Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Film Review: Beyond the Mask

Promotional Poster for the Movie
Dear Reader,

Today, I am going to be shamelessly self-serving, and plug a film set in the Kabinettskriege era, which my extended family had a large role in making. This movie tells the story of a assassin, William Reynolds, (Andrew Cheney) in the employ of the East India Company, who seeks redemption and forgiveness from Charlotte (Kara Kilmer) for the atrocities he committed in India. He travels to Britain's American colonies and takes on a Zorro-esque persona. As this masked Highwayman, he attempts to thwart the plans of loyalists and the East India Company. When watching this film, I was truly impressed by the scale and quality of the production. In terms of genre, the film appears to be heavily influenced by Pirates of the Caribbean, Master and Commander, and the Assassin's Creed video game franchise. Indeed, the film shares the first name of the protagonist, a villain, and general feel of the soundtrack with Pirates. While the film certainly targets the conservative, Christian, homeschooler audience, the large amount of action and special effects may broaden it's appeal to wider audiences. In a very humorous review, Kam Williams on the The Skanner says that this is the sort of film, "A Born Again Quentin Taratino might make."   

As a professional historian, it is somewhat unsurprising that I evaluated this film not only for its entertainment value, but also for its portrayal of the past. While the fun and quirky action flick receives rather high marks in the realm of entertainment, it is somewhat lacking in its portrayal of history. While it might seem odd to be criticizing a film for this, in interviews and on radio programs, the film's producers have repeatedly claimed that the film honors history, and is an accurate portrayal of something which, "could have happened." In addition, the film's credits use actual events and primary source quotes to back up the idea that the story is plausible. 

As might be clear via their somewhat negative portrayal in recent media, The East India Company won few friends in its troubled history. 18th century economist Adam Smith lambasted the company as a "burdensome," and "useless nuisance." He also maintained that, "Such exclusive companies, therefore, are nuisances in every respect; always more or less inconvenient to the countries in which they are established, and destructive to those which have the misfortune to fall under their government."  However, it is important to keep in mind: Smith's criticism comes from an economic standpoint, not a human rights' standpoint. The East India Company was responsible for much of the suffering in 18th century India, but this suffering was no different than that caused by English settlers in North America, on the Native American populations. The East India Company was certainly not the mustache twirling villain presented in the film, and would continue to operate in India for many years after the revolutionary era.

The film, though dealing with the East India Company, shows very few ethnic Indians. The flashback scenes show Will committing atrocities in India, but the targets of this violence seem to be Caucasian in both their skin tone and style of clothing. Indeed, the only Indian character, Basil, (Samrat Chakrabarti), is a villain, in the employ of the East India Company.

The film's portrayal of loyalists also bears consideration. In the film, the loyalists (those American subjects who remained loyal to King George III) are depicted as "bad guys." In one scene, they prepare to tar and feather a patriot, and burn effigies of their opponents. This is somewhat surprising, as these were the hallmark activities of those supporting independence, not those opposing it. The film also appears to portray loyalist as terrorists, and they frequently use bombs to terrorize their opponents. All in all, the films portrayal of loyalists is highly questionable, and worrisome to those seeking to fully understand the past. I would encourage the filmmakers to read American Insurgents: American Patriots, by Timothy Breen, and Liberty's Exiles, by Maya Jasanoff. 

Lastly, there is no convincing reason presented why Will and Charlotte support the cause of American Independence. Why would an English couple with no previous ties to the American colonies abandon their belief in a parliamentary system, to throw in their lot with rebels who are trying to damage England's economic interests?

I have tried to reserve my focus to real historical issues, without spoiling too much of the movie's plot, or getting bogged down in the various minor historical errors made by the film. I have specifically refrained from mentioning the beards, or the silenced flintlock weaponry.

 The film is thoroughly enjoyable, specifically for the younger audience which it targets. If you have children, and want to draw them in to the past with a fun, wholesome movie, this is the film for you. But like so many historical films, you shouldn't leave the theater and accept the film's version of history. Use the film to spark a child's interest in this fascinating period, don't end the story there.

Best Regards,

Alex Burns

1 comment:

  1. Hello, Alex!

    I enjoyed reading your review! I worked on BtM as a volunteer construction worker. When I mentioned I had an interest in the Seven Years' War, I was told that they had a cousin who was knowledgeable in that period. I'm glad to have found your blog and look forward to reading all the information on it.