contributor.author: Arthur Lindley

title.none: Aronstein, Hollywood Knights (Arthur Lindley)

identifier.other: baj9928.0610.023 06.10.23

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Arthur Lindley, Institute of Advanced Research, University of Birmingham, adlindley@gmail.com

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Aronstein, Susan. Hollywood Knights: Arthurian Cinema and the Politics of Nostalgia. Studies in Arthurian and Courtly Cultures. New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Pp. vii, 264. $65.00 (hb) 1-4039-6649-4. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.10.23

Aronstein, Susan. Hollywood Knights: Arthurian Cinema and the Politics of Nostalgia. Studies in Arthurian and Courtly Cultures. New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Pp. vii, 264. $65.00 (hb) 1-4039-6649-4. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Arthur Lindley
Institute of Advanced Research, University of Birmingham
adlindley@gmail.com

In a somewhat limited number of ways, this is a useful book. Certainly, anyone looking for a serious critical account of A Kid in King Arthur's Court will find it here (180-3), along with accounts of films--the Indiana Jones series, Excalibur, Monty Python and the Holy Grail--more likely to be sought out. It does the admirable work of taking frequently unserious films seriously. It honors and extends the work of Alan and Barbara Tepa Lupack on the Americanization of Arthuriana. It provides, as Dr. Aronstein says, the "first book- length study ... of Hollywood Arthurian film in the political and social context of contemporary America" (2). As such, it gives future historians of the subject a basis for--hopefully heated-- discussion. And it will, undoubtedly, wind up in most university libraries in the US and on many reading lists. If I am hard on this book, that is because other reviewers have been easy on it and because I think Aronstein has the potential to write a genuinely important book on medieval film. This, unfortunately, is not that book.[1]

Hollywood Knights is, from its subtitle on, a book with a thesis. Hollywood films of Arthurian material, Aronstein tells us,

form their own generic tradition ... based on a politics of nostalgia that responds to cultural crises by first proposing an Americanized Camelot as a political ideal and then constructing American knights to sit at its Round Table. In their return to Camelot to provide a vision of national identity and a handbook for American subjectivity, these films participate in America's continual appropriation of the medieval past which, from the nineteenth century on, has responded to attacks on traditional models of authority, masculinity, and national identity and legitimacy by retreating into an ideal past [in order to] exalt the virtues of a putatively democratized chivalry and figure America as the true heir to Camelot's utopia.(2-3).

From one decade and crisis to another, they participate in the movie industry's role as provider of reassurance and flattery to the psyche of the mass audience. This is the nursemaid theory of Hollywood.

After lengthy but still rushed chapters outlining, first, a history of medievalism focused on the progressive vs. reactionary uses to which the idea of the Middle Ages has been put and, second, a history of Arthuriana from Geoffrey of Monmouth to T. H. White, Aronstein develops her thesis through a (mostly) chronological account of (mostly) Hollywood films from 1950 to the present. Chapter three discusses The Knights of the Round Table (Richard Thorpe, 1953), The Black Knight (Tay Garnett, 1954) and Prince Valiant (Henry Hathaway, 1954) as offering "a pro-American, anti-communist Camelot as a bulwark against cold war anxieties" (5). Chapter four treats Disney's The Sword in the Stone (Wolfgang Reitherman,1963) and Lerner and Loewe's Camelot (Joshua Logan, 1967) as attempts to revive the cold war consensus in the changed political atmosphere of the 1960s, while chapter five describes the subversion of this "conservative" project in Cornell Wilde's The Sword of Lancelot (1963) and especially in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), a film she characterizes as "anti-medievalism; it exposes the 'ideal Middle Ages' and its chivalric-feudal utopia as ludicrous constructs that seek to secure acquiescent subjects" (6). Chapter six concerns itself with films of the Reagan Era: Stephen Spielberg's Indiana Jones series as a Reaganite "valorization of a conservative past" (7) and George Romero's Knightriders (1981) as a countercultural alternative. A similar pattern shapes the following chapter: a discussion of the American audience's putative misapprehension of Excalibur (John Boorman, 1981) as a celebration of hard-bodied masculinity and militarism and Terry Gilliam's The Fisher King (1991) as what Aronstein considers a "radical" critique of Reagan-Bush economics and individualism. After a chapter on the various reworkings of Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Aronstein concludes with one on Jerry Zucker's First Knight, presented as an attempt to wed Clintonian values of brotherhood and community to the conservative Arthurian model, and Antoine Fuqua's King Arthur (2004) as a "post-9/11" film whose critique of "America's rhetoric of imperialism" (9) has been subverted by Disney-studio interference: "the latest example of Hollywood's continual return to the Arthurian past to reassure a troubled present" (9). The mainstream tradition is, in short, a vast right-wing conspiracy, whose "multiple appropriations of the medieval past inflected Hollywood Arthuriana with conservative values, as the legend was used to shore up the status quo, construct proper American subjects, and affirm America's divinely sanctioned position as global leader" (212). Such films, you will note, are not made by individuals but by "Hollywood" or by Spielberg which, for Aronstein, is pretty much the same thing. Any critiques of that conspiracy come from independents (Wilde) or Brits (the Pythons, Boorman, Terry Gilliam). What is offered as a definitive history is also a polemic.

As polemical theses go, hers is not a bad one, at least if you allow the assumption that all these films are allegories in which Camelot means "America" and characters who call themselves Britons, even, apparently, in British movies, mean to say that they are Americans or at the least "proto-Americans" (see, e.g., 212). Once she has established that thesis, she hardly needs to prove it in particular cases. Virtually any quality privileged by a given film, including, say, patriotism or community spirit, is liable to be identified as peculiarly American. "Conservative values" in 1950s films can mean "conformity" on page 63 and "an emphasis on the individual" two pages later. "Hollywood" pictures can be made at Pinewood by British directors with English actors as long as they are "in direct dialogue with" (1) real Hollywood films. Quasi- Arthurian films like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom are included while literal Arthurian chronicles--the all-star TV Merlin (Steve Barron, 1998), for example--are omitted. An excess of rigidity in the governing template is partly compensated for by a slackness in the terminology.

At the same time, the book never, to my taste at least, satisfactorily explains how an essentially tragic paradigm becomes a vehicle for American triumphalism. Camelot, as Aronstein understands, is "always already" lost, destroyed by its own internal divisions and weaknesses. The Kennedy White House did not- -and could not--become "Camelot" until it was over. When you conflate America as the "city on a hill" with America as Camelot, you necessarily wind up with America as a doomed city, not, as I recall, the message Ronald Reagan had in mind. I suppose we can put this bizarre adaptation down to selective forgetting on the part of the filmmakers, but I would like to have seen Aronstein pay more attention to the ironies involved.

The greatest problems with this book, however, lie in the working out of its template, problems that begin but do not end with the fact that the project has been inflated far beyond what can be dealt with in the 90,000-word limit imposed, as I understand it, by the Studies in Arthurian and Courtly Cultures series in which the book appears. Aronstein wants, after all, to cover the history of medievalism; the progress of Arthuriana and its Americanization; the political, cultural and psychological history of America from 1945 to 2005; and eighteen films in 200 pages. She can't do it; no one can. At the very least, she should eliminate or radically cut the first two chapters. She can always refer her readers to the appropriate authorities, for example, the Lupacks on American Arthuriana. After chapter two, in fact, she rarely refers to the Arthurian literary traditions. The most spectacular film revisions of Malory--Arthur and Guenevere living happily ever after in one instance--pass with barely a blink. As it is, the Introduction aside, she doesn't actually begin talking about films until page 55. After that, everything has to be bent, chopped and oversimplified to fit into the 150 pages she has left. Unnecessary material drives out necessary elaboration and qualification, as well as necessary reference other kinds of medieval film.

When you allow yourself approximately sixty pages, in five-page gobbets, to cover sixty years of American history you cannot produce anything but caricature. Since Aronstein has mugged up on a considerable amount of, mostly pop, history without acquiring the confidence to challenge any of her sources, what we get are a series of potted, cliché-ridden summaries--the bland but paranoid Eisenhower '50s, the radical late '60s and early '70s, the yuppie '80s--uninflected by personal experience, critical skepticism or a sense of complexity. In each case, there is an absolutizing of the consensus, the majority taken for the whole. We thus get the '50s without Howl, On the Road, Lolita, The Crucible, Philip Wylie's excoriations of "Momism," the despair- haunted suburbs of John Cheever stories, or that paradigmatic moment in The Wild One (1954) when Marlon Brando's Johnny is asked what he's rebelling against and replies, "Whadda ya got?" Fifties films, we are told instead, "played to a nation of optimists" (79). As frequently happens in the most thoughtless kinds of cultural criticism, the many audiences of American film coalesce into one, Borg-like Audience, all of whose members want the same thing at the same time: "by tapping into the public's desire for optimism, heroism, and patriotism, the blockbuster films of the Reagan era ... 'made the world safe for Reagan'."[2] Since Aronstein rarely if ever provides the numbers to back up her assertions, let me offer a lesson in demographics: Reagan was elected in 1980 with only 50.75% of the popular vote; even the Reagan landslide of 1984 consisted of less than 58%. As a sixty- something Californian who had the honor of voting against Reagan in every public election he contested, I can assure Dr. Aronstein that the rest of us did not vanish or convert on Inauguration Day. We did continue to form a disproportionate part of the film audience, one public--or several--among the many publics for whom movies are in fact made. The conservative part of the electorate/audience, of course, continued to view Hollywood not as a source of reassurance but as a locus of subversive leftism. Zeitgeists are not monolithic forces.

To sustain the illusion that it was, Aronstein adopts from her worst sources the Fallacy of the Representative Sample. No matter how small the audience of a given film, it is assumed to stand for the whole. "For American audiences in 1981, Excalibur seemed to valorize ...the celebration of militarism, the nostalgic longing for authority, the reinstatement of the white male hero, and the return of the Father" (151). "Americans ...embraced Boorman's British film as Reaganite entertainment" (160). Most American audiences, however, did not "embrace" the film for the simple reason that they did not see it. According to the figures on the Internet Movie Database, the film grossed less than $35 million in the US. At a generous estimate that works out to seven million viewers or 2.5% of the population. That group is inherently not a representative sample. They are the percentage willing to pay to see an obscure, highbrow, and poorly reviewed English film. That may be a profile of the readership of The New Yorker, but it is not a profile of Reagan voters or the public at large. What portion of this small body of eccentrics actually liked the movie and for what reasons remain unrecorded. (Most of the students to whom I have taught the film initially find it puzzling and/or ludicrous.) Aronstein, following the likes of Peter Biskind and Andrew Britton, simply supplies the reaction she thinks they ought to have had.[3]

Such sources have, I suspect, sold Aronstein a very common bad paradigm of how films get made: the illusion of a monolithic consensus interacts with the illusion of a monolithic Hollywood to create the illusion of a monolithic product. Hollywood too is like the Borg: all its apparently individual members come to the same conclusions at the same time. Around 1979, they decided to offer audiences "a return to the generic and ideological past" (121) and settled down to making "Reaganite entertainment," anodyne celebrations of Americanism, for the duration of the next administration. It's not that Aronstein doesn't know that some other kinds of movie were made in the 1980s, but their existence simply doesn't register, except for that of Knightriders, the exception that proves the rule. It is worthwhile reminding ourselves of some of the other "exceptions": Atlantic City, Ragtime, and Reds--that anodyne celebration of American communists!--in 1981; Missing--about the misdeeds of the CIA in Chile--and Sophie's Choice in 1982; Silkwood--in which a whistleblower is murdered by the nuclear industry--in 1983; Platoon and Blue Velvet in 1986; Broadcast News and Wall Street in 1987 [4]; Mississippi Burning in 1988; and Born on the 4th of July in 1989. Clearly "Hollywood" was a lot more dialogic than Aronstein admits; so were its audience and its product. There was not--and is not--a single consensus to which makers of Arthurian films are bound to return, as she insists they always do. Aronstein needs to think more critically about the logic of the film critics she most often cites.

This illusion of consensus is only heightened by Aronstein's habitual conflation of "medieval" with "Arthurian". "When America dreams the medieval past, it dreams of the high chivalric age of Arthur's court" (29). In fact, of course, it also "dreams" of Robin Hood and St. Joan, two figures whose mythic status is more or less equal to Arthur's. Check the IMDb for titles containing "Robin Hood" and you will get at least 86 examples, most of them American or British. There is a tradition of movies about Joan stretching, at least, from Carl Dreyer's Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (1928) to Luc Besson's The Messenger (1999) and including Otto Preminger's Hollywood version of Shaw's St. Joan (1957). If Arthur is forever available for conservative appropriation as king, warrior, all-purpose authority figure, what political interests are served by Robin Hood, equally appropriable as outlaw, rebel, abused citizen, or for that matter secret servant of right rule? Joan is available for causes ranging from feminism to French patriotism to Shavian theories of the superman. And the most popular medieval hero of 1990s film, by a large margin, was William Wallace in Mel Gibson's Braveheart (1995). As someone who has written about the modern resonances and analogues of that film, I would be interested to hear whether Aronstein thinks its project is also part of the "politics of nostalgia."[5]

I don't mean to expand Aronstein's project beyond the lengths allotted to her, but I do think that in order to define what Arthurian film is about, she needs to be able to say what closely related kinds of film are doing. When The Navigator (Vincent Ward, 1988) stages a confrontation between a medieval age of faith and a modern age of technology, how, if at all does that differ, from, say, the Connecticut Yankee films she discusses in chapter eight? (The religious Middle Ages, prominent in many other medieval films, are conspicuously absent from most of the films she discusses here.) When The Name of the Rose offers a trial that places well-meaning liberals between religious extremists and reactionary authorities does that serve progressive or conservative agendas? If British films can be admitted on the grounds that they are in dialogue with Hollywood ones, why not at least two French works that also strenuously differentiate themselves from American Arthuriana: Robert Bresson's Lancelot du lac (1974)--a strong influence on Boorman's Excalibur, by the way--and Eric Rohmer's Perceval le Gallois (1978)? If even British Arthurian films are about America, what are French Arthurian films about? Are "the uses of medievalism," in Hollywood or elsewhere, really the same as "the uses of Arthuriana"? If not, where are the margins and where the overlap?

Eliminating or radically reducing the first two chapters of Hollywood Knights would help to create at least some space for such matters and would, I think, produce a book of greater use to both film students and medievalists than the present one. I would hope, however, that Susan Aronstein returns to the larger subject of medieval film at some point in the future and in some format that does not confine her to 90,000 words. She is capable of sensible and often astute readings of particular films. She is certainly possessed of considerable scholarly diligence; it takes a lot of reading even to do American history as badly as it is done here. Unconstrained, she should be able to produce a work of considerable value.

When that work appears, by the way, I hope it is better produced than this one. I counted nearly thirty typos and punctuation errors without particularly trying. Possessives and plurals are regularly confused: for example, "Nazi's" for Nazis (153, three times). She or her typesetter cannot decide from one sentence to the next whether the hero of Knightriders is "Billy" or "Billie" (133-44). [It's Billy, by the way.] The title of Unidentified Flying Oddball is garbled in the subtitle that introduces it (177), as is the name of the sainted Hugo Munsterberg (226, n. 3), a mistake that does not inspire confidence in Aronstein's film scholarship. No more does the fact that she discusses classic Hollywood cinema conventions without citing David Bordwell, the leading authority on that subject. The book's nine muddy black-and- white illustrations are virtually useless and rarely, if ever, discussed. (They serve, presumably, to raise the book's already high price.) The back material should certainly have included a filmography. Cinema students are used to being abused by this kind of sloppiness, though we usually expect nicer pictures; medievalists are accustomed to somewhat better treatment. Palgrave should be at least mildly embarrassed.

NOTES [1] Readers seeking an alternative to my views may wish to consult, for example, Tison Pugh's enthusiastic notice in Arthuriana 16:1 (2006).

[2] Aronstein is citing, uncritically, Peter Biskind's Seeing is Believing: How Hollywood Taught us to Stop Worrying and Love the Fifties (New York: Pantheon, 1983).

[3] See Britton, "Blissing Out: The Politics of Reaganite Entertainment," Movie 31/32 (1986): 1-42.

[4] Aronstein's one reference to Wall Street (147) unfortunately suggests that she thinks "Greed is good" was the motto of the film rather than the catchphrase of its villain.

[5] In "The Ahistoricism of Medieval Film," Screening the Past 3 (1998); electronic journal:www.latrobe.edu.au/screningthepast/.