History as romantic mush

Submitted by AWL on 22 November, 2007 - 10:19 Author:

Elizabeth, the Golden Age reviewed.

I have a lasting grievance against Solidarity. Why? Because on the recommendation of its review of the film Elizabeth (Elizabeth I to the new Elizabeth II so to speak) I went to see Elizabeth, the Golden Age. It was more than the disappointment you expect from all such films.

Almost all “historical” drama is inaccurate. In history, satisfying dramatic moments like, for example, Trotsky at the Congress of Soviets shouting after the Mensheviks and others who walked out in protest at the greatest democratic revolution in history “go — to the dustbin of history”, are rare. They are, of course the very stuff of drama, so suitable “moments” are concocted.

Some historical dramas manipulate events and characters and imaginary confrontations to illustrate a vision of historical events which corresponds to the truth, as the author has it. A firm favourite in the many plays and films dealing with the reign of Elizabeth is to have Elizabeth and the first cousin she first imprisoned and then had beheaded, Mary Queen of Scots, confront each other. In fact they never met.

Some explore real history by way of a fiction set against a real historical background.

Some dance around a subject by putting real figures into illuminating relationships which in history they never had. The Royal Hunt of the Sun, a play and then a movie, focusses on an imaginary personal relationship between the Inca king Atahualpa and his Spanish captor, Francisco Pizarro.

Then there are Hollywood-type “historical” films, which is what Elizabeth the Golden Age is. These are historical fairy-tales. In this one Elizabeth and Mary don’t meet, but it is a rare nod to historical truth.

What annoyed me about the first film was not such things as its portrayal of the Earl of Leicester, Elizabeth’s long time favourite and, perhaps, paramour, as one of the chief villains. What annoyed me was the film’s claim that, in an age of wars between Catholic and Protestant Europe, it presented Elizabeth as a ruler who found a tolerant middle way between “extreme” Catholics and “extreme” Protestants. It made her almost a modern Guardian liberal confronting political Islam, a liberal for our age of religious indifference.

This was Elizabeth I the monarch in whose reign not one but two genocidal wars were fought in Ireland — with religion, Catholic versus Elizabeth’s state church, a major element in both of them.

Munster was laid waste at the beginning of the 1580s and Ulster in the 1590s, during Elizabeth’s last decade. This was systematic, deliberate butchery designed to kill off and “clear” the native inhabitants off the land.

Elizabeth did, I understand, once say that on religion she would “not make windows in men’s souls”, but that meant only that they could think what they liked so long as outwardly they accepted the state religion and discharged their obligations in regular worship and the payment of tithes to uphold the established clergy. “Recusant” Catholics and others were fined for not attending the state church.

A modern, enlightened liberal, Elizabeth I was not. In real history she could not conceivably have been that then.

The same lie is there at the start of Elizabeth the Golden Age, which contrasts the enlightened Elizabeth with her one-time brother-in-law, King Phillip of Spain.

The centrepiece of the film is the Spanish attempt to invade England in 1588 — the “Spanish Armada”. The drama of Mary Queen of Scots is a subordinate part of this story. Mary, who was French-bred, is here played by Samantha Morton (with a Scottish accent, no less.) A young-like Elizabeth — the real one was in her middle-fifties — is shown in shining Angel Gabriel armour addressing her soldiers to prepare them to resist the expected invasion. For centuries a speech was supposed to have been made by Elizabeth at Tilbury on the eve of Armada, in which she famously told the soldiers, “we are no petty people”. Probably she never made it — but at least it was an impressive speech. In this film she makes a non descript speech crafted for modern ears.

The real Armada was defeated by adverse winds which scattered the ships far and wide. Some of them were wrecked off the Irish coast; those sailors who survived were slaughtered en masse by the Queen’s servitors in Ireland.

Here Walter Raleigh, who in life and achievements was no “petty” man, does old-style swashbuckling Hollywood heroics. He rams a burning ship into the massed Spanish galleons and jumps into the water for his life. Errol Flynn stuff.

Sir Francis Drake, one of the commanders of the ships against the Armada, does not appear at all in the film.

In real history “good Queen Bess”, once the danger was gone, refused to pay the sailors who had gone against the Armada and many of them died of starvation.

The struggle of the savage English state which automatically tortured its lower class prisoners against the Jesuit “terrorists” who stalked Elizabeth is, as in the first Elizabeth, a major strand in this one. The Pope excommunicated Elizabeth on the eve of the Armada and that meant that her life had a sort of fatwa on it. Catholics were assumed to be disloyal harbourers of outlawed priests and papal agents. Many were hostile to the heretic Queen. Many harboured priests. But the evidence now points to the serious involvement of the state in setting up famous but in fact half-imaginary conspiracies for its own manipulative purposes.

That state, after Elizabeth’s death seems to have largely concocted the infamous Guy Fawkes conspiracy to blow up the Houses of Parliament. At the very least state provocateurs played a major part in the affair. It justified and licensed repression.

Elizabeth the Golden Age conveys some idea of the ferocity of that state, and thus has some realistic notes, but these are sunk in the romantic, Elizabeth-glorifying mush.

Is it worth seeing? I found it dull: boring as well as insubstantial. So, dear reader, if you come out of it disappointed and disgruntled, don’t say I recommended it!