How Historical Films Misuse Color

In the 1930s, film developed color, and would never be the same again. Now, I wonder if some film genres are unconsciously reverting back to black and white. The trend is most visible in historical films, in which the past is increasingly (and incorrectly) portrayed as dark and monochrome.

I recently watched David Lowery’s (excellent) The Green Knight, and while the movie is not exactly a paragon of historical accuracy, one of the film’s most glaring departures from the past is in its palette. 

Look at the above scene of a medieval throne room. Everything is in what I call the “Hollywood medieval palette,” full of desaturated greys and muddy browns. 

Now Lowrey’s film is aiming for a very specific artistic style and atmosphere, so perhaps we shouldn’t expect perfect reality, but the medieval palette is also present in other historical films, even those who aim to represent reality more literally.

From The King (2019)

The trend has even leaked into fantasy. In Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings series, when the setting turns to the kingdom of Gondor (often erroneously depicted as a medieval land), the film abruptly switches from its bright and vibrant color scheme to an endless morass of faded colors.

From The Two Towers (2002)

You might claim that I’m overstating my case and picking out particularly monochrome frames, but the pictures below show the entire muddy palettes of two famous historical movies.

These images depict the the average color of each frame of a movie. At the top is Gladiator (2000) and at the bottom is Gone With the Wind (1939). Note the muddy brown that permeates both films from beginning to end (credit to The Colors of Motion).

Legendary film critic Roger Ebert said it best is review of Gladiator:

The film looks muddy, fuzzy and indistinct. Its colors are mud tones at the drab end of the palette, and it seems to have been filmed on grim and overcast days…. By the end of this long film, I would have traded any given gladiatorial victory for just one shot of blue skies. 

Roger Ebert

So why all the fuss about brown and grey palettes in historical movies? Because it’s inaccurate. People, in essentially every time period and location, of every class and occupation, would have seen a huge range of color in their everyday lives, both in their clothing and their surroundings.

Clothing

It will surprise few people to know that the wealthy and powerful have always shown off their status with a wide range of colors. Exotic colors were particularly representative of status. In the ancient mediterranean, for example, purple dye came primarily from the murex, a maritime mollusk. The ancient Phoenicians caught and killed literally millions of the creatures to create their signature dye, Tyrian purple. That expensive dye would become the color of nobility for centuries. Most colors, however, were far easier to replicate than purple, and were within the reach of even the poorest classes of society.

For the majority of the population, dyes would have come from far more mundane sources. Most color came from common plants, such as woad (blues), madder (red) and weld (yellow). Each plant required a different method for treating and dyeing, but they all produced vivid colors. Skilled dyers could combine ingredients to produce a wide variety of effects.

Modern recreations of tradition dyeing methods. Image credit to Medieval Colors

The importance of these dye-production plants is hard to overstate. Woad, for example, was used throughout western Europe for thousands of years until the 1600s, when imported indigo largely replaced woad as the source of blue dye. While historical evidence is sparse, most historians believe that the majority of garments, even those worn by slaves and peasants, would have had some kind of color treatment, either by dying or bleaching (which created a pure white).

Even untreated clothes were not as colorless as one might assume. Most clothes in premodern Europe were wool, and woolen clothes take on the color of the sheep they were taken from. Therefore, untreated clothes would have been a fairly broad range of white, grey, and brown.

A medieval depiction of dyeing. Note that most dyeing took place in centralized locations. Unlike most other parts of textile production, it rarely took place in the household.

Face paint

The tendency to grey-out surroundings also applies to paint and other non-clothing items. Take this picture from 2011’s The Eagle. The tribesmen pictured here are intended to be ancient Celts, but while the celts were famously ostentatious and colorful in their appearance. Julius Caesar, writing of them in the 1st century BCE, said, “All the Britons dye their skin with woad, which produces a blueish color and makes them appear horrifying in battle.” Caesar may have gotten the ingredient wrong (woad is notoriously difficult to apply to skin) but the impression the Celtic Britons left on the Romans cannot be denied.

The idea makes intuitive sense. The purpose of facial dye, particularly in battle, is to create an unearthly and terrifying effect. Since most Celts had fairly pale skin, turning that skin into a slightly different color of grey creates little contrast. The men depicted above would have been far more intimidating if they used non-human colors like blue.

HBO’s Rome offers a fairly accurate depiction of the importance of color in and classical world. To a modern viewer, Caesar’s face paint seems bizarre, but it was traditional for Roman generals celebrating a triumph.

Why so Dark?

Why do filmmakers feel the need to suck away all the rich colors of history? Perhaps part of it lies in our modern obsession with portraying all pre-modern history as grim and lifeless. That would explain why certain historical periods, such as early 19th century Britain (think Pride and Prejudice and other period dramas) are spared this color castration. When people think of Regency Britain, they have a far more positive and lively impression than when they think of, say, Roman Britain.

Perhaps it also has something to do with the fact that the only things to have been preserved from distant history (castle ruins, armor, weapons, etc.) are mostly grey and colorless, while the vibrant clothing, art, and decorations from the classical and medieval worlds have long since vanished. Statues are a microcosm of the issue. Classical statues used to be brightly painted, but over time, the paint faded away, leaving us with the grey stone. Today, many people mistakenly believe that ancient statues were built to be colorless.

A comparison between a classical bust and the colors that Greeks and Romans would have used to paint them.

When people see today’s desaturated and stark historical movies, I wonder that they walk away with the wrong impression. The past was not monochrome or dark. It was, in its own way, just as colorful and vibrant as the world in which we live today. Historical figures were not aliens or human-like parodies. They were us.

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