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Juniata History Class Studies Middle Ages Movies

(Posted September 10, 2001)


HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- Philosopher Thomas Hobbes described the Dark Ages of European history as a place where life was "nasty, brutish and short." Juniata College historian Belle Tuten hopes to make studying these bleak times less difficult by using a distinctly modern medium -- the movies.

Tuten, assistant professor of history at Juniata, has developed a history course where students eager to immerse themselves in the facts and fables of the Middle Ages (roughly from 600 to 1600 A.D.) will watch nine films ranging from the sublime ("The Lion in Winter") to the ridiculous ("First Knight" an Arthurian movie with Richard Gere as Sir Lancelot).

Tuten assigns readings from texts that were either source material for a movie or recount the time period in which a particular film is set. She also asks that each student see each of the movies she has chosen. Tuten, who teaches other medieval history courses such as "Women in Medieval Life" and "Sword and Scimitar," an examination of the Crusades, also is a lifelong movie buff.

"What I find most interesting about these movies is that the films also often reflect what was happening in history and culture at the time of their release," she says. "But I want the students to get an idea of historical accuracy -- are the costumes right, are they eating the right type of food, do they speak they way they would have in the Middle Ages? Usually the answer is 'No.'"

The course opens in the second week with "The Adventures of Robin Hood," a 1938 classic starring Erroll Flynn and Olivia DeHaviland. The story of the Merry Men of Sherwood Forest opens the course because Tuten has found that students can more easily grasp the story, film style and symbolism of the movie.

"It has very direct visual symbolism to show Robin Hood and his men are the good guys and Prince John and his men are the bad guys," she says. "Robin is dressed in green and always is photographed in forests or natural settings. The bad guys wear black, red or dark colors, and always are photographed in stark castles."

Tuten says "The Adventures of Robin Hood" also can be used to analyze some of the issues that faced Britain and America in the 1930s. "It really can be seen as an effective propaganda film for the coming war," Tuten explains. "The Normans are the Nazis and the Anglo-Saxons are the British. It's really about overcoming an oppressor. 'Robin Hood' was the most popular movie among servicemen in World War II."

Tuten's course also analyzes the development of religion through the French film "Sorceress," which is based on a memoir written by a member of the Inquisition, and family dynamics and royal politics in the Oscar-winning classic, "The Lion In Winter."

The class then focuses on the deservedly obscure film "The Warlord," starring Charlton Heston to see if the storyline depicted in the movie actually occurred. "How can you resist a movie that has Charlton Heston in a diaper?" Tuten laughs. "The kids uniformly hate it, but actually it depicts life in that time very accurately. The sets are filthy and squalid, and when they fight they chop each other up with axes -- which is the way it was done."

The class then looks at the Russian film "Alexander Nevsky," a Crusades story that is a thinly veiled World War II propaganda film, and "The Advocate," a film that depicts community law and politics in a small village.

The class also views "First Knight," which Tuten says is one of the worst movies ever made about the King Arthur legend. "It is one of the prettiest movies I've ever seen, so it won't be bad to look at," she says.

The final two films, "The Name of The Rose" and "Le Retour de Martin Guerre" ("The Return of Martin Guerre") end the course on a high-quality note. Tuten says "The Name of the Rose" is painstakingly accurate, yet entertaining, as Sean Connery plays a medieval monk with an uncanny knack for crime solving. "Martin Guerre" which was remade by Hollywood into the Civil War drama "Sommersby," is Tuten's choice as the most historically accurate Dark Ages movie.

By the end of the course, the students must write a paper analyzing a Middle Ages movie of their own choice and make a class presentation on the film. Tuten says the students don't initially realize how much work is involved in the course, but most enjoy a new way of looking at past events.

"It's good to get away from the 'kings-and-wars' outlook on history," she says. "I've found out that if students beginning the course know anything about the Middle Ages, their knowledge comes from popular movies. It's a natural fit to study the movies to examine their history."

Contact John Wall at wallj@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3132 for more information.