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Reviewed by:
  • Medieval And Early Modern Film And Media
  • Marina Gerzic
Burt, Richard, Medieval And Early Modern Film And Media, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008; hardback; pp. xiv, 279; 15 b/w illustrations; R.R.P. £45.00; ISBN 9780230601253.

The last few decades have seen a resurgence of films about the Middle Ages. References to the period abound in films as varied as Se7en (dir. David Fincher, 1995) and Beowulf (dir. Robert Zemeckis, 2007). Richard Burt’s most recent book reflects on this contemporary fascination with ‘all things medieval’, and offers a comprehensive and ambitious examination of a wide range of films, both those set in the Middle Ages as well as films with contemporary settings which allude to the era. Medieval And Early Modern Film And Media can be situated within the growing body of scholarship that analogizes pre-modern/ Early Modern media (scrolls, books, manuscripts and tapestries) with the digital media currently available (for example, files such as PDF, and DVD/ Blu-ray discs) (pp. 1–2). Medieval and Early Modern Film and Media is set out into six sections: an introduction, four chapters, each a close-reading of a major medieval film, and an epilogue examining the different versions of Greenblatt’s essay ‘The Touch of the Real’.

Burt offers engaging close readings of a wide variety of historical films, focussing chiefly on four major films: Day of Wrath (Dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1943), El Cid (Dir. Anthony Mann, 1961), Kingdom of Heaven (Dir. Ridley Scott, 2005) and The Return of Martin Guerre (Dir. Daniel Vigne, 1981). Each chapter in the book is devoted to a separate film. Burt offers a complex study of the imagery in these films in relation to medieval and Early Modern media, such as paintings, manuscripts, and the Bayeux Tapestry. The [End Page 166] analysis centres on the uncanny retellings and repetitions that divide each of these medieval films into paratextual elements (title and credit sequences, and animated menus), different editions (alternative director’s cuts), and other special extras (documentaries, DVD audio-commentaries by directors and historical consultants, and deleted scenes). Burt successfully historicizes the changes in these cinematic paratexts, and his close examination of the special extras on the various DVD editions of Kingdom of Heaven (see Chapter 3, pp. 107–136) is particularly compelling.

Burt argues that both the Historicist and New Historicist movements rely on a certain version of the uncanny, specifically, one he terms the ‘philological uncanny’ (p. 6). Burt offers that the philological uncanny ‘involves estrangement and reanimation and … nevertheless allows for a linear temporality and subjective interiorization’ (p. 181). In its early years, New Historicism emphasized how the past is brought to life through cinema. New Historicism, Burt concludes, is ‘engaged not only in reading the past but … also in attempting (and failing) to visualize it’ (p. 178).

Cinematic paratext in the medieval films discussed is further linked to the academic paratext found in the work of notable New Historicist academic, Stephen Greenblatt. Burt critically examines the differences in two versions of Greenblatt’s essay ‘The Touch of the Real’ (1997 Real’ (2000), and highlights the uncanny nature of the paratextual elements in Greenblatt’s work such as his anecdotes, which are ‘almost always … delivered in paratexts’, and his habit of ending essays ‘with a repetition of the uncanny word “return”’(p. 181).

One of the strengths of Medieval And Early Modern Film And Media is the variety and breadth of works discussed. While each chapter serves as an in-depth analysis of a distinct historical film, within each chapter other relevant films are discussed in some detail, such as Se7en, the short films of the Quay Brothers, and low-brow popular films which reference the medieval, such as Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). The text is clearly written and the book features a number of well-chosen stills from the various medieval films discussed within the text. The accompanying footnotes are detailed and a fascinating read in their own right, not surprising in a book that focuses on paratext. A standard bibliography as well as two cumulative indexes of references cited (one for print sources and one for films) is included. The...


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