Five of my favourite films

By Lisa Marie Griffith

Last term I had the opportunity to show a film to my early modern European history classes. Film and historical dramas have become one of the primary places that the average person experiences history. History enthusiasts of course have documentaries, but only a small minority of people who engage with documentaries. Viewing a historical film can be a thoroughly rewarding experience for those who are interested in history but these films often have to be taken with a pinch of salt. While taking tutorials, however, I became increasingly aware that students often take for granted the accuracy of very sensational historic films and television series.

While explaining the Tudor and Stuart family tree in tutorials there were constant references from my students to That other Boleyen Girl, Marie Antoinette, The Duchess and Young Victoria. In Ireland the legacy of Michael Collins has coloured most people’s experience of modern Irish history and the film and its romantic portrayal of the War of Independence seems unavoidable when dealing with Ireland in this period. As a tour guide I am also becoming increasingly aware of the lasting impact of The Wind that Shakes the Barley which many American people view before they come to Ireland. That said, The Tudors also seems to be a favourite amongst many of my visitors.

For good or bad Hollywood and HBO are the touchstone for many people’s basic knowledge on historical events. The fabulous costumes and dramatic plot twists understandably stick in people’s minds more readily than their study prep for junior cert history. But this touchstone can be put to good use in the class room. Students seem to react positively to film, even if it is just short YouTube clips. We are, more than ever, in a television age.Picking a relevant film to show my class became quite a challenge because I wanted something that they would enjoy, that helped to illuminate historical events, without boring and yet something that stuck close enough to the acknowledged historical period. There are of course a huge number of films that do this and in the end the problem became narrowing them down. Here, in no particular order, are five of my favourite historical films for the early modern period.

The Madness of King George (1994). Starring Nigel Hawthorne as George III the film explores the first bought of dementia which king George III experienced and the extremes to which those closet to the king undertook to rid him of this illness. The film illustrates the relationship between the king, his advisors and ministers (I particularly enjoy the scenes with William Pitt), his family, the court and indeed his subjects so it’s an interesting exploration of early modern monarchy. Helen Mirren is fantastic as Queen Charlotte while Rupert Everett plays the feckless Prince of Wales brilliantly.

La Reine Margot (1994). I only recently discovered this film when it was recommended to me by a friend. The film is actually based on an Alexander Dumas novel of the same name. It explores the marriage of the French Catholic Princess, Margot, to the Protestant King of Navarre, Henri di Bourbon (later king of France). The marriage was intended to halt the war between the Catholic crown and the Protestant Huguenots which was tearing France a part (The French wars of religion). The marriage, and fear that it had increased the power of Henri Navarre, prompted the crown to turn on the Huguenots who had flocked to Paris to celebrate the impending peace on 24 August 1572. These massacres became known as the Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.

Cromwell (1970). This film is utterly biased in its depiction of Cromwell but the portrayal of Cromwell runs counter to pretty much every stereotype Irish people have. For that alone I think the film is worth showing to classes. It portrays Cromwell as many English people see him- honourable, protecting the rights of a nation, his religion and upholding parliament. The film sees Richard Harris play Cromwell and Alec Guinness undertake the role of Charles I. Definitely worth a look!

Le Retour de Martin Guerre (1982). The historian Natalie Zemon Davis was heavily involved in the production of this film guiding it and ensuring its authenticity. The film changed her view of history writing as she saw the actors undertaking these roles interpreting and providing motives to the characters they were playing. This encouraged her to provide her own voice for historical figures which she was writing about. The story is based on an account of legal proceedings which took place in sixteenth century France. Gerard Depardieu plays Arnaud de Tihl who undertakes a con and pretends to be Martin Guerre, a soldier just returned from war. He comfortably takes control of Martin Guerre’s life until suspicions begin to be raised.

Aguirre: Wrath of God (1972). Ok- so this one isn’t technically based on historic events but I think it sets the scene for the Spanish conquest of South America and highlights what drove many spanish soldiers- greed! The story was written and directed by Werner Herzog and was the first film where he worked with Klaus Kinski who plays the insane Conquistador Aguirre. If you watch this film you will notice that the lip sync is never quite right. Someone recently informed me that the whole film was actually filmed in English. There was such a varied group of nationalities on the film set that English was their only common language. The film was then dubbed over in German. Supposedly Kinski demanded so much to dub the film after it had been shot that in the end they hired someone else. The voice you hear as Aguirre is not his.

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7 Responses to “Five of my favourite films”

  1. puesoccurrences Says:

    Great post, Lisa. I am ashamed to say that I have not seen any of the above. I’m fairly sure I saw La Reine Margot at some stage, but the plot does not ring a bell…

    For 19th C atmosphere I rather like ‘Master and Commander’, really just for the pretend-Darwin on the ship which gives some idea of how it was to collect and work in that context (while of course making it seem much easier and cleaner than it was). I suspect depiction of the Napoleonic Wars not v. accurate. And of course the pretend-Darwin is about 20 years too early.

    In an American context, Dances with Wolves and Last of the Mohicans offer some good fuel for discussion, not least of all the charming American habit of glorifying that which it has already destroyed. A history and historiography lesson in one.


  2. puesoccurrences Says:

    Thanks for those Juliana-
    It has been years since I say either Dances with Wolves and Last of the Mohicans. I have since tutored on some American History courses so it would interest to re-watch them.

    A good Irish ‘scene setting’ film is Barry Lyndon- very enjoyable and the scenes are beautifully shot. Apparently it was all filmed in natural light. All in door scenes were filmed using candles that were produced in Ireland with an eighteenth-century technique. Gorgeous!


  3. patrick maume Says:

    AGUIRRE: WRATH OF GOD is in fact based very loosely on historical events – see here for a starter.
    A minor Irish connection – the early C19 Limerick writer Gerald Griffin wrote a now-lost play about the historical Aguirre.

  4. puesoccurrences Says:

    Thanks Patrick!

  5. puesoccurrences Says:

    Thanks Patrick!

  6. dfallon Says:

    On Collins vrs. The Wind That Shakes The Barley, I always suggest they watch both. It’s funny how the average tourists perception of Irish history is shaped by seeing ONE of those two films however. Whenever I’m asked about the civil war, I say “you’d have to ask a foreign historan about that one, we’re stilling fighting it!”

    I’ve actually seen Cromwell (though none of the others) and thought it was pretty good. Not expecting it on RTE any time soon, but an interesting new perspective for me.

  7. los auriculares cascos baratos Says:

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