The Ahistoricism of Medieval Film
By Arthur Lindley
Screening the Past, Vol.3 (1998)
Introduction: For the past four years at the National University of Singapore I have taught a fourth-year Honours seminar called Film and History, originally designed to compare and contrast the ways in which films of the Middle Ages and those of more recent history (1860-1940) reconstruct the past. (The most significant biassing factor is that the films considered are European and American and made within the last forty years.) I quickly figured out that almost all the “history” was in the latter, modern half of the course. Not long after, I realized that virtually none of my medieval films were reconstructing the past at all, at least not in the detailed, this-is-what-they-had-for-lunch-and-this-is-the-actual-china-they-had-it-on way of, say, [Martin] Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence (1993). More importantly, also unlike Scorsese, the medieval films were not working from the assumption that the past was of inherent interest or historically connected to the present. This paper is an attempt to explain that anomaly. It is also frankly personal and exploratory: a report of what I have found within this area. It asks at every point what others have found. It aims, however optimistically, to induce discussion of a subject – medieval film – which to date has received woefully little sustained criticism.
We can begin where the course does, with one of the most familiar opening sequences in historical film: the one from [Ingmar] Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957). I will only remind you of the elements of that famous sequence: the hawk hanging in the stormy sky accompanied by a notably shrill version of the Kyrie Eleison; a rocky shore under dark cliffs between an empty sea and an empty sky; two isolated figures, one with a dagger at hand, waking on the rocks; a voice-over reading of Revelations 8; the chess set with the sea behind it; Block’s failure to pray; the appearance of the monastically-robed Death; the two figures sitting down to play.
Are we in the Middle Ages? Officially, the date is 1349. Actually, of course, we are in Beckett-time (that is, Any- or No-time), the major difference being that this time Godot comes, and turns out to be just who we thought he would be, albeit disguised as Mephistopheles. The place, nominally if namelessly Swedish, is a beach located midway between T. S. Eliot and Neville Shute. The players we meet later in the film are on their way to Elsinore, presumably to entertain Fortinbras. We are looking, in short, at the almost painfully familiar Nevernever-but-always-land of twentieth-century European high modernism. If we are in any historical period, it is less the 1340s of the plot premise than the sub-atomic early 1950s, with universal death looming out of the northern sky. As Peter Cowie has written, the film “reflect[s] the trepidation of the Cold War era”. A child of the fifties, I react to that hawk by wanting to crawl under my schooldesk.