Following a crude rule of thumb films may be divided into two broad categories. First, there are narrative works, intended to be commercially successful. These derive their plotting devices and characterizations from nineteenth-century novels (themselves often filmed), and ultimately from age-old conventions of story telling.
Then there are experimental films, influenced by modern movements in art. Some simply manipulate expected ways of story telling, while others border on, or are completely abstract. The latter group, generally consisting of short items, impose formidable demands on the audience. (An exception is Andy Warhol’s “Empire State Building,” which reputedly takes 24 hours.)
In fact, experimental films seem to show few medieval affinities, though it is easy to see how a modern director might use effects derived from enamels and stained glass to achieve striking uses of color. This does not seem to have been done, at least not very often.
Even in the commercial narrative films, the influence is mainly in the level of plot and costuming, as in the numerous movies about King Arthur and Robin Hood. These creations developed their own conventions, appropriately satirized in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” (1975). The conventions observed in these genres have little to do with the Middle Ages.
There are exceptions. Andrei Tarkovsky, a Soviet director, claimed to be influenced by a range of painters, from Duccio to Fra Angelico to Rembrandt and Ge´ricault. For these artists,the relationship seems to be mainly indirect.
Matters are different in his film on the fifteenth-century icon painter Andrei Rublev. Outwardly, the film deals with the classic conflict of whether the artists should participate in the political struggles of his own time, or remain aloof, pursuing the truths of art. In terms of style, however, Tarkovsky innovated by trying to translate the qualities of permanance and transcendence he found in icons into filmic terms. As icons are an art of fixity and film unfolds over time, this endeavor was a considerable challenge. There is general agreement, though, that the results are striking and moving.
Predictably, the film encountered official disapproval in the old Soviet Union, and was not released until 1972, after a battle with the censors.
Ingmar Bergman has sought to capture aspects of the ethos of the late middle ages in such films as “The Seventh Seal” and “Silent Spring.” Today, they are often judged, iunfairly in my view, as pretentious.
“The Seventh Seal” is an existential Bergman masterpiece of 1957 It concerns the journey of a medieval knight (Max von Sydow) across a plague-ridden landscape. The best-known scene features the knight playing chess with the personification of Death, his life resting on the outcome of he game.
The film’s title refers to a passage about the end of the world from the book of Revelation, used both at the very start of the film, and again towards the end, beginning with the words "And when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour" (Rev. 8:1). Bergman developed the film from his own play “Wood Painting.” The film was Bergman’s breakthrough work, heralding his world reputation as an avant-garde director.
The knight's faith is war-weathered, a theme that is salient in one of the scenes in the film. The knight gives confession to a priest about his doubts whether God actually exists; he tells the priest how he challenged Death to a game of chess and reveals his strategy, only to find that the "priest" is actually Death. In another powerful scene—of a witch-burning—the knight is asked by his squire whether he sees, in the victim's eyes, God or simply vacancy. Disquieted, the knight refuses to acknowledge the victim's emptiness (and, in a way, his own) despite his doubts about God. The knight realizes that he would rather be broken in faith, constantly suffering doubt, than recognize a life without meaning. While doubt was not unknown in the Middle Ages, Bergman here gives it a peculiarly modern inflection. (Bergman was himself to die until 2007.)
Bergman is particularly harsh in his depiction of the clergymen, who profit from the atmosphere of terror engendered by the plague. They offer no real spiritual comfort to their people, and are represented as little better than thieves. The witch is burnt at the stake for “having caused” the plague, in the community's grotesque effort to end the contagion.
While he loses the contest with Death, the knight achieves one significant act that gives his life meaning: he allows the young couple and their child to escape. With the knight and his followers led away over the hills in a medieval dance of death, the young family live to continue their journey.
Some of the film's images are derived from medieval art. For example, Bergman has stated that the image of a man playing chess with a skeletal Death was inspired by a medieval church painting from the 1480s by Albertus Pictor.
With its reflections upon death and the meaning of life, “The Seventh Seal” became something of a talisman for "serious" European films and, as such, has often been parodied in film and television. The representation of Death as a white-faced man in a dark cape has been the most popular object of parody, most notably in Woody Allen's “Love and Death” and in the film “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, in which the heroes beat Death in contests of Battleship, Clue, electric football, and Twister.
Again set in medieval Sweden, “The Virgin Spring” (1960) is a revenge tale about a father's merciless response to the murder of his daughter. According to the film introduction, the story is based on a thirteenth-century Swedish ballad that was adapted by screenwriter Ulla Isaksson.
The film tells the story of a prosperous Christian whose daughter, Karin, the "light" child, is appointed to bring candles to the church. She is accompanied by her foster sister, Ingeri, the "dark" child, who secretly worships the ancient Norse deity Odin. Along the way the two separate, and Karin sets out on her own. She meets three herdsmen (two men & a boy), and invites them to break bread with her. Later on the two older brothers rape and murder Karin, then leave the scene with her clothing. The herders then, unknowingly, seek shelter at the home of the murdered girl. Her parents discover that it was the goatherds who killed their daughter when they try to sell the mother some of her daughter's clothes. Locking them in their chamber, the father then kills the two murderers, along with the not quite as guilty younger brother. The next day, the parents set out to find their daughter's body. Her father vows that, although he cannot understand God, he will build a church at the site of his daughter's death. As her parents lift her head from the ground, a spring begins to flow from where she was lying. Ingeri now wishes to wash herself with the water.
The concept of a parent’s revenge for his daughter’s murder could be taken from the evening news. Yet the reference to the heathen god Odin places it firmly in the Middle Ages.
The twentieth century produced two major versions of Shakespeare’s “Henry V” on film. Laurence Olivier’s version, shot during World War II, uses colorful pageantry to convey a patriotic message. The film offers several scenes directly influenced by the Très Riches Heures of the brothers van Limbourg.
If Olivier’s version was all light and color (at a time when Technicolor was something of a novelty), Kenneth Branagh preferred shades of brown and gray. In 1989 was endorsing the idea that “war is hell.” Branagh’s somewhat grim vision owes much to the tradition of visual realism that arose in the nineteenth century, specifically the photographic tradition that began with Matthew Brady, the photographer of the American Civil War.
“The Name of the Rose” is a 1986 film by Jean-Jacques Annaud, based on the book of the same name by Umberto Eco, the noted Italian semiologist.
William of Baskerville and his apprentice Adso of Melk (narrating as an old man, it later transpires) arrive at an abbey where a mysterious death has occurred ahead of an important ecclesiastical conference. William, known for his deductive and analytic mind, confronts the worried abbot and gains permission to investigate the death--a young translator appears to have committed suicide. Over the next few days, several other odd deaths occur, and the two discover that not everything is what it seems in the abbey.
Investigating, and eager to head off suspicions of demonic possession (which nevertheless eventually lead to the burning of two innocent men at the stake), the protagonists discover a labyrinthine medieval library, occupying multiple levels in the abbey's forbidden principal tower. It becomes clear that the only remaining copy of Aristotle’s Second Book of Poetics is somehow related to the deaths. William deduces, thanks to a scrap of parchment with hastily written notes, that all of those who died under mysterious circumstances had read the book. His investigations are curtailed by the arrival of a noted Inquisitor, summoned for the conference and keen to investigate the deaths.
Ascending the forbidden library, William and Adso come face to face with the Venerable Jorge, the most ancient denizen of the abbey, who reveals the book, which contains a description of comedy and how it may be used to teach. Being afraid of laughter and comedy—the traditionalist firmly asserts that Christ never laughed and jocularity is a blasphemous sin—Jorge has poisoned the pages to avoid the spread of what he considers dangerous ideas.
Realizing that William knows of the poisoned pages and will not fall for the same trick, Jorge throws over a candle, starting a blaze that spreads quickly in the tower, the internal structure of which is completely made of wood. As it contains many rare and unique books of infinite value, this devastates William, who insists that Adso flee while he desperately tries to save as many tomes as possible. The fire destroys both Jorge and the Aristotle manuscript, but miraculously, William does make it out with a few precious books.
“The Da Vinci Code” is a 2006 feature film, based on the bestselling 2003 novel of the same name by Dan Brown. The success of the novel had created a kind of cult, which the film latched onto.
The plot is too complicated and improbable to summarize here. Suffice it to say that it revolves around the Holy Grail, a perennial object of fascination here identified with Mary Magdalene.
In the film we see the Mona Lisa (actually a copy) in the Louvre, the church of Saint-Sulpice in Paris, Westminster Abbey (actually two other cathedrals were used), and Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire, and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.
The film aroused protests by Roman Catholics in a number of countries. The relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene was considered particularly abhorrent.
The film’s star Tom Hanks publicly denounced those who sought to boycott the film because of its biblical and historical inaccuracies. Yet he admitted that the film's story "is loaded with all sorts of hooey and fun kind of scavenger-hunt-type nonsense."
Critical response to “The Da Vinci Code” was mostly negative. Many critics described the film as boring, full of absurd plot twists, and excessively anti-Christian and unhistorical. Critics were said to laugh out loud at some of the lines in the movie despite their serious delivery. These include "you are the last descendant of Jesus Christ" and "quick, we must find a library!"
These adverse reactions notwithstanding, “The Da Vinci Code” went on to become one of the highest grossing films of all time. It has substantially augmented the cult engendered by Dan Brown’s book, so that travel agencies now regularly book tours to the sites featured in the story line.
NOTE. For more information on this general topic see the following books: John Aberth, Knight at the Movies: Medieval History on Film. New York: Routledge, 2003; Richard Burt, Medieval and Early Modern Film and Media. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008; and Laurie A. Finke and Martin B. Shictman. Cinematic Illuminations: The Middle Ages on Film. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010. See also the Wikipedia entry on "Medievalism and Film."
UPDATE. Not known to me when I wrote this piece was the term "historiophoty." Here is a bried definition. "Historiography and Historiophoty" is the name of an essay by literary theorist of history Hayden White first published in 1988 in The American Historical Review (AHR). In the essay Hayden proposes the term Historiophoty to describe the representation of history and our thought about it in visual images and filmic discourse. Hayden says historiophoty ".. is in contrast to Historiography which is the representation of history in verbal images and written discourse."
Hayden coined the term in response to an essay by Robert Rosenstone in the same issue of AHR entitled "History in Images/History in Words: Reflections on the possibility of really putting history onto film." White was not necessarily claiming that historiophoty exists, or that it ought to; his essay was a thought experiment exploring what historiophoty would be like if in fact such a thing did exist.
Whatever Hayden's intention, since the publication of his 1988 essay the word historiophoty has obtained some currency in public and professional discourse. For example, Brian Le Beau wrote "Historiography Meets Historiophoty: The Perils and Promise of Rendering the Past on Film" in American Studies, 38:1 (Spring 1997). A book has been published with the title History of Western Historiography, History of England, Historiophoty by Liang-kai Chou.