When not in Rome...

Saturday, January 27, 2018

It all began about two weeks ago, when I saw this commercial for a film called Darkest Hour. I don’t claim to know precisely what it’s about, but I do know that it’s a war film – specifically, World War II. It’s one of several movies centered around this specific war that are out right now. And we just had Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk come out last summer. Look, I’m not knocking these films. War movies – and most 20th century period pieces, for that matter – aren’t really my thing, and I’m sure these films were well-made and deserving of awards, praise, etc. But it got me thinking: why is every damn war drama about World War II? And why are more ancient wars almost completely disregarded on the big screen? The exception to this, is, of course, the Roman wars and battles, which begs another question: why are other old societies and empires never given the spotlight?

The recent success of the TV series Vikings, on the History Channel, is something of a rarity. Very few shows or movies have or will chronicle the many sagas surrounding Nordic people and their history and culture. Even fantasy-centric takes on such material, like the attempted adaptation of Beowulf, were ultimately scrapped. I refuse to believe there’s not an audience for such a program, if the success of Vikings is any indication. Most series and movies set in ancient times, however, have opted instead to focus on Greek and Roman history, mythology, or cultures. On TV, we’ve had Rome, Spartacus, Xena, and Hercules, while on the larger screen we’ve had 300, Gladiator, Pompeii, Ben-Hur, Clash of the Titans, The Immortals, Troy, Agora, etc. How many well-known movies about Nordic history or mythos can you think of? And low-budget flops don’t count. The closest thing that comes to mind is a Viking-sci-fi crossover movie called Outlander (not to be confused with the completely different book-based TV series of the same name). And I suppose you could count Marvel’s Thor movies, though they have very little to do with Norse mythology.

Meanwhile, Aztec and various Middle Eastern histories and mythologies are totally disregarded. We live in a world with such a rich history, and myriad wars, epic events, and fantastical legends that changed and shaped society, yet we barely tap into any of it in movies. I can’t tell you how many WWII movies I’ve heard about over the last decade alone. Eventually, they all blend into one another for me and have this look and feeling of utter sameness. Look, I understand that WWII affected the world on such a huge level, and in such a profound way, but it’s time to let it go. There are only so many more stories you can do based on that specific time period before people start to roll their eyes. Moreover, it’s my personal belief that it’s easier for directors and screenwriters to do films based on WWII and other recent wars, like the Vietnam War and the Iraq War, than to explore more creativity and a larger budget, and do a film about – oh, I don’t know – China’s Battle of Red Cliffs, back in 208 A.D.; or the Battle of Kadesh fought in what is now Syria, during 1274 B.C.; or the Battle of Svolder, an epic naval conflict that took place toward the very end of the Viking era.

There have been quite a few movies about the Greek and Roman gods. As I recall, there were even two different Hercules films by two different studios released during a single year. What about the Persian gods? How about a film about the Celtic druids? Or a film about Aztec gods? Let’s get really daring and do one about the deities of Maori mythology! And I would love to see anything Nordic and fantasy-based, like adaptations of The Nibelungenlied or Beowulf, or the Valkyrie or the actual events of Ragnarok. And what about a movie based on Egyptian mythology? You know, one that doesn’t use white actors to play Egyptian people?

I really think the source of the problem is a lack of imagination. You can’t just take something directly from the history books and turn it into a screenplay, so it does take creativity and talented writing and direction to do something that breaks the mold and pulls from influences other than those that currently spin around in a perpetual cycle of repetition. For Hollywood, which pushes derivative sequels and demands movies centered around guns and big explosions, that’s just too much to ask. It’s one of the reasons why there are countless books on Aztec culture, Native Americans, African mythology, and Norse epics, but hardly any in a screen-based artistic medium. And, just as with the mega-franchises that dominate theaters, audiences have been trained like dogs to lap up all the “award-worthy” WWII dramas, and why they only consider fantasy works with ties to Greece and Rome to be palatable.
Even when there are signs that things are changing, that change is very limited. Marvel, for example, has at least introduced small elements of Norse myths to people via Thor, and is beginning to explore African culture with Black Panther. DC’s Wonder Woman, to its credit, at least explored the first World War instead of the second, though there have been countless movies revolving around that one, too. Upcoming live-action adaptations of Disney’s Mulan and Pocahontas will at least feature histories and cultures other than those that we’re used to seeing – hopefully they won’t be watered-down, family-friendly affairs. And I’ve heard something about The Chronicles of Anatta, an ancient China-based time-travel film, but given American audiences’ unwillingness to accept anything a little bit different or outside their comfort zones, it may very well tank at the box office.

Look, I’m not any kind of movie buff, and I’m not bashing well-done WWII and Vietnam War dramas. But I am arguing that we ought to change things up a little and try something that hasn’t already been done 100 times. You can argue that Dunkirk, or The Hurt Locker, or All Quiet on the Western Front are great movies, but you cannot argue that there haven’t been hundreds of movies centered on these types of wars, as opposed to more ancient ones or those not having to do with America.

Unfortunately, nothing will change in Hollywood until people ask for it, because greedy film studios have to be sure it will make money before they greenlight it. Such is the dilemma in today’s capitalist society. Perhaps this is yet another reason why books are so important. Authors have the freedom to write about anything, including any historical periods, and may draw from any mythos they choose. For those of us who want to experience the wars of ancient Persia or Egypt, or know more about the pantheons of the Aztecs or the Slavic pagans, we will have to depend on literature to sate those cravings, until the day comes when we see such material on the big screen. The question is, though, will we ever?

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