(Errol Flynn, presumably aiming at the screenwriter of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves  in his 1938 film, The Adventures of Robin Hood, from Dr. Macro)
Who doesn’t love a good historical flick- swords-and-sandals, kings-and-castles, blustery-moustaches-against-full-blown-beards; audiences usually flock to them, Hollywood producers phone them in while drinking Bloody Marys poolside, directors bait their lines with them when Oscar season opens, and actors enjoy the challenge and fun of playing dress-up and sword fighting. Yet, for all the Lawrence of Arabia‘s there are an equal number of Pearl Harbors. There is something about historical dramas that give screenwriters and directors a compelling need to not just rewrite history, but rewrite it badly. I don’t have a problem with historical drama with more than a few liberties- The Thin Red Line is one of my favorite films, and it is wildly different from its source material– but those films that decide that history isn’t interesting enough for modern audiences, then turn fantastic stories into common-denominator drivel are guilty of a particular sort of cinematic sin. These sorts of films typically have as much to do with either history or attempts at a compelling plot as Schliemann‘s archeological pillaging has to do with 2004’s excuse to unleash notoriously old man Peter O’Toole and a horrendously accented Brad Pitt in Troy. There is, after all, a large difference between what we would identify as ‘documentary’ and ‘reality’, something the ‘historical’ film is especially prone to violate- the director becomes consumed with making the audience ‘buy’ the film- thus the frequent overemphasizing of costume finery, CGI fakery, and accent fraudulence at the expense of plot and character development. Thus, the audience is condemned to a picture that ‘looks’ realistic enough, but distorts historical allegory by forcefully stuffing it into formulaic, three-act-structures and hackneyed, overused plotlines, even when the story doesn’t fit.
Perhaps the most frequent violator of both good taste and history is Mel Gibson, with his Apocalypto, The Patriot, and Passion of the Christ marking both a healthy interest in history and a very, very unhealthy method of filming said history. To begin- The Patriot; a story of the American Revolution suitably sauced up with a patently overblown, archetypically snobby English villain who is equal parts Grand Moff Tarkin and Oswald Moseley, florid and uncompelling violence (at least pander convincingly!), a ridiculously impossible plot, and the high crime of turning the Revolutionary War into Blackhawk Down. Mel Gibson himself plays some sort of uber-soldier-farmer-father, capable of killing infinite numbers of red-coated cannon fodder by either tomahawk or musket as long as he remains enraged about his son’s death at the hands of the British- the colonial Incredible Hulk, as it were. Despite there being no shortage of genuine stories and characters from the Revolution exciting enough to hold an audience’s attention for two hours: after all, revolts tend to be livelier affairs than never-ending dinner parties and society life– The Patriot turns what could be a genuinely compelling story into Ye Olde Die Hard.
Historical details are smudged to fit the plot and the audience’s preexisting notions of the Revolution- this is perhaps most evident in the film’s treatment of African-Americans. Slavery, which was of critical importance since the British offered blacks freedom and wages for joining up with Loyalists while many of the rebels were slave holders themselves, is unaddressed except for the hackneyed presence of ‘backwards racist + straightforward old black man’ in Gibson’s crack army of misfit rebels: they, of course, save each other and overcome prejudice in a most predictable way. The film fails to give itself over to what was a truly compelling story: a battered, incredibly fractured minority movement that managed, with significant foreign aid and good timing, to overcome a Great Power and win independence. The Patriot and the other films like it form a particular school of the historical film- the gross simplification of characters and plots to the point where they bear little resemblance to actual events and people, the setting of history in black-and-white, good vs. bad, hero against villain terms familiar to the general audience’s concept of cinematic storytelling and structure, (after all, history rarely follows a three-act structure) events being related through popular conceptualizations of an event rather than more interesting, historically verified incidents, and a film’s art design, costuming, and even the actors’ accents being similarly reflexive of the audience’s popular conceptions and opposed, as usual, to an infinitely more enthralling reality. Barry Lyndon, this ain’t.
(In this scene from The Patriot, one man and two pre-pubescent boys with three muskets, an axe and a dagger fire 12 times, never missing, and hack 11 redcoats to pieces in a matter of minutes; in the same time period, an entire column of professional soldiers fires 31 times, missing all but 30 shots: they do manage to shoot one of their own soldiers, giving them a 96% (if my math is correct) of missing their target, who is often just several feet away and yelling at them to pay attention. The Queen, apparently, needs to institute some serious target practice. After this, Mel Gibson stabs a horse with an American flag, which is illegal. This scene is also similar to another famous battle in the Revolutionary War that perhaps inspired this part of The Patriot.)
Returning to Mr. Gibson’s other works, we can see his unique blend of historical ‘authenticity’ and The Passion of the Christ. Now, here is a movie that Gibson could easily tackle- ‘historical’ Christ films haven’t been very popular or particularly well done, so there’s clearly some wiggle room here- and, it’s a classic story with built-in box-office draw. Still, applying a liberal dose of Aramaic and violence is no substitute for not having anything approaching either a story or the New Testament. Concentrating only on the crucifixion + scourging isn’t necessarily a bad thing: it is, after all, the climax of the whole plot of Jesus’s life, as it were: but the film falls flat when viewed outside of the tremendous hype of the movie. Yes, it is violent, and yes, the actors are speaking in Aramaic. Do these aspects serve as fitting substitutes for an actual, serious examination of Christianity’s central figure or even a Thin Blue Line-eque story of justice gone wrong? The answer is a resounding no, and yet again Gibson uses the crutch of false-history: shocking levels of violence (although there have been more violent films, and besides this, isn’t the entire point of Jesus supposed to be his teaching of peace as opposed to reveling in suffering?) and writing the dialogue in Aramaic, which gives a false idea of realism (no ancient Greek?) without any kind of historical relevancy. Yet, the audience hears the peculiar sounds of a dead language, sees the film’s brutal scourging, and forgets the complete absence of the entire rest of the New Testament and interprets them as realism. Gibson could well have made the film in pig Latin and added Deer Hunter inspired Roman tortures for the same effect: selling history as real onscreen has little to do with either good filmmaking or compelling history, and the result is clear- an overhyped, overplayed, mediocre movie about how awful it was to be Jesus when the Romans came calling.
(Now THIS is a film about Jesus I can get behind!)
Apocalypto left a particularly awful taste in my mouth: of all Gibson’s historical follies, this one had the most interesting, at least to me, historical setting. How is it possible to flub a film about the Flower Wars– it’s got it all! Human sacrifice, massive battles, brutal European conquest, clash of civilizations, disease epidemics, the fall of empire, personal courage- and did I mention human sacrifice? For god’s sake, just make a damn documentary about the thing, and every person who’s ever lingered on the History Channel or been caught up by Discovery will be in line at the local cineplex to see a movie about one of the most fascinating, unknown cultures to have ever existed. I wish DW Griffith, for all his racist sins, were alive to make this in the same vein as Intolerance: my cinema glands are salivating at the very thought- full scale Aztec temples in a Hollywood backlot, thousands of extras roiling about in battle, the collapse of societies: hell, throw El Nino in there for fun. If we’re reanimating people, bring back Orson Welles as a narrator or a scheming conquistador, Klaus Kinski beamed directly from the set of Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Heston as a priest- come on, Hollywood, do I have to do all the work for you?
This is not from Apocalypto– it’s Werner Herzog’s fantastic Aguirre, the Wrath of God and it’s what Apocalypto could have been.
Again, Mel Gibson combines mistakes from his preceding films- using a dead language, while interesting to listen to, does not equal authenticity; violence without purpose is just silly, and over-indulging in violence is pandering; and killing scores of enemies does not make the hero of a film likable, empathizeable, or even interesting- it makes him Superman, and this isn’t a comic book. I did think the acting was well done, and Gibson gets extra credit for not using Hollywood’s magnificently stupid tradition of using dark-skinned people to double for actual Native Americans. The art design is very well done, with a lot of costume work standing out. But, for all the positives, there are scenes like these:
Yes, you too can survive jumping off gigantic cliffs, as long as you’re in a movie directed by Mel Gibson, and the camera is using liberal amounts of slo-mo. Also:
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