Bad movie night, cinematic history, and “Salem”

It just doesn't get any sillier than this

It just doesn’t get any sillier than this

We have a tradition in my household of holding “bad movie nights.” These are evening when we bring together a number of friends of humorous (or at least sarcastic) disposition. Once together, and properly provided with food and alcohol, we watch and criticize movies that are so bad they are laughable. Any of you who have seen Sean Connery in an orange diaper in Zardoz (1974) or William Shatner “speaking in tongues” in Incubus (1966) know what kind of movies I mean.

We haven’t done too many historical films, primarily because historical films tend to go wrong by showing anachronisms, elements out of place in the time depicted. I’ve yet to see a mobile phone in a movie set before 1990, but I suspect it may well happen in my lifetime. And, far, far too often, movies depict characters in the past who are really contemporary characters transported into the past. My favorite for some years has been Rolfe the Viking in The Long Ships (1964), who is clearly a 20th century scoundrel and conman, unlike any Viking who ever lived.

I mention this because, thanks to another blog’s post on the series, I tracked down and watched the first episode of the new series Salem the other night. Salem  is supposed to be about the witchcraft hysteria in Salem in 1692. Except, in this series, witches are real. OK, if I can write “historical” stories in which magic is real, then I guess a television series producer can do a series based on witchcraft being real. It’s not going to be historical, but at least it can be set in the appropriate era and maintain some historical verisimilitude.

Rather than being in the appropriate era, the episode I saw tended toward the inappropriate error. Salem looks too primitive, while its inhabitants are too sophisticated in clothing and manners. This is a prosperous late 17th century port with an extensive rural hinterland in fact, but not as depicted. And then there’s John Alden, our heroic male lead. He is no 17th century character, no. He is a 21st century enlightened man with our standards, who in addition can beat the nasty evil Puritans at their own game of Bible-quoting.

Witch, n. (2) A beautiful and attractive young woman, in wickedness a league beyond the Devil. -- Ambrose Bierce

Witch, n. (2) A beautiful and attractive young woman, in wickedness a league beyond the Devil. — Ambrose Bierce

That the historical John Alden has been “lifted” from Plymouth to be the off-screen founder of Salem, and the father of the John Alden of the series, I just put down to the writers wanting to use a familiar name. Similarly, that all of the female witches appear to be young and attractive is to be expected; this is another series which might be described as historical soft-core porn, and the ladies will be required to strip down frequently. Audiences who saw Rome or The Tudors will know what to expect. And one can forgive some minor details; a 19th century obelisk in a cemetery will only upset people who know better (like me).

I do give the writers credit for an interesting premise for the series: that the witches are using internal divisions among the Puritans to destroy themselves. It bears some relation to what the inhabitants of Salem and Massachusetts-Bay actually did, killing their own people because of social tensions within their community. Though further thought raises questions about the premise. I doubt the authorities in Boston would sit still during all this. And witchcraft “works” because people use it to affect other people. If the witches succeed in destroying the Puritans, who will they lord it over?



About Brian Bixby

I enjoy history because it helps me understand people. I'm writing fiction for much the same reason.
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13 Responses to Bad movie night, cinematic history, and “Salem”

  1. L. Palmer says:

    You would have to subscribe to to watch this episode, but it has outfits in reminiscence of Sean Connery’s outfit in Zardoz:

    A lot of movies/tv shows are often historically accurate only when it is convenient. Have you watched Sleepy Hollow? Its adaptation of the Revolutionary War era has a lot of conveniences, but that’s ok because the show is about battling the forces of the apocalypse.

    • Brian Bixby says:

      I have not seen “Sleepy Hollow,” Laura, primarily because we have neither an antenna nor cable in this house. So I am way behind on contemporary TV. But I can do Hulu; had to sign up for it just the other day to see “Salem,” as it is considered adult content.

      Which is a way of saying recommendations are welcome, especially but not limited to historical and sci-fi/fantasy series!

      • L. Palmer says:

        Sleepy Hollow was on Hulu during its first season. It’ll probably come back on during late summer to build excitement for season two.
        I don’t have antenna or cable either, and keep up on things via Hulu and other online video.

  2. crimsonprose says:

    The uncomfortable plight of every historian is to quietly (or not so quietly) steam through every historically-set movie. I fume. I feel the inaccuracies are an insult to the viewer’s intelligence. I mean, how long does it take to research? But I still think the worst for anachronisms is the 2006 C20th Fox version of Tristan & Isolde; the screenwriter, in his commentary, says of taking a whole week to research before writing. Which might explain why King Mark of Cornwall is trying to unite the English against the troublesome Irish. But best is the name he gives to the Lord of Glastonbury (which was still a Celtic monastery long after the settlement by Anglo-Saxons) -Wihtgar – which happens to be the eponymous name of the Jute who settled the Isle of Wight! Though I will say that no contemporary writer can write accurately of the past. Would the modern reader understand the issues, without a solid foundation in that period of history? And would they understand the language? There’s lots in Shakespeare that’s simply lost upon us. And when you get to Chaucer, it’s even worse.
    On a different tack, while still in the same theme, Joseph Heller in his ‘God Knows’ (1984), gives King David’s wife a sewing machine so she can make for herself some sexy knickers!

    • Brian Bixby says:

      Was it the translation from a few decades back called the Jerusalem Bible that called Goliath a “stormtrooper?”

      Historians have become increasingly aware that their own ability to understand the past is shaped by the present in which they are embedded. But at least they have a professional commitment to trying to reach the truth. As you’ve noted, film makers don’t, and it shows. Though even when they do, the result is often unfortunate. The aforementioned “Rome” was loaded with authentic cultural touches . . . layered on top of a plot that perverted gender and political relations and had characters living long after their death. And the big-screen spectacular “The Fall of the Roman Empire” (1964) listed Will Durant as their historical consultant, and crammed almost every possible cause of the fall into its three hours in a horrible hodge-podge.

      I have a friend who’s a grad student in medieval English literature. I occasionally see his shrieks of grappling with the language on Facebook.

      • crimsonprose says:

        Will the day ever come when we historians are happy with Hollywood offerings! Though I have to admit, I am aware of my own culpability – though at least with the Asars I can get away with a few anachronisms, particularly on the grounds of archaeology ever pushing back the date of inventions. Pottery in 12,000 BCE, no less – though admittedly that is in Japan.

        • Brian Bixby says:

          Ah, for the freedom George MacDonald Fraser had when writing his Flashman books. He blamed any errors in those books on Flashman’s faulty memory in old age, when writing about his youth.

          Another blogger I know has just gone after the series “Vikings:”

          • crimsonprose says:

            I followed the link and added my ‘like’. I’ve not seen the series, though I cannot imagine Gabriel Byrne playing a Viking – though he did play Hamlet’s murderous uncle in an under-funded production with Helen Mirren (probably 20 yrs ago when she was still willing to take off her clothes) called Prince of Jutland. As to the Flashman series, are they intended as serious? I’ve always thought them restrained spoofs. Fraser’s daughter also writes (contemporary lawyer stuff that I’ve tried by I can’t get into.) I’ve found Bernard Cornwall’s series set in the time of Alfred the Great versus the Great Dane Army pretty well accurate. At least I’ve not had to flinch. Unlike, don’t remember the author but was a best selling series in UK a few years back, ‘Roman legion conquers Britain’ scenario. I slammed the first book shut before I’d even reached page 5. (Oh how fussy we are!)

            • Brian Bixby says:

              I had been surprised to realize that Helen Mirren, this severe-looking middle-aged woman in “Prime Suspect,” was the same one who had posed nude and painted green in the film version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” from the late 1960s.

              I think we can agree the Flashman was a spoof, but Fraser did go to the trouble of getting a lot of the details right . . . though of course often doing major violence to some of the historical characters and events.

  3. crimsonprose says:

    And I like Sean Connery, though as an actor he only plays Sean Connery. But this photo you’ve found of him . . . that’s not sexy, not by any definition. How much did they pay him to pose like that? Still, he did begin his career in the chorus line of South Pacific; we should have been warned.

    • Brian Bixby says:

      Have you seen the film in question? Connery leads a band which chants “The gun is good, the penis is evil.” It DOES cut into his sex appeal. I gather that after he left the James Bond series, he had a dry spell for a few years, when he couldn’t get any decent parts.

      In thinking about it, I’m tempted to say there have been two Sean Connery roles: James Bond and the elder mentor. But I could see the case for them being considered versions of the same.

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