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23.05.09 Bartlett, The Middle Ages and the Movies

23.05.09 Bartlett, The Middle Ages and the Movies

In the last twenty-five years, the study of “cinema medievalia” has become a fair field full of folk. I will leave it to others to judge the merits of my The Reel Middle Ages (1999), but we have had important, thought-provoking studies from both sides of the Atlantic offering their own responses to this widely popular form of medievalism. Such studies include Susan Aronstein’s Hollywood Knights (2005), Bettina Bildhauer’s Filming the Middle Ages (2011), Martha W. Driver and Sid F. Rays’s The Medieval Hero on Screen (2004), Andrew B. R. Elliott’s Remaking the Middle Ages (2011), Laurie A. Finke and Martin B. Shichtman’s Cinematic Illuminations (2009), John Haines’s Music in Films on the Middle Ages (2014), Nickolas Haydock’s Movie Medievalism (2008), Kathleen Coyne Kelly and Tison Pugh’s Queer Movie Medievalisms (2009), Lynn T. Ramey and Tison Pugh’s Race, Class, and Gender in “Medieval” Film (2007), Pierre Riom’s Le Moyen Age vu par le cinéma européen (2001), Lora Ann Sigler’s Medieval Art and the Look of Silent Film (2019), and William F. Woods’s The Medieval Filmscape (2014)--all overshadowed by François Amy de la Bretèque’s monumental L’Imaginaire médiéval dans le cinéma occidental (2004). Now we have Bartlett’s The Middle Ages and the Movies, which takes its own approach to the topic by singling out eight “key” films for discussion.

The Middle Ages and the Movies, Eight Key Films is, and is not, a scholarly study. There are no endnotes or footnotes. But there is a nod, at the end of the book, to a scholarly apparatus in Bartlett’s suggestions for further reading (266-272). This bibliographic approach will doubtless leave the general reader unfazed but to more scholarly readers may seem a bit of bibliographic hedging, since it is not clear in his discussions where we get what Bartlett thinks and where he is referencing the previous work of others.

An introduction offers Bartlett’s brief rationale for picking these eight films out of the hundreds of examples of cinema medievalia: “[these eight films] exhibit differences of genre, of ideology, of the political and economic system in which they were produced...but they all have in common the attempt to represent the medieval world in that entirely modern medium, the motion picture” (9). Of necessity, there are some gaps: there are no full discussions of films about Joan of Arc or Robin Hood or the Vikings. Arthurian films are represented by the comedic masterpiece Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Crusader films get only a minor nod, though there is a full chapter devoted to El Cid and its presentation of the complexities of Muslim and Christian relationships before the expulsion of the Moors from Spain, and, interestingly, there are two chapters devoted to Russian films. Readers may understandably quibble with some of Bartlett’s choices, and his omissions.

Bartlett begins with a discussion of Mel Gibson’s 1995 film Braveheart, which, he argues, is “a perfect film through which to address the question of historical accuracy and whether it matters in films about the past” (22). He further distinguishes three types of accuracy: that regarding everyday objects, that regarding historical events and personages, and that regarding motives, beliefs, and general outlook (22-23). Notably, Gibson stages the Battle of Stirling Bridge without a bridge, and here, and in his other films, Gibson’s Anglophobia is clearly on display. Bartlett dismisses the film’s effect on Scottish politics, seeing any link as overemphasized, but wondering just how much the film pushes “the boundaries of invention” (47). Missing in The Middle Ages and the Movies is any discussion of other uses to which the film has been put by members of the Alt-Right who see in Gibson-as-Wallace’s final cry for “Freedom” an allegedly historical precedent for rallying others to their troubling agendas. Pushing the boundaries of invention can clearly have unexpected consequences in a world rife with increasingly fraught alternative political agendas.

Bartlett next discusses Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 1986 film The Name of the Rose, a film with its origin in “imaginative literature,” though many of its important elements “are real” (49). The relationship among Umberto Eco’s original novel, Annaud’s film (which the credits identify as a “palimpsest” of the novel), and a subsequent television adaptation are complicated--but all take monastic life seriously (54). Bartlett suggests parallels between the previous heretical activities of several of the film’s monks and the actions of the Italian Red Brigades who were active at the time Eco was writing his novel, and he commends the film for its efforts to portray accurately everyday medieval details and the monastic environment. But Bartlett hedges about how successful the film is as a film, given the immense success of the novel on which it was at least nominally based: “[B]oth book and film are entirely fictional tales set in a world that their creators tried to make as real as possible. Whether the film is as successful, as a film, as the book had been, as a book, is a matter of opinion. Screen and page are judged by different criteria, as they should be” (75).

Comedy in both the written and filmed versions of The Name of the Rose is deadly. In the next film that Bartlett discusses, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam’s 1975 Monty Python and the Holy Grail, comedy is deadly serious in its critique of various forms of medievalism, including the Victorian Arthurian revival as well as other medieval-themed films. Cinematic in-jokes combine with moments of full bathos to offer broad satirical points about the Middle Ages (83-84). Indeed, the continued success of the film makes it a ready reference for those who want to learn something about the Middle Ages. Filled as it is with knights in armor, quests, castles, witch trials, a variety of mythical beasts, chanting monks, and, of course, a king and peasants, it offers a cinematic primer on the medieval, while also using decidedly undergraduate humor to undercut the establishment repeatedly. The result is a different kind of medieval film that, nonetheless, remains a medieval film through and through, on its own terms, of course.

Bartlett’s juxtapositions of films to discuss are interesting. He follows his discussion of Monty Python and the Holy Grail with a chapter on Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1966 film Andrei Rublev. If the Pythons manage to remain above the political fray, Tarkovsky’s film wears Russian politics and its intersection with art and especially film on its cinematic sleeve, and the markedly different versions of Tarkovsky’s film that were released create an even more complicated viewer response and critical reaction. Tarkovsky argued that his aim was to reconstruct the fifteenth century for modern audiences--a noble ambition, but one fraught with political as well as artistic minefields. The result is a film grounded in a world of “imagination and artistic creation” (130), as well as in violence and brutality. But, Bartlett argues, Andrei Rublev ultimately “doesn’t have a message” (129)--an interesting suggestion with which I agree, but which Bartlett needs to make the case for more fully than he does.

Bartlett next turns to yet another very different kind of medieval film. Politics certainly was at the heart of the production of Anthony Mann’s 1961 film El Cid. Earlier studies have traced the flow of CIA and other American funding into the campaign to promote the film, and thereby indirectly to prop up the economy of Franco’s Spain, still an international political pariah for its support of Nazi Germany in the Second World War. The screenplay itself is anchored both in history (war and politics in eleventh-century Spain) and in legend (a love story in which duty and passion clash) (131). The latter plot element comes more from Corneille’s seventeenth-century play than from medieval texts of the life and adventures of the Cid. Like any number of other medieval films, El Cid also has about it something of the tradition of the Hollywood western, a cinematic genre in which Mann had previously made a name for himself. The film, nonetheless, presents itself in multiple ways as medieval, albeit at times generically and anachronistically so. Its message argues for a unified Spain. In an interesting aside, Bartlett discusses another film depicting Christian and Muslim relations in medieval Spain, Javier Séto’s 1963 film The Castilian, to show what a positive spin El Cid offers on that thorny topic (154-156).

The interplay between authenticity and accuracy in a medieval film is clearly on display, Bartlett would argue, in the next film that he discusses, Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 black and white film The Seventh Seal, perhaps one of the most parodied examples of “cinema medievalia,” by, among others, the Pythons. Bartlett argues that a major influence on Bergman’s film is the decidedly social-democratic politics of Sweden at the time the director was making the film. The Seventh Seal thus provides a cinematic mirror of contemporary Swedish politics, while also depicting a world of unremitting violence and danger. To further this point, Bartlett also discusses Bergman’s other medieval film, The Virgin Spring (1960).Bartlett makes a case that Bergman’s two medieval films succeed by presenting--to use a tagline often applied to the Pythons--something “completely different”: a medieval film that is decidedly more than just a medieval film.

In his next chapter, Bartlett returns to medieval Russia with a discussion of Sergei Eisenstein’s 1938 film Alexander Nevsky, which was, when released, even more at the mercy of shifting Russian politics than Andrei Rublev. The story of the film’s precarious production and several releases in light of Stalin’s on-again, off-again rapprochement with Nazi Germany is more than well known. The film itself is a study of heroism and patriotism, themes that run through both its main and all of its subplots. Nevsky stands out here in other ways as well. When we think of the hundreds of medieval films that have been made since at least 1895, very few stand out as defining examples of cinema; we are primarily interested in them because they purport to show us the medieval, though with decidedly different results. Nevsky is, on the other hand, clearly a great film--thanks to its score, its cinematography, and all the other elements that make up a great film--and many of the other films that Bartlett discusses pale in comparison. The number of great medieval films is admittedly small; The Seventh Seal might make the cut, as would Lang’s two-part retelling of The Nibelungenlied, only the first half of which is the subject of Bartlett’s last chapter. Dreyer’s 1928 film The Passion of Joan of Arc certainly also counts as a great film that just happens to be medieval as well.

Bartlett never fully explains why he only treats the first half of Lang’s two-part 1924 film Siegfried, a film with obvious stand-alone merit, made even more notable when paired with Kriemhild’s Revenge, its cinematic complement. Bartlett does offer an interesting read on the relationship between Siegfried and Nazi Germany. He argues that Nazi “intimations” (141) do not lie at the film’s heart. Rather, he suggests that a complex dramatic pentangle drives the storyline. The medieval epic may conclude that all is undone by the deceits of women; Bartlett counters that the film sees the deceits of men, not women, lurking behind the events that play out so violently in both parts of the film.

Bartlett concludes with a breezy chapter entitled “Wrapping Up” (243-265), in which he makes some of his most interesting comments about multiple medieval films and the genre--or non-genre--that they represent. A pattern of such asides runs through all his discussions, and these asides are what I find to be the best takeaways from his study. As I indicated earlier, The Middle Ages and the Movies is not a true scholarly study; what exactly it is is harder to pin down. It does indeed hedge its bets by substituting seven pages of suggestions for additional reading for any true scholarly apparatus. As such, The Middle Ages and the Movies reads more often than not like Siskel and Ebert than like Finke and Shichtman. Whether that is a good thing is--to use a rhetorical stance that Bartlett relies on to frame discussions of his eight films--for his readers to decide.