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.
The Nazis ran the worst dictatorship in history that plunged Europe into a devastating war and murdered millions in concentration camps. So, how has the movie industry depicted the horror of Adolf Hitler. Well, let’s take a look:
Gritty realism: “Downfall” (2004)
A brilliant German movie about Hitler’s final days in Berlin as the Soviet Red Army and Allied forces closed in on the city, leaving it a smouldering ruin.
An incredibly atmospheric film that captures the claustrophobic atmosphere in the bunker where Hitler and the Nazis were holed up. Bit by bit we see the Third Reich crumbling leading to the Fuhrer’s suicide.
Tense thriller: “Valkyrie” (2008)
In July, 1944, a group of German military officers tried to blow Adolf Hitler and the Nazi high command up as they met at the so-called Wolf’s Lair. Tom Cruise plays Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, the one-eyed hero who tries and fails to implement the mission. Casting in this movie on the Nazis was spot on and you empathise completely with the doomed plotters.
Musical: “The Sound of Music” (1965)and “Cabaret” (1972)
The Nazis have been taken on in musicals. The Sound of Musictells the story of a singing family against the backdrop of the Nazi takeover of Austria. Made twenty years after World War II, it’s not an in-depth look at German fascism, more a romantic tale in which the Nazis intrude.
Ditto Cabaret, another love story set in the Weimar republic. Starring Liza Minelli, that movie is based on a story by the English poet Christopher Isherwood. Again, it’s not really about the Nazis but they do turn up at the end of the movie to spoil everything, closing down the fun night life of Berlin.
Sentimental and whimsical: “Life is Beautiful” (1997) and “The Day the Clown Cried” (1972)
My least favourite movie type on the Nazis is the very sentimental and treacly films about life in concentration camps. I realise that many moviegoers adored Life is Beautiful, about a father resorting to comic routines to obscure the nightmare of concentration camp life from his son, but I found it unbearably mawkish.
Twenty five years before, comedian Jerry Lewis made a similar movie called The Day the Clown cried. It was so bad that even Lewis insisted it should never be released – and thankfully it never was.
Dark comedy: “The Producers” (1967) and “The Great Dictator” (1940)
Comedy is a genre that’s had mixed results. The director Mel Brooks featured a fictional musical called “Springtime for Hitler” in his musical The Producers, which was in deliberately bad taste but very funny.
In contrast, I’ve never known what to make of Charlie Chaplin’s well-intentioned but unwatchable comic take on Hitler, The Great Dictator. Might have worked when it was made in 1940 as an anti-Nazi film but today it’s just clunky and cloying.
Out and out propaganda: “Triumph of the Will” (1935)
Then of course, there are films the Nazis made themselves heroising their dictatorship. The in-house director for the Third Reich was a woman called Leni Riefenstahl. Technically very proficient, she glorified the Reich in a movie called Triumph of the Willin 1935.
It’s more of a fly on the wall documentary with no voice over that bombards the viewer with rallies, goose-stepping SS and endless speeches by Hitler and others. Riefenstahl managed not to get imprisoned after the war and died in 2001 aged over 100.
Portraying Adolf Hitler is still a very emotive subject. But the further we move away from World War II and the Holocaust, the more it seems that directors are prepared to take on the subject in ways that would have once seemed unthinkable.
When I was a teenager in the 1970s, Hitler was a demonic figure. The debate now is to what extent he can be depicted as a human being without diminishing what he did.
The Roman Empire at the movies has often been great box office. Think Spartacus or Gladiator. Though there have been some box office stinkers too!
From the silent movie era to the CGI laden epics of modern cinema, the Roman Empire has always provided great material for film makers. Rome has gone in and out of fashion but the lure of sword and sandals means it’s always coming back again like a cinematic boomerang.
So – from the early days to our own time – here are the classic Roman movies!
ROMAN MOVIES: The silent era
In the early days of cinema, the Romans on the silver screen were voiceless. The talkies had yet to arrive so there was no audible clash of swords or trundling of chariot wheels. Nevertheless, Rome still gripped audiences. It was always good box office!
The Italian film industry got in early with The Last Days of Pompeii in 1913 – a feature length love story that ends with an erupting Neapolitan volcano. Italian directors never needed a second invitation to make movies about ancient Rome. And the Cinecitta movie studio built under the Mussolini dictatorship has provided convincing Roman backdrops for decades.
The 1913 movie is all about the final days of the Roman city of Pompeii, before the buildings and people of that ancient metropolis were incinerated by spewing lava and fumes from mount Vesuvius in AD 79. The plot is quite operatic and of course the audience realise that many of the characters will be toast in about 90 minutes. But for its time – a compelling piece of cinema.
Ben Hur – a story written over 130 years ago – has gone through five movie versions of varying quality. It’s based on a 19th century novel by the US civil war Union general Lew Wallace. The story’s hero is Judah Ben Hur who falls out with his boyhood Roman friend Messala who allows his Jewish buddy to be framed for a crime he didn’t commit.
Ben Hur eventually gets his revenge by defeating Messala in a chariot race that leaves the nasty Roman mangled and dying. Redemption and happiness returns to Ben Hur when he accepts Christ – who he sees being crucified.
There are two amazing movie versions that I thoroughly recommend. The 1925 silent movie with Ramon Novarro in the lead is beautiful. It’s like art deco meeting ancient Rome.
Charlton Heston took the main role in the subsequent 1959 classic that was deservedly showered with Oscars and is still stunning today. In marked contrast, the 2016 movie is a gigantic turkey that should be avoided at all costs.
ROMAN MOVIES: Golden age of sword and sandals
The 1940s and 1950s were a golden age for sword and sandals biblical epics and ancient Rome featured heavily. 1951 saw Quo Vadis – setting meek and mild Christian heroes against the capricious and evil emperor Nero. It assumed an audience steeped in the kind of Sunday school bible learning that you wouldn’t find in our more secular times – as well as an awareness of the finer details of Roman history.
Then there was Spartacus– a superior example of the genre directed by the legendary Stanley Kubrick. It tells the story of a huge slave revolt that really happened in the closing years of the Roman Republic – before it became the Empire.
The cast includes Kirk Douglas as the slave hero. Tony Curtis as his sidekick. Laurence Olivier as the Roman general Crassus. And Charles Laughton as Gracchus.
In this scene below, Crassus has defeated the rebel slave army. He asks which of the slaves is Spartacus so that he can punish the audacious rebel. In a very moving scene, one slave after another claims to be Spartacus. Watch and weep!
By the mid-1960s, the sword and sandals bubble finally burst. The movie Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton soared over budget. The scenes were opulent and jaw dropping with vast numbers of extras and gargantuan studio sets – but the returns to the studio were too thin. Rome had got too bloated for its own good.
ROMAN MOVIES: The Empire Strikes Back!
For the next 35 years, the Romans were put up on a high shelf and sort of forgotten. As far as Hollywood was concerned, the Roman Empire was past its sell-by date. But then in 2000, UK director Ridley Scott bravely resurrected the imperial glory with his movie Gladiator.
For those of us yearning for some swords and some sandals on the big screen again, this was a miracle. When it premiered, I went to see it three times without being bored once. It’s still a remarkably watchable movie. Tightly scripted and with inspired casting. Russell Crowe’s brooding Antipodean growling suited the lead character. And I loved the campy performance from the late Oliver Reed.
It’s a genuinely good film and you can tell because there are so many memorable lines.
It’s the conspiracy theory you can whack over the head multiple times but it will not die. The idea that the lunar landings were faked is firmly believed by a significant percentage of the American public. In fact, I suspect that percentage has increased since the dawn of social media.
From wonder to faked lunar landings
Growing up as a child in the 60s and early 70s, the Apollo missions to the moon captured my imagination – and that of millions of kids. Watching the rockets heave out of their launch pads then ditch their component parts leaving the module to soar through space was thrilling. It was a triumph of the human spirit and modern technology.
While the Americans were sending astronauts into orbit, the Soviet Union was launching its cosmonauts. Two years ago, I visited an exhibition at London’s Science Museum on the Soviet space missions and marvelled at how these incredibly brave cosmonauts returned to Earth in a small metal ball with less technology than you have in your iPhone.
On occasions, they were killed on impact. In one grim instance, the cosmonaut’s final scream could be heard as he knew this was his end. In 1967, all the Apollo 1 astronauts were incinerated on the launch pad at Cape Kennedy during a training exercise. Space travel came at a high human cost.
But…what if this was all faked?
How did the faked lunar landings theory begin?
Well, that’s been a persistent conspiracy theory since the space missions. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, our childhood heroes, never set foot on the moon.
The whole thing was done on a Hollywood studio set. Or maybe at the infamous Area 51. Some conspiracy theorists have even suggested that the late movie director Stanley Kubrick was involved because….he directed 2001: A Space Odyssey. That proves it!
There’s an array of bizarre arguments put forward. A hardy perennial is that the US flag is seen to be fluttering on the moon – inconsistent with the moon having no atmosphere.
Answer: There’s a wire running along the top of the flag so it sticks out and the flapping is the what the astronauts were doing as they tried to get the flagpole stuck in the ground.
Why are there no stars in the sky behind the astronauts?
Answer: The light bouncing off the surface of the moon blanks them out. You’d have to be on the dark side to see the stars.
But why would NASA and the US administration have gone to such curious lengths to stage a moon landing? The conspiracy guys believe they have the answer. It was to fool the Soviets.
The Soviet Union forced the United States into faked lunar landings
The US didn’t have enough money or resources to get to the moon. So they faked it. The Americans had been embarrassed by Soviet success in the so-called “space race” between the superpowers and needed a success story for the American public and to demoralise the Russians. After all, communism had to be defeated here on planet Earth and in outer space.
The faked lunar landing theories took off at the same time as the Apollo missions. Maybe it just seemed too fantastical that we had sent men – and they were all men – on to the surface of the moon. I would suggest that those who doubt the veracity of the moon landings suffer from a serious lack of imagination and grasp of what science can achieve.
1970s – faked lunar landings make it to Hollywood!
In 1978, Hollywood cashed in on the paranoia with a movie called Capricorn One. The plot brought the nutty theory to life. Only this time, it was a faked mission to Mars. The whole thing was done on a movie set and afterwards, the astronauts had to be killed.
One of the astronauts in the movie was none other than OJ Simpson..subsequently jailed in real life. And yes, there are those online who link the movie to Simpson’s trial. I’m not going there – Google it for yourself.