It’s easy to see why the RMS Titanic has held the popular imagination for nearly one hundred years since it sunk in 1912. Not only was its maiden voyage one of the 20th century’s greatest tragedies, but it’s also a stunningly apt metaphor for the dangers of unchecked capitalism and technological progress. Accommodating three classes of passengers that roughly translate to rich, middle-class, and poor, the Titanic also serves as a handy microcosm for society at the time.
So we understand the impulse to commemorate its 100th anniversary with a four-hour miniseries penned by Academy Award-winning screenwriter Julian Fellowes. But is there really anything to be said about the Titanic that hasn’t been covered in the 21 movies that have already been made about it? (There’s also been no shortage of books, fiction and non-fiction, on the subject.) And let’s be honest: Haven’t we all seen so much of James Cameron’s weepy Oscar honoree Titanic that the mere sight of that colossal ship is bound to have us running for the hills?
Queen Elizabeth I
We get it, OK? The Virgin Queen was a bad-ass feminist heroine who ruled England for nearly 45 years, way back in the 16th century. From her parents’ (Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn) sordid history and her notorious dust-up with Mary, Queen of Scots to her military victories and endless speculation on her romantic life, Elizabeth I’s life provides no shortage of material.
Accordingly, Her Majesty has dominated pop culture ever since Edmund Spenser wrote The Faerie Queen in her honor back in the 1590s. Although she turned up in 19th-century British lit and a handful of operas, it was the second half of the 20th century — and the feminist revolution that began in the late ’60s — that opened the floodgates of Elizabeth worship. Everything from highly respected biographies to Bess-related mystery series to kids’ books to Philippa Gregory’s endless Tudor novels followed. By 2005, the queen had even showed up in Marvel comics. Elsewhere in the nerd realm, she’s starred in several video games, including the many installments of Civilization.
The queen’s film history goes back to Sarah Bernhardt’s 1912 portrayal in the French short Les Amours de la reine Élisabeth. Since then, every generation has had its own defining Elizabeth performance; ours, of course, is Cate Blanchett’s, in 1998’s Elizabeth and 2007’s Elizabeth: The Golden Age (although Helen Mirren was no slouch in Tom Hooper’s 2005 British TV miniseries Elizabeth I ). Our favorite Elizabeth on film, though, has to be Jenny Runacre’s punk-rock Bod in the anarchic 1977 Derek Jarman production Jubilee .
World War II
In this time of ill-advised foreign adventures, under the banner of a poorly defined “War on Terror,” it makes sense that we would look back to the last American war that was in any way justified. And it’s impossible to overstate the stakes of World War II, from the spread of fascism in Europe and their attendant cults of personality to the decision to drop the atomic bomb to the Holocaust.
There’s no minimizing the devastation the war caused or the valor of the soldiers who sacrificed their lives to defeat evil dictators and liberate the concentration camps. So we understand the need for the literally thousands of movies, books, and TV shows that commemorate the war. But we have a few gripes: For one thing, World War II films have come to seem like a shortcut to the Oscar podium, with the Academy indiscriminately distributing statues to great ( Inglourious Basterds ), decent ( The King’s Speech ), and awful ( The Reader ) movies about the war in the past few years. It’s like we’re honoring Hollywood simply for trying to address weighty issues like the Holocaust. Here’s an idea: Let’s make emotionally resonant films that don’t have to borrow gravity from one of humanity’s most horrific moments. And about the nostalgia for a just war, while there have been a few great books (Bernard Henri-Levy’s Who Killed Daniel Pearl? ) and movies ( The Hurt Locker ) about the War on Terror, pop culture could stand to stop obsessing over America’s righteous past and spend some more time contending with our ambivalent present.
Cleopatra, Mark Anthony, and Julius Caesar
Like Elizabeth I, Cleopatra is an alluring personality. Ancient Egypt’s final pharaoh, she is remembered for throwing her sexual power around, forging bedroom alliances with Julius Caesar and, after his death, Mark Antony. It doesn’t hurt that she and Bachelor #2 both tragically ended their lives after Antony’s defeat at the hands of Augustus Caesar. Popular legend depicts her as a stunning seductress (she may have looked something like this) prone to torrid love affairs, and who doesn’t like one of those?
Now, we all know the definitive literary take on the ancient trio: Shakespeare’s plays Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra — although there are certainly other worthy tales about individual characters or all three by authors including Plutarch, Rabelais, Boccaccio, George Bernard Shaw, and Thorton Wilder. Here is a brief list of legendary actresses who have played Cleopatra: Vivien Leigh, Sophia Loren, Claudette Colbert, Theda Bara, and the woman who totally owns that role for all time, the recently and dearly departed Elizabeth Taylor. Cleopatra has inspired songs, poems, games, and comic books. There is even a star named after her.
So, although it seems nifty to cast 21st-century mega-babe Angelina Jolie in a Cleopatra film that may be helmed by David Fincher (why not, right? He only has about 92 other films in the works), we can’t imagine this new version is going to match up to its illustrious predecessors. (Let’s think: What was the last great movie you saw Jolie star in?) And if we must have a new big-screen Cleopatra, does she really have to be yet another anachronistic white lady?
Was Woodstock the greatest rock concert of all time? Maybe. It was, after all, the long weekend when half a million hippies converged at a dairy farm-turned-mud puddle to have marijuana-fueled public sex while watching Janis Joplin, Joan Baez, The Who, Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, Sly & the Family Stone, CSNY, and, um, Sha-Na-Na. Okay, so we’ll admit the line-up was mostly killer, and by all accounts the mutual respect and lack of violence among attendees was truly remarkable. But hey, Baby Boomers? It’s not the only music event in history that’s worth anyone’s time.
Woodstock’s cultural legacy began with the eponymous documentary about the festival that won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1970. Since then, there have been countless commemorative albums, anniversary festivals (most memorably, the notoriously disgusting Woodstock ’99), and books — including Elliot Tiber and Tom Monte’s memoir Taking Woodstock , which Ang Lee adapted into a tepidly received 2009 film of the same name. In 2006, the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts opened to host concerts on the festival grounds, and two years later, an entire museum devoted to Woodstock sprung up alongside it. You probably know all about about Joni Mitchell’s song “Woodstock,” but have you read Argentine poet Edgar Brau’s poem about the festival?
Listen, we’re not saying it wasn’t a grand, old time or that the event didn’t have massive cultural significance. But it was also three days in a history of pop music that spans millennia.
Undoubtedly one of the 20th century’s most fascinating villains, Richard Nixon insisted he wasn’t a crook and then, how ’bout that, turned out to be one. And a prickly, powerful man knocked off his presidential pedestal by the Watergate scandal is certainly great fodder for drama.
In fewer than four decades, Nixon has been the subject of several high-profile film projects. There was Oliver Stone’s nuanced, but by no means uncritical, biopic, Nixon , in which the disgraced president was portrayed by Anthony Hopkins. Philip Baker Hall turned in a showstopping one-man performance as Nixon in Robert Altman’s Secret Honor . Of course, there was Ron Howard’s laudable Frost/Nixon , with Frank Langella as the president. And those are only the best movies about Nixon. Fans of contemporary opera will surely be familiar with John Adams’ Nixon in China, which debuted in 1987 and was revived by the Metropolitan Opera in February. At the other end of the spectrum, Nixon (or, at least, his head) has made occasional appearances on Futurama. We understand that great art comes out of pathos like Nixon’s. Still, history includes no shortage of other morally ambiguous politician. Why not write an opera about one of them?
The French Revolution
While the American Revolution (which preceded it by over a decade and helped to inspire it) was clearly impressive, you just can’t beat the French Revolution for its menagerie of personalities. There was the doomed monarch, Louis XVI, and his spoiled wife, Marie Antoinette, both of whom died by the guillotine. Then, of course, there was the revolutionary crowd — the execution-happy Maximilien Robespierre, the radical Jean-Paul Marat. And, to mix things up a bit, there’s the Marquis de Sade: philosopher, pervert, novelist, insane asylum inmate, and the world’s first official sadist.
Each of these characters has been represented over and over in pop culture, from Peter Weiss’s surreal play The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat, as performed by the inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the direction of the Marquis de Sade (pictured) to Sofia Coppola’s ambivalently received, rock-soundtracked Marie Antoinette . By now, we’ve learned more about the French Revolution from movies than we did in our high-school European history class. We know it will be hard to let go of de Sade, who has inspired so many great, twisted films ( Quills ! Lunacy ! L’Age d’Or ! Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom !), but it’s not like France hasn’t seen its share of other visionary lunatics — and great ideological battles — over the years.
Joan of Arc
Speaking of visionary French lunatics, there is another one who has been overplayed in pop culture: Catholic martyr Saint Joan of Arc. Convinced that God was telling her to save France from England, the 15th-century teenage peasant led her country’s troops to several decisive victories before being captured by the Brits and burned at the stake before her 20th birthday. These days, scholars are arguing over whether epilepsy, tuberculosis, schizophrenia, or some other disease was most likely to have caused her visions.
Obviously, Joan of Arc is a poetic figure who has turned up in all sorts of great literature, from Shakespeare’s Henry VI to Mark Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc to Bertolt Brecht’s Saint Joan of the Stockyards to George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan . There has been a lesbian play about her, as well as a Terry Pratchett novel. Joan of Arc operas abounded from the late 18th century to through the early 20th century. There’s even an indie band called Joan of Arc, although our favorite musical tributes are Leonard Cohen’s “Joan of Arc” and The Smiths’ “Bigmouth Strikes Again.” She’s been an inspiration in visual art since she was still alive. But perhaps the most legendary depiction of Saint Joan is Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc , due in large part to a stunningly expressive performance by its star, Maria Falconetti. Unfortunately, the high bar Dreyer and Falconetti set hasn’t stopped Hollywood from making crap like The Messenger . Hollywood? Please stop.
Need proof that legal restrictions only make citizens more creative about how they get a hold of recreational substances? Prohibition is a case in point. From 1920-33, alcohol was illegal in the United States. These days, we remember the Roaring ’20s as the era of flappers, speakeasies, and jazz. Somehow, we don’t think this was what those nice temperance ladies intended.
Prohibition’s black-market liquor trade — and the mafia leaders who controlled it — made for great reading and viewing. The original Scarface came out before the ban was lifted, and then, of course, there’s the ’50s and ’60s TV series The Untouchables (followed by the 1987 Untouchables movie). Now, we have Boardwalk Empire, and we know better than to complain about any HBO series starring Steve Buscemi. The real issue is the era’s huge influence on fashion and nightlife. Every other season, flapper-inspired designs seem to be back in style. For a while there, every other bar that opened in a trendy neighborhood modeled itself after ’20s speakeasies, and must every artsy loft party have a Prohibition theme? There have been other decadent periods in history: fin-de-siècle Britain, say, or the reign of Caligula. Now that could surely inspire some crazy parties.
Seriously, guys. It’s been over 2000 years. Find a new savior already.