Dispatch from Ithaca

braveheart-handshake-william-wallace-robert-bruce

What are we here to talk about?

History in cinema.

So why are we starting with Braveheart?

Because if you start with Braveheart, you end up cutting to the heart of the matter.

Are you making a pun about William Wallace being disemboweled?

Yes.

Continue.

Braveheart is one of the most comprehensively inaccurate films ever made. Nearly every relevant detail of the story is wrong or made up. Nearly every irrelevant detail about the story is wrong or made up. This doesn’t matter.

Braveheart is also a historical drama without any plausible account of how history might work. This does matter. The film lacks any curiosity about what might drive or affect the course of events. A great deal happens, and there’s never any “how” beyond the force of Wallace’s personality. Scottish grievances inform his biography, and we get why he rebels, but the kindling he ignites is a series of vague gestures. A war and a social revolution and a nationalist philosophy emerge fully-formed out of a revenge spree.

It’s playing dress-up with a conventional action script, down to the most puzzling story beats. Wallace explores the Scottish highlands on a mission to snatch the lives of noblemen. Evil-villain monologues cause court henchmen to lose heart. A woman attached to the bad guys checks out the hero and likes what she sees. These moves all work in bona fide classics of 80s and 90s cinema. Here it fails to convince. It would be like Schwarzenegger moving into higher politics.

Actually…

I know. But if you’re going to purport to tell history, fabricated answers are way better than no answers at all. A film can be intentionally inaccurate and sacrifice nothing. Inglourious Basterds has a comparatively plausible account of how history might operate. And even something not actively enthralled with revisionism can copy whole beats from Braveheart and sell the lie.

Political interests, social and economic and cultural conditions, inflection points, processes of change: these can add historical sweep to any story. Reaping their rewards requires active attention. The ability to rewrite historical detail cannot substitute for supplying an underlying logic. This scheme can take a lot of forms – and often more a matter of subtext, or a drama on the margins. (Think of the political upheaval occuring outside the castle in Hamlet). In Braveheart, there’s no plan for the background, and it winds up being remarkably empty for a film packed to the brim with things happening. It’s all furious smoke and mirrors.

Is the point of this to rip on Braveheart? Do you hate Scotland? Do you hate America?

No! Braveheart still has a great story in the wrong trappings. Wallace and his piece of the story makes sense. The papered-over ridiculousness of everything else happening isn’t a dealbreaker. The battle sequences still bring the goods: actual geography, long-shots to follow the movement, close-quarters battle timed to precision. It’s brutal and clear in equal measure. And Mel Gibson screams maniacally several dozen times over the course of three hours while killing scores of people. Braveheart is great.

How does Braveheart end?

William Wallace is disemboweled while he yells “freedom.” Scottish men inspired by his death then win their freedom.

How full of shit is this?

The extent to which it didn’t happen is unfathomable.

Is it clear what “freedom” even means in 13th-century Scotland?

No, and this is kind of my point.

Does this matter?

When folks aren’t getting killed, yes.

the-wind-that-shakes-the-barley

So you watched two other films. What made you connect them with Braveheart?

They’re both historical dramas about a struggle for political autonomy that end with the death of their lead character. And against the English, no less.

One is The Wind That Shakes the Barley. The other is Hunger. Both were made in the mid-2000s, by English directors, with mostly Irish casts. And they both depict episodes in the history of Irish independence and the Irish republican movement.

Do they take place at the same time?

They take place sixty years apart. The Wind That Shakes the Barley begins during the Irish War of Independence after World War I. Hunger takes place in the early 1980s, and follows imprisoned members of the Provisional Irish Republican Army.

Why talk about these two films together?

They have similar subjects. They’re both, like Braveheart, movies about historical struggles, and the story has a similar structure: resistance to authority, refuge in principle, and finding meaning in fighting a losing battle.

Barley and Hunger are also about the same historical struggle. Both leads die in the service of an organization with a common genealogy. You could say they take place in the same universe.

If you started with Braveheart, rather than doing all three at once, then you’re feeling yourself drawn to the second explanation: that they’re interesting because of the specific history.

Yes.

Did you know anything about this history before you saw them?

No, not really.

But you enjoyed the films, and that must have been for some reason. So why is it even necessary to talk about the history? Why does the second idea – that they share a historical thread – even matter? 

To be clear, I loved these films. And the historical background enriching one also enriches the other. To take one example, Bobby Sands, the lead in Hunger, wrote several poems in prison. One was called “Tom Barry,” about a figure from the Irish War of Independence. Barry is the basis for one of the two brothers at the heart of Barley.

History also helps understand the nature of what the filmmakers put into these stories, and what they expected their core audiences to bring. The directors and crew and cast all knew what they doing, and this wasn’t “just another story” to them. And viewers in the British Isles would watch with an eye for the films’ relation to a history they knew. An ahistorical reading of these two would be willful ignorance.

But if the films worked for you going in blind, what’s this adding? This information is entirely extraneous to your actual experience of watching both. The real history of the events behind the films isn’t necessary to understand how they operate.

Yes. But I can’t write about either without that historical information.

So far you’ve only written about Braveheart.

Give it time.

Really, though: when is it necessary to learn something about history before writing about a film with historical subject matter?

A good film never requires background reading to enjoy. But there are a lot of ways and reasons to enjoy a film. Cinema is a vivid (if inefficient) delivery mechanism for historical information, and any curious person will learn from watching. Indeed, some films about historical subject matter get the fuel to propel their narratives from uncovering and accumulating detail. The interest is in what you learn. A lot of these films are con jobs, and when you find out it shreds any remaining belief in what made the film work. This is why JFK sucks.

Thus, when you don’t know a thing about the historical subject of a film, you’re placing your enjoyment in its trust. You might find something fascinating because it purports to teach you something new—and here, I did—but it’s cause for caution. I can’t know what I’m getting into. Sands was a member of an organization still listed as a foreign terrorist organization by the United Kingdom. I grew up with an understanding that the IRA did a lot of terrible things. And these films are undeniably political, though Barley moreso than Hunger. If I take the films at their word, then I could be in trouble. And I might wind up crediting them for pleasures they cheated to gain.

So to write about them requires you to look to materials that had nothing to do with watching them.

Yes. It’s vetting.

And requires you to emphasize that you did so.

Yes. It’s cover.

Can what you read about a film diminish your enjoyment of it?

Always. But everything you learn, no matter how idiosyncratic, can alter how you experience a film, even one engineered to make you feel exactly one way. I read A Night to Remember more times than I can count growing up, so Titanic was a different film for nine-year-old me than for other people in the audience. You’re never going to know in advance what will add or subtract from the experience.

Is this why you find it frustrating to write about historical dramas?

This is why I find it frustrating to write about art and anything else at the same time. The only reassurance is that it beats admitting art has no ability to gain a purchase in real human concerns.

So are these two films historically accurate?

To the best I can tell, yes, but I was hoping to make clear earlier that it doesn’t matter.

Fine. Do the stories they tell have a grasp of how history can or might work?

Emphatically yes. And how events shape and twist and evolve isn’t a backdrop, either, it’s the core idea in The Wind That Shakes the Barley. Despite using fictional characters, where Hunger hews closely to a real historical figure, the former is using history as a mechanism for storytelling.

How so?

Barley has two brothers to guide us through the unfolding and diverging paths of history. If you dialed back the subject matter, it would be a family drama. It already has its eye on the progression and interaction of related lives, even if it were about a different time and place.

It also foregrounds detail relevant to making sense of historical change. It’s about rounds of escalation. Young men play sports in the grass and deliver a few hard fouls. A couple scenes later, they’re using their hurling paddles for combat training. We keep returning to one home for important violence, or the devastated reactions to it. The same jailhouse becomes an instrument of two successive regimes. Words and deeds are all honing in on the same concerns. Groups of men react to news of violence with debates about the usefulness of more violence.

And when you say it’s political, what do you mean?

Irish independence is now a settled historical fact. But Barley takes a stance on the nature of a nationalistic revolution. The film is on the side of the man who dies at the end, not just as a person but as a representative of a political ideal. And the movie’s one fist-pump crowd-pleasing line is on his side, too, riffing on the words of a late-nineteenth century socialist.

So it’s like Braveheart.

Except we have an earned, nuanced appreciation for what his ideal means, how it contrasts with other ideals, and the trade-offs it would take to realize his ambitions. He’s not rejecting an untenable status quo or unmitigated tyranny: we have a vision in front of us of a functional compromise. The ideas on offer have narrative stakes.

And instead of an army charging to victory, it ends with a woman hearing that someone she loves has been shot, on the orders of the man delivering the news. Barley ends in abject heartbreak, not happily ever after.

So, not like Braveheart. How does it feel to take this all in?

It breaks your heart as cleanly as it does hers, and that’s how you know it has a point to make. Elegies are our most powerful genre of historical storytelling. There’s a conservative species, tales of ramparts and how they fell. There’s a liberal species as well, and that’s Loach’s film through and through. It mourns the loss of a certain kind of dream.

Everything unfolds in a naturalistic style, and even the scenes with a point to make are never flashy. The IRA executes two people on a mountaintop, and we see the new Irish government execute a hold-out inside a jail, and the rhythms and reactions aren’t markedly different. The attention to clothing, to bearing, to the specific stations in life of the many side characters: nothing’s out of place. Even overt stylistic touches take a foothold in the environment: a fade to white transitions to a fog pierced by marching men.

It’s history at a calm walking pace—To Live, or Coppola when he’s in Italy. There are almost no “big moments.” The one battleground speech comes after the dead bodies, not before.

hunger-cunningham-fassbender

You said Hunger is less interested in history. Why?

Its frame limits how much it can explore in that direction: fewer characters, months rather than years. More importantly, it’s situated at a point in time when the world was less in doubt, when the amount of events in flux had diminished. Everything was up for grabs in 1919. 1981 isn’t just a different date on the calendar: concepts of political change have evolved. Barley, at one point the leads face execution, but they’re busted out of jail by someone still sorting out their allegiance. Hunger takes place in a prison, and one where escape isn’t even an option. Lines aren’t just drawn, they’re in stone.

And though it spends a lot of time with one man, Hunger is not a biopic, another preferred way to meld “history” and “narrow focus.” Its main character doesn’t appear until about a half-hour in, and his status as the “lead,” and really the idea of a hunger strike, arrives quite late.

And what about Hunger‘s relative staging makes it less inherently “historical”?

If you’re going to stage history in cinema, then you have to be engaging in a form of social history. Human relationships and connections and communities driving events.

What we see of a community in Hunger occupies the furthest edges of the definition. The two prisoners we spend time with for the first part share a cell, but we may not ever see them touch. Prisoners interact with their guards, but in terrifying ways. We meet Fassbender writhing in the grips of men in uniform, who beat him and force him down, to cut his hair off with scissors. In one scene where he fades in and out of consciousness, a camera woozily dancing around the room, he glimpses images of nature, not the cities or hillsides he’s supposed to be there on behalf of.

Human interaction is mostly with figures from the outside, and even there the familiar vocabulary has a different meaning. Kisses and grasped hands and the other human gestures of the prison meeting room are means for converying messages and transferring tools.

The actual hunger strike, the closing stretch of the film, is one of the most painful depictions of human isolation you could ever see. No one hugs Sands tearfully. No one catches him when he falls. Doctors and officials watch a patient and a prisoner deteriorate in front of them, not a man. By his close the weight or friction of a blanket to keep him warm would be too dangerous, and they lift it above him, comfort kept at a safe distance.

Hunger is about fragile, naked men and the things that come out of their bodies. Its sense of the political could be called non-traditional. Or visceral.

I’m finding it hard to see any politics at all. And its events barely last more than a year.

It’s just expressing a different kind of politics. Hunger is not unsympathetic to the Irish prisoners. The argument being made, though, is something it captures, not something it pushes forward. The dignity of a small number of people isn’t inherently more or less political than social conditions for an entire country, but it registers differently.

And there’s one aspect in which it is inherently political, in the same way any story must be about jailers and prisoners. It’s Orwell’s observation—”I do not have to ask myself which side I am on.” And it’s explicitly political, with this subject matter, to not share why they’re there.

And though Barley is non-stop talking, and Hunger comparatively reticent, its one talky scene is about twenty minutes long.

20 minutes?

In only two shots. It builds to one character arguing for a historical meaning to what he’s doing, and the other expressing his skepticism. It’s bracing and surprising and made to make you feel it. That last part might be all Hunger is after, but it’s enough.

You could argue the question of whether the film is making a political argument hinges on that debate, and the nature of its historical concerns, too. There’s no question what’s happening in Barley: that’s the point of people talking, discussing, acting, reacting. The home stretch of Hunger unfolds mostly without dialogue. What you think the point is of telling the story will determine what you make of it.

Would you have thought to compare these two films if they weren’t about pieces of the same thing? If Hunger had been in another country?

But they are about the same thing: weighing the value of lives in the service of progress. Who gets to make choices about the former, and define the latter. Hunger may downplay its political content far more than Barley, but it might make the more devastating point. Sands can drift off into oblivion with his mind on images bereft of political content, having made his body into a political statement.

Barley thinks films about history can embody political arguments, and it’s right. Hunger argues the inherently political act in making cinema about history is training the lens there in the first place.

But didn’t you start out writing this piece by typing “The Wind That Shakes the Barley is about violence, and Hunger is about dignity, and history is about nothing at all”?

That’s what you write when you don’t think long enough. There’s a constant and lame defense of art as a means to prod and encourage people toward other things: to ethics, to education. But teasing out historical threads isn’t always a fruitless distraction or a subordination to something “more important.” It can be another door in.

And I have every confidence that someone who did know about the history of Irish independence and Irish republicanism could find a wealth of connections between these two films, and a reading rich and alive to how they relate. There’s structure here, and sometimes you have to dig to make sure.

If this exercise was valuable, why do you find historical dramas frustrating to write about?

Because I would have had a better time comparing these two films if I hadn’t delved into the historical research necessary to treat them responsibly, and I might be able to talk more about them as films. You don’t get the pure view back, and even a plot synopsis is no longer a neutral tool. Irish independence and Irish republicanism is a long-running story with many authors, and there’s a charged debate about its meaning and the nature and extent of its sins, missteps, or tragedies. Even the terms “independence” and “republicanism” are aspects of history, names we give to events and decades and movements and people. You have to engage with that tradition.

And what unites these two films?

Lead characters die in the custody of a government they hate. or

People fight a war for independence, and they argue among themselves what this means. After World War I, the Irish War of Independence, the Anglo-Irish Treaty, the continued prosecution of the war by the Irish Republican Army, the creation of the Irish Free State, the referendum to establish the Republic of Ireland, the ongoing, bloody struggle in Northern Ireland, further splits within the IRA itself, and rising tensions with the Thatcher government, a man dies because he will not eat, because the question remains.

Either or both validly describe the relationship. And they’re exceptional and beautiful and all the more rich for it. The Wind That Shakes The Barley and Hunger don’t have to choose between one or the other, and it’s a disservice to decide for them.

braveheart-big-fucking-rock

And why did we even bother with Braveheart?

Because if you’re going to try to express something incoherent while you spill your guts out, there’s only one place to start.

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