A Knight at the Movies: Medieval History on Film

By Swinford, Dean | Journal of Film and Video, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

A Knight at the Movies: Medieval History on Film


Swinford, Dean, Journal of Film and Video


A KNIGHT AT THE MOVIES: MEDIEVAL HISTORY ON FILM John Aberth. New York: Routledge, 2003, 332 pp.

John Aberth's A Knight at the Movies: Medieval History on Film provides a cogent, broad-ranging, and entertaining overview of films portraying the Middle Ages. Aberth applies a clear methodology to the six dominant subjects of films set in the Middle Ages: the Holy Grail, Vikings, the Crusades, Robin Hood, the Black Death, and Joan of Arc. The six chapters each begin with a historical overview of the topic, then move to an evaluation of specific films. In the historical overview sections, Aberth emphasizes changing critical attitudes toward these subjects, discussing the extent to which historians of the Middle Ages are themselves impacted by contemporary culture. From the outset, Aberth clearly indicates that he does not intend to belabor the historical authenticity of films, lest he face the same gruesome fate meted out to "a famous historian" in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975).

Indeed, his book concerns medievalism more than the medieval itself. Medievalism, defined as "the study of the many ways in which modern society and its popular culture interacts with, interprets and both influences and is influenced by the actual history of the Middle Ages" (ix), has become increasingly important for medieval studies as representations of the medieval abound in popular culture. Such representations reflect contemporary culture from the distant vantage point of a forgotten and seemingly alien period.

Aberth emphasizes the degree to which filmmakers use medieval subjects to evoke contemporary problems and concerns. His analysis of crusade films in particular marks the political usefulness of medieval subject matter. Indeed, "God (and the Studio) Wills It!" is perhaps Aberth's most politically involved chapter. He begins it by demonstrating the lingering medieval connotations of the word "crusade," using as an example George W. Bush's proclamation of a crusade against terror.

Aberth's juxtaposition of "Hollywood's muddled attempts to portray the clash of Christian and Muslim cultures during the twelfth century" (91) and the Egyptian director Youssef Chahine's Saladin (1963) points to the contemporary political situations influencing the cinematic portrayal of medieval history. The crusades allow Chahine to portray Arabs, medieval and modern alike, "as a peace-loving people who fight only when attacked by the aggressively warlike Christians of the West" (102). Indeed, because of its political message, Aberth posits Saladin as the "mirror image" of Cecil B. DeMille's The Crusades (1935). Aberth notes the political motives of DeMille's films, referring to Joan the Woman (1917), "a propaganda appeal for America to enter World War I" (86), and The Ten Commandments (1956), "into which film scholars have read a Cold War subtext" (91). Chahine, correspondingly, relies on Muslim accounts of the crusades in his film to present the Templars as "the implacable military and ideological foes of Islam" (98). But Aberth points out that Chahine's cinematic techniques also emphasize his own aesthetic distance from Hollywood. Thus, Chahine's desire "to demonstrate that Egyptian filmmaking can be independent of the West" (97) results in an "unconventional" (92) reliance on discontinuity editing. Aberth aligns Chahine's techniques with the Soviet montage style pioneered by Sergei Eisenstein, whose Alexander Nevsky (1938) also documents the inhuman evil of warriors from the West.

In Alexander Nevsky, Eisenstein creates a hagiographie tale of a champion who, with a peasant army, saves Russia from the aggression of Teutonic Knights. This film, historically inaccurate and "the most blatantly politicized film ever set in the Middle Ages" (107), demonstrates Eisenstein's enforced commitment to Socialist Realism and helped to exonerate him from the charges leveled against his earlier, more abstract approach to filmmaking. …

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