The Anachronism, and how to get it


In Robbe-Grillet’s Czech shot early opus, THE MAN WHO LIES, the sixties look of the principle actresses seems like some kind of clever idea — the film seems to be set during WWII, some of the time, and at a non-specific time after WWII the rest of the time. Given that the comparatively youthful Jean-Louis Trintigant (ah! it was all so long ago!) claims to have been involved in said war as a resistance hero/traitor/hero, it doesn’t seem likely that the post-war part of the narrative is meant to be set in the sixties. So it seems like Robbe-Grillet is up to his usual games with time and memory and reality.

In another Czech film of the sixties, CLOSELY OBSERVED TRAINS, however, experiments with narrative do not seem to account for the wildly anachronistic appearance of the women. Bushy eyebrows, bob, no makeup, a hat that could have sat on Rita Tushingham…


Was it Marshall McLuhan who said that you cannot see an environment when you’re in it? Are we to assume that certain sixties filmmakers were unable to recognize that women had not always styled themselves in beehives and white lipstick? The hair and makeup department of DOCTOR ZHIVAGO likewise let the side down, but was David Lean, the great perfectionist, unable to spot that Julie Christie was being arrayed in a manner that suggested Carnaby Street rather than Imperial Russia?


CLOSELY OBSERVED TRAINS is an excellent film, DOCTOR ZHIVAGO is at least partly an excellent film. I’m not too sure about PARTY GIRL, because I can never make it through that one. The wilful trashing of any period atmosphere in what is supposed to be a prohibition-era gangster film throws me badly (so does the cast, I admit). And director Nick Ray had lived through the era he was portraying, so it makes no sense. We could blame the studio, but then look at the rather convincing historical sense displayed in SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN.

I’d love to hear your favourite examples — not wristwatch-and-toga combos, just period moves where the whole feeling screams aloud the period when it was made.

22 Responses to “The Anachronism, and how to get it”

  1. Brandauer’s jazzerscising at the beginning of “Mephisto” springs to mind. IS it anchronistic? Were leg-warmers and funk really a thing in Pre-WWII Germany? It’s an honest question. I don’t know how little I know.

    Also – and this may not count because fantasies don’t count (see Hammer) – but I love the tiny anachronisms Sally Potter drops into “Orlando”. The main character spontaneously changes sex and lives forever so why shouldn’t a seventeenth century poet write with a felt tip?. None of it has too much attention drawn to it. It’s just treating the past as recent.

    Also also, all westerns without giant moustaches.

  2. I think of all those 80s period movies that unwisely used electric music (“It’s timeless” you can hear da producer’s crying) particularly the 1984 Agatha Christie adaptation Ordeal by Innocence with it’s bizarre synth jazz (test audiences didn’t like Pino Donaggio)

    Prizzi’s Honour is an odd one, as it seems to be set in a mixture of time periods. You see the old fashioned cars at the beginning, and the costumes, Nicholson & Huston’s stylish apartments, the bar he goes to, Huston’s comic black maid, and you assume a period piece.
    Then later scenes take place in modern airports and an 80s minivan. Maybe Huston wanted to show these gangsters were lost in their own 30s world, maybe he wanted to deliberately mix the time periods, or maybe like a lot of old directors he just stopped caring about the surface details.

  3. I think of all those ’60s period movies as suffering from “Zhivago Syndrome” – the complete inability to style a woman’s hair without back-combing it. The two incarnations of Harlow have to be about the worst offenders, but it’s hard to think of one that gets it really right until suddenly along comes Barry Lyndon – although now even that looks a lot more ’70s than it did at the time.

  4. I would think Westerns where anyone had a strong sense of personal hygiene would be anachronistic.

  5. “Period” movies changed in a single year:1966-1967. In 1966 we had Inside Daisy Closer — a film about Hollywood in the thirties that screamed 1966 in almost every shot. Then the next year came Bonnie and Clyde which changed everything. Faye Dunaway’s hair was wrong but everything else evoked the period in an almost fetishized way — the cars, the clothes, the road signs, et. a. After that no “period” movie could do any less. And then in 1969 came Visconti’s The Damned with Charlotte Rampling and Ingrid Thulin in to-die-for 30’s dresses and Helmut Berger dragging it up as a pseudo-Marlene. From then on in “authenticity” was the rule of law.

  6. What must have helped with Bonnie & Clyde is that not only was the film a hit, but the clothes caught on. That made period accuracy a potentially lucrative fetish.

    Yes, Prizzi’s Honor threw me too. I wasn’t very hep to period design when I saw first it, but a few things completely knocked me out of the movie. I’d love to hear why it ended up with that strange melange of looks.

    Barry Lyndon does carry the seventies within it, but it’s subtle enough, and even the things that are quite seventies COULD just about pass for period — or so my costume designer friend tells me.

  7. DBenson Says:

    “Movie Movie” (1978) was a “double feature” of two 1930s movie parodies. The first, in B&W, was a precise pastiche of boxing pictures. The second, in color, was meant to send up “42nd Street”. The problem was that the second, while funny and entertaining, weirdly managed to feel like a 1950s musical about the 30s. Not in the jokes (which were often beyond what the 50s allowed) or the costumes (which felt right), but in the big musical numbers: Plush, non-tinny orchestrations, sets that were more 50s modern than Art Deco; and the very fact of color.

  8. DBenson Says:

    A weird thing for me is that certain historical films shot on real locations are less persuasive that obvious matte & soundstage creations from Hollywood. This applies mainly to a certain kind of “all-star epic” that was big in the late 60s-70s (including the illegitimate children of Lester’s Musketeers and Flashman). There was a low-budget feel to the camera work and sound that seemed to scream there was a crew just off camera, and they were actually trying to convince you this was an expensive set rather than the real thing. Eventually some filmmakers figured how to use the documentary grittiness to advantage, making the foreground action match the reality behind it.

  9. Peter Watkins was always very good at documentary style filmmaking in past or future settings. But Pasolini’s “trilogy of life” always seemed wildly stylised despite the real settings. A kind of pageant.

    Of course, Movie Movie is Donen, so it makes sense that the 50s crept in…

  10. I did all the film research for LACMA’s “Hollywood and History” show in the late 1980’s. It examined the history of the world though Hollywood costumes — thus arranged in chronological order of the time depicted. In every instance a little bit of the fashion of the day crept in despite the period ostensibly on display. For instance the 40’s were big o Chevron patterns – hence the can be seen on several otherwise accurate dresses in “Meet Me in St Louis”

  11. Jim Cobb Says:

    There are scenes in the silent BEN HUR where the women look like flappers. I think in general any period film is going to reflect to some degree, large or small, the time in which it was shot. And how about Vivian Leigh in that snood in GWTW?

  12. If Kubrick couldn’t erase the seventies from Barry Lyndon, we can assume that something of the contemporary flavour will always get in by a kind of osmosis.

    The ancient Roman women in Sign of the Cross could more or less stroll straight into a high-fashion movie of the thirties. Which seems wholly appropriate.

  13. I’ve always imagined Ancient Rome being quite eighties-looking. Pity they weren’t making many Roman epics in the eighties.

  14. I think we can blame Caligula for that.

  15. Fellini said his “Satyricon” was about the hippies of the time the film was mad. That’s why he cast Hiram Keller– from “Hair”

  16. He also described it as a science fiction film about Ancient Rome, which makes anachronism part of its DNA.

  17. It isn’t just 60’s women’s haircuts that are a problem in 60’s epics……the same…….carelessness ?? Actorly vanity ????……is evident in Battle Of Britain, with all the pilots having hairlengths guaranteed to make a 1940’s Wing Commander the vapours. It surely cannot be deliberate,artistic anachronism as it is in Kelly’s Heroes, for instance.

  18. The subtlest errors come from a kind of selection bias, where filmmakers deciding “what looks good” will slide towards the most fashionable option.

    Battle of Britain is a fairly extreme kind of neglect — maybe the hair and makeup department weren’t used to dealing with so many men? It does seem like either vamity or total obliviousness, odd in a film which strove for a certain authenticity with regard to aircraft.

  19. Jeff Gee Says:

    If you do a google image search on “Aquarius TV show” you’ll find a lot of hair that is inconceivable in 1969, when the show is set. All the hippies look like they’re in a current indie band, and Charlie Manson has *product* in his hair. Tough cop David Duchovny has a modified brush cut that requires a lot of attention paid to it unless you want it look like crap. Yet the show is about the Manson case and there’s no lack of visual references for all the real life characters and the counterparts of the fictional ones. All you have to do for the sake of accuracy here is grow out your hair and then not wash it. So in this case it’s clearly a deliberate choice, and I’m sorry to say that my ex-wife is probably correct about why the choice was made: “Who wants to watch people with dirty scuzzy hair?”

  20. The party in the flashback sequence of “Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte” is loaded with 60’s hair and makeup, and very little work went into creating period dresses for the women, except lengthening some contemporary ones.

    I’ve always been puzzled by the complete lack of a 40’s period feel to the makeup, hair, costumes and set decoration in “Reflections In A Golden Eye,” particularly since Huston worked (and created some iconic imagery) during the period it’s supposedly set in. Even if Taylor was calling her own hair, make up and wardrobe shots, as she often was during this period, it doesn’t explain the lack of authenticity of same for other characters, or for the sets themselves. It’s jarring to suddenly see a 40’s sedan roll by when everything else, even the uniforms on the male characters feel so contemporary.

    Perhaps Huston was attempting to remove us from reality, or maybe he just didn’t give a damn…

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