History of the World According to the Movies: Part 93 – General History: Historical Aspects

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The 1968 The Lion in Winter is one of the best historical films ever, which takes place in the court of King Henry II (played by Peter O’Toole) around Christmastime at Chinon (which is in France). Of course, Katharine Hepburn’s Queen Eleanor of Acquitaine (which she’d win a well deserved Oscar for) is just as conniving and manipulative as the real thing. Still, while the story is fictional royal intrigue it’s nevertheless plausible since most of the characters really did exist and were certainly like their historical counterparts. Nevertheless, that Christmas tree shouldn’t be in this movie since only Germans had them during the Middle Ages.

Of course, though I may be done with the chronological movie history, that doesn’t mean I’m completely done. These next couple of posts are about aspects of history that don’t completely fit in certain eras like how people lived or how certain institutions got on back in the day. I mean history isn’t just a bunch of self contained episodes but rather a time of human change and other things. Still, there are tons of things that history movies tend to get wrong such as movies set in the Middle Ages could have people dressing in outfits that could perhaps be the equivalent of seeing a movie about the American Revolution with all the characters dressed up in 20th century business suits. Or you can have movies set in the early 1800s with women dressed in hoop skirts and crinolines or set in the 1920s with women’s fashions from the 1940s or 1950s. Also, there’s the impression that people in history were more refined and well-behaved than they are now but when you look in the actual history books, you realize that our ancestors weren’t so different than us. Nevertheless, there are certain things movies get wrong about history which I shall list accordingly.

Crime:

Criminal masterminds of yesteryear, at least, were educated and well mannered.

Sympathetic condemned criminals were saved by the noose by someone riding up to them at the last minute. (This didn’t happen a lot, since these kinds of efforts stood a good chance of ending in outright failure.)

Friendly criminals were loveable rogues who wouldn’t hurt a fly unless they absolutely had to. (Most historical criminals were usually worse than their folk legends imply. Yet, there are exceptions such as Billy the Kid’s case since he’s depicted as being much more hostile than he actually was.)

Crime didn’t happen as much in the past as it did now. (There’s less crime in Western societies nowadays than there was then thanks to better law enforcement, better opportunities, and other things.)

Gangsters would always go after law enforcement and their families. (Most gangsters knew that going after cops and/or  their loved ones was simply bad business. Though seen in a lot of movies, most gangsters knew that killing law enforcement officials would be put them in very big trouble. Most gangsters usually committed violence against their colleagues, underlings, and enemies. Sometimes they’d commit violent acts against other gangsters’ families, accomplices, or witnesses but that’s as far as they would go with civilians {I mean there’s a reason why we have witness protection here}. Law enforcement officials were almost never targeted since doing so would’ve been a very stupid thing to do. For instance, Dutch Schultz was killed by the mob in New York  for trying to assassinate a district attorney.)

Gangsters would throw temper tantrums and commit violent acts in public. (Yes, but while many of them were certainly dangerous people and perhaps nuts, most mob bosses would go through great lengths to appear respectable in front of the press. In other words, they knew the value of PR. On the other hand, Golden Age pirates and conquerors would always try to cultivate a ruthless and bloodthirsty image so people would learn not to mess with them. Also, it made it easier for their targets to surrender without much fighting, too.)

Kissing a mafia don’s ring was a long standing tradition. (This is something that Mario Puzo just made up and basically has no basis in reality. Sorry, Godfather fans.)

There wasn’t much graffiti on buildings until recent times. (There’s a lot of intact graffiti found at Pompeii. Much of it is about sex and is downright hilarious.)

Law Enforcement:

Hanging was a quick and painless method of execution and so was burning at the stake. (As TV Tropes and Idioms say, “but this is only true of hangings conducted since roughly 1850. Before this time, execution via hanging was usually caused by strangulation. The victim normally either stood on a cart or sat on the back of a horse: after the noose was tightened around his or her neck, the support was gently removed and the victim would strangle to death. And it wasn’t quick or pretty: the rope cutting into the throat and cutting off the breath, the twists and the contortions of the trussed body, the stench of the feces and urine as the victim’s bowels and bladder emptied, and the involuntary erection (and often ejaculation) experienced by male victims were all deliberate parts of the punishment, as was the jeering, vicious crowd which would pelt the victims with dead cats, rotting meat and vegetables, and feces as they waited to be tied to the gibbet. The families of wealthier criminals could sometimes bribe the jailers to be allowed to pull at the victim’s legs to hurry death, but this was not always permitted. Even this was better than the death accorded to women who killed their husbands, even in self-defense: they were burned, and {no matter what popular history would have us believe} most burning victims were not supplied with gunpowder or other explosives to make their deaths quicker. Executions were supposed to be agonizing. They were supposed to be slow. They were supposed to cause as much suffering as possible.”)

Executioner was always cool job to have. (Most executioners got the gig just to avoid being executed. It was a terrible job with many experiencing PTSD as well as some even committing suicide.)

Beheadings were always accomplished with just one blow.

Criminals were hanged using the long trap door ever since the Middle Ages. (This wasn’t invented until the 19th century.)

Imprisonment was always seen as a punishment. (For most of history, prison has always been seen as a holding place for criminal suspects until their trial {the original reason why they existed in the first place}, their punishment was carried out, or whatever else the authorities knew they could do with them whether it be a day in the stocks, whipping, fines, penal labor, execution, etc. or acquittal. The idea of using imprisonment  as punishment came from the Enlightenment from the 18th century as an alternative to state-sanctioned torture. Outside the Western world, imprisonment wasn’t used as a punishment until the mid-20th century.)

Trials were always fair. (Well, in some instances, yet let me say that until the Enlightenment, they were almost anything but with trial by ordeal, trial by combat, as well as the fact that the defendant had to prove their own innocence. Still, you were better off being accused of heresy under the Inquisition than of witchcraft in Colonial Salem. This is mostly because the Inquisition was actually closer to modern jurisprudence than most civil courts in the 16th and 17th centuries and observed things like having rules of evidence, an appeals process, and codified restrictions on the type and severity of punishments that could be imposed. Also, if you were tried for witchcraft, the Inquisition would usually let you go since they didn’t believe in witches in the first place.)

Weapons:

The six-gun was an accurate weapon.

Any gun can fire multiple rounds regardless of historic era. (Even though repeating firearms weren’t invented until the mid-1800s.Why do you think the musketeers wouldn’t use muskets except when there’s a war on? I mean there was a good reason why they used swords instead.)

Swords made clinking sounds up against each other.

Early gunpowder had a slow burn rate and didn’t create a lot of smoke. (Smokeless slow-burning gunpowder was invented in 1875. Before then, black gunpowder was used which burned very fast and created a lot of smoke.)

Guns discharged more ammo than their stated capacity. (This happens all the time in movies.)

Flintlock pistols were reliable weapons. (They failed to discharge 50% of the time and were considered a secondary weapon in close combat.)

Many Pre-American Civil War firearms could fire multiple rounds without reloading. (Maybe Samuel Colt’s revolver which was invented in 1847 but most Pre-Civil War guns didn’t have this feature. Nevertheless, you see Gaston firing his blunderbuss 3 times in less than a second.)

Cannon balls were the only artillery ammunition until very recent times. (They also had bar and chain shot, canister, case, and grape shot, and Sangrenel. Sometimes they’d use anything if they ran out of ammunition.)

You can shoot fairly far and accurately with a flintlock pistol. (Flintlock pistols were useless beyond point blank range.)

Discharged cannons and guns never recoiled.

Artillery guns and howitzers fired exploding shells. (Only howitzers did.)

Reloading single shot weapons took only a few seconds. (For someone who’s well trained, it would take 15 to 25 seconds.)

Double shooting artillery guns was always a good idea. (It wasn’t since it decreased range.)

Cannon balls had the potential to explode at firing. (Cannon balls are solid shot and don’t work this way.)

Chemical and biological weapons were only invented in the 20th century. (Let’s just say people have been finding creative ways to harm people with germs and chemicals. I mean medieval soldiers flung animals in castles to spread disease and the Spartans used gas warfare on the Athenians during the Peloponnesian Wars.)

Warfare:

There were more “gays” on the bad guy’s side in war than on the good guy’s side. (See “THE 300.”) Or that homosexuality is uncommon in the navy, or was. (Churchill once summed up the grand traditions of the Royal Navy as “Buggery and the lash.”)

All Cavalry regiments carried full battle flags. (They actually flew cavalry flags which are swallow tailed.)

In war, it was always the men who had girlfriends they plan to marry back home who were the first to die and it was the idiot officers who always survived.

Gunshots never damaged people’s hearing. (Hearing loss is very common problem among veterans even today.)

Gunshots and explosions were never caused as much background noise that prevented soldiers from engaging in a conversation.

Officers always gave orders on the battlefield by shouting very loudly at their troops. (For much of history, regimental flags have been used as communication since the advent of firearms since they would be so loud that nobody would be able to hear them as well as the smoke on the battlefield would’ve made it harder for the soldiers to see anything else. Not to mention, walkie talkies didn’t exist then.)

Soldiers and sailors never swore or told any dirty jokes. (So what does that mean if you talk like a sailor? Also, swearing has always been frequent in the military.)

The solider who had less than two weeks on his tour of duty and the officer set to retire always got killed.

Soldiers who were deserters were cowards who didn’t want to fight. (Actually, every desertion tells a different story.)

There were no camp followers who were prostitutes. (For God’s sake, there were prostitute camp followers.)

Most soldiers were volunteers. (What about the soldiers in ancient Sparta? Also, conscription was rather common practice back in the day and compared to how draft dodgers were treated in history, the U.S. government was pretty lenient. Most draft dodgers in other regimes would’ve been executed.)

No soldier ever shit or pissed his pants in battle.

Americans and other English speaking civilizations fight wars more fairly or less cruelly than their enemies. (It is true that the Nazis were guilty of genocide and our side was not, but that is not the same as how they fought in that war. Also the American military commonly committed genocide against the Indians.)

Wounds in war were either incredibly bloody or spurted very little blood at all.

The German army in both world wars was more efficient than the Allied forces, and while we are at it, more hygienic than their enemies. (In fact under those spotless uniforms there tended to be filthy underwear and although the Germans were organization freaks, the American military was more practical, and the Russians were the most efficient.)

Back line soldiers never shot the guy in front of them if it was one of their own. (Napoleon lost a quarter of his troops through friendly fire by this.)

Soldiers usually died in battle. (Most soldiers usually died of their wounds after the battle was over or of disease.)

The French were cowards willing to surrender at the drop of the hat who would rather eat and have sex than fight. (Well, yes, the French would rather eat and have sex than fight but so would anybody with some sense of sanity. However, if history has taught us anything, you should never underestimate the French, especially at war.)

Cavalry charges were always effective. (Horses are actually very bad at bulldozing armed soldiers. I mean, they’re not that stupid.)
There were rules of war before the 19th century. (There was an expectation that soldiers and officers respect certain customs, but nothing was formalized until the Geneva Convention in 1864.)

Arrow wounds don’t cause serious injuries and are relatively easy to remove. (Actually it depends on what kind of armor you’re wearing whether it be metal or a long silk cape. Still, we have to consider the fact that bows and arrows were the primary range weapons for most civilizations until as late as the 17th century. So yes, an arrow wound can certainly kill you. And if you barely have any armor on you, then being shot by one may make it difficult for you to do anything. This might be because of agonizing pain or your body going into shock. Nevertheless, most of the time removing the arrow is much harder than it looks but simply pulling the shaft out may just leave the arrowhead inside the wound {since shafts and arrowheads weren’t as firmly attached as Hollywood makes them out to be}. Archers would just simply snap the shaft {which is harder than movies make it look since arrow shafts were made from the hardest woods available}, widen the wound either with the knife or wiggling it around. Also, arrow wounds had a strong tendency to be badly infected. Thus, an arrow wound was almost never just a flesh wound.)

The Aristocracy:

Aristocrats throughout history, even in Rome, spoke with upper class English accents. (English did not even exist when Rome occupied Britain.)

Rich white aristocrats never sweat despite the fact that they wear multiple layers of heavy clothes. (This isn’t true because I was in Richmond one summer where I toured the Confederate White House and there was one display where all the furniture had slipcovers. And you think people covered their furniture for modesty reasons. No, it was for their protection.)

Aristocrats always had unlimited wardrobes. (Well, they did have a lot of clothes but before the sewing machine clothing was expensive that many actually put their outfits in their wills. Heck, it wasn’t unusual for many poor people to have one or two sets of clothes for their entire lives.)

Religion:

Science and religion have always been at odds. (If that was true, we’d certainly wouldn’t live in as technologically advanced society as we are now. Also, many of our great scientific discoveries were made by clergymen as well as well as other religious men and women {in the Middle Ages, most scientists worked for the Catholic Church and the Big Bang theory was formulated by a priest}. The reason why people may have to say that science and religion are incompatible has more to do with the rise of Fundamentalism than the existence of science and religion themselves.)

No matter what time or place all Christians celebrate Christmas with Christmas trees. (Christmas trees weren’t introduced to Great Britain until Queen Victoria’s marriage to Prince Albert and prior to that was mostly a German tradition. Also, Christmas wasn’t made a national holiday in the United States until the 1870s. Not to mention, from the Reformation until the 1800s, the only Christians who celebrate Christmas were Anglicans, Lutherans, and Catholics, at least in America. The Pilgrims and the Puritans never celebrated Christmas and in early Massachusetts, the holiday was banned and celebrating it had legal consequences. And even when the ban was lifted, Christmas wasn’t widely celebrated in early New England as well as kind of discouraged. Christmas was also banned in England during Oliver Cromwell’s rule in England which lasted for 11 years. Then there’s the fact that other Christian traditions celebrate Christmas on a different date.)

Goddesses were seen as feminine beings and worshiped in a way that brought peace in a society. (Dan Brown, have you ever read any mythological tales regarding ancient pantheons? I wouldn’t say that many of these pagan goddesses were peaceful beings. I mean, look what Hera did to Zeus girlfriends and many of his kids who weren’t hers.)

Mass has been said facing the people since the 1800s. (It wasn’t said this way until the 1960s mostly due to the reforms of Vatican II.)

Magdalene institutions were run by Roman Catholic nuns. (Actually while popular imagery has them run by Catholics, other religious denominations ran Magdalene institutions as well, even in Ireland. Many Magdalene institutions were also run by corporations, sometimes not religiously affiliated at all. Oh, and they didn’t just take prostitutes, unwed mothers, or young girls seen as beautiful, promiscuous and flirtatious. Many of them were orphans, petty crooks, the mentally disabled, and abused girls who had nowhere else to go. Still, it would be fair to say that Magdalene houses functioned as the privatized prisons of their day at least in Ireland. The US Magdalene institutions functioned more like rehab centers. Also, the practice of making women give up out of wedlock babies for adoption wasn’t exclusively done by Catholic nuns as you see in Philomena. Sometimes babies were given up for adoption by the girl’s own parents {and not just Catholic ones either for my dad knew of a Mennonite family who did this}. This was a very common practice in all religious denominations as well as in secular society. Philomena’s son could’ve been taken away from her by practically anybody. Yet, the movie about her still treats what happened to her as an abuse by the Catholic Church, which it was but what they did was seen as perfectly acceptable by the standards of the time.)

The use of white smoke from the Vatican during a papal election that signaled the election of a new Pope. (We’re not sure if this dates back to either 1846 or 1914 though it’s certainly not the centuries old tradition its said to be. Also, the notion of the papacy itself is newer than we think since the title of Pope wasn’t referred to the main man himself until medieval times. Not only that, but it took centuries of maneuvering and precedent setting for Rome to emerge as the undisputed seat of leadership in the Catholic Church {which was sometime during the Dark Ages since most of them by this time and earlier were declared popes retrospectively}. Before then, the Bishops of Rome were often challenged by the Patriarchs of Constantinople and some of the earliest “popes” weren’t considered Bishops of Rome and such, just the most important Christians in Rome and the surrounding areas that were considered by scholars just to give an image of direct descent from Saint Peter. Still, you’d have to admit that Saint Peter was the first Pope but he and his early successors weren’t declared popes in a modern sense. Nevertheless, Catholic Church tradition is complicated stuff but very interesting nevertheless.)

Lots of violence and injustice has been done in the name of religion. (Yes, but when you take a closer look, it’s more over something else like power, money, resources, angst, or what not. Yet, people use religion to justify their actions, even if it wasn’t their main motivation.)

Race:

European society after the Middle Ages is completely ethnically white. (Actually there were Africans living in Europe mostly because of the slave trade and there was later a sizable Asian population, too. Also, Alexandre Dumas and his son were both of African descent as well as Alexander Puskin.)

The United States:

Illegal immigration has only occurred in recent times. (Contrary to what you may see on the news, illegal immigration isn’t a recent thing in the US. There’s an entire history of illegal immigration that spans for hundreds of years. For instance, the Native Americans in Jamestown called it, “white people.”)

There were no black people fighting in America’s wars until the American Civil War. (African Americans have fought in almost every war in American history.)

All American flags had 50 stars even in the 19th century. (The flag with 50 stars didn’t come out until the 1960s when Alaska and Hawaii were added as states.)

In the US, 911 was always dialed in an emergency situation as long as there had been phones. (Calling 911 wouldn’t be an option until the 1968 when the 911 service was established. Before then, you had to press 0 and ask for emergency services.)

No African American performers wore blackface. (Sorry NAACP, but most black performers on vaudeville did. Some were light enough to put on burnt cork to make it clear to the audience. Others just bowed to vaudeville standards. I know it’s pretty unpleasant to think about it yet for much of American history, being in a blackface minstrel show was one of the few ways that actual black performers were seen by a large audience blackface or not though the music would be taken seriously for artistic merit, especially songs by Stephen Foster. However, the tradition of blackface extends to hundreds of years before its disturbing rise in popularity in the US.)

American dry crusaders were always prudish old ladies. (A lot of them were women who had suffered abuse and ruined from alcoholic husbands and fathers as well as many feminists of the day like Frances Willard who many would actually consider a social justice crusader and possible lesbian. A lot of ministers and recovering alcoholics were involved as well. Also, many dry crusaders didn’t just start trumping for temperance when they were geriatrics either.)

Two letter state abbreviations and ZIP codes were on US addresses throughout the 20th century. (ZIP codes were introduced in 1963 while two-letter state abbreviations first came into use in the 1970s.)

The Hollywood sign was always in its present letter configuration. (Until the late 1940s, the sign would’ve read “Hollywoodland” since the sign was originally erected to promote a housing development in the area.)

Stop signs were always red in the US. (Before the late 1950s, they were yellow.)

Asphalt roads always had yellow lines at the center. (This is a rather recent concept but its seen in a lot of movies set in 20th century history.)

Every 18-25 year old in the 1960s and 1970s was a freethinker and hippie activist who cared about the future and had revolution just around the corner. It was also a time when they listened to rock music, did drugs and participated in orgies.

Racism wasn’t much of a problem up in the Northern US while the South was under segregation. (A lot of places in the North had segregation as well. Not to mention, Malcolm X had a very shitty childhood because of racism and he was born in Detroit. Yet, while racism wasn’t as institutionalized in the North as it was in the South, it was still a problem.)

The US flag always had a standard configuration. (The standard design for the star part of the US flag wasn’t set up until 1912. There are plenty of American flag configurations of stars before that point.)

Government:

Rulers were unusually brutal. (Being ruler at the time was a pretty dangerous job where you couldn’t really trust anybody like your relatives, advisors, servants, or even friends. Being ruthless wasn’t an option. Assassination was a common fate for many Roman emperors and members of the royal family in Ancient Egypt.)

No matter what time or place, heroes always believed in Democracy.

Polygamous societies were always oppressive toward women.

Science:

Eugenics weren’t a popular idea before World War II. (Oh, yes they were, especially among whites.)

Telescopes were available and used since antiquity. (They were invented in the 1600s yet you see movies set before that with people using them, including Columbus.)

Western science was always the best science. (There was plenty of scientific advances being done outside. For instance, numbers were invented in India while algebra was invented in the Middle East. Arab medicine in the Middle Ages was said to be much more advanced than the Europeans and India had a form of plastic surgery. Not only that but it was the Chinese who invented gunpowder, paper, the compass, the blast furnace, borehole drilling, the toothbrush, bulkhead partition, cast iron, printing, toilet paper, and so many others. Also, the Mayas had a concept of 0 while the Romans didn’t.)

Europe:

Italy and Germany were always countries. (Most of the time they were either part of the Holy Roman Empire or a bunch of city states until the 1800s. Not to mention, Germany was split during the Cold War Same goes for Belgium. Also, the Netherlands didn’t become a country until the 1500s.)

Russian peasants were brutes or easily-riled hicks living in a deeply oppressed lifestyle in poverty. (They may not have been the most fortunate poor people in Europe but from the Middle Ages to recent times, they were much cleaner than their Western European counterparts. The reason for this is that while other Europeans weren’t bathing at all, Russians took a bath once a week at all levels even to the downtrodden serfs.)

The Swiss invented the cuckoo clock. (Sorry, Harry Lime, but the cuckoo clock was invented in Germany. However, the Swiss did invent the Swiss Army knife, Velcro, aluminum foil, cellophane, bobsleigh, laudanum, LSD, the computer mouse, Absinthe, and bank secrecy. Ulrich and Geneva were centers of Protestantism and headquarters of Calvin and Zwingli. It was also the place where the Red Cross was founded.)

Other:

The Illuminati has been a constant presence of human history which have been gathering money and influence, spinning their webs of lies and deceit in the shadowy heights of society, and had aspirations to establish a dystopian Big-Brother New World Order. (As TV Tropes and Idioms says, “There was a Masonic-like organization of intellectuals which was given this name in Real Life Bavaria in the 1770s, but it was eventually disbanded by the Bavarian government.” They were probably just another brotherhood of funny hats and their New World Order referred to a republican form of government and legislation based on human rights. And this group gets a bad rap because a French royalist blamed them and the Masons for starting the French Revolution.)

Freemasonry is thousands of years old. (Freemasonry as we know it dates back to the early 18th century. Before then, they were just a trade union of actual masons specifically master craftsmen, structural engineers, and architects.)

Everyone didn’t engage in the so-called, “modern vices” that cause such a slew of controversy today. (Actually those “modern vices” that are seen as controversial are incredibly ancient. But let’s not talk about them shall we?)

Tarot cards were used in divination throughout history. (They weren’t used in this way until the 18th century.)

People have been tortured on the iron maiden for centuries. (The first appearance of an iron maiden was in 1793, which makes the possibility of people being tortured on it {for other purposes than Uday Hussein’s enjoyment} highly unlikely.)

People smiled in photos ever since photography was invented. (Most people didn’t smile in their own photographs from the 19th century to the early 20th.)

Early pocket watches always had second hands. (Most early watches didn’t have them.)

Canada always had the Maple Leaf design as its national flag. (Canada didn’t use this flag until the 1960s.)

Celebrity endorsements of products were a relatively knew thing. (The Roman gladiators did this.)

Western society has always been more advanced and enlightened than in other parts of the world. (Well, I wouldn’t go that far since Genghis Khan’s allowed religious toleration in his empire since he basically didn’t care what his subjects believed as long as they accepted him as their ruler (and it’s the same way in most eastern empires whereas religious toleration in Europe wasn’t a popular idea until the 18th century.

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