Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Best Medieval Movies

(Gerald Butler and Company - Not a Jew among them)

The Best medieval movies? Someone asked me this question, knowing I love both the Middle Ages and movies. Not anything Jewish - or esoteric - in this, really (Only Ivanhoe really touches on the lives of Medieval Jews, as conceived by 19th Century Romanticism), but I feel like answering the question. All movies set in the Middle Ages are really about today and reflect our bias (egalitarian freedom/nationalism - Braveheart; religious pluralism/a politically correct view of Islam - Kingdom of Heaven) more than the real concerns of their historical subjects, but some offer more useful perspectives on the Middle Ages than others:

1) Monty Python's Holy Grail - Yes, the best. While the 10th Century knights have 13th Century garb, it satirically hits all the important elements of real medievalism - profound social stratification ("We don't 'ave a king"), pagan-derived mythic traditions ("The Lady of the Lake, dressed in shimmering..."), religious mythic traditions ("Of course...Joseph of Aramathia!"), dependance on Classical literature (the Trojan Rabbit), religious piety ("Stop that grovelling!"), chivalric pretense ("I'll bite you in the knee caps"), peasant populism ("Burn her, she's a witch!"), courtly sex ("Bad Snoot!"), skin disease ("I'm not an old woman"), religious relics ("The Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch"), political and economic alliances through marriage ("No singing!"), word magic ("We are the Knights who say 'Ni'"), untrammelled infectious disease ("Bring out your dead!"), ahh, the list goes on...

2) The Lion in Winter - Excellent study not only in dynastic dynamics, but also the formal powerlessness and informal power of women. And the wit! No ponderous, majestic "histo-speak." Smart powerful people talking about power smartly.

3) The Return of Martin Guerre - A true story told with a real bit of medieval psychology.

4) The Warlord - This forgotten Chuck Heston classic gets 11th Cent. British castle life (and haircuts) right, even if lords weren't really entitled to first sex with churlish women.

5) Flesh and Blood - The mean, brutish, and short lives of peasant bandits encapulated.

6) Robin and Marion - As real as the Robin Hood legend can get on film. Nice feel for the cloistered life of women in religious orders (a medieval Jew does appear in the film for about 20 seconds).

7) Name of the Rose - Takes us inside both monasticism and the medieval world of ideas. (Kabbalah gets a mention).

8) Mongol - This Mongolian-made film is by far the most accurate portrayal of the world-conqueror and takes us out of Europe for a different perspective on the Middle Ages.

9) Ran - Kurosawa reworks King Lear into the end of Japanese medieval period. Stunning. The themes of dynastic failure and betrayal also give a more realistic perspective on the myth of Samurai chivalry and loyalty.

10) - Beowulf and Grendal - (not the CGI abomination) Gerald Butler does the Saga hero a more realistic turn than he did the Spartan king. The scene of tall nordic warriors trotting into action on diminutive shaggy ponies is visually laugh-out-loud, but utterly authentic.

Not great, but entertaining enough I have to mention them:

A) The 13th Warrior - OK, so a cannibalistic Neanderthal bear-cult in the 10th Century is only slightly more plausible than a lake fiend and a dragon, but this version of Beowulf reconceived as a medieval platoon action reported by an outsider/journalist has some worthy features, especially the under appreciated role of cultural transfer between medieval societies (Greek-speaking Vikings with eclectic collections of armor, for example).

B) Braveheart - Anachronisms (Too early for tartans, too late for wode) and errors (Where's the bridge at the Battle of Sterling Bridge? And I bet William Wallace owned a comb) abound, but the truly outdoor nature of medieval life, the size, movements, and dismemberment of armies, the overlapping loyalties created by clan, class, and feudal oaths...all ring true.

I'll get back on topic next entry.


Blogger Suecae Sounds said...

They speak some kind of Swedish in the 13th Warrior, which is reason enough why it was an entertaining film. But I have to agree with you, ) Monty Python's Holy Grail IS undoubtedly the best medieval movie out there.

12:10 PM  
Blogger Geoffrey Dennis said...

Thanks for the vote of MPHG, but I was referring to the multi-linguial Viking who serves as the linguistic and cultural translator between the Arab and his Norse hosts.

12:53 PM  

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