Thursday, August 29, 2013

Popular Historical Shite? – Bring it on!

I loved the movie, Robin Hood – Prince of Thieves.

I still do.

There. I’ve said it. You may laugh now. It’s ok. I’ve got a good set of armour on.

For me that movie, Kevin Costner's accent and all, was a game changer. It gave my life some much needed direction in the confusing dark times of my early teenage years.

I’ve heard Robin Hood, Excalibur, Braveheart, Gladiator, the shows Hercules and Xena, and others, all called ‘popular crap’, ‘ridiculous’, ‘inaccurate drivel’, and loads of other names mostly by academics from the dusty upper floors of their ivory towers.

The critics pan these movies and shows, citing the poor acting, sad story lines and over-stretched budgets that somehow mark them as unworthy of viewing. Gladiator was the only one to garner any respect (less so for Braveheart) and that was probably due to the Oscars it rounded up (that was fantastic BTW!).

Robin Hood tends to lay gutted on the bottom of the pile of popular historical 'shite', bleeding into memory – that movie that was so ‘bad’, the one that Kevin Costner ‘butchered’.

You know what? I don’t care. I thought that film was brilliant and magical. Here’s why:

When the movie came out in 1991 I was fifteen going on sixteen and trying to navigate that utterly depressing world known as High School – which, for the record, I loathed.

I was hanging out with some questionable characters, not doing very well in class and had no real idea or vision for the future, my future.

Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t beaten or fed plates of gruel. I’m one of the fortunate ones who had a caring home life, parents who listened and a brother with whom it did not often come to outright fisticuffs. Swords yes, but rarely fists.

However, I did lack an interest to give me direction.

Then one Friday night, my dad comes home and hands me a video tape of Robin Hood – Prince of Thieves.

“Look what I’ve got,” he says. “Let’s watch it tonight. I think you’ll like it.”

Being a black-clad teenager, I grunted in response and hunkered down in silence on the sectional for a couple of hours.

If I remember correctly, I was hooked right from the beginning as the opening credits rolled images of the Bayeux Tapestry depicting the Norman Conquest. 

Scene from the Bayeux Tapestry
Of course, I didn’t know what the Norman Conquest was at the time, or that the year 1066 was any more significant than a thousand other dates.

It was the power of those images, the heroic music by Michael Kamen, and of course the fantastic story of Robin Hood that pulled me in and didn’t let go.

I can still remember sitting there that first time. Oh yes, I think I was a ‘popular historical’ virgin up to that point. I was so hooked that I watched that movie every day for six days straight, enjoying it every single time.

I watched Robin’s skill with blade and bow with awe, thrilled to his duel with the Sherriff of Nottingham, expertly played by Alan Rickman. The romantic in me was even awakened by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio with whom I had fallen desperately in love.

History, and an ancient story, had spoken to me and I was having an epiphany – I loved it and that was what I wanted to do. I then decided that history was what I wanted to study.

As it turned out, that summer I had the opportunity to go to England with my mom to visit family. That first journey across the pond only served to fuel the fires of my enthusiasm.

I wanted to walk through every castle and manor house I saw, touch every suit of armour and look closely at every nicked sword blade on display in every museum. I was insatiable.

Carcasonne - France
Where part of Robin Hood was filmed
When I returned home, my parents bought me all the books (new and used) that I wanted on the Middle Ages, ancient world, swords, armour, the Crusades, you name it. I got a used book on the Bayeux Tapestry that I still have to this day. Biographies of kings and queens, chivalric ideals and stories of King Arthur, Robin Hood and others abounded. I also took up archery and fencing.

What is the point of all this?

My point is that without having seen that supposedly ‘crappy’ movie, I might not have become interested in all of this. I might not have improved my grades in high school, or gone on to undergrad studies in medieval history, a Master’s in Dark Age studies, or to work in museums or archaeology.

Without Robin Hood – Prince of Thieves, I might not be writing!

Throughout my years in university and academic circles, I’ve always heard the same old argument that popular history is rubbish and a complete waste of time. “Stay away from that stuff!” one of my professor’s said one day after Braveheart had hit the big screens.

But you know what? That so-called ‘popular shite’ sparks more interest in young people’s minds than any lame, snoot-nosed history teacher who lectures their students without caring whether or not they are capturing their listeners’ imaginations.

It’s no wonder that movies like Robin Hood or Gladiator have left increased enrollment in medieval and ancient history courses in their wakes. They got people excited. What a concept!

I’ve been fortunate enough to have a couple of good history teachers who did capture my imagination, who loved anything having to do with history. Sadly, most were not so good, but I’m glad that didn’t deter me.

I’ve been told by several of my readers that my writing makes history interesting to them, and THAT pleases me to no end.

This applies not only to movies but to all forms of popular historical fiction.

In the current issue of the Historic Novels Review, Richard Lee, the founder of the Historic Novel Society, notes that he has “heard EVERY type of historical fiction ridiculed for being untrue to the history. Sometimes the spite that is unleashed is phenomenal… My own view is that all kinds of historical fiction have value.”

I couldn’t agree more. Whether it is the period of history, or the format (book, TV or film), the sad truth is that popular history has often been frowned upon, locked out of the academic castle.

However, the numbers are far greater outside the walls of that castle and it is my hope that the gates will eventually be battered down so that the people can flood in, not to massacre, but to live together with the few in their towers.

Academia has its purpose, which is of utmost importance to our knowledge of the past. But there is also a place for popular historical fiction, a purpose in gathering people around, firing their interests and setting them on the path to learning more. It’s all good!

To quote Morgan Freeman’s character, Azeem, in Robin Hood – Prince of Thieves:

“Allah loves wondrous variety.”

What's your favourite popular historical?

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