04.02.10, Aberth, A Knight at the Movies

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Sally McKee

The Medieval Review baj9928.0402.010


Aberth, John. A Knight at the Movies: Medieval History on Film. New York: Routledge, 2003. Pp. xi, 332. ISBN: 0-415-93886-4.

Reviewed by:
Sally McKee
University of California, Davis

Traces of a repressed sneer or a polite look of skepticism usually greet my assertion that Mickey Rourke's portrayal of a brooding, mumbling, Brando-esque St. Francis in Liliana Cavani's 1989 "Francesco" motivates students to read. Never mind that students watch "Francesco" along with Franco Zeffirelli's "Brother Sun, Sister Moon" and then read the Lives of Francis by Thomas of Celano, Francis' Companions, and Bonaventura, in addition to a supplementary textbook, before composing an essay about the very different uses to which these two directors put the same texts. Movies are the pedagogical tools of panderers, not teachers, some colleagues seem to feel. Call me a panderer, then, for I believe it's worthwhile meeting students where they mostly live-- in a world dominated by images-- in order to seduce them into crossing the border into the world of written texts. Anything that gets my students to read, write, and think works in my book.

Movies purporting to depict history offer opportunities to undergraduate college-level teachers that the use of primary sources alone do not. Matching primary sources to cinematic historical fiction not only makes the students more engaged in the readings. It also lays the groundwork for lessons in critical thinking. Aware that they will be watching one or more films in the course, students come to class prepared to spot anachronisms, like a wristwatch on the arm of a Roman gladiator. They leave instead having speculated on the contrast between religious movements in central and northern Italian peninsula in the early thirteenth-century, on the one hand, and Zeffirelli's Francis of the Vietnam era and Cavani's Francis of the Reagan era, on the other. Even when no primary source is easily accessible, a movie like Stanley Kubrick's "Spartacus" (1960) has prompted students to consider whether the movie's themes had closer kinship to the Civil Rights movements in 1950s' America or to the realities of slavery in Republican Rome. They certainly spent a lot of productive time in the library trying to make up their minds on the matter. Learning to separate the more obvious political or personal concerns of a text's author from those textual elements accurately reflecting aspects of the past amounts to a lesson in critical thinking.

John Aberth's informative and entertaining analysis of movies set in the Middle Ages, A Knight at the Movies, takes this same approach. He groups the medieval films he has chosen into subgenres. Arthurian, Viking, Crusading, Robin Hood, Black Death and Joan of Arc films each have their own chapters. After reviewing the history and the historiography of the period, Aberth discusses the nature and reliability of the literary texts on which historians and filmmakers have relied for their syntheses. His introductions to the period and the scholarship are not simply rehashes of textbook material. He finds the significant points still in debate among scholars, assesses the various sides of the argument, and offers some insights of his own into it. Once he has set the historical and historiographical stage, he then reviews the movies. Aberth's purpose includes but goes far beyond spotting telephone lines in the background of a medieval battlefield. One of the strengths of this book is his ability to spot and explain the political agenda of directors. Nationalism, he makes clear, is one of the most prevalent anachronisms in the medieval film genre.

Immediately in the first chapter, "The Holy Grail of Hollywood: King Arthur films," Aberth addresses the power of myth. Alluding to the use medieval kings of England made of the mythical king, he says, "The real Arthur of history was not as important as the political and propagandistic uses that could be made of his legend in order to create an historical image of a ruler as the true heir to Arthur's legendary qualities." Beginning with a mythical figure allows Aberth to make clear at the outset that the manipulation of history and myth for political purposes is an ancient tradition that filmmakers still adhere to.

In his analyses of the Arthurian films, Aberth convincingly outlines the underlying anti-communist thrust of the "The Black Knight" (1954), starring Alan Ladd. The movie "Camelot" (1967) reflects the nostalgia of the Vietnam generation in the United States for the Kennedy administration. Although he quotes the movie producer Darryl Zanuck defending liberties taken with historical detail in "The Black Knight," on the grounds that "I'm making a movie for mainstream audiences," Aberth judges a film in large part according to how realistically it replicates the history and spirit of the period, even if it is obviously not the director's intention. That seems to be the standard he applies to John Boorman's atmospheric "Excalibur" (1981). But what would be, in his view, a good medieval film? Is one possible? He calls "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" "the best interpretation of both the history and the legend of King Arthur," but does not explain why, except to point out how astute the jokes are. Those questions aside, there is a lot to work with here in the classroom.

When he exposes the nationalism imbedded in film plots, the author is at his best. In the longest chapter by far (eighty- four pages), "God (and the Studio) Wills It!: Crusading films," Aberth makes an interesting selection of films to discuss: C. B. de Mille's "The Crusades" (1935), Youssef Chahine's "Saladin" (1963), Sergei Eisenstein's "Alexander Nevsky" (1938), and "El Cid" (1961). Each movie reflects its maker's position on the political spectrum. De Mille and the makers of "El Cid" are to the right; Eisenstein and Chahine stand to the left. Aberth reveals the political persuasions of all four in their movies about the Crusades.

In De Mille's 1935 crusading film, Richard I's bride, Berengaria (Loretta Young), takes a pacifist's stand on the war between Richard and Saladin, a stand pleasing to the non- interventionist party on the eve of the Second World War. Chahine's "Saladin" offers a Pan-Arab hero who will stand up to the forces of the West. The director, an Egyptian living under Gamel Nasser's nationalist regime, made his film in the aftermath of the Israeli invasion of the Sinai Peninsula. Eisenstein intended his film about the crusading leader in the Baltics, Alexander Nevsky, to flatter Stalin in the pre-war period. And "El Cid," directed by Anthony Mann, promoted a reactionary vision of a Spanish nation that owed much to an historian who supported Franco. The history to be learned in this chapter has to do as much with the twentieth century as it does with the Middle Ages.

Politics, however, does not entirely dominate the list of problems medieval films tend to display. An interesting discussion in "Welcome to the Apocalypse: Black Death Films" centers on how contrary to medieval spirituality is the existentialist angst of the knight Antonius Block in Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal." Aberth is sensitive to the tendency of many filmmakers to dismiss or underestimate the importance of the spiritual or religious element of life in the Middle Ages. A successful medieval film in Aberth's eyes is Dreyer's "The Passion of Joan of Arc" precisely because it pays tribute to the piety of the Maid, while he shows how a recent and popular version, "The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc" (1999), directed by Luc Bresson, distorts Joan's experience by presenting it largely as the product of post-traumatic stress.

Like any old movie buff, Aberth takes these movies very seriously and with a grain of salt. Although much of the book supplies fairly serious and in-depth critiques of movies, his sense of humor dominates the text, at times perhaps a little too much. His phrasing is occasionally either a touch too glib, sophomoric, or forced. His playfulness sometimes conflicts with the sophistication of his analysis. The fun he has in picking apart the trivial anachronisms will appeal to students, but the incisive and knowledgeable critiques of movies like "The Seventh Seal" may be too sophisticated for them.

Admittedly, the affection an old movie buff like myself feels for Hollywood may not be the best guide to how useful a book like this can be in the classroom. Finding yourself engrossed in a comparison of the portrayal of women in a 1958 Kirk Douglas movie about the Vikings with the most recent scholarship on women in Old Norse society may signal a loss of perspective on yours and the author's parts. It is a fine line that Aberth walks here. The instructor's challenge will be to prevent the students from immersing themselves in trivia and to expand their outlook on larger themes. The focus on trivialities, however, such as hilariously anachronistic dialogue and costumes, may be part of Aberth's larger point. I suspect that the trivial details in old movies he throws a spotlight on are obviously ludicrous to instructors but are not so to students. Strategically-ragged peasant clothing on women may not strike students as any less realistic than the clothing in a Beyonce Knowles video.

Although he usually presents both sides of a debate among scholars, his enthusiasm occasionally gets the better of him. Just as I began to wonder what field Aberth specialized in, I started to read his chapter, "Welcome to the Apocalypse: Black Death Films." In contrast to his lively but mostly sober overviews of the scholarly literature in previous chapters, here he vehemently challenges recent studies of the plague, most notably Samuel K. Cohn's recent work, that question whether the bubonic plague really was the cause of the high rate of mortality in the fourteenth century. His impetuous and questionable assertion that "It is the height of arrogance to assume that we moderns, at six and a half centuries' remove from the event, are in a better position to diagnose the disease than our medieval ancestors, who actually lived through it" (207) sent me to the chapter's bibliography at the end of the book. It would appear that the author of From the Brink of the Apocalypse: Confronting Famine, War, Plague, and Death in the Later Middle Ages (Routledge, 2000) has his own fourteenth-century axe to grind.

Film historians are an obvious audience for A Knight at the Movies, so much so that Aberth seems to have had them principally in mind as he wrote certain sections of his work. I'm sure his few references to nondiegetic inserts and other technical jargon will mean more to film historians than they will to students (or to me, to be honest). It certainly would behoove any producer or director contemplating making a movie set in the Middle Ages to read this book before starting.

Aberth has produced an interesting and educational book that will entertain students, film devotees, and instructors alike. His enthusiasm for these movies may put off those who value dispassion in their textbooks, and there is no doubt that his style and expression of opinion are unruly in places. Although the quality of his analysis is uneven, there is much to encourage instructors interested in incorporating film into their courses from adopting it.

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Author Biography

Sally McKee

University of California, Davis