Infodumping History

by zunguzungu

Scott’s post at the Valve on “infodumps” reminded me of something I was thinking about somewhat outside the realm of sci-fi: the way “historical movies” sometimes use a brief snippet of the present day to frame the historical story that’s about to be told. Chris Cagle, for example, once described the weird jarring opener to Cecil B. DeMille’s The Unconquered:

“nothing quite prepares for the shock of a Cecil B. DeMille color epic from Paramount that begins with an aerial shot of postwar Pittsburgh and a voice-of-God narrator: “At the forks of the Ohio stands an American city, a colossus of steel, whose mills and furnaces bring forth bone and sinew for a nation.”

And it comes complete with jarringly different pictures (which you can see at Cagle’s great blog). But the disjunction here is brief and fleeting: at the most, we see Pittsburg for a moment to remind us what Fort Pitt will become, and it absolutely does not take over the narrative.

I was thinking about this because I’ve been working my way through the Peter O’Toole oeuvre, and I just got to Masada, the 1981 historical epic miniseries (based on Ernest Gann’s The Antagonists). Instead of the brief cut from present day to past, Masada begins with a full five minutes of narrative staging in the present day before we make the jump back to 70 A.D, and five minutes is a long time. We see the fortified rock of the title jutting high above the surrounding plains, and as we begin to approach it (from the perspective of a helicopter) the narrator tells us what we are about to see, a story “which still echoes resoundingly today, the stand of 960 Hebrew men, women, and children against the 5000 men of the Roman tenth legion.” After a moment, we see actual circa-1981 Israeli soldiers getting out of troop transport trucks and doing soldierly things — against a background of soldierly march music — and we are told that they are completing their training by coming to this place and remembering the history, that “according to tradition” they will be sworn in on its summit. As they prepare to be overwhelmed by the awe of the historic moment, it is implied, so too will we: the narrator tells us that the historical event we are about to see is one which has made “the Israeli soldier of today the most daring and defiant defender of freedom in the world.”

It’s hard not to note that this is the narrative of 300, the story of a small number of soldiers holding off overwhelming numbers of their enemies. And just as that movie was completely on the surface as being a celebration of freedom loving Westerners fighting off effeminate freedom-hating Iranians, so too is this movie pretty blatant in its political sympathies. Telling a story of Israelis heroically defending their homeland from evil invaders is just as naked a political allegory as 300. I haven’t finished the miniseries yet — it is long — but I imagine I will have something to say about it when I do. For now, though, I’m just struck by how weird it is that the movie begins by showing Israeli soldiers walking around a historical ruin modeling for us how we are, in turn, to respond to what we haven’t even yet seen. I mean, seriously, who begins a movie with the words “This movie is used as propaganda to indoctrinate soldiers! Enjoy!” It’s like framing a film about the Russian revolution with a vignette set in the editorial offices of Pravda. But, I guess, if you already accept the propaganda, you forget that that’s what it is.