Friday, 26 February 2010

Thoughts on treatment on film of historical personages

I've just completed reading Lytton Strachey's quite excellent biography 'Queen Victoria'. Such lucid, stylish and fluid writing - even presented me with half-a-dozen 'new' words with which I was unfamiliar, which I like in a book. But we all know this monarch from early photographs as the squat, po-faced, matriarchal figure in advanced age. However, apparently even as a child, she had unprepossessing looks, a rather short, dumpy figure with projecting upper teeth and weak chin. Now setting this against her representation in last year's film 'Young Victoria' where Emily Blunt looks as though the character would have graced a 'Miss World' line-up, then one gets some idea of the extent of historical 'accuracy' of this film in particular. But this is hardly something new. All films, from whichever country, have glamourised their past. There have been so many films featuring Queen Elizabeth I but, as far as I know, not one of them has even dared to hint that even in middle age she possessed hopelessly rotten teeth (the ones remaining in her head, that is), that she became almost totally bald, and that in order to cover up the pock-marks on her face she wore face-cream, reputedly, up to an inch thick - the latter being some exaggeration, one might think. (Would a film featuring George Washington have the guts to display a portrayal of him with wooden teeth?) I accept that the 'truth' can often work against the success of a historical film but on the other hand I do believe that a little more attempt at veracity has its own dramatic potential, though maybe not in the way most members of an audience would care to see, sanitisation being rather more palatable. I could go on further at some length but at least I've got it off my chest.


  1. Teeth in films are a pet peeve of mine. I see movies in which the actors are playing a character from, say the middle ages, and at some point the character smiles and all I can see are perfect, gleaming white teeth. It instantly snaps me out of the moment and makes me hate the movie from then on out.

    I agree with you that a greater attempt at accuracy is much needed. Yes, people had bad teeth and nails and hair and skin in the olden days. That's why God created theatrical makeup and prosthetics. Use them!

  2. Larry, as a post-script, I could mention that the Monty Python team, after making 'M.P. & the Holy Grail', thought that it had been a mistake to have had the characters with healthy teeth. But it was later pointed out to them that as sugar, the main cause of tooth decay, had yet to reach these shores, their presentation was, in fact, quite accurate. So if Monty Python was concerned with historical accuracy, even when taking the piss out of Arthurian legend, why can't everybody?

  3. Ray, people do have things mixed up a bit. They think illusion is their lovely wife and truth is the harlot on the street corner.