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Back to the Middle Ages: Medieval Time Travel Films

By Murray Dahm

You’d think that time travel films are a peculiar and very niche topic. When you start to look, however, you find that there are numerous films which depict time travel to and from the medieval period specifically. In fact, looking at time travel films as a genre, there seem to be more medieval time travel films than those to all other periods combined (including science fiction). The ongoing fascination with the medieval world with its knights, castles, and damsels, must play its part in the popularity of medieval time travel films but they are such a surprisingly big group that we should explore them. So strap yourselves in because medieval is the when to be.

The medieval time travel films fall into two basic types: modern figures who go back in time, and medieval figures who come forward. One exception is Highlander (1986) which deals with an immortal who begins in 1536 although the medieval Scottish mores Connor MacLeod has are brought forward into the modern world. Most are comedies of a kind (even if their source material is not) and gain their commentary and amusement from the discombobulation of the time-traveller in their new environment, whether it be the medieval figure trying to work out the modern world or the modern figure trying to work out the medieval world. For the most part the look of the medieval world or figure is correct (in a broad brush strokes kind of way), architecture, armour and dress are usually fine. Perhaps in their finer details they aren’t completely accurate, but the point of the film lies elsewhere (and it is a fictive premise which excuses small inaccuracies).

It is in the differences in attitudes (political, religious, superstitious, scientific, and in regards to gender roles) where these films get their mileage. It is also a genre which has remained popular; the incongruity of the modern and the medieval worlds sets up a series of contrasts which have long appealed to film makers; how different yet similar we are to our medieval forebears. The most recent offering is Netflix’s 2019 Christmas movie The Knight Before Christmas, which sees a 14th century knight in the 21st century (to be the female protagonist’s knight in shining armour) which shows that the premise still holds appeal.

Perhaps the idea of medieval time travel specifically came about through the popularising of medieval subjects in fiction and other mediums; like the best of such works, they transported the reader or viewer back in time. We might trace this line back to Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, which took readers to King Arthur’s court, or the 18th century (and beyond) genre of Gothic novels which usually involved something medieval, but novels set in the medieval period remained popular into the 19th century and remain so today. In the late 19th century, however, actual time travel novels began to appear. Before the most famous of them, H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine (which came out in 1895), in 1889 Mark Twain had already produced A Yankee at the Court of King Arthur (the title ‘A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court’ came later). The story concerns a 19th century American engineer, Hank Morgan, who receives a bump to the head and is transported back in time to Arthur’s day in the 6th century CE and who then sets about trying to improve the lives of the people with his superior knowledge and technology. Twain’s story has been put on film most often of any medieval time-travel story in at least ten versions. Most of them avoid the serious message and tragic subject at the close of the novel. The first film came in a silent version in 1921 and there have been musicals, parodies and so many versions of this story (including the likes of MacGuyver, Bugs Bunny, even The Transformers (A Decepticon Raider at King Arthur’s Court)!).

2001’s Black Knight added race to the complications (and a more modern transportation) to the story. The Yankee story on film sets up all kinds of comic moments of misunderstanding and ‘medieval’ explanations where the misfit stranger knows better. He escapes burning (because of his suspicious ‘magic’) by knowing of the solar eclipse on June 21st, 528 CE. Morgan’s superior know how means he becomes Arthur’s senior minister and is framed as a wizard which brings him into conflict with the church of the time. He industrializes the country and introduces modern schools. In the end however, the message is one of: are the ‘savage’ middle ages in as much need of civilising as modern, civilised man thinks or are modern people, in fact, the uncivilised ones. In many cases this requires glosses of what we know of how life was lived in the medieval period and often the more unsavoury parts of medieval life (such as slavery) are ignored. Slavery was addressed in the original novel but is ignored in the films (as indeed it is in most medieval films). Despite Morgan’s modern know how, he is unable to prevent Arthur’s death and civil war.

There have been more complex adaptations of Twain’s story, such as the fascinating 2013 adaptation of Hard to Be a God by Aleksei German. This is technically medieval science fiction but the original novel (the Strugatsky Brothers’ Hard to Be a God (1964)) was inspired by Twain’s novel itself. German’s film is as compelling as it is repulsive (and almost universally acclaimed as a work of genius) but it paints a remarkably accurate medieval world, perhaps the most brutal and dirty put on celluloid (and filmed entirely in black and white) – the 1989 adaptation by contrast is much more obviously science fiction.

Vincent Ward’s Australian/New Zealand medieval time travel film The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey (1988) tells the story of a village suffering from the Black Death in the 14th century and travelling to 20th century New Zealand in search of a cure. In a device familiar since The Wizard of Oz (1939), the medieval scenes are filmed in black and white but colour is then used when the characters emerge into the 20th century. The film’s story (searching for a cure for the Plague) drew parallels to the 1980s AIDS epidemic and faith based approaches to such a cataclysm, and others saw connections to the isolationism of New Zealand’s anti-nuclear policy – the medieval world and medieval mindset providing parallels to modern thinking. It remains an exciting and thought-provoking film.

Medieval time travel can even crop up in unexpected places such as in the horror fantasy genre of Army of Darkness (1992). Even films like A Knight’s Tale (2001) involved an aspect of time travel with modern attitudes (and music, like the tournament chorus of ‘We Will Rock You’) transported back in time but placed in an authentic medieval setting. Other films with a medieval time travel element include Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) and The Fountain (2006), even short films like the Youtube offering Paradox (2013). And of course, we should point out that we are dealing with fantasy/science fiction in several of these films, yet they strive to get their medieval worlds looking as accurate as possible.

The subject of the search for the Fountain of Youth has been filmed multiple times – usually in an early 16th century context set in the New World. One such film is Darren Aronofsky’s time-travel fantasy The Fountain (2006). The film has three intersecting storylines, all of which explore mortality and lost love. One of the stories involves a conquistador, Tomás Verde, searching for the Tree of Life in the Mayan jungle for Queen Isabella (who reigned from 1474 until her death in 1504). As such, the expedition to the land of the Maya in the film falls in the right period (although active attempts to conquer the Maya did not begin for some time). The arms and armour are all fine, the Mayans too. The Franciscan friar, Alivar, who first discovered the tree and leads the expedition, might have connections to the Seven Cities of Gold (that expedition involved the French Franciscan friar Marcos de Niza). The Tree of Life in the film grows next to a fountain and we can see a parallel clouding of the myth of the Fountain of Youth/Tree of Life in film just as there are with films which explore the El Dorado myth (another remarkable set of films). Of course, the Tree of Life is found in many of the world’s most ancient religions on all continents. It is found in Mesopotamian and Near Eastern religions, Indian, Germanic and American cultures. We find it in the Norse Yggdrasil and in Genesis (2.9 and 3.22-24); it is also in The Epic of Gilgamesh. Here, drinking the sap of the tree grants eternal life although that itself involves the film’s twist.

One surprise hit medieval time travel film was 1993’s Les Visiteurs (The Visitors) starring Jean Reno. It ended up the number one French film of the year and the year’s highest earning non-English film. It saw a French knight (Reno) and his squire (Christian Clavier – who co-wrote the script) transported from 1123 to 1992 France. Its plot involved not only time travel but also mistaken identities and a wrong which needed to be righted. The success of the film saw three sequels – one in French in 1998, Les Visiteurs II:  Les Couloirs du temps (The Visitors II: The Corridors of Time) which was the second highest grossing French film that year) which picked up where he earlier film left off with more medieval shenanigans in the modern world. An American remake of the first film, Just Visiting, came in 2001, setting the story in modern Chicago. 2016 saw a third instalment of the French franchise, Les Visiteus: La Révolution (The Visitors: Bastille Day) which saw the two main characters transported to 1793 France, during the Reign of Terror. Unfortunately, this third instalment was a commercial failure.

Films of medieval time travel offer several insights for us to view the medieval world; in terms of the medieval outlook contrasted with the modern one (usually in film there are things considered more civilised in the medieval world than they are now). This often involves a less than thorough understanding of the medieval world but still offers a starting point to consider what the medieval world did better than we do despite our modern advantages. Happy viewing.

Murray Dahm is the new movie columnist for Medievalists.net. You can find more of his research on Academia.edu or follow him on Twitter @murray_dahm

Top Image: Martin Lawrence in Black Knight (2001) ©20th Century Fox

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