Filming the Dark Ages (HS 335)
by Belle Tuten
This year I have resurrected – so to speak – a class I taught several times when I first came to Juniata: “Filming the Dark Ages,” a class about how modern filmmakers have used the Middle Ages as a place to work out their ideas about the present. The great essayist Umberto Eco identified ten different imaginary “Middle Ages” in which modern people can enjoy or work out their hopes and fears. In this class, we explore a lot of Eco’s imaginary settings in the context of mass-market, popular film. We use a textbook called “History Goes to the Movies” by Marnie Hughes-Warrington to talk about such larger topics as identity, propaganda, and the relationship between academic history and history on film.
The first film we watch during the semester is the perennially popular swashbuckling extravaganza, The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). I love this film, because it is a wonderful film. But it’s also worth watching because it is a very early Technicolor film, and because it was the most popular film in the United States during the early 1940s, when World War II was at its height.
The film downplays Robin’s status as a nobleman (albeit a Saxon, opposed to the ruling Norman class) in favor of a populist, everyone-is-responsible-for-justice stance. Everyone, the film argues, should fight for justice, even the privileged. In one of the film’s scenes, Robin Hood (Errol Flynn) and Maid Marian (Olivia DeHavilland) argue at a feast given in the forest, and he convinces her that he is genuine in his desire to save the King and to help the poor.
The last film of the course takes on many of the same issues that the Adventures of Robin Hood does: Kingdom of Heaven (2005). The film features the improbable story of the illegitimate son of a knight who has been trained as a blacksmith and who ends up in the Holy Land in possession of his father’s lands. Like Robin Hood, Kingdom of Heaven tells a fictional story set among historical characters: King Baldwin IV, the Leper King, Queen Sibylla, and the film’s bad guy, Guy de Lusignan, were real people. The hero, Balian of Ibelin (Orlando Bloom) was also a real person, though the film reimagines him as a common man of illegitimate birth.
Balian is a man with a tragic past and a deep determination to do what is right – in this case, to follow the peaceful, ecumenical Baldwin IV and resist the warlike (and anti-Muslim) rhetoric of the nobles. In this scene Baldwin IV (Edward Norton), who wears a mask to hide the signs of leprosy, encourages Balian to seek justice and to resist oppression.
One of the many topics we cover in this course is how much Americans audiences like the story of the common man who resists the temptation of power and riches to “do the right thing.” In both these films, the heroes reap the rewards of their virtue by getting the women they love.
The other films for the course include:
- Alexander Nevsky (1938)
- Becket (1964)
- The Warlord (1965)
- The Lion in Winter (1968)
- Excalibur (1981)
- The Return of Martin Guerre (1982)
- Sorceress (1988)