Thursday, December 08, 2011

End of term anxiety? and historical movies

Today was the last class meeting this term for my course on the History of Islamic Civilization.  It was the due date for a term paper, too.  So many students had asked for one or two day extensions that I rather expected a very low attendance and very few papers handed in.  (I actually don't mind giving extensions, not when I've heard credible reports from numerous students that they are swamped at end of term.)

Imagine my surprise when the vast majority showed up with essays in hand!  Was it just end of term anxiety that made them think they needed those extensions?

The class did me the courtesy of watching one of my favorite movies, The Man Who Would Be King (1975), which I used in place of a lecture on "the West's advantage," i.e. what factors led to European dominance of the globe by the 19th century.  The movie doesn't really have much profound to say about that subject, but it has its virtues, besides being fun.  First, it portrays the confidence (arrogance?) that Westerners eventually enjoyed, and implies the lack of confidence that might inflict the people on the other side of the confrontation.  Second, after lots of discussion of the rise and fall of Middle Eastern and Central Asian empires in the course of the term, the class got to see a dramatic, schematic depiction of  the rise of one tiny empire.

I have a short list of movies in my head which I think of as "history as it really works" or "what you won't learn from your classes or textbooks."  These are not necessarily realistic historical movies -- prominent on the list is The Life of Brian -- but they do cut through the crap, or at least provide an opening for a laugh of recognition of some truth or other.  The Man Who Would Be King could easily encourage  more mythological thinking as anything else.  It's a movie about Freemasonry, for goodness sake.  But for its tracing of the rise and fall of "Uta the Terrible," and for the figure of Billy Fish, it makes my list of movies that have something to say about history.


  1. That might be an interesting book, combining film theory and history as it pertains to films which one might not normally think about. We often simply laugh at the "normality" of such depictions as The Life of Brian but often forget that our visions of history are highly romanticized and unrealistic. (All right, but apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?)

  2. Then of course, the is the REAL "Man who would be king", an exciting individual who puts Sean Connery in the shade. Joshiah (John) Harlan. Quaker. Doctor. American. Leader of the Afghan armed forces. Prince of Uzbekistan.
    They just don't make people like him any more.

    Kipling told a ripping good yarn, but left out a lot of the real stuff when he borrowed the story because nobody would believe the true story.
    Colonialism was being practiced by every people in the region....the British were just one more. Only they had weapons. Until the British army was slaughtered to a man, then the "Pathans" had guns too.

    A good contemporary report of the fun stuff which was happening can be found here.

    Another similar Larger than Life individual would be Alexander Gardner. His history is also remarkable.

  3. Anonymous12:12 pm

    One of those films for me is The Lion in Winter. The trouble is it's all too easy to conflate it with the Blackadder version of the Duke of Wellington, as played by Stephen Fry, and come up with a theory of political action based entirely on well-timed shouting. And y'know, it's sometimes hard to see what would be wrong with that.

  4. Lion in Winter has that moving scene where Eleanor's guard meets the guard outside her sons' dungeon cell, and one of them has to die, perhaps for no good reason, except people like that must be ready to die for their prince's cause.