- Retelling European History on Film: An Essay Review
Retelling European History on Film: An Essay Review
Although differing in terms of theoretical focus and subject, these four volumes are unified in their intention to follow the precepts of the historian E. H. Carr by showing how filmmaker-historians on both sides of the Atlantic have reworked European history, ancient and modern, to communicate different stories to their viewers, and how viewers have responded to such material.
Nicholas Haydock’s Movie Medievalism takes as its subject the enduring fascination – in Hollywood and elsewhere – with the Middle Ages. Inspired by Jacques Lacan’s notion of the imaginary, Haydock argues that “cinémedievalism” (his term) has not been preoccupied with anachronism but with “a cultural fantasy wherein the reel/real divide is reinterpreted as the Imaginary/Real” (36). Films such as Jean-Jacques Annnaud’s The Name of the Rose (1986) recreate an imaginary past as a way of commenting on the real present: “The formation of a persecuting society, said to have begun in the late Middle Ages, can […] be seen behind the rise of capitalism but it is responsible for the failure of socialism” (32). Haydock proposes that this past/present relationship can be approached in Deleuzian terms as “a double arc, a present that passes and a past that is preserved [….] Put more simply, the past that the present is always becoming and the present nature of recollections mirror one another” (39). This phenomenon underlies the plot of Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal (1957), where Antonius Block’s situation (as played by Max von Sydow) “marks a kind of midpoint in his transition between a genocidal holocaust (the Crusades), and the threat of an apocalypse (the Black Death), analogous perhaps to Bergman’s own situation in 1957 between World War II and the prospect of all-out nuclear war” (41).
The bulk of Movie Medievalism consists of a series of case-studies of recent films, looking at the ways in which their respective directors have explored the past/present relationship. First Knight (1999) and A Knight’s Tale (2001) constitute good examples of Hollywood’s transformation of European medievalism into “the practice and study of pastiche, or rather of generations of pastiche stretching back not to an original but to earlier acts of composite forgery” (110). The medieval period [End Page 64] did not acknowledge modern concepts of ‘authenticity,’ or ‘realism’; they were more interested in portraiture and apocryphal continuation (106). Haydock’s observation explains why medievalism proves so attractive to postmodern directors in the new millennium; they do not retell the past, either in the script or in visual terms, but construct their own apocryphal versions of it. This strategy contrasts with that employed by big-budget filmmakers such as Luc Besson in The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999), or Ridley Scott in Gladiator (2000) or Kingdom of Heaven (2004), who use the past to construct symbolic and unified national identities in the face of daunting imperialism (111). Haydock examines Kingdom of Heaven in detail to show how Scott uses the past to comment on contemporary western – specifically American – intervention in the Middle East (134). In another chapter Haydock proposes that Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur (2004) is dominated by notions of convergence, not only between past and present but between film and newer media – for example, CGI technology. Rather than spending his not inconsiderable budget on historically accurate settings, Fuqua uses CGI to create an imaginary world, “coherent in itself but opened to future development” (186). Present and past unify in a manner that might...