Wednesday, 17 June 2020

Thursday Movie Picks: Period Dramas

This week, the theme for Wanderer's Thursday Movie Picks is Period Dramas. If you're not familiar with this activity, it's pretty straight forward. Each week, Wanderer over at Wandering Through the Shelves has a theme that gets posted on Thursdays (hence the name). Based on that theme, participants are expected to choose three movies and include roughly a paragraph on why they chose them. Pretty straight forward in theory, although sometimes is can prove more challenging than you expect.

Of course, "period drama" is a fairly broad term that could encompass a number of different films making this list slightly trickier to assemble. The obvious definition of a "period drama" would be a dramatic narrative set against the backdrop of a specific period of history, but this could encompass a wide range of sub-genres set across different eras. Probably the most obvious one would be the "costume drama"- elaborate melodramas (often romances) that make a huge spectacle of their selected era, (often somewhere in the late 18th or early 19th century, or sometimes adopting a Victorian/Edwardian setting). Typically the big thing you expect to see put on display is the fashion trends of the period (or at least those of the upper class- you don't normally see costume dramas about the poor). Depending on who you ask these are either examples of fine art or overly pretentious. Or somewhere in the middle.

Another sub-genre would be the "sword and sandal" films- big-budget historical or religious epics, many of them set in Ancient Rome. This type loves to make a spectacle of its setting (expect to see lots of Roman architecture), and may incorporate lots of special effects. We could also point to any number of war films that dramatize historical conflicts, such as the innumerable range of dramas about World War II or the Vietnam War. Certainly any drama set in the Victorian period would qualify.

Literature is also a common source material for period dramas. The romances of Jane Austen, for example, seem to be a popular choice.

So for the purposes of this theme, I had to come up with a selection of period dramas. Since it was a broad topic it was hard to narrow it down to just three. I did eventually manage to come up with three after filtering it down from a lot more, and produced the following selection. Plus an unexpected bonus.

Let's get started!

Barry Lyndon (1975)

Technically, several of Stanley Kubrick's films could be classified as "period dramas." Certainly Paths of Glory and Spartacus, and even Full Metal Jacket, but Barry Lyndon has a way of standing out. In the 1970's Kubrick took on the ambitious project of trying to make a biopic of Napoleon Bonaparte. A lot of what he did accomplish was quite impressive. The amount of research Kubrick had managed to do was alone impressive. He was going to go above and beyond. He had everything figured out. It was an ambitious project for sure, but if anyone could pull it off it was Stanley Kubrick. Then just as he was about to start filming, another Napoleonic film came out bombed. As a result, the investors panicked and pulled Kubrick's funding.

But while they may have deprived us of seeing what might have been the greatest biopic of all time, Kubrick did manage to take his extensive work on Napoleon and put into his next project- his underrated 1975 period piece Barry Lyndon. Based on a popular romance novel, Barry Lyndon follows an 18th century rogue who gambles his way into the aristocracy and gains just about everything he could possibly want, only to eventually see it all come crashing down (that's not a spoiler by the way, you're literally told from the beginning how it's all going to end). As far as costume dramas go, it's pretty well made.

Perhaps the most famous story about this film is one of Kubrick's more unusual decisions. For the indoor scenes, Kubrick was very adamant about using actual candlelight. It took a specialized camera normally used by NASA to make that possible, but it was worth it.

The Elephant Man (1980)

David Lynch's second feature film was a Victorian drama inspired by the real-life Joseph Merrick (referred to here as "John" due to a peculiar choice in the source material), the titular "Elephant Man"- a man who gained a great deal of attention from the medical world due to his unusual medical condition that puzzled doctors of the time, and which to this day experts still try to diagnose without success. They even got an actual cast of Merrick's head to use for the makeup job on John Hurt.

The Elephant Man brings to the forefront two aspects of Victorian society. It provides a thorough look into the British medical scene, offering a glimpse into the life of a doctor at the time, but perhaps more obviously it brings up the less glamorous subject of "freakshows". This is a once-common practice where circuses would gather "freaks"- people with weird physical quirks whose bodies would be put on display to be met with fascination and discomfort by their audience. The Elephant Man has a very cynical view of freak show exhibitions, and their tendency to exploit the misfortunes of others for profit.

Now some would argue that freak show acts actually helped a lot of people who otherwise wouldn't have been able to make a living (contrast this with a film like The Greatest Showman, which emphasizes how a lot of people with deformities were generally marginalized at the time and how circuses were basically the only career paths available to them). While this angle isn't discussed much in The Elephant Man (if at all), it does show the problematic society that marginalizes people with conditions over which they have no control, and certainly questions the ethics of using a human's deformities for entertainment. In fact, one of the big questions of the film is whether Treves is actually making things better for Merrick or if he's just created a whole new circus.

The Draughtsman's Contract (1982)

As one of my professors once remarked, this probably should have been called The Draughtsman's Contracts because it's a major theme and there are at least two important contracts he takes (three if you count the "contract" at the very end). Peter Greenway's period drama revolves around an 18th-century sketch artist who is hired to produce drawings of a British estate, while also entering deals that involve sexual affairs with two upper class women. Oh, and there's a murder which may or may not have its solution in said drawings (it's a bit confusing). There's also a naked man who often pretends to be a statue and keeps appearing in various parts of the estate for reasons never made entirely clear. This film can certainly be described as "weird" but it does a pretty impressive job with the period detail.

Bonus: History of the World, Part I (1981)

I thought that while we're on the subject of "period dramas" it would be fun to also include an underrated film that parodies the genre. Mel Brooks' take on the period drama is an anthology that ruthlessly mocks various types of period dramas, both historical and religious.

The two main sections include a mock "sword and sandal" epic that follows the adventures of a "stand-up philosopher" in Ancient Rome, and a mock costume drama about the French Revolution. The film also has a segment depicting the "Dawn of Man" which includes a parody of 2001: A Space Odyssey and a chronicling of early human discoveries such as the spear, fire, the first marriage (and first homosexual marriage), music, and art (which also caused the birth of the critic). And of course we can't forget the bizarrely cheerful song-and-dance number about the Spanish Inquisition.

Mel Brooks himself plays several different people over the course of the film (even having a dual-role in the French Revolution segment), but quite a few other big names also make appearances. Several of Brooks' regulars manage to find their way in- Madeline Kahn, Harvey Korman, Dom DeLuoise, Ron Carey, Chloris Leechman, and Sid Caesar all show up. Other surprising appearances include John Hurt, Bea Aurthur, and dramatic narration by Orson Welles. 


  1. With the exception of The Draughtman's Contract (which I've never seen), I totally recommend all of the choices. Especially History of the World Pt. 1. "It's good to be the king".

    1. I'm not sure how easy it is to find The Draughtsman's Contract- I mainly know it because I watched it for a class. It's kinda weird and a bit confusing, sort of a murder mystery but not really. But it is really well made. I'd say check it out if you can find it.

  2. I've only seen The Elephant Man, which I really enjoyed. That movie feels so much older. If I didn't know anything about who directed it or when it was made, I don't think I would've guessed that it was filmed in the 80's.

    1. You probably already know about my long history of studying David Lynch, so I won't bore you with the details other than saying that he directed The Elephant Man (yes, not ALL of his movies are feature-length periods of mind-boggling weirdness). It was actually his second ever feature film, after the success of Eraserhead.

  3. Hey, John!

    I've only seen The Elephant Man. For me that's easily Lynch's best film.

  4. Barry Lyndon is a gorgeous looking film and it has points where it is compelling but it equally has dry stretches. I have to admit to a bit of bias, my first job was as an usher at a second run theatre and it played there for what seemed an eternity and by the time it left I was heartily sick to death of it. I did rewatch it a few years ago to see if my opinion had changed. It hadn't, a beautiful looking bore.

    The Elephant Man is a superior film in every regard.

    Love that you chose History of the World: Part One! It's not the best Mel Brooks but has some terrific passages.

    Draughtman's Contract has been on my to see list for years but it's a tough one to track down.

    You're right about the breath of choices for period films. The first thing I think of is those Victorian/Edwardian costume dramas and I love them but I chose to go with the second period you mention-Rome.

    A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966)-Inspired by the farces of the ancient Roman playwright Plautus this hilariously tells the bawdy story of slave Pseudolus (a great Zero Mostel) "the lyingest, cheatingest, sloppiest slave in all of Rome" as he attempts to win his freedom by helping his young master woo the girl next door. Based on the stage play of the same name this has terrific songs and an excellent cast (including Buster Keaton in his last role) but it’s Mostel repeating his Tony winning performance who makes it so special.

    Julius Caesar (1953)-Adaptation of the Shakespearean play based on actual events. Brutus (James Mason) convinced by a group of Roman senators led by Caius Cassius (John Gielgud), that friend Julius Caesar (Louis Calhern) intends to dissolve the republic to install himself as monarch joins a conspiracy to assassinate him. Once done he defends his actions but Mark Antony (Marlon Brando) responds with a speech that plays upon the crowd's love for their fallen leader and a battle for power begins. High quality film with an impressive cast including Greer Garson, Deborah Kerr and Edmond O’Brien aside from those mentioned with Brando, forsaking his method mumbling for straight verse strong as Mark Antony.

    The Last Days of Pompeii (1935)-Pegs a fictitious story onto the big blow. Blacksmith Marcus (Preston Foster) consumed with bitterness upon the death of his wife and child becomes a gladiator and Pontius Pilate's (Basil Rathbone) partner before finding Christ in the days leading up to the Vesuvius eruption. Some impressive, for its day special effects when the mountain finally ruptures.

  5. I love The Elephant Man and consider this a truly under-rated film that needs more of a voice. I am ceryain you have seen the film Freaks made with many circus freaks at the time. Director Todd Browning wanted to show them in a positive light (despite what they do at the end). Many of these people were very affectionate to Todd Browning and vice versa. I still have to see Barry day. I don't even know your 3rd choice and may not see it. As for History of the World Part 1...I love it and find it so funny especially the time of the Sun King and Hitler..On Ice!

  6. I really don't remember much of Barry Lyndon now, but I remember being very surprised by how much I had liked it when I saw it.