Light the candles, pop the champagne corks, pour the bubbly! The Wenches are celebrating today! It’s our fifth anniversary, and so we’re raising a toast . . . not just to a half decade of Wenchly books, but to you, our readers, who share with us a passion for books and history. Your thoughtful comments and provocative questions have been a source of constant inspiration as we muse here each week on the wonderful—and often wacky—world of writing. In turn, we hope you enjoy our sense of wonder, our sense of humor, and perhaps most of all, our sense of joy in exploring both the past and present world. The fact is, we’re passionate about the creative process, and all the infinitely interesting things that spark the imagination and the art of storytelling.
There have been little changes along the way as we’ve grown and added a few new frills—along with a few new faces (me included!) And this year, as you can see, we’ve given ourselves a new look (hey, what girl doesn’t like a make-over!) by updating the blog’s design. A special toast must be raised to our amazing webmistress Sherrie Holmes for keeping the Wenches running so smoothly (and keeping us all in stitches of laughter during our daily e-mail chats.) And one to Eileen Buckholtz for all her technical expertise.
Now, no party is complete without fun and games, so the Wenches have come up with a playful challenge for you. Each of us has picked a favorite historical movie and written a short blurb about why we love it. Can you guess who has chosen what film—either by the choice itself, or by the style of writing?
A winner will be chosen from among all those who submit the highest percentage of right guesses in the “Comments” space below. The prize is a very special set of 8 autographed books (one from each Wench) so be sure to join the fun and give us your list between now and Saturday evening! And while you are at it, please tell us YOUR favorite historical movie.
Enjoy the festivities, everyone! We look forward to sharing lots more good cheer and good books with you in the coming year. And now, let the show begin:
The Battle of Waterloo is an iconic event in the Regency. It ended twenty years of war, it began a new era, and is a vital presence in more Regency romances than anyone could count. We Wenches have wounded our share of heroes and sometimes heroines there, either in book time or back story. So if you want to get a sense of what the battle was like, there is no better way than watching the 1970 movie Waterloo.
The movie was an Italian-Russian production with mostly English speaking stars, and the extras included something like 15,000 Russian infantrymen and 2,000 cavalryman. It was said that during the filming, director Sergei Bondarchuk was commanding the 7th largest army in the world.
Not only did all those trained soldiers give a huge sense of scale, but they moved like soldiers. I can’t imagine that any CGI version of the battle in the future could be as convincing. A scene that stays with me is an aerial shot near the end showing the French cavalry pounding the red squares of British soldiers. Some of the squares bent and twisted—but they didn’t break.
I love how well the film sticks to the historical record. It starts with Napoleon’s abdication, touches on his exile to Elba, then his return and the 100 Days that ended on a bloody field in Belgium. Waterloo was the first battle where Wellington and Napoleon came face to face—and Wellington won.
Christopher Plummer makes a wonderfully cool Wellington, while Rod Steiger seethes as the intense, charismatic (and realistically chubby) Napoleon. To my delight, I recognized a lo
t of British dialogue as genuine, and I understand that the same is true for the French characters. (Whose words are translated into English, fortunately.)
Besides being good history, it’s both entertaining and sobering. As Wellington thinks at the end (a real comment he is known to have said), “Next to a battle lost, the saddest thing is a battle won.”
Waterloo is available in DVD, and well worth watching if you’re a Regency buff.
Regular wench readers ought to know who I am without my saying anymore than that my favorite historical movie is Shakespeare in Love. No gory violence for me! Brilliant costumes, hints of history, delightful dialogue, humor, and the audience gets to flaunt their intellectual prowess by pointing out the bits of Shakespeare’s history and stories they recognize.
Since what we know of Shakespeare is actually very thin, it’s hard to argue with the history of this gem. The movie even shows his multiple misspelled signatures and throws in Kit Marlowe and Queen Elizabeth for good measure. Everything else is outrageously fictionalized and a delight to watch, even if we know that, like Shakespeare’s tragedies, including the Romeo and Juliet the movie portrays, the love affair must end unhappily.
All for Love is a film based on the novel St Ives by Robert Louis Stevenson. It’s set in 1813 when Captain Jacques St Ives, a French Hussar, is captured and sent to a Scottish prisoner of war camp. The experience of foreign prisoners of war in Britain during the Napoleonic Wars is a fascinating subject not often covered in the books on the period and the film is very true to historical fact with some wonderful period details.
The plot of All for Love contains several monstrous co-incidences which I’m sure no author would get away with now but for me this doesn’t spoil the sheer swashbuckling fun of the story. It has a handsome hero, a spirited heroine and a marvellous supporting cast including the brooding Jason Isaacs as the villain, Miranda Richardson as a very unconventional lady – complete with hookah pipe! – and Richard E Grant as Major Farquar Bolingbroke Chevening, who asks his French prisoner for advice on how to woo the ladies! The film is funny, romantic and very entertaining but it also throws interesting light on a neglected aspect of British history.
A notable historical movie, eh?
There are so many, but one that always leaps into my mind is A Knight's Tale. You remember that one, yes? From 10 years ago, and starring Heath Ledger, sadly now dead. In one way it's not for historical purists, what with its jousting audience singing "We will rock you" and doing the wave.
But in another, I think it's an interesting take on the Middle Ages, built around jousting. Apart from the occasional formally staged event, that was a rough and ready, crowd pleasing sport. Men followed the tourney circuit to hone their fighting skills, to simply enjoy fighting, but also to make money by defeating others. I'm sure it was as raucous, messy, and often sleazy as we see here. And, of course A Knight's Tale also stars the wonderful Paul Bettany as Chaucer, naked even!
With reference to historical fiction, I also love that it shows the Middle Ages as vibrantly alive and fun. When did we lose that, and lose much of the medieval historical with it? A Knight's Tale is in full color, whereas these days so much historical film is deliberately muted, dingy, and dull. Medieval people loved color whenever they could get it. Think about stained glass, illuminated manuscripts, and tapestries.
So three cheers for A Knight's Tale. I wish there were
a lot more films like it.
There’s action! There’s adventure! All twined with wonderfully vivid historical details of Regency-era maritime life. So it’s no wonder that Master and Commander, an adaptation of one of Patrick O’Brien’s magnificent Aubrey-Maturin books which stars Russell Crowe, is one of my favorite historical movies.
A swashbuckling hero with a softer, more cerebral core beneath the grit and gunpowder, Captain Jack Aubrey loves classical music and appreciates the eccentric interests of his ship’s surgeon, an ardent naturalist. So exotic beetles and lizards live side by side with cannonballs on his British warship as he and his crew pursue a French enemy to the far side of the world.
Throughout the film we see scenes of everyday life aboard ship, as well as battle scenes and glimpses of the scientific expeditions that often were part of British naval missions to faraway corners pf the globe. It’s a multi-textured story of war, courage, conflict and honor. But it's also a very human story of friendship, with well-rendered characters who show interesting depth and make history come alive. And the visual details (including the storms at sea) are really splendid. Whether you are a seafarer, or simply someone who loves history, I highly recommend it!
High Noon examines what it means to be a hero. Marshall Will Kane can choose to face the gunfighter who's coming to kill him, or run away and abandon his own integrity and the town he has protected. The personal stakes and the likelihood of his own death rise again and again as every person he believed in turns against him.
Every plausible argument against lone heroism is presented — from the highest moral ground, to the lowest self-interest. Marshall Kane meets each of these challenges.
In the end, he is left with nothing but his own sense of duty and his personal honor to go out and face death.
Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly and Lloyd Bridges
Quote: "This is just a dirty little village in the middle of nowhere. Nothing that happens here is important."
The Last of the Mohicans
Pick just one favorite historical movie?! Not easy! But my choice for the movie that touches me most, means the most personally, that I’ll watch again and again… that I admire in so many ways, it has to be The Last of the Mohicans with Daniel Day-Lewis and Madeline Stowe, directed by Michael Mann.
Based on James Fenimore Cooper's 1826 novel, the film tells a story of the French and Indian Wars, when Gen. Montcalm conspired with the Huron nation to defeat the British military and the local Colonial militia at Fort William Henry beside Lake George in upstate New York in 1757. The basic events are true, the novel is an American literary classic, and the movie is an exciting, deeply romantic, stunning film. It is both an authentic interpretation and a frank presentation, not for the faint-hearted, of a fascinating time in history. The movie clarifies Cooper’s huge novel and ramps up plot and characters to create a poignant and powerful version of the story.
And Last of the Mohicans hits home for me, quite literally; I was born and raised near Lake George. Fascinated by local history, I found arrowheads in the yard and visited Fort Wm. Henry so many times that it's imprinted in my mind. And that beginning, in many ways, set me on a path as a historical novelist. I read Cooper's novels, I watched the original old films on TV, and I soaked up the history and the stories.
So when Michael Mann's blockbuster film came out, I was probably the first one in the theater in my Maryland town. Not only was I completely transported back to the places and events I knew so well – I was captivated by the romance and the sheer power of the film. The movie trims the novel and improves on it, notably adding a romance between Hawkeye and Cora, with one of the best screen kisses ever … accompanied by a haunting Scottish fiddle piece, “The Gael” by Dougie MacLean (who, coincidentally, later became a good friend). That stirring music piece also powers the final, unforgettable scenes.
Mark Twain, in his day, had much to say about James Fenimore Cooper’s writing, to hilarious, biting effect. Twain claimed that Cooper broke most of the supposed “rules” of good writing, including “eschew surplusage.” And he pointed out bad habits in Cooper’s fiction, such as making “a moccasined person tread in the tracks of a moccasined enemy…Cooper wore out barrels and barrels of moccasins in working that trick.”
Cooper created a great story in Last of the Mohicans – and Michael Mann created a film that Cooper, and even Twain, would have loved.
I suspect I'm scraping it in here, claiming The Mask of Zorro as my favorite historical movie — the Antonio Banderas & Anthony Hopkins version. It is slightly historical, being loosely based on several events that occurred after the Mexican War of Independence. According to Wikipedia, the character played by Antonio Banderas is a fictional brother of Joaquin Murriueta, a Mexican outlaw killed by California State Ranger Harry Love portrayed here as Texas Army Captain "Harrison Love", in 1853. As he did in the movie, the actual Harry Love preserved Murrieta's head in a large, alcohol-filled glass jar.
But I love it because it's fun, not because of the history. I'm a huge fan of Antonio Banderas, and have followed his career ever since the first movie I saw him in, Almadovar's Woman on the Verge of A Nervous Breakdown, when he was quite young – 19 I think. I'm also a great admirer of Anthony Hopkins — fell in love with him in War and Peace, ordering his troops to "Forward at a twot." But it's the chemistry and interplay between these two, as the wily old world-weary former Zorro and the cocksure, wild, barely broken to bridle young Zorro that really makes the movie to me.
Speaking of chemistry, there's also brilliant sizzle and spark between Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, who is the heroine in the movie. Their fencing, with rapiers and words, is enormous fun and the sexy-strip-by-rapier fencing scene is fabulous.
Okay, everyone, let the guessing begin!