Saturday, February 24, 2018

Top 10 Historical Movies

Historical movies used to be my favorite genre overall. I created a similar list years and years ago on a historical blog, but the movies needed a little revamping, and a little more flair than I had originally given them. Several greats fall just outside the top 10. While I love Ptolemaic Egypt, Alexander and Cleopatra don't make the list, and neither does the darkly sinister From Hell.

10. A Very Long Engagement (2004)
I had recently seen up-and-coming French actress Audrey Tautou in her breakout performance, Amelie. A Very Long Engagement was her follow-up movie, directed by Amelie maestro, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, whose colorful, opulent style really makes the screen pop. Engagement was also my first exposure to Frenchwoman Marion Cotillard, who plays the memorable, screen-stealing Tina Lombardi, a Corsican prostitute on a mission of vengeance.

A Very Long Engagement stars Tautou as Matilde, a polio-stricken young woman whose fallen in love with a young solider named Manech. They pass the time on their bluff, waiting for the opportune moment to marry and live happily ever after. But when Manech is shipped off to World War I, Mathilde's heart is broken, though she will wait patiently for his return. When he in fact does not, Mathilde's family fears him dead, though she herself refuses to believe it, and conjures up little happenstances to prove to herself that he's still alive.

Mathilde plays her lonely tuba by the lighthouse and waits for news on Manech. When none arrives, she becomes bound and determined, polio leg and all, that she will conduct her own relentless investigation to find him. At the same time, Corsican prostitute Valentina Lombardi is conducting her own investigation into the death of her pimp come boyfriend, Angel Bassignano. Manech and Angel were part of the same company. They were condemned to death for abandoning their posts during the war. When Angel is killed, Tina tracks down the commanders responsible and murders them one by one like an angel of death.

While the story teeters onto Tina from time to time, Mathilde and her manic search gets most of the airplay, and with good reason. Engagement is a sentimental love story and a mystery in one as Mathilde conducts interviews and tries to connect the dots on Manech's disappearance.

Director Jeunet is known for quirky films, and his glossy direction made him a surprising choice to direct Alien: Resurrection. Be that as it may, there was a point when Jeunet and Audrey Tautou worked together on a string of movies. While Tautou played different characters in said movies, they played out similarly with the quirks and happenstances created by Jeunet. A Very Long Engagement is an endearing love story that takes you with Mathilde on her incredulous journey. And because she never seems to become dissuaded in her search, the audience doesn't either.

9. Queen Margot (1994)
Queen Margot, or La Reine Margot, is another French film, one that tackles the historical melee of the Massacre of St. Bartholomew. This incident was incited when the arranged marriage between Catholic Marguerite de Valois and Protestant Henri de Navarre unfolds in Paris. Both factions of worshipers are brought together for the event, which left thousands of ambushed Protestants dead in the streets. One of the catalysts for the event was none other than the infamous Catherine de Medici, the mother of Margot. The movie was based a novel by The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo mastermind, Alexandre Dumas.

I'll be honest. While it's a great story in the midst of such religious and civil strife, I like this movie just as much for the exquisite costumes. I'm a sucker for a good costume drama, which is just of the reasons why I've really been into Ovation's Versailles. Queen Margot is extremely dramatic, with excellent music and even better acting. The French certainly know to do drama, with an all-star cast of French-speaking delight (Danile Auteuil, Vincent Perez, Pascal Greggory, Jean-Hughes Anglade, Asia Argento).

Trapped in a loveless marriage to a man she's not even attracted to, young Margot is led by her ladies-in-waiting to the streets of Paris, under disguise to avoid detection. It's there that she comes across random hottie, La Mole (Vincent Perez), with whom she eventually falls for. Well, this is the night before the infamous Massacre, and love is hard to hold onto when your family plots and back-stabs and the people of Paris riot in the streets.

Queen Margot is an unforgettable movie in the French canon, that's for sure. Sometimes, if I'm watching a movie that takes place in France, I would certainly rather the actors be speaking French. Call me a movie snob, call me a perfectionist, but if a movie takes place in a certain country where the people speak a certain way, then make it happen the way it actually would given the circumstance. Just saying.

8. Musa the Warrior (2001)
In the early 2000s, East Asian cinema went through a relatively short period of historical films. The best known of these might be considered Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero, and House of Flying Daggers. A little-known gem called the Musa the Warrior is the best in my opinion. It doesn't feature a big name, except for Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi, who frequented these sorts of movies while they were popular.

Musa the Warrior is about a troupe of Korean diplomats who journey to China to seek peace relations in the 14th century. Chinese officials then wrongly accuse the delegates of trying to assassinate the emperor, banishing them to the Gobi Desert. Most of the Korean diplomats, including elders, slaves, and military men, survive the first wave of heat, but soon come across a Yuan Mongol horde who kidnapped the Chinese princess. Eager to return to the good graces of the Chinese, the Koreans attack the Mongols. But when the Mongol general sees how slave-turned warrior Yeo-sol fights, he is eager to try and recruit him into the Yuan army.

Musa the Warrior portrays a complicated love triangle, played out by Yeo-sol, Princess Bu-Yong, and Korean general Choi Jung. Choi tries to win her heart with his raging bravado, while Yeo-sol walks softly but carries a big spear - one that he really knows how to use. The climactic battle in the end is epic, with nearly every Korean diplomat getting in on the action - some of them, to save the lives of an elderly group loyal to the princess and the Ming Dynasty.

7. Apocalypto (2006)
I know what they say about Mel Gibson these days, but wow, can he direct some great movies. His first was Braveheart. Then came The Passion of the Christ, and then we got Apocalypto. One thing I really like about Gibson's style of direction is his accuracy when it comes to the linguistics. I think it's probably his fault that I've been permanently ruined on linguistically-accurate, historical movies. Passion was spoken completely in Aramaic, Hebrew, and Latin, while Apocalypto is in the native language spoken by the Mayans in pre-colonial Central America. I know that most Americans hate having to read subtitles, but if they are in favor of a more authentic movie experience, count me in. I digress.

Apocalypto follows the story a young family man named Jaguar Paw. He's devoted to his wife and kids, his father, and his fellow tribesmen as they hunt the grounds hunted by their fathers, and their fathers' fathers. The problem comes in when a neighboring tribe raids their village, slaughters half its people, and kills Jaguar Paw's father. The tribe's crops are suffering, and as a direct result, they've sent out a raiding party to find human sacrifices to appease their gods.

Jaguar Paw seems destined for greater things when he is fortuitously spared from a ghastly decapitation at the top of a pyramid. This is when he escapes, and Jaguar Paw and the raiding party play cat and mouse all the way back to where they started from. Meanwhile, Jaguar Paw's family is running out of time, and only he can save them before they drown. Of course, this is only after he upends each member of the enemy warriors in one epic scrap of a third act.

6. Centurion (2010)
I'm not sure how I came across Centurion, though I was given the DVD for a Christmas present back in 2010. It pretty quickly headed to Netflix, which made the DVD obsolete. I digress. Centurion is based on the true disappearance of Rome's famed Ninth Legion, who vanished behind enemy lines while fighting a ferocious Celtic tribe, the Picts. This movie saw Michael Fassbender's star on the rise. This was the second film I had seen him in, the first being 300. The movie also stars Game of Thrones alum, Liam Cunningham, Walking Dead and Britannia alum David Morissey, and Ukrainian model/actress, Olga Kurylenko.

When Centurion Quintus Dias' garrison on the Scottish border is attacked, he is captured by the Picts. He escapes, and is quickly swallowed up by the Ninth Legion, led by Mark Antony-like General Titus Flavius Virilus. Dias, Virilus, and his men are then led into the dense forest by double agent Pict tracker, Etain. She is mute, thanks to the Romans cutting out her tongue when she was young. Her other senses are heightened, making her an excellent hunter. She leads the Ninth right into an ambush, and an intense battle scene amid the forest ensues.

A ragtag group of legionnaires survive the attack, and are bound and determined to rescue the captured Virilus before they head back to the Roman outpost. Instead of saving the general, one soldier accidentally murders the Pict chief's young son, which officially calls the dogs onto the small group. They are trapped behind enemy lines with Etain heading the party - just after she makes quick work of General Virilus inside the Pict village.

The Pict killers converge on the Roman contingent as they leap over waterfalls, hike through snowy mountains, and try to outrun a pack of wolves. Fassbender, Dominic West (Virilus), and Kurylenko as Etain give memorable performances, and director Neil Marshall does an excellent job of blurring the line between good guy and bad guy. Though we like Dias, the Romans were unjust in their occupation of the land, and we just as much see ourselves rooting for Etain and the Picts. 

5. The 13th Warrior (1999)
I remember seeing this one when it was in theaters, then buying it as soon as it was on DVD. The story seems to unfold a little too quickly, and it based on the book Eaters of the Dead by Michael Crichton. While some of the scenes are rushed, the dialogue and the character transformations more than make up for it, giving us an excellent, and the only look, at the Swedish Viking exploits in Eurasia.

Ahmed Ibn Fadlan is an Arab poet turned emissary, exiled from Baghdad for bedding the wife of an aristocrat. We have to gather as much, or read it from the book, sadly. The movie skims the incident, starting off the first real scene of the film with Fadlan's travels and initial meeting with the Northmen on the Volga River in Middle Age Russia. These Northmen are the Swedish Vikings, the Varagians, or the Rus, who traded up and down the River and eventually settled in what is now Kiev, Ukraine. This is Hollywood's sole depiction of the Rus, and despite their occupation as traders, they are excellent warriors. They are led by soft-spoken but well-respected Buliwyf (pronounced Bull-vy).

An ancient, flesh-eating evil called the Wendol are plaguing the Northmen's homeland, and they are recalled to deal with the threat. When the Angel of Death, or Viking Seer (like an oracle), announces that thirteen men must return, one Viking after another volunteers for the job. The crowd then falls silent and all eyes rest on Fadlan. According to the prophecy, the thirteenth warrior cannot be a Northman, and by default, Fadlan is their guy.

This movie gives us an interesting view of how a poet and a diplomat can eventually become a battle-hardened fighter. Fadlan can barely swing the sword the Vikings give him, so he grinds it down into a shorter, curvier, Middle Eastern blade, which he comes to use well. He'll certainly need to when the Wendol attack with the mist. They wear bear headdresses, paint their bodies head to toe in a blackish soot, and carry the heads of their victims away with them after they attack. They are led by the Mother of the Wendol, who dwells in a cave and points her feral attack with a giant snake fang fashioned to her hand.

The 13th Warrior is great because of Fadlan's transformation from a wordsmith to a warrior, guided indirectly by the Northmen's bravado. The Arab proves his worth on more than one occasion, earning him the respect of his Scandinavian brethren. This movie also has an indirect look at religious tolerance, Fadlan and his closest Viking friend, Herger, promising to pray to their respective gods for one another. Before the end battle, Fadlan even recites the Viking prayer along with the Northmen, each one reciting a line as the enemy forces line up against them.

4. Kingdom of Heaven (2005)
Kingdom of Heaven captures the era of the Crusades, the fruitless pursuit of trying to prove which version of God did it better. I saw this movie back in theaters, and leaving that night, I replayed what I'd just seen in my mind over and over again. I honestly didn't know if I liked it. It wasn't until the second time that I better saw it's complications and messages of religious tolerance in a time when not much of it was given. It was also one of the first historicals I'd seen to expose the hypocrisy of the Church, and how easily the lines of eternal life and damnation can be divided.

The movie stars Orlando Bloom (Pirates of Caribbean), Eva Green (Penny Dreadful), and Liam Neeson as Baron Godfrey de Ibelin, a Crusader returned to France to confront the son (Bloom) he left behind. Bloom plays Balien de Ibelin, an honest blacksmith whose wife has just committed suicide in the wake of their child's death. The hits come quickly, as Balien is approached by a member of the local French clergy, who informs him that since she took her own life, the wife is now condemned to eternal hell and cannot be buried on the Church grounds. This ends badly for him, as Balien drowns the man in a sea of flames. It's only when he is hunted down that Balien joins his father and a brood of Crusaders towards the Holy Land. Godfrey then passes the torch to Balien, making him Baron de Ibelin.

This is when Balien meets Guy de Lusignan and Reynald de Chatillon, who are powerful military commanders pushing for constant war against against the Muslims, led by historical figure, Saladin. Balien also meets the French Queen of Jerusalem, Sybilla, who he immediately develops a thing for. Guy and Reynald plot to kill Balien, Balien gets mistaken for one of them essentially, and it fall to the young Baron of Ibelin to defend the city of Jerusalem from the encroaching forces of Islam.

There are several themes at play here, the primary being religious tolerance. Saladin is tough but fair, which makes the antagonists of the movie Guy and Reynald, not the enemy Muslim army. Essentially, anyone caught up in their own prejudices can certainly push it too far, turning you into a bigot led only by your the fear of what you don't understand. Balien only real calling is to protect the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and Saladin has no choice but to attack when Guy and Reynald murder his sister. This movie also shows the different interpretations of the Christian God, some followers choose eradication of all who are unbelievers, and some who administer kindness and understanding to those choose to worship under the guise of a alternate religion.

3. Gladiator (2000)
This scene is one of my favorites in movie history in probably the best alternate history movie I've ever seen. I don't think the writers meant for it to be that way, and I don't want to sound like a history snob, but Marcus Aurelius wasn't killed by his son, Commodus, and Commodus never died in the Colesseum. Though this movie would have one believe that. Though Gladiator doesn't look create an alternate history, or not directly anyway, it's still a great movie.

Russell Crowe stars Maximus Decimus Meridius. The writers got this all wrong, but I can overlook it for a better overall picture. In Roman naming conventions, he would have been Decimus Meridius, and the nomen, or nickname, Maximus, would have been added for bravery or leadership on the field of battle: Decimus Meridius Maximus. This is small beans when compared to the movie itself, Maximus going from general to slave to gladiator in the name of vengeance. Gladiator definitely mixes in elements of Spartacus, a Thracian slave who led a rebellion against Rome.
Gladiator gives us a glimpse at one of my favorite historical figures, Marcus Aurelius, played expertly by screen legend Richard Harris. They called Aurelius the philosopher-king, though king was a dirty word in the mind of Romans. He was essentially a Roman emperor who daily practiced stoicism. He was incredibly humble, thankful, kind, modest, and stoic. I own and revere his journals, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. In the movie, he is always questioning his position in Rome, his duties to Rome, and how he might be viewed in the grander scale of history. Maximus, who is more like a son to him than his own, carries on that sort of honor toward those who share his path. He is rendered an equal to the slaves he fights alongside, never once telling them that he was once a decorated Roman general.

Gladiator portrays a direct to defiance to Rome, which is essentially represented by the evil, opportunistic Commodus, played expertly by Joaquin Phoenix. He certainly has his vulnerabilities, but can be contained and silenced at times by his sister, the elegant Lucilla (Danish actress Connie Nielsen). The scenery and the story are both epic, as is the score, orchestrated by Hans Zimmer and the elegant chants of Dead Can Dance's Lisa Gerrard.

2. 300 (2007)
300 can't be considered for its historical accuracy. Yes, there were 300 elite Spartan guards who accompanied their king, Leonidas, to fend off the Persian invasion. No, they didn't dress the way they did in the movie. No, giant war rhinoceros' did not exist. No, goats cannot play flutes. 300 took a lot of liberties, and people should know that it's not a movie based on history - its a movie based on a graphic novel that was based on history.

Frank Miller, who created the Sin City series, created the 300 graphic novel. Director Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead, Sucker Punch, The Watchmen, Man of Steel) stepped to direct the film, basing it almost completely on the graphic novel. Snyder, and Miller for that matter, took lots of liberties with the most famous last stand in history, which I am okay with. The story is told by a Spartan warrior to a group of Spartan soldiers. Back in ancient Greece, storytellers used to slight embellish things a bit, incorporating how larger-than-enemies were seven-feet tall, enemy soldiers were beast-men, and exaggerating the size of the enemy war animals, all to the make the heroes appear as valiant as possible.

King Xerxes of Persia sends a royal emissary to basically order the subservience of the Spartans. This doesn't go over well with Leonidas (Gerard Butler), nor his wife Gorgo (Lena Heady), as can be seen in the picture to the left. Leonidas composes himself, then the Spartans toss the unarmed emissaries into a massive, bottomless pit. Thus begins the war between Sparta and the Persian war machine.

Leonidas consults the Oracle on whether or not to go to war, but doesn't get the answer he's looking for. The Ephors, a sort of ancient Spartan troupe of wise men, advise against it, and little does Leonidas know, they, along with the Spartan oligarchy (government), are being bribed by Xerxes to allow the Persian onto Greek soil. Frank Miller and Zack Snyder take some very cool liberties with the Oracle, morphing her into a young, ether-swimming holy woman, tormented by the tether of the old, nasty, boil-ridden Ephors.

Under of the guise of just taking out his elite bodyguard for a stroll, Leonidas and his 300 Spartans travel to meet the Persians at the Hot Gates, a narrow mountain pass where they can defend the borders and make the Persian numbers diminished. One of the Spartan elite is Stelios, played by Michael Fassbender, who appears on this list for a second time. This was my first exposure to Fassbender, and while Stelios is a minor character in the story, he surely takes full advantage of his subsidiary role, leaving his mark on the tyrannic Persian soldiers.

300 is a visually stunning movie. It plays out very much like a comic book, the landscapes and the horizons fantastical but grounded like an alternate universe version of the ancient Peloponnese (the landmass that Sparta was situated on). We get to see how Leonidas grew up to be so tough, having killed a massive wolf in the dead of winter when he was a mere teen. While the Spartans parade around in scant clothing, they hardly lack in their grit and overall toughness.

1. Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001)
Brotherhood of the Wolf, or Le Pacte Des Loups, is an unassuming film that blossoms into one of the wildest and most rewarding cinematic experiences one will ever have. Spoken completely in French, much like A Very Long Engagement and Queen Margot, Brotherhood gives us a costume drama, a horror film, and a martial arts masterpiece all in one sitting. I know, it sounds silly, but I guarantee that it is far from it. French director Christophe Gans (Silent Hill) went to great links to bend the genres on this one, refusing for this film to fit into any particular category. I had never seen another movie like it when it released to American audiences in 2001, and I have never seen another since.

Based on the actual events that plagued the French province of Gevaudan in 1764, Brotherhood opens with the onset of the French Revolution, told by humble aristocrat, Thomas D'Apcher. He recalls how his friends, naturalist and infamous libertine, Gregoire de Fronsac, and his companion, the stoic Iroquois, Mani, arrive in Gevaudan to assist the local aristocrats with their serial slaying problem. That problem comes in the form of a string of beastly killings on women and children in the area. No one can seem to understand what is laying waste to the local peasants, but the Gevaudan wolf population certainly gets the blame. Fronsac and Mani are a little hesitant to believe it. From the findings of their investigations, the attacks are more brutal, and suggest a larger animal than what the aristocratic propaganda puts forth.

Fronsac has caught the eye of Marianne de Morangias, a pure beauty whose jealous brother, Jean-Francois (Vincent Cassel), does all he can to shield her away. Marianne also dismisses Fronsac's advances, as she knows of his reputation as a libertine. This leads Fronsac, Mani, and Thomas D'Apcher to a local brothel, where Fronsac meets French-speaking Florentine Italian Sylvia (Monica Bellucci). She seems to know more than she should, speaking short, cryptic lines on desire and a sort of non-partisan all-knowledge.

As the plot thickens, Fronsac shows us his true colors, as he for the first time displays his tendencies for fighting. He eventually takes on the Mani role, unleashing a plethora of skills with swords, guns, and a bow. He takes on a slew of French gypsies on the way to uncovering the truth about the Beast of Gevaudan - an unbelievable one that's stranger than fiction. The action is fierce, well-crafted, and even cooler when placed inside of a melodramatic costume drama. The costumes are elaborate, the dialogue is coy and witty and fast-paced, and the music is earthy and gritty. Brotherhood of the Wolf is in a genre of its own, which is why it probably tops this list. I had always hoped that based on its success, Canal Studios and Christophe Gans would once again team up for another gargantuan effort.

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