The idea of Victorian movies may seem weird – people in the 19th century able to watch films – and yet it actually happened!
We’ve grown up with TV and film so the idea of living in a world were there are no recorded motion pictures would seem bizarre – even more so with our smart phones and social media.
But up until the 1880s, film had never been experienced. There had been crude motion pictures using a series of slides projected on to a screen but movies were unknown. However, once the Victorians discovered the technology – there was no going back!
The dawn of Victorian movies!
Victorian movies became a staple of popular entertainment by the turn of the 20th century.
Documentary and drama in primitive form developed pretty quickly. Many of the Victorian movies were purely observational – pointing a camera at people and just marvelling in the ability to capture them moving.
Here is a heap of footage of industrial workers leaving factories and mills at the turn of the 20th century, which I find fascinating. Note the youngsters who just stare at the camera as if they’re about to experience something.
London traffic seems to have mesmerised film makers with its hustle and bustle. As a Londoner myself, the presence of so many horses and what seems to be smog (fossil fuel pollution) is really striking.
Royalty got in the act and Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 was the subject of a very long film circulated around the empire. Here is Victoria attending a garden party. She loved being the obvious star of Victorian movies.
Director Paul Greengrass (past movies include United 93) has turned his hand to a three part harrowing drama covering the appalling massacre carried out by Anders Breivik in Norway on 22 July, 2011.
22 July is now on Netflix and I recommend you watch.
On that day, the extreme right wing terrorist detonated a bomb in downtown Oslo, the Norwegian capital. That killed eight people and would have been bad enough. But what happened next horrified Europe and the world. Because Breivik then made his way to Utoya island.
He knew that a large group of teenage political activists from the country’s main left wing party were at a Workers Youth League event holding discussions and seminars. Breivik disembarked from his boat dressed as a police officer, pretending he had come to protect the teens. When challenged by an adult for an ID, he began his killing spree.
Terrified youngsters ran to hide from the fanatic and his array of weapons. But in the end, sixty nine people were slain. Most of them were youths and one just fourteen years of age.
As Europe witnesses a surge in extreme Right activity, it’s worth recalling what one neo-fascist was capable of doing in just a single day.
On YouTube, Breivik posted a rambling so-called Templar manifesto – that actually had nothing to do with the real Knights Templar. He excused his murders on the grounds of fighting “cultural Marxism”, “Islam”, “feminism”, etc.
He is now serving a very long jail sentence but has appeared to whine about how unfair it is to be incarcerated. I doubt the families of his victims are overly concerned about his welfare and mental state.
Thankfully, the Netflix drama does not try to pluck heart strings with back stories galore at the front of the movie, but goes straight into the gruesome action. All the facts about Breivik and his victims are revealed as we go along.
I think that’s important because these victims don’t need to have their innocence proven – it should be a given. Their deaths were a callous and brutal act with no justifiable reason.
I’ve watched some terrible historical dramas on TV of late – awful scripting, casting and plotting. So, discovering the Spanish TV six part drama La Peste(The Plague) has given me hope for the genre!
La Peste transports you back in time!
Set in 16th century Spain, the action takes place in the city of Seville. Though now resolutely Catholic, the city still reveals traces of its previous Moorish, Muslim rulers. Casting a shadow over the lives of its inhabitants is the Inquisition. Otherwise known as the Holy Office, this arm of the Catholic church sets out to identify Protestants and to eliminate them.
Our hero, Mateo, has fallen foul of the heretic hunters but is given a chance to save his life if he can find out who is behind a series of grisly killings in Seville. He is accompanied in his investigations by the illegitimate son of a dead friend he swore to protect. But this street urchin, Valerio, has grown up in the truly ghastly slums of Seville and is a ruthless, emotionally stunted individual.
Spain at the time it was colonising the world
What I loved about La Peste was the way it conveyed the filth and degradation of Seville at a time when the Spanish empire encompassed much of Latin America, Europe and even had a foothold in Asia – the Philippines. The wealth of empire trickled upwards leaving most Spaniards living in bestial conditions.
La Peste uses CGI intelligently and effectively. We see some familiar landmarks that still exist today in Seville but set among shanty towns, shabby markets and tiny dwellings. The last episode ends with an auto-da-fe – a public burning of heretics. I’ll admit it was one of the most unpleasant scenes I’ve seen on TV for a long time but, very much in keeping with the atmosphere of the series.
I recommend! The YouTube video below shows the making of the last episode of La Peste – spoiler alert and some of you may find the scenes of the Inquisition punishing heretics upsetting.
NBC/Universal in the US and Sky One in the UK are broadcasting a new dramatisation of the 1932 novel Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. It presents what we call a dystopian view of the future – one that is thoroughly pessimistic. As opposed to a brighter utopia.
Huxley wrote his story at a time when capitalism was reeling from the 1929 stock market crash and the Soviet Union was embarking on a series of bloody purges under its dictator, Stalin.
A few decades earlier, Victorians at the end of the 19th century had imagined that the world could improve and advance with every forward step. Science, technology and reason would lead us to a genuinely brave new world. But the First World War literally shot that optimism to pieces.
Even the hope for a revolution that would liberate humanity from want and deprivation was questioned. The year 1917 saw the Bolshevik revolution in Russia and the creation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). But after the Bolshevik leader Lenin died, his successor Stalin oversaw the creation of a bureaucratic, nightmarish, totalitarian dystopia.
Writers responded to this new gloom and uncertainty. George Orwell wrote 1984 while Aldous Huxley gave us Brave New World. They in turn were inspired by centuries of authors and political thinkers who penned their own visions of the future to make a point.
Brave New World – not a new concept
Great thinkers like the Greek philosopher Plato or the sixteenth century statesman Thomas More imagined perfect societies of the future. They wanted to show their readers what a properly ordered world could look like. It was a description of something More called Utopia.
But – Utopia has a grim opposite: Dystopia.
Dystopian visions of the future depict a very different world. It’s an unpleasant place where human beings are alienated or terrified. The authorities may be dictatorial or even totalitarian. Thoughts might be controlled. Terrible, unspeakable things have been normalised, becoming a part of everyday life.
The 20th century saw dystopian views of the future portrayed more and more. Two world wars, fascism, dictatorship, murder on an industrial scale and the erosion of democracy by faceless forces made the future seem a lot bleaker. The cheery optimism of the Victorian age where every day would be better than the next gave way to growing uncertainty.
Many early 20th century dystopians were deeply disillusioned by the direction Russia took after the 1917 communist revolution. Hopes for the creation of a society under working class control gave way to the reality of Stalin’s bureaucratic hell. George Orwell summed up his gloomy prognosis in 1984. A world where Big Brother is watching you at all times and people indulge in “doublespeak”, never saying what they really mean.
The dystopia of Aldous Huxley
In 1931, the author Aldous Huxley depicted another dystopia where there is no sexual intercourse and people are created through artificial wombs. Humans are bred differently with healthier, taller and intelligent people being graded alpha or beta while those cloned in mass production and consequently dimmer and smaller do menial tasks as gammas, deltas and epsilons. All citizens are kept happy by ingesting a drug called “soma”.
Huxley denied he was influenced by a Russian author called Yevgeny Zamyatin who described a very similar totalitarian state where science had been misused to control humanity in his novel, We.
The Soviet Union provoked visions of dystopia in the 1920s and 1930s but in the 1970s, it was fears of a post-nuclear world where the two superpowers – the United States and USSR – had fried the planet.
Planet of the Apesends with the realisation that ape rule has only been possible because human beings have rained nuclear bombs down on their civilisation. Damnation Alleysees the protagonists driving across a post-nuclear America.
Logan’s Runhas people living under sealed domes and subjected to enforced euthanasia at the age of 30 – but believing they are being renewed. All horrific takes on dystopia.
The 1970s embraced dystopia as it grappled with the threat of nuclear war; the end of the Vietnam War; the near impeachment of President Nixon and severe economic crisis. It’s not surprising that in equally turbulent times, we are reaching back to dystopia and forming again a very gloomy and nihilistic view of the future.