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.
Which 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.
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).
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)
– 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).
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).
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
—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!
And, most important of all, which are your favourite historicals? I’d love some recommendations!