Thursday, June 09, 2005

Getting Medieval

In an email yesterday Frode rounded on my recent critique of Kingdom of Heaven:

"Not 100% historic? Neither are cowboy movies. ALL movies, apart from sci-fi, are set in some historic period, why do they all have to be historical documentaries?"

I do actually agree with this. In fact my beef with Scott was the way his medieval epic appears to have fallen between the two stools of accuracy and drama. (A fate Gladiator avoided by cloaking itself more explicitly and successfully in the garb of myth. )

However, the relationship between History and its cinematic representation is on reflection worthy of a monograph. (There appears to be nothing in this space already on Amazon...). For the time being however here are some general observations:

History being history, it rarely conforms to the three act CHNS (Classic Hollywood Narrative System) in terms of the way it sets up story, character, incident and structure. As I said in my earlier post, the entertainment needs of the audience do require that the screenwriter treats recorded events essentially as raw material.

Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar the historical Cid failed to die at the seige of Valencia and so was not fastened in a lifeless state to his white charger in order to cut a swathe through the terrified Moorish horde gathered on the beach. But it sure made for a great cinematic climax.

Long before Hollywood, there was Will Shakespeare, the absolute master of the re-engineering of reported historical fact. Yes, there was a shaggy Scottish usurper called Macbeth, but do we care? And when I think of Julius Caesar I think primarily of "Et tu Brute?" (both in the play and in Asterix the Gladiator!)

Since the Greeks first came up with the idea, drama has shaped our historical consciousness in important ways.

Scholars may fret over whether Richard III was really such a so-and-so as the bard portrayed him, and will argue that the reputation of the house of York was a pressing political issue in Elizabethan times, but the fact is that it no longer really matters to us.

The kind of history that does matter to us is usually more recent history. Wanton alterations or inaccuracies in films about the Second World War or even about the Balkan conflicts are often interpreted as overtly political acts. Ten years ago a film about Europe's Holy War against the Islamic states in the Levant would probably have been able to be as inaccurate as it liked. Recent historical events have telescoped our sense of the history that matters, so there's no use pretending that Kingdom of Heaven is exempt from this sort of topical scrutiny.

If I ever get round to writing a book about Cinema and History, the Middle Ages will make an obvious choice for Volume One.

Like an American the (generalised) Medieval person could be said to have possessed a limited historical perspective and inhabited a culture with a marked tendency to self-mythologise. As a result many film-makers have represented the middle ages in a manner akin to the way that the era saw itself i.e heroic feats of chivalry, courtly love etc.

The medieval imagination was notoriously good at making the most out of its own unpromising historical circumstances. A few desultory skirmishes between invading Anglo-Saxons and retreating Britons became the basis for the elaborate Arthurian legends, while an opportunistic piece of Basque terrorism practiced on Charlemagne's rearguard in the Pyrenees was re-worked into an heroic last stand for the flower of Frankish chivalry against a vast Islamic host - Le Chanson de Roland. (The fact that much of the activity of the earliest printing presses a few hundred years later was dedicated to churning out mediocre re-treadings of the same old chivalric storylines empowers the satire in Cervantes' Don Quijote. KofH's script might well have merited inclusion the literary auto da fe at casa Quijote.)

The other approach to the period is "warts and all" - depicting it as a thoroughly umodern, unreconstructed and generally smeggy sort of place to spend one's alloted time. (The Name of the Rose etc.)

Both of these themes are present to some extent in Kingdom of Heaven, but Scott's commitment to either is fairly loose. His response to the imperfect genre-fication of this part of history has been to import motifs from other more established genres.

Several books have been written about those "cowboy movies" and the different ways that they have mythologised the American Inner Imperium across the decades. I strongly suspect that Kingdom of Heaven consciously borrows from the Western corpus - such as the scene where Balian awaits three potential assassins under a tree. And as you can usually tell from the latest Western what America is currently thinking about its historical mission and the unfortunate tribes that got in its way, in years to come people will regard this film primarily as an early twenty first century liberal take on religious conflict.

Personally, I'd like to see more films about the middle ages that explore less common themes, such as the parallels with today's developing world. And whilst the period successfully incubated what we now regard as the modern Western outlook, it also saw the brief flourishing of some significant alternatives, which were either forcibly suppressed by the medieval mainstream or ultimately blended into it on their own accord. There's a clear case to be made for the relevance of these to our general historical understanding; an opportunity is being missed.

One interesting example of the exchange between cinema and history in the last couple of years was Walter Salles The Motorcycle Diaries - a personal docu-story stalked by powerful shades of history and myth. The film has certainly made one young man's personal travel journal accessible to many who might not otherwise know or care to know that much about el Che. Salles' films typically adopt a documentary style, which conveys a sense of accuracy even when facts are being embellished. In this film, important details are omitted and new moments constructed. These changes have the effect of simultaneously making the story more universal, while at the same time feeding the myth which exists outside of it. This end result is ambivalent, but it's clever and handles its source material in a more deliberate and controlled way than Scott did his.

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