In 2014, William Wood's The Medieval Filmscape: Reflections of Fear and Desire in a Cinematic Mirror entered a crowded field of scholarship on cinematic medievalism, the study of films about the Middle Ages. Besides Martin Shichtman's and my Cinematic Illuminations: The Middle Ages on Film in 2010 (full disclosure), Kevin Harty's The Reel Middle Ages (1999), John Aberth's A Knight at the Movies: Medieval History on Film (2003), Susan Aronstein's Hollywood Knights: Arthurian Cinema and the Politics of Nostalgia (2005), Richard Burt's Medieval and Early Modern Film and Media (2008), Nickolas Haydock's Movie Medievalism: The Imaginary Middle Ages (2008), Bettina Bildhauer's Filming the Middle Ages (2011), Andrew B. R. Eliot's Remaking the Middle Ages: The Methods of Cinema and History in Portraying the Medieval World (2011), Michael Salda's Arthurian Animation: A Study of Cartoon Camelots on Film and Television (2013), and John Haines's Music in Films on the Middle Ages: Authenticity vs. Fantasy (2014) collectively attest to the fecundity of this field of study. This brief survey does not even include the dozens of anthologies and collections of essays during the last fifteen years (many of them published by McFarland) on topics related to cinematic medievalism, nor does it include either journal articles or books and articles in other languages. To claim, then--as Woods does in his preface--that "at present, there are few books that try to define the subgenre of medieval film by describing its features and analyzing its effects and their significance" (1) evinces either naïve ignorance of or a willful disregard for evidence to the contrary. While chapters of this book were published elsewhere in 2002 and 2004 (in one of those aforementioned collections of essays), The Medieval Filmscape engages only superficially with the substantial body of scholarship during the last two decades on the topic. This is not an insignificant flaw. The days when medievalists could write about medieval films as amateurs, as a pleasant break from the more serious work of medieval studies have long since passed. Cinematic medievalism is a well-established field of lively, often contentious, debate and dialogue among scholars conversant not only with the Middle Ages as a historical period, but also with the conventions of film criticism and theory.
The Medieval Filmscape claims to be a "modest informal attempt" to define the subgenre of medieval film by "describing its typical features and showing how they create a convincing sense of its time" (1). The introduction and first three chapters attempt to articulate a common set of generic expectations for the medieval film. In the introduction, the medieval film is characterized as a fairy tale that delivers viewers from the mundane and utilitarian (4), but also a place of barbaric torture and pain (20-22); it is marked by travel (9-10) and so requires horses (11-15); it grounds its viewers in the material world, but requires of its heroes adherence to ideals like love, faith, wisdom, and loyalty. The first three chapters attempt to create a framework for talking about movies set in the Middle Ages by defining authenticity (chapter 1), simplicity (chapter 2), and spectacle (chapter 3) as the key generic features of cinematic medievalism. None of these three attributes, it seems to me, distinguishes movies about the Middle Ages from any other historical film, or indeed from any film. All three terms have inspired a large body of theory attesting to the terms' vexed status when applied to film. The framework Woods sets up in the first three chapters does little to illuminate the later readings of specific films, which tend to unfold without reference to this framework, perhaps because none of the films he chooses to write on are particularly marked by authenticity or simplicity, and most do not even offer much in the way of spectacle.
Woods is on a firmer footing when he leaves off generalizing and turns to readings of specific films. The book's last six chapters examine eight medieval films (even though The Return of Martin Guerre is set in the sixteenth century, and so is not technically medieval). Woods's corpus tends to skew toward the European and the art film: The Seventh Seal, La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc, Perceval le gallois, Lancelot du Lac, The Name of the Rose, and The Return of Martin Guerre. The only Hollywood film is Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven. Woods' often astute readings of the films tend to emphasize narrative over cinematic style, the story over the filmmakers' way of telling the story. The readings, however, largely ignore the work of other medievalists who have also written on these films. When he does cite other scholars of cinematic medievalism, characteristically, he "quarantines" their work in the footnotes, frequently quoting single sentences out of context and without commentary. Their arguments never seem to intrude on his readings.
I confess that I found Woods's subtitle--Reflections of Fear and Desire in a Cinematic Mirror--at once puzzling and revealing. Whose fear? Whose desire? The title raises the question as to how precisely movies function as mirrors. If the medieval movie is a mirror (are not all movies then mirrors?), that would suggest that it is simply giving the author back his own image: "We seek ourselves in the mirror of medieval film. And find ourselves there. How could we not?" (178) The use of "we" here and throughout, however, seems a bit coercive. It leaves little room for resistance or alternative readings. The psychoanalytic framework the subtitle conjures up is nowhere evident in the book. Yet the book resounds with the author's own often contradictory desires to see the medieval film as a historically faithful rendering of its period, of the medieval "real," at the same time it allows him to leave behind a mundane, utilitarian real to enter into a "reel" world of fantasy.