Whenever I mention that I have a web site that reviews historical movies, the conversation inevitably turns to the recent crop of historical series put out by HBO, Showtime and AMC. After debating whether Band of Brothers is grimmer than The Pacific, the odds are that the next topic will be why The Tudors is not as good as Rome. My fervent defence of The Tudors usually produces an expression of disbelief, so clearly there is a need to set the matter straight.
Rome is the more entertaining series but The Tudors is by far the more important series.
Yes, the writers on Rome created characters that cared about each other, therefore the viewers genuinely cared about them, which explains much of the loyalty to the series. The Tudors seemed populated by nasty, scheming, deceitful, hypocrites concerned only about their position on the pecking order. Even the characters who were motivated by less base desires, like Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell, lacked the charisma needed to create concern for their welfare. Rome balanced tragedy with humor, while the Tudors simply combined tragedy with pomp, torture and more tragedy.
Furthermore, Rome had more than enough bloody fights to satisfy the most discerning viewer. There were battles between gangs, battles between armies, fights against gladiators, foiled assassination attempts, successful assassinations, and even a legionnaire slicing up several gladiators. The very first three minutes of the first episode of the first season showed why Roman legions were unstoppable. Titus Pullo even bit off a guy’s tongue and spit it at him. If you watched the show and wanted more blood, you need help.
Despite running for four seasons, twice as long as Rome, the Tudors had at best a handful of swordfights, and I suspect that I am being generous. Worse, the fight scenes were, well, rather lame, and they usually featured extras, not the lead actors, so it was hard to be involved.
However, The Tudors presented genuine struggles over faith and the willingness of people to die for their beliefs. Instead of the fake, idealized courage of people who go smiling to their executions, which never seems believable, it was a real courage where people do not want to die, but can not face life if they betray themselves and their beliefs. The scene that stuck in my mind was when Bishop Fisher was about to be executed and he admitted to the crowd that his faith was not enough, so he needed their support to face the chopping block.
Admittedly, religion was a significant part of Rome, and the characters took curses seriously. The scene where Servilla of the Junii cursed Caesar in the temple was creepy and disturbing. However, religion took a back seat to politics. While the debate over the merits of a republic versus an empire would have been fascinating, instead of showing the debate, the series focused on the struggle for power between factions. First, Julius Caesar against Pompey, and then Octavian against Marc Antony. Nobody really seemed to believe in any cause other than themselves, which is probably an accurate portrayal of most politicians.
Most important, The Tudors showed that the king was number one and everyone else was at best number two, but only as long as he wished it. Once his favor was withdrawn, someone else would be number two and the previous number two would most likely be dead. Everything revolved around the king.
I know, Rome dealt with the transition from a republic to an empire, and it was interesting to see the senators crowding around to stab Julius Caesar on the senate floor. However, first Julius and then Octavian had to maneuver and plot to consolidate their power against their rivals. Octavian only achieved absolute power by the end of the series. In The Tudors, Henry inherited absolute power and it was never questioned throughout the series. The only checks on his power were a weak Parliament and the Church. Destroying the Catholic Church and seizing the monasteries gave Henry enough money that he did not need to seek funds from Parliament, thus eliminating the only other forces in his kingdom.
Jonathan Rhys-Meyers’ refusal to play a fat man with graying hair near the end of his reign definitely weakened the show but King Henry was supposed to have been quite fit when he was younger, and the final season did show him deteriorate physically.
I have to confess that I did not notice the feminist aspect of The Tudors at first, but while every single person in the kingdom was at the mercy of the king’s will, the various queens were placed in a particularly unenviable position. They lived at the center of power but were discouraged from expressing their own ideas. The series also showed that bad parenting could produce horrible consequences. Mary had been ignored by her father and his religious choices doomed her to spinsterhood, which helps explain her fervent willingness to shed blood to restore England to Catholicism. It may seem to be a generalization, but given the huge power concentrated in the monarch and the lack of self-help books, unresolved childhood issues with your parents could manifest in an extreme fashion if you sat on the throne.
Although both traditional Catholics and the newer Protestants were presented as being brave enough to die for their faith, the producers were definitely biased in favor of the Protestants. However, they captured perfectly the desire of the Catholic Church to keep religion mysterious in order to maintain their control. If people could read the Bible, then what did they need priests for?
Admittedly, one of the king’s sisters is completely absent in the series, which is especially odd since she married King James of Scotland, thus providing the connection that would result in the Stuarts ascending to the throne of England after Elizabeth died childless. Since she lived in Scotland, there was no need for her character to play a large role in the series, or any role at all, but to not even refer to her was sloppy writing. Cutting out one of the many, many sex scenes would have left space to mention her, and would have only slightly decreased the show’s steaminess factor.
Rome was the perfect blend of entertainment and history but The Tudors’ focus on religious debate and persecution helps viewers realize how far we have come and the need to resist religious zealotry.