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Medieval movies set in North America

By Murray Dahm

While most movies depicting medieval America are concerned with the history of the conquest in the 16th century, in this column we are going to look at other films – those set in North America. Remarkably, this proves to be a relatively small (yet diverse) set of films. We have movies of the Vikings in North America, films of Hiawatha, and a remarkable film of Inuit culture, Atanarjuat, The Fast Runner.

Hiawatha was a pre-colonial Indian leader and co-founder of the Iroquois Confederacy in the 15th century (his dates vary from the 12th century to the 16th). Due to the destructive cycle of inter-tribal violence, Hiawatha united the Five Nations: Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida and Mohawk, into a single confederacy. There are some interesting aspects to the Hiawatha story, such as his wandering in the wilderness after the loss of his family until he met Deganawida (the Great Peacemaker) who convinced him of the need for a joining in peace of the nations. In some versions there is also Jigonsahseh, the Peace Queen, who approved Deganawida’s message of peace and reconciliation. Hiawatha was able to convince the feared Atotarho, war chief of the Onondaga, to finally cease the cycle of blood feuds and mourning wars.

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In addition to the wide range of suggested dates, others doubt Hiawatha was a historical figure at all. There is also debate as to which nation he came from. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s fictional epic poem The Song of Hiawatha (1855), however, features aspects of another folk hero, the Algonquian, Nanabozho. It is Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha which has been filmed several times (it has also been the subject of innumerable plays and musical adaptations). Filmed in 1909 and 1910 (using white actors), the 40-minute 1913 silent movie version was the first to use a Native American cast. Jesse Cornplanter, as Hiawatha, was from the Seneca Nation and 150 people of that Nation were also used in the film. The 1913 movie depicts a late-date Hiawatha and has him recommend a Christian Missionary as the real prophet to his people.

An attempt by the Monogram Pictures Corporation to film the actual Hiawatha story in 1950 had to be scrapped out of fears that the subject of peace and reconciliation would be considered communist propaganda in the heat of the Cold War and at the height of the Hollywood Blacklist and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) investigations. Even contemplating a film which might be thought to have communist sympathies at that time could mean everyone involved would struggle to find work thereafter.

Instead, in what was to be their last production, Monogram produced Kurt Neumann’s Hiawatha in 1952, another version of the Longfellow poem. According to some, however, the movie was still lambasted for its ‘red’ connotations and may have been written by a writer who was later blacklisted (it is the last film credited to writer Arthur Strawn). The message of fear of neighbours and foreigners who can be met with aggression and conquest or knowledge and peace is one which still resonates and divides foreign and domestic policy today.

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The 1952 film starred Caucasian actors Vincent Edwards and Yvette Dugay. Edwards was an Italian-American, born in Brooklyn; Dugay was an American born to French parents but was typecast as exotic-looking from an early age and she had already portrayed aboriginal characters in several Westerns. The skin-dye for these Caucasian actors is better done than in many later films. Native culture is, as we would expect, everywhere: from canoes, wigwams and warpaint to the hairstyles, headdresses and clothing of braves and maidens. All looks fine although there may be inaccuracies specific to the actual tribes depicted.

Warfare is present from the start in the warring nations Hiawatha is trying to bring peace to and in the conflict between Hiawatha and Pau Pukkeewis (Keith Larsen). This is small scale, hunting party versus hunting party, conflict and usually with bow and arrow (occasionally there is hand-to-hand wrestling). As we have seen elsewhere, there is a visual short-hand here for us the viewer to distinguish between tribes which are dressed and armed the same – such as the black feathers of Haiawatha’s Ojibwe hunting party and the red feathers of the Illinois Indians they come into conflict with. The Dakota wear shirts so are more easily discernible (in the films the peace between the tribes is between Ojibwe, Dakota, Illinois, Ottawa and Fox tribes which is not at all accurate). There is an Illinois raid on the Ojibwe village which is also an exchange of arrows followed by a one-on-one melee until one side breaks and runs.

In 1997 The Song of Hiawatha was again filmed, this time using Indian actors such as Graham Greene and Litefoot (Gary Paul Davis). Several of the actors were from tribes other than those of the Iroquois Confederacy (Greene is indeed from the Oneida Nation but Litefoot is Cherokee; others were from the Inuit, Cree, Dakota, Lakota and Ojibwe peoples). This was nonetheless an improvement from the many films which have used white actors or different ethnicities to portray aboriginals (and other races). The movie sets the story late with missionaries and muskets. Once again, the familiar culture of native tribes looks fine (although different from the 1952 film especially since the tribes depicted are themselves different).

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The Norse discovery of America has been put on film far less often than you might expect and, even when it has, the focus has seldom been on the indigenous North American peoples. The 13th century Vinland Sagas – Saga of Erik the Red and Greenlanders Saga – provide the main literary evidence for the Norse discovery of North America. This is backed up by archaeological discoveries from L’Anse aux Meadows in northern Newfoundland.

The sagas mention the local inhabitants as Skrælings who were possibly a proto-Inuit people known as the Thule, or the Dorset culture, both of whom may have had contact with the Vikings. Thule culture was in the process of replacing Dorset culture at the time of Viking contact and some argue that the Dorset culture had been completely replaced by 1000 AD (others argue that it lasted until 1500). Newfoundland and its surrounds in northeastern Canada (through which the Vikings must have travelled) were also home to the Innu and Beothuk cultures.

Pathfinder (2007) directed by Marcus Nispel, depicts a Norse boy left in America who becomes a hero of the native peoples in defending them from further Viking raids. The film’s history is thin on the ground, and it is incredibly gory (and this was after excess gore was edited). It does, however, use aboriginal actors (Russell Means, Moon Bloodgood and others) and offers some Native America folklore. The native culture, clothing and weapons all seem fine (and were not criticized in reviews). In fact, the houses, dress and decoration of the natives has had a lot of attention to detail here and all looks well done.

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The idea of the outsider raised by aboriginals who still remains the outsider does not marry with the later examples of Europeans raised by Native American tribes, however, who were totally integrated and tribes accepted such outsiders into their cultures.

By contrast, the depiction of Vikings is far less than historical (horned helmets and bestial, face-covering masks, making them as inhuman as possible). One review compares their costume with professional wrestlers and indeed they tower over mere men, and wear makeup and outrageous costumes. There are horses (but they too are horned – ironic since they were referred to as ‘hornless dear’ by native Americans), in fact, even the longship has horns.

The main character is played by New Zealand actor Karl Urban (who played Eomer in the Lord of the Rings trilogy) and this film seems to pay homage to that trilogy; the Viking riders looking much more like the Nazgul than Vikings. There is also homage to Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky not only with the Vikings sinking beneath the ice, but also in the immediate characterizing of the evil Vikings by having their leader sacrifice a child. The de-humanizing of the Vikings might also owe something to another Eisenstein film, Battleship Potemkin (1925).

Perhaps the most positive things to say about Pathfinder are that the Vikings speak Old Norse and are shown using archers (and there is a compass in one scene). The extent of Viking discovery in North America was incredibly limited and there is no evidence of the widespread terror and tribal destruction the film suggests (which comes more for a stereotypical understanding of Viking raids in England and elsewhere). The Skrælings are referenced in the film as well as other tribes but Viking sources and archaeology from L’Anse aux Meadows do not suggest largescale raiding or destruction by the Vikings (of course there is fire).

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Even though we are told that these bestial Vikings are intent on settlement, the warfare depicted here is that of utter annihilation. One Viking speaks of cleansing the land of the savages (which is an entirely inappropriate and modern colonial idea). There is no sense of taking human captives as walking wealth and the destruction of so much value would have been anathema to a Viking (but this is the way they are portrayed almost without exception). The longship ruin is also too large by far and has (slave) rowers chained to the oars – there is no evidence of this at all and comes from the idea of ancient slave war galleys (of which there is, likewise, no evidence). The film tells us that it is set 600 years before Columbus and that it shows the legend of the Norse arrival. Alas, it does not.

Similarly, The Norseman (1978) has its hero, Thorvald the Bold (Lee Majors), travel to America in the 11th century to rescue his father. The historical Erik the Red had three sons, Leif Erikson, Thorstein and Thorvald so there may be some history there – but that’s about as far as it gets. If the history in Pathfinder was thin on the ground and disappointing, here it is non-existent and laughable. We are told early that the film is based on fact but there are more horned helmets than at a Raiders American Football game. And that is an appropriate analogy since several of the Viking cast were ex-American Football players (including Deacon Jones and Curtis Jordan). The costumes are seemingly influenced by Wagnerian operas and include gold armour, face masks, and earmuffs! – perhaps to keep the horned helmets warm.

The aboriginals are not focussed on at all (making this more a Viking film, if we can even call it that). We are told they are Iroquois which doesn’t fit with any idea about the Viking discovery of America. There are battles aplenty but they are so dire they are hardly worth mentioning.  The film was shot in Florida (used to represent Newfoundland which it does a poor job of). Perhaps the only positive to come out of The Norseman is that it is so bad, there is some notoriety in having actually seen it.

Having raised the topic of the Norse discovery of America, it is disappointing to discover that no film has explored another tale of the European discovery of America in the pre-Columbus era. Stories of the island of Antillia began during the Muslim conquest of Spain in the 8th century. According to the stories, as the Muslim conquest advanced, seven Visigothic bishops left with their congregations in 714 AD (or 734) and founded seven cities on the island which was located far to the west of the Iberian peninsula. The island appears on maps from the 15th century onwards (and several theories suggest that the island may have been mainland America). A later version of the story has that the bishop of Mérida fled to Antillia when the Moors attacked in 1150. The legend of Antillia itself may have provided fuel for the Seven Cities of Gold (which has been filmed in its own right) and its name survives in the Antilles.

The 2001 film Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner) directed by Zacharias Kunuk is the first film written and acted in Inuktitut language of the Inuit. It is an ‘ancient’ tale set in the first millennium so might not be considered medieval. The culture depicted, however, remained unchanged for centuries prior to contact with Europeans and so encompasses the medieval world as well. Here, the utter authenticity of the landscape, the indigenous actors, the language, the clothing and weapons (sharpened bone spears) all adds an immersive effect some have likened to magical. The nudity is unexpected (given the climate of the surroundings) but looks totally authentic – and when the characters are outside they are well clothed (except for the runner himself who races across the ice near-naked for miles). The punching competition is disconcerting.

All in all, the films of non-conquest medieval North America are a disappointing bunch but perhaps an aspiring film-maker out there will endeavour to do better. Happy viewing.

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

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Top Image: The Norseman © American International Pictures

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