Sunday, March 19, 2006

Period films and Good Queen Bess

I once had a medieval studies professor who required us to watch particular Hollywood movies as fodder for class discussion. We watched stuff like Ben-Hur and The Name of the Rose. He would open the class by asking us what we thought of the movie and would gradually segue into a lecture on the period in which the movie was set. As a teaching tool, it was genius; most people actually did watch the movies, and the resulting discussions--which the professor deftly managed to focus on the relevant historical topics as opposed to the fictional elements of the plot--were animated and interesting.

Unfortunately, most other history profs I've met have turned their noses up at period movies when I've asked about them. The common complaints seem to be that the screenplays are rife with inaccuracies (certainly true) and that too many laypeople are content to consume them as documentaries (probably true).

Fair enough. For my part, though, I'd rather see Jane or Dick watch King Arthur or Master and Commander and become minimally aware of the real times and places those films reference than have them remain completely ignorant. If we're lucky, they'll take enough of an interest to do some reading and learn a little bit. This might be difficult to see from the top of the ivory tower, but laypeople reading about something they first saw on a movie screen is ultimately good for the field of study.

With that in mind, I'm excited about the new Elizabeth movie that's coming to HBO soon. I shouldn't call it new, exactly, because it aired in the UK last year, but few people over here have seen it. It covers a period 20-30 years after the setting of the 1998 movie starring Cate Blanchett, and with a running time of 240 minutes I'm hoping that the filmmakers have explored a lot of ground. Speaking of the 1998 movie, it was announced last week that a sequel is in the works. You don't usually (if ever, now that I think about it) see sequels to docudramas like Elizabeth. It's a testimony to the endurance of the title character as an icon of a particular ideal of Englishness...but that's a whole other post, and one I'm not really qualified to write yet.

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