It wouldn’t be Christmas on the telly all the same without settling down to a three hour epic like Dr. Zhivago!
Film lecturer, Steven Benedict gave us a rundown of what historical movie offerings we can expect on the TV this festive season.
Historical Movies for Christmas
by Steven Benedict
A Man for All Seasons
Given the season that’s in it, let’s begin with A Man For All Seasons, Robert Bolt’s adaptation of his won superb stage play which itself began as an hour long BBC radio play. It centres around the struggle between Henry VIII of England and his Chancelor, Sir Thomas More. Henry wants to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boylen. We all know that Henry VIII was a man of phenomenal self-righteousness and self-indulgence, and Sir Thomas recognizes this and tries valiantly to not to much oppose Henry, but stand up and protect his own conscience. Simply, it is one of the greatest examples of moral integrity history has to offer.
War and Peace
Elsewhere, you have adaptations of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which focuses on Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. This version is from 1956 and stars Audrey Hepburn, Henry Fonda and Mel Ferrer. No less than six writers helped in adapting Tolstoy’s epic story and in so doing, they condensed the plots to focus on Natasha Rostova, Count Pierre Bezukhov and Prince Andrei Bolkonsky.
Then Barry Lyndon, directed by Stanley Kubrick. Part of it was filmed in Ireland before Kubrick was forced to leave due to IRA death threats. It’s a sumptuous piece of work. The pace is very measured by which I mean some people may find it slow and boring. I think it’s magnetizing. It’s not just me. Martin Scorsese and Ridley Scott are all in thrall of it. Ryan O’Neal plays an Irishman whose wiley ways see him ascending into British aristocracy.
There are five big pictures set in various times and places during the 19th century.
Wyatt Earp was the Sherrif of Tombstone and most famous for the Gunfight at the OK Corral that took place in 1881. The movie, starring Kevin Costner is a three hour epic that reveals a lot about Earp’s life, but not to all that engaging effect.
Oliver Twist and Great Expectations
You have probably the two best Dickens’ adaptations, Oliver Twist and Great Expectations, both of them in black and white, both from the 1940s, both directed by David Lean. Let’s face it, Dickens is always good at Christmas simply because he was such a good storyteller. And David Lean was a great film director so, the combination works. Set leading up to, during and after the US Civil War Gone With The Wind goes on and on and on for close to four hours. It is an amazing achievement but not a great movie and if I may, the story effectively peters out after the interval. After the Civil War ends, the story becomes an inceasingly contrived melodrama.
Far and Away
Then there is Far and Away which is a brilliantly mounted, if somewhat silly epic tale of an lowly Irish peasant heading off to America. Hilarious accent from Tom Cruise but again, part of it was filmed here in Ireland and thankfully, the IRA issued no death threats against the crew.
Back to David Lean you have a monumental adaptation of Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak’s Nobel Prize winning novel. If anyone has read the novel they will know that the narrative is shaped after Tolstoy’s works and so it stretches and spreads and sprawls itself all over the place, so Robert Bolt and David Lean did a very good job in focusing it down to four characters, Yuri, Lara, Pasha and Komorovsky, each of them representing different facets of Russian society and its emerging ideologies. Omar Sharrif struggles with what is a rather passive role, but Rod Steiger is terrific as a wise and ultimately wizened aristocrat who plays both ends against the middle.
Elsewhere for World War One, you have Gallipoli about the disastrous campaign in which Australian and New Zealand forces were hurled onto the beach-head of the Dardanelles. And then there is The African Queen which is great fun. Katherine Hepburn is Rose Sayer a prim and proper English missionary who enlists the services of coarse and drunken Charlie Allnut, played by Humphrey Bogart, to blow up a German gunboat.
Chariots of Fire
Then there is Chariots of Fire, David Puttnam’s Oscar winning picture about two British athletes, Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddel, who are scheduled to compete against one another in the 1924 Paris Olympics. That is until it is discovered that one of the races is going to take place on a Sunday. Liddel was a devout Scottish Christian who runs for the Glory of God, while Abrahams, who was Jewish has to overcome anti-Semitism in order to convince everyone that his devotion to sport is for the Glory of the Sport. Interestingly, David Puttnam said that he was looking for a story in the mold of A Man For All Seasons, about characters who follow their consciences.
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Raiders of the Lost Ark, one of the deliriously playful action-adventure pictures ever made. Spielberg and Harrison Ford teamed up for three more all of which are also being aired. For a lot of people, Raiders is the best.
Fiddler on the Roof
And if I may, there are several musicals on over the break and by far the best of them are all historically based. Fiddler on the Roof adapted from the phenomonally successful 9 time Tony Award winning Broadway musical. Set in a remote shtetl of Anatevka in 1905 Tsarist Russia, it is about Tevye who is best by three wilful daughters who wish to marry men of whom he does not approve. And then saddled with that, there is the ever present threat of the Tsars pogroms that constantly threaten to Jewish community.
Meet Me in St. Louis
Then there is Meet Me In St. Louis with Judey Garland, which takes place against the backdrop of the 1904 World Fair. It features many great songs, not least of which is when Garland sings Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. I defy anyone to watch that and not get a lump in their throat. And finally you have what is for most people, the best musical ever made: Singin’ in the Rain. Made in 1952, it’s set in 1927 Hollywood when the studios were making the conversion to sound. It’s rapturous fun... I’ve seen it... I don’t know, I stopped counting after the 50 mark.