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  • Arms and the Man:The Curious Inaccuracy of Medieval Arms and Armor in Contemporary Film
  • Carl James Grindley (bio)

In a relatively misunderstood scene from Zach Braff's recent film, Garden State, the protagonist, Andrew Largeman, wakes up in his friend's house and sits down to breakfast. He is recovering from a party the night before and so is unprepared to face a knight in shining armor who clanks noisily through the kitchen on a quest for cornflakes. Apparently a waiter from Medieval Times, this character comes and goes, serving not only to highlight the moral dissipation of the mother of the protagonist's best friend but also to reinforce the theme of armor that is used throughout the film. Garden State is a movie where the characters periodically armor themselves in everything ranging from protective helmets to shirts that camouflage themselves as wallpaper to garbage bags that serve as raingear and, indeed, to drugs and alcohol.

Internet commentary, through partially or thoroughly anonymous reviews, mostly highlights the implausibility of allowing a Medieval Times employee to take his "costume" home at night—few, if any, commentators bother imagining a symbolic purpose lurking behind the noisy steel plates. In addition, mainstream critics, although bemused by the scene, merely point to its filmic associations, in particular with regard to its relationship with The Graduate. Very few sources, if any, interpret the costume for what it is. It is as if the armor was "written" in an unfamiliar visual code, its meaning indecipherable due to some shortcoming or failure in language of steel.

The issue of the symbolic failure in the limited area of costuming is not to be confused with a pedantic demand for historical veracity in film. Such a prerequisite is not needed for the creation of a suspension of disbelief and never has been. As Cook asserted, "film constructs its fictions through the deliberate manipulation of photographed reality itself so that, in cinema, artifice and reality become quite literally indistinguishable" (93-94); but, as Woods suggested, "despite their mythic overtones and romance coloring, films with medieval themes, like medieval histories, are required by their audiences to deliver a convincing picture of life" (39). Noting that it was "unusual…that a lapse of authenticity tears the fabric of the viewer's sense of the authentic" (47), Woods argued that film audiences "can be sustained by what seems typical, the kinds of clothes, gestures and so forth that we expect of medieval reality" (47). Davis agreed, asserting that "historical authenticity comes first and foremost from the film's credible connection with 'the spirit of a period' (471). Driver and Ray, quite rightly, noted that, even for the authentically medieval audience of an authentically medieval text, some loss of realism was acceptable (20), and they explained the obvious gulf between the harsh realities of peasant life and its depiction on the pages of a typical book of hours. What is interesting is the chimera of meaning created by the lacunae between the historic and the fantastic.

As far as such things go, the Garden State suit of armor itself is commendably accurate—a fully articulated, reasonably Italianate suit of plate armor, replete with a cod piece—which is in itself a rarity in any film. In many ways, this armor succeeds where other filmic armors fail. Consider the armor typically seen in the bulk of contemporary popular film, including Henry V, Excalibur, First Knight, Timeline, and A Knight's Tale—all films that attempt to create a plausible medieval setting. In these films, an ambition towards establishing a recognizably medieval look and feel is almost always accompanied by a visible and immediate failure in the presentation of armor.

Michael Wilkinson, Garden State's costume designer, insists that the armor used in the scene arrived in the film almost accidentally. The first suit of armor they rented for the production had a "comic, amateur feel [with] fiberglass armor and knitted yarn chain mail" (Wilkinson), and the suit used in the film was eventually found by a production assistant "surf[ing] the web" (Wilkinson). The all important codpiece, it is discovered, was unexpected by all: "the codpiece was a happy accident—I love that...


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pp. 14-19
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