Sunday, November 16, 2003

Historical Perspectives

Diana didn't like Master and Commander. Her biggest grievance was the fact that the plot, which takes place in 1805, portrays British as the Good Guys, while the villains are nasty, evil French. For Diana French-bashing in this film is motivated with current politics and represents insult to the history, since French and Americans happened to be allies at the time.

I never saw the film nor did I read Patrick O'Brian's novels (I'm currently trying to find time for the first one). However, I heard that Far Side of the World, 10th novel in the series, which served as basis for the film, doesn't feature French as the main villains. Bad Guys in the novel are Americans, and this is historically correct, because USA and UK used to be enemies in the beginning of 19th Century.

Diana falls victim to usual error of those who approach period films, novels and stories from strictly contemporary perspective. In case of USA, this happens because USA, unlike Europe, was more-or-less single political entity, never having to go through shifting alliances, uprisings and revolutions (with exception of civil war that Americans still refuse to call "American"). Americans, at least until the late unpleasantness, seemed to view France as something of a sister to their republic – French helped American Revolution and later Americans for inspiration to make their own; French and Americans were allies in two world wars - or three, if we count Napoleonic period.

As for French being villains of Napoleonic period, I tend to think that portraying Napoleon as 19th Century Hitler and British as noble saviours of Europe ("You would all speak French, if not for our boys at Waterloo") is little bit simplistic (and not in line with the facts – Wellington's butt at Waterloo was saved by black-clad goose-stepping Prussians led by insane militarist). But, then again, average Spaniard, Russian, German or Dutch would be more inclined to think in those terms – their countries were under brutal occupation and people there resisted just as some people under similar circumstances would resist in WW2.

To view 1805 Europe and world through 20th Century and 21st Century political perspective is wrong. In 1940s French were either "surrendering monkeys" or noble resistance fighters fighting superior enemy who occupied their country; in early 1800s they were greatest military power in the world, bent on global domination. Knowing how Hollywood likes to handle history in recent times, any film that doesn't shy away from facts that are alien to contemporary audience deserves at least some respect.


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