Medieval Movies

I’m tackling one of the weightier books on my pile: a one-volume history of the Middle Ages, The Civilization of the Middle Ages by Norman F. Cantor.  According to the jacket, “Cantor’s book was innovative in 1963 because it was the first comprehensive general history of the Middle Ages to center on medieval culture and religion rather than on political history”.

In my search for footnotes (which don’t exist), I found a list of films Cantor recommends.  Here is my severe abridgment of his list.

“Here are the ten best films ever made with a medieval context, ranked approximately in order of merit…

1. The Seventh Seal   Ingmar Bergman’s incomparable masterpiece, set in Sweden at the time of the Black Death, is in a class by itself when it comes to evoking medieval sensibility about life and death.

2. Ran  …based on King Lear…set in medieval Japan…perfectly captures the violence and beauty of the chivalric world.

3. Henry V  …Olivier’s version is much closer than Branagh’s to the ambience of the fifteenth century

4. The Name of the Rose   …wonderful performance by Sean Connery as a Franciscan friar

5. Alexander Nevsky   Sergei Eisenstein’s 1938 film about the prince of Novograd’s fight with the Teutonic knights…fits in well with the iconology of Byzantine and late medieval kingship

6. The Return of Martin Guerre   depicts a crisis in an affluent peasant family in France in the early sixteenth century…the story closely follows the record of a court trial

7.  The Navigator   about half this 1988 science fiction film is convincingly set in a northern English coal-mining village during the time of the Black Death

8.  Black Robe   1990 French Canadian film about Jesuit missionaries among the Canadian aborigines in the early seventeenth century, is fiercely accurate and evocative of an important and underwritten segment of medieval church history–missionary work among the heathens on the frontier.  Think of St. Boniface and the Frisians in the eighth century.

9.  The Gospel According to St. Matthew   …bleakly depicted by the Italian Communist director Pier Pasolini.  The result is much closer to late medieval Sicily than to ancient Judea.

10.  The Devils   …over-the-top version of Aldous Huxley’s novel about hysteria and witchcraft in early seventeenth century France nevertheless captures persuasively important aspects of the medieval religious experience.  Even its remorseless anti-clericalism replicates a prominent ingredient of late medieval culture.

I am intrigued. 

Well, with numbers 1 through 8!

I’ve seen Olivier’s Henry V (I own Branagh’s version and much prefer it)  and I’ve read The Name of the Rose  (perhaps the only George Grant recommendation which I had to push myself to get to the end); the rest are complete mysteries.  For the first time in my life, I’m not frustrated by this kind of list, thanks to Netflix. But convincing my beloved husband to watch some of these with me might be a challenge, especially with daylight savings time in place.

Has anyone out there seen heard of any of these movies?

I’ll start with The Seventh Seal and if it’s any good I like it, my dear reader, I will let you know. 

Right here on this blog.


10 thoughts on “Medieval Movies

  1. We saw The Name of the Rose in 1986 when it first came out. Dh wanted to see it, as did I. I remember well ’cause I had a 1wk old baby with me. It was a long movie, and I was concerned about baby crying and disturbing others, so I fed him until he was nearly sick! I didn’t read the book, but dh loves Ecco. I would like to watch it again. Perhaps I would get more out of it the 2nd time around. Have seen The Black Robe also. I’m sure dh could comment on Olivier’s Henry V. As a matter of fact, I should see if we have a copy and send it down with my children this weekend.

  2. I’ve seen Ran, and it’s as wonderful as everything else by Akira Kirosawa- he wasn’t the Master Filmmaker of Japan for nothing!  His other medieval play is  Rashomon,  which deals with a bandit attack, and the views of the victims and perpetrators of the very same events are amazingly different! 

  3. okay, dh says The Name of the Rose is good, but cautions about one dramatic sex scene in the middle.And he too gets The Black Robe confused with The Mission. Maybe The Mission is the one I’ve seen.He also says that we do own the Olivier Henry V, so if you want to borrow it, let me know.

  4. Yes, I would offer a caution about the sex scene in the middle of The Name of the Rose…but the rest I loved. The book took me three or four tries to get through, but I was quite pleased with the book by the end. Not easy for me, but worth it. Will look forward to the movie reviews. Will you tell us when you DON’T like one, too? We don’t need only the good news (-:Beautiful picture of mountains on Sunday. I’d love to come and view those mtns. with you someday.Diane

  5. Thanks for the feedback, all. And thanks for the cautions. And the encouragement to say what I don’t like, Diane! I put several in my Netflix queue. Noel, I’ll pass on the Olivier Henry V – I’ve seen it earlier and don’t want to spend the time with it right now. But I do appreciate the offer.

  6. I’ve seen a few but have a remarkably bad video memory. It’s good for about twomonths. From what I can remember . 2. Ran: Excellent.3. Henry V: Fell asleep. 4. The Name of the Rose: Very Good.8.  Black Robe: Some lingering thing bugs me…Can’t say. Usually if I have this nagging doubt I won’t re-see it. I remember the same guy did Driving Miss Daisy and Breaker Morant. Both of which I loved.

  7. Love  Oliviers version of Henry V (own it) While it is closer to the text, I think it rather more dramatic stageish.  I am a big Branagh fan (own that one as well and prefer to watch it).  My kids can quote large portions of it because B brings it home for them.

  8. The only one I have seen is The Name of the Rose–required my freshman year of college. ALL I remember is being traumatized by the dramatic sex scene in the middle. Oh, and something about a cauldron of blood. Sorry…the other reviews of it look more promising!

  9. Pingback: Revisiting Medieval Civilization | A Living Pencil

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