Costume pictures mess with history and never look back Dressing Up The Past

June 23, 1995|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

What's past isn't prologue these days, it's dialogue.

In fact, a mini-boomlet for the spring and summer has been your old friend from the '40s and '50s, the costume picture, set in a gaily imagined yesterdayland. Already we've had "Rob Roy" and "Braveheart," both transpiring in Scotland 400 and 700 years ago, and the Disney animated feature "Pocahontas," which has just opened, set in Colonial Virginia 400 years ago. And "First Knight" is set to open shortly, another visit to the fabled but authentic Camelot.

The three films that have already opened bear certain clinical similarities. All, of course, claim some minor contact with actual history: a William Wallace, Scottish nobleman and genius general, did in fact exist before Mel Gibson got around to impersonating him behind a half-blue face; a Rob Roy MacGregor, Scottish cattle thief and rebel, did indeed bedevil English forces in the Highlands at the turn of the 18th century, though his true publicity agent was Sir Walter Scott, who used him as the centerpiece of a stirring novel in the next century. And in 1605, an Indian princess did put her head over an English captive's and prevent his brains from being turned into cottage cheese. Her name was Pocahontas; his name was John Smith. I doubt, however, that she looked so much like Tia Carrere as the Disney movie has it, and I doubt he looked so much like Fabio.

All, furthermore, conform to a conceit of history, somewhat out of date or at least under fire but beloved of popular culture, which might be called the Great Man theory. It argues that the heroic individual is capable of dominating an era far more than abstract economic or political forces. The Gibson picture is particularly insistent on this issue, watching as a "common man" discovers a motivation and then his own genius for warfare and essentially leads a rebellion that rocks an empire. "Rob Roy" works on a smaller scale, but pushes the same idea; "Pocahontas" isn't about military leadership but moral leadership, in which, by example, the purity of the Indian princess prevents war and instructs the men of both red and white tribes in a gentler way of being.

The movies together raise interesting points: Who owns the past? What freedoms do artists have in re-interpreting it by the lights of their own time? Was Orwell right in "1984" when he noted that Big Brother's first principle of tyranny was "Who controls the past controls the future"? And, I suppose finally, does anybody care?

Not many have cared over the course of time. Traditionally, in American film culture, we've sat back with a complacent smile as moviemakers have mangled history and turned it into mass-cult Pablum. Look more carefully, however, and you'll see that, fundamentally, two theories of the past have squabbled on screen, the romantic and the revisionist. These two exist at the far ends of the spectrum of remembrance, and to a large degree, they still control the films we see today.

In the beginning . . .

The romantic, of course, is the traditional costume drama set in a pristine past, where the peasants are merry, the nobles witty, the women beautiful and the swordplay well-choreographed. Everybody's clean, centuries before running water. The fundamental realities of weather, sanitation and biology are avoided like the plague, which is also avoided. Only in its glorified unreality could a fabulous creature like Errol Flynn come to exist, with his dapper little mustache, his acrobaticism, his utter charm and his debonair suavity. Flynn, cavalier, boulevardier, '30s swordsman in every way, is the consummate phony movie image of the past, standing for a whole school -- Tony Curtis, Cornel Wilde, Stewart Granger were among the many to follow in the swashbuckler's footsteps -- that saw the foreign country of the past as a theme park.

Alfred Hitchcock is reported to have said of such films that he could never make a movie like that, because he could never imagine the characters in those fancy outfits going to the bathroom. But in the revisionist films, one could imagine everybody going to the bathroom, all the time, and usually in the street.

It's hard to date a beginning, but the first film that was entirely devoted to a revisionist vision of the past had to be Tony Richardson's wonderful "Tom Jones" of 1963. Its view of yesteryear was radically different from the satin plush offerings of Hollywood: It saw the 18th century as a bloody, muddy, licentious sewer, full of toothless crones, filth, flies, wanton women with their breasts hanging out, savagery, corpses and the like (derived, one suspects, from English engravings of the time by Thomas Hogarth).

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