Thursday, 2 August 2018

Xena Warrior Princess: The Deliverer


This post contains spoilers for Xena: Warrior Princess season three as a whole, not just this episode - if you're watching Xena for the first time and haven't finished season three yet, stop reading now!

I'm watching my way through all of Xena at the moment - I'll catch up on blogging it all eventually! For today, continuing the Roman Britain theme, I'm going to concentrate on the first episode set in Roman Britain (otherwise known as Britannia, or 'the island north of Gaul'), season three's 'The Deliverer'.

One of the core arguments of the monograph I'm working on about screen depictions of Roman Britain with Antony Keen is that there are a few core plots that come up time and again - the invasion of Julius Caesar, the rebellion of Boudicca, the 'disappearance' of the Ninth Legion beyond Hadrian's Wall, Arthurian legend. Xena's going to get to Arthurian legend in the next episode - for this one, the writers decide to go two for one and throw Boudicca's rebellion and Julius Caesar's invasion together, regardless of the teensy issue of the 110-year time gap between the two (but then, Xena's lifetime has already encompassed the Trojan War, the reign of King David and Julius Caesar's early years, so by Xena's standards this is closer than usual!).

Xena has always been deliberately ahistorical, of course. One of the joys of the show is the way it throws together whatever stories take the writers' interest in whatever way they want, using history as inspiration for a fantasy world. It's not dissimilar to Game of Thrones, really, except that Xena doesn't bother changing anyone's name, and in fact relies on a certain amount of recognition for its twists on some stories to work. (Julius Caesar's introductory episode, intriguingly, is based in a lot of real history, but I'll get to that when I get to blogging it!).

I wonder if this deliberate playing with history is why Boudicca here goes by the name 'Boadicea'. By the 1990s, most people had settled fairly firmly on 'Boudicca' as the version of her name closer to ancient British (these days, 'Boudica' tends to be preferred, and there's some debate over whether it's a name or a title). 'Boadicea' was popularised by the Victorians, but by the 1990s was broadly considered to be 'wrong'. And yet that's the name Xena goes for - in what I think is a deliberate nod to the re-writing of history in the episode. This is a fictional character who embodies tropes associated with 'Boadicea', not a real British woman.

The episode doesn't really do much with Caesar or Boadicea in the end, though, because it's interested in the development of an entirely different story - Caesar and Boadicea are just the way we get there. This story is heading in a very different direction, which will determine the course of the rest of season three.

The episode sets up a major mis-direct leading up to a huge twist well into the episode. From the moment we meet Martin Csokas' Khrafstar, we're encouraged to think that his cult of the one god is our introduction to Christianity in Xena's world. We've already met the Israelites in 'The Giant Killer', and Hercules has taken part in the Christian Nativity story in Hercules: The Legendary Journeys' 'A Star to Guide Them'. There's clear precedent for including Christianity in a series set in any version of the ancient Roman world, where Christianity originated, even an ahistorical one. A cult of the Son that was a clear reference to Christianity appeared, for example, in Star Trek's Planet of the Romans episode, 'Bread and Circuses'.

Everything seems to be leading up to a positive depiction of Christianity, which is what might be expected (especially in those pre-Supernatural, pre-Luther days). Ares and Discord are worried about the cult, fearing it means the end of their worship (as Christianity eventually would). The god has a name but they aren't allowed to speak it. Direct confrontation is discouraged. We meet the cultists carrying cross-bars for crosses over their shoulders (in a random moment of historical accuracy) and Khrafstar and Gabrielle are crucified at one point, Xena rescuing them just before their legs are broken (which speeds up the suffocation that is the cause of death in crucifixion). Ares is obsessed with destroying the one god's temple (as the Romans would destroy the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, dedicated to the same God, in AD 70).

We realise something different is going on when the cult tricks Gabrielle into killing for the first time, so they embrace both human sacrifice (the priestess basically goes into this as a suicide mission as it's all clearly planned) and deliberately forcing Gabrielle into something that will traumatise her. Ares was right when he told Xena to trust him after all, which is an interesting twist in itself. At this point, the show makes it very, very clear that this is not, in fact, the Christian God. We discover the god is called Dahak (guess they could say his name after all). He is 'the dark one', the dark force who will sweep the world with war. Xena specifically says 'this is not the One God of the Israelites' and Khrafster says no, their dark god will 'take care of' the Israelite God later. Dahak 'appreciates rage'.

And then we see him, claiming to be the Deliverer, and of course, he's the Devil, horns and fire and all. This development gives the world of Xena a truly evil antagonist (as opposed to the love to hate him, conflicted relationship she has with Ares or the coldly human villainy of Caesar). Probably more significantly, this will lead to a Rosemary's Baby style plot development that will have all sorts of dramatic repercussions over the whole course of this season of the show.
This is not going to end well

Aside from being an effective plot twist, this is a really interesting take on the material. The cult sounds so much like Christianity and like something good when Khrafstar first explains it to Gabrielle, which is why she trusts him and ends up playing into his hands. In some ways, this plays into ideas about devil worship that were current in the 1990s and can also be seen in X-Files episodes like 'Die Hand Die Verlezt'. But it's also a reminder that sometimes, something can look and sound like Christianity, but at its heart, can be something very different indeed, and much less loving.

This episode is much more about setting up the rather grim arc plot of the third season than it is about Caesar, Boadicea or Britain. However, it's worth noting that Xena rescues the cultists and goes to Britannia in the first place out of sheer personal hatred for Caesar. The dark turn Xena and Gabrielle's lives are about to take, and Gabrielle's loss of innocence (established firmly as essential to her character) is all, ultimately, brought about by Xena's desire for revenge on Caesar - that desire for vengeance becomes the start of all sorts of darkness and suffering.

The episode stops being about anything resembling Roman Britain pretty quickly as it gets caught up in these bigger issues. The view of Britain it offers is unusual, though. Screen depictions of Roman Britain are usually produced by British people, in British television shows and films. Every now and again, Hollywood creates a character from Roman Britain to accommodate a British actor (as in Spartacus and Pompeii, though this is really unnecessary, considering how many British accents are all over Rome most of the time!), but most have their roots in modern Britain.

Because Roman Britain usually appears in British productions, it is usually depicted in a positive way. Granted, the weather is always awful, but the people are usually hardy, resilient, plucky fighters, while the occupying Romans are often beleaguered, suffering from colds, trying to do their best in a difficult posting. Both sides are usually presented broadly sympathetically, because modern British people tend to see themselves in both the native Britons and the occupying Romans.

This production, almost entirely lacking in British input, is very different. Our national heroine is suddenly French! (Xena knew her in Gaul and she escaped to Britain). British productions depict Boudicca as the ultimate British freedom fighter, especially following World War Two - she embodies the idea of plucky little Britain (enormous British empire notwithstanding - that gets left out of the British narrative) standing up against the Nazi invasion. Here, however, she just turns up after being in Gaul, fights a bit, and disappears.

In this episode, Britain is the home of literal devil worship, and one of British prehistoric ancestors' greatest achievements, a World Heritage Site, is a temple to the Devil himself that must be destroyed - Dahak's temple, once the main building is burned down, looks an awful lot like Stonehenge (which is in reality, of course, a deliberately open-air structure that's thousands of years older than the Roman Empire).

This sort of reflects Roman attitudes towards Britain in a way. The Devil is a medieval Christian concept, but Pliny the Elder, while claiming that everyone agrees magic comes form Persia, said Britannia was so full of magic it might even have been the Britons that first brought it over to Persia (how they bypassed Rome and the rest of Europe on the way, he doesn't say!). Even the Romans didn't think Britannia was literally the home of evil, but they weren't all that keen and were pretty suspicious of it, and of the Druid culture Britain shared with many other parts of Europe, beyond complaining about the weather.

Overall, a really unusual take on Roman Britain - and not just for the mashing up of history! This is a good episode, though, with a genuinely unexpected twist, and a grim plot that sets up more than a year's worth of story-telling across both Xena and Hercules.

Some other random thoughts:

 - This part of New Zealand, as is well known from The Lord of the Rings, looks a lot more like Britain than it does like Greece or Italy!

 - Of course, in the world of Xena, Julius Caesar looks a lot like Cupid, but that kinda works in its own weird way! He was a man fond of a lively sex life. And we get to see two very different sides of Karl Urban.

 - The boobs on Boadicea's breastplate are really distracting, they look like saucepans.

Quotes

Xena: You half-witted toady to a third rate god, come and get me!

Gabrielle: Everything's changed. Everything.

Disclaimer: Gabrielle was slightly well done during the filming of this motion picture. However, the producers would like to recommend a zesty barbeque sauce to bring out the full flavour of this episode.

All Xena: Warrior Princess reviews

Saturday, 9 June 2018

The Eagle of the Ninth: Esca


Having covered Marcus Aquila's arrival in Britain in the first episode, it is this second episode that really sets up the characters we'll be following through the rest of the story as our hero meets and buys a British slave called Esca.

Both the book and the TV series cover Marcus' relationship with another Briton, before Esca, in detail. He first meets and befriends Caradoc, and goes hunting with him. However, Caradoc conspires with other British to attack the fort and the ensuing battle, in which Caradoc is killed, is when Marcus received his career-ending injury. The film touched on this, but the television series is able to devote the whole of the first half-hour episode to it, making it a separate point in itself. When Marcus meets Esca, therefore, he has much more reason to be wary of making friends with any Briton, and to worry about how their loyalty to other Britons may conflict with friendship with him. The series also drives the point home with flashbacks of Caradoc, just to make sure no one has missed the point, so there is much more tension between Marcus and Esca on both sides here.

Esca has a Northern English regional accent. The lack of RP, in the 1970s, presents him as lower class (at that time, newsreaders and other television personalities all used RP). His geographical origins are, of course, important to the story.

The series also includes Marcus' love interest, who was left out of the film to focus on the relationship between Marcus and Esca. Unsurprisingly, she looks a lot older than 13, as she is in the book! That would be creepy. Camilla/Cottia is from the Iceni tribe and has reddish hair, because heaven forbid we should get through a story set in Roman Britain without a reference to Boudicca! Unlike the other British characters, Cottia has an RP accent though, presumably to emphasise the Roman upbringing she is getting from her Roman aunt and uncle.

We get to see some gladiatorial combat in this episode, and the set for the small provincial amphitheatre is fairly impressive. All of our heroes, while not necessarily against blood sport in humans, are against animal cruelty, as modern literary Romans nearly always are. Audiences can accept that these people of a different time are okay with humans fighting and killing each other, but not that they are okay with animal cruelty. This is why the dog never dies in action movies.

This is where we meet Esca and in another unsurprising move, he's fighting a retiarius. There's something about the retiarius (the fighter who uses a net and trident) that really appeals to film-makers, presumably because it looks so different to more familiar forms of single combat from other eras, like sword fighting. A retiarius is clearly, absolutley Roman. I really like the way the Roman and Esca the Briton take completely different fighting stances here, not just due to their different weapons, but as a visual reminder that they have been raised in completely different ways, with completely different fighting styles.

The series continues to make good use of its budget in several ways. I'm impressed with the full on pool in the bathhouse (with everyone wearing shorts because child audience!). The apparently mechanical wolf in one scene is a bit distracting though.

This is still essentially set-up, as the episode is entirely devoted to introducing the audience to Esca and Camilla/Cottia. To a generation raised on Classic Doctor Who, this would have been entirely normal. Six-part Classic Doctor Who stories often spent two episodes introducing new places and characters and wandering around a bit, and even the four-part stories are sometimes half set-up, half pay-off. How well this would go down with a generation raised on 45-minute stories is hard to say! On the plus side, it gives the setting and characters room to breathe, and we have time to get to know them - and it replicates the structure of the book, which also spends a long time establishing the relationships between Marcus, Esca and Cottia before the journey that forms the bulk of the plot. On the down side, we're an hour in and the story hasn't actually started yet...

Saturday, 2 June 2018

The Eagle of the Ninth: Frontier Fort


The Eagle of the Ninth is a six-part television adaptation of Rosemary Sutcliff's novel, better known to modern audiences from the 2011 film adaptation The Eagle.

The adaptation was made for transmission on Sunday evenings in six half hour episodes. For years, the BBC used to show adaptations of classic children's novels on Sunday evenings during the autumn or in the lead up to Christmas, including The Chronicles of Narnia, The Borrowers and Merlin of the Crystal Cave. I used to love them, and looked forward to them as a child. The previous year, in autumn 1976, the BBC has transmitted its phenomenally successful adaptation of Robert Graves' novel I, Claudius for adults (definitely for adults) so it is not surprising that their choice of children's novel for 1977 was a Roman-set one.

The use of accents, as in any show about Roman Britain, is interesting. The Romans here have proper plummy BBC accents. They all speak Received Pronunciation, which implies they are educated and associates them with the ruling classes. This goes for all the Roman troops, not just the commanders, which is unusual - even I, Claudius the year before used regional accents for lower ranking soldiers. The British, meanwhile, speak with a vaguely West Country accent (which is clearly being put on, badly, by the actors) in order to associate them with farming, with the land and with lower social classes (think Sam Gamgee's accent from The Lord of the Rings).

This series follows the book much more closely than the 2011 film (unsurprisingly), so this whole first episode is basically set-up for the main part of the story. In this particular case, that works rather well for the story, as it allows Marcus' initial experience of Britain to stand as a story on its own, before following him out of the army in the rest of the series.

I like the opening of the show, with a bit of black and white filming and a marching song that, while written to have vaguely Roman-appropriate lyrics, is clearly an old British-style marching song, all about leaving a girl behind and so on (see this rather wonderful Tumblr thread about different types of folk songs!). The Roman soldiers are therefore clearly presented to the audience as figures to identify with, singing the sort of marching songs British soldiers might have sung during the wars that were still very much in living memory (the children watching this in the 1970s may have had parents who fought in World War Two). The British, so far, are rather wilder.

Despite being aimed at children and families, this show actually has a lot more action than I, Claudius. It obviously had a much bigger budget, as it includes actual outdoor filming. The battle scene is brief, shot in close-up and bloodless (the result of both budget and being aimed at a child audience), but we do get to see the testudo in action and it allows the series to do a bit more showing and a bit less telling. On the whole, though, like I, Claudius, the series relies heavily on small, indoor sets featuring a couple of theatrically trained actors crossly providing exposition to each other.

I happen to be watching it now on an old, scratched, slightly fuzzy TV/DVD player that was a kind donation from my partner's cousins, that makes a weird clicking sound as the DVD plays. This is probably the closest modern way to replicate the experience of watching it in the 1970s! It's certainly far closer to our family TV from the 1980s than the elaborate projector screen system my partner has set up downstairs. Still, if modern eyes can get past the old-fashioned filming style and sometimes stilted delivery, the series is well worth a look.

Friday, 27 April 2018

Britannia: Episode 1



It starts with rain - of course. Roman Britain = rain. It is known.

Wikipedia calls this series 'historical fantasy'. On the basis of this first episode, it looks like it's somewhere on the border between fantasy and slightly weird historical drama.

The Outcast's visit to the underworld could be halluciantions brought on by a dangerous but survivable situation, while the smoke spirit inhaled in the initiation ceremony could be a drug of some kind. The hypnotism is a bit weirder, but still just on the border of the almost plausible. Maybe! Antonius' impersonation of Plautius' grandfather/possession by his spirit is the oddest and hardest to explain, and indicates that perhaps the series is going to venture into fully fantastical territory in future episodes.

Much of what we "know" about Druids and British culture before the Roman occupation is educated guesswork, from what archaeological evidence is available (much of it dating to after the Roman invasion and therefore showing Roman influences) and from texts written by Romans, most of whom, with the exception of Julius Caesar, had never been there themselves. Our knowledge of Druid religion and culture is, therefore, very patchy and focuses mainly on the more sensationalist bits that the Romans wrote about, like human sacrifice and strange divinatory practices. The advantage of this for film and television producers, of course, is that they can make up all sorts of things about the Druids and we can't really complain that they're inaccurate, because we don't really know that much about them in the first place.

(Of course, the one thing we do know a bit about is the position they buried people in, so that's handy when you're filming a funeral scene!).

This series seems pretty engaging so far. I like the opening focus on female initiation rituals, which don't always get as much attention as male ones, and I notice we haven't been told the young girl's name yet. It wouldn't be Boudicca, by any chance? Boudicca's revolt took place just under 20 years after the invasion, so the timescale just about works, assuming this girl gets married and has children within about 5 years. Boudicca was Queen of the Iceni, not the Cantii (called the Canti in the series), but that was because her husband was king, so it's possible she could have married into that tribe from another one. Her hair is brown rather than red, but henna hair dye to colour hair red was around in the Roman world, and Greek and Roman descriptions of hair colours are difficult to interpret anyway, so even that's not a deal-breaker. (Boudicca's hair is described as 'xanthe' by Cassius Dio, the same colour as Achilles' and the root of a common slave name in Classical Greece, meaning broadly blonde, ginger or red).

The suddenness and violence of the Roman invasion, appearing out of nowhere through the trees while we're completely wrapped up in the ritual, is really well done. David Morrissey is at his most grim and soldier-y, playing a Roman again, and Zoe Wanamaker has fabulous eyeshadow (though her character doesn't know how to do diplomacy).

The main historical issues so far relate to the series' firm insistence that the British and the Romans know nothing about each other. British culture was pretty similar to Northern French (Gaulish) culture back then - you can still see the similarities in Brittany (northern France) and Cornwall - so I'm not sure why the Romans are so taken aback by Britain considering they conquered Gaul years ago. And they had been trading with Britain and had several client kingdoms (British kings who paid tribute and were largely under Roman control) ever since the invasions under Julius Caesar. So the Romans should have some knowledge of Britain, and British girls living on the coast within sight of France should have some knowledge of the Romans. As indeed they clearly do, since Mackenzie Crook's Druid is able to communicate easily with Aaron Pierre's Roman solider of Numidian origin, which means they must both be speaking Latin, the language of communication in the Western Empire and, of course, the language of the Romans, as British Druids are unlikely to speak Numidian and Numidian soldiers unlikely to speak Celtic.

Historical issues aren't really the point, though. This is a drama series, not a documentary, and one that is clearly skirting the edge of fantasy. So far, the series has provided likeable characters (Cait/Unnamed/Possibly-Boudicca), intriguing characters (the Outcast), entertainingly vicious characters (Plautius and Antedia) and funny characters (the late Islene, but hopefully there will be more). It's got fairly high production values and seems well paced, so all in all the signs are good that this should be a fun ride - I look forward to the next episode!

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

Doctor Who: The Eaters of Light


I'm working on a project focusing on Roman Britain in TV and film at the moment, so expect lots of posts about films and TV series set in Roman Britain!

I had meant to blog this episode back when it first aired because I thought it was brilliant, but as usual, didn't get around to it! I enjoyed a lot of Series 10, probably more than I've enjoyed a series of Doctor Who overall for a while, and this and the following episode ('World Enough and Time') were my favourites.

I totally sympathise with the Doctor when Bill insists she knows more about Romans than him, a person who has actually been to parts of the ancient Roman world several times (and apparently not just at the times we know about, though there's no such thing as a 'second class' Vestal Virgin and he hadn't been a woman yet at that point, so we'll have to assume that one's a joke). I have the same problem when students think they know more than me! Though if it's about the ancient military, which is not my area and which a lot of them know quite a lot about, they sometimes do.

The reason Bill has dragged the Doctor back to ancient Rome again is because she's really into the story of the Ninth Legion, who supposedly disappeared into the mists of Scotland, presumably slaughtered by Caledonians, during the second century AD (except they were probably just transferred to Europe and switched with the Sixth Legion). I've written about this before, because it's been the subject of several films, as well as Rosemary Sutcliff's novel The Eagle of the Ninth and its film and TV adaptations.

What I love the most about this episode, aside from just generally being really good, is that it offers a genuine glimpse into ancient Roman culture (what we know of it). It's not perfect (what is?!) and it's had to be censored a bit for a family audience, but the overall impression is more or less on the money, particularly when it comes to sexuality and ethnicity - both of which are significant issues for the characters given that Bill is both black and gay.

On sexuality, Bill is clearly nervous about explaining that she doesn't swing that way to the Roman Lucius, expecting judgment and/or confusion, and is pleasantly surprised to find the Romans completely unbothered and that one of them is gay. Another describes himself as 'ordinary' because he likes both men and women, and thinks Bill is restricted for liking only one gender. All of this is a pretty accurate brief representation of broad ancient attitudes towards sexuality. Perhaps implying that liking both describes the majority is a bit of an exaggeration for Rome (less so for ancient Greece) but we do have evidence for people discussing sexual attraction or admiration of beauty in both men and women (Apuleius in his defence speech, for example, though he mostly seems to prefer women and writes poems to young men, he says, as a literary exercise).

This is not to say the ancients didn't have any sexual prejudices or hang-ups - they did, but these would be unsuitable to explain to a family audience, as they often involve exactly what positions people have sex in and the relative ages and statuses of the participants. In the ancient world, sexual preferences tend to be described more as tastes than as essential aspects of someone's identity - rather than describe themselves as 'gay' or 'straight', Romans would describe themselves as preferring men or women, as these do. So all in all, this really neatly demonstrates that not all periods of history were like the Victorian period, and differing human sexualities have been a part of human life for as long as we've been around.

Race and ethnicity is not brought up overtly in the way that sexuality is. Back in Series 3, Martha expressed concern to the Doctor when they visited Elizabethan England, again projecting 18th, 19th and 20th century racism back onto the past. And again, it's not that racism didn't exist in the past - it certainly did, sadly - but that doesn't mean it's the same as in the modern world or as it was in recent modern history. (For Elizabethan racism, just watch or read Othello!). Bill seems less concerned than Martha, partly because she's already been to the past, and the 19th century at that, and partly because she's studied the Ninth Legion and she does know something about the Romans, so she knows she's unlikely to stand out that much to them.

Shortly after this episode came out, a British cartoon about ancient Roman daily life was attacked on Twitter for including a black character, and Mary Beard eloquently explained that the ancient Roman world and Roman Britain in particular was ethnically diverse, and this was not inaccurate. In addition to the evidence she brought up and the evidence discussed in the article at the link, a tombstone from South Shields commemorates a soldier's freedman called Victor who was from North Africa, a bronze figurine of a Berber cavalryman was found near Hadrian's Wall, and Ivory Bangle Woman, buried near York, was mixed race and was buried with two bangles, one of local jet, the other African ivory. The Romans never conquered below the Sahara and their contacts were mostly Berber, but they traded with and were well aware of the sub-Saharan inhabitants of Africa as well. In this episode, no one remarks on Bill's race and the Roman soldiers are of various ethnicities, none of which is explicitly explained - which is exactly how it would have been, as this would have been normal.

Fictional answers to the apparent mystery of the Ninth Legion often have them mostly killed, with survivors blending into British culture, marrying British women, and only occasionally meeting King Arthur. For Doctor Who, of course the answer involves aliens, but I rather like the idea that they commit themselves to protecting Britain and become part of Scotland and the landscape, which is a twist on the usual story of them blending into British life. Plus it's terribly noble of them.

Other random thoughts...

 - The talking crows thing is a bit weird. Very Tolkein-esque.

 - There's a nice Outlander vibe to the whole thing as well. Plus yay for Peter Capaldi getting to be in an episode in Scotland, and unlike David Tennant, getting to use his own accent and all.

 - It's taken Bill this long to notice that everyone in space speaks English! Good point on the lip-sync though.

This is a good episode, and it doesn't really require any knowledge of Doctor Who to follow it, either. The last five minutes are about the arc plot, but the rest of the story stands alone. This is also quite a good time to get into Doctor Who, as the show has just gained a new showrunner and new Doctor (the character regenerates into a new actor every so often), so the first episode of the new season is likely to re-set the show a bit and re-introduce the Doctor and her world, as well as giving her new co-stars as her Companions, who will be new characters. If you fancy giving modern Doctor Who a go, you like stories about ancient Rome, and you want to try out a fairly recent episode, this would be a good one to go for.

More blog posts on Doctor Who

Friday, 16 February 2018

The Archers of Isca (by Caroline Lawrence)

I've been sitting on this book for two years and finally managed to read it! It's been a busy couple of years.

I'm very glad I did though - as ever with Caroline Lawrence's books, I thoroughly enjoyed this. After taking months and months to read a very long non-fiction book about America and American history (In America: Travels with John Steinbeck by Geert Mak, which I thoroughly recommend, but it took me a while to get through it) I devoured this one in a few nights. I was so pleased to finally sit down and spend time with these characters again. My heart will always belong to Flavia and Nubia, but Juba, Ursula, Fronto and Bouda are equally engaging and likeable characters with fascinating stories to tell.

As a British person living in England, the special joy of this series lies in the setting in Roman Britain, and in recognising familiar places. I love the Roman Baths at Bath, so the visit to Aquae Sulis was great fun. I've still never been to Caerleon, so this was another reminder that I really need to get there! I also really enjoyed the descriptions of British Iron Age village life (which made a refreshing change from Roman, though I sympathise with Fronto feeling more at home in Roman buildings!).

The story is framed by the Celtic festivals of Samhain and Beltane, and features two very different giant Wicker Men. These are best known from the film(s) but, as the book tells us, they are described by Caesar and Strabo, and I've been teaching these texts (looking at them together together with the evidence of human sacrifice from bog bodies) for years so I got a kick out of that. You can still see a sort of survival of this custom in some Guy Fawkes celebrations - I went to Bonfire Night in Oxford in 2010 and the 'guy' - usually a human-size figure in early modern dress sitting on the bonfire - had been replaced with a giant wicker man which was set alight.
It was impossible to get a decent picture,
but this is the giant corn dolly/Wicker Man on fire!

On the Classical side, one particularly effective scene has the two young girls, Ursula and Bouda, kidnapped while they are out picking flowers and making garlands in a spring meadow. This clearly followed ancient descriptions of the abduction of Persephone and was all the creepier and more effective for it. Thankfully, the girls' abductors had a different aim in mind than Hades did.

The first book in this series, although it followed all three Roman children's perspectives, focused primarily on Juba, and this second highlights Fronto. His story, in which he joins the army, reminded me a little of Rosemary Sutcliff's classic The Eagle of the Ninth, and brought with it another fascinating change of scenery. Presumably the third and fourth books will highlight Ursula and Bouda - I'm especially looking forward to the Bouda volume, as she is still a bit of a mystery here!

I've already ordered the next book, which promises to have gladiators in it, always one of my favourite ancient tropes. I'm confident it won't take me another two years to read it! (Come back in two years and find out...!)

Monday, 12 June 2017

Wonder Woman (dir. Patty Jenkins, 2017)


I've been meaning to write up a blog post on Wonder Woman ever since I saw it last week, but there's so much to say, I hadn't yet had a chance! I'm going to focus here on Wonder Woman as portrayed in these films (this one and Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice). I'm dimly aware of some aspects of her comic-book origins - created in 1941, not long after Batman and Superman, and so on - but I don't know enough about them to go into any detail. I also think it's worth considering the film on its own merits, since movie makers have fairly free reign over how much they take from a comic book tradition anyway (Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, is fairly far removed in terms of detail from the comic-book versions).

OK, so I guess I'd better start with the Classics stuff, since that is the purpose of this blog! While her superhero identity is as the red, white and blue-bedecked Wonder Woman, Diana of Themiscyra is actually an Amazon, a race of warrior women from ancient Greek mythology that I've talked about here and in substantial detail here.

The Amazons in Greek mythology exist to be tamed. They are both a menace from nightmares - a race of powerful, warrior women, a threat to patriarchal Greek society - and magnetically attractive, Achilles falling in love with the Amazon Penthesilea at the moment of killing her (or, sometimes, with her corpse after death). Sameer's line in this film, "I'm both frightened and aroused", sums it up rather well.

But ultimately, in ancient mythology, the Amazons exist to be tamed. Their threatening aspect, their military skill and physical prowess, must be conquered and brought under control. Similarly, as women, they must be taken out of their all-female society and brought under the control of men - hence Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, ends up married to Theseus, King of Athens (and promptly dies leaving a wetter-than-wet son who gets cursed to death by his own father due to the evil machinations of his step-mother).

Wonder Woman's Amazons, unsurprisingly, have a very different purpose. Diana's story arc in this film is not to be tamed, but to discover her own power and strength. Indeed, if anyone is to be tamed in this film, it is men, who have gone completely out of control in their drive for destruction. In an interesting reversal of the ancient myth, the Amazons exist in this reality in order to tame men.

I have to confess I felt there was something a bit uncomfortably Rape of the Sabine Women-y about the Amazons' backstory and purpose. I'm going on my rough memories of one viewing of the film here, but the initial drive to create the Amazons, if I remember rightly, was implied to be Zeus trying to stop men from fighting (egged on by Ares) by placing wives, mothers and sisters around them, and I seem to remember an image used in the film inspired by the famous Jaques-Louis David painting of the intervention of the Sabine women.

The story of the Sabine women is that early Romans, lacking wives, kidnapped women from the local Sabine tribe, raped them and forcibly married them. By the time their brothers and fathers got their act together to rescue them, the women had children with the Romans and, motherhood being the most essential aspect of a woman's life as far as ancient societies are concerned, the women leapt between the men begging them to stop fighting because they loved them all equally as family. It's a political tactic the Romans continued to use in real life, using marriages to try to hold together fragile political alliances (not always successfully!). Women and their fertility become a tool to hold men together - in some real-life historical cases, if the woman dies, so does the alliance. However, the women themselves have no real agency - they are married off where their fathers and brothers find it useful and if their husband later rejects them, they are helpless then too.

Fortunately, the backstory of Wonder Woman's Amazons develops in a rather different way. Rather than non-combatants with babies, these Amazons become warriors themselves, intended to end warfare with... warfare. They live by the sword and in some cases die by the - well, bullet. They are fighting fire with fire. Umm, I'm not how I feel about that either. But they're awesome, kick-ass women so what the heck, let's go with it.

Warfare need not be their only role. Diana is, of course, the Latin name for the virgin huntress goddess, Artemis (nothing much to do with the Amazons in mythology), goddess of hunting, wild animals, childbirth and young girls up to the age of marriage (about 12-15). In Greek mythology, goddesses are generally only allowed to get involved in masculine things like war and hunting if they are virgins - and so, not really women, as they never have children (except for that one time Hephaestus tried to rape Athena but only got stuff down her leg, which resulted in her son, Erichthonius).

Thankfully, Diana defies this by allowing Captain Kirk to show her this thing called love, and implies she wasn't without options on her all-female island anyway (the line about men being essential for procreation but not for pleasure got a good laugh out of me!). In this film, she is able to be a sexually active woman without necessarily becoming a mother - one of society's (and science's, if we're talking about heterosexual sex) big steps forward since ancient Greece!

These Amazons completely defy the idea of motherhood as an essential characteristic of women, without which they are incomplete. Only one Amazon is a mother, but while Diana's note that men are essential for procreation might imply more of them might have been mothers if they had men around, none of the Amazons seem to be crying out for volunteers - they seem perfectly happy in their almost child-free environment. Women have an entirely different, very specific role in this world.

Of course, the film also features an appearance from the Greek god Ares, god of war. David Thewlis' Ares is a very interesting take on the character. I've heard a few suggestions that, while his casting works very well for the sections in which he whispers subtly in people's ears, portraying the creeping influences that bring about warfare rather than the fighting itself, people seem to be less sure about his performance as the revealed Ares at the climax. I was fine with it, to be honest. The traditional depiction of War embodied as the epitome of masculinity and strength gives War characteristics that I'm not sure it really has. I have no personal experience of war, so I may be completely out of line here, but it seems to me that the real, lived experience of warfare, rather than featuring strength and power and impressive feats, is more a nasty, insidious, unpleasant experience of pain and suffering that leaves its mark whether it results in physical injury or not, and Thewlis' performance did manage to imply some of that.

The World War One setting is also a very interesting choice. Wonder Woman's comic book origins place her during World War Two, but there are several reasons for choosing World War One instead. Probably most significantly for the film-makers, the story is already similar enough to Marvel's Captain America: The First Avenger, set in World War Two, as it is (right down to the fact they both feature a white man called Chris playing a man called Steve who goes down in a plane!).

But a World War One setting has other, thematic advantages as well. During the earlier part of the film, I was rather bothered by Steve's casual insistence that the Germans were the bad guys and the Allies the good guys. It's bad enough when World War Two is over-simplified in this way but at least the actions of the Nazis make that a little more reasonable. World War One, however, was a giant mess in which pretty much all parties were as much to blame as the others - explained here!



But of course, as the film goes on, it becomes clear that this is actually the point. Ares has been whispering into the ears of people on all sides. There are no good guys and bad guys, just humanity in a mess. I think the film could have done with emphasising that a bit more, as I feel like it got a bit lost in the final act, and it's not helped by the presence of Ludendorff (a real person who, in fact, resigned in October 1918, became very anti-Semitic and was for a while associated with Hitler, but later split with him and died in 1937) and Dr Maru, who seems to be a sort of proto-Josef Mengele. Still, if the ultimate messiness and pointlessness of war is one of the themes the film wants to drive home, the First World War is certainly a much clearer example of that than the second.

World War One is also an overwhelmingly masculine war. Wars in earlier periods of history featured men doing most of the actual fighting, but women and children frequently becoming collateral damage in raids, sieges and other attacks. From World War Two onwards, although women weren't on the front line, there were many more of them involved in the armed forces. In World War One, women were on the front line as nurses and ambulance drivers, and women and children were killed in French and Belgian villages and in aerial attacks. But the trench warfare that formed the greater part of World War One (something rather nicely explained to a generation who have never known veterans of that war in this film) was overwhelmingly masculine. This makes Wonder Woman and her mission really stand out, as, apart from the presence of her evil counterpart Dr Maru, she is a woman striding into an almost entirely masculine arena.

I seem to have talked about gender rather a lot here, but the fact is, at the moment, it's a conversation that's impossible to avoid. This is not the first female-led superhero movie, but it is the first to be well received. It also follows Marvel's mystifying lack of Black Widow merchandise on the release of Captain America: Civil War last year, on top of their continued refusal to give Black Widow her own film, so it's impossible not to have a conversation about its portrayal of gender and its female protagonist.

Wonder Woman has outperformed the female-led superhero movies that came before it at least partly because although Wonder Woman is beautiful (which is commented on) and wears revealing clothing, she is not shot as an object through the leering male gaze, but as an audience identification character, by a female director. It's also, quite simply, a good movie. It is one of the most frustrating truths about Hollywood executives that they don't seem to understand, no matter how much they are told, that audiences don't want "comic-book movies" or "sword and sandal movies" or "science fiction movies" or 'non-science fiction movies" or "movies in which Johnny Depp plays a pirate" or anything else in particular - they just want good movies, about whatever, starring whomever.

Of course, this is also the best-received movie in the DC Extended Universe. I have to confess, I didn't think it was as desperately amazing as some have found it (honestly, I've also seen Alien: Covenant, Pirates of the Caribbean 5 and The Mummy in recent weeks and enjoyed them all) but I did think it was a good, solid comic-book movie that did exactly what I wanted it to. My favourite moment was, I suspect, the same as many others' - the moment when Wonder Woman rose up out of the trenches to cross No-Man's Land. I was blubbing already by that point, and Chris Pine's performance at the climax had me going again. It's a good film. Asking it to reinvigorate the DC universe, educate a new generation on the basics of World War One and prove to studio executives that women can carry action films seems like a heck of a lot - but I think this film can do it. Good for Wonder Woman!

Monday, 20 March 2017

Kong: Skull Island (dir. Jordan Vogt-Roberts, 2017)

Contains major spoilers

Caught this movie this weekend (after seeing the live-action Beauty and the Beast, which is probably my favourite live-action Disney adaptation so far, though this may have something to do with it starring Dan Stevens, aka Matthew Crawley from Downton Abbey, aka an actor I have loved since he was in obscure BBC drama The Line of Beauty). Kong: Skull Island was quite a bit better than I was expecting, though my expectations were quite low and I'm not really that into monster movies anyway, so that may not be saying much!

One of the things I found very odd before going to see the film was the fact that it's a mash-up of a Vietnam war movie and the story of King Kong, which seemed a bit strange. Over the course of the film, that aspect of it did start to win me over, as it did seem to be doing some interesting things with that setting. The story had some interesting things to say about war - for example, one character points out that sometimes an enemy doesn't become an enemy until you make them an enemy, which is an important point that runs through the film, and is illustrated in reverse - an enemy can become a friend - in John C. Reilly's Hank Marlow's mourning for the man we first saw trying to kill him because they were fighting on opposite sides in a war.

The complexities of the issue are illustrated nicely through the group's changing attitudes towards Kong. Kong killed a number of the group when they arrive - that is an unassailable fact. However, the problem with Samuel L Jackson's character is, that fact is all he sees. He has no interest in either the reasons Kong behaved that way, which might seem valid from Kong's point of view, or in the ramifications of his desire for revenge on Kong, which might seem temporarily satisfying but will ultimately lead to more death and destruction for everyone. These are important issues and rather nicely brought out.

Of course the main reason for the Vietnam war setting is that this is basically a re-telling of the Heart of Darkness story that formed the basis of Apocalypse Now. The number of images and sequences in this film that come straight from Apocalypse Now are countless, from helicopters to sunsets to images of silent, staring indigenous people to journeys up a jungle river. Tom Hiddleston's character is even named after the author of Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad. At the centre of the story is Jackson's Colonel, echoing Apocalypse Now's Colonel Kurtz, a man who does not want to return home, who cannot see beyond his desire for revenge, who has been twisted into madness by war.

There is another story that is arguably the through-line of the film, however, and that is John C. Reilly's character Hank Marlow's story. It is with Marlow that we begin and end the film (discounting the post-credits sequences that refers to the wider cinematic Monsterverse) and his story is an even older one - the Odyssey. Like Odysseus, Marlow has been prevented from returning home for a long time, has a grown-up son he has never met, and worries about whether his wife is still waiting for him (though he has been gone 9 years longer than even Odysseus). It's no wonder, then, that the boat that brings salvation closer to him is named Athena, after the goddess who protects Odysseus and helps him. It's a tiny little Classical reference, easy not to notice, but it might just be a key to the true heart of the film - not the journey of Jackson's grim Colonel or those trying to stop him, but ultimately, really the story of Marlow and his long, epic struggle to get home.

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