History in Movies: Why Matt Damon’s hair matters
Sept. 19, 2022
On September 1 the VCU History Department partnered with the historic Byrd Theatre to present Ridley Scott’s “The Last Duel.” Our own Director of Undergraduate Studies, Leigh Anne Craig, Ph.D., gave some insight into the way historical media can be intentionally changed to resonate ideas with modern audiences.
The film deals with the sensitive topic of sexual assault – the historical record of the event which “The Last Duel” chronicles is based on the accounts of men when a woman, Marguerite de Carrouges, was the victim of that sexual assault. The film revolves around the separate perspectives of the three leads and Marguerite de Carrouges’ choice to speak out as a woman in Medieval France. The perspectives of the two men are each challenged by each other, each seeing themselves as an honorable man. But, when it comes to the woman’s perspective we see that these men are both absorbed in their own egos, consistently trespassing against Marguerite in a number of ways. The film intentionally gives medieval women who experienced sexual assault a long overdue focus, discussing what it would have been like in her position. When asked by an attendee how many sources are available from women who experienced sexual assault, Craig was candid, stating, “Lots. We have legal filings. And it’s not unusual she would have spoken, but the courts went very private about the whole affair in this case.”
In addition to the discussion of plot, one of the key points Craig focused on was the hair worn by the title characters played by Matt Damon, Adam Driver and Jodie Comer. Matt Damon's character Sir Jean de Carrouges wears a rough-hewn mullet which shows his age and his roughness as a character whereas Adam Driver’s Jacques Le Gris has long, roguish curls to fit the presentation of his character. While Jodie Comer’s hair as Marguerite de Carrouges is not historically accurate to be uncovered, her long flowing locks are a symbol of her beauty and portray her as desirable to a modern audience. Craig said “The hair does help us understand the position of these characters. That’s all in there as an active interpretation.”
Another area of historical resizing is the epic duel that the film is named after. While the whole affair was a pretty straightforward turn of events which followed the normal duel framework where the two knights would cross swords and be absolved, with a few hiccups where someone did end up losing their life, the film depicts a dramatic bloody duel in which held the life of Marguerite de Carrouges in the balance. For if her husband had lost she would have been burned at the stake. Noting that would not have happened, Craig said “she likely would have been whipped and sent to an abbey for the rest of her life– not burned at the stake, that was a pretty severe punishment for the crime.”
VCU history student Selena Obregon commented on the film and Craig’s discussion saying “It was great, I hadn’t seen the film before. My favorite part was Professor Craig talking about the historical inaccuracies and how they translate in ways modern audiences pick-up character traits. Also, the real story of the duel was funny. I had a great time at the Byrd that night.”
Whether they were viewing it for the first time or not, the experience seemed to open new channels of knowledge for attendees to think about when viewing historical films. Thank you to the Byrd Theatre and Professor Craig for the wonderful night at the movies.