Carry On Wallace

The 20th anniversary of Braveheart is to be marked with screening in Stirling. Cairo to show the more historically accurate Carry on Cleo next month.

Numerous anachronistically attired actors in Braveheart

Braveheart

Director: Mel Gibson
Entertainment grade: C–
History grade: Fail

By Alex von Tunzelmann in the Guardian

Sir William Wallace (c 1274-1305) was a Scottish patriot who rebelled against the King of England, Edward I. Despite much criticism from historians, Mel Gibson’s performance as Wallace and his direction were enormously lauded. Braveheart won five Oscars, including Best Picture.

Politics

We begin in 1280 when, a voiceover informs us, the Scottish king has died with no sons. In fact, King Alexander III of Scotland didn’t die until 1286, and in 1280 both of his sons were still alive. Meanwhile, outside a grubby West Highland hut, young Wallace is wandering around in the mud. The real Wallace came from Renfrewshire and was the privileged son of a noble landowner. This isn’t going at all well, and we’re only three minutes in.

Laws

Edward I expresses a desire to enforce high taxes on the rich. Apparently, in Gibson’s world, this makes him evil. In case you need even more evidence, on a whim he reinstates ius primae noctis, allowing English nobles to interrupt Scottish weddings and shag the bride. Not only fictional, but profoundly ridiculous.

Society

Cut to a jolly wedding party in Scotland, complete with dancing peasants and a fun competition where they throw rocks at each other’s heads. Everyone looks like they’re at a Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome convention, except, oddly, for Mel Gibson, who has turned up dressed as Fabio. The English arrive to spoil the party, with the local lord (played by John Cleese being Sir Lancelot the Brave, except you’re not supposed to laugh) claiming his freebie with the wife.

Romance

Wallace falls for a local girl from a neighbouring hut. She has the perfect teeth so typical of Scottish peasants in the 13th century. He is surprised to find out that she can’t read. The audience is not so surprised, because she is supposed to be a 13th century peasant and lives in a hut. And then the big ponce starts trying to talk to her in French.

Violence

After his lady love is murdered by the English, Wallace pretends to surrender. At the last minute, he whips out a concealed nunchaku. Wait, what? Glossing over its implication that medieval Scotland imported arms from China, Wallace’s rebellion gathers pace at the Battle of Stirling Bridge, which the film has inexplicably set in a field. Rather than, you know, on a bridge. For pity’s sake. The clue’s in the name.

Sex

Meanwhile, the king’s daughter-in-law Isabella of France is finding stories of Wallace a lot sexier than her gay husband, who prances around the palace in a baby blue crushed velvet tunic while a pageboy carries a mirror in front of him (Gibson denies that his film is homophobic). Bizarrely, the king sends her to negotiate with Wallace. So irresistible are the Scotsman’s hairy charms that she allows him to impregnate her. This scene is set in 1304 or 5, when the real Isabella would have been nine years old. Accuracy on that point might have been a bit tasteless, but accuracy on the point that she was still living in France and didn’t marry the Prince of Wales until three years after Wallace’s death would have been fine.

War

At the Battle of Falkirk, Edward I attacks with Irish troops, who are gamely waving a big green banner with harp (invented in 1642). The very loosely accurate portrayal of Robert the Bruce as a flip-flopper torn between England and Scotland provides the only passable historical contention in the entire movie. Wallace loses, but goes on to invade England and sack York. No, he didn’t do that, either.

Verdict

Seemingly intended as a piece of anti-English propaganda, Braveheart offers an even greater insult to Scotland by making a total pig’s ear of its heritage. “Historians from England will say I am a liar,” intones the voiceover, “but history is written by those who have hanged heroes.” Well, that’s me told: but, regardless of whether you read English or Scottish historians on the matter, Braveheart still serves up a great big steaming haggis of lies.

Amanda Barrie as Cleopatra and Sid James as Marc Antony from the film Carry On Cleo

Carry On Cleo

Director: Gerald Thomas
Entertainment grade: C–
History grade: E

By Alex von Tunzelmann in the Guardian

In 48-47BC, there was a civil war in Egypt between brother and sister (also husband and wife) pharaohs Ptolemy XIII and Cleopatra VII. International involvement came as a spin-off from the Great Roman civil war (49-45BC), in which Julius Caesar fought Pompey and the Optimates for control of the Roman Republic.

Chronology

The film opens with the title card: “Whilst the characters and events in this story are based on actual characters and events, certain liberties have been taken with Cleopatra.” If you don’t find that hilarious, quit while you’re ahead. The first scenes take place in Britain, apparently still wedged firmly in the Stone Age, where a local caveman invents the square wheel. There’s a joke about Ethelred the Unready (lived AD968-1016), and about someone’s mother-in-law being eaten by a brontosaurus (lived 150 million years ago). Realistically, the historian should also quit at this point, but suddenly Sheila Hancock manages a decent contemporary quip: “Oh, please excuse the way I look, but I haven’t had the chance to put on a lick of woad this morning.” Caesar himself described Britons dyeing themselves blue with woad in his Commentaries on the Gallic War. All right then, let’s carry on.

People

Marc Antony (Sid James) leads the invasion of Britain, and the locals consider calling Iceni warrior queen Boadicea to get them out of trouble. In real life, Marc Antony wasn’t on either of Caesar’s British expeditions, and Boadicea was unlikely to have been much use: she wasn’t born for another 70 years or so. Marc Antony enslaves a few Brits and takes them back to Rome, where Seneca (presumably the Elder), incorrectly identified as Caesar’s father-in-law, is banging on about the ides of March and leching over buxom British slave girls. Is it entertaining, at least? Depends how funny you find jokes about boobs and toilets. According to research conducted under the auspices of the British Museum, the Egyptians themselves couldn’t get enough of jokes about boobs and toilets. Examples from temples and tombs include sidesplitting gags about a duck pecking someone on the backside, a hammer falling on a man’s head, and a defecating hyena. Aside from the inexplicable absence of a defecating hyena, that means Carry On has the ancient Egyptian tone more or less spot on.

Politics

Caesar (Kenneth Williams) sends Marc Antony to Egypt, where he is to persuade Cleopatra to give up the throne to Ptolemy. “Some hope,” notes the voiceover. “It was like asking your wife to give up her mink coat because your girlfriend’s sitting in a draught.” In 1964, that must have had them rolling in the aisles. But this is all wrong. Pompey went to Egypt in 48BC, at which point Ptolemy had his head cut off and sent to Caesar. The gift was intended to please him. It did not. Caesar wept, before assuming control of Alexandria and making himself arbiter between Ptolemy and Cleopatra. At this point, according to Plutarch, Cleopatra had herself rolled up in a rug and sent to Caesar, trumping poor old Ptolemy and assuring her eventual victory. Carry On Cleo just about manages the bit with the rug.

Assassination

In the film, people keep trying to kill Caesar, provoking the immortal line: “Infamy, infamy! They’ve all got it in for me!” Things get serious after Jon Pertwee turns up as soothsayer, stumbling around wildly and bellowing, “Sooth, sooth!” Caesar is set upon by a group of senators and stabbed six times. In real life, he was stabbed 23 times, and the whole soothsayer thing has a lot to do with Shakespeare (a contribution thoughtfully acknowledged by Carry On Cleo, which gives Shakespeare a credit in the opening titles. He’d be thrilled).

Verdict

Astonishingly, Carry On Cleo is not a completely accurate depiction of the first century BC. Nonetheless, it scrapes a pass mark for including a few historical references, for being on the level with ancient Egyptian comedy, and for not being as bad as Braveheart.