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What have Bohemian Rhapsody and Mary Poppins got to do with recreating historical martial arts?

As a historical martial artist, I think a lot about the differences between what my students and I are doing, compared to what the swordspeople of old may have done. Four films (or rather, three and two franchises) have made me think particularly hard about the topic. They are Bohemian Rhapsody, a biopic of Freddie Mercury, the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit franchises, The Bookshop, and the new Mary Poppins Returns movie (one of the many blessings of having children is you get to see some films you would otherwise certainly skip. Barbie and the Three Musketeers is awesome, but off-topic here.)

Watching the new Freddie Mercury/Queen biopic, I was struck by two things.

1) That was Freddie on the screen. The actor Rami Malek became Freddie Mercury, in a way I’ve rarely seen an actor embody a real person before. The acid test for this is the testimony of those that knew Freddie well. Brian May, for instance, said that “He inhabited Freddie to the point where we even started to think of him as Freddie.” (Source)

2) They got so much wrong. Just about every event was out of order (for one huge instance: Freddie hadn’t been diagnosed as HIV positive before the Live Aid gig). This really annoyed a lot of critics.

In other words, the producers and writers took appalling liberties with chronology and known facts for the sake of producing a really good story. 

It’s the only time I’ve ever been to the cinema and seen the entire audience stay to the end of the credits. I loved the film, and truly don’t care that they ‘got the facts wrong’. They got the story right.

The Mary Poppins Returns experience was really interesting. If you know the original film, then this is an homage to that. Mary Poppins returns to help the Banks family again; Mr and Mrs Banks are sadly dead, and their son (whose wife is also dead) is having trouble with his two kids, and money, and work, etc etc. They go through a very similar story, with each new song a clear and deliberate replacement for the old one. Where in the original, Mary has the kids tidy up, with the song “A Spoonful of Sugar”, in the new film, she has them take a bath, to the song “Can you imagine that?”. Where in the original, they go into a cartoon world through a street drawing, here they go into the “Royal Doulton Music Hall” through the drawing on a bowl. It’s an extraordinary act of reproducing the themes, feelings, and overall pattern of the original, without it actually being in any way a remake.

Now we come to the Lord of the Rings franchise. It was a massively successful, very faithful, filmatisation of the original books. They left a lot out (of course), but there is only really one aspect where they diverged significantly from the source (I think): Faramir, in the book, disdains the ring of power: ‘I wouldn’t stoop to pick it up if I found it in the street’ (I paraphrase because I’m too lazy to look it up, sorry). In the movie, he’s as ring-mad as everyone else. This was (according to the making-of DVD) a necessary modification to retain dramatic tension during the films. 

But compare that to what the same team did with the Hobbit. One book is stretched, added to, and generally tortured into three movies. I saw the first one and was so disgusted I didn’t bother with the rest. There’s even a bootleg fans version at about 3 hours long that has all the scenes from the three movies that were taken from the book, and edits out the rest. If I didn’t know the book, I’d probably not care, and have enjoyed the film series. But I love the book, and the films were just so bloody wrong I couldn’t bear it. It’s not an adaptation of the book. It’s a series of movies somewhat inspired by the book. I would say.

When creating a film out of a book, it is also possible to be too faithful to the book. The Bookshop is a good example of that. It's a dreadful, unsatisfying film, but only because they didn’t make it into a proper movie. Great cast, great cinematography, but really, really, dull. 

This brings me to my theme: how we recreate historical martial arts is entirely dependent on our goals and interests. We can get the spirit of the art right, while getting the specifics wrong (Bohemian Rhapsody). We can follow the structure of the art, but change the specific actions (Mary Poppins). We can get everything as right as possible, making only the necessary changes for safety purposes (Lord of the Rings). We can refuse to play with the applications of the technique, and just do iterations of the plays in the book (The Bookshop). And we can create a completely new art vaguely inspired by the sources (The Hobbit).

The various forms that modern historical martial arts groups take reflect one or other of these approaches. With a little imagination, we can fit SCA heavy combat groups, Battle of the Nations bohurt, living history groups, re-enactors, live-action role players, the HEMA tournament scene, and just about every HMA club or school I’ve come across (including my own) into this model. At every extreme, something is lost. And of course, every historical recreation approach is about as close to the original as a film can be to a book. We haven’t had the same nurture, nutrition, education, socialisation, access to medicine, as the authors of our sources. We don’t know what it’s like to lose half the population of your home town in a few months thanks to the plague, nor do we know what it’s like to live in a world without decent plumbing, cars, or the right to vote. Perhaps most importantly, we are much less likely to be celebrated for killing people in duels (unless you consider life in prison a celebration). So even if we do the exact same actions, in the exact same clothes, having had the exact same breakfast, we will still never be the exact same. Nor should we necessarily want to be or aspire to be. 

My regular readers will know that I tend to err towards the Bookshop end of the spectrum; many of my friends and colleagues err in other directions.

I said at the beginning that these movies made me think hard about this topic. I didn’t promise a conclusion- I’m still thinking about it. What do you think?

I'm sure you have an opinion: do share!

5 Responses

  1. Find your analogy thought provoking. Been play SCA 40 years. Make effective reproductions of museum armour. Try not to take the fun out by being rude about others useing sports equipment. Safety first . we each have only so much time. My touchstone is I have not completed raising a helm by hand. Some of my peers as armorers have. I got started and realised there are better uses of a full week of my life. Thus I enjoy the variety and conversation of the difference s you defined.. You as a dedicated teacher can enjoy the way too exacting even tedious ( as in Bookstore) purity and finest detail. I as a ( Hobbit esque) can have fun with the right look and feel. Then i can go to you and ask- I think I am missing something vital here in this technique? and you know what I want to understand.

    1. As another long time SCA combatant, I couldn’t agree with your post more. We all want to recreate historical martial arts, just to varying degrees. And having it broken down the way Guy did makes it much more apparent.

      Excellent post!

  2. Great content as usual! Thanks.

    I was also appalled by this change with Faramir. I remembered it so clearly from the books where it held some surprising significance to me personally. So I wasn’t fond of the changes that I felt were unnecessary to the movies. They tried to simplify, create a bit of drama, and build some characters. And I mainly accept the changes. LOTR was a labour of love.

    As to the main topic, you always had a good sense of the context, where we would wield the swords and skills, and your classes reflected it. As long as anyone is happy with their context and knows enough of it, I’m glad for them to play, even if it’s not my cup of tea!

  3. Very well stated, Guy. I’ll say that where I stand on that (spectrum?) has changed over the years, and may even change depending on my immediate context. Also depending on how much information (and what type) we have to go by.

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