Jack Hight

Author of Historical Fiction

Popped Culture

I have made a shameful mistake.  And I don’t mean failing to blog for the last two months, although I suppose that is a bit shameful, too.  No, this is a far more nefarious error: as one of my readers pointed out, I failed to include any westerns on my list of favorite historical fiction movies.  This is a terrible oversight, not only because westerns clearly qualify as historical fiction, but also because some of my favorite films are westerns.  In fact, I love the genre so much that a western has to be pretty terrible for me to not enjoy it.  So, to make up for the oversight, I’m giving westerns their very own top-ten list:

1)    The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966) – The history makes no sense.  Battling Union and Confederate armies in the desert?  Huh?  But the film is brilliant.  The story is quite good, especially for a western.  Three gunslingers are searching for hidden gold against the background of civil war.  Two know the location of the cemetery where it is buried; the third knows the name of the grave.  This clever setup becomes a thing of beauty in the capable hands of director Sergio Leone, whose long shots let tension build and build before the guns start blazing.  It also doesn’t hurt that the three men in question are played by Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach in a career defining role (yes, he’s even better here than in The Holiday).  Sergio Leone and Clint each made several great westerns, both together and separately.  This is their best.

2)    Unforgiven (1992) – Something I appreciate about westerns is that they know the audiences expectations, and they are typically straightforward in striving to fulfill them.  Unforgiven is a bit of an exception.  The story about an aging gunslinger who rides into town to avenge a battered prostitute plays with the genre’s formula, while never straying too far from it.  The result is a great film.

3)    Dance with Wolves (1990) – Shahwani tatonka owachi!  Dances with Wolves, you are my friend!  Several film critics have written that the plot of Avatar was stolen from Dances with Wolves.  I see that as a tremendous compliment to the Kevin Costner film, and one that is well-deserved.

4)    The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) – Clint Eastwood is at the height of his powers as an actor in this wonderful tale of a dangerous man trying to find redemption from his dark past.  Yes, that is the plot of almost every western ever made, but here it is done exceptionally well.

5)    Blazing Saddles (1974), Rustlers’ Rhapsody (1985), and Three Amigos (1986) – I couldn’t decide which of these movies I like more, so I put them in together.  Blazing Saddles, Three Amigos, and the less well-known Rustlers’ Rhapsody are all terrifically funny movies that generate most of their humor by simply playing out the rather silly conventions of the western genre.

6)    High Noon (1952) – A lawman faces the return of the men he sent to jail, now bent on revenge, while the town he protects refuses to help him.  While we wait for the evil gunmen to arrive, the tension mounts and mounts.  It’s a bit like a Sergio Leone western before Sergio Leone, only with everyone in cleaner clothes.

7)    Deadwood (2004-2006) – A brilliant re-construction of the West, complete with dirt, blood, and lots of swearing.  Even if the series weren’t wonderfully entertaining, it would be worth watching just for Ian McShane’s brilliant performance as Swearengen.

8)    The Magnificent Seven (1960) – A western remake of Seven Samurai, it in turn inspired Three Amigos.  As if that weren’t enough to demonstrate it’s greatness, the film boasts a ridiculous cast featuring Eli Wallach, Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, and James Coburn.

9)    Appaloosa (2008) – Director Ed Harris clearly loves westerns, because this entry in the genre hews so closely to formula that it almost becomes a parody.  Almost, because Viggo Mortensen and Ed Harris aren’t about to let that happen.  Instead, what they produce is perhaps the most “western” western of all time.  And that’s a good thing.

10) Young Guns (1988) – As an eleven-year old, I LOVED this movie.  I must have annoyed my parents terribly as I repeatedly drew an imaginary pistol on them and told them, “I’ll make you famous.”  Is Young Guns any good?  Hmm…  After having re-watched it recently, I can’t really say that it is.  Nevertheless, it’s the movie that made me fall in love with the genre.

I have written nothing for a week.  Not one word.  This sloth is unprecedented, but I have a good excuse.  I have been on vacation at a lake in Michigan, lulled into a sense of happy complacency by the clear blue sky, the sound of the waves lapping against the shore, the smell of the pine trees… and the siren call of buzzing vuvuzelas beckoning me to the television to watch another World Cup match.

I have managed to pull myself away from the lake and the World Cup once or twice.  I ran a 10K (or as I like to think of it: a good excuse to eat more ice cream).  I went on a beautiful day-long bike ride (a good excuse to drink more beer).  And I journeyed into town to watch the new Twilight movie, a fascinating mix of the dull, implausible, and pointless.  For those of you who watched the first two films in this epic quadrilogy, you will know that the second film ended with the depressive lead Bella choosing the more stylish hunk, Edward, over his muscle-bound rival, Jacob.  The entire running time of Eclipse is devoted to a rehash of this decision, leaving us exactly where we started.  Absolutely.  Nothing.  Happens.  I suppose having a plot would have improved the movie, but on the other hand, I don’t think I would have had quite as much fun mocking it.

But these activities were mere diversions, ways of passing the time between World Cup matches.  And what a glorious World Cup it has been.  It opened as Africa’s Cup, looked for a brief moment as if it might become Asia’s Cup, before quickly transforming into first South America’s Cup and finally Europe’s Cup.  Even CONCACAF treated us to a few memorable games: the United State’s spirited comeback against Slovenia and last-minute goal against Algeria; and Mexico’s controversial match versus Argentina.  And speaking of Argentina, I would like to personally thank the country for selecting Diego Maradona to coach their national team.  In a World Cup where the stars mostly failed to shine (Diego Forlan, Wesley Sneijder, and David Villa being notable exceptions), no one provided more entertainment and excitement than the ever-quotable Maradona.  (Just a taste… when a journalist asked Maradona about his affectionate embraces of his players, Diego surprised him by replying:  “No! I like women! I’m dating Veronica. She is 31. She is blonde. She is very pretty! Don’t start rumours about me. I may have my weaknesses towards some of my players, but that’s normal.”)

As ever, this has also been a World Cup of heartbreak, from Robert Green’s despair at his own ineptitude, to the elimination of all but one African team in the first round, to the German’s demolition of England and blitzkrieg against Argentina, to Brazil’s shocking ouster at the hands of the Dutch.  No fans, however, were as cruelly abused as those of Ghana.  If I were the sort who invested in things, I would invest in a company to sell anti-depressants to Ghanans.  They surely need them after the Black Stars lost in the cruelest of fashions: a last-second, game-winning goal saved off the line by the hand of Uruguay’s Suarez, followed by a missed penalty kick that would have secured Ghana a place in the semi-finals.  The match left me feeling sick.

And now, at last, the final is nearly here.  Although I do not have an octopus on hand (for the few of you who have not yet heard of Paul the Octopus, check out this clip), and am thus liable to error, I’m picking the Orange to win it all.  I think the Spaniard’s stubborn refusal to convert chances will finally come back to haunt them, allowing the Dutch to secure a thrilling 3-2 victory and leaving the Roja Furiosa furious indeed.  And then, I can finally get back to writing.

I would apologize for the length of time since my first Popped Culture blog, only it’s not really my fault.  For the past month and more there just hasn’t been very much to write about.  I could have blogged about the greatest cultural event in the history of the world—the World Cup—but I’m saving myself for when the games start.  I could have written about Iron Man II, a surprisingly good film, but who hasn’t already seen it?  The Losers was another surprisingly solid movie (despite a botched ending), but I have the feeling that no one is ever going to see it.  Now at long last, after months without a worthy topic, Hollywood has blessed us with two historical adventures on the big screen: Prince of Persia and Robin Hood.  Prince is based on a video game, has a plot that involves a dagger that turns back time, and stars Jake Gyllenhaal, who although he got a lot of action in Brokeback Mountain, is largely untested as an action star.  Robin Hood comes from Ridley Scott, the director of Thelma and Louise and A Good Year (ok, ok, he also directed Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, and Blackhawk Down), stars action icon Russell Crowe, and is based on one of the most enduringly popular legends in the English-speaking world.  Pitting these movies against one another is a David versus Goliath sort of contest.  And David wins, hands down.

Prince of Persia has its share of problems, but it manages to be something that Robin Hood never is: fun.  The action is fresh and inventive.  The sets are sometimes spectacularly silly, but they’re always spectacular.  And the pace hardly ever slows.  It’s the sort of movie that likes to tout itself as a “non-stop thrill ride,” and for once the label fits.  What’s more, Prince has done the world an important service: after this film, no one ever need read Edward Said’s Orientalism again.  Just watch Prince, and you’ll get the idea.  The movie plays shamelessly to every eastern stereotype imaginable.  And while this could be considered offensive, it is less damning in a film based on a videogame that has no ambitions whatsoever to historical accuracy.  If Prince is historical in any sense, it is precisely in that it provides a sort of condensed history of clichés about the Near East.  Giggling, scantily clad, seductive women in harems?  Check.  An evil, scheming vizier wearing too much eye shadow?  Check.  A ruthless bandit with a gold tooth who turns out to be good despite himself?  Check.  A society of assassins who command snakes with their minds?  Ch…  wait, huh?

The amazing thing is that it all works.  Yes, the plot is ludicrous and becomes more so as the film goes along, but the movie never betrays its own internal logic.  Yes, the actors are archetypes—like chess pieces, we know exactly what moves they are capable of—but the director moves them about the board with a surprising amount of skill.  And yes, there is nothing even remotely unexpected in the plot.  Every “twist” is one that we have seen a hundred times before.  None of that matters.  Jake Gyllenhaal injects the film with such infections joy that nothing seems stale or old.  Instead, the film offers the satisfaction of watching our expectations repeatedly fulfilled.  There’s something to be said for this.  It’s better than disappointing expectations.

And that is precisely what Robin Hood manages to do.  Ridley Scott set out to reinvent the legend of Robin Hood, and much of what he does makes sense.  Placing Robin Hood within the larger context of the conflict between England and France is a good idea, as is the attempt to hew more closely to history.  Unfortunately, this is also where the problems start.  Normally, I’m not a huge stickler for historical accuracy in movies.  Even more so than with historical novels, movies are about entertainment, not history.  The imperatives of telling a good story can and should take precedence over factual accuracy.  This is all the more true when dealing with a fictional character like Robin Hood.  I fully support many of the changes made by the movie.  For instance, Ridley Scott choses to portray Eleanor of Aquitaine, King Richard, and King John as extremely English, the antithesis of the oyster-eating, rather slovenly French king.  In truth, Eleanor and her sons were every bit as French as King Philip of France.  They were all raised in France, spent a majority of their lives there, and spoke French as their mother tongue.  (After the Norman Conquest, the “English” crown did not publish its first official document in English until 1258.)  But again, I have no problem with this change.  No one—except maybe me—wants to watch a French Richard the Lionhearted.

Other changes, however, are a bit more puzzling, especially considering that the new Robin Hood touts itself as a more “accurate” version of the old tale.  There are two basic rules that all historical fiction, even movies, should follow: 1) if you are going to change history, have a good reason for doing so; and 2) stay clear of overly-fictionalizing big events that everybody knows about, or you will make yourself look silly.  For instance, it’s probably not a good idea to make Robin Hood responsible for saving England from a French invasion, especially when that French invasion never actually happened.  And it is definitely a very, very bad idea to make Robin Hood responsible for the Magna Carta, only the most famous political document in the entire English language.  Thanks to Robin Hood, we now know that people from England to the United States to Australia owe the origins of their individual liberties to none other than Robin Hood and his philosopher-stonemason father (and yes, you read that last bit correctly).

That said, Robin Hood is not a terrible movie.  I was not upset that I spend money to see it.  But nor was I particularly glad that I did so.  It is one of those movies that seems much worse than it is because it is close to being so much better.  Robin Hood does a lot of things right.  The look of the movie is wonderful, and most of the changes made to the more standard telling of the tale work.  Making Robin Hood a yeoman makes sense: they were the ones who fought as archers, not the nobility.  Starting with the death of Richard the Lionhearted was a nice surprise, especially since it was more or less accurately depicted.  And best of all in my opinion, the script borrows liberally from the tale of the French peasant Arnaud de Tilh, who in the early 16th century showed up in the Pyrenean village of Artigat and took over the life—including the wife—of the absent Martin Guerre.  In the movie, Sir Robert Locksley of Nottingham plays the role of Martin Guerre, and Robin Longstride (aka Robin Hood) is the impostor, who at the behest of Sir Robert’s father and with the connivance of Marian, takes over the role of lord of Nottingham.  This is a really good idea, which provides most of the film’s best moments.  There is only one problem: in the end, Robin Hood completely blows it.

The big question of the film is when and if Robin will be unmasked.  Only one character knows his secret—Mark “I Only Play Evil Characters” Strong’s Sir Godfrey.  I don’t think it will shock anybody if I reveal that Sir Godfrey dies in the end.  Robin’s problem looks to be solved.  But not so!  A few scenes later, King John contorts his face and spews spittle while declaring Robin an outlaw for, amongst other reasons, having impersonated a noble.  What?  How did King John know this?  We are never told.  That’s kind of a big deal, since the scene where John learns that Robin is not who he claims to be is only THE MOST IMPORTANT SCENE IN THE MOVIE!

This bizarre oversight is symptomatic of a bigger problem.  Robin Hood is about thirty minutes too long.  The fight scenes drag on for so long that they eventually become tedious; I lost interest about halfway through each of them.  All this extra footage seems to have squeezed out some vital plot points.  For instance, what—other than a really sour disposition—motivates the evil Sir Godfrey to betray England to the French?  If it is power and influence, then why isn’t he satisfied when he becomes Lord Marshall of England?  If it is money, then why does he let his henchmen steal all of the gold and jewels they capture when they ambush King Richard’s men?  And speaking of these gold and jewels, which eventually find their way into the hands of Robin and his band, why weren’t they ever used to pay the taxes of Nottingham or buy the seed grain the town lacked?

The biggest problem for me, however, was the relationship of Robin and Marian.  The film does a fine job of showing us why she would fall for him.  He is handsome, kind, listens to her problems, and helps to save Nottingham from starvation—all endearing qualities.  As for why he loves her… well, she’s beautiful.  That’s about it.  She is established as a strong woman early on in the film, but Robin Hood is never around to see any of that.  Even when she shows up at the end in armour to help turn back the French invasion that never actually happened, all she does is fall down in the surf so that Robin has to save her.  So when Robin finally tells Marian that he loves her, it is far from convincing.  And did I mention that she shows up in armour for the final fight scene?  Not only is this ridiculous, but where did she find armour that fit her?

In the end, Robin Hood damns itself by trying to be a little too historical and a little too original.  Trying to tell the “true” story of Robin Hood turns out to be a bit of a fool’s errand since Robin Hood is, after all, a fictional character.  Prince of Persia has no such problems.  History, reality, and originality take a backseat to fun.  Prince may not exceed expectations, but it does an admirable job of fulfilling them.  And that’s good enough for me.

I’ll leave you with my up-to-the-minute movie rankings for 2010:
1)  How to Train Your Dragon
2)  Prince of Persia
3) Hot Tub Time Machine
4)  Iron Man II
5)  The Ghost Writer
6)  The Losers
7)  Percy Jackson and the Olympians
8)  Robin Hood
9)  Clash of the Titans

As a writer, one’s work is never done.  I feel like I should be writing pretty much all the time.  Nevertheless, I do occasionally stop working long enough to watch a movie or read a book.  What better way to celebrate these fleeting moments of decadence than to blog about them?  For my first entry in this new blog—“Popped Culture”—I’m tackling the movies of 2010, or at least the ones that I’ve seen so far.

I’ll start with a movie that I saw just tonight, an historical epic set in circa 800 BC, which tells the story of mankind’s attempted rebellion against the Gods of Olympus.  When the King of Argos…  And by the way, what do you call someone from Argos?  An Argosian?  Argosite?  Argolino?  I’m going with Argon…  Where was I?  Oh, yes: when the King of the Argons grows tired of the fickle behavior of the Olympians, he foolishly decides to start desecrating temples and toppling statues of Zeus.  If you know your history, then you already know it will only be a matter of time before Zeus bellows: “Release the Kraken!”

OK, so Clash of the Titans isn’t exactly history.  It’s not even good mythology.  Of the myriad possible sources—Pindar, Hesiod, Homer, Ovid, Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Euripides—the filmmakers seem to have seized upon one in particular: the original Clash of the Titans movie.  The result is a watered down version of already watered down mythology.  So, basically… water.  Which is too bad because after watching Clash, you’ll definitely want a stiff drink.

Sam Worthington tries his best to salvage this mess.  Fresh off his role in Terminator as a half-man, half-machine who fights to prove his humanity, he plays a half-man, half-god who fights to prove his humanity.  He’s one role away from being typecast… or maybe he already is, if you count his half-man, half-Navi role in Avatar.  But you know what?  I don’t care.  I think Sam Worthington is the preeminent half one thing, half another thing actor of his generation, maybe of all time.  I like him, even if he did spend most of Clash looking confused.  But who can blame him?  His character’s one defining feature is that he hates the gods for killing his family.  He’s angry, very angry.  He’ll never be like the gods.  He’ll never accept their help… except for when he does.  But even then he still hates them… except that he kind of likes Zeus.  Still, he’ll never join the gods on Olympus.  He’d rather spend time on earth with his perfectly normal girlfriend… who never ages and has been brought back from the dead.  Huh?  I think confusion was the appropriate expression.

Worthington is surrounded by actors who do their careers no favors.  The merry warriors who accompany him on his quest are distinguishable from one another only by the varying amount of eye-shadow they are wearing.  Only Mads Mikkelsen stands out, but not in a good way: his fake tan and pony-tail make him look like a skinny version of Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson, only with bad teeth.  Liam Neeson glows in his role as Zeus.  Literally.  He glows.  Maybe he knocked the role out of the park.  I wouldn’t know.  It’s hard to concentrate on someone’s acting when they are glowing.  As for Ralph Fiennes, who I usually love, he plays Hades as if he’s channeling Voldemort playing a drunken Nic Cage.

In the end, Clash is epic only in the extent of its utter crapitude.  Not even popcorn could save it, although God knows I tried my best to improve the on-screen offering by eating an heroic amount.  I ate so much popcorn that an hour after the movie, I almost fainted while walking my dog.  Alas, all that popcorn was in vain.

The clear winner in the 2010 Battle of the Greek Mythology Movies is Percy Jackson and the Olympians.  Percy isn’t exactly rigorous in regards to mythology either, but in this case, that’s exactly the point.  The movie plays with mythology in a way that’s fun and refreshing, especially when compared with the mindless Hollywood garbage dished up in Clash.  It’s not a great film, but with a little bit of popcorn to help it along, it is definitely worth seeing.

But the fantasy film of 2010 (so far) is definitely How to Train Your Dragon.  It is the best dragon movie I have ever seen.  (Unless you count Avatar as a dragon movie.)  More than that, it’s one of the better animated films I’ve ever seen.  Unlike Clash and Percy, How to Train Your Dragon seems to have actually gone through more than one draft before filming started.  It has well-developed characters with clear story arcs and motivations.  In fact, the characters—for all that they are animated—come across as infinitely more real than anyone in Clash.  And the story works.  It’s actually rather moving.  I had to fight back tears more than once, and the group of six year old kids sitting in the row in front of me were all balling.  You’ll thrill, you’ll laugh, you’ll cry… ladies and gentlemen: How to Train Your Dragon!

On the other end of the fantasy spectrum is another book adaptation: the new Alice in Wonderland.  I left the theater shaking my head and wondering what in the hell had happened to Tim Burton.  Granted, this is the man who thought strapping missiles to penguins (Batman II) was a good idea, but still, he’s never produced anything so insipid and frankly incompetent as Alice.  The setup is actually quite good, but once Alice arrives in Underland—and by the way, changing Wonderland to Underland was a) never explained and b) stupid—the film becomes a succession of truly awful action scenes.  I could live with turning Alice and Wonderland into an action movie, but the action in Alice is not just mindless and repetitive (three separate characters get stabbed in the eye), it is shockingly incompetent.  In particular, the anti-climactic final battle scene looks as if it was directed by someone who had never stood behind a camera.  Did Burton suffer some sort of debilitating personal crisis in the midst of filming?  Did he let his assistant take over while he was out getting coffee?  I don’t know, but I do know that these are the sorts of questions that were running through my mind during the last thirty minutes of Alice. That is not a good sign.

For a more enjoyable trip down the rabbit hole—or hot tub, in this case—check out Hot Tub Time Machine.  Now, you may think that this move looks juvenile, ridiculous, and incoherent.  And it is!  But gloriously so.  The plot makes no sense—nor does it try to—but it wrings plenty of humor out of its sheer nonsensicalness.  It also gets the most out of its ‘80s setting, playing not only with the fashion, music, and general goofiness of the decade, but also with ‘80s film conventions.  And who better to do so than ‘80s teen star John Cusack?  All in all, I was shocked by how much I enjoyed Hot Tub.  But I don’t expect everybody to like it.  If you hear the premise—four men get in a hot tub, travel back in time to the ‘80s, and relive a wild weekend at a ski resort—and think it sounds terrible… then Hot Tub is probably not for you.  If you hear it and think hell yeah… well then, you’ll walk out of the theater shouting hellz yeah!

To sum up, I’ll leave you with my up-to-the-minute movie rankings for 2010:

1)  How to Train Your Dragon
2)  Hot Tub Time Machine
3)  Percy Jackson and the Olympians
4)  Clash of the Titans

Alice in Wonderland doesn’t get to be on the list.  It’s just too awful.

Now, back to writing.  I’ll be back soon to pop more culture.



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