Ever since I can remember, I have always been a fan of historical and costume dramas. They often featured battles, sagas that spanned decades, and brought history to life from the pages of books that I had read. At one time, they were the staple diet of my weekly cinema excursions, when almost every film I ever watched had some sort of historical setting. Most are well-known of course; from The Ten Commandments, to How The West Was Won, as well as Spartacus, Zulu, and Doctor Zhivago. These epics supplied a thrilling viewing experience; and we were untroubled by the issues of historical accuracy, or political correctness.
It wasn’t just the action films that caught my attention though. The marvellous tales of Charles Dickens, brought to the screen by David Lean and others, gave an insight into the life of people in Victorian England. The lurid, historically-themed Hammer Horror films gave the odd chill, as well as early showings of female nakedness and a slanted view of European history. Later on, the worthier works were filmed once more, with much success. Anna Karenina, Far From The Madding Crowd, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and many more, gave us dramas and love stories set in the past. History has much to offer the film-maker, and other countries were also eager to film it. The marvellous Japanese epics of Kurosawa, ground-breaking work from Sergei Eisenstein on the Russian Revolution, and valuable contributions from Bertolucci in Italy. I loved them all.
However, some very good films had slipped under the radar of critical acclaim. They sometimes dealt with times and subjects not considered to be so marketable, or they were confusing to those who had not studied history. The convoluted politics of the times and settings sometimes made them difficult for the viewer, and they did not always feature familiar stars or even well-known faces. With this in mind, I offer a selection of these historical cinematic oddities. I can guarantee that they all have some merit, and I hope that you will find them intriguing and search them out.
Taras Bulba (1962)
This film is based on a story by Gogol, which I had not read when I watched it at the age of ten. It is set in what is now Ukraine, around 1590, at a time when the area was under Polish rule and they were fighting against the Turkish Empire. So naturally it was filmed in the USA and South America with the Pampas standing in for the Steppes. This film has so many flaws I could spend all day writing about them, but that isn’t the point. It has Cossacks, Polish soldiers, Turkish warriors, cannons, hundreds of extras, and an enthusiastic cast. It is great fun, and sort-of historically accurate too. I can even forgive the casting of Tony Curtis and Perry Lopez as Bulba’s sons; the most unlikely-looking Cossacks to ever grace a screen.
Yul Brynner steals the film as Taras; all bluff and bluster, hard as nails, and a famous warrior. Sam Wanamaker, Brad Dexter, and George Macready provide excellent character parts alongside him. The Poles are suitably villainous, and the hard-fighting and equally hard-drinking Cossacks all have a great time. The plot is almost secondary to the visuals, but concerns Taras wanting his sons to receive a formal education in the city of Dubno (a real place), where he hopes that they will learn the ways of the rulers, and eventually change the fortunes of the Cossack mercenaries. Of course, Curtis has to have a love interest and falls for the Polish princess. (She is played by Christine Kauffman, who later married Curtis.) As this love match is forbidden, the princess is scheduled for execution, unless Andrei (Curtis) will lead the Polish army against the Cossacks besieging Dubno. This is the ultimate betrayal for Taras, who has no alternative but to kill his own son.
A delicious slice of 60s hokum, best viewed with historical blinkers worn.
The Last Valley (1970)
Despite the appearance of Michael Caine and Omar Sharif in the lead roles, this film seems to be little-known. It rarely gets a TV showing and I have never seen it discussed in any forum. That is a great shame, as it is a cracking little film and deserves a much wider audience.
The events of the Thirty Years War of 1618-1648, are rarely portrayed on film, and for good reason. This Europe-wide war of religion and conquest laid waste to much of Central Europe during this time, and brought death and disease to tens of thousands. It is complex to describe, and the reasons why it started and its incredible duration are the subject of worthy books, the size of telephone directories.
This 1970 film takes a snapshot of an imaginary event set during this conflict. A mercenary band willing to fight for either side for pay arrive exhausted and looking for a safe haven in which to spend the winter. By chance, they find an isolated valley almost unknown to the world outside. After first planning to sack the place and kill everyone as usual, they eventually decide to stay. They tell the villagers that they will protect this valley in return for shelter and food, and enough women to supply the needs of the men. To minimise difficulties, they appoint a displaced intellectual (played by Omar Sharif) to adjudicate in any disagreements between the soldiers and the captive villagers. Despite one epic though short battle scene at the end, this is not a war film. It is a film about compromise, religious intolerance, and how men and women cope, in a world gone mad.
Although it has the feel of a ‘Hammer’ film, it is superior in every way imaginable. The excellent cast boasts Michael Caine as the leader of the mercenaries, and Nigel Davenport as the village elder. Supporting parts from Brian Blessed, Jack Shepherd, the marvellous Vladek Sheybal, and the menacing Michael Gothard, all make this a complete work. There is the Black Death, the sacking of villages, small and large battles, religious divides, witchcraft and executions; something for everyone in there somewhere. Despite Caine’s unnecessary and irritating German accent, it is a rarity, and well worth seeking out.
An American film starring, produced, and directed by Warren Beatty with a stellar cast including Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton, but almost nobody has ever heard of it. How can this be?
Well an American writer reporting on the events of the Russian Revolution, and a film portraying that American as sympathetic to the cause hardly seems to be a compelling subject. This is a long film with a documentary feel, and very much a personal project for Beatty. It examines the relationship between John Reed and Louise Bryant (Keaton) over a period of five years, set against the climactic events of WW1 and the revolution in Russia.
It is a film with two distinct sections. The first part shows us Reed involved with industrial disputes and helping The Communist Labor Party of America in their struggle for better conditions in the USA. He meets Bryant, who comes from a privileged background that she wants to escape from. They seek out the company and friendship of other left-wing thinkers, and meet Emma Goldman (Maureen Stapleton) and Eugene O’Neill (Nicholson) in New York. They later move away from the city and get married, but their relationship is rocky, and both have affairs. Bryant decides to travel to the war in Europe as a correspondent, and despite being very ill with kidney disease, Reed later follows her. The two meet again in Russia, which is in the throes of revolution and civil war.
Reed then writes his famous book, ‘Ten days That Shook The World’, and the second half of the film concentrates on his affinity with the revolutionary spirit of the time and his disappointment at some of the outcomes. He tries to leave and take his message back home to America. But he is imprisoned in Finland, and by the time he meets up once again with Bryant in Moscow, his disease has become terminal. This is both a worthy and wordy film, and not to everyone’s taste. However, it is an unusual subject and a true story covered in depth, historically accurate in most details. If you have never seen it, I suggest that it is one for the mind, as well as the eyes.
The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982)
British film-maker Peter Greenaway tends to divide audiences into adoring fans or outright haters of his work. I am one of the former, I confess, and this is one of my favourite films. Rarely have music and setting been combined so perfectly on film. Immaculate attention to period detail, wonderful costumes, a near-perfect cast, and a witty and beautifully-written script all add up to making this one of the best British films ever made. As you might expect from Greenaway, all is not as it seems. Despite the story being set in 1694 there is the sight of a telephone and some of the paintings seen are undoubtedly modern art from the 20th century. On the surface, this is a murder mystery, but it is like no other you will ever see, with a plot to match its uniqueness.
Mr Neville (perfectly played by Anthony Higgins) is an artist contracted to make twelve drawings of an estate in the countryside. He is employed by the owner’s wife, Mrs Herbert (a sultry turn from Janet Suzman), to complete this work whilst her husband is away on business. Neville is swell-headed and full of his own importance. In addition to his fee, and bed and board, he demands to have sexual liaison with Mrs Herbert at agreed times and places, something that she amazingly agrees to.
Once Neville begins his drawings, we see odd items appearing in his developing sketches. Things not where they should be, ladders against windows, a statue that is really a posing man. All these strange happenings begin to fit into place for the viewer, or do they? I cannot really say more, without revealing too much by way of plot spoilers. I will conclude by suggesting that you should just watch this highly unusual work, and revel in its inventiveness.
The cinema print of this film suffered substantial cuts from the original 16mm work. Over three hours long at the outset, it was only around 100 minutes when released. I hope that one day, the full version becomes available, as I would love to see what was left out.
Goya’s Ghosts (2006)
A great international cast raise an occasionally uneven film to watchable heights by making their characters stand out and become believable on screen. This is a sprawling story, not only dealing with aspects of the life of Francisco Goya, but also the Spanish Inquisition and Napoleon’s war against Spain. It has a cast of some of the best actors from around the world, with Stellan Skarsgard as Goya, Natalie Portman as his model and muse, Ines, and Javier Bardem, as the evil Brother Lorenzo. There is even an appearance by Randy Quaid, playing very much against type as King Carlos IV of Spain. We are shown scenes of torture, infidelity, prostitution, betrayal, and war; and they even manage to get in something about Goya’s paintings too. A big-budget, modern film, with solid performances, and a rollicking story. Who could ask for more?
The film covers almost twenty years of the turbulent times and mixed fortunes of Goya. From Court Painter, then falling under suspicion from The Inquisition, through to his later life. His association with the Priest Lorenzo (Bardem) at first saves him from harm, though he is later asked to betray his model Ines who is suspected of practising Judaism. Ines is imprisoned and tortured, spending much of her life as a captive. When she is in prison, Lorenzo forces himself upon her, and fathers a daughter by her. He is eventually exposed and disgraced, but runs away before he can be arrested.
After Napoleon invades Spain, Lorenzo returns as a collaborator, and a prosecutor for the French. Goya has discovered Ines’s daughter Alicia, who is working as a prostitute. He pays to get Ines freed from the asylum where she was being held but his attempts to reunite them are foiled by Lorenzo. When the French are later defeated by the British, Lorenzo is arrested, and himself tried by the Inquisition, then sentenced to death when he refuses to repent.
If this sounds a bit like a long-winded historical soap-opera, that’s because it is. But it is a very good one, and well worth seeing, if only for the wonderful cast, and unusual historical setting.
Captain Alatriste (2006)
In the same year, this superior Spanish historical epic was released. It concerns once again that confusing period in history, the Thirty Years War. It is based on a series of novels starring the titular hero that are still published in Spain to this day. Viggo Mortensen stars as Alatriste (speaking perfect Spanish, courtesy of a South American upbringing), and fits the character perfectly. He is a sword for hire, a tough and experienced mercenary soldier living at a time when Europe was overwhelmed by a succession of wars.
The film starts in Holland, where Alatriste is fighting for Spain against Dutch rebels. During the campaign his friend Lope is killed, and on his return he takes in the man’s son, Inigo, as he feels a debt to his former comrade. Alatriste and Inigo get involved in episodic adventures, including a plot to kill the future King of England, as well as both becoming involved with attractive women, as is often the case with historical sagas.
But the film itself rises above these typical plots with sumptuous filming using natural light, bitingly accurate historical detail, and a standout performance from Mortensen. The climactic battle scene, representing the real battle of Rocroi in 1643, is as good as any you will see. One of the least known modern epics, outside of Spain at least, but one of the best.
This Russian film is set in the year of its title, a turbulent time in the history of that country. There is no ruling dynasty and the nation is under threat of invasion by the Poles. Famine and hardship are everywhere, and various factions vie for control. The plot is somewhat complex, and according to many sources takes glaring liberties with historical fact. Despite this is it very enjoyable, even allowing for the Russian style of acting, which is always somewhat flamboyant, and overblown.
The main characters are appealing and well-portrayed, and there is an excellent sense of the period. The set-piece battle scenes are well done and surprisingly realistic. If you don’t try too hard to get to the facts behind the story you can relax and enjoy an old-school epic, made with flair by people you have never heard of, and starring actors you won’t recognise. Then you can join the very small ranks of those people outside of Russia who can say that they have seen it.