The Lost Prince

  • Garrow's Law
  • The Young Victoria
  • The King's Speech
  • The Lost Prince

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Niall Ferguson's 'Civilisation: Is the West History?'

 4OD Link:

Niall Ferguson, historian and presenter
One of our foremost contemporary historians, Niall Ferguson, has produced a superb TV series for channel 4, which recounts the rise of Western civilisation, examining why for so long it was able to reign supreme  above the rest of the world.

Niall Ferguson,  Professor of history at Harvard University, perhaps best known for his book Empire, presents his history with fresh vibrancy which is rarely seen in history documentary. Every word is said with so much emphasis and effort that it seems to take on a whole new meaning. The series transports us to locations as varied as London, Vienna, Berlin,  Istanbul, China, Peru, Africa and the United States. Visiting the places, and admiring the splendour of the buildings, and sharing the books used as sources brings the history to life. Seeing him in a library, engaging with the sources, gives us interaction with the past. So Ferguson's excellent presentation, and the brilliancy of the locations, combine to provide superb documentary, which is fascinating, and entertaining.

In the six-part series, Ferguson uses a model of 'killer apps' to structure each episode. These link the past, not just with the present, but also the future, showing how the West gained supremacy historically for a number of reasons, and how things seem to be swinging back to the East again. 

Episode 1

China for many years was at the centre of technology and advances in wisdom

The first episode looks at competition, and how this helps to make Western civilisation a dominant one for so many centuries. Starting off with China in the fifteenth century, he examines how China was once an expansive superpower, that invented many things that would not be discovered in Europe for centuries; the clock, football, chess, and gun powder, all came from China centuries before they were used by their European counterparts. 

China even set off on its own voyage of discovery, finding parts of the Pacific and Americas that would not be identified by Europeans for many years. It was the loss of a great ruler, and subsequently a great captain leading these voyages, that would cause the Chinese to look inwards, and abandon their discoveries, until they were eventually ravaged by disease, war and bankruptcy. The West, however, were interested in competition. Unlike the Chinese, who suddenly became isolationist, Europeans were keen for new trade oppurtunities, competing with each other to identify new routes to India, when the Silk Road was inaccessible. It was competition that spurred on the voyages of discovery, which led to the colonisation of the Americas, and opened up new opportunities for Europeans to trade, spread their ideas and religion, marking it out as a superior civilisation. 

Episode 2

Frederick the Great of Prussia

In the second episode, Ferguson looks at why the West was able to progress in science. He explains that for centuries before the seventeenth century, the Islamic world had been a leader in science and mathematics, discovering the theory of algebra. The Ottoman Empire, centred in Istanbul, was a force to be reckoned with. In 1683 they laid siege to Vienna, which was then the capital of a vast empire stretching across swathes of Europe. Mistakes at the siege caused the Ottomans to be defeated and lose confidence in their abilities. As a result of religious rulers, calligraphy was to be used in preference to books, hindering their access to education and discovery. Bureacrats became unable to deal with the systems of government, and the Ottomans came under threat from the Persians. 

Meanwhile, Frederick the Great (who I remember from my degree being referred to as an "Enlightened despot") took great care in the governance of Prussia, developed a superior military army through the development of artillery, and erected magnificent buildings (which had me in complete awe just looking at them - I now really want to go to Vienna and Berlin) in order to project the military greatness of Prussia. Unlike in Istanbul, where science was seen as contrary to religion (which reminded me of creationism in America, perhaps suggesting that America's decline is due to the beliefs of some Americans). European governments not only encouraged the advancement of science, but often endorsed it, as is seen with Charles II and the Royal Observatory at Greenwich.  

Without  the investment in science and the Enlightenment, the Ottoman Empire lagged behind. But in the twentieth century, Turkey underwent a revolution which changed Islamic attitudes to science, and sought to separate the two from the structures of the state. Now science has become a key component of the Islamic education system, and countries such as Iran have caught up with Europe, developing nuclear weapons, which could have us all quaking in our boots.

Episode 3

John Locke, philosopher of the late seventeenth century, whose ideas were adopted by some of the earliest American settlers in South Carolina

The third episode, entitled 'property', looks at how North America became dominant over the South. He suggests this was not because of the fertility of the soil, but because of John Locke's idea that equality meant an entitlement to property. This laid the foundations of new colonies in America, based on the democratic ideas of Britain, and allowed the colonies to flourish; through working hard and collectively,  everything was obtainable. This was something that would develop into the American Dream. The  aim of these settlers in South Carolina was to build a better life for themselves. In contrast, the Spanish bound for South America, believing it to be rich in gold, and were interested in conquering the colony. The Conquistadors ravaged the Inca population, in order to exploit the land and people. It caused division, resistance and disunity, that would eventually unhinge the country, and cause it to decline. Bolivar envisioned a South America free from the tyrannical constraints of the Spanish, but he was by no means a Latin American George Washington. He was interested in forming an independent Continent, not democracy based on European principles.

A poignant image of slavery

However, while Locke's ideas had created a dominant North America, slavery was to tear it down. It is a fundamental contradiction to America's founding ideals, since their ideas of equality seem to completely contradict slavery. But slavery in North America, convinced the Euro-Americans of their racial superiority,  and the belief that they alone were entitled to certain rights. This was something that was largely accepted across the States until about forty years ago. In the States, slavery caused divisions among racial lines, and eventually between North and South in the Civil War, whereas in Brazil racial difference became an accepted part of society. Ferguson concludes by saying that Brazil is quickly becoming an industrial superpower, while the United States seems to be abandoning their racial links, with white Americans coming to be superseded by a Latino migrant population, and a black president - the suggestion is that within forty years, the white population will be a minority in the States!

Episode 4


In the fourth episode, Ferguson travels to Africa, where he looks at the development of medicine, and how this was used to ensure Western supremacy. The French believed the Africans were more susceptible to disease, Africa had many diseases which did not exist in Europe. They were able to transport their medicine to the Dark Continent, while conducting experiments which would improve their own medicine, and increase their grip on the continent. Medicine was also used to confirm European dominance, by proving their racial supremacy. This technique was adopted by the Germans, who built camps to house Africans so they could do horrific experiments on them. These were the precedents for the Nazi concentration camps - in fact Hitler read the literature of the leading doctor in these experiments, using them in Mein Kampf to develop his ideas of the superior Aryan race. Let us also not forget that huge numbers of Africans went off to fight in the First World War, many with the expectation of French citizenship. While European medicine had advanced, allowing many soldiers to be saved at the end of the War from the discovery of penicillin, and typhoid vaccines; thousands of Africans died from pneumonia, not protected by the medicine they were exploited to develop! So I found this episode particularly poignant and fascinating, reminding us once again how cruel us Europeans were (although it seemed to focus on France and Germany, I am sure it was us too)!

I am looking forward to next week's episode, hoping it can give me further insight into why the West was best, and now it just isn't!

*All pictures have been taken from the internet and are there simply to make the blog a bit more vibrant.

Friday, 18 March 2011

The Outlaw

This term we have been studying heroes as part of the comparitive module of my history course. I saw this film on iPlayer, and since we are allowed to talk about films in our exam, thought it might be appropriate. It is a rather imagined account of Billy the Kid, the legendary outlaw hero, who is known for shooting well and escaping the law.

It features the debut of the actress Jane Russell, who became a Hollywood sex symbol and pin-up girl. Apparently, the film was made in 1943, featuring half a second when it showed Russell's breasts which was considered too raunchy for the typical Western audience. This caused a huge scandal, and the film was eventually allowed to be shown in San Francisco for one week, before being confined to film legend.

In this sense it was unconventional, in that the woman, Rio, is domineering and able to trick Billy on several occasions and even goes off with him to fight some Indians. Disappointingly, she still clings on to him like a puppy, and runs away with him at the end of the film, even though he trades her for a horse with Doc. 

Jack Beutel, who plays the Kid, is rather sour, and I don't think his acting is convincing. Although he has been given some funny lines, he delivers them with the same whimsical expression. No wonder then it supposedly hampered his career, causing him not to perform in another film for the next seven years. This is the only role in which he is well known

On the other hand, Jane Russell was made famous by this film. That is what I call irony, in that the hero is downcast by his leading actress. Ha ha!

The cast is very small, the film being a small scale in production. Other good performances come from Walter Huston, who plays Doc Holliday. He becomes Billy's friend, after Billy steals his horse. And also, Billy's nemesis, Pat Gattrell, who is played by Thomas Mitchell.

One thing that slightly annoyed me about the film, was the fact that it had no actual plot. I don't want to give too much away for those of you who have seen it, and actually want to see it but basically; Billy the Kid has stolen Doc's horse, Doc is friends with Pat, Doc is angry but then is won over by the Kid's humour and for some reason starts protecting him against Pat. He gives him a place to sleep, where he first meets Rio. Later, he has a confrontation with a man at a bar because he is stupid and follows him into a room at the back of the bar. The man tries to kill Billy through trickery, but Billy gets to his gun first and shoots him. Pat comes after Billy for the murder, when Doc tries to defend him, Billy gets shot in a cross fire (unheroic or what!). Then he is taken in by Doc, sleeps with his girlfriend, (who at first I  thought was his daughter because she is so much younger than he is, and he kissed her and talked to her like he was her father). Billy is in a daze (and apparently they also get married, but Billy does not know it - that is not really explained) and Doc gets angry when he finds out what Billy and Rio have done!

Billy offers Doc a choice between the horse, Red, and Rio. Billy then says he is disappointed when Doc goes for the horse, because he liked the horse. This makes Rio angry, and causes her to put sand in his pack, instead of water! The two go off into the mountains, for some reason, where Pat has set a trap for Billy, but Billy forms one of his own in the form of Rio. But it backfires because Billy refuses to accept he has feelings for Rio, and he gets arrested. On the way back, after an argument, Billy takes a beating from Doc because he considers him a friend. This causes Doc to forget all the things Billy has to done to him, and put down  his arms. Pat is jealous because he wants to be friends with Doc, they nearly duel, and are about to make up, when Pat shoots Doc accidentally. Doc dies a heroic death, 'not on the bed', and is buried in a grave marked as Billy's. Pat then tries to trick Billy into giving him his gun, in exchange for Doc's and a safe passage out of town. But Billy does not fall for it, and instead of killing Pat, ties him up, and leaves. As he is leaving, he has a change of heart about Rio, after checking to see that the water is not sand, and takes her with him, riding into the wilderness.

It has the traditional Western concepts of honour and friendship, the characters seem to follow the codes of conduct set by the West. But first of all, Doc is an invented character, as is Rio, I think. So the whole plot has been made up in order to fit in with the genre of a Western. It seems a rather tame Western, both in terms of killing Indians, and general shootings. It seems to be much more focused on ideas of friendship and betrayal, than typical concepts of Westerns.

Is Billy the Kid the hero, or is Doc? Because he dies fighting for a cause, in order to defend Billy (God knows why, because Billy treats him terribly). In my opinion, Billy is a rubbish friend, who has stolen his horse and his girl friend. I am not sure why Doc would want to die for that, but he does. Billy seems more interested in his horse, and he does not seem too upset when Doc dies, because he gets his horse, (and Rio)! So I think Billy the Kid is stupid, selfish and egotistical. Maybe a 1940s audience would have judged it differently, but I don't think this is a likeable representation.

Monday, 14 March 2011

The Killing Fields

I know this is an old film, but I have decided to review it any way, since I found it fascinating. It is about the Cambodian Massacres in the 1970s, when the Khmer Rouge were taking over the country, with Pol Pot's communist and totalitarian regime. It shows the effects of Communism, how it takes away personality, deprives people of feeling, and led to the starvation and horrific killing of nearly 2 million civilians. But it does not take sides, it seems to laud equal criticism on the United States for their interference in the Vietnam War, and their decision to invade Cambodia, proliferating the already tragic conflict.
Though it was quite long and seemed to drag on in parts, the film is informative and shocking. On the synopsis I read, it said that a journalist was looking for his friend and Cambodian translator, but this does not happen for about an hour into the film, into which I can not remember much, it is the last hour and 20 minutes which really sticks in the mind. 

It would have been especially shocking when it was released, in 1984, which was less than a decade after the conflict was taking place, and when the characters were still alive and were well-known to the American public. It represents anti-imperialism, is anti-war, and celebrated friendship and struggle through adversity. It is a story still poignant today, with conflicts happened more recently, in Rwanda, Sri Lanka, the DRC, Sudan and Somalia. It could also be used as a counterweight to conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan,  which have been seen as conflicts for oil and for Western supremacy. 

Parts of it will make you want to cry. But you will be reassured to know that it has a happy ending, so their friendship is put through the trial of imprisonment, running away and eventually getting in to freedom.