Tuesday, April 05, 2016

British History in Film | 1066 and The Pillars of the Earth

I started this British History in Film project that I was just going to write about in the 7 Days in May feature, but it could make a fun feature in itself, so... spin-off! In last week's 7 Days in May, I wrote about King Arthur (2004) and The Vikings (1958). It's kind of appropriate to keep them separate since both are only historical in the loosest possible sense.

With this post, we're kicking off movies that we can actually put some dates to, because they include actual, historical events and people. Not that historical accuracy is going to be a requirement here. This is purely for fun.

1066: The Battle for Middle Earth (2011)

First up is this documentary-style mini-series about the Viking and Norman invasions of Britain that led to the Battle of Hastings. It's pretty good and takes an unusual approach in focusing on the common soldiers rather than their leaders.

As the title suggests, it draws a lot of parallels with Tolkien's novels, staring with its being narrated by Bilbo Baggins himself, Ian Holm. Some of the connections feel unnecessary, like continually calling the Normans "orcs," but others - for instance, the reminder that England's defenders were mostly humble farmers from the shire - have a bigger impact. What the series never does though is actually mention Tolkien or explain why it's making these connections with his books, so it feels a bit pointless and mercenary overall.

The acting is fair and I ended up caring about the characters I was supposed to. The series also makes lovely use of the beautiful forests of England as the setting for these battles. It wasn't quite the narrative style I was looking for, but it ended up being a cool way to experience the story and learn some history.

The Pillars of the Earth (2010)

1066 covered the invasion of England by the Normans from France, led by William the Conqueror. I couldn't find any movies about his son, William II, but his grandson Henry is king when Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth kicks off. The mini-series opens with the sinking of the White Ship in 1120, which killed Henry's heir and sent England into a crisis over who was going to succeed.

The conflict around that is the backdrop to another story about the building of a fictional cathedral. The crown and the church and a couple of noble families all struggle for power with the cathedral project often being used as a bargaining chip. I'm gonna call it Game of Thrones Lite, but I don't mean it to be insulting. Pillars is playing in that same arena and is slightly less graphic, but it's also its own thing and totally captivating. My whole family was drawn in by these characters and the drama between them.

It's got a great cast, too, with Ian McShane as a wicked and ambitious clergyman and Matthew Macfadyen as the equally ambitious, but more noble priest trying to get the cathedral built. Rufus Sewell plays the builder in charge of the project and Eddie Redmayne is his apprentice, who also has a secret with important implications to the succession crisis. Donald Sutherland plays a noble who supports the underdog in the dispute, and Hayley Atwell is his daughter, though her role becomes much more important than just that.

I highly recommend the mini-series if you haven't seen it, so I won't spoil it (or 862-year-old history) by saying who wins the crown, but next week we'll pick up with a movie about the reign of that ruler.

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