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:


  1. I was discussing this post with others on another group. They were discussing the linked film Culloden from the 1960s. They noticed errors in some of the material culture, and the re-purposing of 19th-century firearms to be converted so they look like 18th-century ones.

    I'll just post here what I did at that group:
    As I mentioned before, Hollywood does better today with weaponry featured in shows now because there is now an entire industry dedicated to reproducing them (not to mention other material culture). That wasn't really the case in the 1960s. We have a significant hindsight bias from that.

    Also, I think the point of these examples is, to use David Rickman's words, "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." He never said they were spot on, just that a better job is possible(though not perfect) with fewer funds. (I highly suggest people make sure they take into consideration lower budget 1964 versus moderate/high budget 2014, the latter have more advantages today than just money). I suspect the greater point of David Rickman's post is that accuracy isn't just a matter of money, it's also having the people who make it actually care about accuracy and not just color schemes and showing off the goods of attractive main actors.
    I would also point out that research into material culture, both the amount of it and the frequency of it getting distributed to larger numbers of people, have greatly improved over the past 50 years. Depending on what time period you are concerned with, what was known/available on material culture 50, 40, or even 20 years ago is night and day when compared to today. Sometimes, nothing happens for a period of interest for a long time. Pirate living history and reenacting - the look for pirates didn't really change in many films AND books from 1940 to 2000. Any semblance of a reenacting or living history community didn't actually come into being until the first decade of the new millennium, and even in the decade between that starting and today there is marked changes in both research. I should also note that much of what the film Culloden used was probably made by the hands of the people wearing them in the film or by people they knew. It's a stark contrast to either Hollywood that uses costume departments or for a large number of reenactors who will only purchase off-the-shelf items.

  2. Thank you, David. You've summed up the situation and my intent very well. We all notice certain things that others might not.

    Admittedly, my special interests do not include firearms and artillery (though I do know something), but then, no one on the Facebook discussion mentioned that the British cavalrymen rode modern saddles, without regimental saddle cloths and valises, and used snaffle bits rather than curb. I noticed that, but I wasn't too distracted because, overall, the film captured the period "look" better than anything else I've seen, and did so on a shoestring budget. I still believe "Culloden" can serve as a model for what others can achieve today, and also inspire makers of historical films, whatever their budgets, to pay attention even to the smallest details.

    Thanks again.