Thursday, September 10, 2015

On Verisimilitude

While I recognise that the makers of mediaeval and fantasy movies are not responsible for educating the populace about the realities of history, I think we miss out on a lot due to ingrained practices and a kind of incestuously lacklustre creative vision. Patrick Stuart made a typically interesting point in response to ideas I raised in my last post. Patrick raised the notion that the highly-individualised faux-armours worn by the characters in contemporary mediaeval cinema and television actually tell the story of those characters better than accurate armour would. My initial reaction was to disagree, but now I am not so sure. The issue is, in part, who the characters are, and in who’s imagined past are they living. If the details of the production design, as opposed to the action that takes place, is the key means by which the filmmakers convey the historical context within which the characters are embedded, then the historical context is of diminished importance. The characters may as well be anywhere or anyone else.

I reserve a particularly keen dislike for most contemporary genre filmmaking and almost all contemporary genre television, especially the mediaeval stuff. The primary reason for this dislike is the consistency with which it all behaves like a contemporary soap-opera with the same stock characters in mediaeval or fantasy films espousing values indistinguishable from those in sci-fi, which are, in turn basically the same as those in modern procedurals. This is, of course, mainly due to the fact that everyone wants the same gigantic audience that is literate in the dramatic language of the day. Not many people want to be barraged with the grotesque inconsistencies of real history. Not many people want to look at bad teeth. The imagined past of the people who bankroll big films and lush television is soul-suckingly pedestrian and LARPy. This is the boring reason.

A more pertinent reason I hate the stuff is that my crunchily details-obsessed mind seeks out the nuances of distinctly different material cultures that produce the wonder of marvellous estrangement in my admittedly childish heart. Historical people had less technology than we do but they relied on what they had just as much as we do. They were also no less clever. I’m not sure if it is possible to make a sword that is more effective than one made five hundred years ago.

A more realistic version of the past need not be a less beautiful version, or a less dramatic version. The story of real historical people (and their fantastic analogues) can be told by the things they carried.

Occasional versions of this stuff turns up in films. Think of the flying splinters in Master and Commander, shipboard combat was always exciting in previous films but the visceral horror of it had not, to my knowledge, been properly conveyed cinematically. It could be said the Master and Commander is a post-Saving Private Ryan film, and benefits from the revolutionarily elemental verisimilitude of that film, but there is a tradition in maritime stories of attention to evocative details. This is one of the many reasons I love Moby Dick.


It is a siege, a smoky hellscape of broken barricades and grimy soldiers cowering behind mantlets beneath a rain of arrows. The pagan enemy below are singing. A grizzled captain of the defenders stands above the parapets and roars his speech of defiance and encouragement, arrows strike and catch in his mail but he ignores them or sweeps them away with his sword.

Meanwhile, creeping through the barbican beyond the shattered gate, hot sand is poured through the murder-holes. One soldier has a shield above his head and the sand pours harmlessly off. Another has sand go down his neck, underneath his armour. He sizzles and smokes and screams.

Two longships row through dense fog, the leading ship is full of proud and haughtily moustachioed warriors who refuse to listen to the wisdom of the crusty old gaffers in the other ship. The gaffers use a sunstone to find the sun and determine their orientation. They turn aside from the edge of the world. The haughty ones sail over.

TV gets some things right

A woman arrayed in gleaming harness battles an ogre on a narrow path on the side of a volcano, the ogre breaks her sword with a great stone hammer. She grabs the beast and throws herself off the edge and they fall and tumble together down the jagged scarp, smashing into rubble and shards of volcanic glass. They lie still together at the bottom, the ogre is cut to ribbons and his brains are coming out. The woman groans and gets up to dust herself off. Her armour is scratched and dented but she seems unharmed. She gets up and falls over, too dizzy to walk. Another ogre is picking his way gingerly down the slope.

A warrior with a thick gambeson, assailed by war dogs, has a snarling dog hanging from each sleeve, laughs and kicks awkwardly at them. A third dog comes running.

A scullion-wench is chased over boggy ground by shepherds on stilts.

A battle rages about the site of the construction of a cathedral, the villain escapes by being winched by treadwheel crane, hilariously slowly, up to the flying buttresses. The heroes have to fight his loyal henchmen inside the treadmill and upon the soaring architecture while the villain hurls gargoyles down from above.

A murky village in which a trial is taking place. The accused: a pig in a dress with a human mask, charged with the murder of a human infant. She has no defence and is found guilty.

A company of heavy cavalry try to close formation as a band of outriders come thundering over the hill with barefoot hippodromoi at their heels, holding on to the horses’ tails and bounding along at great speed. The outriders wheel but the runners keep running, using their speed and momentum  to tumble and duck below swords and gut and hamstring mercilessly.

A slave rebellion, the city is burning. A pair of cruppellarii stride impervious down a cobbled street. The city guard break spears and arrows on their armour and the gladiators murder them with impunity until some clever bastard commandeers a stack of tent poles and the guards batter them to the ground, pinning them like writhing animals until someone has the courage to stick a knife through their eye slits.

I used to think they didn't invent armour like this 'til a thousand years later.


A lull in the raging battle and the enemy line parts with drilled precision to reveal a line of a hundred handgunners with sizzling fuses. They touch fire to barrel and the weapons go off with a crackling roar. The defenders look down at themselves with incredulity. No-one is hurt.

Slight Caveat: As aspie as I am, I feel like there are innumerable exceptions to the stance I have taken. I feel like the Macbeth film that is coming up with Michael Fassbender is going to be awesome in spite of the blatant inaccuracies of the production design (also maybe due to my slight man-crush on Fassbender from Frank and Shame). This, I am sure, will work because Shakespeare is so stylised, that it can be equal parts twenty-first and seventeen and eleventh century and still be so good because it is about the universal truths of human existence. There is also an irony to that kind of visual stylisation that is something I strive for, though I feel it is easy to be too arch and mannered and coy about the layers of meaning you are trying to convey.

I don’t know really. Haven’t seen the movie. Fucking awesome trailer, though.

One more thing. There has been recent discussion about how helmets make you head look big and dwarf your face or anonymise, which tends to relegate the wearer to villain-status or vulnerable underlingdom, and are thrown off by heroes at the first opportunity. If Fassbender were not contractually obliged to wear this thing by layers of intellectual property law, there's no way they would make him. 


  1. Good post. I'm forced to agree. Have you seen Black Sails? While hardly a paragon of realism, from what I've read its naval related elements (ships, ship maintenance, and naval combat) is fairly well done.

    1. Nope, but I like the genre. I've enjoyed everything I've read of Forester, and really enjoyed the BBC Hornblower series. I'll keep an eye out for it.

  2. I suspect that while a lack of imagination is a part of this (though I can't believe that Hollywood lacks imagination overall, just perhaps in the right places) I suspect money is also to blame. Fantasy and ancient looking stuff is expensive, and while movies spend tons of cash, I suspect there are few historical/fantasy shows or movies with the money to really do things right. For example a cgi buddy of mine suggests that part of the reason the dinosaurs in the new jurassic park movie look the way they do was to lower effects costs. Only something like the Hobbit really has the cash to make itself what it wants - though what it wanted was pretty awful.

    1. I have to disagree, in part. The thing that is most frequently misrepresented, mail armour, is really quite cheap now, you can get a riveted mail shirt that you could wear into battle for $200 and visually indistinguishable butted mail for less. Plus there is never any serious attempt at textile armour, the.most common defense in history. I really think there is a profound laziness and decadent insularity at play. The films visually quote other films. It is not history that the filmmakers are interested in so much as what people have been led to believe history is like. Reality can be jarring to those who've been steeped in layers of fiction.

      Maybe twenty years ago there would have been an excuse but the internet is and due diligence pertains.

      I couldn't help but notice in Jurassic World that they lampshaded the inaccuracies with Frog DNA excuses.

    2. I agree on the mail armor and the idea of referencing a sort of 'fantasy cliche' and you're right when I think about the few 70's movies I've seen with armor - heck Monty Python used semi-realistic armor. The thing is though that a lot of costuming (especially TV) is reused - so somewhere there's warehouse of innacurate armor that just keeps getting used.

      The question I have then, if we dispose of price issue is why? It isn't just ignorance I'd assume, especially given that costume directors have the knowledge of this stuff. It must be a conception that the weird non functional armor is 'correct' in some way.

      I also notice that sword and sandal stuff has more accurate armor usually then faux dark ages.

    3. Somewhere there is a warehouse where they keep all the tropes they love to drag out and reuse because the audience has a comfortable familiarity with them. The unrealistic faux-armour is an issue of aesthetic literacy thing but is also a kind of primordial emotional thing, like you prime yourself for the experience by previous exposure. As a fan you have rich emotional resonances associated with the colours and textures and emotional tonality associated with a genre and which previous exposure to the genre instilled in you. And these aspects kind of trump the critical faculties you might apply to stuff. That is the way it is "correct", because you are initiated in its mysteries.

      It's for this reason I approached the thing in terms of evocatively emotional and visceral demonstrations of real technologies. However, I don't think it is easy to topple the symbolic hierarchies.

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