Bette Davis plays Elizabeth to Errol Flynn's Essex
It doesn't matter if films play fast and loose with historical facts. What matters is to convey the spirit of the age - and its players.
A POINT OF VIEW
By Lisa Jardine
Is the urge to recover the inner life of great figures from the past a purely modern tendency?
I certainly find myself reflecting regularly upon how the author of a work I am reading might have felt at the time he or she was writing. The merest trace of emotion in a long-unread letter or a marginal note in a book produces a surge of excitement as I try to reconstruct their original state of mind.
Here's one that happened to me this week. Among the treasures to be found in the Library of the Royal Society in London, where I currently work, is a handwritten copy of Sir Isaac Newton's groundbreaking work, the Principia, with Newton's own marginal corrections, along with his additional calculations and further annotations added on facing pages.
This thirst for the real-life sentiments of the person behind the celebrity makes me a fan of Hollywood movies about English history
In the Principia - or to give it its full name in English, the Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy - Newton brilliantly laid out in mathematical terms the principles of time, force and motion that have underpinned developments in the modern physical sciences ever since, at least until Einstein's theory of relativity further refined the picture.
It's a work of mathematical and conceptual virtuosity which, however, reveals little about the man behind the ideas.
Last Monday, however, as I was leafing through the Royal Society's manuscript Principia I noticed for the first time a doodle by Newton in the section on "the motion of bodies in moveable orbits". Upside down on a blank page he had scribbled in English, "James the 2d by the grease [grace] of god King of ..."
My heart leapt when I saw it. What had been Newton's state of mind as he wrote those words? He was correcting his manuscript less than a year after the unexpected death of Charles II from complications brought on by a stroke, and the hasty coronation of his brother James II.
Newton, like many of his devoutly Protestant contemporaries, deeply disapproved of James's Catholic beliefs and practices, yet the Principia, when published in 1687, would carry a title page celebration of him as reigning monarch.
Might I have discovered evidence that the great mathematician was worrying about his future and the future of his country, as he wrestled with the final details of his three laws of motion, and perfected the theory of gravitational attraction?
Alas, comb the pages as I might, there was no further clue to be found anywhere else in the volume. Nor did contemporary letters from Newton to his devoted editor Edmund Halley, also preserved in the Royal Society strong room, shed any further light on the matter. As is so often the case, the paper trail of historical evidence simply ran out.
It must be this thirst for the real-life sentiments of the person behind the celebrity that makes me a serious fan of romantic Hollywood movies about English history. When Bette Davis slaps Errol Flynn's face in the 1939 classic, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex - "You dare turn your back on Elizabeth of England, you dare?" - the historian in me is prepared to overlook the glaring anachronisms in the film simply because the screen version allows me genuinely to feel a surge of pride for the Virgin Queen.
And I confess the same was true last week when I saw the historical movie of the moment, Shekhar Kapoor's Elizabeth: The Golden Age. In this latest glorious celebration of one of history's great iconic women, Cate Blanchett reprises her widely-acclaimed 1998 role as Queen Elizabeth I, Geoffrey Rush is once again the passionately loyal, if ruthless, Lord Walsingham, while Clive Owen plays a gallantly seductive Sir Walter Raleigh - Errol Flynn-style.
Pomp and circumstance
Critical reception of Elizabeth: The Golden Age in the British media has not matched the chorus of approval from the American critics.
There have been murmurings of reproach over the film's breaches in historical authenticity, with commentators expressing their anxiety at its tampering with the facts, and the liberties taken in the plot, in terms of what can only be described as moral dismay. Ought I as an historian to share the critics' disapproval? The fact is, I simply don't.
Because after a career spent poring over the surviving documents from the 16th and 17th centuries, clutching at any emotional straw in the form of an overlooked manuscript jotting or a recently-discovered folio of contemporary eye-witness observations, I find the heroic confidence of Blanchett's portrayal of Elizabeth I positively exhilarating.
Stirring stuff: Olivier as Henry V
Magnificently decked out in breathtaking outfits, topped by a sequence of elaborately eye-catching hairstyles, her riposte to the Spanish Ambassador's threat to send an Armada against our little islands has the ring of Joan of Arc about it: "I too can command the wind, sir! I have a hurricane in me that will strip Spain bare if you dare to try me!"
And on her rearing white horse in a glittering suit of armour, she is Henry V at the siege of Honfleur (or at least Kenneth Branagh's version of him in his remake of Laurence Olivier's classic film), as she urges on her troops: "Let them come with the armies of hell, they will not pass!"
The skill of the film director lies in introducing the emotional texture and pulse of history by means of vivid tableaux and screen images, to prompt in us the rush of feeling I have just described. In Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Shekhar Kapoor - a former Bollywood director - deliberately recapitulates the over-heated encounters between Bette Davis and Errol Flynn in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, just as he does that iconic moment on the rearing white horse in Shakespeare's Henry V.
Indeed, consider the way in which William Shakespeare himself heightened the emotional atmosphere in his play, to allow an anxious England - worrying about the succession as their unmarried, childless queen grew old - to conjure up the glory days of her forebear Henry V and find reassurance.
The romantic courtship between Henry and France's Princess Katherine in the play substitutes for a more prosaic reality - Henry actually won his bride as spoils of war. And does the documentary record tell us that Henry really uttered the words, "Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; Or close the wall up with our English dead." Of course not.
Yet these are the ringing words which, time and again, have been used to engender in the British the strong emotions of national pride which we associate with key moments in our real or imagined history.
I remember being startled, in 1989, when listening to the 5pm news on my car radio, I heard the then Chairman of the Conservatives, Kenneth Baker, at the party conference, urging the faithful to stiffen their resolve in the face of a proposed increase in mortgage lending rates, to extraordinary rhetorical effect: "And in the words of Henry V at Agincourt - 'He that hath no stomach for the fight, let him depart'."
The rest of Baker's speech was drowned in an emotional roar of audience approval.
To censure the efforts of generations of screen-writers and movie directors because they fail to stick to the truth is, in my opinion, to miss the point. Where they succeed, as in my view Elizabeth: The Golden Age does, they tap into that yearning I have described in myself.
They allow us to connect the events of the past with the threads of emotion and feeling which make that past meaningful for us in the present. They rediscover, in a way the documents generally cannot, the humanity of those who were agents of our history.
We might reflect, too, that it is a movie by an Indian director, with an Australian star, from a British studio and an American distributor. How extraordinary that around the world there should be enough fascination with this quintessentially English story to make a movie based upon it a box office success.
The silver screen has once again exuberantly travestied a glorious moment in our history - as it has since talkies began. Rather than cavilling at the obvious elisions and anachronisms, ought we not self-confidently to revel in the universal appeal of the story of an underdog nation triumphing against the odds, and the creative retellings it continues to inspire?
Below is a selection of your comments.
Anachronisms I can live with. And bringing the story to life should be the aim of any film - otherwise, the audience (and the critics) won't be impressed. I can even live with Shakespeare's Henry V speech - after all, isn't Shakespeare as much a part of our history as the kings and queens themselves? But there was a Hollywood film a few years ago which told the story of an American ship discovering the Nazi's Enigma machine during WW2, when, in fact, it was the British who discovered it. This complete distortion of the historical facts simply to appease middle America, for me, is going too far - particularly when increasing numbers of young people are getting their historical education from films like these.
Phil Welch, London, UK
I half agree - yes I love a good film but no I think the director should get the facts right. My problem is that I'm not a historian, so I tend to think that films are correct, after all it's so easy for the director to check the facts. I dread to think have many errors I've picked up from Hollywood. Isn't history dramatic enough without messing with it?
Nick Morton, Camborne Cornwall
Hear, hear. A historical film needn't be, and probably shouldn't be, strictly historically accurate. Far more important that it should tell a good story. Then it has a chance of connecting with its audience in a way that a literal re-enactment of recorded historical fact never could. A prime example is Braveheart, which transcended its numerous inaccuracies and outright fabrications, along with some quite dreadful dialogue, to fan a spark in the Scots' national psyche which is now lighting our journey along a road leading - well, who knows where?
Colin Stuart, Worcester, England/Edinburgh, Scotland
Ah, but you are missing a vital part of the puzzle of 'historical' films. The problem now is that people take them as fact. They do not research, study and examine the evidence of the perios, they believe the film and consign it to memory.
Your lovely illustration from Kenneth Baker: "And in the words of Henry V at Agincourt - 'He that hath no stomach for the fight, let him depart'" is key. You say that it is obvious that Henry V never said these words. Of course it is, to you or I. But to the millions of not so educated persons. I think not.
Richard Holloway, London
Shocked and surprised is my reaction. I am a historian writing a biography at the present time and uncovering mistake after mistake, where other historians have copied one another without checking the source or applying that most basic of instincts, common sense. Now I find that directors and scriptwriters can follow in the dreaded Shakespeare's footsteps and throw facts to the wind to make a good story. Much damage has been done over the years to the reputations of many fine people by this attitude, especially from Shakespeare, and now it is being advocated as a Good Thing by another writer.May we please, please, return to the FACTS and build a story around them! There is hardly a period of history that does not have first rate action in it, without recourse to throwing the facts out of the window. The current Tudor series is a case in point, starting with a black haired Henry when he was blonde ... and that's without the endless stupid errors of radiators and the like. If this is the attitude of script writers, why am I bothering to check the minutest detail of the movements of the Earl of which I write, to get it right for others to use? But then again, what novel has not been wrecked by translating it to the so-called 'silver screen' with its characters maligned and the story bent out of all recognition? Why then should I think they would not do the same with history. I despair. Literally.
Dorothy Davies, Ryde, IOW UK
Having served in the Royal Navy for 32 years I cannot come to terms with the fact that Sir Francis Drake is nowhere to be seen in the film. A ripping yarn it may be, but a hero is missing.
Alan Jones, Lee on the Solent
Films have always bent the truth (be they facts or the laws of Physics) for fun and entertainment (lets face it, U51 was set before the Americans actualy entered the war so not only did they not find the the german code machine, they wouldnt have been looking for it). However these films give us a good way to get young children into a history/sceince lesson. Watch the film and then examine the film against the facts. It would engage the kids and give the teachers a way to lead into the subject.
I wonder weather it is alright to use national sentiments as an excuse to mislead the general public on the real historical facts, especially by a historian! Isn`t time to clear histories and more important religions from myths and lies which mislead generations for centuries, instead of adding and glorifing more myths?
Yousif Althekair, Riyadh,KSA
Well-made films about historical events are an excellent way to engage the interest of students of all ages in history rather than learning dates, places and events by rote. It doesn't matter if past events, within reason, are stretched to suit the screen, if in the process people are stimulated by them. That is the basis of education, or should be.
David Nixon, Los Angeles USA
Propaganda - History is thy name!!
I'm in much the same situation as Dorothy Davies and agree with her. There is surely an ethical issue here, involving fictional treatments of real people, past or present. Peddling propaganda and myth at the expense of accuracy is as dangerous (politically and culturally) as it is dishonest and dishonourable.
Dr M M Gilchrist, Glasgow, Scotland
Wow. This is a truly well-crafted piece of English writing - a cut above the very utilitarian prose elsewhere on the site. It's nice to see the author isn't afraid to step outside the limited lexicon of everyday English and to do so with such skill and to such effect. I've no strong feelings either way on the topic, but I really enjoyed reading it!
Graham Price, Sydney, Australia