Monday, September 22, 2014

When Geeks Make Movies


I'm in England now, so it seems appropriate to mention the fact that some of the best historical films ever, at least because of their production design, were made here in the 1960s and 1970s.  Though the word "geek" once meant a carnival sideshow performer who did disgusting things with animals, it now means (at least in the United States) someone with a lot of interest in and esoteric knowledge of a particular subject.  I mention this because the young men who made these films were definitely history geeks.

In a recent post, I stated that those of us who love history have a complicated relationship with the entertainment industry when it makes movies and television shows with historical themes.  On the one hand, we long to see the past we love and study brought to life in a medium that has no equal for its ability to create a sense of reality.  On the other hand, movies and television shows are commercial ventures, and few producers or directors are willing to risk the chance that authenticity will get in the way of a project turning a profit when safe clichés have worked well so far.  And so we history lovers suffer on, wishing that geeks like us made movies.  Well, sometimes they do.


There was a golden era when history geeks made movies, or at least a few of them.  England in the 1960s and 1970s saw the production of at least three low-budget but high-quality historical films that, though not perfect in their production design, nevertheless captured the feel and look of the past far better than most movies with much larger budgets.  I believe these film makers could do this not only because they were young and enthusiastic about history, but because, with low costs and little concern for profits, mostly they had only themselves to please.

Three movies that represent this movement well are:


Peter Watkins’ Culloden, about the last battle of the Scottish rising of 1745, 


Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo’s, It Happened Here, an alternate history about the Nazi occupation of England,


And Brownlow and Mollo's Winstanley, a story of the Levelers set in England of the 1640s. 

All of these films were made on shoestring budgets and used a grainy, black and white documentary style which was not only cheap but, because they were made for a generation used to watching movie newsreels and early black and white television, lent believability.  


Peter Watkins was 29 years old when his Culloden was first broadcast on the BBC.  Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo were teenage friends and largely self-taught film makers who took eight years to complete It Happened Here.  Brownlow, who was 28 when this film was released, later went on to become a respected film historian and film editor, known especially for helping to restore Abel Gance's silent epic, Napoléon [éon_(1927_film)].  And Mollo, who was 26 at that time, became a noted military historian and consultant, for example, on the German film about Adolf Hitler's last days, Der Untergang (Downfall) []. 


These three films' focus on visual authenticity were in keeping with the time and place in which they were made.  England in the late-1950s through the 1970s was going through something of an antiquarian renaissance.  From authenticity-friendly children's magazines like Look and Learn (which helped launch the careers of illustrators such as Angus McBride, Richard Hook, and Ron and Gerry Embleton), to BBC productions such as The First Churchills and The Pallisers, the public of Great Britain came to expect a far higher standard of historical accuracy in their films and television than Americans of that same era.  


I should mention one reservation I have about these productions.  Their accuracy was often helped by using actual historical artifacts.  The German uniforms and gear in It Happened Here, for example, were mostly real, and some of the English Civil War arms and armor in Winstanley are said to have been quite genuine antiques lent by the Tower of London Armouries.  If true, such a loan would be unthinkable today. 


Despite Hollywood's shortcomings these days, I believe there is a growing public interest in accurate recreations of the past in film and television.  Just look at the popularity of historical reenactments and living history in this country, many of whose participants complain long and bitterly about the media's usually poor historical productions.  And with the availability of remarkably low cost and sophisticated video, audio and editing equipment, my question for today's history geeks is, of course, "Why don't you make your own films?"



Already, we see some fan-made films spun off from the original Star Trek and Lord of the Rings series that are visually quite impressive.  


Though a number of small film and video projects with historical themes have also been made in recent years that are often well-written, acted and filmed, yet I've been very disappointed with their production designs.  I believe that this is because these films simply aren't made by history geeks and, apparently, their producers and directors haven't even bothered to use them as consultants.


But why shouldn't really knowledgeable and talented geeks choose small but compelling themes, such as the final days of the pirate Blackbeard or the tale of a village caught up in the American Revolution? Following the Watkins-Brownlow-Mollo model,  it's still possible to create high-quality but low-budgeted films that are not only artistically good, but will also make fellow geeks like me proud and show Hollywood how it can be done.

A., D., and G. are from It Happened Here.
B., C., and F. are from Culloden.
E., H., and J. are from Winstanley.
K. A publicity still from the official website of the Lord of the Rings fan film, Born of Hope
L. Publicity still from the official website of the fan-supported series, Star Trek Continues:
M. Though at first glance these two photos from the 2010 production of Meek's Cutoff (set on the Oregon Trail in 1845) look pretty good, especially the women's large sun bonnets and the scout's undecorated buckskins, it's the second glance that disappoints.  The women wear shapeless cotton dresses, when wool or linsey-woolsey dresses, properly fitted and worn over stays would have been better.  Cooking over an open campfire in a cotton dress was simply a death wish.  The men's shirts often open completely in front, at a time when pullover shirts were the rule.  The scout's buckskins are too clean; they should be dark and shiny with dried blood and grease.  He wears boots instead of moccasins.  And so on.  Meek's Cutoff []. 
N. The level of authenticity seen in a small number of today's reenactors and living history enthusiasts could make new geek-driven historical films possible. Seen here, the Lexington Training Band, from their website:

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Royal Regulations of 1772, part 4 – Four more words.


I’m leaving this coming week for a month in England and Iceland during which I hope to be able to post to this blog at least a few times.  Before I go, I’d like to finish explaining my translation of the 1772 Regulations. The next post in this series, which may not appear until at least late October, will begin to look at how these regulations were actually understood, implemented, modified, enforced and sometimes ignored in Spain’s frontier outposts of the American Southwest and California. 
*                *                *

Returning now to the Royal Regulation of 1772, which contains a description of the first official uniform for all of the presidios, let’s take a moment to review my translation:

1. The clothing of the soldiers of the presidio will be entirely uniform, and consist of a short, sleeved waistcoat of blue wool velvet or cloth, with a small scarlet cuff and collar, breeches of blue wool velvet; wool cape of the same color; cartridge carrier, cuera and bandoleer of buff leather, of the sort that is currently in use, and embroidered on the bandoleer the name of the presidio, by which to distinguish each [presidial company] from the others; black neck stock, hat, shoes and leggings.

And then the original text: 

1. El vestuario de los soldados de presidio ha de ser uniforme en todos, y constará de una chupa corta de tripe, ó paño azul, con una pequeña vuelta y collarin encarnado, calzon de tripe azul, capa de paño del mismo color, cartuchera, cuera y bandolera de gamuza, en la forma que actualmente las usan, y en la bandolera bordado el nombre del presidio, para que distingan unos de otros, corbatin negro, sombrero, zapatos, y botines.[i]

Because they help us understand how the authors of these regulations intended these uniforms to appear, I’ve discussed in previous posts the meaning and context of several key words: chupa corta, tripe, paño and encarnado. In this essay, I’d like to look at four more: cartuchera, bandolera, gamuza and corbatin.


The 1729 Academia Autoridades dictionary defines cartuchera simply as “The pouch or box in which soldiers carry cartridges” [La bolsa ò caxa en que los Soldados trahen los cartúcheros].[ii] Evidently, a cartridge box or pouch worn on a shoulder strap was just as much a cartuchera as one worn on a waist belt.  And as we will see in a future post, the same name was also given to a cartridge belt.

 This is important because the Spanish word bandolera is usually translated as “bandoleer,” which in English can mean a shoulder strap that supports a cartridge carrier.  For example, the Oxford English Dictionary defines “bandoleer” (or bandolier) as “A broad belt, worn over the shoulder and across the breast, by which a wallet might be suspended at the side,” or in this case a cartridge box.[iii]  But I don’t believe that was what was meant by bandolera in these regulations.


The Academia Autoridades 1770 defines the word bandolera as “A leather band carried by cavalry soldiers; it is placed over the left shoulder, crosses the chest and back as far as the right side, to which is hung the carbine.” [Una banda de cuero que traen los soldados de caballería  puesta sobre el hombro izquierdo, la cruza pecho y espalda hasta el lado derecho para colgar la caravina].  It was, in fact, a carbine sling of the kind used by Euro-American cavalrymen in the 18th century, including those of Spain and New Spain.  This also means that the name of the soldier’s presidio was to be embroidered on a carbine sling – or at least, that was the intent of the regulation.


This sling, the cartridge carrier, and also the armor – or cuera – from which these soldiers derived their names, were to be made of gamuza.  Gamuza was originally the skin of European mountain goats. That is, a, “Thin, tanned hide, that serves for waistcoats, breeches and [for] other uses,” [Piel delgada, que adobándola sirve para jubones, calzones y otros usos].  From this description, and based on period European and American garments, gamuza must have been a suede or “buff” leather rather than the kind of “grained” leather used for example, to make harness.  This is also sometimes called “chamois” leather and, in fact, gamuza and chamois both may derive from the Italian word for a wild goat, camozza.[iv]


 Leather making is a complicated and sometimes mysterious process and I know far less about it than I'd like.[v]  But it appears that several different kinds of suede leather were called gamuza.  The bandolera supporting the carbine and the body or covering of the cartuchera holding the ammunition were probably made of different kinds, or at least thicknesses of gamuza.  Then there was the cuera itself.  As we shall see in a later posting on this blog, this armor was usually manufactured at the presidio from local deerskins supplied by neighboring Native Americans.  These deer hides, unlike the buff leather bandoleer and cartuchera, were probably “brain tanned.”


Last of all, I translate corbatin as neck stock, though others have called it a neckerchief.  But, returning again to the 1780 Academia Usual dictionary, corbatin is defined as, “A type of cravat, that passes one time around the neck and is fitted behind with a buckle or clasp,” [Espécie de corbata, que solo da una vuelta al pescuezo, y se ajusta con hevilla, ó broche por detras].


A. I believe that the authors of the 1772 Royal Regulations for the presidios had in mind a uniform for the soldados de cuera very much like this one proposed for New Spain's Regimiento Provincial de Caballeria del Rey, 1771.  Archivo General de las Indias, Madrid. 
B.  Though often used to illustrate the kind of cartridge carriers used in the Spanish Borderlands, this "belly box" is, in fact, from Cuba.  Museum of New Mexico, Santa Fe.  Sketch by Jerry Martin, published in Brinckerhoff and Faulk, 1965, p. 69.
C. Replica 18th century British cartridge pouch and sling made by C.&D. Jarnigan.
D. Carbine slings, like this English example from the 1600s, were used for hundreds of years by European and Colonial Cavalry.  Royal Armouries collection:
E. The Spanish wild goat, or gamuza, is similar to the Alpine chamois, and so is the suede leather made from their hides, etc.  
F. Cuera, Museo del Ejercito, Toledo.
G. Detail of illustration A. above. Notice that the neck stock worn by this Mexican cavalryman is shown as a black band around the throat.
H. Spanish 18th century neck stock buckles re-cast from excavated originals. Military Artifacts of Spanish Florida, 1539-1821; An Internet Museum.


[i] Sidney Brinckerhoff and Odie B. Faulk. Lancers for the King; A Study of the Frontier Military System of Northern New Spain, with a Translation of the Royal Regulations of 1772. Phoenix: Arizona Historical Society, 1965, pp. 18-21.
[ii] The Spanish Royal Academy dictionaries are available online, arranged by date and in searchable, facsimile form, at their website:
[iii] 1989 edition.  Many readers may wish to remind me that the strap on a British cartridge box is properly called a “sling,” not a “bandolier,” which is true.  But the point I’m trying to make here is about a popular understanding of the meaning of “bandolier.”
[v] A useful guide to early types of leather used for military purposes can be found at the C&D Jarnigan Co. website: