Tag Archives: Braveheart

Go Watch This: Medieval Combat Techniques Hollywood Ignores

by Gabriel Valdez

This quick video is a superb illustration of all the things movies get wrong about combat in heavy armor. We like to think that they all fought like Gandalf and Aragorn, whirling dervishes of blades whipping this way and that while cutting down enemies with a single blow. I’m a big fan of that fantastical style of swordplay – I even wrote an essay about fight choreography as myth, using Troy and Serenity as examples.

All that said, I wouldn’t mind an historical movie that actually treats combat in heavy armor like the mix of precision strikes and ground-based grappling it really was. Mel Gibson involved some in the choreography for Braveheart, while Ridley Scott has come close with his choreographies in films like Kingdom of Heaven and Robin Hood, but Hollywood is still a good distance away from giving us real, gritty choreographies that are more thrusts and grapples than wild swings and balletic dodges.

Observe a more accurate view of the mobility of heavy armor and the techniques used in medieval warfare:

Thanks to Wilson Freeman of Drifting Focus Photography for the heads up on this.

Wednesday Collective — Is Historical Accuracy on Film Important?

Braveheart lead

Today’s Wednesday Collective is a special edition. I want to highlight an ongoing conversation that’s been taking place across a few different sites, namely between Sam Adams at IndieWire, A.E. Larsen over at An Historian Goes to the Movies, Chris Braak over at Threat Quality Press, and myself. It regards the need for historical accuracy in movies and whether that accuracy should be a quality that critics evaluate.

“Please Kill The Expert Review

This all started when Sam Adams, editor for IndieWire, posted a rejection of the “expert review,” the kinds of articles that declare “What Noah Gets Wrong About the Bible” and “What House of Cards Gets Wrong About Money in Politics.” Half the time, these “expert reviews” fail at their own game, overlooking some pretty simple facts, or assuming some historical intent on the part of filmmakers that isn’t there. For instance, Noah isn’t based on Noah and the Flood alone, it’s based on Jewish religious stories, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Abraham and Job and Moses, and Asian flood mythologies. And House of Cards is based on Kevin Spacey eating you alive.

“Wednesday Collective – Films of Excess, Black Widow, & All Your Ark Are Belong to Us”

We highlighted Adams’s article in a “Wednesday Collective” that also featured some other great articles and a pretty broad Something Awful reference all of two people picked up on. I didn’t altogether agree with Adams that expert reviews need to be eradicated. I did agree that expert reviews have become so widespread and inaccurate that it’s inevitable many of them are written by non-experts. They might think half an hour of hitting up Wikipedia is the equivalent of doing enough research to post a 1,000-word article (hint: it’s not). After all, “expert reviews” get clicked on. They appeal to our curiosity. They appeal to our desire to have even more to discuss about the film we just saw, and our desire to impress others by doing so. They appeal to some pretty basic schadenfreude we feel when famous people do something wrong. So they persist.

“Why Historical Accuracy on Film Matters”

A.E. Larsen at An Historian Goes to the Movies wrote a rebuttal to Adams’s original article, detailing the importance that evaluating historical accuracy has. If we cut out that evaluation, Larsen argues, we avoid discussing some pretty important artistic decisions and the social, cultural, and political consequences those decisions can cause in the real world. He cites the rise of the powerful independence movement in Scotland as a reaction to Braveheart, and the effect crime procedurals like CSI have had on both the taxpayer expense and burden of evidence necessary to carry out criminal trials in The United States. It’s worth noting that Larsen also considers it important for films to sometimes forgo historical accuracy, such as in the narrative and costuming in The 13th Warrior. Accuracy isn’t always important, Larsen says, but discussing it is.

“On History, Historicity, and the Responsibility of Art”

Chris Braak at Threat Quality Press sought to separate history from historicity, further expanding on Larsen’s argument while also putting the onus of responsibility on artists themselves. The issue as an artist isn’t to always be historically accurate, Braak says, but rather to have a reason when you aren’t. Many artists use history as a backdrop to talk about modern-day issues. If that’s what you’re doing, decisions can’t just be made willy-nilly – they each carry into the messages that viewers take away. Braak uses Shakespeare, Philadelphia theatre, and Larsen’s example of Braveheart to write a fairly brilliant article.

“‘Accuracy is the Poor Man’s Authenticity’: (A Few) More Thoughts on the Expert Review”

Finally, Adams featured Larsen’s rebuttal, as well as two others, in a piece that contained far too much punctuation in its title and met him halfway. He still sticks to his guns, but he admits he just had to get “Please Kill the Expert Review” off his chest. He also says that art doesn’t have a responsibility to stick to fact. I have a tendency to agree with Braak – art does have that responsibility, except when there’s a reason to choose differently. So the conversation has paused by putting the burden of responsibility on the artist, but it did begin by calling out critics. That still needs to be addressed.

My Own Take

Inglourious Basterds movie image Eli Roth and Sam Levine

The value of making movies that are historically accurate should be self-evident – failure to do so can lead to the rewriting of history itself. The single, most offensive episode of TV I’ve seen all year did just this, in an ill-advised attempt to trade historical accuracy for scientific, as if you’re only allowed to allot a certain number of accuracy points between the two.

Art’s ability to turn history on its head does offer unique opportunities, however, the way The Monuments Men seeks to champion art’s value to a society that’s busy cutting arts education left, right, and center. Or the way Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained change history entirely to create power fantasies for the historically maligned. In this way, they empower and engender pride today while challenging typical ethnic portrayals and culturally training us to see hate and racism for the wholly ridiculous things they are. By making villains who literally tent their fingers and twirl their mustaches, and KKK members who whine about the imprecise tailoring of their white sheets, we begin to associate the very same positions in the real world as childish and cartoon-esque.

What’s a critic’s role in this? To evaluate the historical accuracy in Inglorious Basterds is a fool’s errand, yet in evaluating the details and nuances director Quentin Tarantino does include, we might better see the craft behind the image. In art history, you’re taught to examine every nuance – the painters whose work has lasted centuries rarely included useless details. Even brush strokes can communicate something – where the painter seeks to turn your eye, and the relationships between different characters.

And what should the requirements for the critic be? I try to review a movie’s success with some degree of isolation from it’s background. I want to know what the movie’s saying or failing to say. Under the Skin and Children of Men and A Clockwork Orange (I just came up with the most depressing triple-feature ever) say completely different things from the novels on which they’re based. Does that mean they’re failures? Absolutely not, but why they have completely different messages is important.

Likewise, Basterds, Django, Braveheart, and Monuments Men divert completely from history to make their points, and why they choose to do so is the most important component in each of these films. That requires analysis, which requires pointing out the historical details those films overlook or change.

Even so, I agree with Sam Adams on his broader notion that the proliferation of a certain type of “What X gets wrong about Y” review isn’t doing criticism any good. I don’t think he’s talking about the “expert review,” however. The expert review, such as what A.E. Larsen does at An Historian Goes to the Movies, is a crucial component to understanding movies as an art and storytelling form. I believe what Adams criticizes should be called the “inexpert review,” in which critics feel pressure to be all things to all people, and often evaluate the accuracy of topics on which they aren’t really familiar.

Critics should not pretend to know everything. It’s one reason I do “Wednesday Collective.” It’s the reason I seek out other writers to feature here, like Vanessa Tottle and Russ Schwartz. You can’t read a critic in a vacuum; you need other input. One of the most valuable things you can do as a critic is admit what you don’t know. It’s academically honest, and it will let readers know that if you do have a point to make, you’re only making it when you know what you’re talking about.

Go back and look at Roger Ebert’s archive of reviews and essays – it’s easy to select the ones he wrote from a drop-down menu up-top. Ebert was an incredibly smart writer, yet again and again, he prefaced his viewpoints with what he didn’t know, either on an academic subject or another culture’s storytelling techniques. This allows you to be aware of exactly what he does know. Being aware of his perspective and his knowledge gives you more information, gives you a better sense of how to understand his opinions.

The expert review doesn’t need to stop. The inexpert review needs to stop. Critics need to admit when they don’t know something, not pretend they know everything. We need to talk about film from our own perspective, from our own experiences and knowledge. We need to be proud of our specialties, and seek out others to complement them, to refer to when we don’t know something important. Pretending to be an expert in a field you don’t know about is a way of being ashamed at your lack of knowledge. I’d rather be proud about what I do know, and honest about what I don’t. It’s the only way criticism survives as something more than top 10 lists and Metacritic scores. The only way.

Taking Contests of Faith Out of the Playground — “Heaven is for Real”

Heaven Kinnear Reilly

I remember when I was a kid. At recess, the boys would chase the girls around the playground, and then the girls would chase the boys around, and then we’d start all over again. Anyone who was visibly different – by race or religion or handicap – would get a hard time from the bullies, and the rest of us would often fall in line because, after all, the title ‘bully’ isn’t given without reason.

Heaven is for Real is the story of Pastor Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear), who nearly loses his son Colton (Connor Corum) from a burst appendix. When Colton recovers, he tells his father about having an out-of-body experience in which he visits Heaven.

Before this, we get a glimpse of Todd’s family life – he’s a small-town pastor who’s successfully drawn in new congregants. Nonetheless, his family is facing financial disaster. He works an extra job as a repairman, but times are tough.

The crux of the movie is Colton’s vision of Heaven. Despite being a pastor, Todd has a difficult time accepting it as real. His wife’s doubts are even greater, but Sonja (Kelly Reilly) is the rock of the family and has to act the part. Director Randall Wallace, most famous for writing the screenplay for Braveheart, does show us bits and pieces of Colton’s vision. This might seem unwise, but the specificity of Colton’s vision is what becomes so controversial. Congregants challenge the details – Colton’s heart never stopped, so how can he have a near-death experience – as if there’s a rulebook on this sort of thing.

Kelly Reilly

And that’s the point, isn’t it? Everyone keeps telling Todd their personal interpretation of religion should be his, too. It gives him no time to heal, only to react. Heaven is for Real rarely preaches – it’s far more interested in telling a story. That’s what makes it a successful movie. Todd and Sonja’s journey of faith demands others be less self-centered about their own.

Heaven is for Real is a gorgeously shot film. Its outdoor locations highlight the vast, still beauty of the Midwest. Kinnear and Reilly are what make it all work. There’s a decent amount of overacting in this, especially at the hospital – all of Wallace’s films suffer from a lack of dramatic restraint – but Kinnear and Reilly are able to constantly re-invest the viewer in their struggles.

The movie only veers into proselytizing once – when Todd visits a psychiatrist who is non-religious. She acts like no board-certified psychiatrist ever would, shooting down his faith the minute he walks in the door rather than listening to him and asking questions. It’s a clunky, inaccurate moment in a film that otherwise takes a higher road than picking fights with non-believers.

Lately, some faith-based movies and certain science shows have picked those fights – them versus us. Science or religion. We’ve even held celebrity debates that are watched by millions of online viewers, as if the contest is some sort of sport. We’re inches away from season ticket sales and peanut vendors.

Greg K 2

You know, the Star Trek series of TV shows is often credited for getting more young men and women interested in scientific careers than any other piece of creative art. Like Heaven is for Real, it is incredibly earnest and occasionally cheesy. There’s an episode in which Captain Kirk, cheesiest of them all, describes a novelist whose works change humanity’s future. He says our three most important words become “Let me help,” held in even higher esteem than “I love you.” Wanting to help is the reason many go into the sciences. In his last sermon in Heaven is for Real, Todd boils down the essence of belief to a simple concept. It “lets you know you’re not alone.”

“Let me help. You’re not alone.” I think those two sentiments go together pretty well. I remember when I was a kid, after all. Anyone who was visibly different would get a hard time from the bullies. I wish I’d stood up to them more often. Science or religion? Both sides have their bullies, leading chases around the playground after the other one.

Heaven is for Real reminds us that faith isn’t owned by anyone – it’s personal for each of us, and that’s OK. Disagreement shouldn’t lead to fights that do nothing but distract us. It’s not kindergarten. We’re not in recess anymore.

Greg Kinnear

Heaven is for Real is rated PG for medical situations.

“300: Rise of an Empire” a Colossal Disappointment

300r Eva Green.tiff

The first 300 was, ostensibly, a movie about men in their underwear hacking at each other with swords in slow-motion. Needless to say, the girl I was dating at the time declared it her “new favorite movie ever.” It was also an art movie told through action scenes.

What I remember best from 300 isn’t any particular fight, though. I remember the field in which Sparta’s King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) says his goodbyes to Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) before heading off to battle. As much as that film glorified war, it also glorified a field of wheat in sunrise as the wind carried through it. It made going to battle a bittersweet, complex choice, and it glorified the reasons to stay home just as much. It was the rare action movie from which liberals and conservatives both lifted messages, and that both sides still argue is “theirs.”

300: BATTLE OF ARTEMESIUM

The sequel, 300: Rise of an Empire, is not an art movie. It’s an action movie that looks artful because if it didn’t, it couldn’t call itself 300. What it champions is warmongering. There’s not a single scene that shows us what’s at stake. Our Athenian hero Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton), who dreams of a united Greece, treats Athens like his own private, military dictatorship. You might expect this in itself to be a strong political statement, but nope – it just hurries the plot along faster if the screenwriters don’t require anyone else to speak.

300: Rise of an Empire also makes its villain far more interesting than its hero, but commits the cardinal sin of not realizing this. We cheered for Leonidas in the first film because Butler knew a movie filmed entirely in front of a green screen needed an anchor. He needed to act like the audience was 1,000 feet away, so he had to shout and wink and chew every piece of nonexistent scenery just to match the tone of his CG surroundings. This time around, it’s Eva Green (Casino Royale) who snarls and sneers and stares piercingly through every line of dialogue. She plays the evil Persian general Artemisia as if Darth Vader found the goth section of Katy Perry’s wardrobe.

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The film gives Artemisia such a tragic backstory that you’d be a terrible person to root against such a survivor. I tire of boys in genre movies being captured and trained to be gruff and manly and fight as noble gladiators while the narrative equivalent for girls is to be sexually abused. It’s needless, lazy, and offensive. Combine such tragedy with Green acting circles around the rest of the cast and Themistokles’s incessant blandness, and I found myself rooting hard for Artemisia to win the day.

Yes, in the film, Greece represents democracy, Persia represents slavery, and Themistokles can’t sneeze without trumpeting the word “freedom,” but the movie does an awful job of championing any of these ideas or showing them in practice. When Themistokles isn’t outguiling bad guys, he spends all his time trying to get Mel Gibson’s Braveheart monologue right. I stopped counting at the sixth attempt. There’s some fresh air when Sparta’s Queen Gorgo finally gets involved (I’d much rather the movie had followed her into battle), but it’s too little too late.

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Some of the art direction is inspired – particularly in the first two battles when the actors are the focus. As more CG is involved, however, the mostly naval battles feel increasingly generic and fast-forwarded. Zack Snyder, who directed the first 300, was smart enough to treat his visual effects in a painterly way. Graphics were to add background and tone, to emphasize the human form or, at most, to create some unspeakable enemy. When there was blood and viscera, it was strangely beautiful, and clarified each move of the fight choreography by extending it into an arc of unreal color. In Noam Murro’s sequel, the effects increasingly take over the battles and play both hero and enemy. Blood gushes everywhere for the shock of it and, like most shocking effects, becomes quickly tiresome.

As for 3D, Murro often washes out his backgrounds with shafts of sunlight or flashes of light in darkness. These are nice effects in 2D, but have the tendency to blur out details and strain viewers’ eyes in 3D. 300: Rise of an Empire is rated R for pretty much everything – bloody violence, sex, nudity, and some language. The first 300 used these things to make a point. It’s hard to forgive its sequel for not bothering to have one.

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