Sunday, May 4, 2008

The Warrior Queen's New Clothes are GORGEOUS!

At forty-seven seconds the date 1585 appeared on the screen. Then I saw that Spain is the most powerful empire in the world. OK so far. Next the movie informed me that Philip of Spain, a devout Catholic, has plunged Europe into a holy war. "Well that's a bit one-sided, isn't it?" I said to myself. I started dredging my memory to see if that sweeping statement was even remotely fair to Philip - of whom admittedly I'm no fan - but my time had run out. At one minute and nineteen seconds the third sentence hit.
Only England stands against him.
Wow. Now that's impressive! It took the movie only three sentences spanning thirty two seconds to climb to a height of inaccuracy from which it could proclaim the nonexistence of the Protestant Netherlands. Not to mention the... the... aw, heck, what was the name of that other group of people who stood against Philip II? It's easy to overlook, because it was such a tiny thing - barely a political entity at all, really. It's on the tip of my... oh yeah! THE OTTOMAN EMPIRE!!!

Somewhat crestfallen to have been cast into a universe in which the Dutch Republic and the Ottoman Empire did not exist, I took solace in the costumes - like a child who, despondent after hearing that there's no Santa Clause, finds consolation in knowing he'll still get presents. Honestly, though, my crest never fell that far. The historical fictionalizing was so brazen, so dazzling, that I bypassed annoyance and outrage, moving - like ice sublimating directly to water vapor - to a quiet, almost reverent place. I felt a faint need to applaud this vivid description of the emperor's new clothes.

Beautiful scenery and sumptuous costumes filled the screen. At times the camera showed Elizabeth's intrigues from the unusual point of view of the vaults. I was enjoying myself well enough. Then, like a raspberry seed expertly thrust between my teeth, one of the characters made a passing reference to Parma's men gathering "on the coast of France". Ah. So it wasn't just the Dutch Republic that didn't exist, but the whole of the Netherlands!

Strangely enough, Lord Howard also seems not to exist in this universe - maybe he was in the Netherlands when it ceased to exist - and Drake gets only the briefest of mentions. Sir Walter Raleigh seems to hold the entire fleet together with his rugged, bold, yet sensitive manliness and his unflinching gaze. Then the vastly outnumbered English ships meet the Armada almost yardarm-to-yardarm, and the English start losing ships very quickly. Never mind that in reality the English hardly ever got within seven hundred yards of the Armada. I think the most painful thing here is that the depiction of the ship design is, as far as I can see, very accurate: the Spanish ships have the traditional high castles, whereas the English ships are race-built. I say it's painful because they bothered to get the designs right but, without the corresponding story elements, it's a wasted effort. The design of those ships is what made it possible for the English to literally run circles around the Armada, and the reason why the battle didn't play out yardarm to yardarm!

I have to admit here that I can't suggest an alternative to the battle scenes. Sure, I would enjoy seeing a historically accurate story where we cut back and forth between the Spanish soldiers cursing at the cowardly English dogs for not closing and grappling, and the English soldiers cursing at how unexpectedly ineffectual their newfangled gunnery was proving against the Spanish hulls. But I have no illusions that the peculiar impasse at which the fleets found themselves in the Channel would make an exciting movie.

I was rather pleased that, despite the nonexistence of the Netherlands, at least the movie portrayed the Armada's main problem: the winds that threatened to drive it onto the shoals and precipitated the decision to anchor. Unfortunately it then goes right back to inaccuracy, with the Armada burning in view of Dover. Here's where I think the reality could've made an exciting movie: the cutting of the cables during the fireship attack; the white-knuckle helpless sweep along the coast of the Netherlands; the last-minute change in wind direction that allowed them to escape into the North Sea; the sinking of the first ships and the execution of a captain who allowed his ship to separate from the rest of the Armada; the horrible deaths of so many mariners in the sea and on the land all along the west coast of Scotland and Ireland; and the final, pathetic limping of the surviving ships back to the Bay of Biscay. We did at least get one tragic, beautiful, haunting image from that part of the journey, spliced into the fireship scene: the horse jumping off the ship and swimming in the ocean. This was almost certainly a reference to the records from an Armada ship that, passing to the west of Ireland, sailed through a cluster of hapless, swimming animals from another ship that had foundered.


Joshua W. Burton said...

Holy Westphalia, Batman! The "nonexistence of the Protestant Netherlands" was a diplomatic fact in 1585, and would remain so for another 63 years. The Union of Utrecht "stood" against Felipe II only in the sense that the Polish Navy stood against the Nazis in 1943. Do you also count India and Israel as WW2 allies?

Joshua W. Burton said...

Note that Titian, and even Rembrandt, are proudly displayed in the Prado today as Spanish artists. Next up: John C. Calhoun, citizen of the Confederacy?

Hugh Yeman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hugh Yeman said...

Hi Joshua! Thanks for your comments.

I don't understand why you say the nonexistence of the Protestant Netherlands was a diplomatic fact in 1585. Since Philip came to power in 1556 he had devoted a great deal of the Spanish treasury to trying to expunge Protestants from the Netherlands. Almost thirty years later Protestant forces still held the key ports. I'd say that qualifies as "standing against him."

I know little about Westphalia and World War II, but I gather you're saying that I shouldn't use the words "Protestant Netherlands". It seems to me a reasonable term, though. After all, religion was certainly one reason why Elizabeth kept throwing money at the Protestant garrisons - I don't claim to know whether it was the main one. In any event, the Dutch Republic was important enough to Elizabeth in 1585 for her to send Leicester - though he screwed things up so badly that Parma was actually glad of it.

The Prado lists Rembrandt as a *Spanish* artist? That's funny. I was going to say that would make a *little* sense if Amsterdam had been under Spanish control during Rembrandt's time, but it was independent, wasn't it?

Are you a fan of Rembrandt? I wasn't up until January when I saw an exhibit at the Met. Now I'm crazy about him. Here is the entry I made on that visit. I went a little nuts on the note-taking. :)

I don't understand your comment about Calhoun.

Joshua W. Burton said...

My point, perhaps too obliquely stated, was that the Union crouched in open rebellion against Spain in the late 16c, but held the status of a province in revolt until Spain acknowledged its standing as a sovereign entity (Peace of Westphalia, 1648). I think the distinction between internal rebellion and actual war between de jure states is worth preserving; nothing succeeds like succession.

Calhoun may have flown the Stainless Banner in his heart, but as he never lived to see Fort Sumter fall, it would be paradoxical to consider him a citizen of the CSA. Similarly, neither Israel nor India existed as independent states in 1939-45, though both played an active role (as did free Poles, free French, etc.) in WW2.

I haven't seen the new movie, and won't venture to defend it in my ignorance, but the statement you objected to, "only England stands," is not really refuted by Spain's internal troubles in her Dutch possessions. The implied image, I think, is of nations standing, and the Union of Utrecht was not yet a nation in 1585. Whether non-Christian powers (the Sultan) would be considered in the era of Lepanto to have "standing" among the community of nations is a question in historical theology to which I have no clear answer.

Hugh Yeman said...

I edited my original post because, after having slept on it, I realized my foolish mistake: of course Israel and India were not officially recognized until after WWII, hence your comparison.

I just realized the source of the difference between our perspectives. You're thinking in terms of official nationhood status, i.e. the results of treaties. It makes perfect sense that we'd be talking at cross-purposes, because I'm at an early stage in my learning where I'm vacillating between two states: embracing modern modes of historical interpretation, e.g. "dates, wars, and treaties aren't the most important thing"; and realizing that I've gone overboard, then swinging back toward a more traditional interpretation. It's exactly what I talked about in this post. It's pretty long and rambling, so you probably won't make it to the point at the end, which is basically that I realized I'd gone overboard with the modern notion of rejecting historical interpretations that sound modern.

Anyway, I tend not to think in terms of treaties, and perhaps I need to reexamine that. Also, I don't know much about the seventeenth century. All I know is that Philip sunk huge amounts of money into attempting to get the Protestants out of the low countries, and their tenaciousness in the face of that always impressed the hell out of me. I really need to get some numbers to back up that vague phrase "huge amounts of money", though. Braudel's The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II will help me with that, if it doesn't kill me first.

Joshua W. Burton said...

Remember, too, that even in Protestant countries (before Cromwell) "divine right" still meant something. I believe the House of Orange even invited Elizabeth to be Queen of the free Netherlands at one point. A republic wasn't really a country; Venice and Genoa were independent states in fact, but quaintly considered themselves mere cities even as they were beating back the Turk.

Speaking of the Turk, Cervantes and Don John of Austria took him out of the "standing against" business, at least in a naval sense, in 1571. A decade later, he was still home licking his wounds.

Joshua W. Burton said...

"Nothing succeeds like secession," of course; hasty editing ruined my pun.

I agree that a lot of this is definitional, and I'm sure that you're right that the movie took unfortunate licenses. I'm particularly disappointed if, as you say, they didn't make clear that it was on Britain's Celtic coasts that the remnants of the Armada washed ashore. (This fact is a crucial plot point in O'Brian's The Golden Ocean, a forerunner of the Jack Aubrey series that I recommend most highly to your attention. Anson's epic circumnavigation, 1740-44, told from the midshipman's mess.)

Hugh Yeman said...

Nope, I'm afraid that in the movie the *entire* Armada burned right there off "the coast of France". It was really pretty.

Hey, I didn't know that about The Golden Ocean! I've read all the Aubrey/Maturin books, but none of O'Brian's other stuff. Now I definitely need to read that one.

It's funny/timely that you mention Lepanto. That's another favorite event of mine. Up until recently I would have agreed with your statement about the Turk "licking his wounds" afterward. However, after having this exchange and reading this article I'm not so sure. I need to do a lot more reading on the subject before I weigh in. Again, Braudel calls to me.

If you're interested in reading more of that article and you don't have JSTOR access, contact me offline.