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Reviewed by:
  • Medieval Film
  • Margaret Hostetler
Anke Bernau and Bettina Bildhauer, editors Medieval Film Manchester University Press, 2009; 224 pages; $24.95

This collection of essays creates a new and compelling interest in a body of work that, by virtue of its title, Medieval Film, should not exist. In their introduction, Bettina Bildhauer and Anke Bernau explain that the playfulness of the title—there are, of course, no films from the Middle Ages—must be viewed as an important first disjuncture, a moment of reversal and rereading, which begins to break down the reader’s assumptions about “the medieval.” A common view of such films is that they are “fantastic” or “nostalgic” or “escapist” and often more suitable for children (the Harry Potter series, for example). Rather, the editors claim a special achronological status for the concept of “the medieval” in film. Illustrating how difficult it is to define a body of medieval films (“Medieval films have not developed coherent genre conventions”), Bildhauer and Bernau argue that medieval films are characterized by “their uncertain temporality” and that this “resistance to chronological history” provides insight both into medieval films and into larger “narrative and cinematic manipulations underlying all historical films” (2–4). With a New Historical awareness, the editors argue convincingly that our own “investments in the medieval past” are really at stake here and that it isn’t enough to reduce the medieval to that “other” against which modernity is defined. Why and how, they ask, are the Middle Ages “presented in such an indeterminate, ‘inaccurate’ manner”; whom and what “does this floating [End Page 41] signifier serve, either consciously or unconsciously”? (5). The introduction, which is particularly good at guiding readers between these fundamental questions and a more theoretically contextualized discussion, nonetheless assumes an audience familiar with theorizing about film, though not necessarily familiar either with films about the Middle Ages or with “the medieval” as it appears in films. The essay sets the perfect tone, then, for readers wondering about both these areas by directly confronting the obstacles, expectations, and cultural assumptions that often keep films with medieval content from being taken seriously. Readers conversant in film and literary theory will find common ground here, for the concept of medieval film is brought into mainstream critical conversations about cinema as an important tool for larger investigations: “Medieval film is not condemned to perpetuate the status quo”; because of “its very position outside the historiographical and generic mainstreams,” it can “alter representations of history and cinematic modes” (16). Bildhauer and Bernau’s introduction sets the reader up nicely to delve with energy and curiosity into the essays that follow.

All the essays work dually to outline various facets of medieval film—from the use of art, music, and translation to the role of historical, social, and national critique—and to reinforce the main thesis of the volume, that medieval film as a theoretical tool can usefully disrupt and complicate expectations and assumptions about cinematic modes. John Ganim’s essay, for example, which introduces the notion of “medieval noir,” not only argues that medievalism might “complicate[…] our notions of classic film noir” but also reveals how medieval narrative structures such as romance underlie modern formations of “subjectivity, sexuality, surveillance and anxiety” (200).

Many of the essays in this collection combine a sophisticated theorizing of “the medieval” as a necessary concept for cinematic scholarship with detailed historical analysis of medieval elements in individual films. The chapters by Ganim (examining film noir) and by Anke Bernau (analyzing D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation) are perhaps the best examples of how useful the concept of “the medieval” as a “free floating signifier” can be for film studies, since they go the farthest afield in applying the useful complications of historical time and modernity that the medieval brings. The other essays, despite the difficulty of indexing a genre of medieval films, focus on films that have obvious medieval content, such as King Arthur, A Knight’s Tale, The Name of the Rose, El Cid, Camelot, The Seventh Seal, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Les Visiteurs, Braveheart, Kingdom of Heaven, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Even within the realm...


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pp. 41-43
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