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.