The Outlaw King – A Medieval Movie Review

Just a couple of months ago Netflix released The Outlaw King, their historical action drama about the life of Robert the Bruce in early 14th Century Scotland. Chris Pine is the big name here starring as the Bruce himself. Overall the film has received exceedingly average reviews, with around a 60% aggregated score. This is even after 20 minutes of battle and action scenes were cut due to complaints about length from the initial previews. Unfortunately the heavy amount of criticism it has received has mostly been due to it being seen as boring rather than having any glaring fault. Personally I feel the problem is that the average film reviewer and Netflix watcher aren’t able to appreciate the place where The Outlaw King shines, and that’s in its physical presentation of history.

The scope of the film is fairly narrow, as it doesn’t really cover Robert the Bruce’s whole life or reign, but only some time just before coronation up until after the battle of Loudoun Hill. Furthermore if you come into this film expecting a heavy degree of accuracy in its events then you may be disappointed. As with most movies, this one does mess around with the timeline somewhat, as well as putting historical figures in places where they maybe wouldn’t have been. For example the film depicts Edward I as dying before the battle of Loudoun Hill, when he in fact died some months later. Also the film does the usual and makes the protagonist the good guy and his opponents inherently evil. The character of Bruce is that of an enigmatic and well-behaved man of the people, who desires to restore Scotland to its citizens. However, historian Fiona Watson notes the real Bruce was most likely cold, canny, and driven by his personal ambition. I do think that some of this can be forgiven, as the characterization of the Bruce as the hero and Edward Longshanks and his son Edward II as evil can show the perspective of those on the Scottish side. After all the English were seen as the invaders and oppressors.

In either case, the film doesn’t overly sugar coat the cause of the Bruce and his men. It does show some of the underhanded tactics they may have made use of. The story is really kicked off when Bruce murders an opponent of his John ‘The Red’ Comyn in a priory. In the film it is shown as a hasty decision that Bruce made to stop Comyn from telling the English of his plans to revolt, when in reality it was probably a more planned decision, and when it turned out that Comyn survived Bruce had him finished off. So the film does somewhat clean things up there. However in a later scene James Douglas, one of the Bruce’s men, is shown to have a similar disregard for murder in holy places when he goes to take back his family’s castle from the English by waiting for the guards to be in a service in the chapel and slaughtering them before they could arm themselves. Douglas is then on known as ‘The Black Douglas’, and so we see that the morality of the Scottish side isn’t entirely unquestionable in the film. On a side note, I do think that Chris Pine’s depiction of the Bruce is a little overshadowed by the charismatic fury shown in the Black Douglas, especially in combat.

Finally I should mention what I really loved about the Film. As my particular interest is in historical warfare, and arms and armour, especially of the medieval period, any film that manages to depict these aspects well is instantly in my good books. Sadly I find it very hard to name any one film that manages to tick more than a few boxes for me, but perhaps this film has changed that? Despite the issues with overarching historical events this film has in places, if you look at the details in presentation it blows away bigger budget movies, especially its nearest comparison Braveheart. There isn’t an anachronistic kilt in sight! Anyone who knows their stuff about medieval warfare will find this move a treat, as everywhere you look people are armed and kitted out in a variety of authentic armour and weapons. For example, you’d expect there to be swords everywhere, but in reality swords wouldn’t be very common on the battlefield as they were really just a sidearm, and only for those that could afford it. Instead the Outlaw King shows us armies of spears, the primary weapon on the medieval battlefield. You’ll also see axes and warhammers being used heavily by the main cast, even the Bruce himself is seen using the lowly axe despite being the king, but this is good as it would certainly have been the preferable choice against the armour of the time.

Speaking of armour, this has to be the best depiction of armour I’ve seen in a film to date. Instead of putting everyone in full shining plate like most films would simply due to the assumption that it should be around in the middle ages, this film has heavy use of cloth armour, known as the gambeson, for bulk of the fighters shown, which is a very rare thing to see in films despite how overwhelmingly common it would have been. For those who could afford more, late 13th/early 14th century armour was mostly consisting of mail, and perhaps with a ‘coat of plates’ worn over it. This was the predecessor to the full plate harness that we’re all familiar with. It is a series of steel plates held together under a fabric layer, with larger plates on the chest and back which would eventually become one large single piece in later periods.

By no means is the depiction of weapons and warfare perfect in this film, it’s just far far better than most. For example you will still see the old trope of fire arrows making an appearance. Something that you only really see in movies because it is more visible, especially at night, than real arrows. They are employed during a very short siege in this film, which is one of the weaker moments. They are sold as being an unstoppable weapon despite the castle they are being shot into being mostly made of stone, so the castle is given up without an extended siege, which I would have liked to have seen. On similar note there are some issues with the castles used in the movie themselves, such as the fortifications being oddly sized, but I think this is mostly forgivable as they don’t feature too prominently and are probably more modern castle styled houses or mansions that were used due to budget limitations. Overall however, in terms of the presentation of warfare, as well as many other aspects of medieval life that I couldn’t even begin to go into detail on right now, The Outlaw King really gets things right in a way I don’t think I’ve seen before. The key to this I think is that they’ve actually listened to historians and other advisors on these details rather that leaving things to set and costume designers to fail at reinventing the wheel so to speak. They even went to various re-enactment groups to be extras and train others in combat, as well as going to credible historical crafters and smiths to make their weapons, such as the prominent Tod Todeschini of ‘Tods Workshop’ who designed and made the daggers carried by the main cast.

Overall I think that the film is a fairly entertaining historical drama with excellent action and combat, I could have just done with more of it. I was expecting the final climax to come much later in the Battle of Bannockburn. However with criticism coming from the previews of the length and too much battle, and with the historical accuracy of the timeline already being somewhat muddled and squashed together, I think it was wise to forgo any more messing with the events and keep it as a clean ending after the Battle of Loudoun Hill. Hopefully the mixed reaction isn’t too big a blow for historical films, especially ones with such good details!

Stockholm – A Lesson in Museology

Just a few days back, Alex and I had the absolute pleasure to travel to Stockholm; the Scandinavian capital had been on my list for a while to complete the “Scandinavian Triumvirate” I had promised myself I would experienced before my PhD was over (mission success!). Stockholm was certainly a wonderful visit, and a lot of material that I will be sharing with you guys over the next few weeks/months/years/centuries 😉 will come from what I learnt there. But one of the things that certainly stuck with me and I value of this trip is the amazing museums I visited. You know, working in the heritage industry you get a thing for cool museums, but this has always been one of my obsessions: the public should simply have fun whilst exploring the past, art, or science, or whatever the hell you’re into. And the Swedes certainly know how to deliver. So today, I am going to just rant about how cool these places were, and what made them cool – and pictures of course.

One of the first things that already caught my attention when I was preparing the holiday was the abundance of museum in the city. Let’s face it, Stockholm is not a huge European capital, so I would never expect to find mini-London…but there were So Many Museums and Galleries!! There is an entire section of the city, east of the old town (Gamla Stockholm), that could be called museum miles if it wanted to. This is the area of the Djurganden – the Royal National Gardens. In our trip, time was tight, but I had decided that an entire day would probably go into exploring this area. So, in my selection of activities to do here, I included a visit to the Vasa, Vikingaliv, Skansen, and part 2 with the ABBA museum – would have love to do the Nordic museum (which is btw a gorgeous building far prettier than the Royal Palace?!) but as you all know Alex doesn’t get art and I was feeling generous. And what can I tell you just with those 4 examples? That Stockholm provides the best of old and new museology to the greatest standard.

Our first stop was the Vasa Museum, and I swear I have never seen anything quite like it. I am a seasoned traveller and an experienced historian, this was mind-blowing. The Vasa is this royal ship which was going to be the pride and joy of Gustav Vasa, and that due to many misfortunes (more about that a different day) sank on its first voyage 20 mins into its journey just outside of the port in Stockholm. A lot of people compare it to the Mary Rose – yeah, alright, you wished! The museum is built around the ship itself, with the actual boat inside the building as the central piece. It reminded me in that regards a bit to the Fram museum in Oslo, which we visited a couple of years back, and you can read about it here: https://nuhistory.wordpress.com/2016/04/09/bygdoy-museums-in-oslo-4-exhibitions-in-1-day/

Without going into the history of the ship, what is great about this museum is the following: there are two huge auditoriums I didn’t even have time to enjoy fully where they put documentaries and videos explaining you different aspects of the ship and the archaeological and conservation work put into it. There are guided tours so incredibly often, and if there is not a tour you can buy an audio guide in pretty much every other language for a very affordable price. the audio guides seemed very thorough and detailed. The thing is, though, I struggled to not spend more than 2 hours there without a tour or an audio guide because there is simply so much information and so well exposed in the information panels and displays, which by the way are very modern and well presented, both in English and Swedish.

The museum has different floor levels dedicated to different aspects of the boat and seafaring so you can appreciate not only the actual ship for what it is but learn in the process. This is something that, for example, the Cuty Sark is missing, and the Mary Rose attempts to do, but due to the current work they can’t quite do, and it really brings the ship alive. There were also good stuff for the children too – not only activities to learn about the boat but little video game like interactive displays where you learnt about navigation and sea faring. I particularly enjoyed as well the recreated port where they tell you the story behind the sinking of the boat. In general, it is very engaging. This is something that is evident as well in Vikingaliv: technology reigns over displays. As you come into this modest sized museum, you find plenty of touch screens and video stands covering different aspects of Viking society.

There are a lot of things there to keep you entertained too such as a big board of hnefatalf – or more commonly known as Viking chess, helmets and weapons to try on. And what I found most amazing, an entire board dedicated to Viking Age research and latest archaeological and history news. But, of course, who could forget the ride? They have something similar to this in Jorvik. It is like a little train ride that tell you this saga story through which you discover different tensions of the Viking Age and its people. The models, images and sounds were really great and the story is very fitting – without it being any of the well-known sagas, it takes bits and bobs from all of them to give you a general picture of the Viking age. The museum is very much up to date and provides with the most up to date research, interviews and historiographical theories – some of which are still trying to catch on in places like the UK.

When you come out of a place like that and submerge yourself in the huge thing that is Skansen Open Air Museum, you can feel like you have walked through time. Not just because of the time period has changed, but because the museum concept is different. This was the very first open air museum in Europe. The purpose of places such as Skansen is to provide a picturesque idea of how society has changed throughout time by recreating buildings and other aspects of society. In Skansen you can find reenactors spinning, carving, even riding horse carts.

Skansen also contains a little zoo of animals typical of Sweden and other fun things like the little farm for children, an old timey funicular and a stage for ALL SANG: a very famous Swedish tradition of something like karaoke that gets film and played on the TV. In essence this is trying to represent like a compact version of Sweden in just the one site that comprises the culture, history and ecosystem of the country. This type of spaces were popular during the late 19th and early 20th century, but the displays have been kept up to date and the general condition of the park is remarkably good, which is important for a place of this type in order not to look out of date. But, as I am sure you are getting now from my recollections of Sweden, being up to date is something the Swedes know best, and this is perfectly exemplified by the ABBA museum – in case the others hadn’t convince you yet.

Even if you do not like ABBA, if you are in Stockholm, just go, because this is an experience, not just a visit. You are gonna spend around 20 pounds to get in, but you are gonna be there for 2 hours easily, and it is going to be worth every penny. This is one of the most interactive museums I have ever been to. Not only you have several displays with ABBA memorabilia, costumes, records, etc, there is a lot of audio-visual information as well – from video to sound, this screams 21st century.

On top of that, it is fun! I found myself mixing ABBA music, singing and dancing, performing (quite badly) for an audition to become the 5th member of the group with holograms of the band right by me, whilst learning a ridiculous amount about music, ABBA and Sweden. I cannot explain with words how sincerely fun, new and great this museum is. The gift shop is also great: it is small but it has all the right type of souvenirs and very fairly priced. And, just to top it off, as we went in, they do have a small space dedicated to temporary exhibitions. My luck was that they had there the guitars that made the history of rock, and on top of hearing amazing stories about these instruments and the musical pieces that made the legends, I got to play guitar hero cause why not?!

So, what has become apparent from my experience in Stockholm is that, in Sweden, museums are believed to be fun: and they are! More importantly, this is what museums should be; cool, interesting places where you learn and enrich yourself as a person through an engaging experience that aids your learning. Move past the antiquarian cabinets and dry lines of text telling you “here be a sword from the 6th century” and actually take them closer to people. Another example that tops it off for me was the kids room in the History Museum (which is free btw).

This room was not just a play room, but a space for learning. There is a huge section which is like a sandbox where copies of artefacts are hidden so the kids can dig them up and then put them on the displays and tell the stories of said objects and learn in the process with the books – and audio books/stories – that you can find not just in this room but across the museum. Tell me when was the last time your children had that much fun and hands-on interaction in a museum? Cause I do not recall.

So, wrapping it up – you want to see good museums, for a more than fair price and genuinely learn the most up to date information on the subject whilst having fun? Go To Stockholm.

Hideous Visitor Attitudes Learnt and Experienced from Working in the Heritage Industry

 

After having worked for a long time in the heritage industry, I feel like this is something I need to share and talk about. I guess as a visitor of cultural attractions and a cultural historian with a keen eye for public history, it is something I have always been very aware of, but never really thought about until I actually had to deal with it on a daily basis. And the truth is, as sad as it sounds, that the heritage industry in this country (and others) suffers from an incredible mistreatment from the visitors – at least in some cases. Culture is at a great deal of being endangered. We live in the age of technology. Our cultural values may be replaced for new artefacts that reign in the digital area. The respect for the items of the past, of long gone civilizations, and even more those that still remain is very necessary to understand where we have come from and where we are heading as a species. Technology can help us preserve these things, but it needs to be done through a responsible use of such resources. War and hate crimes destroy our heritage. In the not so distant Middle East news reports advise of monument been obliterated by the likes of ISIS. Art pieces go missing or are stolen. And that is to name a few. Culture, heritage and patrimony are worth keeping alive. So here I will share some pretty common issues I encounter on my day-to-day job, which reflect pretty poor social practices and a terrible treatment of culture which we need to address and fix.

-“Why do I have to pay for entry? I am a local I pay taxes/It used to be free” – Yes, very good. Are you aware of the cuts done to local governments in term of culture and the arts? Do you know how many museums actually get funding from the Estate? Far less than you think. Just because some of the big museums in places like London (and not all by the way) are free, it does not mean everyone else has access to the same amount of resources. You may think that paying to go into churches is an abomination, but tell me how do you think that wonder of the English Gothic gets repaired and cleaned so it does not fall apart so people like you can come and visit it? And how do you think the person that has to be at the door get paid? Or that tour guide that was so nice to show you around? Hardly anything is free these days. I am not arguing whether it should be free or not – I wished! What I am saying is that, as much as this may seem outrageous, the heritage industry lacks a sincere amount of funding and resources and simply because you are unhappy with it, it does not mean you can make the staff working on that site feel awkward about it, or verbally abuse them and their job. We are people, we have feelings too, and simply because we are on a public facing role, it does not mean we can or will just take it.

Continue reading “Hideous Visitor Attitudes Learnt and Experienced from Working in the Heritage Industry”

Medieval Warfare Vol. VI, Issue 6 Review – January/February 2017

Late last year I got the opportunity to read an advance issue of Medieval Warfare and since it was a chance to keep up to date with different historical literature since graduation I was delighted. A couple of issues were sent to W.U.HSTRY and Lilly (W.U.HSTRY ruler) sent this one over to me as it kept in line with my interests as a historian including art history, the Hundred Years War, and my curiosity in medieval weaponry. My initial reaction in receiving this issue, which is released in January 2017, was to enjoy how much effort has gone into the layout of the magazine and wishing I had the ability to draw medieval landscapes and images with such skill. The key theme of this issue was the ideology of man, specifically those of the lower orders of society, trying to act like God through violence and war in order to settle their respective scores, and the German Peasants War of the sixteenth century was an apt choice to represent this theme throughout. The editor of Medieval Warfare, Peter Konieczny, gave a short introduction to the theme of this month by identifying the main contributors to January’s edition such as eminent medieval scholars such as Kelly DeVries, some of whose work I enjoyed reading myself during research in my undergraduate History degree. There are heavier analytical aspects to this magazine towards the German Peasants War and this is followed by a lighter hearted tale of a cow stopping a siege.

I could sit here and analyse the whole magazine but I thought it would be more suitable for me to choose the highlights. As expected from the magazine with warfare in the title there is a strong tilt towards weaponry, armour, military tactics and the role the lords and peasants played against each other during the German Rebellion. The first article by Kelly DeVries ‘Lucifer and his Angels’ debates the issue around why would peasants revolt in the first place. The abstract introduces the Marxist opinion that peasant oppression from their lords meant that rebellion was always ‘simmering’. DeVries initially states that peasant revolts were infrequent, of varying size, and never successful. This is a good start to looking into why, how and what caused the sixteenth century German peasants to revolt and why it is particularly interesting to medieval historians. Throughout the article is images of armour worn during the war and maps presenting the breadth of the revolt in the German provinces.

The next couple of articles include text by Erich B.Anderson who looks at an army that swept through Upper Swabia in 1525 and Jean-Claude Brunner’s ‘Siege of Salzburg’. They both look in-depth as specific episodes of German history within the different aspects of the Peasants War. Another interesting part was an excerpt in Sidney E.Dean’s article on ‘Knight of the Iron Hand’ Götz von Berlichingen where Dean looked specifically into the mechanics of Berlichingen’s literal iron hands and whether they were efficient or useless in their role. Each article offers the opportunity to look into further reading which for both amateur and academic historians alike are useful.

The best article available in my opinion would be Iason-Eleftherios Tzouriadis’ ‘Death, Violence and Sex’ which looks into Anti-War propaganda art created during the sixteenth century as a response to the wars encircling Europe during the late middle ages. This is a particular interest to the art geek in me. Art in the military was limited as an aid in studying the military in itself and their equipment. Tzouriadis references Hale’s 1990 work Artists and Warfare in the Renaissance. This offers extra insight into how historians have started to critically analyse illustrations to inform their research. The article shows several examples to back up both Tzouriadis and Hale’s analysis.

It is always good practise as historians to look for parallels between the medieval and modern eras. Dahm looks into the socio-economic and political similarities between medieval Germany and 1850 when an eminent piece of medieval warfare scholarship was published. The last part of the magazine was dedicated towards the Hundred Years War as an increasing interest in the logistics of medieval warfare is appearing in historical literature, and a weapon that never existed.

In all this is a fascinating issue that introduced an element of history I was unfamiliar with and happy to get acquainted. The whole issue is 60 pages and packed with information, illustrations and snippets of relevant information. There is a coherency between the articles with a strand on the role of peasants in history, the logistics of each revolt, war, rebellion, siege or catastrophe and finally their representation in the media. I found nothing to argue with but a lot to research as a new interest to add to my bookshelves and by the end of the magazine you will want to rewatch Monty Python and the Holy Grail (the last article).

Medieval Warfare can be brought at https://www.karwansaraypublishers.com/shop/medieval-warfare/subscriptions.html

 

Medieval Warfare Magazine: The Knights Templar

Today we have a review of a great historical magazine for you. Medieval Warfare is published by Karwansaray Publishers out of the Netherlands. They publish other history magazines such as Ancient History and Ancient Warfare as well as one called Wargames, Soldiers & Strategy. But right now we’re taking a look at Medieval Warfare Magazine Volume 6, Issue 5. It is a bi-monthly magazine that features 60 full colour pages with great illustrations, and is edited by Peter Konieczny. The issue I have here is themed around the Knights Templar, but there are also a few unrelated parts of the magazine.

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First of all, let’s see what the magazine has to offer in just pure written content. Coming under the theme of the issue there are 8 articles. Included in these you have a good introduction to the topic and who the Templars were, their rise and fall, and the aftermath of their order being destroyed up to how they are perceived in the present day. There is then a piece by world leading scholar in research into the military religious orders and the Crusades, Helen Nicholson, about her work and how she first became interested in this particular piece of history. Aside from a couple of good articles about the history of the Templars that go into more detail on certain events, there is also a list of 10 facts about the Templars, which is a nice touch to add into such a complex theme, making the magazine a little more easy to digest in this case. The ten facts are also quite interesting! Such as this one:
Female Templars – While the Templar Rule demanded that its brothers keep women away, and forbade them from being members, scholars have been able to find scattered references to ladies who joined
the order and lived with the men. For example, a woman named Berengaria of Lorach was the ‘soror’ of a Templar house in Catalonia, where her name appears in witness lists among those of the brothers, and she is recorded as giving counsel to the commander of the house.”
The main theme of the magazine is then finished of with The afterlife of the Templars which looks at the depictions of the order after its end, and in modern popular culture. Overall in terms of just the theme of this one issue there is a good amount of content with a few different focuses and approaches that makes things interesting.

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Other than the theme of the issue, there are also a few articles and other features in the magazine. The magazine starts of with Marginalia right after the editor’s introduction that is a couple of pieces of news or recent developments to do with the history of Medieval warfare. In this issue there is some news about the stone marking the spot where King Harold fell at Hastings in 1066 has been moved to a new location following a new study of the battlefield. Other features in the magazine include a very interesting one about Bellifortis, a treatise written by Conrad Kyeser in 1405 on military engineering at the time, with many designs and ideas on gunpowder weapons and siege warfare. I found this a particularly interesting read as it was completely unknown to me, and was apparently so to most people for a long time due to Kyeser not having acquired a patron by the time of his death and the therefore unlikely odds of any of his designs actually being built or used.

At the end of the magazine there are a few reviews. One was of the 2005 film Kingdom of Heaven which is quite appropriate for the theme of the issue. This is an interesting film to review as it is one of the most popular and successful out there about the crusades, and yet there are many criticisms to be made of it, majorly of its historical inaccuracies of not just the crusades, but also many fundamental facts about the Medieval world and warfare. The review here is one pretty much agree with, and tackles the choices that were made in the film that revolve around clumsily inserted modern agendas alongside poor history. The other reviews at the end of the mag are of a couple of books, one of which is particularly interesting to me; The Art of Swordsmanship, which is a translation of a fencing treatise originally written by Hans Lecküchner in the late fifteenth century, and translated by Jeffrey L. Forgeng. It was originally titled Kunst des Messerfechtens, or The Art of Messer Fencing.

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Finally I just want to make some points about the design and appearance of the magazine. Overall I think it looks great. There are excellent illustrations by various people throughout, which often remind me of an Osprey book. Also the overall design is very clean, easy on the eyes, and easy to read unlike some other magazines I know of which end up looking like a bit of a mess. Here they just keep things simple and add in a few nice medieval styled designs around some of the text columns. Another little touch I like is the clearly separate boxes at the end of each article that give you sources for further reading which are a good way of including a list of sources that doesn’t look as confusing as in academic books or papers.

Overall I have to say this magazine was a great read and a pleasure to review. Now I’m certainly thinking about a subscription!

If you’d like to know more then go to their site at: https://www.karwansaraypublishers.com/pw/medieval-warfare/

Tous les matins du monde le Roi danse. Music in the Sun king’s era through French films.

Now, we have this man. And the man is a king, mind you. A great king. One who, allegedly, dared to say that He was the State. And, by the way, there is this tale of this man not really being the king, but a twin, or a lookalike, the real king being imprisoned behind an iron mask…well, that is literature after all. We, here, discuss History, it seems. And History is all about facts, isn’t it?

Well…facts are good for your health and all that. But sometimes you need to fantasize, adorn or simply fill the gaps between fact and fact. That is what dangerous people such as writers, playwrights and filmmakers do when historical fact is not what they need (or just not enough) to tell a story. And sometimes we can take advantage of such mischief to try to understand the facts.

So… we have this king. The king had a Kingdom he was supposed to rule, yet he also liked to dance. That, the way in which dancing can help ruling a kingdom, is part of the story that Gérard Corbiau, the French director, brought to life back in 2000 through his film “Le Roi danse”. Almost a decade before, another Frenchman, Alain Corneau, had tried to show us the meaning of music in the same age in the Cesar Award winning film “Tous les matins du monde” which spoke not about the king himself, or politics, but about music outside his court’s gilded cage, and the ambitions of those who wanted to be inside that cage.

Corbiau’s film, probably the lesser from the strictly artistic point of view, offers more to the connoisseur in the field of History (or, at least, historical based fiction). It is not about the Sun King himself, but about the musician who dominated great part of his reign, Jean Baptiste Lully, and his relations with both the king and other XVII century rock star, playwright Moliére. And in it we can find one powerful statement (apocryphal, unfortunately)from the king which could help us understand both his way of practicing politics and the importance of music and, significantly, dance during his lasting reign. Arguing with Lully, his Chief Musician, about the former role in his court (and Lully’s sexual preferences…but that is another story) the Sun King says that music has a part in the new order he is trying to instate, because it is the incarnation of universal harmony. “It is useful to me” says the king. “It is useful to the State” (which was more or less the same)…”and to God” (hence the argument about Lully’s tastes that were giving trouble to the king with the religious party in the Court). The aim is that France, who Louis XIV envisioned as the supreme power in Europe, had to have the best music in the continent…and obviously the most respectable. And Lully was very good at complying with the first, then not really as good with the second.

“Le Roi danse” depicts a dancing king, always keen on getting into the stage and show his prowess to the Court while, at the same time, sending powerful political messages through the choreography, music and wording. Even the wardrobe was designed to fulfill a purpose, usually to show the king’s magnificence. Louis was an absolutist ruler and so his ruling must be exerted in absolutely every possible way, music inclusive. During his reign, French music rose to the height of the European stage, fighting the Italian influence with purely (or so perceived) French traits: the prominence of dance and ballet, and above all, a rival for the Italian opera. First, in a joint.venture between the two artistic geniuses available, Lully and Moliére who together created the new genre: “la comédie ballet”, this being a development from the classic “ballet de court”, the cornerstone of French music up to that moment. Lully’s compositions were impaired to Moliére’s words, always humoristic and quite often satirical, in which some of the political views of the king were interspersed in a sometimes not-so-subtle way. Later on, Lully would eventually follow with his own evolution to Opera, the “tragédie lyrique” based upon the works of some of the best playwrights in France, next to Moliére himself, as Racine and Corneille.

Interestingly enough, given the known facts, the film suggests a break up between the partners prior to Lully’s success with the new tragédies. He is depicted at this point in his life as a paranoid who wants the king’s attention just for his music alone, and distrusts Moliére. Also despising his deteriorating health, Lully plots with the king to get rid of his friend accusing the playwright of being sick…which in fact, Moliére was. He coughed, he spat…not the powerful man he once was, not the image France wanted at the time. And, yes, Moliére was put aside by the king.

Probably my favorite scene in the film is that in which Moliére dies on the stage during a performance of  his counterattack on Lully: “Le Malade imaginaire”; he played an hypochondriac but, unlucky man, he was really sick. He had a bout of hemoptysis on stage during the fourth night of his last play, dying a little later, at home. That’s a fact…yet the way it is shown in the film gives the distorted fact a new strength. The forceful performance by Tcheky Karyo gives the whole scene an unforgettable scent of pathos.

So exits the scene Moliére, so the success will go finally, and entirely, to Lully. Master of the Court’s music, his Tragédies were all the rage, and he kept on composing music for his Master, the Sun King, trying to provide an ever-increasing brilliance to his reign. He died, and so begins the film, almost absurdly: he injured his own foot with his conducting staff, then refused to have the leg amputated on the grounds that a dancer’s leg couldn’t be amputated. Gangrene took its toll, finally, at a time when his star was in decline and the religious party was, again, on the rise at Court. Just a year before, Louis have made a point of not inviting his old crony to perform at Versailles; yet Lully’s injury came while he was conducting a Te Deum on the occasion of celebrating the king’s recovery from surgery: the loyal courtier to the bitter end.

In fact he was so loyal not only to the king but to the State (in case the latter was not in fact the former…or vice versa) that he fought his own kind all along his life: being an Italian (Giovanni Battista Lulli was his real name) he behave like a French, pushing forward his adoptive nation’s political goals by his own means and helping to create a truly French music, different and almost opposite to the Italian dominant trend, especially in the Opera field, where his innovations in text composition, massive ballets and combination of arias and recitatives, giving less importance to singing and more to acting and dancing, departed far away from the until then successful tendencies.

As good as “Le Roi danse” depicts music at Court, “Tous les matins du monde” does the same with the music outside it. But, surprisingly, and somewhat fittingly, it begins with the same approach: and old courtier and favoured musician is getting to the end of his life, and he remembers his past life in a long flashback which comprises almost the entire length of the film. The exact same technique (perhaps not coincidentally) in both films. But in this case, the musician was a local kid, the viola da gamba virtuoso Marin Marais.

What surprised me most of “Tous les matins…” was the silence. In a film almost two hours long, dialogues are few, short and often brisk (even brusque, especially on the part of Monsieur de Sainte Colombe), with music and silence filling the void. Even Marin Marais proposes a couple of times to his Master that the essence of music could be silence, to the amusement (or disgust, it is difficult to tell from the restraint interpretation given by Jean-Pierre Marielle) of the latter.

Story make short, a great musician (Sainte Colombe) embittered by his wife’s death secluded himself in his country house where he plays and composes in solitude. In time, he teaches the Viola da gamba to his two daughters and have some gigs, thus attracting the Court’s attention. Summoned by the King (so interested in music as we’ve seen) he refuses to attend the Court but a young virtuoso is instead sent from there to learn from him. This ends in disaster, because Sainte Colombe is not a patient teacher and Marais a tad too much haughty to be a good pupil.

Love (or lust) interferes when Marais and Sainte Colombe’s oldest daughter begin a relation. She helps him secretly spying on his father while he is playing but, more at ease at the Court, Marais soon grows tired of her, and leaves. She will get ill while her father, relentlessly, pursues his music (and, by the way, his wife’s ghost whom he could see sometimes when playing) and Marais becomes an applauded and rich Court musician. After her dead, Marais finally gets in touch, on cold night, with his old Master, and learns what has to be learned…

Quite apart from “Le roi danse”, no Court life in here. No fight for power. The story is told by Marais, now and old man and teacher himself, as an example for his pupils. Is all about music and what lies in it, and nothing about Court’s music and what lies inside Versailles, yet it tells us interesting things about music in that age… and is relations with Power. Marais is all Court: haughty mannered, ambitious, cold-hearted. He is a viola da gamba virtuoso and yet Sainte Colombe will not teach him because he cannot feel music in his pupil, just technique without feeling. At Court, technique was far more important, as claiming to be a virtuoso could put you in the King’s (and he being the Sun king, being the focus could be as dangerous as rewarding), and ambition and refined manners and a high self-regard were paramount to get to the top: we’ve already seen how Lully betrayed Moliére. Top of the list there was very limited space. He will get whatever he can from Sainte Colombe (daughter inclusive) just because it is an instrument to his ascension in the Royal favour.

On the contrary, Sainte Colombe represents a musician who is no friend of the crowned paraphernalia. He lives for his music and his memories, and doesn’t want to be part of Louis power politics. He is solicited by the king because he is a virtuoso; furthermore, he is also an innovator who has added an extra string to his instruments to reach the whole spectrum of Human voice and whose compositions were highly regarded. This, obviously, fitted perfectly in Louis intentions on putting French music at the head of European arts, as part of his pretension to political hegemony. But when the harsh player rejects all summons, the King just let him go, with grace. He couldn’t afford to lose an argument with a subject, but probably also thought that paying that much attention to a commoner could be, in fact, a sign of weakness on his part. So allegedly amused by Sainte Colombe’s resistance he drops his summons…only to, this is just a suggestion, plot with his courtiers to get Marais taught. He was, after all, a young and very promising musician himself, the son of a humble cobbler, who surely will abide to his King’s will in his own benefit.

If ever was a plot, it worked. Sainte Colombe’s music wasn’t lost and Marais became, on time, ordinaire de la chambre du roi pour la viole, position he will kept for forty-six years, learning also from Lully and attempting even some operas, although he is best known for his viola da gamba works. Meanwhile, Monsieur de Sainte Colombe fought his ghosts far from the Court’s glitter, trying to find a sense in a life that was meaningless for him after his loss but for what he could get off the music. Not interested in power, money or position he just played. HIs work, nonetheless, became a piece in Louis schemes both by his lasting impression in Marais’ own works, and the innovations he brought, both technical and in composition, to his field of expertise; the glory of his music was, after all, the glory of France and its Sun king.

The title of the film (which is based upon a novel written by Pascal Quignard, who also wrote the adaptation for the screen) “Tous les matins du monde”, “all the mornings in the world”, comes from something Quignard makes Marais to say both in the novel and the film. Tous les matins du monde sont sans retour: all the mornings in the world never return. At the end, Marin Marais came to understand this, as he finishes his story and sees his old teacher’s ghost, proud at last, asking him to play the song he wrote for Madeleine, daughter and lover respectively. When everything is gone, music still remains. Thus happens to Louis XIV in the long run, today well-known as Versailles builder, even though that honour should bestowed on Le Vau, and d’Orbay as architects, Le Brun as designer and Le Nôtre as landscape designer. HIs political work faded as France went to turmoil and the absolute power he built, with the help of Lully, Moliére, Sainte Colombe, Marais and the like, turned into liberté, egalité, fraternité amidst much bloodshed. The music his musicians made for him, to make shine his France and himself, is still there, moving, alive, inspiring. The morning of French glory is never to returned, as it happens to all the rest. Its music, however, never fully went away, and it is always around us, waiting for someone to hear and get in touch, just as Sainte Colombe’s wife.

Sic transit gloria mundi.

Museum Disparity: Resources in the Heritage Industry. Examples from Portugal.

As you may know, I was on holiday over in northern Portugal just this summer gone. Although this was not such a museum/site centered visit as maybe those of Denmark and Norway, and I guess that is kind of the point of what I am going to talk to you about today. For many years, I thought it was just a Spanish issue the fact that our museums and galleries were few in number, poor in design and not very well-kept. Of course, please understand I am not talking of main attractions such as El Prado or other museums in Madrid and Barcelona. Places of national importance never suffer. I have a great example in Santander with the Museo Arqueologico de Cantabria: a museum that only has 10% of its collection on display, that opens as of when, and that kept the same sad look for over 2 decades…And we hold some pretty important Celtic heritage in there, you know? But I feared this may have been the same in other European countries in my visit to Italy. I was truly shocked by what was the so famous Academy in Florence, with the art of Michelangelo being kept inside, in this place that is easy to miss (or so it was in the year 2008), and that looked seriously run down. Perhaps I am just too used to the wonders of the French heritage industry. I mean, you all have been to France, maybe? You’d know that even the smallest village that has any artefact of historical/cultural interest is kept to the very best that can be, surrounded by information. The French have a wonderful ability to make an informative visit out of the finds of a detritus pit in a desolated archaeological site. Sure, I do not expect that all countries would have this ability, but it does make me think: what are we missing? I mean even here in the UK sometimes I get surprised by the lack of contextual information in sites managed by organisations such as English Heritage or The National Trust. Sometimes they seem to follow more business-like models, building events around these living treasures rather than for the sake of the history and knowledge preserved in them. And that is the problem, though, right? It is all about the money…

Whilst in Braga, I was lucky enough to make it down to the Museu D. Diogo de Sousa: the local archaeology museum. You can find the details here:

http://mdds.culturanorte.pt/pt-PT/Default.aspx

I must admit, for a small local museum, I found it pleasant. The fair to get in was more than reasonable, the material inside was certainly interesting – and to my surprise I found that even the actual shape of the museum has another cultural use: as a theatre for plays mostly in the spring and summer! That is a clever use of a multicultural space. I was disappointed to see we were the only people within the complex, however. Admittedly it was a hot sunny day, right after lunch, perhaps not the most propitious time for a museum visit. But even so. The gallery displays were very atmospheric, they reminded me to those used at the Nationalmuseet of Copenhagen: wood, glass, steel. Nice, modern, simple, useful. Some other items, like the many stone pillars found on the basement floor were simply displayed in the open, with different light uses, which I believe are done this way to ensure their preservation.

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Nevertheless, and although I really enjoyed the collection, I found that there was a considerable lack of explanations: no contextual panels, no more than a few words written next to each artefact. I also found there was a fair amount of empty space. There was one monitor used to display different aspects of Portuguese history within the context of prehistory and the Roman empire – which is the main focus of the collection. But there was no sound to go with the images, and only one screen which looked rather small in such an empty wall. Then as you leave the museum it is very easy to miss the fact that there is a roman mosaic in the basement of the facilities – a lovely guide took us there because she could clearly see we were pretty lost.

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As we left the museum, we landed on the roman baths just across the road. Strangely enough, this is a very easy place to miss. The facilities left me again with a mixed feeling: this site is actually still being excavated by the archaeology students at the university of Braga, because the found the remains of what seems to be an earlier theatre by the side of the dig. Yet there was all of 3 more people apart from ourselves. The staff was very friendly and asked us whether we wanted to watch the video in Portuguese or English. The thing is that before you go and actually see the site there is this small entrance hall with a big TV and some chairs were they show you a video explaining the changes in the uses of the baths – which was really cool by the way, and well informative. And then, off you go into this site…

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The ruins of the baths are covered, and there is a few places where you can sit if you may. But that is pretty much it…Why?! These things are cool and in a remarkable preservation state for where they have been found! PLUS the theatre on the side which you can just about make out.

…We found a similar thing when we went to the beautiful Guimarães, where we visited the Museu Arqueológico Martins Sarmento, which is in a wonderful building that holds, according to the towns own tourism website: “principal referência da cultura castreja em Portugal e um dos mais importantes museus de todo o espaço europeu onde se manifestou aquela cultura”. In english: one of the best example of the castro culture in Portugal and one of the most important collections in europe regarding the subject…And trust me: it is.

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There is an entire archaeological site thrown in those 19th century cases screaming history at you.

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Yet, once again, we were the only visitors, and the lack of information and display use was devastating. Granted, we were given an A4 page with info on each display case…How can we be keeping these things like that?! And okay, I get it, this is probably the original display, which is super cool that has kept for this long, but…Did I miss something? I mean, I am sure I did. Anyway, this is the web to the museum http://www.csarmento.uminho.pt/sms.asp

Then, we have weird things right? Like in the same town you have the castle of Afonso Henriques, conqueror of Portugal, and all I could think about the display (which is awesome!) was: “Well, I am having such flashbacks of the castle of William the Conqueror in Falaise”.

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Just wonderful amount of information, very creative, innovative and modern. I could have stayed there for hours and hours. And the little video with the cartoons explaining the history of the first king of Portugal was just A+ work. The same goes to the palace of the dukes of Braganza: collection that envies no other ducal manor house I’ve been to…

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Apparently some people on TripAdivsor were complaining that it was “very empty”…

So what went “wrong” with the other sites? Or the amazing collection at Rates explaining the entire story of their quirky church, which by the sounds of it only me and mum heard probably for days according to the guide inside the gallery. And this was free by the way – the rest were not. Then we have the example of a superb museum (more about this at a later stage; watch this space) in Porto: World of Discoveries. An entire museum dedicated to the Portuguese Age of Discovery. Taking out the tickets, the receptionist asked us how did we know the museum was there! The very receptionist! And this museum was nothing like the others: this is a modern museum, with plenty of funding coming through, with temporary exhibitions that are multicultural and multifunded – and with a thematic restaurant on the top…And a wonderful gift shop. With information in like 5 or 7 different languages…

But that eyrie question…How did you know?…Were we not supposed to? Are we doing cultural visits wrong? Or perhaps we are the odd kind of tourists, going to a wonderful place like Portugal expecting something else than nice beaches and sunny weather? And if that is the case…what are we doing to our heritage industries? Because it sounds to me like we are deviating them from any real value, and taking away the power of knowledge from the public. And that, is not right. Public awareness needs to increase, potentially through a reconsideration of what heritage is and how we use it.

 

Bygdøy Museums in Oslo: 4 Exhibitions in 1 day

Welcome to another post related to our recent trip to the Norwegian capital! Today I will be giving you a quick review and visit to these 4 fantastic museums that are all placed in the peninsula of Bygdøy. You can get there either by boat service or on the bus, takes about 10-20 minutes from Oslo’s city centre depending on the method of transport that you take and the time of the day. These are the museums Alex and I wanted to see, but there are some more, so you could certainly get 2 days worth of visits in this area if you really wanted – we simply did not have time for the Holocaust Centre or the Maritime Museum! Now, I appreciate that 4 museums in one day seems like a lot, but do not let this scare you away, they are all actually not very big museums at all. And if you are willing to stretch the area of Bygdøy to a 2 day affair, then you can spread them out even more.

Let me give you a breakdown of our schedule for that day: Viking Ship Museum dead on the opening hour at 10:00 am, we finished there around 11:30 am, and walked for a couple of minutes to the Norwegian Folk Museum. We were done there by after lunch, around 1:oo pm roughly. Then we headed for the waterfront and decided we had time to see the Fram Museum, where we spent a little bit more than an hour. Finally we landed next door to the Kon Tiki Museum right before 3, having an hour exactly until the museum closed – we did not miss anything terribly important, apart from the film showing of the Oscar-winning documentary, for which they have specific shows during the day. In any case, the visit were not overwhelming (this was Alex’s judgement, not mine! He is the saner one, you can trust him), and the ship thematic really worked well, highlighting the individual contexts and really bringing forward how important boats have been for the Norwegian nation throughout all of history, and for different purposes. Now I wont go mad, expect a few pictures, videos and text reviewing out experience. In any case, I hope you get if nothing else a glimpse of a very interesting cultural enterprise!

Viking Ship Museum

I could not be happier than seen the fascinating viking age ships that have made such a deep mark in historiography – I was there, and with the ones from Denmark, this is all something I can tick off the list of things to do in life. The museum itself is not very big, and it does not have loads of material in exhibition, or explanatory panels, but to be honest – if you’re here is because you want to see the ships, and they are totally work the visit. This will only be a teaser as I have plans for a combo update with the ships of Roskilde too, so here you go:

Oseberg burial ship, in all its glory.
Oseberg burial ship, in all its glory.

It was incredibly difficult to photograph the boats with my incredibly poor equipment – aka my phone – so I decided at some point that video was useful – my comments and difficult for words show how boggled I was at this. Vid. 1 – Gokstad. Vid.2 – new museum competition.

Thinking about the future! Conscious effort of preserving the past, which I prominently saw all across different museums in Oslo.
Thinking about the future! Conscious effort of preserving the past, which I prominently saw all across different museums in Oslo.

One of the carved head posts from the burials at Oseberg and Gokstad.
One of the carved head posts from the burials at Oseberg and Gokstad.

One of the burial wagons - simialr to those from the Nationalmuseet in Copenhagen.
One of the burial wagons – similar to those from the Nationalmuseet in Copenhagen.

All in all a fantastic place, but I would recommend now, knowing that they are planning on remodelling soon, that you wait and visit when that is sorted. Unless you are dying to go, in which case hurry up!

Norwegian Folk Museum

This was a very pleasant visit – very similar style and idea to the Open Air Museum in Copenhagen, but with more exhibitions. They have 2 buildings with small exhibits regarding local history about the Saami, the history of regional costume, and other items from Norway’s history from a domestic, rural and cultural point of view. This place has much more activity during the summer months – they have daily activities and different areas of the museum open. Some places were being improved or restored so I would suggest this may be better suited for warmer seasons. In any case, it was very quaint.

Displays from the Saami exhibition.
Displays from the Saami exhibition.

Buildings from the reconstructed Old Town.

Buildings from the reconstructed Old Town.

The Starve Church - my main reason for oming to this place. Absolutly glorious.
The Starve Church – my main reason for coming to this place. Absolutely glorious.

Fram Museum

Considered the best museum in Norway (period), this was not scheduled but as we had some time spare, we decided we should not go without seeing it. The museum is dedicated to the Norwegian expeditions to both poles, and I must say that, although it is really not my area of expertise, it was a great experience. I have taped most of our interaction in the museum, simply because it was fairly difficult due to the layout to take decent pictures. In addition, the museum is very modern in its approach to the story it tells so taping it allowed me to reflect this a bit better. I have to say, as a piece of contextualisation and suiting purpose to the materials displayed, is probably one of the best museums I have been in the last few years that achieves this greatly. The actual Fram ship is the centre piece o the exhibition – inside it there are displays from cabinets and objects within the boat, while the 3 levels created around the ship talk about the different expeditions. They even have an area dedicated for children to feel like a pole explorer. Overall, this museum gets a 5 star rating. And on a last comment, the museum shop is absolutely terrific, with some great books on the subject which are difficult to find elsewhere – so if you stop by, do consider taking some of those gems home with you.

The Fram.
The Fram.

Example of the varied displays from the museum, these metal sheets creating timelines and conecting pictures really bring forward the information while keeping some sort of modern nautical spirit.
Example of the varied displays from the museum, these metal sheets creating timelines and connecting pictures really bring forward the information while keeping some sort of modern nautical spirit.

The Kon-Tiki Museum

This is a museum that every humanist should visit – in my very modest opinion. This is the story of a man who did not give up his theory and vision despite the odds and the criticisms. This is the story of a man who even put his life at risk to proof a valid point regarding the interactions between the people in South America and the Pacific Islands, and beyond. Thor Heyerdahl, man and legend, and the work of a life time, all neatly displayed in this museum, with no ostentation, and no oversimplification of the matter, which is not easily achieved. The man who picked a raft boat and proved his peers wrong, or at least created reasonable doubt. If you can make it for the documentary showing, I am sure you would not regret it – unfortunately we could not make it, which I regret. But in any case the museum is worth a visit, they have the preserved balsas that Thor got made for his historical experiments, as well as some information regarding his involvement in the Easter Island archaeological excavation. This is not only a biographical piece about the man, but also a top piece of ethnographic, anthropological and archaeological research in a subject perhaps not very prominent in Europe.

Ra II - the boat with which Heyerdahl crossed the Atlantic in 1970 trying to prove that there could have been a cultural interaction between the old mediterranean cultures such as Egypt the Americas.
Ra II – the boat with which Heyerdahl crossed the Atlantic in 1970 trying to prove that there could have been a cultural interaction between the old mediterranean cultures such as Egypt the Americas.

The Kon Tiki expedition balsa.
The Kon Tiki expedition balsa.

Displays from the museum - the pannels are concise but present enough information. The objects perhaps are not displayed in the best way, but it works.
Displays from the museum – the panels are concise but present enough information. The objects perhaps are not displayed in the best way, but it works.

And that is all for today folks – I hope these brief looks at these 4 amazing exhibitions gets your wanderlust going so you embark in your own cultural expedition to Norway. See you in the next update!

Red Orchestra 2: A Historical Game Review

For my second post in the series of historical game reviews I’m going for something completely different. Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad is a realistic multiplayer first-person shooter. It is the sequel to Red Orchestra: Ostfront 41-45 and was released in 2011 by Tripwire Interactive.

This game is fairly unknown in the mainstream gaming audience. It received favourable reviews on release, but 4 years on it is now almost entirely played and kept active by a relatively small but dedicated group of players who stick by the game for its unique blend of tactical realism, immersive design and familiar core gameplay mechanics similar to more regular shooters. This great combination results in the game being an unmatched masterpiece of its genre. While there are games that are better simulators, more visually impressive games, and even more well made gameplay experiences, none can compete with Red Orchestra’s approach that has resulted in a simple yet meaningful and visceral historical experience. A testament to the value of this interactive medium and the advantages it has over others in historical depiction and more.

Historical Content

This game is fairly minimal in its raw historical content. As the name ‘Heroes of Stalingrad’ implies, the whole game takes place during the Battle of Stalingrad (23 August 1942 – 2 February 1943). There are the two sides, the Axis and the Allies consisting of the Wehrmacht and the Red Army. Each location that the multiplayer matches are played in are all part of the overall map of Stalingrad and its surrounding areas and outskirts. For each of these locations there is a story for the game, which corresponds to a real live equivalent in the conflict, but the real outcomes can obviously be meddled with if the wrong side wins. The history of each location, as well as other details such as information on each weapon featured in the game can be found here: link 

History Conveyed Through Gameplay

When playing the game there are a lot of smaller details that really enrich the experience. To begin with, this game has some of the best weapons I have ever seen, on many levels. The different guns are all modeled incredibly well and all seem to handle and sound different and distinctive. The way the character uses each gun is realistic in an interesting way, and sometimes you need to do things like brace your weapon against a wall or window to shoot more steady. You need to think about the differences between the power, speed and reloads of each weapon, and you may find yourself preferring a favourite for small details like it’s weight and how it effects your movement, or the way the sights work. On top of these details, the combined smoke, noise and recoil of all the weapons can feel quite overwhelming at first, especially when compared to more popular games where the weapons might as well be BB guns in comparison.

That brings me onto the second point. As you use each weapon, and fight more battles, your character will improve their skills and equipment. This is a very subtle mechanic, not like other games where you may level up to be twice as good at everything, but it still makes a real difference when your soldier goes from being a bit slow on the reload and lining up the sights of his gun, then being very shaky and breathing heavily and staggering at nearby explosions, to eventually becoming a battle hardened veteran who can smoothly operate his weapon, reload and aim quickly, and flinch less, allowing you to overall make better shots with quicker reaction time. You also upgrade your equipment from standard issue to finely tuned weapons that are more accurate and slightly easier to use, as well as unlocking larger magazines, bayonets, and scopes if appropriate for the weapon of the period.

Other small details that add to the game also come in the form of realistic historical depictions that can serve a double purpose as game mechanics, something that I believe other historical games should strive to do better. For example, in a realistic shooter you aren’t going to have big markers over your teammate’s heads, so you usually need to recognize them by their uniform to avoid friendly fire, but this isn’t always possible and accidents do happen. One thing that helps with this is looking at the way your target moves, are they sprinting with their rifle held by their side in one hand, or in front of them with two? If the former, then he’s a Wehrmacht soldier, trained to run that way, open fire comrade!

Another detail is that when you improve your character, you can also eventually unlock the ‘enemy weapon’ meaning at the highest rifleman level, you can choose to use the other team’s rifle, and the same for other classes of soldier. How this plays out is that each team will end up wanting to use the better weapons from the other team. This can also be done by looting in the middle of the game, but that isn’t always as practical. For example, the Russian machine gunners usually go for the german MG-34, or even better the MG-42 machineguns, and the Germans usually go for the Russian PPSH-41 submachine gun. It was actually fairly common for the Germans on the eastern front in the war to prefer the Russian PPSH, and many were captured and re-issued under different names, or even re-chambered to use German ammunition. The fact that this is in essence the same thing that occurs in the game points to the excellent job the game does of recreating the effectiveness of each real weapon.

As I said before, the game is fairly minimal in its historical content, at least when you look at it from the outside. Once you start playing however, is when the true potential of the game shines through. The somewhat limited breadth of the historical content allows the game to focus on some key aspects. Where another WWII game might be single player and have the player visit various fronts of the war across different stages of the war, this game has you stuck in the battle of Stalingrad. The fact that the game is only made for online multiplayer somehow adds to the experience, rather than making it feel more like a game, it makes things more tense and unexpected, and the overarching campaign that each match is part of can feel never-ending. A real slog to victory, or a struggle on the brink of defeat as you defend your very last territory on the map . There’s a real sense of teamwork and a proper chain of command in a good game, and when that falls apart and players ignore the commander and squad leaders the battlefield can become a real slaughtering ground.

When you get down to the small details, such as the well animated characters, the fantastic voice acting of realistic rallying calls, cries of pain, and even gurgling death, or the deafening sound of gunshots and artillery, the experience is incredibly immersive, and completely intimidating. At times like this the game can be compared to the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan, with bullets cracking overhead, comrades running beside you one second and vaporized by a mortar shell the next, and no knowing what will happen. Will you make it to wherever you’re desperately sprinting to, or will you be caught by a stray round? where are you even going? does it matter? The game can get so intense at points that you might start thinking of disobeying the commander and saving your own skin, and you may end up in the exact sort of situations you see in these war films, or even what you may imagine happening in war, but in this case, you are in control of what you do. You are this one soldier, and the rest of the soldiers on this battlefield are just like you and could make any amount of unpredictable decisions or snap judgments that can end in perhaps infinite circumstances.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I must say that this is one of the best games to depict The Second World War. Even though it does not cover the whole war, or include a great deal of historical fact in detail, the type of experience it can give you gives insight into the history from a different perspective and is really very well done. The game plays to the strengths of the medium and delivers an interesting, challenging and thought-provoking experience that I believe can’t be matched by any film or book.

As a side note, if you are interested in this game, there is also the game Rising Storm which comes as part of Red Orchestra 2, and although it lacks some of the polish that this game has, it is almost the exact same type of experience but in the setting of the Pacific in WWII.

Age of Empires II: A Historical Game Review

For a long time now I have been meaning to write something combining my two favourite things, History and Videogames. So here I’m starting a new series of posts reviewing historical games. Now seems like a good time to start, as there have been quite a few significant historical games in recent years, and there are many more coming soon!

Since I started studying history at university, I have been constantly seeking out historical games, and at this point a few years on, my taste has almost entirely changed to favour any style of game with a solid historical representation, or even a loose inspiration. The first game I’m going to look at however, won’t be one of the more recent games to come out, not by a long shot. I’m going right back to the start, at least the start for me, to a game that was released in 1999… when I was only 5. Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings.

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Developed by Ensemble studios, it was the second game in the series after the initial release of Age of Empire in 1997. While I did also play the first game extensively, I played the second game first, so I will be primarily talking about that. As you can imagine, I didn’t exactly know how to play this game when I was very young, but I did continue to mess around with it for years until I finally understood how you’re actually supposed to play. Sadly, playing the proper way didn’t involve building nice towns, taking time to read every bit of information, and trying to avoid getting anybody killed. However playing this way did allow me to experience the history included in this game, which eventually became my main focus.

Historical Content

Jumping into the history of the game, it’s pretty obvious that the main setting is Medieval period, with a focus on Europe for the most part. The first game covered the ancient and classical periods, which probably makes more sense when considering the name ‘Age of Empires’. Although the Age of Kings is mainly medieval, there are some playable civilizations featured in the game which spill over either side of that vague period of time.

The game features a decent amount of historical material, but you would mostly need to seek it out for yourself. For example, there is a large history page in the main menu of the game with plenty to read, but this is separate from the game, and seems to be there for those interested in learning more about the setting they are playing in.

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This section is quite good though, and covers various topics such as background on all the playable civilizations, development of weapons, tactics and castles, and an explanation of the different ‘ages’ of the medieval period. There are a few pieces of inaccurate information here or there, but for the most part it holds up well for something written in the 90s.

History Conveyed Through Gameplay

With the game being fairly old at this point, it’s quite a surprise to see that the core gameplay still holds up very well. This is probably because this and the original AoE have heavily influenced strategy games to this day. For example Starcraft 2, a more recent real-time strategy with one of the largest competitive and eSports scenes around, uses the exact same model. The basic gist of the game is to collect resources, construct production buildings and defences, and produce units and upgrades that are used to battle other players and assault their base.

So this style of gameplay lends itself quite well to exploring certain historical themes. At the very start of a match you are given a few villagers and you are in the ‘Dark Age’. Your first goal will be to build up your settlement until you can advance to the ‘Feudal Age’. These ‘ages’ are a core part of the game that indicate the advancement of your civilization, and as you progress through them eventually reaching the Imperial Age you will unlock a lot of technology and new capabilities. But we’ll start at the beginning first, in the Dark Age. To advance to the next age you need to construct one of the key buildings and collect a certain amount of resources, which in this case is food. At this point the player is beginning to explore the basic needs of settlement growth, as more villagers are needed to gather wood for buildings, more food is required, and more houses are needed for them. Each thing must be kept in balance or else production comes to a halt. Once this is achieved properly, and you reach the Feudal age, you see a change in the settlement. Temporary tents become permanent wooden buildings, you start being able to assign your villagers to work on farms to produce food more efficiently, and allowing your population to increase more rapidly. This is just a small example of how the ‘economy’ gameplay can give an interesting, if simplified view on how settlements can start, then expand and develop in different ways.

The use of upgrades in the game can also convey some historical concepts. For example, your basic units such as the spearman and archer can be upgraded to become a pikeman and crossbowman, and then halberdier and arbalester. All units in the game feature upgrades such as this, including different infantry, cavalry and siege weapons. There are aslo the minor upgrades in the game, of which there are many. Once a blacksmith building is constructed you are able to develop, based on the current age, different types of armour starting with padded, then chain, and then plate. This shows yet again a basic, but useful representation of weapon and armour development in history. There is a lot of other research included in the game, which would take far too long to go through, but it covers the development of fortifications, of tools, of religion, of farming and other working methods, and different strategies of warfare.

The combat in the game has some interesting touches and unexpected details, despite the battles mostly consisting of whichever player with the most resources throwing endless hordes at their foes. In a balanced fight, there is an advantage to using certain unit types, as for example your cavalry may be useful for their speed to use hit and run tactics, your archers do considerable damage to infantry, and spearmen have a bonus against enemy cavalry. These types of factors, paired with the use of unique units and bonuses given to each culture, can generate some interesting engagements. For example, if the Britons and the Franks cultures are in play (representing the English and the French in the later ‘ages’) they have certain advantages. The Britons can use longbowmen, and have several upgrades to their archers which give them greater range and quicker production rate. Whereas the Franks have better upgrades for their knights. These are fairly accurate representations in a broad sense, and if you are playing against either of these, there are  accurate ways to counter their advantages.

Looking at a larger scale rather than the minute gameplay details, there are other ways the game conveys history though play. What I mean here mostly is the ‘campaigns’. Each campaign is set around a historical event or series of events. The gameplay in the multiple missions of these campaigns can vary in a few ways, with some starting you with a large army to engage in battle, some starting you at the end of a battle as a lone survivor, or as a famous historical figure recruiting allies to join their small band of men. The game leads you through a story with different objectives changing as you go, you usually traverse a large map and encounter many different scripted events, but there is also the freedom to go off the rails and explore, which you are also rewarded for. These stories have a lot of historical content, but of course with a fair amount of embellishment delivered via some lovely cheesy voice acting and supplemented by some written background information and hints.

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Conclusion

Before I go on any longer, I should conclude. I could talk for a long time about this game, as it is still one of my favourites. It was probably one of the first things to ever get me properly interested in either gaming or history, and I still think it does it will. There are some flaws in the history of the game. It is often very simple, due to the nature of games in 1999 there wasn’t a lot of room for them to include too much detail, and game mechanics at this time couldn’t allow for decent simulation style games in real-time. But for the most part, it does a good job with what was available, opting for a more simple and representative approach rather than a completely accurate sim. This allowed the game to be better balanced, which probably helped it gain most of its popularity and influence in the years after its release.

So the game offers some interesting representations of historical events, cultures, economy and warfare. While looking back on it now after having studied history, it clearly offers only a basic understanding of these concepts. However, it conveys these concepts in such and engaging and fun way, that it could be a perfect introduction to medieval history to a complete beginner. I’m a good example of this, as after playing though the Agincourt campaign when I was about 12, I was given extra marks in school for knowing about Henry V and his command at the battle. 🙂