Rebels, History & Popular Culture

   The idea of rebellion, resistance to authority and the established order, is a much utilized theme in popular culture. Look at Star Wars. Without the rebellion there wouldn’t have been an original trilogy. Luke would still be a moisture farmer on Tatooine and Obi Wan would still be enjoying a life of retirement in his cave. It crops up as a futile gesture in Orwell’s 1984. Resistance to Big Brother is portrayed as impossible. Resist, even if it is only in the mind, and you will be brought down. On the smaller scale we have rebellion against a parent figure or a school- Like in Rebel Without a Cause where James Dean’s character reacts (quite reasonably in my opinion) against his parents and the world around him.

   In real life, in history, rebellion has also been a common feature. Some of those rebellions can be considered justifiable, for example Glyndwr’s revolt of the early 1400s, whilst others are not so much- Henry Bolingbroke’s revolt against Richard II perhaps. What you think of a rebel, a revolutionary or a revolutionary depends on your point of view, depends on how you interpret the sources. You could argue that Bolingbroke was absolutely right to depose Richard, that Richard was a weak king, or you could take the opposite view and argue that Richard wasn’t so awful as he’s sometimes made out to be. The same is true of Glyndwr. You could make a case that he was a hero or you can call him an upstart if you want. Everything is a matter of perspective. For myself I think that Henry IV (Bolingbroke) was an absolute monster who looked like Ming The Merciless from Flash Gordon. But how, I wonder, does that matter of perspective translate into popular culture? How does it appear when it comes to film and television and literature?

Most commonly the rebels are presented as being the good guys, of being the ones in the right. Let us take Spartacus and the Third Servile War as an example- Kubrick’s version. In it the Romans are presented as a pompous, ignoble elite, forcing men into slavery and making them fight to the death for their own amusement. The titular Spartacus and his rebels on the other hand are presented as virtuous and noble, wronged and thoroughly deserving of their cause. Spartacus himself is shown as this Christ like figure, hating violence and war and only wanting to get away from the Romans. What the film largely ignores is that the slaves were responsible for a number of atrocities and many of them were out for plunder, not freeing other slaves or overturning the Roman empire. Whilst it has been argued, based on the writings of Plutarch, that Spartacus did want to get the freed slaves out of Italy there’s actually very little evidence for the motives of the revolt. There is also next to no information about Spartacus himself and nothing to suggest that he was as virtuous and noble as the film makes him out to be. Ok… The Romans were big on the slavery thing- the whole empire depended upon it and without it the whole system would have collapsed. They needed to keep the slaves in check in order to safeguard their precious, burgeoning empire And yes, they were a bunch of snobs when it came to anything that wasn’t Roman but they weren’t as inhuman or as callous as they’re portrayed in the film. Some of them were like that, especially some of the senatorial elite, but like in any society there were good and bad people and people who were varying shades of grey. They weren’t all one homogenous bunch of stony faced, emotionless, plutocrats. Essentially what the film does is take one perspective, that Spartacus and the slaves were good and the Romans bad, and runs with it.

Robin Hood falls into the river
An image of Robin Hood meeting Little John (Courtesy of Wikimedia- Original image by Frank Goodwin, public domain)

We have a similar situation with the innumerate interpretations of the Robin Hood legend. Robin is always the one who is fighting for a just and noble cause, wrongly outlawed, and his opponents (The Sheriff of Nottingham, Guy of Gisbourne and Prince John) are always portrayed as wicked despots stamping the poor into the dirt and stealing what little money they have. Take Prince of Thieves with Kevin Costner. Gisbourne is a toad and the Sheriff is a lunatic who keeps a dishevelled Miss Marple in the basement. In the Disney version, the best version, the sheriff is a henchman indiscriminately carrying out Prince John’s orders whilst the Gisbourne expy, Sir Hiss, is a snake- which should say it all. This is the status quo for all Robin Hood films and as far as I know there are NO exceptions. The 2010 version with Russell Crowe was going to be the other way around, with the Sheriff as the hero but they went against that idea in the end and what we ended up with was an unoriginal, run of the mill and dull Robin Hood film rather than something that might have stood out from the crowd. Robin Hood himself most likely didn’t exist but the legend has a few grains of truth to it. Prince John was a nuisance whilst his brother was off on Crusade, so much so that his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine had to leave off escorting Richard’s new wife to the Holy Land in order to come back and sort him out, and he was a bad king too, but there is no actual stand in for the Sheriff of Nottingham or Guy of Gisbourne. Outlaws existed but they weren’t noble and they were more roguish than any portrayal of Robin Hood would ever show us. They were hardened criminals. They’d committed felonies, treason, murder or, in some cases, acts of rebellion- Though what that rebellion actually was I couldn’t discover. Turning against a local lord or landowner perhaps? Anyway… They weren’t nice men if you get my drift. With Robin Hood, in any interpretation, this reality is never taken into account. Robin and his Merry Men, rebelling against the corrupt and unfair system, are always seen as the good guys and we never get a fair look at what they might really have been like had they actually existed.

One basis for the Robin Hood legend could well be Hereward the Wake and here if we take Hereward as the inspiration there is a case for presenting him as a good guy, especially considering that Hereward was fighting against William the Conqueror who had just conquered the country- He was a resistance fighter, fighting to reclaim England from the foreign power that had taken over. Now as to whether that resistance was justified or not depends on your view of the conquest but if you interpret the conquest as a bad thing and William as a cruel tyrant then yes, it is justified. I’ve only ever personally come across Hereward once in popular culture- A book by Charles Kingsley entitled Hereward: Last of the English- but according to a certain online encyclopaedia there have been a few more, with quite a lot appearing to be from the last decade. I don’t know about the others but the Charles Kingsley one (which is an awful book in itself, I should add) is one that again presents the rebels (Hereward and his army) as being on the ‘good’ side and the Normans as being evil, foreign invaders who enslaved the English.

The list of ‘good’ rebels in historical popular culture is near endless- I could mention William Wallace in Braveheart but that can’t be classed as history so I won’t- There is Ironclad, where the main rebels are a mostly fictional bunch (and for some unknown reason include a Templar) but the actual siege and rebellion are a real event and the besieged are presented as the good guys. Cillian Murphy and his friends in The Wind That Shakes The Barley, about the Irish War of Independence, and from the same era Liam Neeson as Michael Collins. There are, quite literally, hundreds of them and to go through them all would take an age. The point is, wherever we get a pop culture representation of historical rebel, usually they’re the good guys.

Elizabeth I
Elizabeth I, shortly before being randomly shot at by Eddie Redmayne. (Courtesy of Wikimedia- Original by Nicholas Hilliard, Public Domain)

However, it isn’t always the case. Sometimes the rebels are portrayed as the bad guys. These portrayals are rarer but for the most part they occur when dealing with things that centre around kings, queens, rulers and presidents. Elizabeth I is often depicted as this wise, virtuous, virginal queen- Perfect, powerful and serene. She’s glorified whilst the many plotters against her become the bad guys. In both Cate Blanchett films there are a whole roster of them- Mary of Guise, The Duke of Norfolk and a random Eddie Redmayne running in and firing a gun for absolutely no reason whatsoever. In the case of those two films (still hoping they do a third and subtitle it The Only Way is Essex) the rebels and all the people plotting are overtly bad whilst she is the glorious, almost perfect and powerful queen we usually get in such films about her.

There’s the way Shakespeare portrays Henry Bolingbroke/Henry IV- He’s not at Elizabeth I levels of perfection but he’s the one who is the good guy. Richard II is weak and ineffectual and Henry’s rebellion is presented justifiable, a case of the rebels being the good guys, and then when he becomes King things are flipped and those who rebel against him, the likes of Hotspur, are bad. Shakespeare even goes out of his way to make Glyndwr (anglicized to Glendower) seem like some kind of Satan worshipping demon spawn, telling Hotspur in Act III scene 1 that he can he summon spirits up from the depths of hell and he can command the devil. This is after claiming that his birth was some apocalyptic scene where the sky was on fire and the earth shook. It’s fanciful slander is what it is but what it shows overall is that the rebellion in Henry IV is definitely bad.

These are all perfectly valid interpretations of course- You can say that Hereward was right to resist, that Michael Collins had a point. You can argue that Elizabeth was a good queen and her rebels really were bad guys. But what popular culture do not take into account is the other side of the coin, that there is another argument. Real life is not a case of black and white. It isn’t like it is portrayed on film where one side is usually overtly good and the other overtly bad. As a I said in an earlier paragraph, it is a matter of perspective. Would the Romans have seen themselves as the bad guys during the third servile war? No. They’d have seen themselves as the good guys, probably really pissed off and wondering why their slaves revolted. With the Hereward revolt you could argue that it was unjustified as William had every right to claim the crown after Edward the Confessor’s death. You could say he was the rightful king of England. William wouldn’t have seen himself as a bad guy. But then neither would Hereward. Neither would Spartacus. Everybody, on every side of every rebellion there has ever been, has seen themselves as the good guys and seen their own actions as justifiable. Even from a perspective of history we can, if we choose, make arguments for both sides. But popular culture never does that. It always chooses one side- One side to be ‘good’ and one side to be ‘bad.’ There is never any middle ground, no evidence of a differing opinion or perspective. Just one side or the other.

Ok… This is a human thing. It is in our nature so it would happen anyway. We pick sides… We can’t help it. Even the supposedly unbiased academic historians will pick one side or the other when it comes to these rebels and rebellions- though to be fair the best of them would acknowledge the other perspectives on the matter. So what we should be seeing with popular culture, therefore, is a particular writer’s opinion as to who was good and who was bad in a particular rebellion. If there was a writer who believed Spartacus to be bad then he might write something about a bad Spartacus, right? Well yes, in theory. The thing is that all of the portrayed rebellions which I have mentioned the choices of who is good and who is bad appear to have one thing in common- populism. Its all to do with how much a figure is liked. Spartacus has been a popular figure in liberty movements practically since his revolt. Robin Hood is a folk hero and always has been. Elizabeth I is Gloriana, considered one of the greatest rulers in all of world history, let alone in Britain. In Victorian times, when Charles Kingsley was writing, ‘The Norman Yoke’ was a thing. The idea was that the Normans were cruel and overbearing and they ravaged the beautiful world of Anglo Saxon England until it was dust, meaning that someone like Hereward was be held aloft as a hero figure. What happens with pop culture, I think, is all about the most common public perception. If a rebel is idealized, like Robin Hood or Spartacus, then they will be portrayed as being on the side of the good. If the person being rebelled against is idealized, like Elizabeth I, then the rebels will be on the side of the bad.

This might also explain why we don’t tend to see multiple perspectives, even when there are hundreds of versions, such as with Elizabeth I or with Robin Hood. Anything that is different from the most popular perspective, like the idea Robin was this good hearted folk hero fighting injustice, strays too far from the perceived general public image then it likely never sees the light of day, as happened with the original iteration of the Russell Crowe Robin Hood film. I don’t know why it changed but it looks like it was Ridley Scott’s idea as no sooner did he come on board then the whole thing started to change to reflect the more traditional viewpoint. We’ll never see Elizabeth I as a tyrant, fun as that would be, because that is not how she is seen by the general public.

Herward The Wake fights the Normans
Hereward The Wake (Courtesy of Wikimedia- Original is Public Domain)

Perceptions do change of course and with them, presumably, so does the reflection of the figure in popular culture. Hereward was once widely celebrated, as in Charles Kingsley‘s book, but over the last century the whole idea of the Norman Yoke, of the conquest as a bad thing, has fallen from favour. Historians now see it not necessarily as a good thing but not a terrible injustice either, more a mixed bag. This view has filtered down to the public sphere. With the change Hereward has all but vanished from mainstream popular culture (apart from a few obscure appearances here and there.) The fact of his resistance to Norman rule means that he reflects a viewpoint that is no longer held by the public and so he no longer appears as the hero he once was. We haven’t gone so far that we’ve had a film where he’s the villain but the view on the conquest is now such that it is possible for that to happen. And if the views on Elizabeth I ever change then we might get to see her as a tyrant, unlikely as that is.

But even when a rebel is controversial and contentious, popular culture only ever reflects one side of the debate. There is one particular rebel I am thinking of here. On the one hand he is adored and on the other loathed but pop culture only ever chooses one of those- the adoration. Ladies and Gentlemen I give you Che Guevara- a man whose visage adorns everything from T-Shirts and posters to probably cock rings and sex toys. He is the most prevalent and most popular historical rebel in popular culture today. He overthrew the Batista government of Cuba, advised the war in the Congo in the mid sixties and he was killed trying to mount a communist coup in Bolivia. Even his father once said that the blood of Irish rebels flowed in his veins. Now some people see his image as being ‘counter cultural’ and anti-establisment, but what these people don’t see is that his image is now so abundant it has become about as far from counter cultural as you can get. Some people don’t have a clue as to who he is and just know him as ‘beret guy’ and others throw hissy fits that people idolize a Marxist who executed lord knows how many people without hearing or trial. But whilst academics and prissy journalists will wag their fingers, stamp their feet and perhaps eventually get on to debating his merits (or debate if he had any merits in the first place) in terms popular culture all the bad side of Che gets washed away. He’s only good. You don’t get T-Shirts where under his face it says ‘Hey… This Guy Was A Murderer’ and you don’t see him presented in a bad way in films or books or when he appears on television. There are arguments about this portrayal, certainly, arguments from people who see him as good and people who see him as bad, but popular culture doesn’t care for the arguments about. It carries on presenting him as an ‘anti establishment’ good revolutionary regardless. But saying that, like with Hereward, it probably is still possible that he might be presented in a negative light as there are still enough people who see that side of him. Might not happen though.

There is no middle ground to any portrayal of a historical rebel in popular culture. They fall either into the good or bad category depending on what and who the piece of culture is about. It depends on who is the more popular, the rebel or the rebelled against. Often it is the rebel who comes out good but not always. Even if there is debate as to whether that person was a good guy or not, we’ll still only get one perspective. We never see multiple interpretations, as can be argued for with real life. And even where there are hundreds of versions of the same subject, like with Robin Hood, we still don’t get to see any variation thanks to the general public perception of that figure. I know this a common feature of all pop-culture history, the single minded, one sided view of things with no call out to other interpretations but when it comes to looking at solely at where it involves rebellions then that fact becomes abundantly clear.


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