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.
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?