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Medievalists at the Movies: Assassin’s Creed

Assassin’s Creed theatrical release poster, copyright 20th Century Fox, New Regency, and Ubisoft Entertainment

Disclaimer: This reviewer has never played the video game Assassin’s Creed and has minimal knowledge of the game’s major characters or storylines.

This highly anticipated film was this year’s edition of the video-game-to-feature-film movie and sadly, it fell down almost as far as the main character’s “Leaps of Faith.” The game is a bit controversial in the medieval studies circles, with debates on if, how, or when to incorporate it into history course curriculum. A great majority of the game, so I’ve been told, takes place in medieval Europe. This means that part of the film occurs in 15th century Spain, beginning with a secret ceremony in Andalucia (modern Andalusia) in 1492.

A mysterious man, played by Michael Fassbender, takes an oath administered by an equally mysterious woman played by Ariane Labed. They’re both dressed in hooded robes and we learn that he’s becoming an Assassin. We learn his name, Aguilar de Nerha, but we never learn hers throughout the film. I suppose that could be related to the millions of nameless medieval people who had recognizable roles such as knights, bakers, brewers, stewards, etc. We never learn their names, but we know those occupations existed and were filled by individuals. This woman serves a similar purpose here.

The film moves easily through time, jumping to 1986, then 2016, then back to 1492. Fassbender, now as the 21st century Callum Lynch, faces Sofia Rikkin (Marion Cotillard) and her father Alan (Jeremy Irons) at the Abstergo Foundation as he’s put through a strange series of tests. Turns out, the Abstergo Foundation is a massive front funded by the Templars and they need Lynch’s genetic memories of the antics of his 15th century ancestor Aguilar. The Abstergo Foundation building is an interesting design, mimicking the grey stone and glass of cathedrals and the towers of castles.

We learn that there is a long-standing feud between the Templars and the Assassins a.k.a. the Creed, mostly over an artifact known as the Apple of Eden. Aguilar was the last recorded possessor of the Apple, hence the attempt to recover it through him. There’s more to the plot including Lynch’s daddy issues, Sofia’s daddy issues, other Assassin descendent characters who are never really developed, and the whole free-will-versus-control topic, but if those things interest you then you can check out the film yourself.

Let’s move on to how the film handled its 15th century material. According to IMDB.com, 80% of all the action, sets, and extras are real and not computer-generated animation. Additionally, Fassbender and his female partner played by a sultry and badass Labed performed 95% of the fight choreography themselves. Fassbender as Aguilar moves through medieval Spain with all of the fluid flips, jumps, and turns of an animated video game character, speaking in a raspy English. His costume consists of trousers, boots, and a highly decorated hooded coat. I know the costume is right out of the game, but it’s certainly not out of the 15th century. The costumes around him aren’t much better, with his main opponent the unnamed Black Knight wearing something akin to a Roman breastplate and cloak, and a Templar priest in a white tunic and black shoulder cape. Both of these figures are vaguely medieval, but in an idealized way.

As the film moves through Granada, there are other small deaths to accuracy. Multiple towers in the cityscape contain the classic Mission style arch complete with Mission bell, in a land and time when adobe wasn’t the preferred building material. The Spanish missions wouldn’t really develop a recognizable style until 100 years later in the New World. The two scenes including crowds of commoners also had problems with appearances and costumes. When the Black Knight threatens a crowd of villagers, it seems like he’s in a 1970’s Nativity scene of draped tunics, veils, and sandals. Later, the Templar priest sentences victims of the Inquisition (and our hero Aguilar) to burn as heretics, the jeering crowd sports painted faces. The ambiguous designs seem more suited for cannibals in Pirates of the Caribbean franchise rather than 15th century Granada. Yes, medieval Spain was a diverse place with a mixed population, but I don’t know if the filmmakers really conveyed that with the eccentric costumes.

Labed and Fassbender in Assassin’s Creed. The costumes were beautiful, intricate, handmade works of inaccurate art.

As Aguilar and Labed’s nameless female assassin move across the city, there is an interesting view of a cathedral under construction, with wooden scaffolding and multiple pulley systems. They also flee the Black Knight through a fabric district, with dyed cloth drying above them. Most of the colors were period-correct, with no dark reds, blues, purples, or blacks. Just when I was starting to relax into a promising tour of the medieval city, a close-up of the Black Knight’s horse showed a very modern bridle and harness and I was disappointed again.

Aguilar and Nameless Female Assassin continue to flee, fighting off seemingly limitless tonsured warriors. I guess they were Templar forces but there was nary a red cross in sight. Crossbows, appearing to shoot off consecutive rounds, fire at them and miss at every turn. Their range is astonishing and like most good action movies, the accuracy of the shooters is poor when the main character is concerned. The story continues, and eventually Aguilar connects with Christopher Columbus who is more of an 18th century pirate figure than a poorly educated medieval man with a vision. Beard, ruffled shirt, and big black boots. I won’t tell you HIS role in the film.

In between the exciting chases, hand-to-hand combat, and surprisingly well-acted dialogue, the overall film drags with too many flat moments of the lead actors staring into the camera or watching something happening from afar. I’m suspicious that Cotillard was cast for her enormous, luminous eyes despite her excellent command of her craft. I enjoyed the performances, when the cast was actually given the direction to act.

While I’m supportive of modern media which spreads the awesomeness of all things medieval, it’s important to temper the Hollywood flash and sparkle with the real thing. There’s no reference to how the 21st century Templar sect survived the formal ending of the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon in the 14th century, or how it existed in such a public, powerful, and wealthy way. One character makes a brief reference to the Arabic word which is the root of “assassin” but otherwise there’s a slim link between the members of the Assassin’s Creed and the Islamic medieval warriors. Like other medieval media, I hope that viewers of this film or fans of the game series will use this as an inspiration to explore the real nooks and crannies of 15th century Spain.

Danielle Trynoski is the West Coast correspondent for Medievalists.net and is the co-editor of The Medieval Magazine.

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