Sunday, 13 May 2012

Unhistorical fiction

We have a Spanish exchange student staying with us and at his request, we all sat down to watch Ridley Scott's Gladiator again.  This must be my fourth or fifth time, I guess, and each time I find myself a little baffled at how enthusiastic some people are about it.

It is a good movie, don't get me wrong.  And I can certainly understand my son , who is a nut about everything Roman, getting excited about.  I would have been excited about it at his age.  But for anyone over fifteen, it is quite silly.

Part of the appeal for a fifteen year old boy, is the level of slightly transgressive violence.  Heads, hands and feet are lopped off with cheerful regularity.  At one point in the arena, it looks as though Maximus is going round popping balloons filled with red paint.  Who knew a human head could contain so much blood?

This violence is meant to be realistic.  It is meant to show us what the Coliseum was actually like.  But of course it would have been nothing like that.  It would not have been a choreographed battle full of dazzling feats of swordplay, but a brutal hacking match where exhaustion would be the killer.  Instead of the spectacular decapitations it would be a series of wounds and broken bones from which even the victor might die days later.

There has been a change in cinematic combat over the last few decades.  All movies - even this one - seem to be martial arts influenced.  Every time a fight breaks out, in whatever movie, it seems as though the combatants have spent years training in karate or kung fu.  There is a scene in Gladiator at the beginning, when Maximus has been taken to be executed where he stands waiting for a rider to attack him.  The way he holds the sword - it could be a Kurasowa movie.

But historical accuracy is often not a great feature of historical fiction.  It is a strange genre that stretches from books or movies which purport to be incredibly accurate, to movies like this one where they borrow the authenticity of history but feel no obligation to stick to it.

If Gladiator had been fantasy - if it had been a Conan movie, say - it would not have had the appeal, despite the fact that it certainly feels more Robert E Howard than Robert Graves.  Commodus did not kill his father, Marcus Aurelius.  He did make a pretence of fighting in the arena but he was not killed in the arena by Maximus, and how could he have been - Maximus did not exist.

Not that any of that stops it from being a good movie.  Historical fiction is fiction after all.  And Gladiator is worth the money for the first few minutes alone.  That battle sequence in the forest is superb - and it feels like it carries some truth with it.

Maybe we should call it historical fantasy.

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