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Film in American Popular CultureVisit Press Americana
CHANNELING THE CULTURE:
A SECOND LOOK AT ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE

“I too can command the wind, sir. I have such a hurricane in me that should strip Spain bare if you try me…Tell [your king] if he wishes to shake his little fist at us we’re ready to give him such a bite he’ll wish he’d kept his hands in his pocket…”

Only Elizabethan scholars know for sure whether England’s formidable Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603) actually spoke those words to the Spanish ambassador but, as the critics might say, she should have! It sounds, offhand, rather like her. Indian-born producer Shekhar Kapur sprinkles his film Elizabeth: The Golden Age (released through Universal on October 12,  2007 and floundering soon after) with occasional outbursts of such magnificent rhetoric. Elizabeth’s was a time when, according to Robert McNeil (formerly of The McNeil-Lehrer Report) words mattered a great deal. In Episode Three of his fine PBS-TV series “The Story of English” (1986), McNeil asserts that the people of that era were “as proud of their words as they were of defying the Pope or defeating the Spanish Armada.” As one of them exuberantly opined: “What good is like to this/ To do worthy the writing, and to write/ Worthy the reading, and the world’s delight?”

Even Elizabeth’s deadly enemy, the Pope, praised her as “a great woman and were she only Catholic she would be without her match.” The Pontiff spoke these words the year his strong right arm, Philip II of Spain, was preparing to launch the mighty Spanish Armada of 130 ships against a desperately outnumbered England. That was 1588 and people back then took their religion as seriously as Pat Robertson and the Taliban do now. In 2000, John O. Whitney, a former CEO and professor at Columbia Business School praised Good Queen Bess in terms of America’s management culture: “Shakespeare’s queen, Elizabeth, was an absolute monarch. In theory, she could do anything she pleased. In practice, however, she knew that even though the ‘people’ might pay a dear price, they could choose to depose her. Of the fourteen monarchs in the two hundred years previous to Elizabeth’s reign, only eight died of natural causes and Charles I, the son of her successor, was beheaded. Elizabeth ruled for forty-five years, not because of a divine right, but because of a divine gift. She hung on because she knew how to satisfy her market. She chose to balance the imperial ‘we’ with common sense. She curried people’s favor when necessary, just as she knew how to persevere when tough decisions were required.”

In the words of Carolyn Chiappelli of UCLA’s English Department, “Elizabeth intersected with her age almost perfectly.” Yet even this one sterling life and Cate Blanchett’s admirable portrayal of the Virgin Queen could not save Elizabeth: The Golden Age from box office near-disappointment. Tellingly, Blanchett made the cover of Esquire magazine’s “Performances of the Year” issue (December 2007) not for her “Elizabeth” but for her role as Bob Dylan in “Don’t Look Back.” The Los Angeles Times capsule report was sufficiently sneering, referring to “Queen Elizabeth as a cross between Joan of Arc and Joan Crawford” and Sir Walter Raleigh as a “bodice-ripping pirate sprung from the cover of a supermarket romance novel” (November 18, 2007). Some of this was deserved. Yet even Joan Crawford never got to utter a line such as the one Elizabeth used to ready England for the decisive clash, one which would help decide if the “New World” would speak Spanish or no. “I know that I have the body of a weak and feeble woman,” the real Elizabeth said near the Channel coast as the Armada drew near, “but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a King of England, too; and I think foul scorn that any prince of Europe should dare to invade the borders of my realm; to which I myself will be your general, judge and rewarder…being resolved, in the midst of battle, to live and die amongst you all.”

This speech at Tilbury is recorded history. In the movie, Kapur has Cate Blanchett’s Elizabeth saying, “Let the armies of hell come against us and we will turn them back; they shall not pass” – which is a little stagy and predictable. Before that, the plucky Oscar-winning Aussie had intoned in her high-toned, nasal accent: “This Spanish Armada that sails against us carries the Inquisition…we must not be defeated.” These are some of the morsels from “the beef of language” (to quote a poet) which animated the Elizabethan Age and make Kapur’s latest effort hit the heights on occasion. “On occasion” is the operative word for Kapur might have been advised to put more of this soaring rhetoric on display and at least win over the literate movie-goers who could have assured a lower keyed immortality to this his second effort in a projected “Elizabeth” trilogy. The Elizabethan was also the Age of Shakespeare let it not be forgot, a time when every aspiring courtier and man-on-the rise trotted into London with a sonnet in his back pocket.

Laura Miller’s comments in the November 6, 1998 Salon critique of Shapur’s first “Elizabeth” movie made the point nicely. She reminded readers of Elizabeth I’s deep understanding of the link between culture and power, “a culture in many ways more cerebral and sophisticated than our own.” She praised Bess as “a leader who understood the importance of tapping into a nation’s mythic imagination long before Ronald Reagan beguiled the American public with creaky old cowboy movie clichés.” Reagan and Elizabeth. “Ay, there’s the rub” as Elizabeth’s best writer put it, an allusion that helps set the theme of this article. Simply put: Popular culture sometime has an uncanny way of channeling deeper currents in the culture, throwing them up to the light of day, and even showing us some things about our times through a sense of distance. This partially redeems the infernal noise-and-light machine that emanates from tinsel town and other venues of the popular. No less a commentator than the historian Arthur M. Schlesinger once wrote that the popular medium of film often offers “significant clues to the tastes, apprehensions, myths, inner vibrations of the age…the very nature of film as a supremely popular art guarantees that it is the carrier of deep enigmatic truth.” Pop culture as a guide to the times is an idea worth recalling. How perceptive of Laura Miller to link Great Bess and Ronald Reagan as consummate actors, yet knowing that there was always much more substance behind Elizabeth I’s intentional façades. Elizabeth: The Golden Age supports three reflections that spring from Schlesinger’s comments.

First, as Laura Miller intuited, Elizabeth’s career underscores the connections between image and power but it must be an image that corresponds to an underlying substantive reality.  

“They were often conscious of playing a part,” A.L. Rowse notes of the great Elizabethans and the whole of life had a more dramatic aspect to it, “that sense of a people finding themselves for the first time, of giving evidence in those tempestuous years of all that they could become.” Elizabeth’s image projection – the climax of Shapur’s first effort in 1998 where Bess dons the paint and makeup to give people a sense of an other-worldly presence modeled on the Virgin Mary – this was play for a purpose and a mask that concealed great strength. As proof of this reality behind the outward show, consider that as a young girl, Elizabeth had lived her early life under the morbid threat of extinction. All she had to do was remember the fate of her mother, Anne Boleyn. Then there were the religious entanglements, of Catholic Mary Queen of Scots threatening Elizabeth’s throne. Of Kapur’s latest offering, it was hard to miss the not-so-embedded message from the film's opening scenes of the background contest between religious extremism and toleration, an area in which Elizabeth gets high marks from scholars ranging from A.L. Rowse to S.T. Bindoff. Long before Armada Year, Elizabeth – shaky possessor of a most shaky crown – had laid her claim to greatness. With her first parliament and the Act of Settlement of 1559 she took an exemplary stand for religious toleration in her feuding, fractious kingdom. Religion had about torn the country apart in the early 1500’s and it would nearly destroy England and Europe in the next century (one of the timely reminders in The Golden Age). But Elizabeth, an Anglican sometimes forced to deviate early in life, staked out the middle way. Anglicans are justly proud of their Via Media to this day. Bess would rule from the center. It’s astonishing but no Catholics were burnt for heresy per se in her reign even though Rome excommunicated her as a heretic in 1570.

Elizabeth, in short, was a doer. Still, it was a dicey road the Virgin Queen walked between papists and Puritans. She steadfastly refused, she said, to open up “a window into men’s souls” and Kapur scores points for having Cate Blanchett drop in this exact quote in the earliest scenes. By so doing Good Queen Bess greatly cemented the cause of freedom of conscience which Englishmen, nay, all Westerners, claim as a birthright. Though devoutly recommending her brother’s Anglican Prayer Book of 1552 as her religious lodestar, Elizabeth I assured her grumbling Puritans that persecution of Catholics would not mark her reign after the horrors of her half-sister Mary’s (“Bloody Mary”) burnings of Protestants from 1553-1558. That helped make Elizabeth’s realm a kingdom her Catholic subjects would fight for as well. There was substance to Elizabeth’s posing and dithering. In their best moments American audiences have often sensed this. It was not for nothing that in 1912 Adolph Zukor purchased the rights to a three-and-a-half-reel French film which he hoped would prove the point that there was hunger for long narrative films that could attract a more prosperous, sophisticated audience. The name of the movie? Queen Elizabeth starring Sarah Bernhardt. In 1939 the redoubtable Bette Davis took a turn as the Virgin Queen in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. Davis portrayed an experienced dowager still able to handle an upstart lord. Queen Elizabeth I has been, in the words of popular culture critic John Fiske, “a broad text” of the popular, one upon whose spectacular life many have chosen to write their varied interpretations. Rightly so, for as Mark Anderson notes, there was an element of Paris Hilton in the queen’s public image as well: “She was maddeningly opaque and fickle; she was amazingly brilliant and fascinating. She was tight-fisted, two-faced, and a horrible tease. She was, in her day, perhaps the sexiest and alluring woman…She was a hag; she was a goddess.” Alison Weir, whose 1998 biography whose selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club summed Bess up as “one of the most famous flirts in history – men were attracted to her like moths to a flame, not only because of who she was, but also because of her undoubted personal charisma.” Sarah Bernhardt. Bette Davis. In such footsteps did Shekhar Kapur hope to travel. Americans like royalty once it is safely 3000 miles away. All of which leads to other more embedded possibilities behind the outward show of “The Golden Age.” 

Second, the Elizabethan was one of the world’s great Ages of Reconnaissance. America as we now know it took the shape we recognize because of decisions and voyages made by the forceful personalities who abounded in this period.

The New World is as much inside us as anywhere, Blanchett’s Elizabeth tells Clive Owen’s Walter Raleigh. Raleigh, of course, was the initiator of the failed Roanoke expedition of 1585 and of that eventually successful “Virginia” named after his Virgin Queen. It is an exaggeration, but one which Kapur might not dispute, that in many ways America begins within the small cockpit of Elizabeth’s Court. At least the idea of America, of freedom on the high seas certainly does, and the image of Elizabeth, this strong woman keeping Sir Francis Drake and a string of swashbucklers on a leash, this has strongly appealed to the American public. A latent sense of exuberant expansion comes across in the film, enshrining some of the spirit of the times, a spirit Kapur’s rendition of Elizabeth’s glittering court was trying to capture on screen. America’s first great export, tobacco, became habitual by the 1590’s giving rise to Virginia’s reputation as a “colony built on smoke.” The words matched the deeds. The Golden Age could have taken even more cues from the expressive language and soaring wordplay of what Elizabeth’s best poet, Master William Shakespeare, was evoking and capturing on the public stage, the pop culture of  its day, the sense of a society ready to burst like a coiled spring: “This happy breed of men, this little world,/ This precious stone set in the silver sea…/ This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.”

Elizabeth’s era was a feisty one – songbirds are notoriously aggressive fowl. The script’s undoubtedly modern sense that the New World lies within the human psyche as much as out there was well done. “Out there” was very much an Elizabethan obsession. Historians notice that spirit of the age, the refusal to be discouraged, the restlessness and sense of excitement, the swagger, even, of a people and a culture throbbing on the brink of a great adventure, a small people in numbers who still felt they held the world in the palm of their hands. After 1588 they almost felt it was theirs by right. Had not God taken their side most obviously with the sinking of Phillip II’s Invincible Armada? Had not Elizabeth ordered the commemorative medal “God Blew and They Were Scattered,” “the first to be minted by an English sovereign in commemoration of an historical event.”  Here was a crusading agenda Elizabeth’s most gifted playwright once again brought to the stage in memorable speech: This England never did, nor never shall,/ Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror…/ Come the three corners of the world in arms,/ And we shall shock them. Nought shall make us rue,/ If England to itself do rest but true.”

The Golden Age conveys this sense of English exceptionalism that easily crossed the North Atlantic. There was that wider sense of meaning, of life lived at a higher register (short as it was), of desperate stakes, of something worth striving for, of a world to lose or gain. This gives force to Cate Blanchett’s portrayal of the protagonist’s move towards greatness as the Armada approaches, the steely Churchillian resolve in her “By God, England will not fall as long as I am queen.” Here again is pop culture as a vehicle for channeling the deeper currents at a time when deadly enemies do indeed lurk about. Cate Blanchett’s forceful musing is something Bess might well have said to herself. This earnest declarative sets up her fervent and emphatic call to arms at Tilbury in that catalytic year 1588. The English, like the Americans, glory in history-as-myth and in 1805 and in 1940, at times when other would-be invaders stared across the grey-green Channel waters, it was Armada Year that seemed to be on everyone’s minds. Nelson caught the mood of defiant dedication with his signal “England expects that every man will do his duty!” In 1940 Winston Churchill rallied the nation with “we shall not flag or fail.” The relevance here is that some of these cadences were briefly echoed and flung to the breeze by American leaders in the surreal weeks just after September 11, 2001 when Elizabethan-style defiance of murderous foes was much in the air. ”I will not yield. I will not rest. I will not relent in urging this struggle,” President George W. Bush declaimed to a briefly united nation, a period that now seems light years removed. The eloquent John F. Kennedy was never more eloquent than when he praised Winston Churchill as the rhetor who “mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.” Words are the tools of ideas and ideas (sometimes) change history. In all this it was the loquacious Elizabethans who showed modern statesmen the way, a nation of 3-4 million yet led by a queen who could speak five languages. In 1588, as Kapur’s script can serve to remind those who want to be reminded, words can help tilt the balance between victory or defeat. They can, in William Manchester’s fine phrase, “create a soul beneath the ribs of death.” In times of crisis people still look to their leaders for inspiration and Kapur has us recall the fact that in 1588, Elizabeth and the talented team about her did not fail her people. The deeds matched the words and vice versa. 
           
Third, The Golden Age touches on the perils of mixing religion with politics, especially the politics of religious imperialism. 

Much hinged on Armada Year, 1588, for the New World as much as for the Old.  The Golden Age is worth reviewing just as a pop cultural reminder of this fact even if Clive Owen’s Johnny Weissmuller-like dive from his ship as he thwarts the Armada totally undercuts the gravity of the matter (Raleigh, best evidence has it, was in command of land troops at Plymouth). Overall, Kapur’s plot trajectory, however, courses inexorably onwards like one of Drake’s ships coursing to Panama. There is throughout the impending sense of a great conflict, one of history’s most decisive. This is brought to bear through the portrayal of a great leader inevitably coming to greatness, the Heroic Feminine. Elizabeth’s grand antagonist, Philip II of Spain, was indeed a religious fanatic as the movie brings out and historians attest – praying three hours a day and forcing his family to do the same. Being a film character, he is often a cardboard figure – apparently the man himself really cared about his sailors and veterans, much more so than spymaster Walsingham and his often fickle Queen. Yet here too popular culture can channel deeper realities. Kapur and his team were playing with important issues in reconstructing this epochal standoff between an infant, emerging Protestant England and the rich, surfeited hyperpower – Catholic Spain. Here the producers were more solidly bodying forth what Arthur Schlesinger relayed from historical filmmaker Siegfried Kracauer: “What films reflect are not so much explicit credos as psychological disposition – those deep layers of collective mentality which extend more or less below the dimensions of consciousness.” Overt or not, Kapur’s script frames tendencies the insightful Kevin Phillips recently set forth as a cautionary tale for modern America. In American Theocracy, Phillips recently wrote: “Historians of great power decline do not emphasize religion, save with respect to Rome, but it has also played important roles elsewhere…As for Spain, its late-fifteenth and sixteenth-century ascent had been closely tied to Catholic faith and expansionism…King Philip III effectively went back to imperial principles resembling those of his father, Philip II, whose belief in his role as God’s viceroy had sent the unsuccessful armada against England. The entrenched militant Catholicism was beyond reform. In the words of historian Paul Allen, ‘For the remainder of the century, than, Spain’s monarchs and ministers would steadfastly reject…reason of state approaches to policy in favor of providing solid support for the Catholic cause, even at the expense of Spain’s empire.’”

Substitute a fervent evangelical Protestantism for devout Catholicism and you have a moral to adorn a tale, even if Kevin Phillips consistently overshoots the mark somewhat by missing how divided and fractious America’s evangelicals really are. Even before Phillips, Paul Kennedy had more weightily and ponderously spelled out the lesson of imperial overstretch in his The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers showing how…”the Spanish kings Philip II (1556-98) and Philip IV (1621-65) were [sic] the most militant in the defense of Catholicism.” As James Bond was prone to say, “It is the same old game of world power.” The Hapsburgs who ruled Spain and Austria were not content with checking the Turks at Lepanto in 1571. No. They had to play out the whole set, trying to throttle the Protestant rebels in the Netherlands in a wasteful war all through the late 1500s. It was Elizabeth’s decision to support the Dutch in 1585 that tilted Spain against her. Here is Paul Kennedy again: “As a consequence it became virtually impossible to separate the power-political from the religious strands of the European rivalries which racked the continent in this period…national dynastic rivalries had now fused with religious zeal to make men fight on where earlier they might have been inclined to compromise.” The present administration in Washington is almost notorious for refusing to talk to its ideological foes when those are, said one diplomat, the very ones with whom you need to talk. When men feel they can divine God it can work some strange affects. Few remember that in 1596 and 1597 Phillip’s fleets tried again – more Armadas, more stormy defeats, another plunging of the Catholic warrior into darkest despair. Thus Elizabeth: The Golden Age, incomplete and as unsatisfying as it sometimes is, touches on vivid reminders of the down side of praying three hours a day.

More importantly, though, Kapur’s Elizabeth cycle deserves credit for reminding us that without Good Queen Bess, her seadogs and merchants, there may never have been a New-Founde-Land, a New World or a Virginia, with all that that was to mean for the future.  Even in counterpoint this is true. It was the very cousins of those thorny Puritans who hated Elizabeth’s Anglican compromising who set foot on Plymouth Rock in 1620. As it was, Little England could easily have gone under in 1588. Instead she went on to become—for better or for worse--Great Britain, with all that that was to mean for the world, for the English language, for freedom of the seas, for freedom of speech, for those first waves of European settlement that began to wash mightily upon the New World. So great a matter (world power) does an artifact of the popular (“The Golden Age”) resurrect.

January 2008

From guest contributor Neil Earle

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