Oral and Visual History

2: Themes and subjects


The publication of Darwin's Origin of the Species (1859) had been preceded by several decades of fossil-hunting which had helped to undermine the traditional Biblical account of creation. Already, the Ancient Greek concept of an age of innocence had provided images of an earlier form of human existence at odds with the Garden of Eden story, images reinforced when Europeans first came into contact with 'noble savages' like the Australian Aborigines. Discoveries in the Neander Valley (1856) of remains belonging 'a ferocious, gorilla-like human being' half way between man and ape appeared to confirm Darwin's theories and resulted in an extraordinarily diverse range of reconstructions over the years, from hairy monster to noble savage. These continue to the present day, with Channel 4's Neanderthal (2001) and the BBC series Walking with Beasts (2002) which brought to life a much earlier stage in human evolution, that of Australopithecus. Both emphasised the human potential of their subjects although it was strongly suggested that the Neanderthals were of inferior intelligence to their modern human counterparts.

All these interpretations of prehistory were based on evidence and were scientific, at least in intention. Another kind of image making resulted from the remote possibility that we might one day come face to face with our ancestors, either in some 'lost world' on our own planet or on some other world discovered in the course of space travel (see 'Futures' below). In an echo of real life the ancestors often turn out to be nicer than we are, a theme taken up the bizarre Planet of the Apes (1973, re-make 2001). Here it is our nearest primate relatives that have emerged as the dominant species, treating their human slaves much as we have treated them. In James Gurney's beautifully illustrated Dinotopia books (1992 onwards; film version 2001) a much kinder vision is offered. In a landscape rich in archaeological detail, dinosaurs and men live side by side, their tranquil existence briefly disturbed by rogue humans who repay their trust with greed and ambition. At this point mention must be made of the Jurassic Park series of films (1992 onwards) for they have a similar, if more believable subject. However Steven Spielberg brings his dinosaurs very much into the modern world and there is no question of their acting in any way other than their biology suggests.

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Ancient Egypt

Ancient Egypt has not fared well in the hands of movie-makers. The Victorian history painters produced some exact and inspiring reconstructions, for example Israel in Egypt by Sir Edward Poynter (1864) and The Finding of Moses by Lawrence Alma Tadema (1904) but, as their titles suggest, it was Egypt's role in the Bible that interested the artists and this has mainly been its role in the cinema also. Egyptians are the villains in The Ten Commandments (1957), and jealous aggressors in Solomon and Sheba (1959); meanwhile generations of children grew up with images of whipped slaves hauling huge blocks of stone up endless ramps to the build monuments to the vanity of tyrannical rulers. The whips appear again in Land of the Pharaohs (1955), a first attempt to portray the Egyptian point of view and filmed in Egypt itself where excavations were conducted to make its settings more convincing. However film's credibility is undermined by the appearance of veteran British actors Jack Hawkins and James Robertson Justice in costumes they evidently found ridiculous, whilst Joan Collins is already into Dynasty mode with her villainous Princess Nelifer.

Better in some ways is The Egyptian (1956) based on a novel by the Polish writer Mika Waltari. Its subject is the so-called heretic pharaoh Akhenaten, widely believed at the time to be an almost Christ-like figure. In the decade following the Second World War its message of love and unity carried a powerful resonance, although modern research has found little trace of either in the remains of Akhenaten's creation, the city of Akhetaten (Amarna). Another product of Poland called Pharaoh (1966) accurately evokes the cloudless skies and fierce sun of the arid Egyptian landscape and its priests and soldiers look like they actually belong there. Its theme is a struggle for power between a young Egyptian prince and an obstinate hierarchy of priests with an iron grip on the nation's resources. Yet it too represents an interpretation of the relationship between temple and palace that owes more to European struggles between church and state. No such division appears to have existed in Ancient Egypt where the pharaoh was highest priest as well as absolute ruler.

None of these films offers much in the way of visual resources for teaching. For use in the classroom we need to turn to more recent productions: BBC's Pyramid (2002) and Channel 4's Ancient Egyptians (2003). In both cases the actors speak what sounds like authentic Egyptian whilst a narrator explains what is happening. In the case of Pyramid it is one of the workers, originally drafted as a young man, who subsequently spends his whole life engaged on what he understands as a religious duty. The slaves and the whips are gone in favour of an extraordinary sense of communal achievement - which is what graffiti found within the Great Pyramid actually suggest. In the second episode of the Channel 4 series it is tomb robbers rather than builders who are the focus, the script being based on a papyrus recording trials held during the reign of Ramesses IX (1131-1112 BC). A young thief called Amenpanufer, denounced to the authorities by corrupt associates, becomes a scapegoat for the actions of more powerful men. Although his grisly fate is fictional (the papyrus does not record the punishment of the condemned) the early scenes of tomb robbery can be compared with what the documents actually say in a valuable demonstration of the relationship between one and the other.

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Ancient Greece

Although the Greeks themselves have left us a superb artistic legacy, they have fared little better than the Ancient Egyptians in cinematic terms. Directors have been drawn more to Greek mythology than the events of Greek history. The Three Hundred Spartans (1962) records the heroic defence of the Pass of Thermopylae against the armies of Persia in 480 BC and there have been two films about Alexander the Great, the first starring Richard Burton (1955), the second an Irish actor called Colin Firth (2006), neither particularly successful. The difficulty lies with the ancient sources: what we have date from long after Alexander's death and none are completely trustworthy, even when they are based upon lost works by those who actually knew Alexander. Thus, for all his fame, we see Alexander 'through a glass darkly', a mass of contradictions who ultimately fell apart, leaving no successor. Burton, who had an alcohol problem himself, stresses this aspect of Alexander's decline; in the later film it is Alexander's possessive mother who warps his emotional life as she fights with Alexander's jealous father for the boy's affection. Naturally, at a time when homosexual relations between men were illegal, the Burton film avoids any emphasis on this aspect of Alexander's character; Colin Firth's Alexander has his Hephaestion but the film's treatment of the relationship still seems rather self-conscious and at odds with Firth's overall interpretation.

On the mythological side, Jason and the Argonauts (1963) had ground-breaking special effects, although the later version (2000) sticks closer to the legend. Clash of the Titans (1981) gives a prominent role to the gods who are wholly excluded from the blockbuster Troy (2004) leaving only Agamemnon's ambition and Paris' love for Helen as the cause of the war between the Greeks and Trojans. In one scene however, the film rises above its genre. When King Priam comes to Achilles' tent to seek the return of his son Hector's body, Peter O'Toole and Brad Pitt play out one of the greatest scenes in literature wholly in the spirit of the original text. At the end however, the emotional climax of the story is sacrificed when Paris and Helen escape from the burning city, presumably to live happily ever after.

In visual terms, how much do these films represent the real world of Ancient Greece? As noted in the Introduction the Greeks of the classical age (5th Century BC) dressed their heroes in armour and robes of their own time and film-makers have generally followed suit. More recently directors have used architectural settings derived from the palace of Knossos, closer in time to the mythological era (circa 1200 BC), creating an accidental mismatch between architecture and costumes. Nonetheless there seems to be a readily identifiable 'Greek-ness' in most of the films that can give children a starting point as they seek to identify the wider aspects of the culture.

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The Romans

Like the Egyptians the Romans have more often appeared as 'villains' on film than as heroes. In Ben Hur (silent version: 1922; re-make 1955), their cruelty is summed up in the character of the tribune Messala, whose ruthless attempt to destroy his one-time friend provides the film with much of its emotional charge. In Spartacus (1960) it is ruthlessness again that characterises the victorious general Crassus. Nor was the situation much improved in Gladiator (2000), where the more sympathetic characters - the old emperor Marcus Aurelius, his daughter, her son and the wise senator Gracchus - play out their parts against a background formed by the vicious appetite of the Colosseum crowd for blood. All these components had been anticipated in The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) of which Gladiator was essentially a re-make. In both films disaster is triggered by the accidental accession of the unstable Commodus, but in neither case does his death conform to the ancient sources, although these are dramatic enough.

To find an admirable Roman we have to go back to Quo Vadis (1952). Its hero is a rather stiff-necked army commander called Marcus Vinicius, who finds himself gradually converted to the gentler ways of the Christians, partly in repugnance to the absurd tyranny of Nero, played with real relish by an unforgettable Peter Ustinov. It appears that to be a hero a Roman has to stop being Roman, a message also put across in the Robe (1953) where the leading character is the centurion who was in charge of Christ's crucifixion. The robe of the title is the one worn by Christ when he was hailed by the soldiers as king of the Jews and mocked with a crown of thorns and a sceptre of reeds. Its miracle-working powers convert all those who come into contact with it, including the centurion, again played by Richard Burton. In other films based upon Christ's life, most notably King of Kings (1961), Zefirelli's Jesus of Nazareth (1977) and Mel Gibson's searing Passion of Christ (2006), the Romans appear at best as weary policemen trying hard to keep irreconcilable factions apart - with obvious contemporary parallels in Bosnia, Northern Ireland, Palestine and Iraq.

What about the visual aspects? For the Roman army we have the visual encyclopaedia provided by Trajan's Column, referred to above. Here we see the imperial army of the 2nd century AD engaged in every aspect of a campaign, although - after years of hard fighting - armour was probably battered and so were the men, as the first sequence in Gladiator shows. If we want to know what Ancient Rome itself looked like, the triumphant entry of Commodus into the city which begins the second half of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire provides by far the most accurate impression of the imperial capital in its heyday, but the best all round treatment of the Romans on television is probably provided by two BBC 'docu-dramas', Pompeii and Colosseum (2003), the latter a moving account of the only recorded fight between two gladiators and much better in its limited way than the fictionalised Gladiator.

Finally no account of the Romans in the movies can be complete without reference to Rome (2006-7). Whilst this series presents a very believable portrait of Roman society with many visual references based on archaeology, its exaggerated violence and sexuality make it virtually useless as a resource for teaching and learning. In Lucius Vorenus we have an old-fashioned soldier trying hard to maintain the values he was brought up with in a world where they are treated with contempt by rulers and ruled alike, whilst Titus Pullo represents the rank and file of the legions - in the army for what they can get and loyal only to their comrades. As we have absolutely no idea whether this was how legionaries actually thought, Pullo's behaviour is largely based on modern parallels. The evidence of the Vindolanda tablets (see below) gives us little clue to the attitudes of the individuals it represents. What is certain is that living in the kind of world depicted by Rome would have been a very depressing experience.

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Saxons, Vikings and 'King' Arthur

The era which used to be known as the 'Dark Ages' in British history - from the 5th to the 10th centuries AD - has proved an attractive one for film-makers. Not only is it the assumed location of the historical 'King' Arthur but also those attractive enemies of civilisation called the Vikings.

If there was an historical Arthur he was probably a leader who emerged following the abandonment of Britain by the Roman imperial administration following the sack of Rome itself in 410 AD. The succeeding century has been called an age of 'tyrants'- regional warlords who fought for control of territory whilst towns and villas were abandoned and ancient hillforts re-fortified. According to legend, one of these warlords called Vortigern brought in Saxon mercenaries to help him defeat his rivals, some of whom chose to stay in Britain. Before long there seems to have been a steady flow of such immigrants who gradually took over large parts of what became England, though their numbers are still disputed. It was not an uncontested transformation. Surviving members of the Romano-British elite seem to have fought back, using cavalry against the Saxon foot-soldiers. A great victory at an unidentified site called the 'Hill of Badon' was afterwards associated with 'Arthur' who thus became the symbol of British resistance and a hero whose deeds were recounted by generation after generation of bards and poets. They must already have been widely known, at least in the west country, when they were woven into his 'History of the Kings of Britain' by an 11th century monk called Geoffrey of Monmouth. Much of what Geoffrey wrote was fantasy but its ingredients - Arthur's miraculous birth, his emergence as rightful king and establishment of a Round Table - inspired the emerging knightly class of medieval Europe and have gone on inspiring the high minded ever since.

Unfortunately for the history teacher almost all the films made about Arthur place him fairly and squarely in the age of chivalry, somewhere between 1250 and 1400 when the invention of canon spoiled the knightly game. These films include Excalibur (1981), really a Victorian painting come to life, and First Knight (1995). None has much claim to historical accuracy. Further back in time Sir Lancelot had his own television series to rival that of Robin Hood (1956). This tactfully ignored its hero's love affair with Queen Guinevere which led to the break up of the Round Table and the death of King Arthur.

The most recent treatments of the Arthur theme - King Arthur (2004), Tristan and Isolde (2006) and a two part adaptation made for television called Merlin (1998) explore the traditional stories in different ways. The first makes Arthur a late Roman commander defending Hadrian's Wall. The traditional knights appear as Sarmatian cavalrymen, handed over as children to be trained as mercenaries in the Roman army. It has been claimed to be the most authentic setting for the Arthur story yet, but it suffers from major chronological inconsistencies, not least the role given to the pope as head of the government in Rome. Tristan and Isolde fails for the same reason: the story is essentially a medieval one which transposes awkwardly into an era when there were neither knights or 'ladies'. Merlin takes us back to Geoffrey of Monmouth and the 'Celtic' roots of the Arthur legend, reintroducing Arthur's evil sister Morgana who seems to embody a nameless dark force, out to destroy any attempt to bring light or order to the world.

The same 'dark force', represented by the all-seeing eye of Sauron, is of course a major theme of Lord of the Rings (2001-4). Psychologists might identify it with that part of human nature which is animal in origin, giving us energy and emotion yet ever seeking to overthrow the boundaries we set for it. The author of Lord of the Rings, J R R Tolkien, based his story on the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf where the dark side is personified as the creature 'outside' - the 'death shadow', Grendel. Beowulf too has recently been made into a film (2008) with mixed reviews. Few who know the original seem to like it.

Saxons and Vikings have a lot in common, as teachers who have tried to explain the difference know. In the film The Vikings (1958) we have a classic confrontation between 'real men' (the Vikings) and those whom cowardice has made cruel (the Saxons, with the honourable exception of Tony Curtis - who then turns out to be a Viking after all). Again we have a merging of periods. The Saxons fortify themselves in a stone castle of 13th century vintage whilst their enemies attack in 9th century longboats. The film ends with what many people believe is a typical Viking funeral although there is no evidence that dead warriors were sent out to sea in burning ships. Like horned helmets the 'Viking funeral' seems to be a Hollywood invention.

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The Middle Ages

Although there's really no historical justification for doing so it's convenient to take 1066 at the beginning of the Middle Ages in Britain. In The Warlord (1965) Charlton Heston plays an impoverished Norman knight sent by William the Conqueror to hold minor fortress on the edge of his domains. Rarely seen it has the merit of appealing on a number of levels. There is plenty of action but the central theme is the power of love which can make a man forget his duty and bring ruin to his house. Love of a kind was the theme in the two films Peter O'Toole made about the life of William's great-grandson Henry II - Becket (1964) and the Lion in Winter (1968). In the first it is the younger Henry's affection for Becket, a close friend, which turns to hatred when that friend prefers God. In the second it is dying embers of the great passion which once existed between Henry and his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine. The Lion in Winter was filmed in authentic locations and has an earthy realistic feel (Henry breaking the ice on the water in which he washes his face in the morning is a good example) but both films were based on stage plays and it is the words rather than images that are important.

At a time the relationships between Islam and the West is, to say the least, a sensitive subject, it was brave of director Ridley Scott to take the period of the Crusades for his follow-up to Gladiator, namely Kingdom of Heaven.(2005). Orlando Bloom lacks conviction in the central role and the film's real hero is the noble and wise Saladin who only breaks his truce with the Christians when his sister is apparently raped and murdered. In fact all the evil in the film is seen to proceed from the actions of lesser men, making Bloom's defence of Jerusalem at the end rather pointless. Visually the film is frustrating: Jerusalem is hugely out of scale - testimony to the imagination of the CGI artists rather than the actual topography of the Holy City, a fault already noted in the earlier epic.

It can be argued that Kingdom of Heaven is not about the Crusades at all but about current attempts to secure peace in the Middle East. A similar claim can be made in the case of Braveheart (1995) which has little connection with the time in which it set other than the names of its main characters. Its storyline is based on a long poem about Wallace written two hundred years after his death by a minstrel who calls himself 'Blind Harry', but it does not stick very closely even to this source. There are no historical warrants for the wearing of face-paint or kilts in Wallace's time whilst the English and Scottish nobles are portrayed as laughable, treacherous or faint-hearted in order to make Wallace' honesty and courage seem more exceptional. Events like the Battle of Stirling Bridge (1297) are largely fictionalised - where for example, is the narrow bridge which the English knights rashly crossed, delivering themselves into a trap from which they could not escape? What Braveheart is really about is the resurgence of Scottish nationalism in the early 1990's following Margaret Thatcher's introduction of the hated Poll Tax (1989). Some people believe that without Braveheart there would never have been a Scottish Parliament.

Can either film be used as a visual resource? The principal point of reference has to be the Luttrell Psalter (circa 1320) which provides a comprehensive picture of the pre-industrial world of the early 14th century. There's some indication that the designers of Braveheart made use of it but little evidence of depth in either film. Neither is really a portrait of a society that would have worked, let alone one capable of building the great cathedrals and castles which are its principal monuments. For a really good film about the Middle Ages we have to turn to Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957), not because it is more visually accurate but because it is far closer to the psychology of the time than the 'never-never land' inhabited by Mel Gibson's Wallace or Ridley Scott's Balian.

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The Tudors

There is no more popular period of history with children and their parents than the Tudors. We have already noted some the many impersonations of Henry VIII, to which must be added two versions of Philippa Gregory's novel The Other Boleyn Girl, that made for television getting much better reviews than that made for film. Visually one characteristic predominates in these more recent treatments - a tendency to dispense with historical accuracy in terms of costume and setting in favour of what could almost be described as Tudor chic. Both men and women dress in clothes that are modern in cut and material, allowing them to move in ways that are distinctly modern. They speak in 21st century language too. They are in fact ourselves in fancy dress, allowing the audience the best of both worlds - a past which is different and a past which is the same, albeit more dangerous.

After Henry VIII most frequently impersonated Tudor has been his daughter Elizabeth I. She varies from matronly and imperious - Flora Robson in Fire over England (1936), a patriotic film made as the threat of another world war approached - to flirtatious and frustrated in Kate Blanchet's two memorable but horribly inaccurate Elizabeth films (1998 and 2008). For many people Glenda Jackson created the definitive Elizabeth in her 1971 television series, replaying it for the cinema opposite Vanessa Redgrave's Mary Queen of Scots a year or two later. This, like so many other attempts to portray the relationship between the two, suffers from the inevitable fictional meeting when what is important historically is that the two never met. Had they done so, nothing on earth would have persuaded Elizabeth to sanction Mary's execution, the most difficult decision of her life. For its depth of characterisation however there has been nothing in recent years to rival Helen Mirren's Elizabeth, broadcast on Channel 4 in 2005, with its serious attempts to re-create the geography of the palace of Whitehall from contemporary sources. Here at last is a sense of the real environment within which the dramas of Tudor politics took place. Council chamber, privy gallery, and royal apartments are all within shouting distance of one another yet all are enclosed within a warren of corridors and lodgings that echo in their proximity the claustrophobic atmosphere of the court.

Perhaps because the National Curriculum in the UK tends to ignore them the Stuarts have been long out of fashion with film-makers. Alec Guinness caught a sense of the combined obstinacy and weakness that characterised Charles I but Richard Harris was miscast as the future Lord Protector in Cromwell (1970) although Cromwell is not the 'cartoon baddie' which he appears to be in To Kill a King (2003). In both films the issues are simplified and the minor characters wooden or unbelievable. A particular example in Cromwell is Charles' chief minister Strafford - who could have feared 'Back Tom the Tyrant' if he was really the bumbling idiot portrayed in the film? Men such as Strafford and Cromwell deserve better. Perhaps there should be an independent commission charged with defending people in history from this kind of misrepresentation? It could free James I of the manipulative sadism displayed by Robert Carlyle in Gunpowder, Treason and Plot (2004) although Paul Nichol's portrayal of James' father, the handsome, vicious Darnley, in the same series may be nearer the truth; a pity therefore that Mary Queen of Scots was played by a short blonde actress when she was tall and her hair was brown.

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The period in between

The Georgian period in England (effectively the whole of the 18th century) belongs to the highwaymen and the sailors. Plunkett and Macleane (1999) gave us two 'gentlemen of the road' in Dick Turpin mode whilst Turpin himself appeared in a television series made in 1979, still admired by its many fans. Of the sailors C S Forester's Hornblower first came to the screen in 1951 but the television series starring Ioann Grufydd (2003) is exceptionally good both as drama and history. From an earlier generation, HMS Defiant (1969) still has value as a classic portrayal of life on board a ship of Nelson's navy, which is also true of Master and Commander (2003) . Meanwhile there are three fine versions of Mutiny on the Bounty to compare (1935 - Charles Laughton; 1962 - Richard Harris; and 1984 - Mel Gibson). Less serious is the film version of Henry Fielding's picaresque novel Tom Jones (1963) - 'a man born to be hanged' - which somehow conveys the innocent jollity of the decade in which it was made as well as the time when it is set. The tone of Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders (1996) is somehow darker though Moll is equally likeable and more successful.

To a consideration of this period we should add the Sharpe series made for independent television (1992). Sharpe is a soldier's soldier, though not so ruthless on screen as he is in the novels by Bernard Cornwell. Cornwell's research and sense of period are impeccable but the television programmes suffer from a certain lack of resource. Prior to the advent of CGI only the makers of Waterloo (1970) could afford the number of extras needed to bring really colossal battles to the screen. Sharpe has to make do with a couple of hundred and at times this stretches credibility. When the action is small in scale however Sean Bean is un-rivalled as the hard man with an eye for the ladies.

Bridging the transition from the easy manners and smart uniforms of the Regency period to the more serious and sober world of the Victorians, the novels of Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters have achieved a cult status on cinema and television over the years. The rightly celebrated BBC serialisation of Pride and Prejudice (1995) made Colin Firth's reputation as an actor and heart-throb, whilst Lawrence Olivier's Heathcliffe in the 1939 version of Wuthering Heights did much the same for him. The novel which has achieved most re-makes however is probably Jane Eyre: there are versions dating from 1944, 1970, 1973, 1983, 1996 and 2006: a whole Media Studies course could be based on them although their use as history is very limited. Of more value is Mrs Gaskell's North and South, made into a television serial by the BBC in 2004. The shots which show the interior of a Manchester cotton mill with cotton dust floating about like snow are an excellent way to bring the reality of the Industrial Revolution to life.

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The Victorians

Almost all of us have our first introduction to Victorian Britain through the novels of Charles Dickens. For many years Scrooge has been standard fare at Christmas, whilst there are almost as many versions of Oliver Twist as there are of Jane Eyre, with four coming out since the year 2000. If you want to introduce children to the look and feel of Victorian London, the early scenes from the 2005 version with Elijah Wood as the Artful Dodger are probably the best, though the boys and girls will only see Frodo Baggins in a top hat. A Tale of Two Cities (1958) is of course the classic introduction to the French Revolution, complete with Dirk Bogarde's noble rendering of 'tis a far, far better thing I do now than I have ever done', although these are not actually spoken by the hero in the book. More fun is Richard E Grant's ultra-smooth Scarlet Pimpernel (1999) using un-spoilt locations in the Czech Republic to stand in for Paris and the French countryside.

Away from Dickens we have a clutch of films that feature the courage and gallantry of the Queen Victoria's army, the 'thin red line'. The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) is a re-make of a celebrated pre-war version (1936) whilst Zulu (1964) is another staple of Christmas-time viewing. From the point of view of the history teacher however, its prequel, Zulu Dawn (1979) offers a painfully exact re-creation of the Battle of Isandlwahna (1879), the disaster that led to the siege featured in the better known film. The British in India are the subject of Gunga Din (1939) and The Man who would be King (1975) both films based on works by Kipling, the former still preserving the paternalistic attitude that characterised the Raj at its best and worst.

Queen Victoria herself features in a number of films. Sixty Glorious Years (1944) seems very dated now and ends with the misleading impression that Edward VII was present at his mother's deathbed when in fact she died in the arms of her eldest grandson, Kaiser Wilhelm II, an inconvenient fact when Britain was again at war with Germany. Victoria and Albert (2001) gives Albert's side of the story of the marriage, whilst Mrs Brown (1997) deals with its sequel. Again there are 'improvements' to history. Victoria did not visit her faithful servant in his final days or feed him his broth. She was in fact elsewhere when he was taken ill and died, although there is no doubt of her affection for him. Billy Connolly's performance came as a real surprise to those who only knew him as a comedian but one wonders what the real Mr Brown would have thought of the film or his impersonator.

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The Twentieth Century

With the advent of the modern world, we are no longer dealing with the re-creation of history but with the recording of it on film, as it happened. The films made by travelling entertainers Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon in the early 1900s bring the 'lost' world of the Edwardians to life (compilation, 2004) whilst World War 1 in Colour (2003) is the most accessible anthology of images of the Great War. For the succeeding decades there are a series of attractive compilations issued under the Prism label (2003) of which Britain in the 1930s and Britain in the 40s are most likely to be useful to the primary school teacher. Colour has been added to the First World War films but Britain at War in Colour (2000) uses authentic colour footage to banish the impression that grim times also looked grim.

On the fiction side some films stand out as milestones in the history of the 20th century culture, even though they may represent earlier events. Set in the era of the American Civil War (1861-5) Gone with the Wind (1939) must be one of these, creating as it did an image of masculinity in Colonel Rhett Butler (Clarke Gable) which millions of men aspired to in the generation that preceded World War Two. Rebel without a Cause (1955) had an equal if not greater influence on the generation growing up afterwards. In his cowboy jeans and iconic red leather jacket its star, James Dean, represented the American dream gone sour - even more so when he was killed, aged 24, in a car accident that seemed to mimic the game of 'chicken' played by the teenagers in the film.

Young women had widely differing role models. Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh) bullies almost everyone around her in Gone with the Wind, though in the end she loses the one thing she wants. Rebecca, the unseen heroine of Alfred Hitchcock's film of Daphne Du Maurier's iconic novel of the same name (1940) dominates the action from beyond the grave, contriving her own death in such a way as to ruin her husband. These are strong personalities. In the 50s women seemed more vulnerable. The most famous screen idol, Marilyn Monroe, lived out a life on screen in Some Like it Hot (1959) that her real life with its tragic ending came to resemble.

Meanwhile, the century's dominant theme of conflict has evoked many kinds of response. As we have seen All Quiet on the Western Front represents a pacifist reaction to the horrors of the trenches similar to that which inspired the League of Nations. 'Let the generals fight it out in a field in their underpants' says one character, 'and let the rest of us poor bastards get on with our lives in peace.' The Second World War classic The Cruel Sea (1953) is more neutral. When Jack Hawkins' character is forced to drop depth charges where there are men waiting to be rescued the film adopts a 'war is hell' attitude, neither condemning or approving his action. The Americans were much more 'gung-ho' with John Wayne leading the charge in The Sands of IwoJima (1949). Its theme is the way in which extreme situations create deep bonds between those who experience them, a theme taken up again and again over the years, up to and including Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Band of Brothers (2001). However, no conflict generated such divided views as that in Vietnam (1963-1975). On the one hand we have the Green Berets (1968) - John Wayne battling it out again - on the other films such as Platoon (1984) and Forrest Gump (1994) What is common to all these films is the moral confusion that war can generate - ennobling some whilst making savages of others, reducing some men to animals but redeeming others, as in To End All Wars (2001). This, like the much more famous Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) deals with the experiences of British POWs in the hands of the Japanese and is based upon a true story - although there would be no mistaking the difference in date between the two films. Actors like Alec Guinness had experienced the Second World War at first hand. It is not only cinematic techniques that have changed but actors too.

The Cold War (1945-1990) of course was fought by other means. Whatever their merits as films the Bond movies are genuine cultural artefacts. Bond's evolution from the ultra-smooth dinner-jacketed Sean Connery to the altogether more physical and much less tidy Daniel Craig charts the many changes in society that have occurred in the meantime. We have already noted the effects of 'political correctness' on the characters who figure in the Robin Hood legends. They are to be seen again in King Arthur (2004) where 'Guinevere' wields a bow and hacks away with a sword as energetically as any knight. No-one would deny the crucial role played by women like Cleopatra, Eleanor of Aquitaine or Elizabeth I, but we must remember that part of what makes history history is the different ways in which people behave - which includes gender specific behaviour. For the greater part of recorded time men have played the dominant role politically whilst women have appeared to be 'the weaker vessel'. History cannot be re-written and still be history.

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Visions of the Future

No such restrictions apply to the Future. H G Wells' The Shape of Things to Come (1935) is laughably mannered in its acting but extraordinarily prescient in its story-line and special effects. If you want to know what the 1930s thought 2030 would look like, this is the film. At the end it asks a fundamental question about the destiny of the human race: are we to remain mouse-like creatures living out a mean existence confined to our insignificant planet or seek a greater destiny in the infinite vastness of the universe: 'which shall it be?'

Many visions of the future imagine the day after tomorrow, when some natural disaster or catastrophic war has transformed society, in the case of Logan's Run (1976) into what seems a new Garden of Eden, inhabited only by young people. Yet an evil secret lies at the heart of this paradise: what is promised to be a process of renewal is actually a process of execution. No-one is in fact reborn and anyone who tries to escape is liquidated without trace.

An evil secret lies at the heart of the Matrix (1999) too, a film about the relationship between mind and body, rather spoiled by inferior sequels. We live in our heads the film says, so can be controlled there through a world of piped-in illusion, only a shade more total than the drug-induced holidays enjoyed by the inhabitants of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932). No such pleasures were available, even to the privileged, in the squalid world of 1984 (1948), though once again there is an attempt to fool a cowed population into believing that things are better than they are. John Hurt brought George Orwell's flawed 'hero' Winston to the screen, appropriately in the year 1984 itself, in a chilling adaptation with Richard Burton as O'Brien. 'Does Big Brother exist?' asks the wretched Winston of his torturer, 'in the sense that I exist?' 'You do not exist,' says O'Brien and by the end of the film he doesn't in any meaningful sense as his mind has been destroyed.

It was H G Wells of course, who invented the concept of time travel in The Time Machine (1895) of which there are two versions on film (1960 and 2002). Time travel allows us to do what in reality we can never do i.e, visit the past in person. It also allows us to invent new kinds of society, a freedom which Gene Rodenberry exploited to the full in Star Trek. The episode called The Cloud Minders (1969) is actually based on Aristotle's Politics. Elevated above contaminated jungles where 'sub-humans' labour to create its wealth, the cloud city of Stratos allows its fortunate citizens to lead lives dedicated to scholarship and the arts. Naturally this seems wholly unjust to the officers of the starship Enterprise, though Kirk and Spok leave without resolving the social divisions whose basis they have undermined. Other so-called perfect worlds are shown to be equally flawed, the overall message of the series seeming to be one which William Blake (1757-1827) put in a nutshell more than two centuries ago: 'whenever we try to become more than Man we become less.'

Star Trek remains renowned for its very modest special effects. Only the later films had a budget equal to the grandeur of their themes, following the ground-breaking 2001 - A Space Odyssey (1968) and the Star Wars trilogy (1977 onwards). Prior to these however, remarkable illusions had been created in the cult movie Forbidden Planet (1956), loosely based on Shakespeare's The Tempest. Here too, the theme is the relationship between mind and body, a great civilisation having been destroyed by the monsters it had itself created from its own subconscious.

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