Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Shooting the Empire

This was meant to be a review of Avatar but as I can't be bothered to actually go and see the film it's going to be something else.

As a film Avatar's probably all right, but whilst I enjoyed FernGully and Aliens I'm not sure I want to see them both at the same time. As a teenager I had to endure watching the Ewoks destroy what credibility the Star Wars franchise ever had, so I don't want to go risk going through that again.

In reading the reviews I was interested to see the US Christian Post write
"If you can get a theater full of people in Kentucky to stand and applaud the defeat of their country in war, then you've got some amazing special effects."
No doubt they write that about ever film that doesn't have John Wayne in it, but it's an interesting comment.

The American Empire does get a regular thrashing in American cinemas for a variety of reasons, mainly though because they refuse to recognise that they actually are an empire.

300 was very popular amongst the sort of people who read Christian Post because it depicted macho Caucasian Spartans fighting off the vast multiracial Persian Empire. The invading Persians are portrayed as effeminate and materialistic whilst the stay-at-home Athenians are ribbed for being shirt lifting philosophers. When you consider all your country's virtues as vices are you really still a patriot?

It's more Hulk Hogan than Herodotus and it would be interesting to know what the Taliban made of it: clean living macho warriors taking on a wealthy, diverse and promiscuous empire? Hmm, I wonder which side they'd identify with?

We too had an Empire once though, and it survived long enough to make it into the age of cinema. Movies about Britain' colonial wars though were only ever second rate westerns, and never really managed the mythic quality that John Ford and Sergio Leone were eventually to bring to that genre. Many of them were actually made by the Americans, including Lives of a Bengal Lancer, apparently Hitler's favourite film. The best of the pre-war crop though is British through and through. The 1939 version of The Four Feathers (the third of five versions of the film) has Ralph Richardson invading the Sudan to depose a Muslim fundamentalist regime. However the film is keen not to make too many political points and just portrays the Brits as trying to nick someone else's country for the sake of it.

The most famous film of Britain's colonial wars though is undoubtedly Zulu. It's director probably wouldn't be too popular with the Christian Post either. Cy Endfield was a Yank who was called a Communist by the House Un-American Activities Committee and ended up living in Warwickshire.

The film features clean cut young soldiers in smart uniforms, led by a dashing young Michael Cane, driving off clean limbed young Zulus by singing Men of Harlech ("For God sake sing something they know" Max Wall once quipped).

In reality the Brits were a scruffy lot, only seven of whom were Welsh, who'd been in South Africa for long enough to grow considerable beards and to shed most of their regulation uniform. Cane's character wasn't young either and was still only a Lieutenant mainly on account of not being very clever. Being regarded as thick by the Victorian British Army must have been quite an achievement.

But if the Brits were rather more mature than portrayed the Zulus were positively ancient. The battle was fought by a veteran regiment made up of warriors who must have all been in their 40s or 50s. Considering the battle lasted 24 hours and the Zulus had to leap a 9 foot wall to get at the British they must have been tough old codgers.

Zulu came out though in 1963, by which time the British Empire was pretty much over bar the shouting. The next year a rather different version of Britain's Imperial situation could be seen in The Guns of Batasi. Set in an African nation on the cusp of independence it features a group of tough British NCOs beseiged by African rebels. The Brits, led by an utterly believable Richard Attenborough, invoke the Rorke's Drift spirit and prepare for an epic battle, but things are now more complicated. Everyone, African and British, is confused about their role and courage seems as misplaced as loyalty.

And so ended the British Empire on screen. Four years later Carry On...Up The Kyber came out and nobody could take it seriously ever again.

1 comment:

graham said...

My dear Snufkin, you do crack me up. Love your little flashes of wit over on the Guardian, much like the opening remark here. Anyway, thanks for the link to my place - I've returned the complement.

Graham