History & Film: Are You Not Entertained? Truth and the Historical Films of Ridley Scott

In 2018 Sir Ridley Scott received a lifetime achievement fellowship from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) – its highest award. In the selection of clips with which the academy introduced Scott’s work, they began with, and most frequently returned to, his film Gladiator (2000), and when he walked up to the stage to receive the award the music they played was the theme from Gladiator. The significance of this, to me, is huge.

Scott’s directorial reputation is founded on his sci-fi films Blade Runner and Alien. His best critical reception came for the zeitgeisty road movie Thelma and Louise, which turbo-charged Brad Pitt’s career. Scott’s biggest box office success is 2015’s The Martian. Emotionally, though, Gladiator is still the film of his that has most engaged audiences. Are you not entertained? As such its influence on how our world views ancient Rome is incalculable – and will continue.

In his acceptance speech Scott acknowledged this power that film-makers have. He talked about his responsibility to present what is true (‘the best stories tend to come from truth, even fiction’), and he talked about the enormous power of entertainment to educate. In truth, the ‘educative’ impact of his historical films has been patchy. Gladiator – vast, in my opinion. The Duellists and 1492 – Conquest of Paradise – probably negligible. The Kingdom of Heaven and Robin Hood – somewhere in between. But I am fascinated to explore where the true power of film really lies. Is it in ‘truth,’ as Scott thinks? Or does Hollywood ever, really, deal in truth?

THE DUELLISTS

Scott had made his name – and fortune – in advertising, before he filmed his first feature, aged 40, basing it on a short story by Joseph Conrad. Conrad’s The Duel was serialised in The Pall Mall Magazine in 1908, but depicts a sequence of duels between two men a hundred years earlier. Conrad appears to have been fascinated by the sense of honour at that time, perhaps in comparison to his own day, and by the way that secrecy enhanced a story that in itself was slight. Scott filmed the tale on location in three winter months at the end of 1977. The gorgeous setting of Sarlat in the Dordogne and the thin light of the fading year very much inform the film’s atmosphere.

Scott says that he was influenced for the look of the film by Kubrick’s 1975 Barry Lyndon, but also by contemporary Napoleonic paintings and by earlier artists painting candlelight, particularly Georges de La Tour. The combination of location and research, the diligent sets, historical props and wardrobe all lead to a remarkably faithful historical presentation – one that even tracks the fashions through the twenty years of the narrative.

The two American lead actors (Harvey Keitel and Keith Carradine with Napoleonic pig-tails) are ably supported by a roll-call of eminent British thespians, and convey Conrad’s story beautifully, with a measured voice-over narration adding to the literary feel. The film won a prize at Cannes, and has been lauded since. So why have so few people actually seen it? Scott says that it was criticised for being ‘too beautiful.’ It was hardly marketed on release, and opened in few theatres. It was pigeon-holed as art-house.

So here, you could say, the young director met the film business in full-on collision. Scott had taken a great personal financial risk shooting The Duellists: he had agreed to an overage bond, which meant that if the filming came in over budget he would pay any excess fees from his own pocket. By comparison, the studio took no risks. They had a very beautifully shot, compelling movie with bankable stars (Carradine had costarred in Robert Altman’s Nashville the previous year, and scored a number one hit single with the song ‘I’m Easy’) but they more or less ignored it.

The Duellists has a lot of ‘truth’ about it. Its historical verisimilitude is impressive, and it is strongly faithful to Conrad’s text. Above all it is true to Conrad’s wish to present the singular sense of honour that he saw pertaining to the Napoleonic era.

Perhaps that is too narrow a ‘truth’ for a wide audience?

1492 – CONQUEST OF PARADISE

It is more than a decade till Scott directs another historical film. By this time he is a director with a cult following because of Blade Runner and Alien, and the clout afforded him by the box office success of Thelma and Louise. The Duellists was filmed for £900,000. Conquest was pre-sold and privately funded for £47 million, believed to be a sure-fire hit on the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ celebrated voyage. The result is, sadly, a mess.

There are many things to admire about Conquest. Scott’s painterly eye constructs many exquisite scenes. The Spanish locations are gorgeous, and Scott brings his artist’s eye to animate scenes that might be taken from contemporary still life paintings. The pageantry surrounding Isabella and Ferdinand is breathtaking. In the New World I particularly enjoyed the layered symbolism of the raising of the bell in the new bell-tower.

The problem is more with Roselyne Bosch’s script. Scott’s vision, it seems, is to present Columbus as a hero – a man of superhuman determination, a man able to make other men dream his dreams. He chose Gerard Depardieu for the role, an actor who has always been able to express passion and irascibility on screen. To make Columbus hero, though, the script firstly sets him in opposition to a flimsy representation of the Catholic Church (burning heretics for fun; ignorant flat-earthers despite the contrary evidence supplied within the film itself), and later in opposition to his evil co-colonists who only wish to exploit and enslave the Native Americans. Depardieu does with this what he can, but the film does not seem to believe its own narrative. Worst of all it indulges itself with a character of utter, obvious and unmotivated evil (Adrian de Moxica) in comparison to whom Columbus is supposed to look good. As Alex von Tunzelmann has wittily pointed out, ‘1492: Conquest of Paradise works best if you view it as 15th-century Fight Club, with Moxica as Columbus’s Tyler Durden.’

A film to celebrate an historical anniversary might expect more of an attempt at accuracy than a film about fictional duellists, but this proves not to be the case. Nowadays everyone expects the Spanish Inquisition, to misuse Monty Python. Perhaps more truth in Scott’s depiction of this subject matter would have been too gruelling to entice any kind of audience to watch (it is gruelling enough as it is). The lack of truth, though, kills the film.

GLADIATOR

Eight years after Conquest Scott was approached by DreamWorks to direct another historical film, and was convinced to sign up as soon as they showed him the 19th century painting Pollice Verso by Jean-Leon Gérôme.

I think this initial difference in conception was important for Scott. With The Duellists and Conquest he was striving for realism inspired by period locations and contemporary art. With Gladiator – more like Blade Runner or Alien – he was creating his own impression of a world, using Gérôme’s vision as a touchstone somewhat as he had used Giger’s vision for Alien. The other significant difference in approach seems to have been an extreme reluctance to accept any final version of the script. The initial screenplay by Franzoni was firstly rewritten by John Logan and also reworked by William Nicholson. Apparently actor Russell Crowe questioned many of his own lines, and lays claim to some of the surviving dialogue – the battle cry ‘Strength and Honour’ for example, and the description of his farm at home.

As such the film seems to benefit from a greater control in terms of location and look, and greater depth and flexibility in terms of script.

Though Gladiator includes historical characters – most notably Marcus Aurelius – the protagonist Maximus is entirely fictional, as, indeed are most of the events. The truth in Gladiator is more one of mood. This great civilisation really did delight in blood. Its leaders were obscenely powerful and self-indulged, but were also vulnerable and isolated. I think Gladiator also interests us where it holds a mirror up to our own society. We have our own obsessions with violence, self-indulgence and megalomania. The world of Gladiator in these ways is closer and more understandable to us than either of Scott’s previous historical worlds.

Gladiator is a film of pervasive sadness and fragility. Yes, violence. Yes, an opulently re-imagined Rome. Yes, adrenalin and excitement. But the Hans Zimmer score is haunting as much as rousing – and the hand just touching the heads of wheat in a field ready for harvest is the strongest image in the film. The message that most viewers understand from Gladiator is not Maximus the Roman general’s vainglorious rallying call: ‘What we do in life echoes in eternity,’ but the slave-dealer Proximo’s line: ‘We mortals are but shadows and dust. Shadows and dust, Maximus.’

Somewhat of a bleak truth, no doubt, but a truth hard to refute.

KINGDOM OF HEAVEN

And so to the Crusades. Given that I am writing my own fiction set against this fractious backdrop I declare, in advance, a prejudice.

The germ of Kingdom of Heaven was purportedly Scott’s wish to explore the idea of ‘right action.’ What is the correct way to behave under duress? Scott thought this might be best addressed through a story about knights, and writer Bill Monahan convinced him that the best way to approach this was in the context of the Crusades. The resultant script, he said, was among the best Scott had ever been offered.

I am a firm fan of the cinematography of Kingdom. Contrasting a wintry dour Europe against a sunny and full-coloured Holy Land may be a little obvious in terms of imagery, but both look well in their different ways. Costume is sumptuous, interiors fabulous, and the film affords any number of wonderful looking stills or short action sequences even if (as ever) pedants pick holes.

The central character of Balian is an amalgamation of two archetypes. The first is the innocent. A blacksmith, he finds that he is the son and heir of a barony in Outremer. As such we are encouraged to discover the world of knights, the world of the crusader states through his eyes, the newcomer to whom all must be explained. Later in the film, though, with no discernible point of transition, this blacksmith becomes the wise Lord – a man of experience who can transform local irrigation, plan and co-ordinate the defence of a city, win the most beautiful princess. Orlando Bloom generally gets blamed for not managing to convince in the role. I think he does remarkably well – or the camera’s love of him does remarkably well – with such impossible material.

This failed story arc is probably what kills the film for most audiences. What kills it for me it is its egregious hostility towards the crusader kingdoms. Guy of Lusignan and Raynald de Chatillon share something of the ‘motiveless evil’ trait that Moxica demonstrated in Conquest. There are numerous infelicities of fact. The central fallacy, though, is that Saladin the Conqueror is presented by some sleight-of-hand as the non-aggressor. Noble, perhaps. Inspired strategist, probably. Conqueror, certainly. He usurped the Fatimid (Shia) Caliphate in Egypt, replacing it with his own Abbasid (Sunni) Caliphate, and conquered (Sunni) Syria and (Sunni) Yemen before his decisive attack on Jerusalem.

Does this kind of truth matter? My view is unequivocally that it does. It demeans the achievement of Saladin as much as it misrepresents the purpose and actions of the crusaders. Worse, it entirely ignores the indigenous peoples of the region, who were still by majority Christian at this time – albeit not Catholic. A Kurdish Iraqi Moslem was not their liberator.

So does Sir Ridley Scott’s oeuvre show the power of truth in film? I think it does. But there are big truths and smaller truths. Where there isn’t a truth of character, power is greatly diminished. But truth in this sense is not the same as accuracy, and Hollywood, as we all know, can disseminate inaccuracy with incredible reach and power.

About the contributor: Richard Lee is founder and chairman of the Historical Novel Society. He is writing a novel about the Crusades.

Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 89 (August 2019)


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