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The Comedy of Errors

Historical Films: Our Favourite Movies About the Past

5 July 21 words: LeftLion Screen Team

With our latest issue of the mag focusing on Nottingham Castle, an iconic landmark throughout the city's history, we thought we'd discuss our favourite films depicting the past... 

Ashley Carter (Editor) - Waterloo (1970) 

In terms of accuracy, energy, scale and that rare ability to so perfectly capture a specific moment in time, it’s hard to look past Sergei Bondarchuk’s Waterloo. Not only is it a commendably truthful portrayal of the most famous battle in history, it also manages to condense a single day of blind chaos into a concise 134-minute running time without ever losing its narrative focus. Rod Steiger and Christopher Plummer are perfectly cast as Napoleon and Wellington, two foes with a begrudging admiration for one another, and the weight of their respective nations on their shoulders.

Far from being a bombastic spectacle of blood and violence, Bondarchuk’s film delves into the psychology behind the unimaginable amount of pressure the two men are under, flitting between large-scale set pieces and moments of quiet introspective voiceover. It wasn’t a success on its release, but it certainly holds up as a legitimate masterpiece of historical cinema.

George White (Screen Co-Editor) - Sharpe's Company (1994) 

Sure, realism isn’t the main focus of the Sharpe series of films (yes, films - this is definitely not a TV series…) but each release is compelling nonetheless – and Sharpe’s Company is perhaps the best of the lot. Sean Bean is a phenomenal force every time he graces the screen as the iconic rifleman, elevating the shoddy scriptwriting to impressive levels with his no-nonsense acting and legendary accent. 

Yet in Company, Pete Postlethwaite steals the show as the utterly detestable Obadiah Hakeswill, proving a thorn in Sharpe’s side and a constant source of disgust for the audience. Set in 1812 Badajoz as the British try to wrestle a fortress from their French foes, Hakeswill proves the real enemy of the film, consistently sinking to new and inconceivable lows as time goes on. Brimming with tension, violence and deceit, this is one hell of a movie.

Jamie Morris (Screen Co-Editor) - Ran (1985)

Akira Kurosawa had four decades of filmmaking experience and over two dozen feature films under his belt when he directed 1985’s Ran. Even the industry’s greatest talents would be forgiven for losing their touch by then, but the Seven Samurai director remained as sharp as a katana and his final epic is one of the highlights of his career.

Ran was the most expensive Japanese film to date when it was released, shot on-location at some of the country’s most famous castles and featuring 1,400 armour-clad extras. All this adds up to a compelling and colourful film that stands among the finest samurai epics ever made.

Hilary Whiteside - Apocalypse Now (1979)

Apocalypse Now is one of a cluster of popular American films released in the late seventies focusing on the Vietnam War. Coppola raised a number of pertinent questions armed with the hindsight of reflection. American patriotism is scrutinised, as well as the validity of waging a war on foreign soil. Man’s psychological frailty is explored in an alien, macho world and, poignantly, Coppola graphically exposes the absolute disrespect for human life and a country’s culture. It is very much an anti-war movie reflecting the politically charged, pro-peace movement of the time.

The film follows the river journey of Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) from South Vietnam to Cambodia as he embarks on a mission to assassinate a renegade officer (Marlon Brando). Part of the success of the film lies in the range of emotions that Coppola captures and transfers onto the screen. Fear, menace, sadness, euphoria, hatred. The seeping heat, unsettling sounds, sheer isolation and hidden threats of the tropical jungle are palpable as Willard makes his way down the river. It is utterly consuming.

Jake Leonard - Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) 

Inspired by Gonzalo Pizarro's failed expedition to find the mythical city of El Dorado, Werner Herzog's claustrophobic epic is an atmospheric gem.
Surrendering to the perils of his location, Herzog is able to offer a genuine exploration of order and chaos, spirituality and humanity, place and people, greed and obsession, colonialism and commodity. The scenes on rafts in the river rapids are especially terrifying, with Thomas Mauch's brilliant handheld cinematography really adding to the experience. And the performances are just as thrilling – though Klaus Kinski steals the show as the unhinged Aguirre, who will stop at nothing to succeed (no matter how impossible that is).
This is a tough but mesmerising work from one of the riskiest, finest, and most ambitious filmmakers in the business, capturing the mystery and grandeur of a strange, ridiculous, and horrifying story almost lost to history.

Katie Green - My Fair Lady (1964)

My Fair Lady, the classic sixties musical starring the beauty of the era, Audrey Hepburn, is a tale that has been reimagined in multiple ways in some other films you may be familiar with - one being a personal favourite of mine, Pretty Woman. The well-educated Professor Henry Higgins takes the cockney working-class girl Eliza Doolittle under his wing to improve her job prospects.

As every musical goes, there is one song that stands out, and for me that is I Could Have Danced All Night. My Fair Lady is a historical film and, despite being older than a lot of our readers, is a musical that can be enjoyed by all ages – with a soundtrack to sing at the top of your lungs and a plot that truly lures you in.

Sebastian Mann - A Field in England (2013) 

Four men, all deserters from the English Civil War, trundle through the psychedelically scary English countryside of yore, following a man who may or may not be the Devil himself in Ben Wheatley’s blackly funny 2013 gem A Field in England. The man, O’Neill (Michael Smiley), is searching for lost treasure, dragging the ailing, drunk band of cowards with him as he scours a barren field that breathes as if it were alive. 

Directing on a shoe-string budget, Wheatley says a lot of the inspiration comes from accounts of people grinding up and eating hallucinogenic mushrooms, and how they would fall under the hypnotic influence of performing magicians. It’s not a film for everyone by any means, with its startling freak-outs and peculiar tone, but if you’re a fan of low-budget weirdness and the English countryside, you’ll find plenty to love. 

Chris King - The Quick and the Dead (1995) 

The Old West. For almost as long as cinema has been bringing us tales of epic adventure, we’ve had a fascination with America’s lawless frontier. Good guys with white horses and whiter teeth. Outlaws in black; loveable anti-heroes or just straight up evil people.

Most would point you towards John Wayne and Clint Eastwood for the epitome of the western genre. Me? I bring you Sam Raimi's Nineties classic, The Quick and the Dead. It has everything: betrayal, family, a lone gun-slinger, and more High Noon quickdraws than you can shake a six shooter at. Combine that with a stellar cast of Sharon Stone, Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Crowe and Gene Hackman and you’ve got yourself the perfect western.

Stone’s ‘Lady’ is on a journey of revenge, but Raimi’s classic has more heart than you’d expect. So saddle up and enjoy the ride.

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