Monday, October 13, 2014

Replaceface and the Mutability of Historical Figures in Film

A few days ago, I discovered Steven Payne's fantastic Tumblr Replaceface, which takes portraits of Russian generals from the Napoleonic Wars made by George Dawe (1781-1829) and updates them with contemporary figures:

And at first I thought, 'ZOMG, these are totally plausible.  I can totally see Sean Connery as a Napoleonic-era Russian general' (and mad props to the creator of this Tumblr for his mad skills in making these portraits appear authentic).  Then I realized part of why I was thinking this is because these are actors, and I am used to seeing them in various roles.  For example, I have totally seen Sean Connery as a Cold War Russian submarine captain:

Dat hat

We are accustomed to these actors transforming themselves into various fictionalized (and sometimes historical) characters.  But this point raises an interesting issue about how popular history has become thanks to movies, and how movies affect the ways in which we see history.  As I started to think this issue over, I realized how vastly our understanding of the past has changed over the last century or so thanks to film.  I'm not saying this is a good or bad thing, simply that major changes have taken place.  For example, if I ask the average person on the street (who has seen the movie Gladiator) what Emperor Commodus looks like, the average person might respond thusly:

A film buff might remember Christopher Plummer in the role of Commodus from the 1964 film The Fall of the Roman Empire:

A most subtle statue in the background

 However, if I were to ask the average person in a 19th-century street what Emperor Commodus looked like, that person would likely look at me askance.  That is because the only way that a person might know what Commodus looked like would be if that person had had the privilege of visiting a museum that had unearthed one of the remaining statues of Commodus--or possibly if that person had read a book on the history of Rome that included plates or illustrations.  I am going to assume that the number of people who had seen one of these pales significantly with the number of people who saw Gladiator (although perhaps on a par with the number of people who saw The Fall of the Roman Empire).  In case you are curious, here is a contemporary statue of Commodus.  He liked to imagine himself as Hercules:

This notion of actors filling in our sense of history through film is one that I now find particularly fascinating.  For example, how integral were Westerns to the popular understanding of frontier America?

I chose this one on purpose in part because this music has become synonymous with the Old West, but also because it features Clint Eastwood.  However, Clint Eastwood could just as plausibly be a Russian general from the Napoleonic era:

Идем дальше, сделать мой день
Or an unnamed extra from the 1955 film Lady Godiva of Coventry:

We live in an age, I suspect, when history is taken more from film than from the classroom, books, or any other single source.  This leads into the topic of how and why history gets transmitted through popular means, a subject that I have talked about in my scholarly work and one that raises many fascinating questions (perhaps more blog posts?).  At any rate, what is clear is that if you have ever wanted to own a shower curtain with Bill Murray as a Napoleonic-era Russian general, then you are very fortunate to live in the right age:

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