ByDaryl Charman, writer at
Daryl Charman

From 15th century Spain to 1920s Prohibition, do the recent collection of poorly received Hollywood blockbusters suggest that we’re ready to leave historical period films in the past?

Personally, I love a film set in the past. The concept allows me to escape the madness of modern-day society. However, with Assassin’s Creed and Allied flopping at the box office and Live by Night branded a “ghost of a terrific movie,” perhaps my opinion isn’t shared across the world.

Many critics and experts always have an explanation as to why a film simply doesn’t perform well. For example, was plagued by the ongoing rumors of an off-screen romance between co-stars Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard, while Assassin’s Creed suffered the usual video game movie curse. Although Live by Night may still perform well at the box office (doubtful), the critics have wiped the floor with the film itself.

Sure, you could argue the point that over 60 percent of Assassin’s Creed is set in the modern day and that Live by Night was based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, thus restricting Ben Affleck’s artistic license, but the truth of the matter is there’s certainly a strong correlation emerging between films featuring, or set in the past.

A Risky Business

'Ben Hur' [Credit: Paramount]
'Ben Hur' [Credit: Paramount]

From recreating the aesthetics of the period to added computer-generated imagery (CGI), films set in the past usually demand an extremely large budget. Consequently, putting a huge amount of pressure on directors and producers to deliver a strong return at the box office.

Just take last September’s release of Ben-Hur for example. With a staggering $100 million budget, it only grossed around $94 million. Do you remember 47 Ronin? Didn’t think so. Released in 2013, this action fantasy film set in 18th century Japan featuring Keanu Reeves, only made around $150 million at box office with a $225 million budget (including marketing).

Of course, these are only extreme examples. Just take Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven remake and Ridley Scott’s Gladiator — they all succeeded at the box office, and three out of the four even won Academy Awards.

So, surely it begs the question: Are we (as an audience), becoming more savvy with our movie selections?

Breaking It Down

'Assassin's Creed' [Credit: Fox]
'Assassin's Creed' [Credit: Fox]

The truth is, it might not be the period or setting of the film at all. Let’s take a closer look at three of the latest releases.

Justin Kurzel’s (Snowtown) Assassin’s Creed, was a confused mess. Having decided to give Michael Fassbender’s character, Callum Lynch, a different background story, the film seemed to be stuck in a realm between serious and fun. Although the action sequences were spectacular at times, the added emphasis on character depth seemed forced and labored. The film would have worked better if it embraced its video game origins and took a cheesier route, instead of getting lost in a filmmaker’s purgatory.

Nonetheless, with such a huge budget from the outset and having being released in a "dump month," this movie was always destined to fail. Perhaps, this wasn’t down to the period it was set in, but subject to a flawed script.

On the other hand, Robert Zemeckis’ Allied, was one of my favorite films of last year. Endearing, captivating and extremely moving. Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard (Dark Knight Rises), arguably delivered their strongest work to date. Set in World War II, this spy-thriller love story perhaps didn’t ignite at the box office due to the late November release. Sandwiched between the highly successful films: Fantastic Beasts and Rogue One, Allied seemed to get lost amid the madness.

Finally, Ben Affleck’s latest film, Live by Night. Despite the box office returns currently in the balance, on the whole it was extremely underwhelming for a Prohibition gangster flick. When you compare it to the brilliance of Sam Mendes’s Road to Perdition and Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables, Live by Night is like rocking up to a party in your best attire and some moron has forgot to bring the booze (which is extremely ironic, given the nature of this film).

Set in the late 1920s, when Prohibition was in play and gangsters walked the streets, Live by Night had the ingredients to cause a real stir at the Oscars. Don’t get me wrong, it’s entertaining and also strengthens my opinion of Affleck as an actor, but the film seems to be stuck in second gear throughout. When the bullets start to fly and the body count rises, the payoff doesn’t feel anywhere near as satisfying as it should.

'Live By Night' [Credit: Warner Bros.]
'Live By Night' [Credit: Warner Bros.]

Although there were some strong performances from Sienna Miller (Alfie, American Sniper) and Brendan Gleeson (Braveheart, Harry Potter), I couldn’t help but feel cheated by the setting of the film. Although Live by Night starts in downtown Boston, most of the plot unfolds in sunny Florida. I’m sorry, but in that sort of heat, I would not be wearing a full-blown suit and trilby hat. Sure, the sharp attire looked good, but the whole film was like polishing a turd — a rushed project and forgettable storyline, dressed up with a bit of Affleck panache.

The Future Of Historical Period Films

The evidence suggests that films set in the past have just hit a slight speed bump, before Hollywood unveils some blockbuster masterpieces later this year. As an audience, we’ve just become a little more tactful with our film choices. After all, it’s an expensive business going to the cinema these days.

Looking forward, Mel Gibson’s biographical war drama film, Hacksaw Ridge, is landing stellar reviews and enjoying a tidy box office return, while Christopher Nolan’s hotly anticipated summer epic, Dunkirk, looks like a real triumph.

So, maybe, just maybe, instead of falling out of love with historical period films, we could be saying how they’re the best thing since sliced bread by the end of 2017. Only time will tell.

Do you still love films set in the past? Comment below, or let me know via Twitter.


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