Beyond Historical Accuracy: A Postmodern View of Movies and Medievalism
By A. Keith Kelly
Introduction: If the cinema art is going to draw its subjects so generously from history, it owes it to its patrons and its own higher ideals to achieve greater accuracy. No picture of a historical nature ought to be offered to the public until a reputable historian has had a chance to criticize and revise it. —Louis Gottschalk, University of Chicago, 1935
While the above excerpt from a letter written by Gottschalk to the president of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer might seem rather severe and outmoded, it would not be surprising in the least to find many academics who still agree with the statement, at least in principle. Most Americans, however, and therefore most of the students in university classrooms, have learned the majority of what they know—or think they know—about the Middle Ages from Hollywood. It is quite likely that more college students have seen First Knight (1995) than have read Chrétien’s or Malory’s version of Lancelot, and it is probable that the William Wallace with whom they are best acquainted is Australian.
However, the treatment of medieval or medieval-inspired films by academic medievalists is often apathetic in nature, or explicitly contemptuous. Some dismiss films as Hollywood fluff, while others, who may enjoy them on the surface, are highly critical of what the movies get wrong. Even many who appreciate medieval movies make a point of judging them by how much they get factually correct. This level of negative pressure creates a judgmental environment for those intrepid few who do openly teach medievalism and use movies as a means of accessing the Middle Ages, and more importantly, our own understanding of that period. This sort of hypercritical approach to medieval movies is inadequate, however, because of the basic premise upon which it is based—that medieval movies should be accurate portrayals of history and are judged accordingly
In a special issue on film and history, Ron Briley, editor of Magazine of History, noted that “film is often disparaged in the schools for lacking intellectual rigor.” One need only listen in on conversations, view the lack of course offerings on the subject, or look to on-line discussion lists like Mediev-l (excerpts of which have now been posted on the Internet Medieval Sourcebook) to get a feel for the prevailing manner in which some medievalists treat movies. A film like The 13th Warrior (1999) is criticized for its anachronistic arms, Gladiator (2000) for its inaccuracy regarding Roman history, and Braveheart (1998) for the liberties it takes with what little facts are known regarding William Wallace.
One might find praise for particular elements of medieval films—for some of the arms and battle sequences in The Messenger (1999) for instance—but such approval is usually couched in a phrase like, “at least Hollywood got that right,” and the critic will immediately follow up with an assessment of the history of Joan of Arc. There are even harsh criticisms of the musical scores for medieval films because they are not medieval enough—one review was taken to the extreme of suggesting that medieval films should not have scores at all because the instruments in modern symphonies are not medieval. Comments on costuming, arms and armor, fight choreography, language, and more abound, usually in the negative.