I’ve been spending time recently watching old “period films”. A period film is a movie in which the story takes place in an earlier historical era, such as “Gangs of New York” or “Gladiator”. The thing that strikes me about old period films is how much they reveal about the era in which they were made.
For example, there have been at least five different filmed versions of “The Great Gatsby” (if you include the 2000 made-for-TV version). Although each movie ostensibly takes place in the summer of 1922, they all end up being lessons in the aesthetics of their own time. In a sense, such movies are “double period” — they reveal the aesthetics of two time periods at once.
What is considered sexy, powerful, compelling, from facial expression to body language, are portrayed in markedly different ways in the various versions of “Gatsby”. Which makes sense, since ultimately each film is aimed at its own contemporary viewers. Rather than faithfully portray Fitzgerald’s Jazz era, each film maker must recreate that era in ways that will resonate with his or her own current audience.
It is easy to look at a movie which aims to portray events of its own time, and see the markers of the particular slice of time in the culture when that film was made. But in a way it is far more interesting to do this with a period film. The choices are still there, but they have moved largely to an unconscious level.
Seeing “Ivanhoe” now (the Richard Thorpe version) is a lesson in the aesthetics of the early 1950s, even though it is based on a novel about the 12th century that was published in 1820. And seeing “The Scarlet Pimpernel” (the Harold Young version) tells us far more about the aesthetics of 1934 than I suspect the filmmakers had ever intended.