What's past isn't prologue these days, it's dialogue.
In fact, a mini-boomlet for the spring and summer has been your old friend from the '40s and '50s, the costume picture, set in a gaily imagined yesterdayland. Already we've had "Rob Roy" and "Braveheart," both transpiring in Scotland 400 and 700 years ago, and the Disney animated feature "Pocahontas," which has just opened, set in Colonial Virginia 400 years ago. And "First Knight" is set to open shortly, another visit to the fabled but authentic Camelot.
The three films that have already opened bear certain clinical similarities. All, of course, claim some minor contact with actual history: a William Wallace, Scottish nobleman and genius general, did in fact exist before Mel Gibson got around to impersonating him behind a half-blue face; a Rob Roy MacGregor, Scottish cattle thief and rebel, did indeed bedevil English forces in the Highlands at the turn of the 18th century, though his true publicity agent was Sir Walter Scott, who used him as the centerpiece of a stirring novel in the next century. And in 1605, an Indian princess did put her head over an English captive's and prevent his brains from being turned into cottage cheese. Her name was Pocahontas; his name was John Smith. I doubt, however, that she looked so much like Tia Carrere as the Disney movie has it, and I doubt he looked so much like Fabio.
All, furthermore, conform to a conceit of history, somewhat out of date or at least under fire but beloved of popular culture, which might be called the Great Man theory. It argues that the heroic individual is capable of dominating an era far more than abstract economic or political forces. The Gibson picture is particularly insistent on this issue, watching as a "common man" discovers a motivation and then his own genius for warfare and essentially leads a rebellion that rocks an empire. "Rob Roy" works on a smaller scale, but pushes the same idea; "Pocahontas" isn't about military leadership but moral leadership, in which, by example, the purity of the Indian princess prevents war and instructs the men of both red and white tribes in a gentler way of being.
The movies together raise interesting points: Who owns the past? What freedoms do artists have in re-interpreting it by the lights of their own time? Was Orwell right in "1984" when he noted that Big Brother's first principle of tyranny was "Who controls the past controls the future"? And, I suppose finally, does anybody care?
Not many have cared over the course of time. Traditionally, in American film culture, we've sat back with a complacent smile as moviemakers have mangled history and turned it into mass-cult Pablum. Look more carefully, however, and you'll see that, fundamentally, two theories of the past have squabbled on screen, the romantic and the revisionist. These two exist at the far ends of the spectrum of remembrance, and to a large degree, they still control the films we see today.
In the beginning . . .
The romantic, of course, is the traditional costume drama set in a pristine past, where the peasants are merry, the nobles witty, the women beautiful and the swordplay well-choreographed. Everybody's clean, centuries before running water. The fundamental realities of weather, sanitation and biology are avoided like the plague, which is also avoided. Only in its glorified unreality could a fabulous creature like Errol Flynn come to exist, with his dapper little mustache, his acrobaticism, his utter charm and his debonair suavity. Flynn, cavalier, boulevardier, '30s swordsman in every way, is the consummate phony movie image of the past, standing for a whole school -- Tony Curtis, Cornel Wilde, Stewart Granger were among the many to follow in the swashbuckler's footsteps -- that saw the foreign country of the past as a theme park.
Alfred Hitchcock is reported to have said of such films that he could never make a movie like that, because he could never imagine the characters in those fancy outfits going to the bathroom. But in the revisionist films, one could imagine everybody going to the bathroom, all the time, and usually in the street.
It's hard to date a beginning, but the first film that was entirely devoted to a revisionist vision of the past had to be Tony Richardson's wonderful "Tom Jones" of 1963. Its view of yesteryear was radically different from the satin plush offerings of Hollywood: It saw the 18th century as a bloody, muddy, licentious sewer, full of toothless crones, filth, flies, wanton women with their breasts hanging out, savagery, corpses and the like (derived, one suspects, from English engravings of the time by Thomas Hogarth).
The revisionist past held sway in a number of films that followed, most notably the delirious "Three" and "Four Musketeers" films of the '70s by Richard Lester, which shared with the Richardson masterpiece the sense of the past as a dirty, dangerous, ugly place. In American films, this revisionism crept into our own unique subset of the historical drama, the western, in such films as "Dirty Little Billy," with Michael J. Pollard as a particularly loathsome, filthy Billy the Kid, and Sam Peckinpah's great "The Wild Bunch," which went to great lengths to demythologize the West and play up the squalor, degeneracy and violence of the romanticized era.
As it turns out, "Braveheart," "Rob Roy" and "Pocahontas" have subtly different interpretations of the past, and each occupies a unique niche on the romance-revision spectrum.
"Rob Roy," to move chronologically by their release rather than their historical antecedents, is the most revisionist of the three in terms of physical production but the most romantic in terms of story ideas. Its early-18th-century Scotland was indeed a beautiful place, but director Michael Caton-Jones made no attempt to romanticize the daily living conditions (early in the film, an elemental answer is given to the 8-year-old male's most eternal historical question: How do you go to the bathroom in a castle?). In "Rob Roy," rural life is hard, cold, dirty; violence is total and usually fatal; the land is ruled by coldly calculating great men; and only the natural nobility of Rob keeps the MacGregor clan from going under.
At its corniest, "Rob Roy" comes on a little like Nazi calendar art, what with Liam Neeson as Rob and Jessica Lange as his wife occupying a Highland life of utter blond purity with their two cavorting blond children, making hay amid the buttercups overlooking the lochs. For just a bit, the film seems to have been directed by Leni Riefenstahl, a little unsettling in the way it associates "lightness" with agrarian freedom and moral purity and "darkness" with aristocratic corruption and violence.
Alas, the reality is possibly more prosaic. In many accounts, Rob is far from a freedom fighter but more a professional cattle thief and gangster, selling "protection" to those who could afford it and stealing from those who couldn't. He lived by playing the Dukes of Montrose and Argyll off against each other and seemed to support a number of causes until the going got tough, when he backed out of them; he spent much time in prison. Rob Roy sounds a lot more like Robert De Niro as Al Capone than he does like Robin Hood.
A bloody mess
"Braveheart" is a curious amalgamation; it wants it both ways, and how. The true tension in the movie isn't the struggle between English kings and Scottish warriors but between romantic and revisionist theories. The movie labors mightily to create a believable medieval world and is particularly good at creating an elemental world made of mud -- it is, by the way, far less picturesque a film than "Rob Roy," with largely undistinguished landscapes and, appropriate to its earlier time frame, a sense of a far more impermanent world, in which most structures appear only a strong wind away from collapse.
It's also a far more violent world. In fact, "Braveheart" shines as a battle cry of freedom, and its sense of iron-age combat is particularly gripping. You may not like watching what happens when 18-pound double-handed Claymore swords are applied to the human neck, but nevertheless, Gibson (who also directed) gives it to you. Messy, messy. The two battles that form the core of "Braveheart" -- Stirling Castle, where Wallace triumphed over the English in 1297, and Falkirk, in 1298, where they triumphed over him -- are portrayed as wild, bloody whirligigs, a welter of hacking and lunging, where the ripe bodies are left on the ground to rot.
Moreover, the film conveys the sense of the physical labor of battle, how it was about stamina as much as courage.
But in its gentler passages, "Braveheart" beats a hasty retreat to the conventional pieties of old-fashioned historical romance. There's a fairy-tale quality to Wallace's relationship with Murron (Catherine McCormack), whose death at the hands of the English inspires his rebellion. It's not merely visual -- she remains untouched by the ever-present mud, and when she's stabbed, she doesn't bleed -- but also conceptual: The relationship is expressed as so "pure" it needn't be sullied with actual dialogue. In other words, it needn't exist at all. She's not a character in reality, she's a movie symbol.
I can find no record that such a person ever existed, though to be fair, Wallace's motives are open to interpretation: We first hear of him in 1297, when he sacked and burned the British outpost of Lanark. Possibly he did that to avenge the murder of his girlfriend, but he could have done it just as easily to avoid paying tribute or because he was having a bad hair day or because he couldn't find any blue earrings to match his half-blue face. But the film moves even further afield in its pop passions: It contends that Wallace cohabited with Isabella (Sophie Marceau), frustrated French wife of the gay Edward II, and that the English kings are therefore descended from Wallace. I could believe that of Mel Gibson, of course, as I could believe it of Errol Flynn -- but not of William Wallace!
The historical Wallace was far more complex. There's no record, furthermore, that he was common-born and rose from anonymity like Spartacus, as Gibson would have it. He was well-born, clearly a military genius who consistently outfought and outsmarted larger forces, and had a jolly good run, taking refuge in Madrid and possibly Rome before his eventual execution in London in 1305.
A pretty picture
Although its values are the most sublimely New Age, "Pocahontas" is the most conventional, old-fashioned historical film of the three. Indeed, the fact that it is animated appears to consign it to a more idealized realm than a live-action picture, which has a richer potential for detail -- but even by Disney standards, this film is set in a Never Was Land.
With its brilliant colors and utter dramatic simplicity, it reminds one more of "Peter Pan" than any other Disney film; or rather, "Peter Pan" as infused with state-of-the-art, laser-controlled, computer-guided political correctness. Of the three films, it's clearly the most ridiculous historically.
To begin with, as a recent piece in the New Republic points out, colonial Virginia was unspeakably violent and squalid, and the war between whites and American Indians as mean-spirited as anything that happened in the West. (The film does offer a necessary corrective to one myth, however, the myth we Easterners cherish, which holds that Indian Country began at the Mississippi. It began at the Atlantic seacoast, and we are living smack dab in the middle of it!)
Pocahontas certainly didn't resemble the babe of the Disney creation, who appears to be wearing a Wonderbra beneath her recently dry-cleaned buckskins. Among other things, she was 11 or 12 when she saved John Smith. That story, at least, does appear to be truthful, as it was frequent among Virginia tribes for maidens to request that doomed prisoners be spared to provide them with husbands. But Pocahontas never became John Smith's -- yes, I'll say it! -- girlfriend! Rather, she was eventually taken prisoner by the English and held as a hostage (as I say, lovely times); she converted to Christianity (rechristened Rebecca) and married an Englishman named John Rolfe. Her son became a tobacco millionaire, and if you're dying of lung cancer as you read this, you can thank her for your agony. (Hmmm, surprise, surprise, this isn't covered in Disney.)
But regardless of its technical inaccuracy, everything in "Pocahontas" is imagined with the mind-set of a '50s historical epic. That's what gives it its utter banality, its sense of complete isolation from reality. It's a big, beautiful, gaudy, lustrous lie. It should star John Agar and Virginia Mayo.