“And this also”, said Marlowe, “has been one of the dark places of the Earth”.
So begins Marlowe’s narration in “Heart of Darkness”, referring to the fact that England, then at the top of its imperial powers, had centuries ago been a land of primitive barbarians, at least when compared to the lights of Rome.
I’m reminded of that because of the film “The Eagle”, which I just watched. The film is based in the novel “The Eagle of the Ninth”, which is a work of fiction, but inspired in historical events such as the rumoured disappearance of the Ninth Roman Legion in Northern Britain. Now the story in itself is a bit implausible, and apparently the Ninth didn’t even disappear, but that’s not the point right now.
I touched the question of verisimilitude in historical movies a couple of posts ago, when I discussed “300”. Now I am grappling with the question again after I watched Kevin MacDonald’s film. Yes, the film is much more realist than “300”, at least in appearance. The Romans look like Romans, and the Britons… Well, here he seems to have taken some liberties, specially in his portrayal of the “People of the Seal”, which I believe are supposed to represent the Picts or early Scottish tribes.
Still, we are not talking here about realism, but verisimilitude. It is not important if it’s really accurate, but if the audience believes it to be so. Since I am pretty much ignorant on the subject (what? someone admitting his ignorance in the Internet??), I cannot judge how realistic the portrayal of the local tribes is, and the “People of the Seal” look a bit too much like mohicans to my mind. But at least they are more believable than the Persians in “300”.
All the Briton tribes speak Gaelic in the film, which adds a touch of apparent authenticity, although they wouldn’t speak Gaelic at that time. The Romans in the film, however, strangely enough do not speak Latin but modern American English. This is understandable, as modern audiences would expect it, and no one is as crazy as Mel Gibson. Still, it feels strange. Which would be a better way?
Well, watching the TV version of “Persuasion” (see below) we believe that we are in 1816 because of the way the actors speak. Now, I don’t think all people in England at that time were as witty and articulate as Jane Austen’s characters, but it does the trick. The same is true of Shakespeare adaptations, by the way, even though his language is highly artificial.
So I think that if the Romans in the movie spoke with a British accent, and perhaps in the manner of Austen or Dickensian characters, it would have worked much better.
Why do we seem to think that people in the past were more articulate? Well, maybe because they were. For instance, I watched the other day this excerpt of the 50s TV game show “What’s my line”, with Salvador Dali as a guest, and it was amazing to see how all the guests in the television program were well dressed, articulate, witty and polite. They can even speak in complete sentences! Compare it with any, and I mean really any, reality or game show currently on American television, and the difference is abyssal. Not to mention that today no one would even know who Salvador Dali was.
But back to the film: it’s not bad, but the American accent almost ruins it, although of course that was probably the intention — a lame comparison with the American Empire and all that. Yes, the US is Rome today, and it is falling at the hands of barbarians, but we all knew that already.