FolkWorld Issue 37 11/2008; Article by Walkin' T:-)M
Folk Music on the Silver Screen (2)
If God Would Have the Money - Period Movies! Period Music?
Period movies and costume films, historical epics and adventures have been popular from the early days of the silver screen. What makes some of them become master pieces and timeless classics and others historical travesties? And does period films include period music?
There is a story that Elmore Leonard called up Bernard Malamud and asked, So how did you feel after The Natural came out? Malamud said, I stayed in my apartment for a week. Leonard replied, Well, I just saw the movie they made of my last book, and I'm leaving the country for a year.
Adopting a novel to the screen is quite similar to how the film industry treats history. The historical record is the raw material, rewritten according to dramaturgic, and sometimes ideologic, requirements.
Goofs ... on the Silver Screen
Sometimes there are crew members visible in blue jeans, T-Shirts and baseball caps (Amadeus, Fitzcarraldo), including a blue satin jacket which reads King Kong Lives (Adventures of Baron Munchausen); the shadow of a microphone boom (Sea Hawk), or a camera (Hamlet, Around the World in 80 Days); reflected in glass (Titanic) or armour (Excalibur); actors and extras wearing wrist watches (Ben Hur, Luther), eyeglasses (Julius Caesar) and sunglasses (Gladiator); cars in the distance (Knights of the Round Table, New World), a luxury sealiner (Crimson Pirate), an oil tanker (Norseman), jet contrails (Cleopatra, Moby Dick), a nuclear plant (Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines), a plaque on a castle wall (Robin Hood) and a No Swimming sign (Robinson Crusoe).
Besides factual errors, period films contain anachronisms such as the Julian Calendar (Alexander), whistles (Spartacus), the bust of the Emperor Hadrian (Julius Caesar), chess playing (Quo Vadis), a Christmas tree (Lion in Winter), a Renaissance statue of the Virgin Mary (Name der Rose). Costumes from Gone with the Wind and the US Civil War era were recycled for Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice, set in the early 19th century. Every pirate ship has a steering wheel, and there is a map of the world in the background in Barry Lyndon with a picture of a steam train on it.
There is weaponry such as scimitars from Sinbad to the Crusades, a percussion pistol (Four Musketeers), and a Henry rifle (The Legend of Zorro). Misplaced animals such as llamas (Troy), a turkey (1492, before Columbus set sail to the Americas) a Pekingese (Captain Blood, Parfum), a Labrador Retriever (Man for all Seasons), and a West Highland Terrier (Elizabeth). Or simply expressions such as thugs (Robin Hood), scallywag (Pirates of the Caribbean), or okay (Braveheart).
Richard Slotkin explains why historical films are made at all:
The real story counts for something: It provides a premise, guarantees the importance of its subject, and gives the production people a set of authentic period details, which the studios lovingly (and often very carefully) re-create on screen.
Though Hollywood is not particularily bothered with historical accuracy, at times they tried very hard:
The producers of 1935's Mutiny on the Bounty believed that historical realism was one of their merits, though they were not embarrassed to stress that the film's priority was to produce effects rather than record facts. A naval historian spent an entire year performing the work of historical verification. The studio commissioned two reconstructions of the HMS Bounty, a full-sized replica and an eighteen-foot model. Charles Laughton discovered Lieutenant Bligh's actual measurements, which convinced him to lose fifty-five pounds.
It is hard to make no mistake at all. There are several types of goofs, i.e. errors made during film production which find their way into the final release, such as continuity errors, plot holes, crew or equipment visible, historical inaccuracies and anachronisms (see box on the right). A goof may spoil the pleasure. Fortunatly, most of the time you would need both widescreen and slow motion to detect them.
Factual errors may offend historical purists, though some of them are rather funny:
Some are major distortions from historical facts:
Audio creates particular problems. In a scene in Gladiator there is lots of chatter and stray noises in the background. But if you listen closely you can hear someone yelling: Warren, Warren, Warren ... radio!
Though actors and extras try to do their best when mimicking to playback music, audio/visual synchronization often fails: singers are not only out of sync with their singing, but with each other; player's fingering does not match with the music; the sound of an instrument continues after the performer stopped playing. Even worse:
Is a character historically accurate who is playing a bodhrán, the Irish frame drum? If he is a Viking warrior [Den sidste viking, 1997]? A pirate, banging away while a ship is attacked [Blackbeard, 2006]?
Goofs ... on the Silver Screen
accordions (invented in 1822)
and concertinas (1829)
[Blackbeard, set in 1717,
Pirates of the Caribbean, 1740s];
the Boehm flute (1832)
[Vanity Fair, 1810];
with fret markers on the fingerboard (1890s)
[Shakespeare in Love, 1593];
a sousaphone (1908)
[The Adventures of Baron Munch-ausen,
late 18th century, the Age of Reason, Wednesday].
Songs & poems:
King Duncan of Scotland
and his men renew their baptismal vows in the 11th century
with a prayer composed by
Pope Leo XIII
in 1884 [Macbeth].
So is Geoffrey Chaucer's
"Merciles Beautè" (14th century) an anachronism
[The Tragedy of Macbeth];
"Allon, Gay Bergeres" (16th century)
[The Lion in Winter, set in 1183];
Sir Philip Sidney's
"My True Love Hath My Heart" (after 1580)
and Thomas Arne's
[Il dominatore dei sette mari
(Seven Seas to Calais), 1577];
Lord Alfred Tennyson's
"Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal" (1849)
[Vanity Fair, 1810];
music to "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing"
(1840) and Frederick Oakeley's
translation of John Francis Wade's
Latin hymn "Adeste fideles" (1852)
[A Tale of Two Cities, 1780];
"Valicha" (20th century)
[Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes (Aguirre, Wrath of God), 1560].
became fashionable in Vienna around 1780,
spreading to many other countries in the years to follow.
However, the American revolutionaries
already seem to know the sliding step and the gliding rotation
Instruments: accordions (invented in 1822) and concertinas (1829) [Blackbeard, set in 1717, Pirates of the Caribbean, 1740s]; the Boehm flute (1832) [Vanity Fair, 1810]; a lute with fret markers on the fingerboard (1890s) [Shakespeare in Love, 1593]; a sousaphone (1908) [The Adventures of Baron Munch-ausen, late 18th century, the Age of Reason, Wednesday].
Songs & poems: King Duncan of Scotland and his men renew their baptismal vows in the 11th century with a prayer composed by Pope Leo XIII in 1884 [Macbeth]. So is Geoffrey Chaucer's "Merciles Beautè" (14th century) an anachronism [The Tragedy of Macbeth]; Guillaume Costeley's "Allon, Gay Bergeres" (16th century) [The Lion in Winter, set in 1183]; Sir Philip Sidney's "My True Love Hath My Heart" (after 1580) [Elizabeth, 1559]; James Thomson's and Thomas Arne's "Rule Britannia" (1740) [Il dominatore dei sette mari (Seven Seas to Calais), 1577]; Lord Alfred Tennyson's "Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal" (1849) [Vanity Fair, 1810]; Felix Mendelssohn's music to "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" (1840) and Frederick Oakeley's translation of John Francis Wade's Latin hymn "Adeste fideles" (1852) [A Tale of Two Cities, 1780]; "Valicha" (20th century) [Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes (Aguirre, Wrath of God), 1560].
Dances: The waltz became fashionable in Vienna around 1780, spreading to many other countries in the years to follow. However, the American revolutionaries already seem to know the sliding step and the gliding rotation .
The music in most films, especially in Hollywood's Golden Age from 1930 to 1960, utilized the full orchestral treatment, with symphonic neo-romantic scores by notable composers such as Alfred Newman, Miklos Rozsa or Erich Wolfgang Korngold. The music often is martial in nature, with a stirring, patriotic quality setting the stage for battles, underlining the hero's feats of courage, daring, and physical agility. There are contrasting themes, of quiet love to accompany the heroine, another to emphasize the solidarity of the group of good comrades, often constructed into an semioperatic whole. (B. Taves)
Let's discuss it in chronological order, and let's skip the glory and the decadence of Imperial Rome, for we really have no clue about the music of the ancient world at all. Though Peter Ustinov had his finest hour as the Roman Emperor Nero in Quo Vadis . Nero is known as the emperor who fiddled while Rome burned in July 64 AD, and sang the "Iliou persis" (Sack of Ilium), a lost Greek epic about Troy's destruction composed in the 7th century BC. Nero actually was a lyre player, there were no fiddles in 1st-century Rome.
The Dark Ages were dark on the screen too, and rarely covered except the odd Viking raid. Medieval times brought Hollywood the Age of Chivalry: knights, tournaments, courtly love, the crusades and the Arthurian legends, providing an opportunity to feature the love poetry of troubadours and minnesingers,
Lythe and listin, gentilmen,
Some medieval movies feature music and instruments of the period, or what people think are period. For example, Miklos Rozsa's score for El Cid  was an arrangement of medieval Spanish music, including the Cantigas de Santa Maria and Moorish music. In Robin and Marian , a eunuch is singing to the accompaniment of triple pipes; Denholm Elliott plays an instrument that probably is supposed to be a psaltery, but looks like a 19th century guitar zither.
Composer Michael Kamen explains: When I was a kid watching the old Robin Hood movies, it bothered me to hear contemporary music in the background. Musicians in the 12th century had a lovely, virile sense of rhythm, and all of that went into this score: plucks of strings, steady drum beats, piercing cries of horns. Thus he came up with harps, cimbaloms, shofars (ram's-horn trumpets), hand-held drums, conch shells, and lots of weird flutes for Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves  to get the sounds he wanted.
And here we are amidst things, the famous or infamous Robin Hood. In English folklore Robin Hood is painted as a man known for robbing the rich to give to the poor. From the early 13th century onwards the name Robinhood occurs in the rolls of English justices, seemingly applied as a form of shorthand to any fugitive or outlaw. The first literary reference occurs in William Langland's dream vision "Piers Plowman" in the mid 14th century, in which a lazy priest confesses: I kan not parfitly my Paternoster as the preest it singeth, but I kan rymes of Robyn Hood. The earliest surviving Robin Hood ballad is "Robin Hood and the Monk," preserved in a manuscript written about 1450. Shortly after, "A Gest of Robyn Hode" attempted to unite separate episodes into a single continuous narrative. At the end of the Middle Ages, the folk hero became associated with morris dancing and mummers plays performed at holidays such as May Day (-> FW#35).
Douglas Fairbanks' silent version Robin Hood  begins with the title card: History -- in its ideal state -- is a compound of legend and chronicle and from out of both we offer you this impression of the Middle Ages.
Svmer is icumen in,
Summer has come in, loudly sing, cuckoo! The seed grows and the meadow blooms and the wood springs anew, sing, cuckoo! The ewe bleats after the lamb, the cow lows after the calf. The bullock stirs, the buck-goat turns, merrily sing, cuckoo! Cuckoo, cuckoo, well you sing, cuckoo; don't you ever stop now.
The 17th century introduced the minstrel Alan-a-Dale. Robin Hood helps him rescue his sweetheart from an unwanted marriage. Alan-a-Dale has been portrayed by singer/guitarist Elton Hayes in The Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men , who also played a minstrel in The Black Knight . In the 1938 film and Robin and Marian , the Alan-a-Dale character is merged with Will Scarlet, as actors Patrick Knowles and Denholm Elliott play an instrument and sing, respectively.
Alan-a-Dale is the musical narrator of Disney's 1973 animated Robin Hood film. The characters are portrayed as humanoid animals, elephants being trumpeters, hippos being drummers etc. Alan is depicted as a lute-playing rooster voiced by country singer Roger Dean Miller, best known for 1960's hits such as "King of the Road". Miller wrote and performed three country songs in the Robin Hood film. One of these songs, "Whistle Stop", was later sampled to form the basis of the Hampster Dance, one of the earliest examples of an Internet meme, featuring rows of animated hamsters dancing in various ways.
Actor Alan Hale played the role of Little John, Robin's second-in-command, in three subsequent Robin Hood versions, opposite to Douglas Fairbanks , Eroll Flynn  and eventually John Derek . The ballads depict him as a huge man who joins Robin after fighting him with quarterstaves over a river. Alan Hale is whistling "Sumer is icumin in" (Summer has arrived) when approaching Errol Flynn. The song is a traditional English round, written down in the mid 13th century in a precursor of modern musical notation. It has been used in several films (The Wicker Man , The Flight of Dragons , Shadowlands , Sarah, Plain and Tall ). Recently, the song was included in Richard Thompson's (-> FW#34) show "1000 Years Of Popular Music."
Alan Hale also played the minstrel Blondel in Cecil B. DeMille's The Crusades . Blondel de Nesle was a French trouvère, who took part in the Third Crusade (1189–1192).
Ja nus hons pris ne dira sa reson
No man who's jailed can tell his purpose well adroitly, as if he could feel no pain; but to console him, he can write a song. I've many friends, but all their gifts are poor; they'd be ashamed to know for ransom now two winters I've been jailed.
The legend inspired both the English band Amazing Blondel and the rock opera "Blondel" by Tim Rice and Stephen Oliver. Blondel is portrayed as a frustrated and misunderstood artist trying to make his big break as a composer by writing a song for King Richard. The real Richard wrote a song at Dürnstein, "Ja nus hons pris", expressing his feelings of abandonment by his people. It had been written in ancient French - for Richard didn't speak English.
Let's finish off with the Middle Ages by mentioning Pier Paolo Pasolini's I Racconti di Canterbury [Canterbury Tales, 1972]. Musical supervisor Ennio Morricone used Irish music as ersatz for authentic medieval music:
There was an old piper, old and hoary,
Celtic music, both vocal and instrumental music, has a prominent place on the silver screen. For Gangs of New York , set in Civil War time New York, director Martin Scorcese rejected the score composed by Elmer Bernstein, and chose instead an eclectic collection of pop and folk music supervised by The Band's guitarist Robbie Robertson. The soundtrack features U2, the Afro Celt Sound System (-> FW#10), Davy Spillane (-> FW#11), Eileen Ivers (-> FW#35), a music box playing Tom Moore's (-> FW#37) "'Tis the Last Rose of Summer," plus cameo appearances by Finbar Furey (-> FW#9) as a bar singer, asking if "New York Girls" can dance the polka, and Maura O'Connell as a street singer.
Scottish actor Gary Lewis played a ditty on the harmonica:
Marty didn't want everybody to come from the South of Ireland. So he asked me to be from the North. And I was thinking about music, and I was reading some of the research stuff, and there was an old song which we still sing in Glasgow, and it was sung in the Five Points, slightly differently. So I thought McGloin must have left the Short Strand, which was a Catholic enclave in Belfast, prior to the 1840's, and he'd have been victimized there, but living near the docks would have given him easy access to a ship. He easily could have encountered at some later time a German harmonica manufacturer who brought harmonicas to the States. So I said to Marty what if McGloin picked up a harmonica from a German sailor and played this song which to this day kids in Glasgow know? So he said okay and sat me on a bale of hay in the port and I played this tune as the Irish immigrants were coming off the boat.The Chieftains' piper Paddy Moloney did arrange one of the featured versions of "Paddy's Lamentation" and contributed some Kerry slides.
The Chieftains on the Silver Screen
Film scores are becoming more and more important for The Chieftains, their manager once said. Their music is so visually stimulating and evocative and it is very popular with directors. It all began in 1975, when the band's piper Paddy Moloney received a phone call: Hello, I'm Stanley Kubrick and I'd like to use your music in a film I'm making. Paddy had never heard of Kubrick and said, That's great Mr Kubrick, I'm afraid I can't talk to you now. Could you ring me back on Monday? His manager almost fainted: Paddy, don't you know who that was? That's the Stanley Kubrick who did 2001 and Clockwork Orange.
A few days later Paddy visited the director. Kubrick wanted to use the tune "Mná na hÉireann," a melody composed by Sean Ó Riada to an 18th century poem by Peadar Ó Doirnín (-> FW#28), as part of Barry Lyndon, where a roguish Irishman (Ryan O'Neal) travels the battlefields and parlours of 18th century Europe. Paddy took out his tin wistle to play some additional music. Kubrick looked him straight in the face and said: Come on, Paddy, that's something you hear on a Saturday night in an Irish pub when everybody's plastered. Paddy felt his heart sink but then Kubrick burst into fits of laughter and asked him to do more music. He said, Paddy, this film will make you famous. When Barry Lyndon was released, Paddy's music was singled out for special mention by the critics: What The Third Man did for Anton Karas and his zither, Stanley Kubrick's upcoming Barry Lyndon might do for The Chieftains. It did, Paddy would win an Academy Award.
Paddy's first complete film score would be the 9th century Irish legend Tristan and Isolde , starring Richard Burton. The Grey Fox  was the true story of Bill Miner who spent 33 years in San Quentin for robbing a stage coach. On his release in 1901 he goes to the newly invented cinema to see The Great Train Robbery  and gets the idea of robbing a train. The sound engineer said: There are two sides to Irish music. There are the slow airs which are very filmic and paint pictures, and the reels, jigs and hornpipes that are terribly energetic.
The Irish TV series The Year of the French  saw The Chieftains make their acting debut by playing 18th century musicians. The story follows a wandering poet at the time of the United Irishmen rising in 1798 (-> FW#7). Paddy used traditional music in a new version of Treasure Island , starring Oliver Reed and Charlton Heston. This film also marked the beginning of Paddy's collaboration with Galician piper Carlos Nunez (-> FW#34).
Director Ron Howard found inspiration for his film Far and Away  from a Chieftains' song he heard in a concert: There was one song they played about an emigrant going off to America that was bittersweet, romantic and very Irish. You know how music somehow sets you thinking, and I was day-dreaming all the way home in the car about that song. Then I started making a few notes and plot ideas. Ten years later Howard would invite the group to record for the soundtrack.
Further Reading: John Glatt, The Chieftains, 1997
As we have seen with Pasolini and Morricone, Celtic music has not been limited to Irish-related themes. The Last of the Mohicans  is a typical example of the use of Celtic Music. It had an epic score plus Dougie MacLean's (-> FW#36) "The Gael", Phil Cunningham's (-> FW#24) "The House in Rose Valley", and Irish band Clannad's (-> FW#6) "I Will Find You". Clannad's new age folk music fits perfectly well in the mood of many films, e.g. the entire soundtrack of the Robin of Sherwood TV series [1984-86]. Their singer Moya Brennan (-> FW#35) sang over the end credits of King Arthur ; even more so, Moya's sister Enya contributed to a lot of different movies, including period features such as Far and Away , The Age of Innocence  and Telmisseomding [Tell Me Something, 1999].
Let's get back on the timeline. Baroque music (-> FW#36) with its harpsichords and string orchestras has been appropriate for quite different things, on one hand for muzak in cafés and elevators, on the other for the quintessential soundtrack to the era between the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution. Only recently, Clive Owen was dancing to a volta in Elizabeth: The Golden Age , composed by lutenist John Dowland. So I did always wonder why the producers of The Scarlet Empress , with Marlene Dietrich starring as Russian Tsarina Catherine II. (1729-96), used a lush score of 19th century composers Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky and, above all, Richard Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries."
The Baroque era is also the age of the swashbuckler. The term describes a boastful swordsman who carried a sword and a buckler (a small shield).
They seek him here, they seek him there|
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere
Is he in heaven, or is he in hell?
That d'mned, elusive, Pimpernel
Authors who specialized in swashbuckler fiction include Alexandre Dumas (The Three Musketeers, The Man in the Iron Mask, The Count of Monte Cristo), the Baroness Orczy (The Scarlet Pimpernel), Sir Walter Scott (Rob Roy), Johnston McCulley (Zorro), Paul Féval (The Hunchback), and Edmond Rostand (Cyrano de Bergerac). Rafael Sabatini who wrote 38 novels, including The Sea Hawk, Scaramouche, Captain Blood, as well as two scholarly books on Cesare Borgia and Torquemada, took it very seriously: To produce historical romance of any value, it is necessary first to engage in researches so exhaustive as to qualify one to write a history of the epoch in which the romance is set.
Swashbuckler films impress with both lavish costumes and sets and triumphant and thrilling music.
If I were king -- ah love, if I were king!
The swashbuckler genre includes a couple of artist biographies: sculptor Benvenuto Cellini, writer Beaumarchais, and more than once -- the famed French poet and vagabond rogue François Villon, according to the first title card of The Beloved Rogue : poet, pickpocket, patriot -- loving France earnestly, Frenchwomen excessively, French wine exclusively.
The Irish playwright Justin H. McCarthy wrote If I Were King in 1902, imagining a swashbuckling Villon who is given the opportunity to rule France and drive off the Burgundian army from Paris for to save himself from the gallows. The accompanying ballad seems to be made up entirely by McCarthy.
The play proved to be a long-running success for actor Sir George Alexander and a favourite on the silver screen for the next decades. Villon has been portrayed by actors such as William Farnum , John Barrymore , Ronald Colman , and Serge Reggiani . In 1925, composer Rudolf Friml turned it into a successful Broadway musical, The Vagabond King. It was filmed twice - in 1930 and 1956, starring Dennis King and Oreste Kirkop, respectively. Both films used only little of Friml's original score.
Soon after the real Villon disappeared into oblivion, the English started to build their empire where the sun never set. "Rule Britannia" became the leitmotif of Herbert Stothart's score for Mutiny on the Bounty . On the screen, seamen were playing fiddles and concertinas, dancing hornpipes, and singing sea shanties.
The most famous of all shanties, "What Shall We Do with the Drunken Sailor?," is a 19th century work song often sung when raising a sail or raising the anchor. The air was taken from a traditional Irish march tune, "Oró Sé do Bheatha 'Bhaile".
Pull on the oars|
Strike for the shores of Dover
Pull with the sea, hearty and free,
Troubles will soon be over
Sing as you go, here we go,
For we know that we row
For home, sweet home
In Hollywood's Golden Age, however, it was common to feature rather operatic songs than the real thing. Thus sailors were chanting "Strike for the Shores of Dover" to Erich Wolfgang Korngold's sumptuos music in The Sea Hawk , after being freed from the Spanish galleys.
Vangelis' score of The Bounty , on the other hand, has been criticized as wildly inappropriate for a period film because of using rhythmic synthesizer music to represent Lieutenant Bligh and the rigid order in the British navy. Vangelis also suggested natural sounds such as wind, waves, tribal drums and ship’s bells as a part of his score. He later repeated this style in 1492 - Conquest of Paradise .
Some traditional Tahitian songs used in the film were recorded on location. Some traditional songs are performed by English folk singer and fiddler Barry Dransfield,
The water is wide, I can't cross over |
Neither have I wings to fly
Give me a boat that can carry two
And both shall row, my love and I
In Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World , Captain Jack Aubrey (played by Russel Crowe) and the ship's surgeon (Paul Bettany) perform Baroque and classical music on violin and cello. Both actors studied hard for their roles, though Paul Bettany frankly confessed:
Adieu to you Spanish Ladies
Safe and sound at home again,
Scrape-scrape, screech-screech, according to the ships's cook Killick (David Threlfall), never a tune you could dance to, not if you were drunk as Davy's sow. The able seamen are dancing to Chieftains-like music, you can see fiddle and bodhrán and hear uilleann pipes.
The sailors are also singing "Adieu to You Spanish Ladies," a late 18th century shanty sung as the capstan was turned to raise the anchor. Midshipman Hollom (Lee Ingleby) joins in and the doctor is slagging him what a wonderfully true voice Mr Hollom possesses. In Patrick O'Brian's novel Hollom plays a guitar to accompany his singing, and there exists a photograph of Ingleby strumming a guitar which is not in the film. The vocal outbreak of this thoughtless young men is followed by "The British Tars," a broadside ballad of the early 19th century, sung to the tune of "The Bonny Ship the Diamond."
"Adieu to you Spanish Ladies" is also sung by sailors in the Moby Dick novel (the film features concertina player Alf Edwards) and also appears in the Jaws film . There has been another "Spanish Lady" in Fire over England , sung by Vivien Leigh. A broadside of this ballad was printed in the mid 18th century as "The Spanish Lady's love to an English Sailor," the film is set in 1588.
Back to the officer's mess in Master and Commander . The officers praise their captain Lucky Jack with "Don't Forget Your Old Shipmates," a popular naval song of the Napoleonic era. Back then music on a British man-of-war was limited to the spare time of the sailors. In the early 19th century, work songs and shanties were not allowed, except for fiddle or fife tunes when heavy hauling was performed.
Pirates are popular fellas, though shady characters at best, if not ferocious cutthroats. Their popularity is illustrated in the preface of The Black Pirate silent movie : Being an account of Buccaneers and the Spanish Main, the Jolly Roger, Golden Galleons, bleached skulls, Buried Treasure, the Plank, dirks and cutlasses, Scuttled Ships, Marooning, Desperate Deeds, Desperate Men, and -- even on this dark soil - Romance.
Recently I asked if there were distinguished pirate songs (-> FW#36, FW#37).
I remember [Billy Bones] as if it were yesterday, as he came plodding to the inn door, his sea-chest following behind him in a hand-barrow--a tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man, his tarry pigtail falling over the shoulder of his soiled blue coat, his hands ragged and scarred, with black, broken nails, and the sabre cut across one cheek, a dirty, livid white. I remember him looking round the cover and whistling to himself as he did so, and then breaking out in that old sea-song that he sang so often afterwards:
"Fifteen men on the dead man's chest--
The mother of all pirate songs is a fictional snippet featured in Robert Louis Stevenson's 1881 novel "Treasure Island". Stevenson probably found the name "Dead Man's Chest" in a book by Charles Kingsley, "At Last: A Christmas in the West Indies", referring to an island in the Caribbean said to be a hideout for buccaneers and smugglers. In 1891 the poet Young E. Allison expanded the original lines into a poem with six verses named "Derelict". In 1901 music was added to the lyrics for a Broadway rendition of the novel.
Treasure Island has been filmed over 30 times, including a Muppet musical. The song is also used in the Revenge of the Pink Panther . Peter Sellers is disguised as a pirate with an inflatable parrot and a faux-peg leg. He tries to sing the song but mixes up the words: Sixteen chests on a dead man's rum, yo-ho-ho and a bottle of the chest.
The song became popular again with the Pirates of the Caribbean theme park ride at Disneyland, when writers Xavier Atencio and George Bruns merged it into "Yo Ho (A Pirate's Life for Me)." The theme ride was recently expanded into the Pirates of the Caribbean film trilogy. While "Yo Ho" is featured in the first, The Curse of the Black Pearl, Kevin McNally sings "Dead Man's Chest" in the sequel Dead Man's Chest . Eventually, "Hoist the Colours" is a newly composed song for the final At World's End .
Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow is both incarnation and caricature of the pirate swashbuckler. He said that he had based his performance upon rock guitarist Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. Subsequently Richards appeared in a cameo role as Jack Sparrow's father,
Fifteen men on a dead man's chest |
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!
Drink and the devil had done for the rest
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum!
The mate was fixed by the boatswain's pike
The boatswain brained with a marlinspike
And cookey's throat was marked belike
It had been gripped by fingers ten;
And there they lay, all good dead men
Like break o'day in a boozing ken
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.
We're devils, we're black sheep, we're really bad eggs
At least, Keith Richards knew how to pluck his strings. When the Davy Jones character is playing the organ, his tentacles move up and down on the keyboard, not matching the music at all. But it was looking pretty cool!
We are at the dawn of the modern age now. George MacDonald Fraser, author of the Flashman novels and subsequent film, screenwriter of The Three Musketeers  and The Prince and the Pauper , wrote:
But if the Musketeer spirit runs through the films of those two centuries [1600-1800], it is accompanied by a sense that the legendary days are past, and history is beginning to get serious. Modern times, after all, began sometime in the seventeenth century. The world's horizons opened, outwards and inwards, the English-speaking people questioned and changed their system of government, new ideas took root and grew with alarming speed, science and exploration fuelled the process, and in two long lifetimes, no more, the time had sped from Elizabeth to the steam locomotive. Set a film between 1600 and 1800 and you could not ignore that it touched on matters of real importance, like colonial expansion, the Pilgrim Fathers, the British Civil War, the contest for the New World, the rise of parliamentary government, the American War of Independence, the French Revolution, free speech, democracy, the Industrial Revolution, exploding shells, and the spread of literacy. When Robin led Maid Marian out of the great hall at Nottingham Castle, it was into a world that would never alter, but when the The Scarlet Pimpernel brings his lady back from France, we know quite well that their grandchildren are going to drive cars, use zip fasteners, and get cut off on the phone.
Brian Taves adds:
In depiction of times prior to the 1800s, adventure formulas may be recited with a sprightly, idealistic tone. Only in portrayals of the nineteenth century does more complexity appear; not until the Napoleonic conflicts does war lose some of its glamour and adventure begin its decline. Situations and emotions grow more difficult, and duty less clear. Lawrence of Arabia  portrays the transition, the time when adventure ended and the modern era began, represented by another genre, the war movie.
I consider it quite fitting that "La Madrugá" sounds during the dramatic climax of Alatriste , a march used in many Easter week processions in Spain, giving the last scene a feeling of suffering and inevitability. The swan song of an era, partly of a film genre too. Hollywood during the course of the 20th century introduced screen history to the public and produced successful period movies until declining to B- and C-features. Period actions movies eventually made way for the fantasy film.
The banner of screen history was kept up by made-for-television-films, docu-dramas, series and serials. Shakespeare's
T:-)M's Best-Loved Period Pictures:
Though celluloid history is a past imperfect, their imperfections are distinctive. According to Mark C. Carnes: Hollywood History fills irritating gaps in the historical record and polishes dulling ambiguities and complexities. The final product gleams, and it sears the imagination. In any case, a movie script is not a dissertation; a feature film is not a documentary.
George MacDonald Fraser remarked that Hollywood producers
paid the audience the compliment of supposing them to have at least an elementary knowledge of, and interest in, times past, and with all their faults (and they were many) they took history seriously. In view of some of the monstrosities that have been put on the screen, that may seem a bold claim. There is a popular belief that where history is concerned, Hollywood always gets it wrong - and sometimes it does. What is overlooked is the astonishing amount of history Hollywood has got right, and the immense unacknowleged debt which we owe to the commercial cinema as an illuminator of the story of mankind. This although films have sometimes blundered and distorted and falsified, have botched great themes and belittled great men and women, have trivialised and caricatured and cheapened, have piled anachronism on solecism on downward lie - still, at their best, they have given a picture of the ages more vivid and memorable than anything in Tacitus or Gibbon or Macaulay, and to an infinitely wider audience. Nor have they necessarily been less scrupulous. At least they have shown history, more faithfully than they are usually given credit for, as it was never seen before. For better or worse, nothing has been more influential in shaping our visions of the past than the commercial cinema. As James Thurber is alleged to have said of The Ten Commandments: It makes you realise what God could have done if He'd had the money.
Well, Hollywood is not a school for teaching history; its business is making money out of entertainment, and history needs considerable editing and adapation (which can, in some cases, justifiably be called distortion and falsification) before it is submitted to the paying public. The screenwriter is not writing history, but fashioning drama, and like Shakespeare before him he supplements fact with fiction as seems best to him. There have been glaring cases of distortion, more often of trivialisation, and most frequently of all, of harmless embroidery.
It is worth remembering that the often-despised film moguls were the greatest patrons of the arts since time began: Hollywood employed more scholars and experts and diverse talents than any philantropic or learned institution - and, incidentally, paid them better. If some of the images were blemished, they were better than no images at all. They gave us something that the historian cannot. Historical fiction can work in turning readers to historical fact; Hollywood, by providing splendid entertainment, has sent people to the history shelves in their millions.
Let me finish off with Gore Vidal, who used to joke that his life has paralleled the entire history of the talking picture. He once said:
From earliest days, the movies have been screening history, and if one saw enough movies, one learned quite a lot of simple-minded history. From Gutenberg's machine to radio, history was prosed for us. Current history-in-the-making came to us, as did past history, through ink upon a page, and if the historian or journalist was sufficiently powerful in his deployment of words - Shakespeare as Tudor publicist, say - what we read often became more real to us than what we knew to be the case even when we had some firsthand knowledge of a written-about occasion. Radio caused a shift from eye to ear. The human voice dramatized as well as described, while music could be artfully added, producing melo-drama. Radio was a mechanical reversion to the world before the fifth century BC when poets and town criers sang the news, and no one read. Movies changed our world forever. Henceforth, history would be screened.
For the first thirty years of the cinema's existence the films may have been silent but the places in which they were shown rarely were. (P. French)
To the German FolkWorld
© The Mollis - Editors of FolkWorld; Published 11/2008
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