval Persia’ or ‘medieval Europe’ – they were, in many cases, just as flippant about reality as our film makers! :-)

    • ‘Historical’ has to have close relationship to some recognised period or events in history.

      I wouldn’t totally agree (as even pacifist mentions below), because there’s a lot of what is popularly known as ‘period’ fiction – notably, works of people like Jane Austen, Dickens, the Bronte sisters, etc, which are set in a very specific time period. They (with perhaps the exception of A Tale of Two Cities) may not refer to specific events or specific historical figures, but it’s unmistakably a historical period we’re talking about.

      On the other hand, I agree with your point about a lot of the raja-rani films looking historical, but not really being so. As a case in point, Kohinoor, which looks totally historical, but never alludes to any specific period (and in fact even has the occasional character speaking a word or two in English).

      This debate is going interesting ways…

  7. What a coincidence- I was just checking out Vivien Leigh’s costume as Cleopatra (which has long been one of my favorites) and then I come across your blog on historical films! I really love a good historical film- although I’ve heard that Argo not only defies the history, but also physics. You listed a lot of my favorites, and your pictures also showed a ton of them. Iron lady was very interesting- I learned a ton about Margaret Thatcher in that one. Jodhaa Akbar was also really good, along with Lagaan. There’s one historical movie based off a book of the same name, only more art history related, called The Girl with the Pearl Earring. The book is better, but the art history aspect is really interesting.

    • I was just discussing Argo yesterday with my niece, and telling her that I thought the one-line description of the film was far more interesting than the film itself. I guess I expected more from it; it ended up being a little too flat for my liking. :-(

      Iron Lady was interesting, I agree. And today I’m off to watch Jobs. Looks like every other film being released these days is about a real life event or a real life person!

      The Girl with the Pearl Earring happens to be one of my favourite paintings – a print of it hangs in my room at home. But I’ve never got around to seeing the film. Must do, because I love Vermeer’s work, and I love Colin Firth.

  8. I *love* this post… beautiful analysis! I have a feeling this is one I’ll be re-reading many, many times over (which is true of quite a few of your posts, actually).

  9. I think any discussion on historical films would inevitably, as it should, include the work of Sohrab Modi – http://youtu.be/LtAH4NruiKQ
    Here are some of his great films:
    Prithvi Vallabh – based on the novel by a great Gujarti Author – Kanhaiyalal M Munshi – http://youtu.be/wYpo0pDbxqs
    Sikandar – http://youtu.be/Cr8S5Wb3O-s
    Pukar – http://youtu.be/hRSEddrh7kc
    Rustam Sohrab
    Jhansi Ki Rani – http://youtu.be/71lutqtB1Mk
    Whilst on the subject, I also recall Aamir Khan starrer – Mangal Pandey – The Rising (the first of several parts on YT – http://youtu.be/S3LsEaGpaOo) or SanjyaKhan’s TV serial “Tipu Sultan’s Sword”.

    • Thank you! Someone else also recommended Pukar (though not so much Prithvi Vallabh), and I haven’t seen any of the other Sohrab Modi films you’ve recommended, either, so these recommendations are very welcome. Haven’t seen Mangal Pandey either, but I do remember liking The Sword of Tipu Sultan a lot – especially the initial episodes dealing with Hyder Ali. That was a good serial.

    • Ah, yes. I’ve seen both Bharat ek Khoj (was too young back then to appreciate it as much as I probably would now) and Tamas (which was mind-searingly good). Haven’t seen the others, but will look out for them.

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