Things have taken a confessional turn here at Walking the Berkshires. Having just outed my alter ego "Sterkfontein the dwarf", I may as well forgo any hope of salvaging what shreds of respectability I retain and go right ahead and embrace another guilty pleasure. Yes, gentle readers, I have an unabated passion for what George MacDonald Fraser calls "that flawed glory of the cinema, the costume picture." Sand and Sandals, Knights in Tights, wooden ships and iron men: if it's a period piece with a cast of thousands it commands my attention.
That is not to say I'll watch and enjoy just any dreary epic simply because the wardrobe department went over budget and some English toff prances about with a sword. I have a low tolerance for anachronisms and artless plots, and Hollywood had subjected us to legions of films with these dreadful flaws. No amount of attention to historical accuracy can salvage a poor screenplay, bad direction and uninspired acting. Still, my heart goes out to some of the magnificent failures of the genre as well as its crowning glories, and surprisingly enough Hollywood quite often gets history right and provides a rollicking good tale besides.
The costume picture is fundamentally a romance with history. A splendid film like Gallipoli or a harrowing one like Paths of Glory may brilliantly convey the appalling waste and disillusion of the Great War period but these movies are intended to make profound statements. Costume epics, on the other hand, are meant to be escapist fun as well as good history. They can teach us much as they swashbuckle across our imaginations, but they ain't quite respectable, and it's hard sometimes to distinguish the inspired from the insipid. A bit like our beloved blogosphere.
So as a public service to like-minded readers, I offer Walking the Berkshires' Top Ten Picks for Costume Flicks. Subjective evaluation criteria are as follows:
- Must be set in a recognizable historical period between the dawn of civilization and the death of Queen Victoria. Anything after that has too much baggage to be both good history and a playful romp.
- Must convincingly recreate the period in question, true to the spirit of the times and faithful to the historical details that make it come alive on screen. Must stand up to scrutiny. No ray-bans on Viking rowers, and no blue woad on William Wallace.
- Historical personages must remain in character. Screenwriters should resist the temptation to project the norms and attitudes of the present on the past (Dances with Wolves). Above all, actors must have style. Not even Al Pacino could save the odious Revolution.
- A visionary art department and inspired location scouts will trump special effects wizardry any day. Tom Berenger's beard and rotund reenactors doomed Gettysburg.
- Films that stand alone should make you yearn for a sequel. Films in a series should make you rent them back to back and binge view from beginning to end, then join the fan club and wait on pins and needles for news of new episodes.
- The forgoing not withstanding, films that are all pomp and no circumstance need not apply.
So what made the cut?
The Vikings: I still get shivers from Kirk Douglas and his long ships pulling up the fjord.
The Lion in Winter: Christmas with the dysfunctional Plantagenets.
The Black Swan: The best pirate movie from the golden age of swashbucklers. Laird Cregar's Sir Henry Morgan alone is worth the price of admission.
All 15 films in the Sharpe series. Sean Bean is Richard Sharpe, an officer elevated from the ranks of a rifle company in Wellington's Peninsula army. Sharpe does for the infantry what Aubrey and Maturin do for Nelson's Navy.
Waterloo: It's all there: the ragged English squares and the French cavalry, Hougoumont and the demise of the Old Guard. Rod Steiger's Napoleon is Oscar-worthy. Best lines: Uxbridge - "By God, I've lost my leg." Wellington - "By God, so you have!"
Zulu Dawn: Filmed on location at Isandlwana in South Africa, the horns and belly of Cetshwayo's impi sweeping across the veld and up the long slope to devour the British makes Custer's Last Stand pale in comparison.
The Man Who Would Be King: No need for a cast of thousands with Connery and Caine as two British non-coms carving out a doomed kingdom for themselves in Central Asia.
Red River: For my money the best of the John Wayne westerns. Its epic cattle drive from Texas to Abilene has never been equaled in film.
Shakespeare in Love: Marvelously conceived, modestly contrived, the Elizabethan stage has never been imagined better.
Honorable mentions for dead-on historical depictions in otherwise flawed films go to Trevor Howard as Earl Cardigan in The Charge of the Light Brigade, Alec Guinness as Charles I in Cromwell, and Cate Blanchett as the Virgin Queen herself in Elizabeth.
That's my top ten, at least for today What costume flicks would make it on yours?