Medieval Movies

There is an debate that divides historical movies into two camps. The first attempts to depict history without mediation, in essence films that try to access a past before cinema began to shape it  through genre. The second embraces this mediation by presenting the past as a series of genre tropes and iconography, the past becomes a palimpsest of a range of previous films, books, plays and myths. The former takes a sincere approach, the latter an ironic approach: think ‘Dances with Wolves’ compared with ‘Back to the Future pt 3’, or more recently ’12 Years a Slave;’ compared with ‘Django Unchained’. Throughout my voyages on FilmArk, I’ve seen a number of movies set in medieval Europe, each offering a depiction of the time that uses the medium of cinema to either transport the viewer back, or to bring the past forward. For example, the simplicity of the two Joan of Arc movies, the first directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, the second by Robert Bresson. Each filmmaker has a drive towards simplicity and an aversion towards adornment, so Dreyer’s innovation is to strip his actors of the glamour and distance of traditional movies and to focus, uncomfortably close, on the un-made-up faces of his characters. Bresson strips his story, script and the performances codes of his actors down to their fundamentals, like Dreyer achieving the sense of actually being in the past without the distorting barrier of cinema. Dreyer and Bresson’s approaches fall into the ‘sincere’ genre of historical presentation. Compare this with the romanticised approach of Eisenstein with ‘Alexander Nevsky’ or ‘Ivan the Terrible’, all heightened performances, modern national parallels and cinematic tricks, or the Hollywood middle ages as seen in Michael Curtiz and William Keighley’s ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’. These films are ironic, mediated depictions of the middle ages that, rather than seeking to pull the audience into the past, seek to use the conventions of the genre, the viewer’s expectations of what a historical drama should look like, to construct their worlds. The ultimate form of this can be seen in Jacques Demy’s ‘Donkey Skin’,  Pier Paolo Pasolini’s ‘The Canterbury Tales’ or even  Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones’ ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’, films that take genre conventions, and movie depictions of the past, to their extremes, and yet somehow manage to create films about the middle ages that access many of the anxieties and preoccupations of the time. Finally, the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, František Vláčil and Ingmar Bergman: directors who depict the past in movies that somehow stand outside of the usual conventions. These films manage to access the ‘feeling’ of the past through unbelievable cinematography, but really they are metaphysical presentations of medieval Europe, the viewer is kept distant but somehow is utterly absorbed. The middle ages are such a rich and alien environment for stories and films, not just because of the primitivism and the back-to-basics aesthetic the period can lend to a movie, or because of the romantic, nostalgic chivalry that can be mined from the time. Europe in the middle ages is an alien world with a philosophy that is entirely abstracted from our own. ‘Donkey Skin’ might offer the most outrageous presentation of fantasy of the following movies, but all these films share the same otherworldly quality.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

“Nothing in the world can be compared to the human face. It is a land one can never tire of exploring. There is no greater experience in a studio than to witness the expression of a sensitive face under the mysterious power of inspiration. To see it animated from inside, and turning into poetry.”

‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’, directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer in 1928, is a silent movie that depicts the trial and execution of the French saint. This is the second version of the story I’ve seen, after Robert Bresson’s 1962 ‘The Trial of Joan of Arc’, but where Bresson’s movie gained its power from being compact and emotionally reserved, Dreyer manages to get inside the psychology of his characters, all without dialogue or sound. Dreyer’s skill is in his camera work and his framing, as well as his (apparently brutal) ability to get real emotions from his actors. The undoubted highlight of this film is the performance by Renée Jeanne Falconetti as Joan. Much of the film is focussed only on her face, her eyes and on her reactions to events. Dreyer eschews makeup or any other device that might obscure the real person and, like Joan herself, Falconetti is stripped of her femininity and, ultimately, her humanity. For all his simple and unflinching focus on the raw faces of his characters, however, Dreyer is also staggeringly modern and inventive with his film. His camera sweeps, swirls and flinches around the brutalist sets, at times depicting Joan’s muzzy point of view with such success that, despite the alienating age of the film, means that you’re completely immersed in the performance. To get these shots, Dreyer turned his sets into a box of tricks with pits and moveable walls, and this demonstrates his precision of preparation and his unrelenting vision. It’s a film where all the elements, most notable Dreyer’s sense of space and movement and Falconetti ability to present contradictory emotions with one facial expression come together perfectly.

Alexander Nevsky (1938)

“Go tell all in foreign lands that Russia lives! Those who come to us in peace will be welcome as a guest. But those who come to us sword in hand will die by the sword! On that Russia stands and forever will we stand!”

‘Alexander Nevsky’, directed by Sergei Eisenstein in 1938, is an historical drama that tells the story of a battle between Russia and the Teutonic Knights of the Holy Roman Empire in the thirteen century. As with his later movies focusing on Ivan the Terrible, Eisenstein’s epic and stylised vision is both distinctive and stirring, but what stands out strongly with this movie is the explicit anti-German sentiment it rides on. The Teutonic Knights are presented as cyphers: monolithic, evil invaders who are depicted starkly and, a lot of the time, anonymous behind their helmets. Clearly George Lucas was aware of this film, and it’s tempting to cite it as an influence on the style of ‘Star Wars’ as the Kurosawa movies that are traditionally referred to. Highlights of the film are the epic final battle on a frozen lake: the sheer number and movement of the actors is suggestive of a tightly controlled and expert choreography. These scenes also seem to place the actors in real jeopardy, it’s questionable, for example, how many of the stunts involving the cracking ice and drowning had safety measures put in place. It’s a brilliant film visually but aspect that really drives it is the politics, preparing contemporary Russians for a grand defence against the Nazis.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

“I’ll organize revolt, exact a death for a death, and I’ll never rest until every Saxon in this shire can stand up free men and strike a blow for Richard and England.”

‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’, directed by Michael Curtiz and William Keighley in 1938, is an American historical drama starring Errol Flynn as the legendary vigilante with Basil Rathbone and Claude Rains as his Norman adversaries Guy of Gisbourne and King John. It’s a lavish, colourful production with extravagant sets, heightened performances and lush locations that follows the original stories with a completest, if pedestrian, approach. I enjoyed the inventive fight scenes throughout the film, particularly climactic one between Flynn and Rathbone during which the director increases the sense of mythology and drama by using unusual shots. From these, you can see both the adaptation of similar scenes from the silent action movies of Douglas Fairbanks (who played Robin Hood in a 1922 movie), but also echoes of these moments in more recent films such as the Star Wars films and the Pirates of the Caribbean series. For all this, I found the use of Californian locations to be unsettling and alien, almost as confusing as the mash-up of British locations in Kevin Costner’s 1991 version. The twisting of history and the collision of details from Walter Scott’s ‘Ivanhoe’ only work for me when the film is grounded in a location that is believable, and the use of Bidwell Park in Chico, California, was one step too far. I accept that this may be an atypical reaction to the film, and that a great deal of pleasure can be gained from the sunny, mythic seeming locations and the Hollywood-designed castles, but I found it one step too far into unreality, particularly coming from a time when Europe was burning. Setting this aside, the film made great use of colour and you can see where the vast amounts of money was spent.

Ivan the Terrible (1942 and 1944)

“It is one of those works that has proceeded directly to the status of Great Movie without going through the intermediate stage of being a good movie. I hope earnest students of cinema will forgive me when I say every serious movie lover should see it – once.”

‘Ivan the Terrible’, a two part film directed by Sergei Eisenstein in 1942 and 1944 is a theatrical, bombastic and, at times, hyperbolic biopic of the sixteenth century Tsar. The first part was released to wide acclaim and met the approval of Stalin, the second, which depicts Ivan purging his court of traitors and threats to his crown, unsurprisingly did not appeal to Stalin who detected the whiff of political allegory.  I was surprised at how much fun it was. Together the two films make one long story at over three hours, but Eisenstein’s unbelievable visual imagination and skilled mastery of the cinematic technique, coupled with some truly eccentric performances make this a compelling experience. You never quite know what you’re going to see next, and in a way this is distracting from the story: halfway through the second part, Eisenstein experiments with colour, but unlike Tarkovsky in ‘Stalker‘, this seems to be done just because he can rather than for any narrative reason. But the vast and cavernous sets, the expressionistic use of shadows, and the close-ups of the strange, expressive faces of his actors combine to make this is a movie with a strange attraction. This all seems to be a hangover from Eisenstein’s silent movies, especially his focus on the animalistic body-language of the characters to tell the story, I challenge you, for example, to tear your eyes away from the creepy, bird-like portrayal of Ivan by Nikolai Cherkasov. As with ‘Les Enfants du Paradis’, however, it is the fact that these movies were made whilst Europe and Asia burned that adds to their mystique. And like the French movie, there is a sense of resistance in the very bones of Eisenstein’s films. The fact that Stalin approved of the first film suggests that the director managed to pull off a dangerous magic trick.

The Seventh Seal (1957)

“This is my hand. I can turn it. The blood is still running in it. The sun is still in the sky and the wind is blowing. And I, Antonius Block, play chess with Death.”

‘The Seventh Seal’, directed by Ingmar Bergman in 1957, feels timeless. It’s the story of a medieval knight who journeys across plague-ridden Sweden to reach his family, whilst at the same time playing a symbolic game of chess with the personification of Death. It’s one of the more parodied movies, particularly the chilly, windswept chess game, but this distracts somewhat from the other qualities of the film. This seems to approach the middle ages from a different direction to Pasolini or Tarkovsky. Whilst the former took a Rabelaisian approach and the latter an authentic but epic approach, Bergman’s movie is deeply symbolic and internalised. Close to Tarkovsky, Bergman manages to articulate the psychology of the time, rather than just the pageantry and art. Through the central character’s philosophising, Bergman unpacks the complex tensions during the Black Death between the ubiquitous faith and the absence of divine mercy. It’s full of stand-out scenes, from the game of chess itself to the closing scene showing the doomed characters begin lead by Death over the headland in a danse macabre. It also had more humour than I remembered (this begin the second time I’d seen it): the rich, boozy details of village life and the deadpan but sardonic reactions of the Knight’s squire lift this movie from being a stark allegory to being a balanced, more nuanced depiction of the horrors and joys of medieval life. Filmed in the same year as the lighter ‘Wild Strawberries’, these two movies offer a similar theme (the approach of death) but from completely opposite angles. Considered in a double-bill with ‘Wild Strawberries’, this is perhaps the most complete meditations on mortality.

The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962)

“Bishop Cauchon: Do your saints hate the English?
Jeanne d’Arc: They love what Our Lord loves and hate what he hates.
Bishop Cauchon: Does God hate the English?
Jeanne d’Arc: Whether he loves or hates them I don’t know. I only know they’ll be driven from France or die here.”

‘The Trial of Joan of Arc’, directed by Robert Bresson in 1962, is a stark and economical retelling of the French saint who was put on trial by the English and martyred. It’s difficult to write about this on the day after the UK has decided that its culture, political and historical ties with France are worthless and that the English Channel really should be a barrier to block rather than one to overcome. As with Bresson’s other movies, the film is typically austere. He avoids the stylised approach of Carl Theodor Dreyer and instead allows the words of the trial to deliver the impact of the event, rather than to display it through emotive performances. As such, it’s simply shot, it’s short, the sets are basic and there is very little music. The camera tends to focus on the participants of the trial using close-ups. The effect of this is to concentrate the narrative on the details of the historical events, it prioritises fact and evidence over interpretive stylising and rhetoric. It’s disconcerting to hear English voices scheming throughout the film, and, juxtaposed with the French, the sound weirdly discordant and intrusive. It’s a film built around the tensions between two countries that boils these tensions down into the fate of a woman, similar to his religious parablising in ‘Au Hazard Balthazar’ four years later. The performances are underplayed to the extent that they are almost static, but this only serves to enhance the stoicism of some characters and the enigmatic scheming of others. On a day when I wish my French was better so I could move, it’s tempting to suggest this should be shown in schools as a demonstration of how misguided the English can be sometimes.

Andrei Rublev (1966)

“Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it. ‘Vanity of vanities,’ saith the preacher; ‘All is vanity.’”

I remember when I was reading medieval studies (a number of years ago), our lecturer suggested there were three aims of medieval literature: diversion, didacticism and devotion. ‘Andrei Rublev’, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky in 1966 is a rare case of a movie that attempts to tap into all three. Devotion is the key – not necessarily religious, although Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition is heavily present throughout the film. ‘Andrei Rublev’ depicts a fictional life of the historical title character, an icon painter, in the fifteenth century. Rublev witnesses a pagan ceremony, a Tartar battle, he loses his faith in art and, finally, witnesses a young boy, faking knowledge, leading a team of craftsmen as they cast a giant bronze bell. This act of self-belief on the part of the boy leads Rublev to rediscover his drive to paint. Tarkovsky understands what is required to produce a piece of devotional art, and uses the form of cinema to emulate this. As such, the film movies at a glacial pace, the camera lingering on details and slowly roving through the history unfurling around it. It has an aura of didactic authenticity, a depiction of medieval life to rival Bergman’s ‘The Seventh Seal’, Jean-Jacques Annaud’s ‘The Name of the Rose’ and Jones and Gilliam’s ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’. Highlights are the opening (a hot air balloon drifts past a gothic building and over the fields), the intensive Tartar battle, and the final section dealing with the casting of the bell. But it is in the small details that Tarkovsky achieves greatness, for example his repeated shots of water, splashing, raining, puddling and stained, his focus of the art without showing Rublev actually paint, as if showing the hand of God guiding his brush is too much for the screen. It’s over three hours long, but feels like a collection of miniature films each offering an aspect of medieval life to dwell on. By the time the film ends, you feel like you’ve witnessed, and in a way invited to be part of, a transcendent moment.

Marketa Lazarová (1967)

“I think the point about ‘Marketa Lazarová’ is that when you first see it you’re confused, and by that I mean you know that the whole story of what you’re looking at is obscured, but it’s still there, but you have to look hard.”

‘Marketa Lazarová’, directed by František Vláčil in 1967, is a long, impenetrable Czech movie that doesn’t offer many concessions to the viewer. The film is set in the Middle Ages and focuses on the power struggles between a lord and itinerant bandits. It’s difficult to summarise the plot, mainly because I get the impression that Vláčil doesn’t intend it to be easy to summarise but, much like those of Tarkovsky, the power of this movie lies in the individual scenes, with the cinematography and with the intricate texture of what appears on screen. This falls into the camp of films that present history authentically as opposed to ironically. So Tarkovsky’s ‘Andrei Rublev’ is a good parallel. The act of watching this film, the mesmerizingly slow pace and the refusal by the director to dumb-down the story or to provide exposition, makes you feel like you’re gazing into an alien world as lovingly designed and crafted as any high fantasy novelist. Highlights of the film are the dark nods towards paganism and the brief glimpses into the brutal sadism of the time. The main thing I was left with from this film though was the use of landscapes: characters become mere shapes against the brutal countryside and the atmosphere of the movie is dictated by the seasons, from the snowy chill of winter, through the dripping thaw and then back into the ice. It’s a film that makes you feel it both emotionally and almost physically. I’ve no idea what happened – but I certainly experienced it happening.

Donkey Skin (1970)

“Once upon a time there was a king so great, so loved by his people and so respected by neighbouring kingdoms that he was the happiest of monarchs. And his happiness was even greater for having chosen a beautiful and virtuous wife. The couple lived in perfect harmony. They had a daughter of such grace and charm that they never regretted having but one child. Their palace was a marvel of taste and abundance. The buildings were magnificent and the vast stables were filled with the most handsome steeds. But what most surprised visitors was a donkey displayed in the most prominent place. This iniquity may surprise you, but when you learn of the creature’s rare ability, you will agree that this honour was its due.”

‘Donkey Skin’, directed by Jacques Demy in 1970, is a musical adaptation of a French fairy-tale and, if it was a person it would be institutionalised. It tells the story of a widowed king with a donkey who, apparently painfully, excretes jewels. The king falls in love with his own daughter and seeks to woo her, so to deflect his attentions, the daughters fairy-godmother convinces her to wear a costume made of the flayed skin of the donkey, thus bringing to an end both the king’s easy cash flow and the donkey’s rectal suffering. A prince from another land falls for the princess and ultimately wins her after she splits herself into two and bakes him a cake. Finally the king marries the fairy-godmother and the princess marries the prince. It’s a rich, slippery, almost parodic movie, filled with stunning but disconcerting visuals, Jean Cocteau-style effects and on-the-edge performances. I’m aware that a great deal of my review has been taken up with a description of the events in the film, but this is a reflection of how anarchically insane it is. Having watched it, I sat for a while in silence trying to work out what I’d watched. It’s a film that you have to release yourself to, much like (but far in excess of) his later movie ‘The Pied Piper’, Demy presents an abstracted view of reality: the servants and horses in the different kingdoms are painted in primary colours and the king, played by Cocteau’s muse and lover Jean Marais, reclines on a magnificent giant stuffed cat. These surreal visual touches coupled with the music and the anachronisms (particularly an outrageous mode of transport used in the final scene that I won’t spoil) make this film curious both hard to pin down, but also incredibly compelling and immersive.

The Pied Piper (1972)

“Gentled by the lilting musical contribution of Donovan (who plays the Piper), Demy’s film isn’t quite so harsh as the Grimms’ version but, if it pulls some of its punches, they are felt nonetheless.”

‘The Pied Piper’, directed in 1972 by Jacques Demy, is a colourful, stylised retelling of the fairy-tale that features a host of British character actors including John Hurt, Michael Hordern and Diana Dors, along with folk singer Donovan playing the title character. It’s sumptuous and deceptively slight, but a film that engages with social issues of the twentieth century and especially late 1960s and early 1970s including social justice and anti-semitism. It felt familiar, and has the feel of a film that should really be a part of our national consciousness, a movie for children movie that resonates with a Sunday afternoon-ness, but instead it felt more like a lost treasure. The story is familiar but moving, the performances were broad by enjoyable. Where this movie really excels is with its ironic approach to history and to the medieval period. Rich textures, outrageous costumes and elaborate sets, this is the Middle Ages processed through Hollywood and then undercut with the satirical nature of the story and the parodic hyperbole of the acting. I’m struggling to get deeper with this film, mainly because Jez Winship said it all much more clearly here.

The Canterbury Tales (1972)

“Hey Satan! Lift up your tail and show us where you keep the friars in hell!”

‘The Canterbury Tales’, directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini in 1972, is the second in a trilogy of films based on literary anthologies. True to its source text and as with ‘The Decameron’, this movie is heavy on earthy and sexual symbolism, Rabelaisian comedy, and lush, pastoral locations. It was distracting to see familiar British actors such as Tom Baker, Vernon Dobcheff and Derek Deadman (billed as Derek Deadmin in the credits) dubbed into Italian and then subtitled in English, but this weirdly also added to the otherworldly nature of the story. L P Hartley described the past as ‘a foreign country’ and here it is exactly that: recognisable but off-kilter. Highlights were the locations and Pasolini’s skill at getting the best out of them, the richly farcical plots and the inclusion of the pitch-black comedy of ‘The Pardoners Tale’, my favourite of the original anthology. The final two scenes are also noteworthy: the penultimate being a Hieronymus Bosch vision of hell filmed on what appears to be a slag heap and complete with the enduring image of a giant devil farting out friars, whilst the final scene is a depiction of a dying man ascending to heaven. The energy, passion and sheer erotic drive of the movie makes it a fascinating counterpoint to Pasolini’s 1964 ‘Gospel According to St Matthew’. Indeed, it is possible to interpret some scenes in ‘The Canterbury Tales’ as direct parallels with Pasolini’s earlier movie – for example the striking compositional similarities between the trail scene from 1964 and the depiction of the execution by fire in 1972. Having said all this, it will take a great deal of therapy to get the memory ‘Doctor Who’ era Tom Baker’s willy out of my head.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

 “Listen, strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.”

‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’, directed by Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones in 1975, and ‘Monty Python’s Life of Brian’, directed by Terry Jones in 1979, are two British comedy movies written and performed by the BBC television sketch show comedy group.  The former film, an episodic and loose adaptation of the King Arthur cycles, is a fantastical and surreal celebration of medieval imagery and preconceptions, whilst the latter film, in which a man born at the same time as Jesus Christ is mistaken for the messiah, is a parody of the sword-and-sandal Hollywood religious epics.  Of the two, I found ‘Holy Grail’ to be the funniest film, but only in parts. ‘Life of Brian’, by contrast, is consistently amusing, with a few rip-snorters, but is far more consistent and coherent. Really, this is an unfair assessment, as one of the qualities of ‘Holy Grail’ is the films lack of coherence: the characters randomly stumble from one abstracted or strange encounter to the next, whilst the guiding principal of ‘Life of Brian’ is more acerbic satirical, to the point that the film was accused of blasphemy. Watched together, however, as a manifesto of the Monty Python team’s intelligence and range, they are undoubtedly one of the funniest three hours in British cinema. What struck me, aside from the humour, was how cine-literate they were. There are multiple moments in ‘Holy Grail’ that recall both Ingmar Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky, (see Tarkovsky’s ‘Andrei Rublev’ for example), whilst Terry Jones clearly watched Pier Pasolini’s ‘The Gospel According to St. Matthew’ as well as the Hollywood epics in his preparation for ‘Life of Brian’. They are also incredibly insightful commentaries on history and behind the riotous and pitch perfect gags in both movies is a keen and informed dissections of religion and religious hypocrisy, medieval history and politics and the way the past is warped through the prism of movie genres.


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