Top history movie turkeys

Hollywood has tackled many historical themes over the last hundred years with mixed results. From the Oscar laden 1959 classic Ben Hur to the almost unwatchable Enemy at the Gates. Let’s have a look at the movies that got it terribly wrong – the history movie turkeys!

HISTORY MOVIE TURKEYS: Alexander (2004)

Gosh, how can you make the story of a young Greek king who conquered the world utterly tedious? Well, take about US$155m and bore your audience to tears.

The worst thing about this movie was the total lack of empathy that Alexander exuded. I couldn’t give a damn about poor old Colin Farrell and his peroxide-blonde locks charging round the Middle East.

Unsurprisingly, this turkey was nominated for six Golden Raspberry Awards in 2005. The notorious Razzies! Poor Oliver Stone set about a Director’s Cut and a “Final Unrated Cut”. But in the end of the day, when the source material is as unwatchable as this – just stop cutting.

One critic called it an “excruciating disaster for the ages”. Quite!

HISTORY MOVIE TURKEYS: Enemy at the Gates (2001)

Seriously, let the enemy in!

Anything to put this movie out of its misery. I remember going to see this at a west London cinema in 2001 and I was just so furious. The Battle of Stalingrad is truly one of the most gripping and appalling conflicts of World War Two. How can you wrong with this?

The casting for me was the big no-no. Jude Law as Soviet farm worker turned Red Army super-sniper Vasily Zaytsev – I didn’t buy it. And I like Jude Law normally. But this was not his part. Thankfully he went on to showcase his undoubted talent in better movies.

HISTORY MOVIE TURKEYS: Braveheart (1995)

OK – here’s the thing. I have to make a confession. When it came out, like most people, I enjoyed this movie. Unlike Alexander or Enemy at the Gates, which I detested from five minutes after the opening credits, Braveheart was a good romp.

But over the years, the varnish has worn off. The historical inaccuracies and the heavy-handed and cartoonish portrayal of the English. And I’m half-Irish (which is part of the reason I did like it to start with). It’s now completely unwatchable.

HISTORY MOVIE TURKEYS: King Arthur (2004)

When I was a teenager, I saw the amazing John Boorman directed movie Excalibur – released in 1981. It was a slightly trippy, hallucinogenic take on the Arthurian legend. But then if you read the medieval tales, they are pretty out there.

Then along clunks this turkey proclaiming that it’s a “realistic” version of the story. I went with nothing except trepidation to view this movie. All my worst fears were realised in a film that plods drearily to a leaden conclusion.

DISCOVER: Movies that feature the Knights Templar

By the way – King Arthur was a Roman soldier. Yeah – it’s a fact apparently…

HISTORY MOVIE TURKEYS: Gone with the Wind (1939)

OK – I’m being a bit provocative now. 1939 has been called the greatest year in Hollywood history. The studios churned out some of the great movies ever that year. And Gone with the Wind was, for many decades, in real terms the biggest grossing movie of all time.

But – it’s overlong, ponderous and a bit racist. It’s based on a book that glorified the Confederacy presenting it as some kind of long lost chivalrous civilisation. And I’m afraid it’s symptomatic of a long Hollywood tradition of getting it wrong on race.

More than anything though – rather like Liz Taylor in the 1963 mega-turkey Cleopatra – it’s just too much and not satisfying enough. I know 99% of you will heartily disagree. But I’ve never been able to sit through this to the bitter end. And I’m a big fan of vintage movies.

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Corporate racism in the 1920s

It was Christmas 1923 and the owners of the African Oil Nuts Company and Miller Brothers had a great festive idea. For their card to friends and family back home, why not paint Merry Xmas on the bodies of their African workers. You really couldn’t make it up!

At the Maritime Museum in Liverpool, England, there is a photograph in the slavery section of the museum that will make your jaw drop. Nigeria was a British colony and many enterprising English folk went out to the colonies to set up businesses and exploit the natural and human resources. The attitude to their local staff may have been benevolent but it was also demeaning and Africans were certainly not regarded, even as late as the 1920s, as equals.

Britain had outlawed slavery before the United States and a hundred years before, its navy had patrolled the seas stopping slave ships and liberating their occupants. But a few years earlier, Britain had been the greatest profiteer from slaves. It had operated something referred to as the “slave triangle” – with Liverpool as one point of that triangle.

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, manufactured goods were sent to Africa to trade with local chiefs and obtain their war captives and other unfortunates as slaves. These were then shipped to the Americas – north and south – to work on plantations. Then the produce of these plantations – sugar and cotton being the most important – were shipped back to Britain’s industrial factories before being bought as finished goods by consumers – or sent to Africa to begin the triangular cycle again.

LEARN MORE: What was the difference between American and Roman slavery?

With the end of slavery, shipping millions of Africans to the Americas ceased. But exploitation and supremacist racist attitudes did not. This photograph of Nigerian workers turned into a human Christmas card evidences that. The European couple are Mr and Mrs Baxendale of Miller Brothers looking a bit sheepish.

Miller Brothers was a Liverpool based trading company and the Baxendales had journeyed out to the Nigerian town of Badagry to manage its affairs. One can only imagine what was going through the minds of their workers as they were humiliated in front of the camera.

Mr and Mrs Baxendale looking a bit sheepish
African workers used as a Christmas card
A racist Christmas card from a British company in 1923
A rather racist Christmas card from the year 1923

Jesus the Palestinian or not?

Palestinian, Judaean, Galilean or never existed?

An article in the New York Times in April 2019 made the entirely valid point that Jesus was unlikely to have been blonde and blue-eyed. It’s not impossible, but the balance of probability suggests not.

The author was stating something I’ve heard many times from black friends who grew up in Christian households that while their families were deeply religious, there was always a picture of the son of God on the hallway wall looking way too Aryan!

The article suggested that as a “Palestinian” he was unlikely to resemble a German or Swede – as he often does in popular depictions. Jesus would have been darker skinned, brown eyed with brown or black hair. In other words, he would have looked Middle Eastern.

But this passing reference to the Messiah being Palestinian caused a furore on Twitter with demands for the New York Times to remove that word – which I believe they subsequently did for the digital article.

The argument ran that Jesus was from Judaea, not Palestine – and that he was Jewish and not an Arab. I should say that the person who led the Twitter storm agreed with the point about Jesus being way too blonde and blue eyed but just found the reference to Palestinian inappropriate.

This was Jeremy Burton of the Jewish Community Relations Council in Boston who remarked that the term “Palestine” was something the Romans imposed on Judaea and that Jesus would have resented this reference being a Jewish man suffering under the yoke of Caesar.

I wouldn’t dispute that Jesus was Jewish and that Christians in the centuries after his death tried to remove his Jewish identity as his worship spread among gentiles. We can see how Jesus transforms from the earliest gospel of Mark – where he is more human and respectful of the law of Moses – to John, where he becomes a more other-worldly and non-Jewish entity.

It’s also fascinating to see how a character like the Roman governor Pontius Pilate develops from a disinterested bureaucrat who executes Jesus without a second thought in Mark – to a merciful figure in later gospels who tries to get Jesus freed. Pilate’s rehabilitation was very much linked to Christianity’s outreach to upper crust pagan Romans!

FIND OUT MORE: The alleged bloodline of Jesus!

The Judaism of Jesus is of course complicated by his claim to be the son of God. This was unacceptable to most of his community. And the man who shaped his legacy the most after his crucifixion – Saint Paul – was a Romanised Jew who poured scorn on the idea of observing the Jewish laws (like circumcision and dietary requirements).

This argument risks projecting current political battles and identities back on to ancient history. We have no idea what Jesus – assuming he ever existed – called himself. One anti-Christian treatise from the Emperor Julian in the 4th century CE refers to him as a “Galilean”. That’s a very localised identity and in a hyper-local world, I think that’s how Jesus would have seen himself – the boy from Galilee who didn’t much like the Romans or those snooty priests in Jerusalem.

In the Middle East today, on all sides, inventing history seems to be a compulsive pastime. Figures like Jesus have become pawns in modern geopolitical rows and as a result the real history is twisted into something completely anachronistic.