Six Unpleasantly Accurate Portrayals of the Distant Past

By Matt Prigge
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted May. 4, 2011

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Marketa Lazarova (1967): Generally speaking, we like our depictions of history clean, orderly and approachable. The costumes should be immaculate, the dialogue heavy, the accents, no matter the location, English. But some don’t mind alienating most viewers with warts-and-all truth (especially warts). Frantisek Vlacil’s Czech saga—just like Andrei Tarkovksy’s Andrei Rublev, made concurrently—takes an extreme approach to the middle ages, unweaving a dreamlike narrative about warring clans amidst unforgiving landscapes, bitter cold and the constant threat of hungry wolves. As the opening of L.P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between goes, “the past is a different country;” here’s one you wouldn’t want to visit for more than a couple hours.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971): In the premiere so-called “anti-western,” Robert Altman’s trains his wandering cameras on what a real wild west town was like: grimy, muddy, piss-rainy, with an ornery populace, all of it filmed with a radical cinematographic process that makes the images look like murky oil paintings.

Winstanley (1975): How veraciously did film historian-filmmaker Kevin Brownlow and company want to depict the 17th-century farming community founded by social reformer Gerrard Winstanley? They got the Tower of London to lend them armour from 1640.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975): Townsfolk dispose of their plague-ridden dead. Peasants sit in the mud, arguing impotently for constitutional rights. Blood spews weakly from the armour of felled knights. The dominating colors are gray and dirt. And against this overwhelming misery—more accurate than nearly all films set during the period—lies one of the funniest films of all time. (Python did the same thing for 33 A.D. Judea with Life of Brian.)

Edvard Munch (1976): Peter Watkins (The War Game) made serious fake documentaries, none niftier than when he showed what it would be like if cameras were around to observe the turn-of-the-century Symbolist painter. Exhaustive research, spread over 3.5 hours, makes it seem like they were.

Meek’s Cutoff (2010): 1845, somewhere in the Oregon desert. Excessive dust. The creaking of decaying wagons. Settlers traveling for days, likely on the wrong path. Little water. Extreme thirst. No hope in sight. Glacial pacing that simulates the experience. All traditional westerns are bullshit.

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