Why Gladiator is way better than Elizabeth

I am too afraid of commitment to go to the cinema very often. Going to see a film involves sacrificing time and money with no certain guarantee that enjoyment will result. If I start a book and don’t like it, I can put it down again. If I go to the pub and it’s no fun, I can leave. If I watch a film on tellybox and it only half holds my attention, I can make some tea or paint my nails, read the IKEA catalogue or do a bit of blogging perhaps. But to walk out of a cinema is an admission of entertainment failure and a wanton waste of eight pounds fifty, which you only handed over in the first place so that someone else could control your environment, shroud you in over-heated darkness, crick your knees into arthritic shapes, put small, rumbustuous children behind you and the tallest man in Holland in front of you, give you a raging thirst and a queasy popcorn-filled stomach, and then finally churn you abruptly out of this isolation tank into a somehow unnervingly different world from the one you departed three hours earlier, blotchy-sighted, dehydrated and poorer by some twenty quid. No, you may keep the cinema as far as I am concerned.

Withal, being in the business of making my hangover a chicken and mushroom risotto this evening, I was pleased to find Elizabeth on terrestrial because it falls into the vast category of films I have always badly wanted to see, but didn’t go to the cinema for because it didn’t have the words “Pirates”, “Lord” or “Rings” in the title. I am a creature of habit, you see.

I think I and my hangover were just a little disappointed, after the several years’ low-key build-up. Visually it was gorgeous, and the emotional journey of the young queen from nervous tender-hearted moppet to divine untouchable was subtly drawn – so subtly that I only really noticed that this was what the film was all about in the last twenty-five minutes. I told you I don’t go to the cinema much.

But my main problem with it was that I judge historical films by how successfully they wrestle reality out of history – and I am not, for all the love of heaven, talking about historical accuracy. I really couldn’t give a toss about historical accuracy. No history is accurate anyway, fictional or not. It’s a non-starter to set out to reproduce a historical personage’s mind, opinions, speech, the way they moved through the world and the way that world acted upon them. Your portrayal of even the best recorded individuals, in the most well-documented periods, is never, ever going to amount to even ten per cent of the “truth”, even if we could agree on what the truth is, so you are really better off not bothering and serving the needs of your story instead.

In the case of Elizabeth, that means running a few different plots and happenstances together in a fairly freewheeling way, and it means involving a few people with things they were probably not, in fact, involved in. Fair enough, if it suits the story. I’m no expert anyway – I never could get on with the Tudors, ever since we “did” them twice at school, and “doing” history before GCSE mainly involves colouring in pictures of Henry VIII’s wives. What bothers me far more is that I have no better conception, having watched the film, of what sixteenth-century England was all about. And I think if you fail to answer – even to ask – that question, you have failed to create a piece of working, breathing historical fiction.

This may surprise, but my favourite historical film in the whole entire world ever is Gladiator. Now that I went to the cinema for, and I have never before or since walked home from seeing a movie in such an altered state. It was breathtakingly true to the Roman world. The storyline was an almost complete fabrication from start to finish, but everything I had ever read and thought about Rome was there in the very warp and weft of it – the centrality of family, household gods, the republican ideal, the elevation of talented generals to positions of power, bread and circuses, patricide, the pointlessly bloody frontier provinces, the influx of provincial talent to the political arena. The notion of being a good Roman, and what that was.

The opening and closing images of the film, as Maximus dreams of his modest estate and then returns to it in death, are pretty much an inspired recreation of the sturdy Roman landowner who leaves his farm only to vote or fight when required to do so for the good of Rome. He has done his work for the patria, now he returns to till the soil. The Catos, Elder and Younger, are the source material here, the Elder for his writings on agriculture and the Younger for his famously humourless integrity. The Catonian tradition of the noble, hard-working Roman, master of the world but humble in the home. I’m no fan of either – it’s hard to be, especially when they’re talking about knocking slaves on the head when they get old and feeble – and the ideal selfless Roman aristocrat was a myth even in their day, never mind by the period in which Gladiator is set, but I don’t care. Someone had immersed themselves so thoroughly in the memes, instincts and forces of a long-dead era that the story rang true, so true it provoked an emotional response in me which had nothing to do with the fate of the characters. Hector in The History Boys has it right, though he is talking about written fiction, when he says that coming across a thought in a book identical to one of your own is like “having someone reach out and take your hand”. And if you are thinking this is a rather elevated sentiment to be applying to a Ridley Scott movie, I riposte that Hector is famously an enthusiast of the lowbrow alongside the high.

And they didn’t stop at the Ladybird Book of Rome either. The staging and scripting of the palace scenes between Commodus and his sister are practically an open homage to Robert Graves’ I, Claudius. Any piece of story-telling that draws on both original material and other stories that have previously been based on it, and makes them into a flowing narrative entire of itself, is a sophisticated day’s work. Put simply, Gladiator tells you what Rome is all about, what it was about at the time and what it is about now, to us. Yes, it does this with almost ludicrous inaccuracy, including the biggest lie of all in the implication that the Republic was restored after Commodus’ death (which needless to say did not take place in the arena). But it gets away with it, because this is a story conceived by person or persons unknown who are actually interested in the period, interested in what ideas were floating around and what made the political machine tick. They are not interested in staging one-damn-thing-after-another history, or in making a contemporary point. Accusing the film of inaccuracy is as irrelevant as complaining that there are too many different surviving versions of the legends of King Arthur.

Contrast all this with the diabolical shambles that was Braveheart. This film ought on the face of it to please a historian more because it has considerably better claims to your poor old threadbare “accuracy” than either Gladiator or, for that matter, Elizabeth. But it’s not really about twelfth-century Scotland. It’s about eighteenth- and by extension twentieth-century America. If you’re going to have authentic historical personages all but saying the word democracy, it’s safe to say you’re not in the slightest bit interested in the twelfth-century or what you can do with it, and you’re making the wrong film. I do wonder why on earth Crazy Mel bothered. The fact that Patriot came out a year or so later should tell its own story.

And while Elizabeth is nothing like that crass, I am still left with the impression that someone at the heart of the making of that film failed to move beyond the lazy, cliched cloak-and-dagger stuff you learn while colouring in Anne Boleyn’s dress aged nine and a half. What is this “power” that keeps flowing around everywhere and getting into the bedhangings (of which there are many)? Why does everyone sit at the end of long oak tables and talk about their enemies “moving” against them? What does that even mean? What is the actual stuff and substance of all the skulduggery that is supposedly happening at court under the cover of a well-executed quadrille? What do people engaging in skulduggery actually say to each other?

Prithee, my lord, it is time for our skulduggery. The Spaniards look more powerful by the day.

Indeed, see how the ambassador’s eyebrow is a half-inch more lowering than it was heretofore. But soft, my lord! The Lord Chancellor is near. Let us retire to this shadowy recess and plot.

These aren’t people, these are cardboard cut-outs. This isn’t a recreation of the politics of an era, it’s a dead-end alternative world conjured out of a simplistic textbook by someone who hasn’t stopped to ask themselves how it all worked. The glossiness of both production and direction only just disguises the fact that one plotline scene succeeds another like the worst sit-up-and-beg tv thriller. The acting and decent, clean scripting mercifully free of cod-Elizabethanisms ultimately save Elizabeth, but Blackadder II lampooned the hell out of this stuff over a decade before it was was made. The film is interested in the personal journey of an ordinary young woman who suddenly faces great responsibility, and this it succeeds in putting across. But it’s not remotely interested in Tudor politics and it’s only interested in the most wet-palmed way in religious strife, and ultimately that just means the one storyline that is successful gets held up.

Why bother creating fictive history if you’re not interested in the history itself? No-one can be the master, Robert Graves, but film-makers can and should emulate the love he had for his subject. I, Claudius was of course televised very successfully. I chanced upon an old post by Alex Wilcock about this, and I think everything he says about the memorable high-drama moments, the mafiosi overtones, the vividness of the character portraits underlines very effectively what a well-conceived body of work the books were. That’s why they translated so well to screenplay despite being virtually a dialogue-free zone. The world they depict is a real, operative model, the twisting and heavily populated storyline hangs from one conceptual peg. Most importantly, Graves was a man convinced that the slice of history he was remaking was important. Not interesting, not diverting, not scenic, important. And that is what makes good historical fiction, because it’s one of our oldest traits as creatures with a consciousness to recognise internal conviction in a narrative, and to respond to it.


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