We all know history is written by the film producers. After all, the past is big bucks for Hollywood, what with all its ready-made stories and epic happenings. And luckily for us Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, spewing out lava, pyroclastic flows and poisonous gasses. Some in nearby Herculaneum died instantly, others in Pompeii had a more drawn out affair and even the dog got it (noooo, not the dog!). Whatever – it’s good cinema right?
So to celebrate the release of new historical disaster movie POMPEII, let THN take you on a magical history tour into the past. Yes, it’s time to pull the annals of antiquity down from the shelf, dust them off and explore ye olden times with five historical renditions from cinema and television.
It’s hard being on the side-lines isn’t it? Always the bridesmaid, never the bride. Milos Forman’s biopic of l’enfant terrible of Classical, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, explores the life and death of the precocious composer from the perspective of green-eyed musician Salieri.
Adapted from Peter Shaffer’s stage play, AMADEUS gives us a “what if” slice of history, mixing fact and fiction. Mozart (Tom Hulce) is vulgar but brilliant, rude but gifted by God. And it’s the ultimate kick in the teeth for Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) that this “creature” (as he calls him) can craft the most exquisite music while being such a loathsome toad. Jeez Salieri, cry me a river.
But instead the jealous composer plots the death of Mozart in an inspired if not bizarre plan, and eventually ends up alone, old and completely bonkers.
Of course history is being shaped for our enjoyment here, but it’s almost like it was just waiting to be turned into this story. I mean, it’s got everything. Rivalry, obsession, sex, death, the pains of being average…there’s nothing more chilling than the final scene showing crazy old Salieri addressing his fellow sanatorium inmates with the dictum, “Mediocrities everywhere…I absolve you.” Because it’s like he’s talking to us – I mean how many people can be as brilliant as Mozart?
And on top of that Eastenders storyline, AMADEUS comes with a ready-made soundtrack – Mozart’s greatest hits if you will. From opera to symphony, concerto to requiem, there’s a wealth of music which helps shape the film’s narrative. So perhaps a bit of historical license doesn’t matter, or as western auteur John Ford reminds us, if you’re gonna choose between truth and legend, go for the legend.
- TIME BANDITS
Whenever Terry Gilliam’s involved, you know you’re in for a surreal ride – as you’d expect from one of the Monty Python team. His 1981 separate project TIME BANDITS is a prime example. Seen through the eyes of eleven year-old Kevin (Craig Warnock), we’re dragged on a psychedelic jaunt through some of the world’s most famous historical scenes, before ending up in the mythological Time of Legends. Kevin’s guide for this journey is a motley band of six time travelling dwarfs headed up by Randall (David Rappaport) and Wally (Jack Purvis). They’re a fairly dubious bunch with unpleasant table manners. You can’t help but feel sorry for poor Kevin as he’s repeatedly kidnapped through time by this rabble. And just when he finds the lovely Sean Connery as King Agamemnon the dwarfs go and ruin it all.
TIME BANDITS works because it’s suffused with that effortless Python-esque humour (Michael Palin makes a cameo as the wet and inept lover Vincent, trying to proclaim his love for Shelley Duval). But it’s also a lot more whimsical and fantastical, due to our protagonist.
We’re kind of thrown in the deep end with him too, dropped into different scenes and periods of history (literally) and left to muddle through, steal a few things, then make a hasty exit (both Evil and The Supreme Being are in pursuit). We meet John Cleese as an awfully British Robin Hood who just sort of stands around like a socially awkward member of royalty, shakes a few hands and asks people what they do for a living. Ian Holm plays the ultimate leader with the ultimate short man complex, Napoleon Bonaparte. In fact he’s not much more than a big kid, throwing childish tantrums and watching puppet shows.
- I, CLAUDIUS
Look, forget POMPEII, forget Rome, forget all that GLADIATOR nonsense. 1970s BBC drama is where it’s at. Adapted by Jack Pulman from Robert Graves’ Roman history novels, I, Claudius explores the dastardly Julio-Claudian line of Roman Emperors. And what a thoroughly disgusting bunch they were. Murder, incest, bestiality, torture, rape, infanticide, parricide…the list goes on and on.
What’s great about I, Claudius is the cast. It’s a Brit luvvie fest, featuring Patrick Stewart, Brian Blessed, Sian Phillips, George Baker and John Hurt to name a few. And let’s not forget Derek Jacobi as Clau-Clau-Claudius, the stammering, lame eventual Emperor who played dumb to avoid meeting a sticky end. In true old-school Beeb style, all the upper class chaps speak in posh tones while the Roman rabble have a variety of regional accents. It’s what makes British TV so great.
Particular highlights include Caligula (John Hurt) prancing around in women’s clothes and make-up, before cutting his unborn child from his sister’s belly (they were very close) and um, eating it (although the Beeb spares us that scene), evil matriarch Livia’s (Sian Phillips) quest to poison all her extended family to gain her ponderously gloomy son Tiberius the Emperorship, and any scene with Brian Blessed in it. The clip where he ticks off around twenty balding men in togas (who shuffle from the room in terror of the Blessed roar) for bedding his lusty daughter is priceless. It’s this combination of the horrific and comic that makes I, Claudius such fantastic television and mandatory viewing for any history lesson.
- ED WOOD
Now, audiences may love or hate Tim Burton’s highly stylised and kooky cinema, but his 1994 biopic about terrible director Edward D. Wood Jr is in another league altogether. Widely regarded as one of the worst directors of all time, Ed Wood was responsible for some complete turkeys – his PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE featured flying saucers made out of paper plates or possibly hubcaps. Of course, today we’re perhaps a little kinder, and many audiences enjoy the Wood brand of campy B-movie theatrics.
With his outsider status, Wood was perfect fodder for Burton (think EDWARD SCISSORHANDS or THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS). But he’s never shown as a loser, instead Johnny Depp plays the cross-dressing director with empathy and humour, expertly letting audiences share Wood’s view of the world – one of childlike wonder and relentless enthusiasm, regardless of his (many) setbacks.
The heart of the movie is Ed Wood’s bizarre real-life friendship with Bela Lugosi (Martin Landau). In a case of art imitating life (or certainly getting blurred together), Wood buddies up with his idol Lugosi, now washed up and addicted to morphine. The glory days of his career as DRACULA are long gone, but Wood refuses to treat Lugosi as anything less than the grand maestro of horror he still believes him to be.
Soon Lugosi is in pretty much every single Ed Wood feature, along with an oddball team of misfits Wood picks up along the way. There’s such a sense of hope in this film – every project is going to be the “big one” and Wood never lets any disappointment dampen his creative drive.
Okay I know I’m on shaky ground here, but to be fair, we’ve already had a film with six dwarfs on the list, plus I’m from the West Country, where Arthurian legend is real (fact). And why wouldn’t you pick EXCALIBUR? John Boorman’s 80s epic is, well, pretty epic.
Filmed on a low budget, but making loads at the box office, what is it about EXCALIBUR that draws in audiences? Perhaps it’s the sheer scale. It’s almost operatic; it works in grand sweeping statements. This film is a pure riot of colour, costume and melodrama. Knights crash around, hefting their ponderous swords into each other. Patrick Stewart pops up again, as does Liam Neeson. Helen Mirren floats around in dark caves wearing gold underwear as evil Morgana, ready to seduce her brother Arthur (Nigel Terry) and bear his creepy lovechild (and his doom), Mordred.
But best has to be Shakespearean actor Nicol Williamson as Merlin, who approaches the role of enchanter with gleeful gusto and a slight dose of insanity. He swoops around in his silver skull-cap, alternatively conjuring tricks like a sidewalk con-artist and muttering Yoda-esque mumbo jumbo about stars and cakes and dragons in a waft of dry ice. And what history lessons can EXCALIBUR offer us? The most perplexing one I think is knights of yore did the wild thing with their ladies in full armour. Ouch. So just remember…look into the eyes of the dragon and despair!
POMPEII arrives in cinemas from 30th April.