Thursday, October 23, 2014

Medieval (?) Movies

I have problems with movies supposedly set in the Middle Ages.  They get so many things wrong.

For example, almost invariably a movie set in the early Middle Ages will have knights wearing plate armor.  Plate really only came into style in the fourteenth century.  It required great advances in metallurgy, and, because it was heavy and expensive, even then was usually reserved for the most powerful.  The full tournament armor one sometimes sees in museums dates from after the Middle Ages and was meant solely for tournaments, where one would be winched up onto one's horse, not for battle.

And then there's the movie version of the King Arthur story made maybe a dozen years ago, supposedly set in the late Roman Empire, where the "knights" (knights of course not coming into existence for another five centuries) wore both medieval chain mail and Roman protective gear.  They also rode around using modern western saddles and had stirrups (not invented for another four centuries).  The movie claimed to be based on true archaeological finds.

It's just a story! you say.  Yes, and for that reason I have no trouble whatsoever with things labeled fantasy, even if they are set in an essentially medieval world.  The "Lord of the Rings" movies are among my favorite movies, and I'm a fan of the "Game of Thrones" TV series (as well of course of the books).  Here one can enjoy the slightly larger-than-life aspect of powerful individuals and the opportunity to be truly distinctive that actually were part of medieval elite culture.

But I continue to have problems with any movie that claims historical accuracy.  If they want to be accurate, they had better be accurate.  There were a few old movies that did this just fine (I'm thinking of "Lion in Winter" and "Becket"), where the emphasis was all on the characters' emotional interactions, not on the armor or siege weapons.  (Peter O'Toole starred as Henry II in both these movies, once as young Henry and once as old Henry.  The movies are still good.)

Now if one wants to retell the King Arthur story to make it "a story about today," that's fine.  That's what medieval authors did.  The twelfth-century stories made Arthur a glorified version of a twelfth-century king, and in the fourteenth century he had become a fourteenth-century monarch.  All historical fiction, after all, is really a story about the author's "today," as much as about the time period in which the story is set (and medieval authors made no efforts for historical accuracy).  But make it clear that that's what you're doing.

Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn't.  In the 90s there was a Richard Gere movie, called, I believe, "Lancelot First Knight."  Aside from the fact that Lancelot looks nothing like Richard Gere, it was mildly amusing in a very 90s way.  Guinevere was a tomboy and she and Lancelot practiced safe-sex in a 90s way, never getting past a kiss.  Lancelot was a rugged individual, from a poor background who rose due to his skills (including scrambling through some weird and anachronistic machine).  Malory rolled in his grave.

© C. Dale Brittain 2014

1 comment:

  1. The movie referred to in the last paragraph is just called "First Knight." Sean Connery plays King Arthur.