Opinion: The trouble with The Lost King, and it isn’t Richard III
As The Lost King arrives in cinemas, archaeologist Mike Pitts reflects on the difficult art of turning a true story into a movie
I’m an archaeologist, I love drama, and I am spoiled: in less than two years we have been given an unprecedented two movies about real excavations. Both are billed as being “based on a true story”. The Dig, released by Netflix in 2021, is about the uncovering in 1939 of an Anglo-Saxon king’s treasure ship at Sutton Hoo. The Lost King, appearing now in cinemas, features the extraordinary discovery of Richard III’s grave ten years ago. Kings, lost and found.
Yet I find myself in a curious position. I loved The Dig for its cinematography and direction, and its evocative portrayal of archaeologists entering a past as the imminence of war shocked a country with an unknown future. I enjoyed The Lost King too. It has some strong performances and comic turns, and at its heart is the inspirational journey of a scorned visionary who is proved right.
But I also found its storyline misleading, its portrayal of living people contentious, and its treatment of science and academia so off the wall that it could be accused of stoking deep state conspiracy theories about experts. Academics criticised The Dig for misrepresenting distinguished archaeologists, and they are doing the same of The Lost King. So here's my predicament. Already I am being called out by colleagues: how could I defend The Dig, yet complain about The Lost King?
The two stories have much in common, apart from the obvious focus on an excavation. Both digs began with a woman with an instinct about a site.
Edith Pretty, who owned the land at Sutton Hoo, had been visiting a spiritualist medium after the death of her husband, and it was said the experience had prompted her to investigate the mounds she could see from her house. Philippa Langley had a “sensation” in a carpark: she knew she was standing on the king’s grave, and at that moment determined to open it.
Neither woman was an archaeologist, so they engaged specialists to do the work (Pretty sat in a chair beside the trench to watch the archaeologists, and Langley kept a close eye on the Leicester team. The results of both projects were unexpectedly dramatic, and news of the discoveries went around the world. Today there are site museums dedicated to the two digs’ stories.
They also have in common an individual who felt wronged in the buzz that exploded over the sensational finds. Both films highlight the narrative gift of a lone amateur pushed aside by institutions, who wins through in the end. In The Dig, this is Basil Brown (played by Ralph Fiennes), a local self-taught archaeologist employed by Pretty (Carey Mulligan). He identifies the Anglo-Saxon ship through skilled excavation, but when news gets out, archaeologists from the University of Cambridge and London institutions take over.
Snubbing is The Lost King’s key trope. In the 2022 film, Langley (played by Sally Hawkins) is portrayed as being unfairly treated by her employer in Edinburgh. She is cautioned against her quest to find the king’s grave by her ex-husband, and even by some of the Ricardian enthusiasts she befriends – indeed, at one point Richard III himself (played as a companionable apparition by Harry Lloyd) wonders if she’s going too far.
We see Leicester University laugh at her as “an amateur”. When the dig begins, we see her clash with lead archaeologist Richard Buckley (Mark Addy), first insisting he excavates where he doesn’t want to, and then, when a grave is found, countering his wishes to leave it alone on the grounds that it can’t be the king’s. Of course, it is that of Richard III, and the university proceeds to boast of its success, holding a press conference to show the world how it found the king, and then a gala dinner at which Buckley is the guest of honour. The film’s plot sees Langley invited to neither event.
None of that happened, and this is where my views on the two films diverge. Basil Brown did feel unfairly treated, though The Dig exaggerates something that had more to do with confusion as war approached, than a deliberate policy to diminish his contribution. His story, however, is one of several which together bring a greater message, to do with passing time and the fragility of individual lives, and parallels between early Anglo-Saxon settlement in Britain and a contemporary Europe in which boundaries were being fought over.
The production – conceived during the Brexit debate – went to great trouble to get the setting right, consulting with archaeologists and researching British Museum archives. Personal stories at the dig are imagined. A fictional male photographer is introduced, which led to a charge of sexism, the film airbrushing two female photographers who were actually there – but a prominent male archaeologist on the dig, who also took important photos, does not appear in the film either. In such ways The Dig plays with reality, but achieves a convincing impression of time and place.
In 2012, a skeleton in a Leicester car park transformed our understanding of a medieval king, and turned him into a media sensation. Mike Pitts tells the remarkable story of the discovery of Richard III’s remains
Not so The Lost King. Here archaeology and science are treated as irrelevances; I understand that Buckley was consulted during the production of The Lost King, but the university’s offer to help was ignored. The film shows a phalanx of male archaeologists and administrators, interested only in furthering their own careers at Langley’s expense.
I followed the project at the time and got to know many of those involved, and I can say that this portrayal is nonsense. Everyone worked together – Langley included – as a team, excited by the discoveries and the many ways in which history, genealogy, archaeology and science progressed towards the extraordinary final result. The Lost King entirely excludes the university’s research, much of which was led by women. It is a misleading saga based on a farrago of untruths and omissions, compounded by the insistence at press previews by Steve Coogan, co-writer and on-screen ex-husband to Hawkins’ Langley, that it tells a true story “that needs to be told”.
It’s worse than that. The film’s narrative depends on two misunderstandings. The first is a straightforward confusion about how archaeology works – excavation, especially when involving human remains, is a complex, expensive and time-consuming process demanding a wide range of specialist skills. It’s not a quick furtle by an individual with a spade.
The Lost King asks us to believe in science as a closed network of self-interested people who try to block outsiders from asking questions
The second, profound, error is about the nature of science. Despite the film, professional academics welcome amateurs: all they care about is the quality of research and reporting. As it happens, University of Leicester archaeologists have long worked with their local community. This summer they ran at least four projects almost entirely staffed by amateur archaeologists.
The Lost King, by contrast, asks us to believe in science as a closed network of self-interested people who try to block outsiders from asking questions (“Big institutions don't act in a self-consciously pernicious way,” Coogan told The Daily Mail. “They just behave like that … and if you're not part of them then you’re intuitively marginalised and made a footnote”). The notion of scientists pitched against the public interest is a falsehood that underpins conspiracy theories that affect us all, from anti-vaxxing to climate change denial. Engagement with archaeologists and the University of Leicester could have avoided some of the worst cases of the film’s misinformation. It might also have resulted in a more realistic portrayal of academia, just when it needs it most.
Learn more about Richard III
- Did Richard III really kill the Princes in the Tower?
- Richard the radical: was Richard III a champion of the people?
- Like father, like son: Richard Plantagenet and Richard III
- Blood brothers: Richard III’s battle with his siblings
- Did fear drive Richard III to the throne?
- Richard III: A hostage to fortune
- What Happened After The Battle of Bosworth?
- What if Richard III had won at Bosworth?
- Treachery at Bosworth: what really brought down Richard III
- Have we completely misinterpreted Shakespeare’s Richard III?
- On the HistoryExtra podcast | Mike Pitts reflects on the astonishing discovery of the “king in the car park”, which made headlines across the globe
The Lost King arrives in cinemas from 7 October
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