A Knight at the Movies: Medieval History on Film.
John Aberth, acknowledging the importance of film in shaping many people's view of the middle ages, sets out to explore the use of film to medieval scholars. He argues that while film cannot discuss alternative points of view or achieve complete historical accuracy, it can allow exploration of motive and offer a visual interpretation of the past that poses problems at least as demanding and difficult of resolution as any written account. "In the classroom," he writes, "films promote discussions and pose, if not answer, burning questions. In private, they can make us think long and hard about our lives in comparison with those of our predecessors" (pp. ix-x). He attempts to "illustrate the complex relationship between modern and medieval history" and explore why filmmakers have depicted the medieval past as they did (p. xi).
Aberth's corpus of films about the middle ages is divided into six general sections: films about King Arthur, the Vikings, the crusades, Robin Hood, the Black Death, and Joan of Arc. Two of these, of course, are fictional subjects with only the loosest basis in fact (Arthur and Robin Hood), reinvented and reinterpreted by each generation. So far has each modern generation reinterpreted King Arthur that the notoriously dreadful film The Black Knight (1954) used the legend as a means to propagate "pro-American, anti-Communist" propaganda, while First Knight (1995) depicts a man's search for his "masculine identity" in the face of pressure from a strong female (p. 17, 14). Yet, because the main interest of medieval Arthurian stories to the historian is as a means to identify the ideals and interests of the medieval warrior classes, these modern reinterpretations of the story undermine the primary importance of Arthur for the university teacher of history. There is some mileage, however, in using an Arthurian film to illustrate how modern filmmakers have misinterpreted history, and this reviewer would agree that the Arthurian film that best interprets medieval history and the Arthurian legend is Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975).
Each section of the book begins with an overview of the historical background, before moving on to discuss the films. Generally this works well, although it sometimes results in duplication of material: for example, the scholarly debate over Asser's Life of Alfred is referred to twice, under the historical background and then again during the discussion of the film Alfred the Great (1965). The historical background is generally accurate, but inevitably in a book covering such a broad sweep of medieval history there are a few errors. For example, although Aberth declares that Richard the Lionheart was childless and would not have named a son Philip, in fact Richard did have an illegitimate son named Philip (see John Gillingham's article in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography). These are minor details which do not undermine Aberth's overall arguments, but if the book had included endnotes it would have been easier for readers to check such points. On the other hand, author and publisher should be commended for including a detailed index.
Each reader will have their own concept of what constitutes an accurate recreation of the Middle Ages, and many will disagree with Aberth's preference for black and white as the medium for "atmospherically true films about the Middle Ages." Such personal opinions aside, this book is useful to teachers and students of history and film as a readable, interesting guide to films set in the medieval period; it also includes several films which are not well-known but will repay careful viewing. Aberth notes that a successful historical film "aims at making medieval history relevant to modern events in a way that is supple enough not to overwhelm the period atmosphere of the film" (p. 170). Yet he shows that, in making history relevant to their audience, filmmakers have distorted medieval history to serve modern political interests. This was particularly the case in El Cid (1961), and, more famously, in Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky (1938). Again, students of film will have their own interpretations of what a filmmaker was trying to achieve, and the fact that Aberth's own political concerns will have influenced his analyses means that his discussions will, themselves, form a fruitful subject for student study and debate.
This book demonstrates that modern blockbuster films cannot be used to teach accurate medieval history, but that film can be used to show how and why filmmakers have exploited history since the early twentieth century. While this does not help us learn medieval history, it can tell us a great deal about modern society.
Helen J. Nicholson
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|Author:||Nicholson, Helen J.|
|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2009|
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