Is this DC Comics film the best representation of WW1?

With this being my last post for WUHstry, what better way to sign off than two of my favourite things: superheroes and history.

Very rarely do films take my breath away, but that was not the case when I saw the most recent instalment of the DC Comics film universe.

Logo of the DC Films company

Wonder Woman was the beginning of the future- the first successful superhero film with a female lead, which will kick-start the future of female superhero films. But it was more than just a superhero film, it was a film that highlighted the true nature of World War 1- the War to end all Wars.

Image from the Wonder Woman film

For those of you that haven’t seen the film yet, WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR???? It is easily the best film in the current DC universe, and tells the tale of how the Amazons and man were in conflict, and a new Amazon was moulded from clay to destroy Ares- the God of War. When the war comes to the Amazons, Diana realises it must be the actions of Ares. Without giving too much away, it is then Diana’s mission to find Ares, kill him and end the war to end all wars.

DC Comics illustration of Ares- the God of War

Of course it’s very easy to go what relevance has this fictional film got to the First World War, given the fact that it is made up. Well it was more this was the first film I have seen, other than perhaps the War Horse about World War 1, where it not only kept my hairs on end start to finish, but highlighted the true nature of war. Some films paint war as an opportunity for comradery, and although there is an enemy they are trying to defeat, there are losses along away (unless your a horse that seems to defy death).

A poster from the film War Horse

In Wonder Woman, we see how physically war effects the men. There is once scene in particular as Diana and her team are boarding the ferry, with the character passing all the wounded and injured returning from the front line. It gives the greatest example that the war did effect everyone who took part, a point which was further displayed throughout the film: character Charlie, played by Trainspotting’s Ewen Bremner portrays a Scottish Marksman who very much carries the scars of war, constantly having nightmares about his friends that died in front of him. It portrays such a vivid image that has not been seen in many other films, that the war really was a torrid time, where millions of innocent lives were lost.

Image from the Wonder Woman film of Diana and Charlie

The biggest, saddest moment of the whole film (look away if you haven’t seen it yet), is when Diana realises that no matter what her actions, the war effects even the most innocent of lives- women and children. When she realises that the gas bombs set off had landed on the nearby village, it is a heart-breaking moment. It really hits home that war has no boundaries on who it effects, and that was what defined this new kind of warfare- a war where the battling happened at home as well as on the Front Line. It’s in this moment that you remember all those innocent lives that were lost, all those children that grew up as orphans.

One of the many harrowing images from World War 1

People forget that many of the British soldiers felt they would be home by Christmas, that the war wouldn’t be as tough as they thought. However once the realisation set in that this wasn’t the case, it really would have ruined morale within the trenches. One scene really sticks out though, highlighting how the littlest bit of hope can immediately lift the soldiers moods. Wonder Woman is in the trenches, an area where the soldiers had spent so much of their time struggling to cover any ground. However Diana leaps over the trenches, providing the much needed hope to the soldiers to advance. Of course, sadly Wonder Woman was not there in real life to provide this hope, but events such as the Christmas Truce would have done the job (albeit temporarily). It’s this hope which you realise kept the soldiers going, and made those trenches only slightly bearable.

Wonder Woman entering No Mans Land

Though I realise this was just a piece of fiction- a film, it did remind a new audience of the horrors of World War 1. The soldiers craved the kind of hope that Diana provided in the film, and even though there were winners in the end, there were far more losers. Shell shock, death, guilt, just some of the feelings that these soldiers would have felt when they returned home- either as heroes or disappointments.

In the current age of terror, it would appear the war to ‘End All Wars’ in fact created a new type of warfare. But it is the imagery of Diana jumping over the trenches- hope- that keep society going even in the darkest of days.

Thank you for reading this and my other posts, and keep enjoying WUHstry!

 

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.

Méliès: Cinema Incroyable

Just earlier on this week, my parents and I went to see a temporary exhibition in my home town in Spain, about Georges Méliès. The exhibition was organised by LaCaixa and is going around Spain (potentially elsewhere). I found it was nicely done, although we agreed all visits could probably do with a guide – there are explanation panels and info, but the information was still limited, although interesting a well presented. In that sense, displaywise, they get a good score from me, because it was done with taste and fitting with the topic to discuss Melies and early cinema (there were light games, lots of screens, the information on the panels was presented as if it was newspaper from the period). They also play one of his movies: A Trip to the Moon (1902). Another touch I really liked was how the exhibition mentioned that Melies story is the core of a recent modern movie which I personally love: Hugo. In this sense, the exhibition goes above and beyond in terms of contextualisation and ambiance. But what was my surprised when I arrived home and realised we had never shared the genius of this man with you…Of course, I couldn’t let it be. So please join me for a session of magic, fantasy, and utter most ingenuity.

Méliès was born in Paris in 1861. He was the son of Jean-Louis-Stanislas Méliès and Johannah-Catherine Schuering, who founded a shoe factory specialised in high-quality boots, where Méliès worked for a while before deciding to pursue his true dream: magic. He was thrilled by illusionism. Therefore, he bought the Robert Houding Theatre in Paris in 1888. Méliès had spent time in London, seeing the great prestidigitation acts and getting to know the field. He reformed the theatre and improved the illusions he could performed on stage, increasing the number of visitors through the door. He was a complete showman, although he spent most of his time working off stage: directing, producing. However, this will all change in 1895 when the Lumière brothers revealed the Cinématographe to members of the public. Méliès was there and he was determined to buy one, but they refused his offers. Frustrated, he decided he ought to obtain a projection device of a kind for his theatre so he turned to the other, perhaps less sophisticated options available, until on a trip to London he bought the Animatograph from Robert W. Paul. The theatre started showing films on a daily basis, and the curious mind that owned it begun tampering with his new machine to make it anew. Thus Méliès made his new purchase a filming camera, and he started experimenting.

Between 1896 and 1913 he directed over 500 films, following a similar pattern than the performances he used to produce: with magic tricks, illusions. They were full-on spectacles. He built his own filming studio in Montreuil, a building made out of glass to allow light in for film exposure. Little by little his films became more elaborate and more quirky. The Lumière brothers productions were characterised for the everyday life representations, but Méliès mind was full of colour, magic and surrealism. And this became crystal clear with his production of A Trip to the Moon, where he also stars as the main character: Professor Barbenfouillis. He took inspiration for this movie from novels written by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Suddenly, our protagonist became a key name in the field of science fiction. Méliès sold his film both in black and white, and in the hand-coloured version. His name became very popular not only in France and the rest of Europe, but also America, attracting the attention of other producers who started making illegal copies of his work, therefore he decided to open a branch of Star Films in New York, in an attempt to control the issue. Shortly afterwards, Méliès will show the world one of his most famous productions: The Impossible Voyage (1904). However one of his original American fraudsters, Thomas Edison, created in 1908 the Motion Picture Patents Company, therefore establishing control over the production of films both in the United States and Europe. And so, Mr Edison crafted his monopoly over the industry.

The following year Méliès stopped producing. He presided at meeting with the International Filmmakers Congress in Paris where him and many of his peers discussed their dissatisfaction with Edison’s policies. The agreements raised by the congress did not please him particularly, but he obliged and went back to making films. But these were not as successful anymore, and Méliès started having problem with Pathé. By 1914 the man was broke, and Pathé eventually took over his studios by 1923. Méliès disappeared from the public. He resumed his life with Jeanne d’Alcy, keeping a very low profile as a toy-fixer and salesman at a small booth at the station of Montparnasse. He could have spent his final years in that place going unnoticed, his work lost to the ages after he burnt a lot of his films. Yet fate had other plans for Méliès. Several French journalists started showing interest for early French cinema, and researched his work. He was eventually found at his booth and driven forward to receive the title of Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur, medal which he received in 1931 by Louis Lumière himself. The Lumière brothers acknowledge that although they did invented the cinematograph, Méliès was, nonetheless, the pioneer of art of film making and the cinema. Unfortunately, this recognition he was given did not manage to improve his situation much, although he obtained a free rent apartment for the rest of his life. However, by late 1937 Méliès became really ill and his health would not recover. He died on the 21st of January 1938 of cancer. His final recognition, although posthumous, happened last year in 2015, when his name was entered in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame.

Perhaps it is my innate romanticism, but I would like to think that his memory is kept by all of us members of the public, every time we smile or are startled by the magic of cinema. Every time someone thinks “just how do they do it”, and every moment someone thinks perhaps they can also fly to the moon.

Pocahontas

As the dissertation starts to bite, I have found that watching many Disney films is the perfect reward after a hard day’s work at the library, no doubt Pocahontas was one of them. Pocahontas was the daughter of Chief Powhatan (Wahunsenacawh) of the Powhatan tribe in the state known today as Virginia. However as many of you know the Disney adaptation is only a loose account of her life and is not an entirely accurate depiction. This post will aim to reveal the real identity of “Pocahontas” and the real identities of the people she interacted with; namely, John Smith and John Rolfe.

For starters the name Pocahontas is strictly speaking not her real name. The name Pocahontas was used by her father as a nickname which can loosely be translated as ‘the little playful one’. This was nothing unusual amongst Native Americans to give their children different names at different times; particularly during childhood and the name Pocahontas was no different. She was also known by other names as she was born with the name, Matoaka and was later known as Amonute. After she married she took the Christian name Rebecca, although this should be stressed that this practice was uncommon amongst Native Americans in case of course like Pocahontas they needed a Christian name in order to marry.

Additionally another feature that predominated the Disney film, was that it insinuated Pocahontas’s mother had died. Although there is no accurate way to determine whether or not Pocahontas’s mother died when the colonists arrived, but some theorists suggest her absence was a strong possibility. This can be explained through two ways, firstly Native American chiefs in general were thought to have married multiple wives that in turn sired them one child and after that happened the wife would usually leave the chief and return to her previous way of life. This model is plausible and can be applied to Chief Powhatan also if this was considered to be a general practice amongst Native American chiefs in the past. This example however does have some reliability in the sense that a coloniser by the name of Henry Spelman commented that Chief Powhatan had many wives, perhaps from observation. Other theorists have put forth the argument that she simply died as a result of childbirth, which also makes sense considering childbirth was a difficult procedure to go through in the sixteenth century, regardless of ethnicity. This perhaps might have been a reason behind her absence in the Disney adaptation as her actual cause of death was never mentioned. However it is important to add these reasons are only theories and that it is difficult to be certain what actually happened to her mother.

Although the Disney film portrays Pocahontas as a young woman in her early twenties or late teens, the reality was far from that. Pocahontas was in actual fact many years younger than this. However it is difficult to pinpoint how old Pocahontas was when the colonists arrived. It is from Smith’s memoirs that her age can be identified, yet Smith provides us with two different ages. At first he stated she was a child of ten years old in 1608 but in another separate letter he later claimed she was twelve when they first met. As there appears to be no other written record in order to determine her accurate age, Smith’s account is the only contemporary written piece of evidence to refer to, that corresponds to the timeline Disney used in their 1995 feature film. Clearly it is easy to tell that the Disney adaptation of Pocahontas was a very loose take on the actual events regarding Smith’s and Pocahontas’s relationship.

Again when the Disney adaptation deals with John Smith’s capture, there is evidence to suggest that he was in actual fact captured in the Powhatan territory and taken to the Powhatan capital, Werowocomoco. He mentions this in his memoirs of 1608, in the film it is evident that Smith and Pocahontas already met upon his capture. This however was not the case in reality as Smith was captured before he ‘met’ Pocahontas. Furthermore the circumstances upon Smith’s capture was loosely adapted from reality as there was no evidence to suggest a Powhatan male under the name of Kocoum ever existed. In the film Smith was accused of murdering him, this appears to have been sensationalised for dramatic effect as Smith merely states he was exploring the area around the Chickahominy River without an individual by the name of Kocoum being at the scene let alone Pocahontas.

Smith wrote two accounts of his capture and the details after the initial capture seem a bit sketchy in terms of reliability. Initially Smith did not mention Pocahontas at all until many months after his capture and to be fair this makes more sense in comparison to Smith’s other account, which implies Pocahontas rescued him. The second account appears sketchy as the content changed so drastically, it was a letter written to Queen Anne some years later from his first account in 1608. This account was written in 1616. One reason behind this change in detail could be attributed to the interest that Pocahontas attracted in England during her time there, implying Smith perhaps wanted to ‘jump on the bandwagon’ and epitomise Pocahontas. Yet others disagree as some commentators on the subject suggest Pocahontas was not as well received as others had previously thought, implying Smith’s differing accounts are exceptionally hard to believe.

Strictly speaking the second instalment of Disney’s Pocahontas again riddled with many historical inaccuracies (Shakespeare’s appearance in a musical number when in reality he died two months before Pocahontas’s arrival in 1616). Two major good things about the second film was that it did specify that Pocahontas arrived in England in 1616 and the character of John Rolfe was included. Rolfe was a key person in Pocahontas’s life as he was her husband, something the previous adaptation had not included, opting to favour a storyline around Smith and Pocahontas in the first adaptation. However the second film did not specify they were married as by the time Pocahontas arrived in England she was already baptised and had the name Rebecca. Furthermore using the second adaptation’s timeframe Pocahontas and Rolfe also had a son, named Thomas. The film omits the Thomas and Pocahontas’s marriage in spite of sources indicating they had a child born in 1615.

Again as it was a Disney adaptation that perhaps was not a suitable/and or interesting storyline to use. It was a landmark in itself that a Native American Princess was used, second after Jasmine to not have been of White Caucasian origin. Perhaps this accounts for reasons as to why the life of Pocahontas was a loose adaptation? This perhaps also accounts for why Pocahontas and Rolfe were last seen in the second adaptation sailing out to sea (creating a well-rounded ending), when in reality Pocahontas remained in England and died in Gravesend, Kent in 1617.

Suffragette: Some Thoughts

It is somewhat staggering that it has taken just over a hundred years since the end of the Women’s Social and Political Union’s (WSPU) campaign for a film based on the British fight for women’s suffrage to be made. This is made even more staggering that on television the only production on women’s suffrage was the BBC drama Shoulder to Shoulder in 1974, which my mother recalls watching as a teenager. Therefore it is unsurprising that Suffragette has been under a lot of pressure to satisfy many, with varying different views, as the only available screen representation (Shoulder to Shoulder has yet to been released on DVD, nor does it seem to ever have been released on VHS) of such a significant movement in Britain.

I was one of the many, having been fascinated with the women’s suffrage movement since I was a child. Would the film address the differences within the movement itself, principally between the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU)? Would the film focus on leaders of the movement such as the Pankhursts’ or Millicent Fawcett or Emily Wilding Davison? Would the film mention or examine the class and race issues that were present within the movement?

I recall being surprised when the first details of the film were released that it would focus on a working class suffragette. The movement as a whole, and especially the WSPU, has been considered to be dominated by the middle classes. The hierarchy for certain was dominated by middle class women, with Annie Kenney the only working class woman involved in the WSPU leadership. Working class women had far more to lose than their middle class counterparts; after a prison sentence a middle class woman was generally more likely to have a home to return too, working class women less so.

However the choice to make the film’s protagonist working class was a brilliant decision, not just from a story perspective but also from a historic perspective. Rather than a film focusing on the politics or focusing on events and dates, the film focuses on the circumstances of Maud’s life (played by Carey Mulligan), that cause her to become involved in the WSPU; a victim of sexual abuse, an orphan, forced into a job that not only pays her poorly because she was a woman, but also one that would kill her young. As Maud explains when asked what the vote would mean to her, it could give her control over her life. Her fellow suffragettes similarly show the circumstances that allow inequality in a world without the vote. Maud’s colleague Violet, played by the outstanding Anne Marie Duff, like Maud had worked in poorly paid jobs since her teens and is married to a violent drunk, who despairs of her daughter facing the same future as her. The organiser of their activities Edith, played by Helena Bonham Carter, was denied the opportunity for a university education by her father and never got to realise her dreams. The framing of the reasons these women fought, and in such desperate and violent measures, highlights the struggle that women at this point in history had to deal with. It could have been easy to focus instead on just the battles, the politics and the prison sentences but as a film Suffragette gives us the motivations behind these women’s actions.

Nor does the film shy away from the consequences these women faced. The brutality of prisons sentences is shown several times throughout the film. I was pleased to see that a scene was included where Edith insists that as political prisoners they should be entitled to wear their own clothes while they are manhandled into prison uniforms. While not explained at length in the film, political prisoners were classed as first division prisoners, enjoying privileges such as wearing their own clothes among others. The authorities refused to acknowledge suffragettes as such, which was the reason for Marion Wallace Dunlop to go on hunger strike, which would soon become WSPU policy. While it would have been nice to seen such a scene explained in further detail, it is understandable because to keep the majority of the audience interested, the writer of the film, Abi Morgan, was treading a careful line throughout to avoid it becoming a history lesson.

Morgan also managed to avoid falling into the trap of making the male characters of the film one-dimensional. While certain men will try to claim that the film is anti-men (i.e. it actually illustrates the brutality and misogyny against women, especially when the film is set), a much more realistic portrayal exists in the film. The male characters with the exception of Edith’s husband are against women’s suffrage, just as most men and many women were at the time (which is also acknowledged on several occasions) but they are not portrayed as one-dimensional villains. Maud’s employer is shown realistically as a sex pest and cruel, something definitely not unrealistic for the period nor even now therefore I would argue not entirely one-dimensional. Maud’s husband Sonny, played by Ben Whishaw, despite his actions as the film continues becoming more deplorable, we see what many men from this period were like. While we may not like or find perhaps much sympathy for him, we can understand his feelings and actions which are shaped by the society he lives in. Similarly Brendon Gleeson’s Detective Steed, while we naturally root against him, he represents a man who believes in the law and the natural order of things, but he is not evil or a monster, he too is shaped by a patriarchal society.

This is certainly one of the strengths of the film, we are forced to acknowledge that this is our history, these are our ancestors, not heroes or villains from a fairy tale. Combined with the film’s questioning of the morality of suffragette techniques that could be branded as terrorism, the film poses moral questions and debates that historians have had for many years. There is no clear moral right and wrong, only shades of grey. Without debate women should have had the vote far earlier than they did, without debate the way the authorities dealt with women’s suffrage supporters both suffragettes and suffragists was wrong but were the suffragettes right to act in the way they did? The film does not give an answer for this question, instead it gives us the viewpoints and leaves us to decide. It is that which makes this film so brilliant. Whether as a viewer we agree with it or not, Maud gives us perhaps the most powerful answer a suffragette would give, and one we should certainly think upon:

We break windows… We burn things; cos war is the only language men listen to… cos you’ve beaten us and betrayed us… and there’s nothin’ else left.

GOJIRA! 60 Yeas Since Godzilla

In case you were not aware of this, 2014 saw the 60th anniversary of the original Godzilla movie! It was only last year  that our screens saw the new interpretation of this film, which is an icon of 20th century cinema. But there is much more to Godzilla than just photo-grams. Therefore, here is a little insight for you into Japanese culture, cinema and social anxieties.

The first Godzilla movie was directed by Ishiro Honda, who had worked for many years as the assistant of the renown director Akira Kurosawa. He served his time under the Japanese army during the Second World War, and in fact was imprisoned in China and made a war hostage. This had a huge impact in the production of his movies, and of course is reflected in Godzilla, but this was a shared memory and feeling, which makes the message only coherent for those who experienced Japan during the War. As anything in film and reception studies, the audience conditions the encrypted message of the product. Only his fellow Japanese could truly understand that Godzilla is in fact not a film about a monster, but about a revolution in warfare: the atomic bomb.

But before we move on, lest get some details about this creature. To this date, Godzilla has appeared in at least 28 movies. Its original name, Gojira, comes from 2 words, one English, the other Japanese. Thus, Gojira is the combination of gorilla- inspired by the movie King Kong which had featured the screens 1933 and had somewhat set the standard frame for a monster movie- and ‘kujira’, which means whale in Japanese. Godzilla, is nothing but a Western translation of this conceptual gigantic monster like creature from the sea. However, in the whole series of movies, this creature is not always presented as an evil force, but sometimes as a hero, for the sake of plot/character development. Shogo Tomiyama, who was the producer for some of the Godzilla movies, made an interesting comparison between Godzilla and the Shinto god of Destruction, explaining that it was creature beyond moral agency, therefore able to act for what we could perceived as good or bad in equal terms.

With this in mind the concept of Godzilla’s origins may seem strange, or perhaps revealing to you. As I mentioned earlier, Godzilla is meant to be a metaphor for nuclear power. Godzilla is meant to be an undersea ancient creature who was empowered by radiation. But in Honda’s mind the creature could only be the reflection of one thing: the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Moreover, it has been suggested that the incident of Daigo Fukuryu Maru- or Lucky Dragon- a Japanese tuna fishing boat which has been exposed to radiation in the United States after a nuclear fallout at Castlebravo thermonuclear (1954) may have contributed to this fear in the subconscious of Japanese collective memory…1954 was the same year Gojira was released…

We have to remember that this was a society that, after the war, had seen a huge change to their politics and culture as their island nation was occupied and taken over by the United States. Japan only regain back its freedom in 1952. So the Japanese generation of the 50s and 60s fought to find their identity in this oriental westernised environment they found themselves living in. A lot of their art and creative efforts were put to show dissatisfaction and used for the sake of protest…Thus, underwater King Kong tormented by the Japanese terror of bombing was created.

It has been estimated that 9.6 million Japanese people went to see the movie when it was released. It’s popularity was also a reflection of the 1950’s Japanese golden age of cinema, and Gojira played its part by promoting Japan to the international scene and the reinterpretation of this quasi-legendary creature by the American blockbusters, under the name of Godzilla. 60 years later, it still drags people to the cinemas, creating this scary nostalgia of the atomic dinosaur who still haunts Japan.

Review: The Pillars of the Earth

pillarsposter

Image credit: Starz

Today I’ll be reviewing the mini-series The Pillars of the Earth, a Starz mini-series that premiered in 2010 which is based on the historical fiction novel of the same name by Ken Follet. First I will be starting with a brief (and with no spoilers) overview of the plot and a few of the main characters. Then I will reflect on some of the historical aspects of the mini-series and then my own thoughts.

Starting in 1120, spanning the period leading up to and over the Anarchy – England’s first civil war –it recounts how Stephen and Matilida fought over the English throne. The pivotal moment that begins the series is the sinking of the White Ship, which carried England’s heir William Adelin and his wife. He was Henry I’s only legitimate son, leaving his only legitimate child his daughter Matilida. After Henry’s death, his nephew Stephen seized the throne and was backed by the church, despite swearing loyalty to Matilida. The mini-series not only portrays the feud between the two, but the ramifications on the Church, the nobility and the people. The show features a large cast of characters who all interweave with each other. The desire to build a cathedral in Knightsbridge continues across the eight episodes, with many of the characters directly involved.

Philip (Matthew McFadden) – A monk at Knightsbridge Priory, he dreams of a cathedral for the priory to raise its profile.

Waleran Bigod (Ian McShane) – A money and power-hungry cleric, who constantly manipulates events to his own ends, and those who support him.

Tom Builder (Rufus Sewell) – A builder who dreams of building a cathedral, accompanied by his family. He is drawn to Ellen.

Ellen (Natalie Wörner) – A former nun she was banished after an affair with a mysterious shipwreck survivor who was executed and as a result gave birth to Jack. She is considered a witch and is drawn to Tom.

Jack (Eddie Redmayne) – The son of Ellen, who has a keen artistic talent and is enamoured with Aliena.

Aliena (Hayley Atwell) – The daughter of Bartholmew, who vows to him to get back the title for her brother.

William Hamleigh (David Oakes)– the son of a minor lord, his parents have designs on the earldom of Shiring and he has an unhealthy obsession with Aliena.

Historical accuracy does occasionally let the show down. Elements of the actual history of the Anarchy are incorrect or not shown. William’s wife was not actually on board the White Ship when it sunk so her death is historically inaccurate. Maud/Matilida is never shown to flee London on her coronations, as her real counterpart did. The death of three of the characters is also incorrect, Henry I did not die immediately after the birth of his grandson, as shown within the series nor was Eustace killed by his cousin. Robert of Gloucester was also not killed in battle. Other inaccuracies are simpler and more to do with the realities of medieval life such as Aliena as a former noble would have not spoken the same language as those from the lower classes who she would later work with.

The mini-series takes advantage of the uncertainty of events due to a lack of historical record, or where contemporaries simply did not know. The sinking of the White Ship in 1120 which is the catalyst for the plot is somewhat of a mystery. A cause for the sinking was never exactly determined, which allows the show to fill in the gaps and present its own theory of the sinking for the means of making a story but of course within the realms of possibility. The vast majority of events in the series would have not been possible without this uncertainty.

The show portrays an awful lot of violence, be this on the battlefield or in the towns and villages. There has been debate on how violent the period that is considered the Middle Ages was. Marc Morris argued that especially under Norman rulers that England was a remarkably less violent place than it had been previously. However Morris only refers to the nobility, which would make some aspects of The Pillars of the Earth inaccurate but it does not mention the effects on the ordinary people. The lack of surviving literature from this period, and the overall low-level of literacy from those who would interact with ordinary people can make it somewhat difficult to exactly establish the effects on them. One author of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle described the period: ‘I have neither the power or the ability to tell all the horrors nor all the torments they inflicted upon wretched people in this country; and that lasted the nineteen years while Stephen was king, and it was always going from bad to worse.’ While this is only one perspective it also worth remembering that with no monarch considered absolute and both Stephen and Matilda’s reliance on nobility for support that a blind eye was probably often used when violence was used against the people.

It is hard to explain how good this show is without spoiling major plot points as its strength is in its development of its characters and how the plot continues to develop, twisting and turning with each episode. The show is tight and I’d say there is no ‘filler’ in the series. It is constantly gripping. Many of the characters the viewer will inevitably find themselves rooting for, or rooting to come to a sticky end. However this does not mean that the characters verge into pantomime villainy, their motivations or how their heads tick is examined, while this may not make us any more sympathetic is does help us understand their characters better. The themes of the show are vast, creating something for everyone be this the romantic themes, themes on power and control, familial themes and truth. The mini-series’ interpretation of the Church is also incredibly interesting. It avoids the trap of the Church being a simplified evil or force for good. It shows the corrupt practices and members of the Church but it also shows those who strived to be holy. It examines their relationship with not just the crown and nobility but also the ordinary people. The almost business like aspect of the Church is also examined in several plot points relating to the likes of the importance of relics for the Church.

I would strongly recommend The Pillars of the Earth; I find it hard to believe most viewers would not find one aspect they enjoy, if not the majority of it. The acting is strong across the board, and visually it’s beautiful. Below I have included a trailer for the series. I hope if you do watch this you enjoy!

The Rugby World Cup 1995- A win for South Africa and Mandela?

 Nelson Mandela and Francois Pienaar after South Africa won the Rugby World Cup 1995.

Before I start this blog post as part of our culture month, I would just like to remember what a great man Nelson Mandela was. The man who sadly left us on 5th December 2013, was finally free. For many years of his life, he had been battling not only the pro-Apartheid government, the Nationalist Party, but in later life illness. Mandela battled for the rights of a society in his country throughout his life, and although in the early stages of his career he may have taken a militant view, we should always remember that this one man helped to free a nation.

As part of W. U Hstry’s culture month, I will be looking at how the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa helped Nelson Mandela to gain popularity throughout not only the country, but further his image across the world. It is something which in recent culture has been highlighted in the film Invictus, staring Morgan Freeman as the man himself and Matt Damon as Pienaar. Freeman and Damon in Invictus.

The Rugby World Cup came at convenient time for Mandela during his presidency: the type of sport which it was hosting, Rugby was usually an Afrikaner sport (Afrikaner’s were white speaking South Africans usually descended from the Dutch Boers). Although in power, Mandela had not managed to unify the whole country yet. He was still being judged by the Afrikan community, who believed he was a terrorist. This is understandable considering his history in the group the ANC, who did state that because the ANC were being violated against, that they would retaliate using violence. This is shown in the video link below, which is of Mandela in his first television interview on ITN.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WrBCgiFhmNA Video of Mandela’s first television interview.

Therefore it is easy to see that Mandela really had his work cut out for him. In the film Invictus, this is very much illustrated clearly, how much of a divide there was in South African society. It was clearly stated in the film how ‘the whites are cheering for the Springboks’ and how all of the blacks were ‘cheering for England’  in a pre-World Cup match in 1994. To the black population, for so long the Springboks had been an image of apartheid. Mandela knew this, and knew that in order to get a united nation of South Africa, he would have to change this perception. However he also knew that if he destroyed the Springbok logo completely, then it would lead to uproar and create further divisions. By being able to unify something that caused such difficulty, it helped further Mandela’s profile as a leader not only in South Africa but the world.

The Springbok logo which reminded the people of apartheid.

Mandela knew that in order for the barriers to be broken down, work had to be done from a grass roots level to break down the stereotypes. In order to do this, he made sure that the team did training with the children in the slums. Many of these children did not know the rules of rugby due to the fact that it was stereotyped as a rich Boer sport, whereas they knew how to play football. Therefore through having the training, it not only helped the players to see who they were truly playing for, but it helped break down the racial stereotypes on both sides which existed. This illustrates that Mandela did use the World Cup and the South African rugby team to his own advantage, because as shown here, they are helping to destroy the stereotypes that were in place and helped unify the country from a grassroots level.

Image from the film Invictus of the South African team training with the children.

Through having the rugby team themselves being at this level, it helped make the rest of the Boer population get behind their team. The team itself ended up being a symbol of unity and a symbol of the rainbow nation that South Africa was. This was illustrated through the fact that in the team itself they had a black player, one Chester Williams. Through having a black player in the team, it helped Mandela put forward his idea of a united nation, the rainbow nation that South Africa was becoming. It was this as well which helped Mandela’s popularity grow because it was a living symbol that was playing in a sport which was so important to his rivals and disbelievers.

 South African Chester Williams

It was well seen in the film how important the Rugby World Cup was to Mandela and how he knew he could be able to impose his beliefs through it. In the film Invictus it was very much shown through how Morgan Freeman’s Mandela would book dates into his diary for whenever the South African team played. It emphasises just how important this tournament was to his time in charge of South Africa. By having a tournament, it allowed the country to unify, forget about the past and instead take arm in arm and help roar on the Bafana Bafana to win. Through having this unified nation, it helped Mandela to further his profile and importance across the world.

The iconic image of Mandela in the Rugby World Cup final in the Springbok shirt and hat, just highlighted how far the country had come. With the team themselves now singing the anthem, which they had taken time to learn about the meaning behind it, it helped South Africa as a country to be on the step to unification, to better times ahead. All these events illustrate just how important events such as sport are, how they have more than just physical meaning; they can unite a country and break down racial stereotypes. Sure, you can argue that it was just a Rugby tournament, they happen quite regularly, but the background to this one and the results of it, helped to create the new rainbow nation of South Africa, it helped to create a better future, and break down the nightmare that was segregation.

 The Iconic image of Mandela in the Springbok jersey

-The South Africa national anthem and lyrics

 

The Teahouse of the August Moon and American Perceptions of Okinawa

The Teahouse of the August Moon satirises both American and Japanese culture, drawing upon stereotypes and using them to form the foundations of the film. For example, American actor Marlon Brando plays the leading role of the Okinawan Sakini, and throughout the film he is the point of reference for the audience and the other characters. He draws attention to the differences in culture between the Americans and Okinawans in such a way that it should not be interpreted as offensive – there are just as many stereotypes about one culture as there are for the next. This piece will set out to reveal the American perceptions of Okinawa through the eyes of the main characters in this film. It will draw upon the idea of Okinawa as an outpost and the officers that are on duty; the stereotypical nature of Okinawans and the possible explanation for their want of a teahouse, not a school; the primitive nature of Okinawan life; the colonial assumptions of US reform efforts and the reception that the film received.

The film tells the story of an US Military Captain sent to Tobiki by a stubborn Colonel in Okinawa in order to build a school and teach the village democracy. Sakini, the Japanese-English interpreter narrates the film and acts as the bridge between the Okinawans and the American Occupiers, promising to give the village what they want, not what the Americans think they ought to have. Stereotypes are drawn upon in the form of a rowdy, loud mouthed American Colonel, the calm, child-like Okinawans and a geisha whom the Captain initially believes to be a prostitute – a common misconception made by Europeans and Americans alike. The moral of the film, looking beyond the stereotype, is one of acceptance – the American Captain has accepted that the Okinawans know what they want for themselves, more so than the Americans do, and the Okinawans have accepted that while the Americans are occupying their land, they may as well try make something out of it.

We are first introduced to Sakini, the interpreter, at the beginning of the film where he begins the tale of the teahouse. Immediately, Okinawan perceptions are addressed and contrasted with those of America and the result is rather entertaining. He reveals that certain things acceptable in one country are not in another, i.e. in Okinawa, they do not have locks on their doors as it could be perceived to be bad manners not to trust their neighbour, however, the lock and key business is a big industry in America and therefore concludes that bad manners equal good business. We see this throughout the film, epitomised by Captain Fisby. Fisby is too similar to the Okinawans to be able to ever have a considerable amount of control over them; he is too polite therefore, he is not a good businessman. Purdy however is the complete opposite of Fisby and the exemplary American Colonel stereotype – he thinks he is right, even if he is proven wrong. For example, a scene in the film sees Sakini explain that Tobiki is at the top of Okinawa, Purdy believes it to be at the bottom and retrieves a map to boisterously prove his point. Sakini glances at the map and immediately points out that it is upside down; Purdy then blames the army for not making a proper map, refusing to believe his logic is flawed.

The author of the book The Teahouse of the August Moon, Vern Sneider, was a member of the US military team that landed in Okinawa in 1945 and he became leader of the village of Tobaru (changed to Tobiki in the novel). It would appear that Sneider is taking advantage of his first hand experience within the occupied territory and trivialising common stereotypes in order to try to neutralise feelings towards both cultures. Published in 1951, only six years after the end of the war and the beginning of the Occupation, the feelings that were characterised in the film were still very much felt amongst Okinawans and Americans. Historian Andrew Gordon goes further and states that ‘in creating a public memory, mainstream historians likewise produced a homogenous version of a Japanese past that left out those on the margins (women, atom bomb victims, Burakumin, Okinawans), who in turn were prompted to write their own separate histories.’[1] For this reason, ‘as a satire and comedy, The Teahouse of the August Moon, like many memoirs and articles written by Occupationers, served to soften and minimise the cold, hard fact of Occupation.’[2] This leads back to the colonial attitudes of the American occupiers. They (Colonel Purdy) failed to see past the stereotypical Japanese society, and instead dryly emphasises them.

One stereotype drawn upon due to the colonial assumptions made by the US military, and in fact the majority of western civilisation, is that the Geisha are prostitutes. Geisha originated from oiran in the Edo period when prostitution was legal. However, after the Meiji Restoration, the government decided that there should be a divide between Geishas and prostitutes, as the former was not to be sullied by associating with the latter. Furthermore, confusion was heightened when ‘geisha girls’ were known to be engaging in prostitution, dressing like a Geisha and having sexual relations with the allied forces in Occupied Japan – the westerners could not tell the difference between the imitated and the real, henceforth, their modern misrepresentation. In the film, Captain Fisby is all too familiar with this misrepresentation, and assumes that the Geisha, Lotus Blossom, is trying to engage in sexual activity, when all she wanted to do was to help him put on his kimono. Sakini at this point corrects Fisby’s notion of prostitution and explains the Geisha in a simple, yet effective way; ‘Poor man like to feel rich, rich man like to feel wise. Sad man like to feel happy, so all go to Geisha house, and tell troubles to Geisha girl’[3]. She is there to entertain, to sing, recite verse, play a musical instrument and dance – to help the man forget his troubles.

Naoko Shibusawa states that The Teahouse of the August Moon ‘satirized the Occupation and presented a more ambiguous view about who should be in charge and who should be teaching whom, it depicts the Okinawans as childlike, hard-working people who squabble about trifling matters, trivialize the meaning of democracy, and care most about creating a teahouse for their amusement’. The Okinawans are presented as a simple folk, arguing about matters that to any other would seem trivial, for example, Lotus Blossom is unwelcome in the village as the other female inhabitants feel like she is competition and will get more attention than they do. Fisby agrees to let Lotus Blossom teach the other women to be Geisha’s and to do so, it would only seem fair that they had a teahouse to be able to celebrate and practice their lessons. Fisby reluctantly concedes and the idea of a school and teaching democracy is forgotten, after all, in a town where the majority of the population is adults, why is there a need for a school? However, ironically, the Okinawans have no need for democracy because the US army is occupying their lands, undemocratically giving out orders. When there is need for democracy, their primitive and traditional ways lead them in the right direction.

The primitive nature that the Okinawans adopt in the film, reflect the animalistic methods used by Colonel Purdy. It could have been that as the same attributes were shared between both population and Colonel, that he was the only man for the job. Other factors to consider are that as Okinawa was seen as an outpost far from the mainland and the capital Tokyo where there were not enough officers, Purdy is possibly too stupid to be given a post anywhere else in Japan.

To conclude, the film was a success and was nominated for six Golden Globe awards. It set out to be a satirical comedy focusing on the perceptions of Americans and Okinawans of each other and I believe it achieved its aims. There have been critics who have fought against this satire, for example Bosley Crowther suggests that ‘as the American captain who gets completely enmeshed in the seductive toils of a Okinawan village when he tries to subdue it to the useful and the good, throws himself into this enjoyment with such grinning and grotesque gusto that one gets the uneasy feeling that his captain is mildly mad.’[4] It would appear that Crowther takes the side of the steadfast Colonel in that Okinawans need to be taught democracy and as they lost the war, they need to listen to those who won. How can it be that America deem another societies ways inept because they do not need democracy or technology to live, just culture and street-wise survival instinct.


[1] Andrew Gordon, Postwar Japan as History (Los Angeles, 1993), 462.

[2] Naoko Shibusawa, America’s Geisha Ally: Reimagining the Japanese Enemy (Harvard University Press, 2010), 262.

[3] The Teahouse of the August Moon, Daniel Mann, MGM, (1956).

[4] B. Crowther, ‘The Teahouse of the August Moon’, The New York Times, 30th November 1956.