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The Beautiful Past: Televising History

The family of Ragnar Lodbrok from Vikings.

The family of Ragnar Lodbrok from Vikings.

Popular culture has been graced by Vikings, cowboys, Roman legions, and gangsters for well over a century, but the historical serial has apparently found a fresh audience on cable television.  The newly popular historical drama features captivating historical narratives, dramatic past personalities, lyrical dialogue and plots, and beautiful scenery personified by the likes of Rome, The Tudors, Deadwood, The Borgias, Spartacus, Boardwalk Empire, and, most recently, Vikings.  This new wave of programs weaves a fascinating, if unsettling story about society past and present: In the midst of seemingly timeless moral and ethical quandaries, society seems persistently materialistic, violent, and carnal, but paradoxically beautiful and compelling.

The most recent entry into the surprisingly cluttered historical series landscape is Vikings.  The first filming of the Norsemen’s story was apparently 1928’s The Viking, a full-color silent movie replete with pillaging, the beautiful love interest Pauline Starke, and Leif Ericson’s conversion to Christianity.  Kirk Douglas’ 1958 The Vikings told the story of Ragnar Lodbrok’s murder of the King of Northumbria during a raid, leaving his widow pregnant with Ragnar’s son, who is eventually spirited away by the Vikings only to be pitted against his half-brother.

In comparison to its peers on pay-cable, Vikings' carnality is distinctly more implied than depicted.

In comparison to its peers on pay-cable, Vikings’ carnality is distinctly more implied than depicted.

Portrayed by Ernest Borgnine in 1958, the role of Ragnar is now former Calvin Klein underwear model Travis Fimmel.  This new Ragnar was one of People magazine’s sexiest bachelors of 2002 and began his acting career playing Tarzan in 2003.  Vikings shares with most of these shows a fascination with such a stylish past punctuated by fabulous wardrobes, alluring settings, costly graphics, and beautiful people prone to persistent nudity.  At some level the genre’s visual beauty invested in sumptuous wardrobes, picturesque settings, and the casts’ bodies is a distraction from the historical details of events that unfolded in vastly more prosaic forms and without the resolute dynamics painted in most of the plot lines.  Historical narratives have always been a staple of popular fiction, the silver screen, and television, routinely reminding society of timeless human attributes and challenges while obliquely and sometimes clumsily commenting on contemporary social life.  The genre features many real historical figures, and like the overdone material landscape of the genre most of the familiar historical personages are painted as morally polarized characters who are self–interested (Deadwood’s Al Swearengen), hyper-violent (Spartacus’ gore is cartoonish), nearly always gorgeous (The TudorsJonathan Rhys Meyers fails to scratch the surface of Henry VIII’s obesity), and eagerly carnal (Rome).  These characters are hyperbolized versions of ourselves projected onto the already-monumental likes of Julius Caesar, the rebel leader Spartacus, and Henry VIII, oddly appealing for their mastery of the dark and extreme dimensions of human nature.

We know relatively little about some of these figures, and much of the dramatic detail of their lives and societies are submerged in dense historical documents or simply inaccessible altogether.  The shows toe an ambiguous line between historical narrative and liberal reinterpretation projecting scholarship onto a breadth of popular media, with the History Channel acknowledging that the Viking age is “a topic that has always resonated with our viewers through our historical documentaries.  Hopefully it’s very appealing to a core young male audience — I think there are some parallels to some of the video games that are being played today by young men.”  Indeed, the basic formula for Vikings is not all that different from Game of ThronesGame of Thrones is a fantasy historical serial that shares the splashy visuals, captivating plot lines, and brutality and sexuality that appear to have characterized the Roman world, the American West, and English courts over two millennia.

The rebels from Spartacus charge the Romans in what may be the most gory of all the historical series.

The rebels from Spartacus charge the Romans in what may be the most gory of all the historical series.

That complicated interchange between popular culture and scholarship has long made many scholars wary of such shows, and the marriage between historical accuracy and dramatic effect is inevitably complicated.  Deadwood creator David Milch noted in 2005 that “I’ve had my ass bored off by many things that are historically accurate. … this is not a piece of nonfiction.”  The genre does indeed distort real historical facts for shows’ own dramatic interests and ideologically distorted purposes, but Monty Dobson made the case for Vikings that “I get that it’s fiction. It is not a conference paper or journal article and let’s face it, if it were no one would watch. … Dramatizations like Vikings can spark people’s curiosity and move them to learn more about the subject. We just have to be willing to embrace their curiosity. As archaeologists and historians, we have the best stories in the history of humanity at our fingertips, and yet we are too often unwilling to share them, and can be terrible storytellers.”

Sometimes such representations are charged with deeper ideological distortions.  In 1960, for instance, a group of classical scholars protested the film Spartacus, arguing that “the manufacturers have crammed enough sadism, violence, bloodshed, and sex to keep their adolescent audiences tittering happily. … The political bias underlying left-wing author Howard Fast’s Spartacus–a shallow, rather silly and thoroughly uninformed piece of parlor pink propaganda–has been faithfully reproduced in left-winger Dalton Trumbo’s screenplay.  Spartacus, the perennial hero of international Communism, leads the exploited proletariat in which all virtues are vested, while a jaded, decadent, and `fascist’ bourgeoisie is riddled with all the vices.”  Lars Walker sounded a similar note on the unacknowledged politics of historical programming when he criticized Vikings’ portrayal of autocratic Viking rule in a society Walker argues was quite democratic.  Walker argued that “this is not in any way an accurate depiction of the political system of the Vikings.  Rather, it’s an expression of the tropes to which lazy contemporary scriptwriters are prone.  Every story has to be about some dynamic young person (who wants freedom) in conflict with a hidebound old conservative, who lives by oppression.”  This may not be quite the profound ideological contest Walker divines, but he is correct that there is something emotionally satisfying albeit contrived about the tension between the young “Viking warrior and farmer who yearns to explore—and raid—the distant shores across the ocean” and the authoritarian “local chieftain … who insists on sending his raiders to the impoverished east rather than the uncharted west.”

Lucy Lawless hints at Spartacus' celebration of sexuality.

Lucy Lawless hints at Spartacus’ celebration of sexuality.

All of these shows have some consultant historian(s), but the referents for the genre are often ambiguous and scattered historical facts projected onto earlier popular cultural referents and the random creative instincts of producers, writers, and designers on the shows.  The Vikings’ costume designer, for example, conducted preliminary research “mainly at Scandinavian museums, which are exemplary in the way they show all the great findings, and although a lot of the fabrics have rotted, there are a lot of artifacts and jewelry. … I built up a very general picture of how they looked, but I discovered that perhaps there wasn’t enough there to sustain visual interest for nine episodes.  I had to take a leap of faith.  Overall, I think you just try to be as true and as original as you can and take some liberties to make it interesting.”  Entertainment Weekly concluded that “Male or female, the clothes say a lot about the Viking,” with the costume designer noting that “`If you were a Viking, you murdered people who were your enemies for the greater good of something else. Paganism … is a culture, it’s a different way of looking at the world, and I think that even in a little way I managed to convey that through the clothes. That would be my slogan for the T-shirt: These people were different.’”

Actually the slogan might instead be that these people are the same as us:  the Romans, Tudors, Vikings, and cowboys populating historical serials are compelling but predictable personalities that ultimately distill much of our own society into its most caricatured representations.  The act of interpreting these experiences and characters—literally making movies and television series, or writing historical novels consciously framed as distinct from us–may be what actually makes them seem alien; we ultimately see ourselves in these narratives even as we are distanced from the unsettling violence and mutable moralities such shows paint.

The Tudors suggests that we were grossly misinformed about the attractiveness of Henry VII and Anne Boleyn.

The Tudors suggests that we were grossly misinformed about the attractiveness of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.

The lush beauty of these shows and their skill compressing complex events into rapidly paced narratives allows us to experience their fundamental brutality, selfishness, and violence as entertainment detached from our society.  As accurate history they are of course not especially useful mechanisms; the mining of visual mechanisms and rhetorical plots from earlier films, shows, and novels imitates that which was a shallow construction in the first place; and the moral and political messages of these shows are often rather shallow.  Yet as compelling stories they are still consequential as confirmation of pasts that persistently tug on contemporary imagination.

References (both subscription access only)
John Mack Faragher

2007 HBO’s “Deadwood”: Not Your Typical Western.  Montana: The Magazine of Western History 57(3):60-65, 96

Harry C. Schnur, Harry L. Levy, Paul MacKendrick, Agnes K. L. Michels, James A. Notopoulos and William H. Stahl

1960 In the Entertainment World: Spartacus.  The Classical World 54(3):103-104.