Sergeant York

George Tobias as “Pusher” Ross, Gary Cooper as Cpl. Alvin York, and Joseph Sawyer as Sgt. Early in  Sergeant York , directed by Howard Hawks

George Tobias as “Pusher” Ross, Gary Cooper as Cpl. Alvin York, and Joseph Sawyer as Sgt. Early in Sergeant York, directed by Howard Hawks

Historical Movie Monday returns from hiatus! This October and November, I’m commemorating the centenary of the end of the First World War by focusing on films about that conflict, and today we look at a film whose central events took place exactly one hundred years ago today—October 8, 1918. The film is Sergeant York.

Well I’m as much agin’ killin’ as ever, sir. But it was this way, Colonel . . . when I hear them machine guns a-goin’, and all them fellas are droppin’ around me, I figured them guns was killin’ hundreds, maybe thousands, and there weren’t nothin’ anybody could do, but to stop them guns. And that’s what I done.
— Alvin York in Sergeant York

The history

October 8, 1918 was the thirteenth day of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. This massive American push into the German lines in northern France had opened with an artillery barrage that expended $1 million worth of ammunition per minute and involved 1.2 million US troops. It was the biggest and costliest offensive since the American Civil War—and is still the biggest to this day. For comparison’s sake, the US contingent of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 included fewer than 200,000 men.

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Despite outnumbering the German defenders, the Americans took enormous losses. Modern trench warfare had shocked the scientific, progressive Western world with its brutality, ineffectiveness, and sheer wastage since the beginning of the war in 1914, and nothing had happened over the four intervening years to ameliorate these conditions. The war was pure attrition, and all sides doubled down on it. By the end of the first week of this American offensive, the original units that had gone over the top on D-day were cycling out of the line, greatly reduced, and fresh units replaced them.

One of these units was the 82nd “All American” Division, an infantry division. Soon after moving into the line, the 82nd continued the offensive by assaulting the German defenses head on. Casualties mounted.

On the 8th, units of the 82nd went over the top in an assault on Hill 223, a fortified position commanding a strategic railway line. German machine gun fire butchered the Americans as they advanced across no-man’s-land, forcing the survivors to cover and stalling the attack. At one point on the line, Sergeant Bernard Early moved to infiltrate the German trench network with a small raiding party in order to take out some of the machine guns. Early took seventeen others with him, among whom was Corporal Alvin C. York, a soldier from backwoods Tennessee.

Early’s party successfully infiltrated the German lines and surprised and captured a large reserve that was preparing for a counterattack. While rounding up the prisoners, German machine gun fire caught Early and his men by surprise in their turn, killing six and severely wounding three of their already small unit. Among the nine casualties were Early himself and three of his four supporting non-commissioned officers. The only leader left unwounded and capable of taking command was Corporal York.

SGT. Alvin york revisiting the site of his actions following the armistice, november 1918

SGT. Alvin york revisiting the site of his actions following the armistice, november 1918

York seized the initiative and, with limited supporting fire from his seven remaining comrades, worked his way into the German defenses and picked off the machine gun crews and supporting infantry. According to York, there were more than thirty machine guns firing continuously: “You never heard such a racket.” He carried on nonetheless, working his way from position to position and silencing the guns one at a time. “I was sharpshooting,” he wrote later. “All the time I kept yelling at them to come down. I didn't want to kill any more than I had to. But it was they or I. And I was giving them the best I had.” Finally, a German officer who had personally shot at York repeatedly with no effect called out that he wanted to surrender his men. York accepted and directed them to the prisoners already under watch with his comrades.

By the end of the action, York had used up all of the ammunition for his Enfield rifle and had even shot down an entire squad of German infantry with his Colt M1911 automatic. When he and his surviving comrades returned to American lines, they counted 132 prisoners, including four officers. He killed between twenty and thirty Germans in the course of the fight. His assault on the machine guns eased the fire on the rest of his unit and allowed the advance to continue, with breakthrough coming a few days later.

York’s actions earned him the Distinguished Service Cross, the French Croix de Guerre, and the Congressional Medal of Honor. And his actions were more remarkable yet in that he was—like Desmond Doss, who we looked at earlier this year—a devoutly religious pacifist. Rejected in his application for conscientious objector status, York had been drafted and forced into the war.

The film

gary cooper and walter brennan as alvin york and rev. rosier pile in a Warner Brothers publicity still for  Sergeant York  (1941).

gary cooper and walter brennan as alvin york and rev. rosier pile in a Warner Brothers publicity still for Sergeant York (1941).

Sergeant York, released in 1941, tells York’s life story from approximately 1916 to his return home from the war in 1919. The film begins with York, a drunken hellraiser, disrupting a service at his devout mother’s church. The opening half of the movie deals with his riotous living and eventual religious conversion—thanks in no small part to his courtship of Gracie Williams, a neighbor girl who helps him turn his life around—with the second half covering his attempts to obtain conscientious objector status, his actions in the war itself, and his return home to Tennessee.

The story of Sergeant York the film is intertwined with the story of Sergeant York the man even more deeply than the usual Hollywood biopic. Following the end of the war and his return to his native Tennessee as a decorated hero, York tried to avoid the spotlight and refused on principle to profit from what happened that day in October. This refusal included film rights to his story. So while there were a number of war stories turned into films immediately after the war, Sergeant York’s was not among them. Compare the “lost battalion,” a unit relieved by the 82nd on the same day York was wiping out machine gun nests nearby. The film The Lost Battalion appeared the very next year and included a number of surviving soldiers playing themselves, including the battalion’s commander, Medal of Honor recipient Maj. Charles Whittlesey.

Because of his refusal to profit from his deeds, York faced a series of financial upsets during the 1920s that were only exacerbated by the stock market crash and Great Depression. Slowly over these years, York learned to use his reputation and image with the public to promote rural education, even founding York Agricultural Institute. But his projects floundered and his financial difficulties never entirely went away. Finally, in the early 1940s, York’s interest in starting a Bible college swayed him to accept an offer for the film rights to his story, and he personally negotiated several terms. He handpicked Gary Cooper to play him (if only we could all be so lucky), and insisted that the events of October 8 not be altered or exaggerated for dramatic effect.

Warner Brothers hired Howard Hawks to direct the project. Hawks, who had directed Howard Hughes’s controversial gangster film Scarface, was a veteran director adept at comedy, romance, and—especially important for Sergeant York—action.

Sergeant York’s standout sequences are the battle scenes. They’re visceral, unromantic, and realistic, even for a war film produced under the strictures of the Hays Code. I find that students, while they may squirm around at bit at the beginning of the clip I show them (beginning with York shipping out for France), get really involved once the attack begins.

June Lockhart, Joan Leslie, Margaret Wycherly, and Gary Cooper in  Sergeant York ’s central conversion scene.

June Lockhart, Joan Leslie, Margaret Wycherly, and Gary Cooper in Sergeant York’s central conversion scene.

The movie still holds up. This is thanks not only to the sure direction of Hawks and the camerawork of Sol Polito, who had shot action and adventure films like The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Sea Hawk with Michael Curtiz, but to the cast as well. Sergeant York is perfectly cast—from Cooper as York on down. Joan Leslie, as York’s radiant love interest Gracie Williams, is genuinely sweet—you can see why York would bend over backward to marry her—even if her Southern accent doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The comic relief characters, which haven’t tended to age well in most 1940s movies, are not only still bearable but funny. “Ma wants ya, Alvin” and “Oncet around her is twicet around Bear Mountain” were catch phrases among me and my friends and still make me laugh. This is particularly true of York’s hillbilly drinking buddies, who could easily be simplistic Li’l Abner types but feel like real people. George Tobias as fast-talking New Yorker “Pusher” Ross is the broadest 1940s central casting type, but his friendship with York still feels real and is effective as a result.

But the standouts among the supporting cast are Margaret Wycherly as Mother York and Walter Brennan as Pastor Rosier Pile. Wycherly and Brennan are the heart and soul of the film—as literally as can be. Wycherly’s performance matches the young, unreformed Alvin’s bluster with quiet strength, a maternal stoicism and unconditional love York can’t escape. Brennan’s Pastor Pile is that rare combination of goofiness and respectability. It’s clear that Alvin respects him even while trying to keep him at arm’s length. While York’s love for Gracie starts him on his road away from alcohol and brawling, his mother and her pastor bring him the rest of the way, to redemption. The culmination of these plot threads is what I still think is the only convincing conversion scene ever put to film.

Finally, there’s Gary Cooper as York. No one could have played the man better than Cooper. His York is a simple but thoughtful man, a man of courage, religious devotion, and moral principle who is nevertheless not a stick in the mud (compare again the winsome portrayal of Desmond Doss in Hacksaw Ridge, which skillfully walks the same tightrope). Furthermore, and perhaps most important for this film, even after the events of October 8 you can see that Cooper’s York is regretful about his actions. His discomfort with recognition and fame won by killing other men is subtle but palpable, and steers the film away from simple jingoism. Furthermore, it makes his relief to be home in Tennessee, to be given a farm, and to marry Gracie at last a relief for the audience as well.

Sergeant York succeeds as a movie not just because of its performances or its technical skill, but because it sincerely depicts its hero’s ambivalence about his heroism and the war itself. Home and peace are the better options.

The film as history

Sgt. Alvin York receives the Croix de Guerre from Marshal Foch in a Warner Brothers publicity still from  Sergeant York .

Sgt. Alvin York receives the Croix de Guerre from Marshal Foch in a Warner Brothers publicity still from Sergeant York.

Sergeant York is historically interesting on two separate levels. First, as a film about Alvin C. York, it’s great, and it’s broadly accurate, which is saying a lot for a biopic from this time period. Second, the timing of the film’s release has a lot to do with the resonance of the film’s message.

York’s insistence on a basic standard of accuracy was not ill-placed, and while the film is, again, a broadly accurate retelling of York’s story, the producers of the film did massage things a bit to make it manageable as a motion picture and to underline what they saw as the themes of York’s life. Though the film opens around 1916—a front page headline early in the movie, ignored by the Tennesseans reading the newspaper, reads “GERMANS SMASH AT VERDUN”—York’s religious conversion took place earlier, over the winter of 1914-15. And while York once compared his conversion experience to being struck by lightning, the literal lightning bolt that stops the film’s York in his tracks and turns him toward his mother’s church was a cinematic invention. York didn’t mind. As his wife put it, “That [scene] was just demonstrating the power of the Lord.” And it’s a brilliant scene.

There are also the minor things films change: York was actually the third of eleven children, not the eldest of three, while his unit is shown receiving M1903 Springfield rifles, York actually used an M1917 Enfield rifle.

Joseph Sawyer, Gary Cooper, and Pat Flaherty in  Sergeant York ’s unusually gritty battle sequence.

Joseph Sawyer, Gary Cooper, and Pat Flaherty in Sergeant York’s unusually gritty battle sequence.

The most important things, however, the film gets right. York did misspend much of his youth and did frequent bars—called “blind tigers”—on the Tennessee/Kentucky border. And this lifestyle did end pretty much cold turkey under the combined influence of Gracie, his mother, and Pastor Pile.

Furthermore, the film’s climactic battle scene is an almost blow-by-blow recreation of the actual event—an unusual level of accuracy from 1940s Hollywood. Virtually the only change to York’s actions was due a technical issue: when attacked by the squad of German soldiers, every one of whom York dispatched with his pistol, the filmmakers substituted a German P-08 Luger since the Colt couldn’t be made to fire blanks. When my students scoff at that scene, I always enjoy telling them that that’s exactly how it happened—with only the weapon changed.

Probably the biggest change is more subtle. When York’s company commander, Captain Edward Danforth, swaps scriptures with him regarding the morality of violence and what Christians ought to do about it, the film has York discovering Matthew 22:21: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's.” While Danforth did present his arguments for York’s participation in terms of rendering unto Caesar, more decisive for York was a discussion of Ezekiel 33:1-9. This passage, with its image of a watchman on the walls protecting people “if the sword come,” with a penalty of death if he neglects this duty, convinced York that he could participate in the war with a clean conscience if he did it for the defense of others. Whether he could kill would be the test. And film, following the battle scene, accurately reflects York’s instinctive response when the time came:

York: Well, I’m as much agin’ killin’ as ever, sir. But it was this way, Colonel. When I started out, I felt just like you said, but when I hear them machine guns a-goin', and all them fellas are droppin' around me... I figured them guns was killin' hundreds, maybe thousands, and there weren't nothin' anybody could do, but to stop them guns. And that's what I done.
Maj. Buxton: Do you meant to tell me you did it to save lives?
York: Yes, sir. That was why.
Maj. Buxton: Well, York, what you’ve just told me is the most extraordinary thing of all.

But the other way in which I find Sergeant York historically interesting has to do with timing. Indeed, as I was reading around to prepare this post, I found at least one blogger willing to consider some kind of calculated propaganda conspiracy behind the film.

Alvin C. York and his mother at home in Pall Mall, Tennessee just after World War I

Alvin C. York and his mother at home in Pall Mall, Tennessee just after World War I

Sergeant York premiered in July 1941. Consider the US’s situation at the time: Germany in control of most of Europe and a month into its invasion of the Soviet Union, an invasion sure to result in the destruction of Russia; Japan intractable in its ongoing rape of China; Britain begging for help; and the United States a nominally Christian country in which over 90% of the population favor neutrality and nonintervention. What message could resonate more at that time than that the responsible use of violence to defend others is a duty?

Indeed, the message was controversial—Sergeant York was unpopular in die-hard non-interventionist circles—but struck home. By the end of the year, Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States was at war. Alvin York himself volunteered to reenlist, but more than two decades past his actions in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, overweight, and pre-diabetic, he was rejected for combat duty. He did tour training camps, sell war bonds, and promote the war effort, but the film Sergeant York was his real contribution. Gen. Matthew Ridgway, who commanded the 82nd Airborne Division in World War II and later attended York’s funeral on behalf of President Lyndon Johnson, said that York helped convince raw recruits “that an aggressive soldier, well-trained and well-armed, can fight his way out of any situation.”

Sergeant York was the highest grossing movie of 1941 and was nominated for eleven Oscars, winning two—including Best Actor for Cooper. Nevertheless, Sergeant York has its detractors, as I’ve hinted above. During the Vietnam War, the campus left, missing York’s own apparent ambivalence about his actions at the end of the movie, viewed the film with obvious suspicion, and it is, according to York biographer David Lee, often viewed by film critics as one of Hawks’s few failures. The reasons can only be ideological. Despite some misgivings accumulated over the nearly 80 years since, the film has remained popular, and when I ask classrooms full of students if they have heard of him or the movie, there’s usually at least once who has.

I find as an educator that showing parts of the film is useful as an accurate, intense, realistic depiction of World War I that won’t have students puking in the aisles. It’s also a useful callback for when I do reach the beginning of World War II in my lectures, and I have my students consider the timing of the film’s release. Sergeant York involves them in its story the first time around, and in considering it again later—with the larger issues of neutrality and “America First,” just war, and the threat of total and then atomic war in the mix—it always provides food for thought. And I find it particularly resonates with Christian students who want to think carefully about such issues.

Alvin York, I think, would have approved. In his own words, “I do not care to be remembered as a warrior but as one who helped others to Christ.”

More if you’re interested

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Biographer John Perry has published two books on Alvin York. The longer biography, Sgt. York: His Life, Legend & Legacy, appears to be out of print but is worth tracking down. The much shorter Sergeant York from Thomas Nelson’s Christian Encounters series is still available and worth the hour or so it takes to read. (Here’s my review from eight years ago.) Especially valuable in both are the chapters devoted to York’s life after the war, forty years in which his return to normal life were complicated by debt, attempts to open first an agricultural college and then a Bible school, and, in his later years, struggles with the IRS over undeclared film royalties that he had given away. There is also Sergeant York: An American Hero, by David D. Lee, from the University Press of Kentucky, which I haven’t read but appears to be a well-researched scholarly biography.

You can also read York’s diary, published in the 1920s as Sergeant York: His Own Life Story and War Diary, in a few places online, all poorly formatted. Diary includes eyewitness testimonials regarding York’s actions on October 8. Here are links to the text at the Internet Archive and a site called Acacia Vignettes, which links back to a page at the Alvin C. York Institute, where you get a 404 Error. Happily, in the course of hunting these down, I now discover that the book is being reprinted for the centenary. It becomes available tomorrow; you can find it on Amazon here.

If you’re looking for a good online resource, here’s a quite lengthy and well-researched article from Providence on York’s crisis of conscience called “Serving God or Caesar.”

For the broader context of the war, the late Sir John Keegan’s history The First World War is still the standard one-volume text. On a more specifically related topic, historian Philip Jenkins’s recent book A Great and Holy War is a thorough look at the intensely religious dimension of World War I. All sides of the war—from the Catholics, Protestants, and noncomformists in both Germany and Allied countries to Muslims, Jews, and, tragically, Armenians in the Middle East—enlisted religious imagery for state purposes, and Jenkins examines how this both strengthened and eroded religious conviction during and after the war. It’s well worth reading.

Thanks for reading! Stay tuned.

The Winter War

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Historical Movie Monday returns from an end-of-semester induced hiatus to look at a film little known in the US, about a war little known outside Scandinavia. The film is the 1989 Finnish war movie Talvisota or The Winter War.

They ordered us to drive the Russians away from our positions. I’m going to the headquarters to ask them: with what men?
— Lt. Kantola in The Winter War

The history

In the fall of 1939, flush with success following his invasion of eastern Poland—divvied up with his erstwhile archenemy, now ally and partner, Adolf Hitler—Joseph Stalin planned the next step of Soviet expansion by looking northwest to Karelia and Petsamo, Finnish provinces on the Russian border. He had already managed to bully Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia into "mutual assistance" agreements, which he would shortly exploit to take those countries over, and hoped for similar success in Finland. Stalin pressed Finland to cede these territories to the Soviet Union and provide land for a naval base on the Baltic near Helsinki. The Soviets made these demands for ostensibly defensive reasons—they claimed they wanted a greater zone of security around Leningrad, for instance—but an eventual total takeover of Finland was probably the goal.

The Soviet attacks on Finland, from Wikimedia Commons

The Soviet attacks on Finland, from Wikimedia Commons

The Finns were divided, with even Baron Mannerheim, the retired commander-in-chief of the Finnish military and a fierce opponent of the Bolsheviks, arguing for concessions to the Soviets because of Stalin's perceived invincibility. When negotiations broke down in late November, Stalin had his political pretext, and the Red Army, borrowing a page from their Nazi allies, staged a border incident to provide a military pretext for an invasion of Finland. The war began November 30.

From a purely statistical point of view, Mannerheim had been wise to counsel acquiescence: Finland's population in 1939 was around three million; the Soviet Union's population was 180 million larger. The belligerents' armies were similarly mismatched, with Stalin's Red Army of around 1.6 million men, in almost 100 divisions, outnumbering the 340,000-man Finnish army almost 5-1. The Red Army was also more heavily mechanized, with thousands of up-to-date tanks and trucks available, and had huge advantages in artillery and aircraft. Nevertheless, with Soviet aggression unmasked, the Finnish army mobilized and Mannerheim returned from retirement to lead them.

Since Finland had gained independence in 1917, its military policy had been defined by the proximity of the Soviet Union, an ideologically motivated, aggressive behemoth. With mobilization, Finnish troops moved into a line of defenses across the Karelian Isthmus, the strip of land north of Leningrad between Lake Ladoga and the Baltic. The bulk of Finland's troops deployed to this line of trenchworks, bunkers, wire entanglements, and minefields—later nicknamed the Mannerheim Line—with small forces in the narrow "waist" at the middle of the country and in the far north near Petsamo. 

It was on the Mannerheim Line that the Russians met disaster and the Finns made their reputation. The Red Army, which had lost 40,000 officers in political purges the year before, was poorly and unimaginatively led, ideologically hidebound, and completely unprepared for the Finnish winter. The Finns, on the other hand, were excellent woodsmen and marksmen, were well-prepared for the cold even though a third of them came to the front with civilian clothing or equipment, were capable of lightning-strike movement through the winter landscape on skis, and—a not insignificant factor—they were fighting for their homes.

Despite being undersupplied and grossly outnumbered, the Finns resisted ferociously and bled the Russians in a savage war of attrition. Repeated assaults on the Mannerheim Line resulted in staggering casualties. The difficult, swampy, heavily forested, and lake-pocked terrain ("Finland," a British observer noted, "consists entirely of natural obstacles") channeled Russian attacks into prepared kill zones where they fell to machine guns, artillery, and snipers—a Finnish specialty. Temperatures dropped to -45° F. The Soviets had planned to celebrate victory in Finland with a triumphal parade for Stalin's birthday on December 18. Instead, the war dragged on into January, with a disastrous attempt to cut Finland in half that wasted the lives of nearly 10,000 Russian soldiers against 400 Finnish dead, and into February with renewed assaults on the Mannerheim Line. Attrition ground both sides down. The Soviets learned slowly and at enormous cost in life, but they could afford their losses more than the Finns could.

Finally, with the British, who were already at war with Stalin's ally Hitler, showing interest in intervention, the Soviets ended the war through negotiation. The Finns were forced to cede the disputed territory to Russia, but had given Stalin and his army a black eye. The Winter War looked, to much of the world, like a humiliating defeat for Stalin. To Hitler, observing, watching, plotting, it demonstrated the weakness of the Soviet military.

By the time the ceasefire went into effect the morning of March 13, 1940, the Red Army had lost over 130,000 dead and missing, with over a quarter million wounded and another 130,000 frostbitten due to the Soviet regime's inability to equip its soldiers with proper winter gear. The Finns, by comparison, lost 22,000 dead and missing and 43,000 wounded. The war had lasted 105 days.

Finnish troops under Soviet assault near Taipale in  The Winter War .

Finnish troops under Soviet assault near Taipale in The Winter War.

The film

Talvisota or The Winter War is based on the novel of the same name by Antti Tuuri. Tuuri's story follows a small unit of reservists from Ostrobothnia, in western Finland, as they are called up, deployed, and survive the war's 105 days of cold, starvation, and Russian attack. The film was released in 1989 to great acclaim in Finland and was even submitted to the Academy for Best Foreign Language Film, but was not nominated. That's a shame, because The Winter War belongs in the top tier of war films in any language.

Martti (Taneli Mäkelä) aims his rifle during a Russian assault

Martti (Taneli Mäkelä) aims his rifle during a Russian assault

I should point out that there are three versions of The Winter War in circulation. The original release ran over three hours, a cut down international release runs just over two, and an expanded TV mini-series version nearly four and a half. Though I had heard of the film even as a kid, as a faithful reader of World War II magazine, and a college roommate of Finnish ancestry had recommended it, I only got to see it last month thanks to a generous Finnish colleague, who lent me the two-hour version on DVD. I'm very interested in running down the original three-hour version.

While the film has an ensemble cast of colorful war movie types—the lady's man, the earnest officer, the wizened vet—the main character is Martti Hakala, a married farmer who deploys to the front with his dandyish younger brother Paavo. Their mother sends them off with a request that Martti look after Paavo at the front. Martti asks their platoon leader to put them into a squad together, and so the brothers train, march, and dig in along the Mannerheim Line together. There, at the beginning of December, Martti and Paavo's platoon weathers the Russian assaults on Taipale, attempted river crossings near Lake Ladoga that resulted in heavy casualties.

The Finns beat back repeated mass assaults on their trenches despite lack of armored support, little artillery ammunition, and inferior numbers. Several times the Russians infiltrate the Finnish trenches, but Martti's unit counterattacks and retakes their positions. Each attack leaves piles of Russian bodies along the front, but also whittles Martti's platoon down a little at a time. Men die randomly and brutally. One seasoned veteran doesn't even make it to the front; another, in one of the film's goriest and most poignant scenes, is cut in half by Russian artillery but lives long enough for Martti to discover him.

Martti and a wounded Paavo (Konsta Mäkelä) shelter in a trench

Martti and a wounded Paavo (Konsta Mäkelä) shelter in a trench

Martti and Paavo each get leave, and their unit is pulled out of the front line to rest once. The men make trips home, and these trips, especially when following tragedies, underline how much the war is changing the men fighting it. On his last morning at home, Martti's wife, waking early, looks at him like a stranger.

The combat scenes are thrilling and harrowing, as expertly executed as any of the big budget battles of Saving Private Ryan a decade later. The filmmakers dramatize the claustrophobia of trench-clearing, the awkward courage necessary to retake a bunker, and the difficulty of removing the dead and wounded brilliantly. The men themselves look more and more pitiful, as their faces blacken with dirt and powder residue—realistically, over their entire faces, and not in the usual Hollywood manner— and their snowsuits and uniforms shred to rags. Despite the poor video quality of the DVD transfer I was watching, I felt as if I were there—something I haven't felt about a film in a long time.

The film is technically as well as dramatically excellent. The cinematography conveys the severe cold visually, the pyrotechnics are by turns awe-inspiring and terrifying, the stunt work is excellent, and the special effects—primarily makeup and models, especially aircraft—are seamless. The film also benefits from an enviable authenticity, as the filmmakers had access to correct period equipment and gear, including Soviet T-26 tanks captured during the Continuation War fought a few years later.

The film as history

There are a couple of ways filmmakers can dramatize a war. They can take a "God's eye" approach, in which they present numerous perspectives from multiple participants. Think of older war films like The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far, which balance generals in conference rooms with ordinary grunts on the front lines. A step down from that godlike point of view might be the "bird's eye" view, which offers groundlevel combat with some officers or leaders with a higher level of awareness to let the audience know what's going on, why, and what's at stake. Some newer films like We Were Soldiers and Black Hawk Down come to mind. 

A Finnish machine gun crew entrenched in the frozen woods during the Winter War

A Finnish machine gun crew entrenched in the frozen woods during the Winter War

The Winter War belongs to a final category, one that has existed since the silent era and 1930's All Quiet on the Western Front but certainly favored since Saving Private Ryan came out twenty years ago, a category that offers the ordinary soldier's view without recourse to larger explanatory structures, map tables, or exposition-reciting general officers. The Winter War offers an excellent "worm's eye" view of an important but often overlooked conflict. 

Understanding that this is the film's approach, The Winter War gets pretty much everything right, small details and large. I've already mentioned the authentic weapons, uniforms, and equipment, but it throws in some other details that help sell its authenticity. The destruction of the distinctive Finnish Lutheran church at Äyräpää makes it into the film, as do the origins of the "Molotov cocktail," an improvised explosive using wine bottles. The Molotov cocktail was not invented in Finland but was named there—after Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov—in a bit of gallows humor.

But where The Winter War really excels is in dramatizing what it was like for the Finns on the Mannerheim Line. The film largely ignores geopolitical speculations. Martti and his comrades discuss the broader significance of the war, how it started, and why, but they do so without full knowledge of their situation—like real soldiers, plunked down into chaos not of their making or choosing, really do. Their behavior and actions are perfect. They don't think of themselves as heroes even while performing herculean feats of bravery. They're scared, tired, and filthy and want to make sure they have enough bread and ammunition to make it through the next day. And what is more, the film makes you feel that. By the end of the film, as both sides stand up in the open to celebrate the ceasefire, all you can do, along with the characters, is stare in disbelief.

A final note: the colleague who lent me the film had several relatives who fought in the Winter War. One was so badly afflicted by PTSD that he killed himself some years later. "That was a whole generation who went to hell," my coworker says. The Winter War, while not downplaying the Finns' incredible bravery, shows you why.

More if you're interested

The Winter War is usually treated as a subset of World War II, often a footnote to Hitler's scheming to invade Russia. The textbook I currently teach from for Western Civ gives the conflict half a paragraph. 

The two most readily available books I've come across are The Winter War: Russia's Invasion of Finland, 1939-40, by British journalist Robert Edwards, and A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish War of 1939-40. Both are relatively short and readable. I say "most readily available," because you may have to hunt for them. I found the former in a used book store and snatched it up, and had to order the latter from Amazon. That the copy I received was print-on-demand may indicate its scarcity and lack of demand. Let's fix that.


If you're looking for an account in a widely available survey, Antony Beevor's Second World War has a good, detailed narrative that fits the Winter War into the broader context of World War II but doesn't shortchange the ferocity of the conflict or Finnish heroism. A pretty good two-page synopsis is in A War to be Won: Fighting the Second World War, by Williamson Murray and Allan R. Millett. There is also detailed treatment of both the Winter War and its sequel, the Continuation War, in A Concise History of Finland, by David Kirby, which I've been browsing preparatory to reading this summer.

A book I did find in Barnes & Noble and would happily recommend is Finnish Soldier vs. Soviet Soldier: Winter War 1939-40, by David Campbell. The book is part of the relatively recent Combat series from Osprey, a well-established and reliable publisher of military history books. I have a small library of Osprey guides. This one gives, in about 80 pages, a capsule summary of the war and its political context but focuses mostly on combat proper and the men involved: uniforms, weapons, equipment, communications, chain of command, food, supply, and how all of these affected the men doing the fighting. The book features three chapter-length case studies of battles along the Mannerheim Line and in the middle of the country and gives the reader a vivid picture of what it was like, which is arguably the most difficult task for historians. It's also lavishly illustrated with photos and maps. 

On the Russian side, the crucial book is The Great Terror: A Reassessment, by Robert Conquest, which covers the purges and show trials of 1938 with excruciating detail. Conquest includes several pages on the effects of the purges on the Red Army, especially its performance in Finland. Absolute War: Soviet Russia in the Second World War, by Chris Bellamy; Russia's War: A History of the Soviet War Effort, 1941-1945, by Richard Overy; and Ivan's War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945, by Catherine Merridale all include examinations of the Winter War and its effects.

If I can insert a personal plug, the Winter War figures into the background of my World War II novel Dark Full of Enemies. The sniper character, Ollila, was inspired by Finnish sniper Simo Häyhä. Please do check it out if you're interested.

Finally, the kind Finnish colleague who lent me The Winter War on DVD also recommended The Unknown Soldier, a 1955 film about Finnish troops in the Continuation War. The film was adapted from a novel by Väinö Linna and has been remade twice since, most recently in 2017. This version was shot using natural light and looks beautiful and harrowing. Watch the trailer here. Penguin Modern classics brought out a new English translation of Linna's novel, published in the UK as Unknown Soldiers, in 2015 and which I got in the mail last week. I've been reading it ever since—it's excellent so far.

Coming up

Historical Movie Monday will continue. Coming up this summer, I'll get away from World War II again for a bit to look at a few ancient and medieval films and, perhaps, even my favorite baseball movie. Thanks for reading!

Hacksaw Ridge

Andrew Garfield as Desmond Doss in  Hacksaw Ridge

Andrew Garfield as Desmond Doss in Hacksaw Ridge

After a break for Easter and another week's hiatus due to illness, Historical Movie Monday returns with a film about a peaceful man in a time of war, a man of principle in a time of expedience, a man of transcendent faith in a world narrowed to naked survival. The film is Hacksaw Ridge, starring Andrew Garfield.

With the world so set on tearing itself apart, it don’t seem like such a bad thing to me to want to put a little bit of it back together.
— Desmond Doss in Hacksaw Ridge

The history

The US Marine Corps and Army landed on Okinawa on April 1, 1945. It was Easter Sunday—and April Fool's Day. Eugene Sledge, a Marine mortarman, later remembered how

When our wave was about fifty yards from the beach, I saw two enemy mortar shells explode a considerable distance to our left. They spewed up small geysers of water but caused no damage to the amtracs in that area. That was the only enemy fire I saw during the landing on Okinawa. It made the April Fool's Day aspect even more sinister, because all those thousands of first-rate Japanese troops on that island had to be somewhere spoiling for a fight.

The Maeda Escarpment is visible running northwest to southeast across the top of this map, north of Shuri. Each topographical relief line represents ten meters of elevation.

The Maeda Escarpment is visible running northwest to southeast across the top of this map, north of Shuri. Each topographical relief line represents ten meters of elevation.

Okinawa, the largest of the Ryukyu chain, was about 70 miles long and lay about 400 miles south of the main Japanese archipelago. Its size and proximity meant that, once captured from its defenders, the island would be a close airbase for the firebombing of Japanese cities, and, in the long term, a critical staging area for the long-awaited invasion of Japan. 

Fortunately, that invasion would never come. Unfortunately, it was, at least in part, because of the 82 days of grueling combat that followed the landings. The Japanese fought from dense networks of mutually-supporting bunkers, pillboxes, and tunnels that slowed the American advance in the southern half of the island to a crawl. Okinawa's rugged landscape and torrential spring rains added to the misery. American and Japanese corpses rotted half-buried in craters. According to Sledge, Okinawa "was choked with the putrefaction of death, decay, and destruction." 

The center of Japanese resistance in the southern half of Okinawa was the town of Shuri. The Japanese commanders were headquartered in the town's medieval fortress, Shuri Castle, and the town formed the nucleus of a series of heavily fortified defensive rings, carefully constructed to take maximum advantage of the terrain. What 20,000 Japanese defenders had done at Iwo Jima, which the Marines had taken at the cost of almost 7,000 lives, the 100,000 defenders of Okinawa would far surpass. By the end of the battle, over 12,000 Americans had been killed in action, thousands of others had died of wounds, and another 50,000 had been wounded. The vast majority of the island's 100,000 Japanese defenders were killed, and around 150,000 Okinawan civilians, caught in the storm, died too.

Among the toughest strongpoints of Shuri's defenses was the Maeda Escarpment, a flat-topped ridge with a sheer cliff face running diagonally across the island for several thousand yards. The ridge was honeycombed with tunnels and interconnected bunkers. According to a unit history of the 77th, after a tank fired white phosphorous into one bunker, "within fifteen minutes observers saw smoke emerging from more than thirty other hidden openings along the slope." Here, at the end of April and beginning of May, elements of the 77th Infantry Division repeatedly scaled and assaulted Japanese positions, only to be repulsed with heavy casualties. Previous assaults by another unit had resulted in 1,000 casualties in four days. 

Desmond Doss receives the Medal of Honor from President Harry Truman

Desmond Doss receives the Medal of Honor from President Harry Truman

Here, over the course of several days at the beginning of May, Private Desmond T. Doss of Lynchburg, Virginia, a combat medic in the 77th, repeatedly entered the combat zone to rescue wounded men—sometimes isolated from the main body of his unit by 200 yards or lying within 30 feet of enemy positions—and even stayed on the ridge giving first aid after his unit fell back. A lanky, rail-thin young man, Doss would drag or carry his wounded comrades to cover, administer first aid, and carry them to the edge of the cliff where he would lower them by rope for evacuation to field hospitals. He continued to rescue and treat the wounded after the capture of the Escarpment—by now nicknamed Hacksaw Ridge—and their advance on Shuri until he was himself wounded and evacuated on May 21.

Doss later estimated he had saved around 50 men over the course of those days; his commanders estimated 100. The army settled on 75. For his actions there and throughout the Battle of Okinawa, Doss was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

A word that often recurs when reading accounts of Doss's exploits is remarkable. What Doss did was remarkable, not only because of the physical and moral strength it took, or the courage to face such a murderous, often invisible enemy, but also because Doss was a pacifist. A Seventh-day Adventist, Doss had believed American involvement in World War II to be justified but would not himself take a human life. He had enlisted as a medic but been put into training with a rifle company, where he faced harassment and abuse for "cowardice." 

The film

Andrew Garfield as Desmond Doss and Theresa Palmer as Dorothy Schutte in  Hacksaw Ridge

Andrew Garfield as Desmond Doss and Theresa Palmer as Dorothy Schutte in Hacksaw Ridge

Hacksaw Ridge began with another film: The Conscientious Objector, a documentary about Doss produced for the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Doss had, like another pacifist Medal of Honor winner, Alvin York, refused to market himself or his story for financial gain, and only agreed to do so much later in life. After seeing The Conscientious Objector, producer Bill Mechanic optioned Doss's story for a full Hollywood treatment. Doss would die, in 2006 at the age of 87, long before the project came to fruition.

Mechanic spent years developing Hacksaw Ridge. Major studios proved uninterested; even more than a decade ago, just before the advent of the Marvel series with Iron Man (2008), studios wanted properties with franchise potential. A film about a devoutly religious pacifist did not pique studio interest. Mechanic even approached Walden Media, which had produced the faith-inflected Narnia films in the early 2000s, but their insistence on "a soft PG-13" bothered Mechanic, whose interest in Doss's story stemmed precisely from the man's courage in horrible conditions.

Mechanic eventually brought Mel Gibson on to direct. This was an inspired choice. Similar to his biblical epic approach to Braveheart, Gibson brought an old Hollywood sensibility to Hacksaw Ridge and a famous—if not infamous—obsession with physicality and suffering to the second half of this picture.

The filmmakers—Gibson, Mechanic, and screenwriter Robert Schenkkan, who also worked on Tom Hanks's HBO miniseries The Pacific—structured Hacksaw Ridge in two acts rather than the traditional Syd Field three-act structure. The result is a bifurcated movie, radically different in tone and execution in its first and second halves. The first half is an old Hollywood love story that flirts with corniness. Schenkkan, in the behind-the-scenes features of the DVD, speaks of the challenge of making Doss, an atypical Hollywood hero, interesting: a man with deep personal faith, no vices, and a relationship with closely observed boundaries. I think Hacksaw Ridge succeeds at making Doss relatable and likable by embracing him and his world unironically and even lovingly. Doss's romance with Dorothy Schutte is (refreshingly, I have to say) chaste and old-fashioned, and even the abuse Doss suffers during bootcamp at the hands of his fellow recruits (all fun Hollywood "Central Casting" types) is squeaky clean, language wise. Only after a couple viewings did I realize how little swearing there is in the film.

Gibson carefully adopted this calm, reassuring, old fashioned aesthetic to create the maximum possible contrast between the world Doss leaves behind and the world he enters in the second act—Okinawa in 1945. 

Hacksaw Ridge 's Okinawa set on an Australian farm.

Hacksaw Ridge's Okinawa set on an Australian farm.

Shot on small, low-budget locations in Australia but with a panoply of skilled makeup and special effects artists, the film's combat scenes are harrowing. Despite watching dozens and dozens of war movies since I was a kid, Hacksaw Ridge shocked and disturbed me. The combat is extreme—over-the-top, frenetic, gory, ultraviolent, and indiscriminate—and the wounds inflicted on human flesh detailed, graphic, and severe. This treatment of combat—by the director of The Passion of the Christ, a fact seldom overlooked—has brought Hacksaw Ridge in for some criticism, the essence of which is the irony of a film about a pacifist being filled with such gruesome, in-your-face violence and gore. A few reviewers seem to think that Hacksaw Ridge glorifies war, and others seem repelled by the inferred glee they imagine Gibson takes in staging such scenes.

But like the near-cheesiness of the pre-war scenes, this violence serves a crucial purpose to the film and its pacifistic message. I cannot emphasize enough what a round-the-clock horror show Okinawa was. The combat lasted two and a half months and devastated the island, with around a quarter of a million people killed and wounded as a result. Mechanic rightly intuited that he could not do justice to Doss's story with a PG-13 version because Okinawa was not a PG-13 experience (compare how the PG-13 Unbroken pulled some of its punches in its depiction of Japanese POW camps). Doss's heroism—his refusal to carry a weapon (some medics are, accurately, shown carrying pistols and carbines in Hacksaw Ridge) despite the danger, and his repeated return to the killing zone—would not have registered on the gut, emotional level they did without a brutal depiction of what Doss was risking to save the lives of others. In addition, by the time Doss himself is wounded the injuries feel real because we have seen so much of what has happened to others before him.

Finally, Hacksaw Ridge's violence heightens the film's religious tones and iconography. (I think iconography is exactly the right word: witness that slow-motion shot of Doss washing the blood off after he comes down from the ridge.) I have plenty of differences with Doss's sect, but the courage he showed, the sheer physical punishment he took in sacrificing himself for others, and the love with which he did it show a man modeling Christ better than anything Hollywood could come up with. For that reason along, Gibson, with his hyper-sacramental sense of the physicality of the world and what it demands of people, would have been the perfect choice to direct. I think the finished product speaks for itself.

The film as history

hacksaw ridge carry.jpg

I'll be brief on this point. Hacksaw Ridge tells Doss's story, but it tells it in the way, again, of Old Hollywood. The film Hacksaw Ridge reminds me most of is Sergeant York, which hits many of the same beats and has a similar tone, structure, and hard-hitting violence (by 1941 standards). It also freely elides and condenses the events of Desmond Doss's life story.

You can find more detailed breakdowns of the liberties Hacksaw Ridge takes elsewhere (here's one good one), but a handful include:

Desmond Doss standing above the cargo nets on the Maeda Escarpment, 1945

Desmond Doss standing above the cargo nets on the Maeda Escarpment, 1945

  • Doss and Dorothy were already married by the time he enlisted, so he did not miss their wedding after being thrown into the brig.
  • Dorothy did not become a nurse until after the war and she did not meet Desmond at a hospital.
  • Tom Doss's alcoholism was exaggerated and the dispute over the pistol did not directly threaten Doss's mother.
  • Doss actually had experience as a combat medic on Guam (July and August 1944) and Leyte (October-December 1944) before landing on Okinawa.
  • Smitty, Doss's primary antagonist through bootcamp, was a composite character, as were most of the other members of Doss's unit.
  • The dramatic last-second intervention of Tom Doss at his son's court martial was invented; in reality, he phoned a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church's leadership, who went through channels with the Pentagon and helped clear up Doss's situation.

What these liberties all have in common is that they were taken to condense and, especially, heighten the film. In the case of the cliffs Doss's unit must scale to reach Hacksaw Ridge proper, the heightening is literal. The one thing Gibson toned down was the nature of Doss's final wounds: after being blown up by a grenade, Doss gave up his stretcher for a more severely wounded man, had his left arm shattered by a bullet, splinted it himself, and crawled 300 yards to safety. That, Gibson thought, no one would believe.

I'm not particularly bothered by the film's effort to condense Doss's life. Reading the real story, it is diffuse and extremely complicated, and the filmmakers had to be selective in their presentation in order for the story to work in their medium. None of the changes compromise the story, I think, and all were calculated to set up and make intelligible Doss's actions on Okinawa (witness his nascent medical skill and interest in helping others illustrated by early scenes surrounding his meet cute with Dorothy). 

Nor am I particularly bothered by the heightened tone and presentation of the film, since it is consistent all the way through. Hugo Weaving as Tom Doss isn't just a tormented alcoholic, he's a wildly tormented alcoholic. (Weaving skillfully brings his performance away from the verge of scenery-chewing several times, especially his dinner scene after Doss's brother enlists, and the pathos he evokes is both surprising and real.) Doss's tormentors don't just harass him, they physically pummel him. The violence is not just shocking and gruesome but operatic and balletic, and places a heavy emphasis on machine guns and hand to hand combat when much of the time the enemy fired invisibly from bunkers and caves. All of this is in the service of a legitimate interest in the story, and the exaggeration, I think, helps. To bring a relevant passage from Flannery O'Connor into it: 

The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.

Despite his outward appearance, Desmond Doss was a large and startling figure and the storytelling suited him.

If I could change one thing about Hacksaw Ridge, it would be to emphasize what a longterm sacrifice Doss made on Okinawa. Shortly after the end of the war, Army doctors discovered he had tuberculosis, probably contracted in the Philippines, and he spent the next six years in and out of VA hospitals before being discharged with 90% disability. During the 1970s, an apparent overdose of antibiotics caused him to go completely deaf, requiring a cochlear implant years later. In all, Doss lost much of the use of his left arm, five ribs, a lung, and years of his life and health in the service of his fellow man.

How all of that could have been incorporated into the film, I don't know, but I'm glad his story has gotten so much attention and hope it will inspire future Desmond Dosses.

More if you're interested

redemption ahr.jpg

Doss was surprised with an appearance on This is Your Life in 1959; the entire episode is available on YouTube here. Doss's genuine humility and discomfort at the attention he's been given are palpable. Doss's company and regimental commanders, both of whom were portrayed in the film, also appear on the show.

Doss's life story has been told by Booton Herndon in The Unlikeliest Hero. The Seventh-day Adventist Church reprinted Herndon's book and gave away thousands of copies when the film came out. There are two versions: Redemption at Hacksaw Ridge, which is updated with photos and Doss's life after the war, and Hero of Hacksaw Ridge, an abridgement. The Conscientious Objector, the documentary that led to the production of this film, is available on DVD and on YouTube.

Okinawa: The Last Battle, cited above, has a good chapter on the events surrounding Doss's exploits available for free from the US Army Center for Military History. Richard B. Frank's Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire has a good assessment of Okinawa in its context as a stepping stone to the invasion of Japan, and Max Hastings's Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45 has a good chapter on Okinawa. Robert Leckie, Marine veteran of Guadalcanal, New Britain, and Peleliu, wrote a readable popular history of the battle called Okinawa: The Last Battle of World War II.

The indispensable book on Okinawa, if you want to understand the horror that men like Doss lived through, is the aforementioned Eugene Sledge's memoir With the Old Breed. This book is a must-read for anyone who has a rosy or triumphalist view of war.

Next week

I haven't settled on a film for next week just yet, but a kind colleague of mine just dropped off a foreign film I've wanted to see since high school, so it may be that. Until then, thanks for reading!

Kingdom of Heaven

KoH forest.jpg

This week's Historical Movie Monday looks at another old medieval favorite that has serious historical problems. Like Braveheart, it throws accuracy to the winds. Unlike Braveheart, it is too cold, cerebral, and present-minded to make the sacrifice worthwhile. The film is Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven.

Be without fear in the face of your enemies. Be brave and upright, that God may love thee. Speak the truth always, even if it leads to your death. Safeguard the helpless and do no wrong; that is your oath.
— Godfrey of Ibelin in Kingdom of Heaven

The history

Following the fall of Jerusalem to the knights of the First Crusade in 1099, the kingdoms and counties founded to safeguard Christian holy sites in the Near East faced ongoing problems. The disorganized, underfed, disease-ridden knights' miraculous success, it became clear, had been aided by division within the Islamic world. The first crusaders had launched their pilgrimage (their word: the word Crusade was not applied until much later) at a time when the Seljuq Empire was subdivided among numerous rival lords, and the Seljuqs themselves warred off and on with the Fatimid caliphate in Egypt. Over the course of the next century, the Islamic empires of the Near East attained first equilibrium and finally cohesion thanks to a number of powerful, charismatic warlords. Among these were Zengi, Nur ad-Din, and, finally, Saladin.

With Saladin, the situation in the east was reversed. The fractious European guardians of Jerusalem now faced a determined and unified opponent and the Crusader kingdoms began to fall. Appeals for reinforcements from the West provoked little response. The king of Jerusalem and his lords had to rely heavily on diplomacy to maintain their control, and when it came to blows a new phenomenon, the military orders, took on a large share of the burden. These orders, the two most powerful of which were the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitaller, combined the traditional vows of monks with the emerging chivalric ideals of knights.

Orlando Bloom and David Thewlis in  Kingdom of Heaven .

Orlando Bloom and David Thewlis in Kingdom of Heaven.

In 1185, Baldwin IV, King of Jerusalem, died aged 24. He left the throne to his eight-year old nephew Baldwin V. But the boy king died a year later, and the throne passed, with some controversy, to the boy's mother, Sibylla. Among those debating the succession was Balian of Ibelin, whose stepdaughter Isabella had a better claim to the throne, and Reynald of Châtillon, Prince of Antioch, who supported Sibylla. At Sibylla's coronation, she brought forward her husband Guy of Lusignan to be crowned and share power with her. 

Sibylla and Guy were a disaster. In less than a year, in July 1187, Guy had led his armies against the threatening army of Saladin and into a trap. Cut off from their route of escape and with no water supply in the torturous summer heat, Guy's army was forced into combat with Saladin at Hattin and annihilated. Guy, and much of the Crusader kingdoms' nobility with him, was captured. Saladin's forces ritually massacred their Templar and Hospitaller prisoners. Reynald, a longtime troublemaker for Saladin, was killed by Saladin himself. Jerusalem lay open to attack.

Now bereft of its king, Jerusalem turned to the leadership of Balian, who had passed through Muslim-controlled territory to the city to rescue his wife and family. At the request of Queen Sibylla, Balian took command and refused to capitulate to Saladin. 

During a siege lasting just under two weeks, Saladin's engineers pounded the city walls with trebuchets and other siege engines, undermined another portion of the walls, and repeatedly attacked, though without success. Finally, on October 2, Balian agreed to negotiate terms with Saladin and surrendered the city. The city's inhabitants and the numerous refugees who had fled Saladin were allowed to leave—if they paid a ransom. Not all could. 

The fall of Jerusalem in 1187 galvanized the Latin Church and Western Europe responded with another upsurge of Crusade, this time led by three of the most powerful men in Europe—Frederick Barbarossa, Holy Roman Emperor; Philip Augustus, King of France; and Richard the Lionheart, King of England. This crusade, too, gradually fell apart, and while Richard was able to negotiate safe passage to Jerusalem for Christian pilgrims, he could not retake the city.

The film

The coronation of King Baldwin V of Jerusalem in  Kingdom of Heaven . Tiberias (Jeremy Irons), Sibylla (Eva Green), and Guy of Lusignan (Marton Csokas) look on.

The coronation of King Baldwin V of Jerusalem in Kingdom of Heaven. Tiberias (Jeremy Irons), Sibylla (Eva Green), and Guy of Lusignan (Marton Csokas) look on.

Based on a script by William Monahan (screenwriter for The Departed), Kingdom of Heaven follows the course of actual history in broad outline while having some serious, fundamental problems with that history, about which more below. 

The film's director, Ridley Scott, is one of the few "visionary directors" so frequently advertised in trailers nowadays who may actually deserve the title. His films are always visually stunning, and Kingdom of Heaven is no exception. Shot on film by frequent collaborator John Mathieson, who had first worked with Scott on Gladiator, this film looks great from beginning to end. Production designer Arthur Max, who had also worked on Gladiator, enhanced numerous preexisting Spanish locations with set dressing and props to give the film a palpable real-world sensibility. Scott himself strove to make the film feel authentic, inventing minor details for background action like a method for cleaning and polishing mail and making the combat as intense, violent, and frightening as possible. Kingdom of Heaven has stunning location photography, beautiful lighting, gorgeous costumes, and thrilling battle scenes. One reason I enjoy it is because it's not only beautiful to look at, but the sheer amount of detail makes the film feel like it takes place in a big, real world rather than a series of sets.

Eva Green as Sibylla

Eva Green as Sibylla

I emphasize the visual splendor of Kingdom of Heaven for a reason. Like Braveheart, which is a useful point of comparison, Kingdom of Heaven revels in big-budget, widescreen glory meant to evoke the epics of the 1950s and 60s. This plays to Scott's strengths as a visual filmmaker and storyteller. Unfortunately, the casting and acting and the performances—all of which helped sell Braveheart despite its historical flimflam—don't measure up, and the result is that this beautiful film is often dramatically inert.

Acquitting themselves well are Liam Neeson as Godfrey, Balian's father; Jeremy Irons as a composite character, a stalwart veteran named Tiberias; and Eva Green, who plays Sibylla as an emotionally damaged seductress and a Westerner slowly going native in the Levant. David Thewlis has an excellent turn as an unnamed Hospitaller, who may or may not be a guardian angel for Balian. Thewlis is, with Neeson, the most sympathetic character in the film. Edward Norton deserves special mention for his performance as the leper king Baldwin IV; he never once removes an eerily expressionless mask and nevertheless gives a magnetic performance.

Lesser performances come from Marton Csokas and Brendan Gleeson as Guy and Reynald, who are obviously meant to be the film's villains. I say "obviously" because their performances are histrionic mustache-twirling of silent film caliber—Csoka's Guy skulks and sneers and insinuates as if he had the words Bad Guy emblazoned on his forehead, and it seems like the usually wonderful Gleeson is just seeing what he can get away with, playing Reynald as an ultraviolent loon.

The film's biggest problem, performance-wise, is Orlando Bloom as Balian. Bloom had previously worked with Scott in Black Hawk Down—his character spent the majority of the film in a coma—but he is woefully miscast here, and out of his depth. His Balian is supposed to be a thoughtful, intelligent, but practical man who is new to the ways of the world and struggles with doubt and regret. Bloom works his hardest but most often looks confused. He is overpowered by the other performers in virtually every scene, especially Neeson, Norton, and his intended love interest, Green.

But Bloom was not Kingdom of Heaven's only problem. The film was cut down by over an hour for its theatrical release, turning some scenes into detached nonsense and excising the coronation and early death of Baldwin V completely. The pacing, despite Scott's best efforts to meet the studio's demand for a shorter film, was awkward, at best. I remember watching Kingdom of Heaven in theaters and feeling that the film lurched along, with dramatic shifts in tone and character motivation, especially Sibylla, who seemed to have a mental breakdown for no reason. As a result, reviews ranged from "meh" to negative and the film, while not a bomb, was not a financial success.

Fortunately, Scott was able to get his "preferred version" out on DVD, and the director's cut is an immensely improved film. 

The film as history

Marton Csokas as Guy of Lusignan, inaccurately depicted as a Knight Templar in  Kingdom of Heaven

Marton Csokas as Guy of Lusignan, inaccurately depicted as a Knight Templar in Kingdom of Heaven

As soon as the film begins, before we have even seen the first shot, we're in trouble. The film opens with this series of titles:

It is almost 100 years since Christian armies from Europe seized Jerusalem.

Jerusalem fell to storm in 1099. The film opens in a fictional scenario in the mid-1180s. Close enough. 

Europe suffers in the grip of repression and poverty. Peasant and lord alike flee to the Holy Land in search of fortune or salvation.

The "dark ages" stereotype right out of the gate. One might ask Repression by whose standard? or Poverty by whose standard? Europe was actually doing fairly well in the 12th century: harvests were consistently good, the population was rising, literature and the arts flourished, and the seed of the university—which often encouraged more debate and academic freedom than their modern counterparts—had taken root.

Furthermore, this title shows the film's fundamental misunderstanding of the Crusades as essentially colonial projects. For the vast majority of Latin Christians, the Holy Land was a pilgrimage destination. The Crusader kingdoms had endemic and ongoing problems manning their own defenses, since crusading knights would fulfill their vow to go to Jerusalem and immediately return home to sort out the problems that had inevitably arisen in their absence (best example: Richard the Lionheart). The Crusades-as-colonialism narrative has been so thoroughly debunked by the work of historians like Jonathan Riley-Smith and many, many others that is is laughable to see it dramatized this way. But there are reasons it is so.


One knight returns home in search of his son.

This sets up the film's entirely artificial backstory for Balian, and off we go.

Kingdom of Heaven was not a hit with Crusade historians. Riley-Smith lamented that "at a time of inter-faith tension, nonsense like this will only reinforce existing myths." I happen to agree. Thomas F. Madden wrote that

Ridley Scott has repeatedly said that this movie is “not a documentary” but a “story based on history.” The problem is that the story is poor and the history is worse. Based on media interviews, [the filmmakers] clearly believe that their story can help bring peace to the world today. Lasting peace, though, would be better served by candidly facing the truths of our shared past, however politically incorrect those might be.

It is difficult to enumerate the historical failings of Kingdom of Heaven because there are so many on every level of historical representation, from misinterpretation of motives and character, the ordering of events, and the roles played by particular people, to quibbles about anachronistic costuming. But some of the film's historical problems are more serious than others, and those fundamental problems are the cause of most of the others.

While most of the film's characters are real people, the film plays fast and loose with their respective characters. Balian's origins are well known and unremarkable. He was not the illegitimate son of a nobleman and was not a proto-Zen modern secularist. Far from it—at one point of the siege of Jerusalem he threatened to kill Muslim hostages. He was also present at the Battle of Hattin rather than mooning around in Jerusalem. King Baldwin was a leper and did attempt to maintain the peace, but this had more to do with the ever tenuous and fragile state of his undermanned kingdom than abstract Enlightenment principle. While most of the Christian characters are exaggerated for effect, Saladin's character is substantially softened to make him more palatable to moderns. Those who could not pay the heavy ransom he imposed on Jerusalem were sold into slavery, and he personally participated in the massacres of prisoners after Hattin and the siege of Acre. 

Brendan Gleeson hamming it up as Reynald 

Brendan Gleeson hamming it up as Reynald 

The film goes out of its way to villainize its bad guys. Scott really lays it on thick. Guy of Lusignan and Reynald of Châtillon are inaccurately depicted as Templars, presumably because some members of the audience will have heard of the Templars and have a vaguely negative impression of them. This is an especially egregious error since Guy is depicted (accurately) as married, something the warrior monks of the Knights Templar were forbidden to do. The real Reynald was also married; the filmmakers seem to have conflated him with the Templars' Grand Master, Gerard of Ridefort, for no apparent reason, and to have added insult to injury by portraying him as insane. 

One could look past some of these problems were it not for Kingdom of Heaven's greatest failing—it is not interested in the past for its own sake.

In a series of blog posts from two years ago (Part 1 and Part 2), around the time of Free State of Jones's release, historian Chris Gehrz outlined four useful questions to ask of films that purport to tell us stories from history:

Is it entertaining?
Is it truthful?
Is it actually interested in the past?
Does it prompt the audience to engage in historical thinking?

The only one of these questions to which I would answer Yes, in regard to Kingdom of Heaven, is the first—and even then, with Orlando Bloom a black hole of charisma at the center of the film, that Yes would be equivocal. 

As to whether Kingdom of Heaven is truthful, the answer must be No. Gehrz quotes the novelist E.L. Doctorow: "The historian will tell you what happened. The novelist will tell you what it felt like." This, I think, is the crucial difference between Kingdom of Heaven and the otherwise historically atrocious Braveheart. For all its flaws, Braveheart conveyed some sense of the spirit of that time; Kingdom of Heaven is, by Ridley Scott's own admission, so relativized and altered to make sense to modern people in modern terms, that it fails in its attempt to transport viewers to the 12th century. 

Kingdom of Heaven . . . is relentlessly present-minded.

This brings me to Gehrz's third and fourth questions. I think Ridley Scott may be interested in the past—he has certainly made a lot of historical movies, beginning with his feature debut—but his films aren't. Put another way, he is so consumed with finding a usable past for his personal messages that he does violence to history in order to fit it to the Procrustean bed of modern film.

Kingdom of Heaven—arriving at the height of Post-9/11 political upheaval, media agony over the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and alternating accusations of Islamophobia and capitulation to Islamism—is relentlessly present-minded. (Some reviewers saw this as a strength.) Its characters are stand-ins for, on one side, right-wing hawks, depicted here as bloody-minded religious fanatics (a recognizable stereotype for anyone who lived through that time); their opponents are noble foreigners with legitimate grievances rooted in colonialism and Western oppression, creatures of the Orientalism texts of late-20th century grad schools; and caught in the middle are the open-minded, sensible, spiritual but not religious types who have somehow discovered Enlightenment-era ideals of religious toleration in the 1180s. Scott also packs in some meditations on class, equality, nobility, honor, and chivalry, but always with an eye to tickling modern sensibilities.

Witness this scene: Balian, Scott's agnostic modern hero, threatens to destroy Jerusalem while negotiating with Saladin:

Saladin: Will you yield the city?
Balian: Before I lose it, I will burn it to the ground. Your holy places—ours. Every last thing in Jerusalem that drives men mad.

In Scott's vision, religion, especially religious fanaticism (that is, anyone taking religion more seriously than I do) is the problem. By choosing the 12th century to purvey this message, he has plenty of straw men to joust with.

While Kingdom of Heaven looks great, has mostly wonderful sets and costumes, and loads of brilliantly staged action, its characters and setting are not authentically 12th-century, but puppets in a miniature theater acting out a feebly articulated morality play about religion, terrorism, Western guilt, and foreign policy. Which is a shame, because the real story is so interesting on its own.

More if you're interested

The historical literature on the Crusades is huge, and somewhat unusual in that you're best served by looking at the more recent work rather than the older stuff. Past Crusade history was often inflected with anti-Catholicism, the Romanticism of Sir Walter Scott, or Marxist theory, the latter deeply enough to have persisted in the popular imagination (and influenced Kingdom of Heaven). Fortunately, the last two generations of Crusade historians have amended, nuanced, or outright debunked a lot of old conceptions of the Crusades.

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The best one-stop book if you're looking to an accessible introduction is The Concise History of the Crusades, by Thomas F. Madden, now in a third edition. Madden offers a short, well-researched, and well-written narrative of the Crusade movement with good analysis of what the Crusades were (always a vexed question, especially since the Crusaders themselves didn't use the word), why the Crusading movement emerged where and when it did, and how it changed over time. He also, like many historians since 9/11, includes helpful discussion of Crusading's legacy. Oxford UP's Very Short Introductions series also has a slim little volume on the Crusades by Christopher Tyerman.

Other good surveys of the time and movement include The Crusades: The Authoritative History of the War for the Holy Land, by Thomas Asbridge; Holy Warriors: A Modern History of the Crusades, by Jonathan Phillips; and God's War: A New History of the Crusades, by Christopher Tyerman. Dan Jones's recent book The Templars: The Rise and Spectacular Fall of God's Holy Warriors, also covers many of the events of this film.

The work of Jonathan Riley-Smith must not be overlooked. Riley-Smith helped demolish many theories of what caused the Crusades through intensive research of Crusader wills, which demonstrated that 1) Crusaders planned to return from rather than stay in the Holy Land, 2) they were predominantly the heads of households or the heirs of great fortunes, men with the most to lose from a failed pilgrimage, and 3) going on Crusade was ruinously expensive, and Crusaders, if they took the cross out of a profit motive, would have been better off staying home. Riley-Smith's book The Crusades: A History is a good one-volume history of the period and an introduction to his work.

Two good references for medieval warfare in this period are Medieval Warfare: A History, an indispensable anthology edited by Maurice Keen, the great historian of medieval chivalry; and Western Warfare in the Age of the Crusades, 1000-1300, by John France. Norman Housley's Fighting for the Cross: Crusading to the Holy Land, also offers a lot of good insight into the lived experience of the Crusaders.

One of the best resources for serious engagement with the history, historiography, and myths of the Crusades is Seven Myths of the Crusades, Alfred J. Andrea and Andrew Holt, Eds., the first of a new series from Hackett Publishing. This short, well-researched collection of essays tackles some of the most well-known and persistent myths of the Crusades, including the myth of pure Western Christian aggression, the Children's Crusade, the Marxist myth of Crusaders as colonialists, Templar and Mason conspiracy theories, and the notion that present day Islamic terror stems from "a nine hundred-year-long grievance" with the West. It's excellent.

Next week

In an unusual occurrence, Easter falls on April Fool's Day this year. The same was true in 1945, when April 1 served as D-day for the Allied landings on Okinawa. To commemorate the battle, we'll look at a recent film about an unusual participant, conscientious objector Desmond Doss. The film: Hacksaw Ridge.

Thanks for reading!


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Medieval March continues with a film that poses a unique challenge to me as a movie lover and an historian: it's a rousing, beautifully shot and acted drama full of exciting battle scenes, overwhelming pathos, and sincere emotion rooted in love of family and homeland. It's also historical garbage. The film is Braveheart.

Aye. Fight, and you may die. Run, and you’ll live. At least a while. And dying in your beds many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for one chance—just one chance—to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!
— William Wallace in Braveheart

The history

In 1286, Alexander III, King of Scotland, died in a freak accident when, having lost his way in the dark, his horse stumbled over an embankment and he broke his neck. Alexander died having outlived all three of his children; his nearest heir was his granddaughter Margaret, the daughter of the King of Norway. Margaret was three years old at the time of Alexander's death, and the lords and bishops of Scotland assembled to select Guardians to protect the kingdom until she was of age. Meanwhile, Edward I, king of England, negotiated with the Guardians to marry his young son Edward to Margaret and unite their kingdoms, and sought a papal dispensation to allow the marriage. 

In 1290, the now seven year old Margaret set sail from Norway to Scotland. She never arrived, dying in the Orkneys on the voyage.

Patrick McGoohan as King Edward I of England in  Braveheart

Patrick McGoohan as King Edward I of England in Braveheart

Margaret's death left Scotland with no apparent heir to the throne. Over a dozen claimants—including Margaret's father and several grandchildren of illegitimate children of a previous king—came forward. Only four of them had serious grounds to claim the throne, but the waters were sufficiently muddied that the Guardians asked King Edward to monitor the dispute. Ever the opportunist, Edward—who had already spent fifteen years subduing Wales—agreed on the condition that the Scots lords swear loyalty to him as Scotland's feudal overlord. The council chose John Balliol as king, and Edward proceeded to treat him as an servile underling.

Four years later, Balliol, bridling at Edward's overlordship, renounced his oath. Edward invaded across the then-porous frontier, rapidly defeated the Scots, capturing many of their lords, and forced Balliol to abdicate. Edward returned to England with Balliol as a prisoner and the Stone of Scone, the traditional seat used during Scottish coronations, as a trophy. (It remained in the base of the coronation throne of the kings and queens of England up through the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1952.) Edward required homage of all the leading Scottish nobility and installed English lords throughout Scotland.

In May of the next year, 1297, William Wallace first appears in the historical record. He probably (more on sources below) killed an English sheriff in an incident at Lanark, probably in revenge for a previous attack on him by the sheriff while at court. All the circumstances leading up to this attack are unclear, but Wallace rapidly emerged as a leading brigand, fighting from the forests as part of a general uprising against English rule with many similar rebel leaders. By September, Wallace had enough clout to join forces with Andrew Moray, a leading Scottish nobleman, and defeat an English army at Stirling Bridge. The badly outnumbered Scots used the local geography to their advantage, holding a narrow bridgehead in a bend of the river. Wallace cut the English army in half as it attempted to cross and defeated it in detail. For this victory, Wallace and Moray were named the two Guardians of Scotland, and when Moray died of wounds sustained in the battle a few months later, Wallace was left sole Guardian.

Edward mustered his strength and personally led a second invasion force into Scotland the following spring. In April, Edward and Wallace faced off at Falkirk, where Wallace's static infantry, arranged in a series of schiltrons, circular formations meant to ward off cavalry attack, were weakened, broken apart, and finally destroyed by English combined arms—infantry, cavalry, crossbow, and, especially, the longbow. Wallace's cavalry, receiving the brunt of the English cavalry's attack since it could not risk attacking the spearmen, fled. Wallace fled too, and gave up his title as Guardian that fall, just a year after his victory at Stirling Bridge. 

After this year of frenetic activity, Wallace's movements become unclear. He is known to have continued fighting, but his reputation had suffered a crippling blow at Falkirk. Edward invaded again in 1300 and 1303, and either put his enemies to flight or convinced them to recognize his right to rule. Among those swearing to recognize his authority was Robert Bruce, grandson of one of the claimants to the throne after the death of Margaret. Edward behaved with clemency toward many Scottish nobles, recognizing that, after years of failed intervention, if he hoped to rule Scotland he would need their support. 

The one Scot leader to whom Edward would under no terms grant mercy was William Wallace, who was captured near Glasgow and turned over to Edward in 1305. Taken to London in chains, Wallace stood trial on charges of treason and what modern people would call war crimes. The charge of treason, writes historian Marc Morris "was somewhat ironic, for Wallace was probably the only Scottish leader who had not sworn allegiance to the English king" at some point in the last twenty chaotic years. Wallace himself pointed out that he had never sworn fealty to Edward, but his judges were unconvinced. 

On August 23, 1305, William Wallace was ceremonially dragged through the streets of London to Smithfield, the place of execution outside the city walls. There he was hanged until almost dead and, after being cut down while still alive, disemboweled. While the executioners beheaded and quartered his body, his guts were publicly burned. His head was mounted on London Bridge.

The film

Braveheart began with a trip by screenwriter Randall Wallace (no relation) to Scotland, where he noticed a monument to William Wallace at Edinburgh Castle. Having never head of this famous Wallace, he got the gist of the story from his tour guide, read a little about Wallace in the poetic retelling of a fifteenth century balladeer, and wrote his screenplay. Mel Gibson originally wanted to direct, but could only get financing for the film from a major studio if he also agreed to star. It's fortunate that he agreed; Gibson is what made—and still makes—Braveheart work.

Gibson had learned well from filmmakers he had worked with as a rising star. One can especially sense the influences of George Miller, his director in the Mad Max films, in the violence of the combat, the brilliant use of slow motion and jump cuts, and the apocalyptic dream imagery, and Peter Weir, director of Gallipoli, in the film's attention to atmosphere, landscapes, and the combination of magnificent natural beauty with violence. Crucially, Gibson was able to cut down Wallace's bloated original screenplay and refine clunky or unclear scenes, both to save money on the film's large but finite budget and to sell the story visually.

Spartacus  and  Braveheart , father and son epics

Spartacus and Braveheart, father and son epics

The most noteworthy example concerns the introduction of everyone's favorite character: Stephen the Irishman. As originally written, Stephen proved his worth as William Wallace's ally and devoted bodyguard in a long, intense nighttime battle in a castle. Lacking the budget to shoot such a technically involved scene (night shoots are notoriously long and difficult), Gibson had to get creative. What he came up with in a few minutes was a small masterpiece of visual storytelling—a scene with Wallace, Stephen, and another eager new rebel recruit hunting in the forest. (Take three minutes to watch it here.) Gibson's new scene makes the point intended by Randall Wallace's screenplay in ninety seconds and only two lines of dialogue.

The film shot extensively in Scotland but most of the footage used for the final product was shot in Ireland. The Irish Army even provided extras for the battle scenes; some of the same soldiers would go on to work as extras in the Omaha Beach scene of Saving Private RyanJohn Toll, one of the greatest living cinematographers and a master of the art, shot the film in anamorphic widescreen to capture its old-fashioned epic scope and brought out every rough texture of the sets and costumes, every lush and sweeping landscape, in a film that is both romantic in its scale and brutally real in its violence. James Horner's score is among his best; the words sweeping, romantic, and old-fashioned come to mind again. Who can't thrill to his steadily building drums at Stirling, the tender theme for William and Murron's romance, or the soaring notes of "Freedom" during Wallace's death? 

Gibson intentionally made a film in the vein of old Hollywood epics—a film of dashing rebels, beautiful princesses, breathtakingly evil villains, near misses, and hair-raising escapes—but with the violence permitted of films in the 1990s and all the modern filmmaking techniques developed since the end of the sword-and-sandal epic's heyday. A key inspiration, one which Gibson cites several times in his commentary track on the film, is Spartacus. Watch the films back to back and you'll see the continuity, especially visually.

But where Kubrick's film is cerebral and not a little cold in its approach to violence in the name of freedom, Gibson's is all heart. Braveheart continues to appeal because of the way it dramatizes human emotion, especially its finely nuanced depictions of love. Wallace and Gibson's film, thanks not only to Gibson's direction but also an excellent cast (I could write another post just in praise of Brendan Gleeson, James Cosmo, Patrick McGoohan, Angus MacFadyen, Catherine McCormack, and Sophie Marceau) begins with love of family and country. It encompasses love of fathers and sons, love for wife and children—both hopes, in Wallace's case cut tragically short—love among comrades for each other and their leaders, and, of course, love of freedom. The film is awash in emotion, with repeated setups and callbacks that tie the story together emotionally as well as narratively: a thistle, an embroidered handkerchief, a thrown rock, a strip of tartan cloth. 

The film as history

Sophie Marceau as Isabella of France in  Braveheart

Sophie Marceau as Isabella of France in Braveheart

This is where things get shaky. While Braveheart is a masterpiece of epic filmmaking and visual storytelling, I think it is best classified as historical fiction or even historical fantasy. It has almost no bearing on historical reality. It is, by now, a cliche to pick on Braveheart's historical problems, so I'm going to be brief. Here are a few:

  • The Scots did not have clan tartans and did not wear kilts in the 13th century. They would, in fact, have dressed much like the English.
  • Similarly, woad, the blue dye the Scots wear as warpaint at Stirling, had not been used for this purpose since before the Roman conquest in the first century. (To be fair, Patrick McGoohan and Sophie Marceau as Edward I and Isabella look stunning, like illustrations from Matthew Paris come to life.)
  • Prima nocte, Edward I's anti-Scottish eugenic policy, is entirely fictional. It never happened; not in Scotland, not in Britain, not anywhere in the Middle Ages.
  • The Battle of Stirling Bridge was literally fought on and around a bridge by a fortified town. Building and then demolishing a bridge for the battle scene would have proven ruinously expensive, so Gibson cooked up the Battle of Stirling as it exists in the film and shot it on an Irish army rifle range.
  • There were no Irish soldiers at Falkirk, and Wallace's cavalry were chased from the field; they did not defect.
  • William Wallace did not attack York, which is 180 miles from Edinburgh, much less sack and occupy it.
  • Edward I outlived William Wallace by nearly two years.
  • There is no definitive evidence that Edward II was homosexual.
  • Isabella of France, Edward II's wife, with whom Braveheart depicts Wallace having an affair (also neatly implying that he was the real father of Edward III), was ten years old at the time of Wallace's execution. Awkward.

There are two basic reasons for these (and many, many, many other) egregious inaccuracies.

First, Randall Wallace based his screenplay on The Actes and Deidis of the Illustre and Vallyeant Campioun Schir William Wallace, a narrative poem by the fifteenth-century bard Blind Harry. This work is one of the only detailed sources we have regarding the life of William Wallace, but it is rife with historiographical problems: it is a poem, artistic in form and intent and obviously exaggerated for effect; it contradicts verifiable fact in other earlier and more reliable sources; and it was composed at least 175 years after the events it purports to retell. While Braveheart broadly follows the bullet-point version of Wallace's life, much of the film's detail comes from Blind Harry: Wallace's personal character, his wife, her death as the catalyst for his rebellion, Stephen, etc. 

Wallace escorted to a parley with Isabella outside York, not one word of which ever happened

Wallace escorted to a parley with Isabella outside York, not one word of which ever happened

Second, Gibson's main interest as a filmmaker on Braveheart was to make a film, to tell a story and to tell it as vividly and as cinematically as possible. With no great attachment to the facts of the case thanks to the loosey-goosey screenplay, Gibson was free to shape Braveheart into a beautiful, moving, emotionally powerful meditation on love and freedom that could showcase his strengths both as an actor and a director. In this regard, Braveheart is a brilliant success.

But is Braveheart worth anything as a historical film? Despite everything, I think so. Its portrait of Edward I, while grossly exaggerated bordering on character assassination, shows the power of a capable and driven medieval monarch. The film's violence is an antidote to the castles-and-princesses view of the Middle Ages that some people have, while Gibson's obvious love of the film's characters and respect for their culture—especially Scotland's pre-Reformation Catholicism—keep the film from descending into a chronologically snobby muckworld. The film also dips its toe in the complicated structures of medieval authority, which could be useful. And I think, despite failing in pretty much every other category of authenticity, Braveheart captures a little something of the spirit of the time. But only a little something.

Braveheart is one of my favorite movies, and has remained so since high school. It's over twenty years old now, and still holds up thanks to its vision, moral ernestness, and sincere and deeply felt emotion. It's not good history—not at all—but I wouldn't mind a few more films like it nowadays.

More if you're interested

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As mentioned above, one of the most important and problematic sources for Wallace's life and deeds is The Wallace, a lay by Blind Harry the Minstrel. You can read the complete text for free at Project Gutenberg and some nicely annotated selections at the University of Rochester's Middle English Texts Series. The poem is available in a modern English translation by William Hamilton, but appears to be out of print. Start hunting through your nearest used book store.

Magnus Magnusson's massive Scotland: The Story of a Nation, has a lengthy chapter on Wallace and his context in the struggles against English overlordship. Magnusson relates the story well and is appropriately cautious about the folklore that has accumulated around Wallace.

For the English side, historian Marc Morris has a recent biography of Edward I, A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain, that thoroughly deals with the entirety of this important king's long and busy reign. Concise, well-written, illuminating looks at the reigns of both Edward I and his worthless son Edward II are available from the excellent Penguin Monarchs series.

Next week

Medieval March will conclude with another exciting, well-crafted epic that has a troubled relationship with the truth: Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven. Thanks for reading!

The Vikings

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This week, Historical Movie Monday is pinin’ for the fjords. The film is The Vikings, a 1958 bigscreen epic starring Kirk Douglas, Ernest Borgnine, Tony Curtis, and Janet Leigh.

I drink to your safe return in English ale. I wish that it were English blood!
— Kirk Douglas as Einar

The history

AD 793—like 476, 1066, or 1914—is one of European history's ineradicable points of periodization. Historians debate how important the date is, point to this or that precedent that proves its relative unimportance as one part of a long process, while opponents note how much demonstrably changed after it, and little by little its importance is further cemented. In this case, the year marks the traditional beginning of “the Viking Age.”

While western, Christian Europe—the world of Charlemagne—had prior contact with heathen Scandinavia through trade and travel, 793 is the year raiders attacked the undefended monastery of St. Cuthbert at Lindisfarne on the northern English coast. In a lightning strike from the sea, a small band of Norse raiders surprised, assaulted, plundered, and escaped from the monastery with a huge haul of valuables—including especially human property.

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While there are arguably slightly earlier Viking attacks, the raid on Lindisfarne, with its indiscriminate violence, shocked Christendom. The great English scholar Alcuin of York, in a contemporary letter, described how “the pagans have desecrated God's sanctuary, shed the blood of saints around the altar, laid waste the house of our hope and trampled the bodies of the saints like dung in the street.”

Despite prehistorical ties of ancestry, culture, and custom, by 793 the Norse were utterly alien to their victims in Christendom. They were still polytheists who honored heathen gods like Oðinn, Þorr, and the grotesquely endowed Freyr, sometimes with gruesome human sacrifice reenacting Oðinn’s sacrifice of himself to himself, enthusiastically practiced slavery and concubinage, and recognized no limits or boundaries to their aggression. Might made right, a point made abundantly clear in the legends and myths they told about themselves. Heroes like Volsung, Sigurð, and Ragnar Loðbrok took what they could, where they could, showed no mercy—not even to their own children if they proved weak—and all died violent deaths.

Over the 250 years after Lindisfarne, raiders from Denmark, Norway, and Sweden—the “Northmen”—repeatedly attacked along the entire coastline of western Europe and struck deep into modern-day Russia along the Volga and the Don, all the way to the Black Sea, where they were hired as mercenary bodyguards to the Roman emperor in Constantinople. Within a century of Lindisfarne they had reached Iceland, and by the year 1000 had landed in a region they called Vinland before cutting their losses in the face of repeated attacks by the native inhabitants, frightening dark-eyed people they called the skrælings—the Native Americans of northwest Canada.

Due to their proximity to Scandinavia—just a few days’ sailing across the North Sea—the British Isles were the most frequently attacked of the Vikings’ targets. Ireland’s first city, Dublin, was founded as a trading post by Vikings, and of the numerous small Anglo-Saxon kingdoms dividing Britain in 793, all but one, Wessex, fell to Viking attack and settlement, and Wessex only survived thanks to the vision of king Alfred the Great and a complete reordering of its society to defend itself against the invaders.

But like their ancient cousins who had overwhelmed the Roman Empire, the Norse were gradually absorbed from underneath by their victims. One of the most successful Viking warlords, Hrolf (Latinized as Rollo), successfully maneuvered the king of France into offering him a duchy that became known as Normandy. By the time his descendent, William the Conqueror, invaded England, the Norse influence on Normandy remained only in placenames and the big, rugged physiques of its nobility.

Christianization is directly related to the petering out of the Viking Age: whatever the motivations of Norse lords for their conversions, as Christianity took root, the random violence and pragmatic theft dwindled, and Scandinavia began to look more and more like France, Germany, and England—three regions the Vikings, a seemingly existential threat, had once challenged and changed, only to be changed in turn.

The film

Kirk Douglas produced and starred in The Vikings, which came out in 1958. He had done the same for Paths of Glory the year before and would do so again for Spartacus two years later. Like those two films, The Vikings was based on a novel and was packed to the gills with action. Like those two films, Douglas reserved the juiciest part for himself. And like those two films, he excelled in it. One might call these films “vanity projects” if they weren’t so good.

But of these three, The Vikings is probably the film most about the action for its own sake. It doesn’t have the cerebral, meditative quality of the Kubrick-directed Paths of Glory or the ideological passion of Spartacus. But what The Vikings does well, it does very well indeed.

Ernest Borgnine as Ragnar, Janet Leigh as Morgana, and Kirk Douglas as Einar in  The Vikings

Ernest Borgnine as Ragnar, Janet Leigh as Morgana, and Kirk Douglas as Einar in The Vikings

The film tells a convoluted story worthy, if not quite up to the standard, of Shakespeare. After a brief prologue with wonderful titles based on the Bayeux Tapestry (and narration by Orson Welles), we meet the rampaging Ragnar (Ernest Borgnine), who, within ten seconds of his introduction, kills an English king and—it is heavily implied—rapes the freshly widowed queen. We then see her at the coronation of her late husband's brother Aella as king of Northumbria, a petty tyrant played with arch, greedy effeminacy by Frank Thring (Ben-Hur’s Pontius Pilate). During the ceremony, the queen reveals to a priest that she is pregnant with Ragnar’s child. She hides this fact and, when the child is born, ships him off to a continental monastery for his own safety.

Years later, Aella, perched in his magnificent castle (about which more below), is consumed with defeating the Viking menace, embodied in the still vigorous Ragnar and his son Einar (Douglas). We meet them through Egbert (James Donald, The Bridge on the River Kwai’s Major Clipton) after Aella rather pointedly asks why it is that Egbert’s lands never get raided by the Vikings. Egbert, it turns out, is a traitor, who has sold out his lord and the rest of the kingdom for peace with the Vikings. He escapes to Norway and arrives at Ragnar's home in the first of several stunning sequences of longships sailing into the fjords.

James Donald gives a perfectly awkward fish-out-of-water performance as Egbert when he arrives in Norway, where he settles in with the Vikings and gives the viewer a window into their world. Ragnar spends the time between his raids on Britain partying in his hall, which is created in magnificent and authentic detail, and pestering Einar to be more worthy of him by fighting and plundering more. Einar is vain of his appearance—“He scrapes his face like an Englishman,” Ragnar tells Egbert to explain to us why Douglas didn’t grow a beard for the role—and proud of his conquests and feats, physically and sexually (though always in a 1958-appropriate manner).

Later, while out hawking, Egbert and Einar have a run-in with a slave, Eric. Eric sics his hawk on Einar, who loses an eye in the attack, which is genuinely violent and disturbing. The disfigured Einar is only prevented from murdering Eric on the spot by the old lady who casts runes in Ragnar’s hall. The two will be rivals for the rest of the film.

Also thrown into the mix is Morgana (Janet Leigh, two years before Psycho), a Welsh princess betrothed to the ageing Aella. Ragnar sends a longship to intercept Morgana on her voyage to Aella’s castle and abducts her as a bargaining chip, but Einar—being portrayed by a lusty Kirk Douglas—decides he has to have her and won’t take no as an answer. Eventually, Eric is able to effect an escape from Ragnar with Morgana’s help, and it is to Morgana that he tells his tragic story—he was sold into slavery as a baby, when the ship he was on was captured by the Vikings. No bonus points for guessing whose son he turns out to be.

I rewatched The Vikings last week to prepare for this post and can’t be sure if I’m remembering these story elements and plot devices in the right order—and it doesn’t really matter. The Vikings is high melodrama of the kind Shakespeare delighted to construct, with secret identities revealed, love triangles, tortures and mutilations, violent duels, and a high body count by the end. Ragnar meets his grisly end in a pit full of ravening wolves, there’s a great high-seas chase that ends in a fogbank, and a brutal climactic battle in Aella’s coastal stronghold that ends with a duel to the death. It’s all immensely entertaining.

The film was a major international production, with a budget over $3 million and location shooting in Norway, Brittany, and—of all places—Yugoslavia. Douglas hired Richard Fleischer, with whom he had previously worked on Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, as the director, and Fleischer’s work here is excellent. The scenery, especially the sequences filmed in the Norwegian fjords, is stunning, and the sets are great. The film’s score, by Mario Nascimbene, is rousingly bombastic even if the main theme gets a bit repetitive after a while.

Tony Curtis's gams, front and center for an unfortunate amount of screentime

Tony Curtis's gams, front and center for an unfortunate amount of screentime

The performances are good, not great, but again, they’re not really the point. Tony Curtis seems miscast for the first two-thirds of the film until he looks sufficiently roughed up and bearded at the end, when he has to be taken seriously as a warrior. Until then, his prettiness—which I think was only ever an asset as The Great Leslie—and the horrible shorts he’s forced to wear just don’t work. Frank Thring is hamming it up, to good effect. Janet Leigh is passable as the beautiful princess.

Where the actors don’t excel, I think the writing is to blame. The story is fun, but the dialogue is often really obvious. Witness that early scene in which Aella is crowned king of Northumbria. As Aella, enthroned, is presented with a ceremonial sword, part of its hilt falls off and the entire court reacts with stunned silence. Egbert steps forward, picks it up, hands it back to the bishop, glances at Aella, and says, “A bad omen.” Okay. Got it.

The two best performances are those of Kirk Douglas—naturally, since the film is basically constructed for him to show off his charisma and physicality—and, surprisingly, Ernest Borgnine, who is fully believable as a bluff, hearty Viking warlord. His final scene before being chucked into the wolfpit, a scene in which he briefly believes he will be killed in a manner that will keep him out of Valhalla, is excellent.

The film as history

Ernest Borgnine as Ragnar in his hall in  The VIkings

Ernest Borgnine as Ragnar in his hall in The VIkings

The Vikings is based on pulp novelist Edison Marshall’s novel The Viking, which is itself loosely based on elements of Ragnars saga Loðbrokar or The Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok, which describes the life of Ragnar, who married the long-lost daughter of Sigurð the Dragonslayer, and his eventual capture and death in a pit of snakes at the hands of the devious English king Ella. Ella—Ælla in Anglo-Saxon and Aella in the film—is a real person, having ruled Northumbria for a few years in the 860s before dying in battle with the Vikings at York in 867. This is how fuzzy and incomplete our sources for this place and period are.

Ragnar Loðbrok (literally Ragnar Shaggypants) exists at the hazy edges of history and legend; I’m personally inclined to believe him entirely legendary, like Robin Hood, but we can’t really know for certain.

The rest of the story and its character are fiction but, as George MacDonald Fraser writes in his Hollywood History of the World, it is “fiction against a carefully researched historical background, shot wherever possible in the proper locations, and presented with feeling for its subject.” The film “is what a historical epic should be: an excellent film in its own right, and a striking evocation of period.” Fraser also praises

the film’s atmospheric quality: it is the North on film, rough and cold and raw and beautiful to see, the longships gliding in sunlit triumph up magnificent fjords or slipping away into clammy mist, the gangers carousing in the coarse splendour of their hall, the minute detail of costume and weapon and custom, the triskelion shields advancing over dune and promontory.

“The North on film” is exactly right. The great strength of The Vikings is its evocation of a time and place, a different world. It gets the tone exactly right, and the details—the costumes, sets, props, and customs—almost exactly right.

The clothing, weapons, and other bits of material culture are just about right for the era—the mid-9th century—and Ragnar’s hall in all its beer-swilling chaos is great. The production team took special care to recreate the longships, the signature vessel of the Norse, and the many sequences in which they appear take full advantage of them.

Seen here: not 9th-century fashion

Seen here: not 9th-century fashion

The Vikings themselves are depicted with respect but not blind admiration. Ragnar is a rapist, probably many times over; Einar would be if he got the chance. They like to have a good time and they’re incredibly violent. Neither of these traits is muted or blunted. Viking religion also gets a good depiction, I think, with the myths—the thing most modern people focus on—taking a backseat to ritual, custom, sacrifice, and divination. I struggle to get students to understand that extinct religions were more—much, much more—than the neatly catalogued mythologies they get from Edith Hamilton, Neil Gaiman, or Rick Riordan. The Vikings understands this and enacts its drama accordingly.

Of course the film isn’t perfect, historically speaking. While the combat is mostly good, the realistic shield-wall (skjaldborg) fighting gives way to an Errol Flynn-style mano-a-mano sword-on-sword fight, something that just didn't happen in that era and with those weapons. The Anglo-Saxons also never built stone castles, making the entire showdown at Aella’s fortress (actually a 13th-century castle in France) an impossibility. It’s unclear whether—or, if so, how—runes were used for divination, and the handfuls of Viking funerals for which we have evidence, including the famous Rus funeral witnessed by Arab traveler Ibn Fadlan, didn’t happen like the one in this film, which is singlehandedly responsible for the way Viking funerals are usually imagined now. And, perhaps most obviously, in the dead giveaway of all historical films made in the 1950s, 9th century women didn’t wear those pointy underwire bras.

But despite some non-fatal shortcomings The Vikings is a fun historical adventure, an engaging swashbuckler with authentic Viking trappings, and succeeds better than any other film I’ve seen at—to borrow Fraser’s words—evoking an atmosphere of what C.S. Lewis called Northerness: “like a voice from distant regions . . . something never to be described (except that it is cold, spacious, severe, pale, and remote).”

More if you’re interested

Jackson Crawford, whom I've mentioned here before, is a specialist in Old Norse language, literature, and culture. He published a new translation of the Saga of the Volsungs with the Saga of Ragnar Loðbrok last year. It’s excellent. Check it out if you want a literary immersion course in the world of the Vikings and of Ragnar Loðbrok specifically.

Among the many, many books on Norse history and culture that I recommend are A History of the Vikings, by Gwyn Jones; The Age of the Vikings, by Anders Winroth, who gives a charming and informative one-hour talk on this book hereThe Vikings, by Robert Ferguson; The Vikings, by Else Roesdahl, now in a third English edition; and Viking Age Iceland, by Jesse Byock. 

And I always recommend going to the earliest sources we have, in this case The Sagas of Icelanders, a great selection of Icelandic sagas, oral stories passed down from the Viking Age that dramatically depict life in that violent era; and, for the opposite side, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which can be just as dramatic with its spare, dire record of Viking attack year after year.

Next week

Medieval March will continue! Thanks for reading.

The Alamo

alamo battle.jpg

Today marks the anniversary of the last full day of the siege of the Alamo in San Antonio de Béxar, Texas. In the predawn hours of March 6, 1836, the centralistas of General Antonio López de Santa Anna stormed the fortified mission and killed every defender inside. The Battle of the Alamo has been the subject of films since the silent era—the first Alamo movie appeared in 1911—and there have been a number of well known, large-scale productions, including 1960's epic starring John Wayne. Today, I want to look at what I think is an underrated, overlooked classic: 2004's film directed by John Lee Hancock, The Alamo

No, I only wear [the coonskin cap] when it’s extra cold. The truth is, I only started wearing that thing because of that fella in that play they did about me. People expect things.
— David Crockett

The history

Texas, originally a Spanish-controlled region of New Spain, remained sparsely populated for a long time. By the early nineteenth century, first the Spanish and then the independent Mexican government tried to encourage migration to Texas to create a buffer zone between the heart of Mexican territory and French- and then American-controlled Louisiana. These efforts only began to show significant results with the recruitment of American empresarios—literally "entrepreneurs," men granted rights to settle land and recruit people to emigrate there.

Jason Patric as Jim Bowie and Jordi Mollà as Juan Seguin in  The Alamo

Jason Patric as Jim Bowie and Jordi Mollà as Juan Seguin in The Alamo

In 1822 Stephen F. Austin brought 300 "Anglo" families from the United States to Texas and settled them along the Brazos River. The Anglos quickly grew to outnumber the original Spanish-descended inhabitants, the Tejanos; by 1830, there were over 30,000 Anglo Texians as against the 4,000 or so Tejano natives. Immigration continued, predominantly from the United States—which was in the grip of a series of economic panics and the burgeoning but as yet unnamed concept of Manifest Destiny—but from Europe as well. Immigrants had to swear loyalty to the government of Mexico, practice Catholicism, learn Spanish, and settle lawfully. These policies were widely ignored. Anglo settlers entered Texas illegally and squatted on land they claimed illegally. The Mexican government worked to slow what appeared to be a de facto Anglo takeover of Texas. In 1829, Mexico outlawed slavery, which Anglo slaveowners skirted by having their slaves sign lifetime indentures; in 1830, the Mexican government attempted to restrict immigration. It did not work. Anglo settlers, who now felt entitled to land in Texas, felt affronted, convened to protest the new restrictions, and viewed the Mexican government with distrust.

The Texians' suspicions were only heightened with the ascension of Santa Anna as president of Mexico. Santa Anna, who revealingly styled himself "the Napoleon of the West," was a centralista. He repealed the Constitution of 1824 and moved forward with a program to centralize Mexico's formerly decentralized federalist government. Among his goals was the abolition of local militias in favor of a regular Mexican army on the Napoleonic model. Texians, both Anglo and Tejano, with a robust tradition of self-defense borne of living on the frontier, refused to comply. 

The final assault on the alamo, from  Texian Iliad , by Stephen Hardin

The final assault on the alamo, from Texian Iliad, by Stephen Hardin

The revolution began on October 2, 1835 with the Battle of Gonzalez, where a squadron of centralista cavalry attempted to confiscate a small cannon used by the Gonzalez militia. Under the "Come and Take It" flag (a classical allusion, by the way), the Gonzalez militia put the centralistas to flight with two cavalrymen killed.

What would otherwise have been a skirmish between 250 men had large effects: the emboldened Texians met in congress to discuss the situation, with some already arguing for independence from a foreign government that would not respect its prior constitutional arrangements with them, and Santa Anna prepared to march into Texas to subdue the rebels. Suspicious that the rebellion was backed by the notoriously acquisitive United States, Santa Anna decreed that any foreign-born people aiding the rebels would be considered pirates and summarily executed.

The Texians assumed Santa Anna would have to wait for the harsh winter of northern Mexico to pass before he could move his main force against them. They were wrong. Santa Anna, again consciously modeling himself on Napoleon, force-marched his starving, ragged men into Texas and surprised the rebels. Their first great confrontation would come in San Antonio de Béxar, where the Texians had fortified a long-abandoned mission with the largest concentration of artillery pieces west of the Mississippi. Santa Anna laid siege for thirteen days before storming the mission and slaughtering the defenders.

The film

As I mentioned above, 2004's Alamo is by no means the first film to depict the events of the Texas Revolution or the Battle of the Alamo. But it is the most detailed, accurate, well-acted, and well-produced. 

Billy Bob Thornton as David Crockett and Patrick Wilson as William Travis

Billy Bob Thornton as David Crockett and Patrick Wilson as William Travis

The film's director and co-writer, John Lee Hancock, is a native Texan, and brought a deep love of the state to the production. While proud of the story of the Alamo and its heroic defense, Hancock wanted a scrupulously fair and accurate film, unlike, for instance, the 1960 John Wayne version, which was really a thinly disguised anti-Communist parable. Furthermore, Hancock doesn't just tell the story of the Alamo; he elected to follow up the ill-fated siege and massacre with the Texians' victory over Santa Anna at San Jacinto, showing the audience that the deaths of the Alamo's defenders were not in vain.

The film follows three major narrative tracks: Sam Houston and the political side of the Texian struggle; Santa Anna and the centralista side; and the Alamo's defenders, the most prominent of which are William Barret Travis (Patrick Wilson), militia commander Jim Bowie (Jason Patric), and recent arrival from the United States Congress, Tennessean David Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton). The three narratives converge on the Alamo and, once the mission has fallen and its defenders wiped out, conclude with Houston facing Santa Anna and defeating him. Astonishingly for a film that lasts just over two hours, all three of these tracks have enough time to breathe.

The film was exorbitantly expensive, with a budget of around $100 million. Hancock's production team built a full-sized recreation of the Alamo mission and the town of San Antonio on a 51-acre set in a climatically accurate tract of land near Austin. Every known defender of the Alamo was specifically cast rather than relying on batches of background extras, and uniforms, equipment, civilian clothing, and anything else that might appear onscreen was created for the production with precise period accuracy.

The film is technically brilliant. Dean Semler, the cinematographer, filmed The Alamo as a gorgeous western period piece, with beautiful sunsets and location scenery. This film is also one of the earliest Hollywood uses of the Spydercam system; watch in particular for a virtuoso shot in which the viewer is fired from one of Santa Anna's cannon, soars over the siege lines and the outskirts of San Antonio, and over the walls of the Alamo. Carter Burwell, the Coen brothers' go-to composer, wrote the score, a beautiful assortment of Spanish- and Scots-Irish-inflected theme music. The action scenes are well-executed, make visual sense, and accurately reflect the period. And what is more, even though we know what the outcome must be, they're exciting.

alamo set.jpg

The acting is excellent across the board. The stars acquit themselves well, especially Thornton as a Crockett living in the shadow of his own legend after a failed congressional career, and Wilson as a young officer—26 at the time—with something to prove. (Compare Laurence Harvey's sneering middle-aged martinet in the John Wayne version; there's no contest over which is the more believable, fully realized human being.) Even the small parts, such as Edwin Hodge as Travis's slave Joe, get little moments of their own. A handful of scenes in which Joe and Bowie's slave Sam (Afemo Omilami) talk with each other about their servitude are particularly good.

In his review, the late Roger Ebert summed up the film's dramatic strengths well: 

Conventional wisdom in Hollywood is that any movie named "The Alamo" must be simplistic and rousing, despite the fact that we already know all the defenders got killed. . . . Here is a movie that captures the loneliness and dread of men waiting for two weeks for what they expect to be certain death, and it somehow succeeds in taking those pop-culture brand names like Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie and giving them human form.

Unfortunately, The Alamo flopped at the box office. It received widespread negative buzz before it opened, and had the misfortune of opening against The Passion of the Christ, which retook the number one spot for Easter weekend. The Alamo ultimately made back about a quarter of its budget, and it still hasn't been released on Blu-ray.

Even fourteen years later, I talk to people who hate—or seem to remember hating—The Alamo, and I honestly can't understand why. Perhaps some of its was the Bush-era media hostility to anything even remotely patriotic, even if the patriotism in question was to the Republic of Texas. But to return to Roger Ebert, he opened his print review with this: "The advance buzz on 'The Alamo' was negative, and now I know why: This is a good movie." I'm with Ebert.

The film as history

The Alamo is, with a handful of others, my beau idéal for historical films. It's engaging, well-written, well-acted, the costumes, props, and sets all look great, and the filmmakers obviously cared about the history for its own sake, not for the purposes of a presentist political or social agenda (cf. Ridley Scott's "historical" films).

Billy Bob Thornton as David Crockett, carrying his rifle and wearing a reproduction of a waistcoat now on display at the alamo shrine

Billy Bob Thornton as David Crockett, carrying his rifle and wearing a reproduction of a waistcoat now on display at the alamo shrine

I've found repeated viewings of The Alamo immensely rewarding. The film is packed with detail, much of which isn't even given direct attention. The result is a density of period detail that sells its authenticity without drawing attention to itself. It's confident but not flashy. Among numerous historical tidbits are the discovery among the slain of the body of Grigorio Esparza, a Tejano defender of the Alamo, by his brother, a soldier in Santa Anna's army, David Crockett's bloodcurdling reminiscence of a massacre from Jackson's Indian wars, small items of Cherokee design carried by Sam Houston, and one brief shot of a bagpiper playing in the Alamo during the siege. All of these details are factually supported.

But while the movie gets a lot of nice, small details right, its depiction of larger themes is what gives it its value as a historical film. American expansion, American political ideals grounded in federalism and representation, slavery and the legal fiction of indentured servitude, the relationship between and among Anglos and Tejanos, Santa Anna's grandiosity and tyranny, Southern codes of honor and dueling (watch every interaction between Travis and Bowie), and especially the fragile new society arising on the edges of civilization in Texas are all well depicted in The Alamo and enrich the drama of the story playing out in the siege. The film also gives good attention to the Tejanos, who are almost entirely omitted in other versions, and hints at the interesting relationships between Anglos and Tejanos (Bowie's dead Tejana wife plays a crucial role as his health fails, and Tejano hero Juan Seguin is given plenty of screentime with Houston). I find that a class of average students, properly primed by the lectures up to this point in American history, not only enjoy the story but get a lot out of this movie.

There are inaccuracies and liberties. The most prominent is the Alamo itself, which the production designer, in an otherwise 99% accurate set, scooted forward so the iconic facade would be visible from anywhere else in the compound. Others are minor and don't harm the film's value: the actor playing Santa Anna, for instance, is about twenty years too old, but his performance is wonderful, a detestable mixture of charm, bravado, and towering rage. But most of the film's inaccuracies arise from mere condensation and streamlining to fit the story into about two and a half hours. For example, repeated meetings between the Alamo's defenders and Mexican messengers are condensed to one initial meeting, and Santa Anna's Easter Sunday massacre of prisoners at Goliad is omitted entirely.

At least some of the negativity the film attracted stemmed from its treatment of Davy Crockett ("He prefers David," we are reminded in the film). Crockett is depicted as captured and murdered in cold blood on Santa Anna's orders rather than going down in a blaze of glory in a stack of Mexican corpses a la John Wayne. Stephen Hardin, one of the film's historical advisers (see below), thinks that some viewers misinterpreted the scene as showing Crockett having surrendered. If he's correct, that's a problem with the viewers, since our penultimate glimpse of Crockett shows him and a handful of his surviving American volunteers fighting hand-to-hand in the Alamo chapel.

Furthermore, Crockett is only depicted wearing his iconic Fess Parker garb once, in what amounts to a PR appearance. (See the quotation above.) Thornton's Crockett is a wonderful character, and offers a window into a world in which public image already matters and can be used by aspiring politicians thanks to the democratic turn of American politics. The film opens with him attending a play based on the exaggerated stories of his early life on the frontier, and follows him as he encounters and tries not to let down fans who have heard those stories. I think the character of Crockett offers a case study of the film itself, an example of the ways legend informs fact, and the ways audiences are sometimes disappointed with the truth, no matter how heroic the truth is.

More if you're interested

Like a lot of the other topics we've explored as part of Historical Movie Monday, the historical literature on the Alamo is huge. What makes it interesting is the extremely narrow focus of the subject and the massive contributions by amateurs, who have both helped clarify the historical record and muddied the waters. There is a lot of stellar research and a lot of folklore. I'm going to recommend three books with an excellent standard of historical research. 

texian iliad.jpg

The first, and my favorite, is Texian Iliad, by Stephen L. Hardin. This is an excellent military history of the Texas Revolution, from Gonzalez to San Jacinto, that covers both the Texian and Mexican sides well and includes excellent maps and illustrations of uniforms, clothing, and gear based on solid research and evidence. It's also well-written. Hardin served as one of the film's historical advisers and his commentary track on the DVD is well worth listening to.

More novelistic in its approach is The Blood of Heroes, by James Donovan, which focuses on the Battle of the Alamo specifically. H.W. Brands, prolific author and biographer and professor of history at UT Austin, has a readable history of the Texas Revolution called Lone Star Nation, which begins with Stephen Austin's Anglo settlement of Texas and provides a great deal of context for the events of the Revolution and the creation of the Republic of Texas.

Finally, William C. Davis, another prolific author and a familiar face for anyone who watched the History Channel when it still showed historical programming, has Three Roads to the Alamo, a massive triple-biography of Crockett, Bowie, and Travis. Davis's work is always well-written, carefully researched, and balanced, so Three Roads offers an arresting and detailed picture of the world from which these three figures emerged to die together at the Alamo.

Next week

Next week I'm beginning Medieval March in this series with the 1958 Kirk Douglas romp The Vikings. Stay tuned!


dunkirk mole.jpg

We're a week away from the Oscars, so while I'm trying to avoid back-to-back posts on the same historical periods, I wanted to write a little about one of my favorite films of the last year, a nominee for eight Oscars, and a stunning World War II film—Dunkirk.

He’s shell-shocked, George. He’s not himself. He might never be himself again.
— Mr. Dawson

The history

World War II began with German invasion of Poland in September 1939. On April 9, 1940, after months of "phoney war" in which Germany and Britain—which had guaranteed Polish sovereignty—were at war but not actively fighting, the Germans invaded Denmark and Norway. The British committed to the defense of Norway, with off-and-on land and sea combat around Narvik. A month later, on May 10, with Nazi and Allied troops still tied down in Norway, the Germans invaded the Low Countries. Their ultimate target was France.

A German tank just before the surrender of France in June 1940.

A German tank just before the surrender of France in June 1940.

The Germans inverted part of the previous war's opening moves by attacking through the Ardennes Forest (the site, four and a half years later, of the Battle of the Bulge) but, instead of striking for Paris as they did in 1914, they swung to the right in a carefully planned Sichelschnitt—"sickle-cut"—to the English Channel. This lightning stroke would split the Allied forces defending France and entrap them in defenseless pockets, which would then surrender or be reduced. 

With the benefit of hindsight, the much-vaunted German "Blitzkrieg"—a term almost never used by the Germans themselves, who spoke of Bewegungskrieg, maneuver or movement war—was a costly gamble. Because of Germany's geographically vulnerable strategic position, Hitler and his armies had to strike hard and fast or be overwhelmed from multiple directions. The rapid invasions and conquests of 1939 and '40, while impressive and calculated for maximum psychological impact, resulted in heavy losses of infantry, armor, and—perhaps the most critical new branch of a modern arm—air power. 

British troops awaiting rescue on the beach at Dunkirk.

British troops awaiting rescue on the beach at Dunkirk.

Nevertheless, the Germans did succeed. They broke through in northern France, severed the British Expeditionary Force and some French and Belgian units from the main body of the Allies, and drove them back against the Channel. There, the British and their allies were trapped in a rapidly shrinking pocket of French and Belgian coastline. By May 20, only ten days after the initial invasion, the British were planning an evacuation by sea.

Dunkirk, a small port city on this stretch of French coast, became the focus of the evacuation efforts, codenamed Operation Dynamo. Dunkirk had good port facilities and spacious beaches. Unfortunately, the German air force bombed the port into uselessness, leaving the beach and an artificial breakwater—"the mole"—as the only points of departure. Furthermore, the beaches sloped so gently into the channel that Royal Navy destroyers could not approach closer than a mile to shore without danger of running aground. This left the mole as the only practical embarkation point, loading one or two boats at a time with men queuing along its length, exposed to enemy air power. Fewer than 8,000 men out of 400,000 were evacuated on the first day.

At this point, the famous "little ships" came through. Either through volunteers or commandeering by the Royal Navy, about 850 private boats ranging from pleasure yachts to barges and fishing boats made the hazardous crossing from Kent to Dunkirk. For over a week, they ferried batches of troops from the shore to the waiting destroyers, or even all the way back across the Channel to Ramsgate. By June 4, nearly 340,000 men had been rescued, preserving a nucleus that would allow the Allies to carry on resistance and, if Hitler waited long enough, rebuild.

The film

Christopher Nolan first conceived Dunkirk during a cross-Channel trip to the town aboard a sailboat. He had known the story of the little ships since childhood, but only by making the crossing himself did he come to realize how hazardous the voyage was. 

Christopher Nolan directs Kenneth Branagh

Christopher Nolan directs Kenneth Branagh

Dunkirk, as scripted by Nolan, is not a traditional war movie—to the great annoyance of some reviewers. In the publicity campaign leading up to the film's release, Nolan emphasized that Dunkirk was a survival film, and that he had constructed it as such. Where a traditional war movie would focus on the risks of combat, with generals or other officers framing the battle in terms of strategic aims and geography and possibly even giving time to both sides, Dunkirk focuses on the attempts of ordinary British soldiers to escape.

I won't spend much time on the film's structure—there's plenty about that elsewhere, and the high-concept structure of Nolan's films may prove to be a detriment in the long run, since they offer so much distraction from the story to internet pedants. It's the story I want to focus on.

Dunkirk follows three major characters: a private in the infantry (appropriately named Tommy), a Spitfire pilot, and the captain of a sailboat making the crossing from Ramsgate. While their stories interweave in creative ways, and eventually tie together at the end, they offer three perspectives on the crisis and the evacuations—one might almost say three dimensions, with one character trying to get away from Dunkirk, another crossing to Dunkirk, and the third flying above Dunkirk.

Offering commentary and a minimum of exposition are Kenneth Branagh as a Royal Navy officer and James D'Arcy as an infantry officer coordinating the evacuations at the mole. The film occasionally pulls back to these two in order to explain the crisis; otherwise, the film—by intention—is an exercise in almost exclusively visual storytelling, operating much like a silent film. Tommy's story specifically has almost no dialogue; we understand what is happening to him, what he wants, and how he means to escape through looks and actions. It's masterfully done.

Mark Rylance and Cillian Murphy in  Dunkirk

Mark Rylance and Cillian Murphy in Dunkirk

Despite the film being an ensemble piece with no characters significantly more prominent than the others, the performances are excellent. The heart of the film is Mark Rylance as Mr. Dawson, the captain of the sailboat Moonstone. Mr. Dawson sums up the film in two moments: when, after being told to turn back by a shellshocked evacuee, he replies "We've a job to do," and at the end when, the job done, he quietly puts on his hat and disappears into the crowd. Dunkirk honors quiet heroism and duty in terrible circumstances.

The film is also technically brilliant. The majority was shot on IMAX film, with the rest—mostly the sequences aboard the Moonstone—on 65mm. Hoyte van Hoytema's cinematography is beautiful, and the aerial sequences in particular capitalize on the immersion that IMAX offers. (One of my first memories of seeing an IMAX film was watching a movie about flight and space travel as the Kennedy Space Center.) The sound effects are brutal—the gunshots at the beginning of the film are a shock, actually violent, and the sound of the divebombing Stukas is terrifying. The special effects are almost entirely in-camera as opposed to CGI, and are excellent. The film feels real because most of it is—a vanishingly rare quality in modern cinema.

The film as history

The Withdrawal from Dunkirk, June 1940 , by Charles Ernest Cundall

The Withdrawal from Dunkirk, June 1940, by Charles Ernest Cundall

The filmmakers went to extraordinary lengths to do things practically and as authentically as possible. Over a dozen of the real "little ships" that helped in the evacuations were used in filming for added authenticity, for instance. But they did have to reckon with the limitations of their medium and the method they had chosen to tell the story. To provide just one example, the German Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighter planes have a distinctive yellow paint scheme on their nose, despite that not being introduced until several months later in 1940. Furthermore, the Messerschmitts are, in fact, Hispano HA-1112s, licensed copies produced by Franco's government.

But there are three reasons for this "inaccuracy" (which I would classify as a nitpick). First, the yellow nose was a concession to the visual nature of cinema as a medium. The filmmakers knew that the audience had to be able to distinguish the German planes from the British immediately, and a bright yellow nose, despite being early by a few months, was the solution. Second, there are very few operational Bf-109s left in the world, and, third, Nolan wanted real planes, really chasing each other on camera. These are completely justifiable reasons related closely to the medium of the story; they're choices by master craftsmen, not errors.

But despite the best efforts of the filmmakers, critical praise, and audience approval, Dunkirk took some flak from historians, including a number I respect. Victor Davis Hanson, after praising the film's many strengths, criticized its lack of strategic context. James Holland nitpicked the film, saying that there wasn't enough smoke and apparently even bringing a stopwatch into the theater to time the Spitfires' machine gun fire. Andrew Roberts, in addition to criticizing the film's "tin ear for the Anglo-French relations of the time," savaged Dunkirk for its

clichéd characterization, almost total lack of dialogue, complete lack of historical context (not even a cameo role for Winston Churchill), a ludicrous subplot in which a company of British soldiers stuck on a sinking boat do not use their Bren guns to defend themselves, problems with continuity (sunny days turn immediately into misty ones as the movie jumps confusingly through time), and Germans breaking into central Dunkirk whereas in fact they were kept outside the perimeter throughout the evacuation.

All three of these historians misread the purpose and the form of Dunkirk

Again, Nolan conceived of Dunkirk as a survival film, and one that focused on the panic of entrapment. That panic, that claustrophobia, would disappear with the introduction of top-down strategic map-room scenes like those Hanson wishes for and, at worst, reduce the ordinary soldiers of the story to bit players. Compare the soldiers in Dunkirk with the cannon fodder of The Longest Day or A Bridge Too Far if you want to see what I'm talking about. Dunkirk belongs more to the tradition of Saving Private Ryan, a narrowly focused film which, lest we forget, thrusts the viewer immediately into D-day with no opening explanation or context.

Holland, who also praises the movie before getting down to his nitpicks, seems to be bothered by the film's limited scope as well. But this is a limitation of the medium—there just isn't room in one film for 200 destroyers.

Roberts, on the other hand, is difficult to answer. I can only assume he wasn't paying attention to the film and went into it blithely uncurious about its purpose, technique, or artistry. The continuity errors are caused not by carelessness, but by shifts in time across days and hours. The trapped British soldiers don't shoot back because they're hiding and don't want to give away their position. And, in a criticism from later in his review, the little boats aren't evacuating all of the 330,000+ soldiers from Dunkirk, but taking them out to the destroyers to be evacuated. All of this is made abundantly clear by the characters themselves—especially Branagh and D'Arcy's officers on the mole—or by just paying a little attention and taking the film on its own terms.

Dunkirk is a movie, and, as a result, gets some things wrong. But it's a strong film that does perhaps the most difficult job a historical film takes upon itself—putting the viewers into a world that has long since vanished and making them feel what actual people at one time felt. Nolan and his team worked at the peak of their skills in their medium and produced an excellent movie. 

More if you're interested

An important book if you're interested in both the film and the history is Dunkirk: The History Behind the Major Motion Picture, by the film's historical adviser, Joshua Levine. Levine offers not just a good short summary of the events leading up to and following Operation Dynamo, but also gives good coverage to the making of the film and Nolan's approach. 

dunkirk levine.jpg

Walter Lord, most famous for A Night to Remember, a book about the sinking of the Titanic, published The Miracle of Dunkirk: The True Story of Operation Dynamo in 1981. The books has been reissued for the film's release. I haven't read this one, but Lord's work is pretty highly regarded popular history and it has some good photographs and illustrations.

For a fuller strategic and historical picture than the film provides, there are a lot of places to look. I'm just going to list a few.

Alistair Horne's To Lose a Battle: France 1940, is a readable, well-researched, but slightly dated (published in 1969) history of the German invasion of France and the Low Countries in 1940. This is the final volume of a trilogy on French military history; I recommend it. The Duel, by John Lukacs, is a book I've mentioned before, and I recommend it again.

James Holland, who was critical—bordering on pedantic—about the film, has a couple of good books. For a lavishly illustrated, very short narrative of the invasion of France and the following Battle of Britain, his Ladybird book The Battle of Britain is an excellent read. For more detail, his Battle of Britain: Five Months that Changed History is a comprehensively and exhaustively researched book that includes the fall of France and the evacuations from Dunkirk. The Rise of Germany, the first volume of his ongoing trilogy The War in the West, covers the fall of France and the evacuation from Dunkirk in detail, with a great deal of up-to-date research.

Finally, Sir Max Hasting's book Winston's War, which narrates World War II from the point of view of Churchill, begins with Churchill becoming PM during the fall of France and covers the evacuations from Dunkirk—as well as Narvik and elsewhere—in good detail from a top-down strategic perspective, knowing what Churchill knew when he knew it.

Next week

Despite saying that I'm trying to avoid back-to-back posts from the same period, next month I'll dedicate Historical Movie Mondays to the Middle Ages. Call it "Medieval March." But first, I want to honor an important anniversary that will fall next Monday, and consider the 2004 film The Alamo.


Kenneth Branagh as Reinhard Heydrich and Stanley Tucci as Adolf Eichmann in  Conspiracy

Kenneth Branagh as Reinhard Heydrich and Stanley Tucci as Adolf Eichmann in Conspiracy

For this installment of Historical Movie Monday, we look at bureaucracy, memos and meeting minutes, jurisdictional wrangling, fine hors d'oeuvres in comfortable surroundings, and the murder of six million people. The film is Conspiracy, a 2001 TV movie starring Kenneth Branagh, Stanley Tucci, Colin Firth, and directed by Frank Pierson.

“Politics is a nasty game. I think soldiering requires the discipline to do the unthinkable and politics requires the skill to get someone else to do the unthinkable for you.” —Reinhard Heydrich in Conspiracy

The history

On January 20, 1942, fifteen men from Nazi Germany's chief security, economic planning, legal, and administrative agencies met at a lakeside villa outside Berlin for a one-hour meeting. The invitations noted that lunch would be included.

SS General Reinhard Heydrich (1904-42)

SS General Reinhard Heydrich (1904-42)

Adolf Eichmann, a low-ranking but influential SS official, had organized the conference. The meeting's chair was Reinhard Heydrich, deputy Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, head of the Reich Main Security Office (and therefore the Gestapo and the SS intelligence service), and second-in-command to Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler himself, the head of the SS and one of Hitler's most trusted subordinates.

Among the attendees were Dr. Wilhelm Stuckart, a legal expert and one of the leading architects of the Nuremberg Laws; Drs. Georg Leibbrandt and Alfred Meyer, representatives of the Reich ministry for occupied Eastern European territories; Dr. Josef Bühler, second in command to the Governor-General of occupied Poland, where millions of Reich Jews had been forced into squalid ghettos; Heinrich Müller, head of the Secret State Police (Geheime Staatspolizei, or Gestapo); and Dr. Roland Freisler of the Reich Ministry of Justice.

One of the original purposes of the meeting had been to settle plans for Nazi policy toward Mischlinge and people in mixed-race marriages. When the meeting finally convened on January 20—after a delay caused by the entry of the United States into the war—Heydrich had several other more sweeping purposes to cover. 

First and foremost, Heydrich asserted his authority and that of the SS, authority bestowed by Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring and Hitler himself, as the decision-makers in the "Jewish question." Heydrich announced mass "evacuations" of 11,000,000 Jews from all areas of Europe—including England and neutral countries like Sweden and Switzerland, which Heydrich included in his calculations—to the east where, separated by sex, they would be used for manual labor. The difficulty of the work and the poor conditions would diminish the number of Jews involved through "natural wastage." After that, the remainder would be collected, transported using Poland's extensive railway network, and exterminated using poison gas. Heydrich was proposing a "final solution."

What became clear in subsequent discussion—and in two further meetings held later that year—was that Heydrich's proposals were orders, and the meeting was a formality. Gassing had already begun. He was merely informing the various ministries of the Reich government of their subordination to his authority, and they had no actual room to debate it. The Wannsee Conference was an announcement and a call to coordination, not an invitation for feedback.

This was important to Heydrich, who needed the entire apparatus of the Third Reich to carry out his plans. The long-anticipated genocide of the Jews would no longer be carried out by ad hoc teams of gunmen firing point-blank into crowds over open graves, killing a few hundred at a time—or in rare circumstances thousands—but efficiently, scientifically, and on an industrial scale. "What had hitherto been tentative, fragmentary and spasmodic," writes Sir Martin Gilbert, "was to become formal, comprehensive and efficient." For that, he needed the bureaucracy informed and, if not on his side, subservient. He was not disappointed.

[The Wannsee Conference was] a formal sit-down between mass murderers and senior civil servants.
— Michael Burleigh

Also important was that all of the men at the conference were now on the record as part of the process. And they were not shocked or upset by the topics of conversation. This was no gathering of ignorant or squeamish functionaries. One of them, Dr. Rudolf Lange, was an SS officer who had helped in the shooting of 24,000 Jews from Riga, in Latvia. Another, Dr. Stuckart, had handed his own one-year old son, who had been born with Down syndrome, over to be killed by the state in the T4 program. While some of the attendees apparently bridled at Heydrich's display of authority, all of them agreed to cooperate.

Eichmann later reported that, after the meeting, an ebullient Heydrich allowed himself to smoke and drink in front of some of the remaining guests—a rarely seen liberty—and relaxed by the fire with music.

The film

Conspiracy premiered on HBO in the spring of 2001. I vividly remember my high school senior trip to New York City, at least in part because of the enormous posters for Conspiracy plastered high above Times Square, with Branagh and Tucci glaring down. 

conspiracy ad.jpg

The film recreates the Wannsee Conference in almost real time. The script is based on the sole surviving copy of the meeting's minutes, discovered after the war, supplemented by things like Eichmann's testimony after his capture by Mossad. Conspiracy is play-like, with lengthy scenes of dialogue, argument, and debate in a limited number of locations, and the film was shot on Super 16 so that the scenes could play out in longer takes. There is no music in the entire film until Heydrich puts on a record at the end; the film is carried along by the rhythms of its characters' speech. The result is a film that is essentially an hour and a half of men sitting around a table, talking.

And it's riveting.

The subject matter is a key part of the reason why, but the performances elevate the film as well. Kenneth Branagh is great as the charming, urbane, cruel Heydrich, a man Hitler described as having an "iron heart." Stanley Tucci, as Eichmann, is demure and retiring, but makes it clear what kind of authority he and his boss have and that he is in total control of the meeting, from the arrangement of the flatware to what goes into the minutes. The actors also deliver their euphemisms and bureaucratese in a banal, businesslike way that only heightens the horror. Even the famously histrionic Roland Freisler, the Nazi judge who harangued Sophie Scholl and the survivors of the Officers' Plot on the way to the gallows, is relaxed and dispassionate. Conspiracy immerses us in a world where it is normal to talk of the destruction of life with boredom, even flippancy, and no small amount of theory and rationalization.

The best example is Colin Firth's scene-stealing performance as Stuckart, who fumes and finally explodes at Heydrich and some Party functionaries over what he views as the lawlessness of the plan. By this point of the film, the viewer is casting about for a good guy, and at first Stuckart, with his talk of law and principle, seems to fit the bill. But it quickly becomes clear in his rant against Heydrich that his objections are strictly legal, strictly about form and protocol, and the only real difference between himself and the rest of the meeting's attendees is one of method. It's powerful and deeply disturbing. (Take the four minutes to watch him in this scene here.) 

The film as history

Conspiracy is remarkably faithful to the facts of the Wannsee Conference as we understand them. Most of the inaccuracies are minor: Heydrich arrives flying his own plane, though Himmler had ordered him grounded before the conference; Gerhard Klopfer, depicted by Ian McNeice as a crass, obese thug, was a much younger and trimmer man. Most of these things fall under legitimate artistic license—McNeice, through his performance, conveys to the viewer a man confident of his position thanks to the power of the Party—and they don't impair the film.

conspiracy branagh 2.jpg

I recommend Conspiracy as a Holocaust film that is chilling without any onscreen violence, and as an example of the way the Final Solution had to be planned.

I think a lot of people assume the Holocaust just happened. This ignorance—of the Holocaust's origins and mechanics—is what Holocaust deniers take cynical advantage of. What Conspiracy dramatizes is the quiet, bureaucratic working of evil, as men at desks coordinate their powers through paperwork, memos, and lunchtime meetings to kill millions. The Holocaust was industrial, which meant that it was bureaucratic, which meant that it was impossible without the modern state. 

Conspiracy is also valuable for depicting the different kinds of evil men that made up the Nazi regime. The Nazis have become so ingrained as an image of evil that we believe we can spot it immediately: evil comes wearing jackboots or with a shaved head, shouting racial slurs and waving torches. But the ignorant thugs at Charlottesville last year are only one kind of Nazi. Klopfer, as he's depicted here, fits that stereotype. Far more pernicious, and far more damaging, are the suave Heydrichs, the quiet and hardworking Eichmanns, and the eloquent, well-educated, intelligent, and principled Stuckarts. The state system is a tool; the evil is in the men themselves.

Men do not differ much about what things they will call evils; they differ enormously about what evils they will call excusable.
— G.K. Chesterton

Finally, Conspiracy should caution us, warn us about how much evil people can accommodate. The banter and joking around the conference table in that elegant mansion on the Wannsee remind me of nothing so much as a the blase, flippant attitude toward abortion captured by the undercover videos of meetings with Planned Parenthood functionaries released a few years ago. And again, the fifteen Nazis at this conference were not ignorant men being coarse and flippant—eight of the fifteen had doctorates, and the majority were lawyers. It is comforting to us to imagine evil worked only by monsters of ignorance, but once you have accepted some basic premises, established a system both to support yourself in the work and shield yourself from the consequences, and begun to move forward, there is no limit to what you can get used to.

Or, to defer to Shakespeare:

Hamlet: Has this fellow no feeling of his business? He sings at grave-making.
Horatio: Custom hath made it in him a property of easiness.
Hamlet: 'Tis e'en so. The hand of little employment hath the daintier sense.

More if you're interested

The historical literature on the Holocaust and Nazi Germany is vast, so for the purposes of this post I'm limiting myself to a handful of books that I have read or regularly consult, plus one more film that I plan to write about in a future Historical Movie Monday. There is much, much more out there.


Among general histories of Nazi Germany, the best coverage of the Wannsee Conference that I've seen is in The Third Reich at War, the final volume of Richard J. Evan's trilogy on the Reich. For other surveys that cover the Wannsee Conference, see The Third Reich: A New History, by Michael Burleigh; The Storm of War, by Andrew Roberts; and The Second World War, by Antony Beevor, all of which offer succinct discussions. A more recent book by Burleigh, Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II, only briefly discusses the conference but deals with its consequences in detail.

KL, Nikolaus Wachsmann's comprehensive history of the concentration camp system, has a good passage on the conference, and emphasizes the eventual adaptation of Heydrich's plan to the preexisting camp network. The late Sir Martin Gilbert's book The Holocaust includes a chapter on it, with quotations from the only surviving copy of the minutes and Eichman's later interrogations, and ties the day's topics of discussion to the logistics of their future implementation under Eichmann.

Hitler's Shadow War: The Holocaust and World War II, by Donald McKale, under whom I studied the war at Clemson, includes a chapter on the Wannsee Conference and its place in the long-planned genocide of the Jews. McKale also gives good attention to the question of Mischlinge, which consumed a large amount of the conference's time, and situates the meeting in a time when Hitler himself gave repeated, blunt public pronouncements about the Reich's intended destruction of the Jews.

Christopher Browning, one of the great historians of the Holocaust, covers the Wannsee Conference in some detail in his magisterial book The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, September 1939-March 1942. His earlier and perhaps more famous book Ordinary Men is worth reading for its graphic description of what genocide meant before the Wannsee Conference industrialized the Holocaust.

Finally, last year saw the release of the film Anthropoid, about the much deserved assassination of Heydrich in Prague just a few months after chairing the Wannsee Conference. I plan to write on this film at the beginning of the summer. I recommend checking it out if you haven't seen it already.

A Man for All Seasons

Robert Shaw as King Henry VIII and Paul Scofield as St. Thomas More in  A Man for All Seasons

Robert Shaw as King Henry VIII and Paul Scofield as St. Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons

St. Thomas More's birthday was last week, and this provided me with an excuse to inaugurate a new, semi-regular feature for this blog: Historical Movie Monday. This week, I write about a favorite of mine, a film I happened to be rewatching as More's birthday rolled around: A Man for All Seasons.

“I am commanded by the King to be brief, and since I am the King's obedient subject, brief I will be. I die his Majesty's good servant, but God's first.”

The history

A Man for All Seasons is the story of Sir Thomas More, a London lawyer, writer, philosopher, and renaissance humanist scholar. After the Archbishop of Canterbury helped him get into Oxford, More became a lawyer and statesman, worked for Cardinal Wolsey, the Lord High Chancellor, and communicated with some of the greatest humanist scholars of his time, including Erasmus, compiler of the Textus Receptus, the first critical edition of the Greek New Testament. Erasmus even stayed with More and his family when he visited London. They entertained themselves by translating Lucian together.

More was well-educated, intelligent, a man of wide experience, a prolific writer, and dedicated to his family and, above all, to his faith. He personally oversaw the education of his children. This included, atypically for the time, his three daughters, the eldest of whom, Margaret, became famous for her intelligence and command of Greek and Latin. He was also a good-humored wit. According to Erasmus, "from earliest childhood [he had] such a passion for jokes, that one might almost suppose he had been born for them." His sense of humor comes out most clearly in Utopia, published in 1516—in which he describes an outlandish society meant to satirize the Europe of his day—and, perhaps, in his death.

Sir Thomas More , by Hans Holbein the Younger

Sir Thomas More, by Hans Holbein the Younger

More traveled often with Cardinal Wolsey on diplomatic missions to the continent. He eventually became a secretary to King Henry VIII himself, and in 1529, with Wolsey dying and out of Henry's favor, he became the first layman to serve as Lord High Chancellor, a position he held for two and a half years before resigning.

More was a slightly older contemporary of Martin Luther, and the schism within the Catholic Church that resulted from Luther's 95 Theses defined the later part of his career. He wrote on numerous theological and philosophical topics and conducted literary debates with Luther and William Tyndale. As Lord High Chancellor, he was charged with prosecuting heretics in Henry's kingdom. While the Protestant propagandist John Foxe's accusations that More tortured prisoners not only in the Tower of London and but in his own home are false, More did preside over numerous heresy trials, six of which resulted in the condemned being burned at the stake. 

It is against this background that the final crisis of More's career played out. When Henry, who had earned the title Defender of the Faith from the pope for his sparring with Luther over the sacraments, became convinced that his wife Catherine could not bear him a son, he had a sudden change of mind about the sacrament of marriage. Henry had worked with Cardinal Wolsey to get an annulment from the pope on the grounds that Catherine had previously been married to Henry's elder brother Arthur. The marriage was therefore incestuous according to canon law, and had only been permitted with a special dispensation from a previous pope. Henry hoped that this, with Wolsey's intercession, would allow him to weasel out of his 24-year marriage and allow him to marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn. 

Every attempt by Henry to gain an annulment failed. More, Wolsey's replacement as Lord High Chancellor, refused to cooperate, as the Church's teaching and laws were clear on the matter. Nevertheless, beginning in 1532, Henry pushed forward a series of parliamentary acts that separated the English church from the Catholic Church, made Henry the head of the Church of England, declared his children by his new wife his legitimate heirs (cruelly cutting off his one surviving child by Catherine, Mary), required a loyalty oath on all of these matters, and set a penalty of death for anyone who refused. Early on in this series of acts, More resigned.

Thomas More, who seemed sometimes like an Epicurean under Augustus, died the death of a saint under Diocletian. He died gloriously jesting.
— GK Chesterton, A Short History of England

More had too high a profile to ignore, even though he refused both to take the oath and to denounce it. Enemies, including Henry's enforcer, Thomas Cromwell, and Richard Rich, an ambitious young courtier, conspired against him, accusing him of a variety of crimes but the charges didn't stick. Henry's ministers eventually forced the issue, interrogating More several times, ordering him repeatedly to swear the oath of loyalty, and imprisoning him in the Tower of London. At his brief trial on July 1, 1535, perjured evidence was used to convict him of treason, and the court sentenced him to death.

More was beheaded five days later. According to witnesses, he joked on his way up the scaffold.

The film

A Man for All Seasons is a film adaptation of a critically acclaimed play by Robert Bolt, who had previously scripted Lawrence of Arabia and would later write The Mission. Bolt adapted the play for film himself, and the film was directed by Fred Zinnemann, director of critical favorites High Noon and From Here to Eternity.

Paul Scofield as Sir Thomas More on trial

Paul Scofield as Sir Thomas More on trial

Zinnemann's High Noon offers interesting points of comparison. Like that film, A Man for All Seasons pits a principled authority figure against a seemingly unstoppable opponent. The hopelessness of his situation causes even those nearest him to waver and withdraw their support, and he faces the ultimate threat alone. Unlike Marshal Will Kane, Sir Thomas More gives up his authority as part of his resistance, fights back with words and reason, and—at least to the purely pragmatic eye—loses. A Man for All Seasons dramatizes a resistance to tyranny that does not rely on meeting force with force.

The sets, locations, costumes, and cinematography are beautiful. Scenes of the natural beauty of the Thames—always associated in the film with More against the crenelations and gargoyles paired with Henry and his yes-men—are particularly striking. The film came out in 1966, during an awkward transition from the stagy interior set design of the 1950s to the harder realism of the 1970s. It's perfectly poised between the two; the locations in the film feel real, even the sets, and at least a few scenes were shot in period-authentic locations. The trial scene was supposedly shot in Westminster Hall, where More was actually tried, but I haven't been able to confirm that.

The performances are uniformly excellent. Robert Shaw, in a supporting role, is a young, energetic Henry VIII whose tyrannical inclinations are barely contained at the beginning of the film. "He is no caricature," Alison Weir writes, "but an attractive, intelligent man whose every whim has hitherto been gratified." Susannah York plays a charmingly erudite and devoted Margaret More, the only one of More's children depicted. You feel and believe the affection between More and his daughter, which raises the stakes in the final act. An obese Orson Welles is very good in a handful of scenes as Wolsey, ill and world-weary. Leo McKern is a bluff and formidably cutthroat Cromwell, and a very young John Hurt plays Richard Rich as an object lesson in virtue ethics. Rich begins the film an ambitious young man, begging More for preferment, and proves willing to debase himself further and further in his quest for position and recognition. 

The standout performance is, of course, Paul Scofield as More. Scofield originated the role on stage, and he fully inhabits the part on film. It's a finely tuned, subtle performance, built out of minute gestures, flickers of emotion in his eyes, and the carefully controlled intonation of every syllable of his speech. It helps that he's working from a magnificent script, with wonderful dialogue and speeches, but without Scofield More could come across as a tedious scold or an out of touch fanatic. There are, indeed, elements of both in other depictions of More.

There's not a careless moment in the film—technically, artistically, or in the performances—and Scofield is its centerpiece.

The film as history

A Man for All Seasons covers approximately six years of More's life, from just before his appointment as Henry's Lord High Chancellor to the moment of his death. For a two-hour film with a limited cast of characters, A Man for All Seasons does remarkable justice to the complexity of the political and religious situation of the time and remains extraordinarily faithful to the facts. Luther lurks in the background—Will Roper, Margaret's suitor and eventual husband, is shown with a boyish enthusiasm for Lutheran doctrine—and this seemingly arcane theological issue finally erupts in the person of the king. 

It profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world... but for Wales, Richard?
— Sir Thomas More

The film's characterizations of More and others are very good. One must allow for artistic license, but nothing in A Man for All Seasons cuts against the record. More really was keen-witted, eloquent, and with a savage wit; Henry really was full of bustle and machismo at this stage of his life; Cromwell really was Henry's cynical hatchet man; Rich really was a slave to his own ambition. Again, More is the best character in the piece, and he has all the best lines—especially his one-liners, like his celebrated zinger to the perjured Rich—but the film's depictions all ring true.

The trial and sentencing hew very close to the record. Peter Ackroyd, in his biography of More, reprints the entire transcript. You can read it in about ten minutes. Most of the changes Bolt makes to the trial are in the interests of streamlining, saving screentime, and simply updating the 16th century English for modern audiences. Even More's last words, spoken moments before his beheading, are taken essentially verbatim from the historical record. Only the jokes—as he ascended the rickety scaffold, the ailing More asked someone to help him up and promised to shift for himself on the trip back down—are omitted.

One man faces the power of the state.

One man faces the power of the state.

One could nitpick, something More, a lawyer, would probably enjoy. There's no solid evidence that Henry VIII died of syphilis (see below). And it is not entirely true that More was silent. He refused to take the oath, but during these years he produced a constant stream of writing that, while never naming Henry or Anne Boleyn or directly addressing the controversy, clearly critiqued it. But the play does depict a larger truth about conscience and state power. As Paul Turner writes in his introduction to Utopia:

in Tudor England there was no freedom of speech; there was not even freedom of thought. More himself was executed not for anything that he had said or done, but for private opinions which he had resolutely kept to himself. It was not enough to abstain from comment on Henry VIII's astonishing metamorphosis into Supreme Head of the Church: More's very silence was a political crime.

How much more should these these events trouble us in a democratic age? Instead of the conflict of one's conscience with the will of a monarch, one now, in order to obey God or the dictates of conscience, must go against the majority. We've given up trying to please a king for trying to please everyone. It's a question More would have us consider, and seriously.

The film concludes with the narrator describing the fates of the major players: 

Thomas More's head was stuck on Traitors' Gate for a month, then his daughter, Margaret, removed it and kept it till her death. Cromwell was beheaded for high treason five years after More. The archbishop was burned at the stake. The Duke of Norfolk should have been executed for high treason, but the king died of syphilis the night before. Richard Rich became chancellor of England and died in his bed.

That final sentence, which tells the audience that the film's scummy young striver lived a life of position and success, is the film's stinger, and masterfully brings one of the story's latent themes to the fore. Unlike High Noon's Will Kane, who does defeat his enemies in physical combat and does restore his reputation and standing and his relationship with his love interest—and then rejects everything but his love in disgust—More models a success of conscience. He is physically and materially defeated, stripped of rank and property, separated from his wife and children, and finally killed. And yet he succeeds, because faith, conscience, and truth are more important than the kind of success so eagerly grasped after by Henry, Cromwell, or Rich. And longer lasting.

A Man for All Seasons is a story we always need, perhaps especially now.

More if you're interested

My DVD of A Man for All Seasons includes this 18-minute Life of Saint Thomas More documentary. This short features a number of prominent historians and biographers, including John Guy and Alison Weir (see below). It's worth the time to watch for a capsule summary of the real More with reference to the film.

Peter Ackroyd's biography The Life of Thomas More is highly recommended as both well-researched and readable. It's also still widely available and easy to find. Tudors, the second volume in his ongoing multi-volume history of England, also covers the controversies surrounding Henry's divorce, remarriage, and Act of Surpremacy succinctly but with good detail in a readable narrative.

john guy henry.jpg

Historian John Guy has a number of books you might consult. First is Thomas More, which attempts to separate the man from the legend. Guy's entry in the Penguin Monarchs series, Henry VIII: The Quest for Fame, is a very short, readable biography of More's king, with good attention given to Henry's divorce, his split with the Church, and his eradication of dissenters, including More. Guy has also written The Tudors, part of Oxford UP's Very Short Introductions series.

Alison Weir, who has done a great deal to popularize the Tudors with her voluminous biographies, covers More well in Henry VIII: The King and His Court. Recent paperback editions include a short essay in which she compares various film depictions of Henry and his life.

Charlton Heston played More in a TV adaptation of A Man for All Seasons, which I haven't seen. Neither have I seen his portrayal by Jeremy Northam in The Tudors, which I gather is sympathetic but inaccurate. I have seen the BBC's Wolf Hall, based on the novel by Hilary Mantel, in which More is played by Anton Lesser opposite Mark Rylance as Cromwell and Damian Lewis as Henry VIII. Mantel is violently anti-Catholic and Wolf Hall is an admitted attempt to tear down More's reputation. I haven't read the novel, but I understand the miniseries to have toned down her attack, even if it includes Foxe's false accusations of torture. More comes across as an educated doofus, a man stupidly committed to principle instead of expedience (Cromwell, throughout, is held up as his pragmatic opposite). I still recommend Wolf Hall because it's excellent storytelling and filmmaking, but understand that its depiction of More is overtly hostile.

And of course there are the works of More himself. Utopia is readily available in a variety of editions and translations. I'm currently reading Paul Turner's translation for Penguin Classics. Vintage Spiritual Classics offers a modest Selected Writings anthology. Other works are readily available elsewhere, including free digitized texts online at places like Project Gutenberg. Check out More's Dialogue Comfort Against Tribulation, written while More awaited his death in the Tower.