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Mary Robinette Kowal – The Eight Worst Anachronisms in Fantasy

There are two types of anachronisms in fantasy: intentional and accidental. The former — when a modern item is introduced for comic effect, as when the audience sings “We Will Rock You” at a joust in A Knight’s Tale — often amuse me. The latter type amuse me in a much different way, because many of them could have been solved by having an intern check dates. There’s fantasy, then there’s just plain forgetfulness. Today we’ll look at the eight biggest offenders.

8. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Raiders_Ark_125.jpgWhen Indiana Jones is flying around the world, the lines on the screen show the world as it appears in 1981 when the movie was released — not the 1930s when it was set. Really? It would have killed someone to take a period atlas and check? I mean, it’s not like we don’t know that borders got moved around back then. This minor snafu with the movie’s travel plot device earns it the eight spot.

7. The Green Mile (1991)
Set in Louisiana in 1935, The Green Mile shows a series of executions in an Electric Chair. It’s dramatic and horrifying, and also five years too early. In 1935, convicts were executed by hanging. On the other hand, prisoner Eduard Delacroix (Michael Jeter) has the November 1937 issue of Weird Tales, so maybe 1935 isn’t a firm date.

6. The Ten Commandments (1956)
Let’s start with the zipper on the back of Bithiah’s (Nina Foch) dress. Then move on to the colors used for the clothing — all of which require hard core acid-based dyes which weren’t available in ancient Egypt. While you’re at it, admire the lace on Nefertiti’s bra. I don’t know which is worse, the lace or the bra.

5. Kate and Leopold (2001)
Kate-Leopold-125x125.jpgLeopold, Duke of Albany, (Hugh Jackman) comes from 1876, which begs the question of how exactly he could know the plot for the opera La Boheme when it didn’t premiere until 1896. I suspect it’s the same phenomenon that allows a U.S. flag with 50 stars on it to jump from a year when we only had 37 states. A trip to the library could really have helped here.

4. 10,000 B.C. (2008)
If D’Leh (Steven Straight) lives in the stone age, exactly how does he keep his beard so neatly trimmed? I know, he’s picked up a razor from the Atlanteans. It’s not clear where the story is set, but from the sabre-tooth tigers and the terror birds, it ought to be North or South America. Of course, terror birds went extinct 1.8 million years before the movie starts. Horses, by contrast, weren’t domesticated until 4,000 years later and didn’t reach the Americas until the 1600s. Oh, those pesky archeological records…

3. King Arthur (2004)
King_Arthur_125.jpgWe’ll skip the question of what the heck Kiera Knightly is wearing, and go straight to the war technology:  Barbed wire doesn’t get invented until 1874. That’s okay, they seem to have access to a modern store since the hilts of their swords are held on with Torx bolts. Maybe they got their swords at Ikea? Still, at least this movie obeys the laws of physics, unlike our next fallible fantasy.

2. Ever After (1998)
The Prince saves the Mona Lisa by rolling it into a tube, which is a pretty good trick since it’s painted on wood. Maybe it’s a theme, since at one point Danielle says that her stepmother shops like she has “money to burn.” There is no paper money for several hundred years, but hey, if you can roll wood maybe you can burn metal. Oh, here’s one that’s pervasive in a lot of movies: All the shoes are for left and right feet, but that idea wasn’t invented until the 1820s.

1. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991)
Robin_Hood_125.jpgWhere do I start? First, there’s this telescope that Azeem (Morgan Freeman) has, which comes in handy. It’s too bad that refracting telescopes weren’t invented for another couple of hundred years. (I wonder if that makes this movie science fiction?) A more common one, which you see variations of in a lot of movies, is the collection of tan lines that the cast members sport. Sure, tan lines would exist, but the Speedo? That’s a pretty distinctive shape, and yet Robin Hood has them. And let’s not get into Kevin Costner’s American accent, which careens this fantasy into the Number 1 spot.

What’s your favorite fantasy anachronism? Let me know in the comments.


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Mary Robinette Kowal is the winner of the 2008 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer and a professional puppeteer. Her first novel, Shades of Milk and Honey, is being published by Tor in 2010.

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