The Long Path Back:
Medievalism and Film


Dedicated to the memory of Peter Wollen (1938-2019)



I am not a professional medievalist. But, as a cinephile, it is hard not to become aware of the constant pressure of medieval influence coming from two sides: on the one side, from popular culture; and on the other side, from the most progressive aspect of international art cinema.


In popular culture, we have the endless variations on Dungeons and Dragons-type video games; post-Star Wars (1977) “space operas”; the “punk medievalism” of Mad Max   (1979) and its progeny; superhero Batman as The Dark Knight (2008); or the Lord of the Rings  (2001-2003) and Harry Potter  (2001-2009) film franchises – not to mention the never-ending genre of medieval rock music, or the sudden but perfectly predictable eruption into a series of TV’s America’s Next Top Model (USA 2003-2009) of a Glamour vs. Gladiators photo shoot. David Wain’s riotous comedy Role Models (2009) has given us the Adventure Playground apotheosis of this pop medievalism.


In progressive art cinema, recent signs of neo-medieval activity may be a little less high-profile, but no less resonant. Éric Rohmer’s final film – as well as the conclusion of an occasional series of medieval projects – confounded even some of his champions:  Les amours d’Astrée et de Céladon (The Romance of Astrea and Celadon, 2007), set in the time of the Druids and derived from a sixteenth century text by Honoré d’Urfé. Roberto Rossellini’s The Taking of Power by Louis XIV (1966)F has been the subject of a lavish and fastidious DVD release by Criterion, timed to coincide with a box-set devoted to Rossellini’s History Films, including The Age of the Medici (1973) – and these made-for-television films, once judged extremely difficult and even unwatchable, are now being hailed as pioneering experiments in historical recreation.


A key to understanding this presence of the medieval within the contemporary can be found in a brief but brilliant essay by Peter Wollen titled “Delirious Projections”. (1) Coming to terms with a clutch of films released throughout the 1980s and the early ‘90s, from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) to Tim Burton’s Batman Returns (1992) – films featuring “fantastic cities” in a 20th century cinematic tradition that also includes Metropolis (1927) and the original King Kong (1933) – Wollen diagnoses the flourishing of a rampant Expressionism that seems rather more than an obligatory nod to the style-conscious, often superficial postmodern appropriations common to the present-day moment. Indeed, “the return to Expressionism seems only a retro-fitted way-station on the long path back to medievalism”. Wollen concludes:


It is as though the polarisation and disorder of society has led to a situation where melodrama, with its lurid polarities of innocence and evil, or the grotesque, with its juxtaposition of the rotten with the lofty, are more representative of the city in a post-modern age than they have been for decades. As we leave behind the values of the Keynesian welfare state, we find the need for a new aesthetic which surfaces, like the Penguin and his gang [in Batman Returns], in startling and unexpected ways. (2)


The idea is paradoxical and rich: the return (“path back”) to medievalism, its ubiquitous revival in contemporary culture, is not a nostalgic reflex, but a source of newness, a tool for dealing with our cultural present – and future. This notion fits a mode of critical thinking that could be called – adapting a term from the Russian writer-critic-theorist Yuri Tynianov – archaic-innovative.


Indeed, this negotiation of worlds and world-views – by the contemporary of the medieval – finds itself reflected in many current cultural phenomena. For example, in a pop vein, the plot device beloved of current storytelling in all media: the Quixotic figure of the displaced Knight – “a long way from home”, as Deep Purple once sang – out of time and exiled from his proper domain, whether the dreamer-hero (both fool and idealist) of Gilliam’s The Fisher King  (1991), or the comedic characters hurled by time-travel from the present to the past in films from Les visteurs  (1993, remade in USA as Just Visiting, 2001) to Black Knight (2001). Or, in a more rarefied aesthetic domain, the singular case of filmmaker-dramaturg-novelist-poet Eugène Green, who swapped his American upbringing for French citizenship and language, and has steadfastly stuck (even in his contemporary-set pieces such as Toutes les nuits, 2000) to a highly artificial, Baroque-styled mode of speech, action, performance and courtly behaviour:


The sentences are constructed according to grammatical principles which aren’t observed in everyday speech: for example, questions are always made by the inversion of the verb and the subject, something very rarely done in spoken French today. But I do it specifically in a cinematographical context, with a cinematographical goal: to give the actor a text which is going to release a maximum of energy when he says it. […] I simply ask the actors, when speaking them, to make all the liaisons […] thanks to that filter there’s no danger of a psychological interpretation.  (3)


Tellingly, even Green’s description of himself and his self-taught ventures into the arts tends to the Quixotic: “I am often not in the same sphere of reality as most people”. (4)


While all this has been going on, however, a certain widespread discourse about medievalism has been keener to align itself with the greatest box-office hits of popular culture than with progressive art forms or innovative thinking. A passing item in The Australian Higher Education Supplement in early 2008 bears witness to the trend: it is reported that Sean McMullen, prolific Australian novelist for the young adult fiction market, has (in his PhD research) “found similarities between [Chrétien de Troyes’] compositions and films such as A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1949), Ivanhoe (1952) and El Cid (1961)”. There are “common traits”, he claims, “in medieval stories and modern films set in the period”. A self-proclaimed “recipe” of seven ingredients follows:


“The elements are a knight, a lady, a castle, a journey, courtship, magic and combat”, Mr. McMullen said. The trick is using them in the right balance. […] “De Troyes was the first author who hit on a winning combination of the seven elements”. (5)


Hollywood in its turn (according to McMullen) has “reworked books such as Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe or Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court into movies that were truly medieval in structure”. Likewise, the Lord of the Rings films are “way closer to Chrétien’s model than Tolkien’s original book”. (6)


This type of discourse is a variant on the kind of universalist populism that runs rife these days, especially in screenwriting manuals: mass art has its internationally appealing (and commercially successful, hence “winning”) genres or narrative templates, and they remain the same from (to take the terms of this argument) the medieval narrative saga to contemporary movie blockbusters. But what is this “truly medieval structure” that can miraculously survive such a journey through time and space, history and cultures? John Boorman – whose neo-medieval credentials for directing Excalibur (1981) were well-established by both his early ‘70s Tolkien-approved Lord of the rings adaptation (never made) and his delirious, futuristic, sci-fi riff on grand heroic themes in Zardoz (1974) – does not hesitate to iron out the cultural kinks in the historical transmission of medieval mythology:


“The thing about myths”, Boorman declares, “is that they’re a body of stories completely homogenous and interrelated. You can rearrange the order of events quite liberally without destroying the meaning. The essentials that make them popular, the resonances, remain the same […] I think it’s fascinating to see how the great European myths re-emerged in the American genre film, particularly the Western”. (7)


But this is a quite modest claim compared to that found on the Internet site Dandalf the Dragon in its rumination on “The quest for the Hollywood grail: John Boorman’s Excalibur, and the mythic development of the Arthurian legend”: “Listen carefully to the echoes of myth. It has much more to tell us than the petty lies and insignificant truths of recorded history”! (8)


Umberto Eco’s well-known reflections on the representation of the Middle Ages offer a useful riposte here. (9) As if in response to the likes of McMullen and the market-taste for recipes of narrative composition, or Boorman blithely standardising (as George Miller is equally happy to do) all the world’s mythologies, Eco stresses that most representations of the medieval are dreams, fantasies or (as he calls them) hypotheses, “as if we were setting out to fabricate a Middle Ages and were deciding what ingredients are required to make one that is efficient and credible”. (10) Eco playfully multiplies, rather than reduces or concentrates into a universalist template, the standard present-day imaginings of this complex piece of history: his famous list of the “ten little Middle Ages” includes the barbaric, the Romantic, the decadent, the nationalist, the philosophical … (11) But he also helpfully deduces what he takes to be the “world-scenario model” that informs most depictions of the Middle Ages:


First of all, a great peace that is breaking down, a great international power that has unified the world in language, customs, ideologies, religion, art, and technology, and then at a certain point, thanks to its own ungovernable complexity, collapses. It collapses because the “barbarians” are pressing at its borders; these barbarians are not necessarily uncultivated, but they are bringing new customs, new views of the world. (12)


This model indeed covers an enormous amount of medievalist fiction, from Robert Bresson’s severe and elliptical Lancelot du lac (1974) to Robert Zemeckis’ digitally animated spectacular, Beowulf (2007). But the deepest point of Eco’s argument is that this world-scenario model is not simply an attempt (successful or otherwise, authentic or otherwise) to imagine the past; it also serves the needs of the present – consciously or unconsciously, or both. A clear example which resurfaced on DVD after nearly four decades of invisibility is the remarkable A Walk with Love and Death (1969), an adaptation of Hans Koningsberger’s pop-medievalist novel that director John Huston offered as a transparent allegory of youth in the turbulent 1960s – all the way down to the resolutely non-historical gestures and manners of his teenage and young adult stars, respectively Anjelica Huston and Assaf (Assi) Dayan (there are echoes, in this casting, of Bresson’s use of Florence Delay in Procès de Jeanne d’arc [1962] – or, before that, Otto Preminger’s choice of Jean Seberg to play the same part in Saint Joan [1957]).


The argument is more complexly illustrated in the discussion of Japan’s medievalism – and its mediations in fiction and film – by Dudley Andrew and Carole Cavanaugh in their book on Sanshô dayû (Sansho the Bailiff). (13) Their analysis distinguishes three historical levels: firstly, the thousand-year-old medieval Japanese legend which poses, in the tale of Sansho, the basic scenario of a family torn apart and (partly) reunited, within the broader social context of a time of crisis, wars and displacement of people; secondly, Mori Ôgai’s retelling and “cultural revival” of the tale; and thirdly, Kenji Mizoguchi’s classic 1954 film version. Arguing against the imaginary phantom of Japanese tradition, unchanging through time, which has bewitched so many Western commentators, Andrew and Cavanaugh discern the distinct political gestures performed by Ôgai and Mizoguchi through their respective art practices: for the former, the Sansho story offers a platform for a Neo-Confucian appeal to the need for return to military order and hierarchy (the barbarian element in this telling belongs to what is progressive and modern); while for the latter, what is at stake is a “new individualist humanism” that is precisely anti-Confucian, and directed towards the post World War II reconstruction of Japanese society. Where Ôgai presents a fairy tale, Mizoguchi crafts a bleak “cosmic tragedy”. And one can only dream of the version that Terrence Malick has workshopped in a theatrical setting and contemplated bringing to the screen …


The process of rewriting through time that Andrew and Cavanaugh outline is not placid, respectful or simply accumulative; they refer to it as the “overthrow of history”, and they ask the pertinent question that can be addressed to all modern-day medievalism: “Why else rewrite history, if not to activate it for the present?” (14)




Alongside the general question – why revisit the Middle Ages? – sits the eminently practical one that consumes every filmmaker drawn into this arena: how do you do it? What look, what design, what soundtrack, which narrative mode? There is no simple, singular answer to this question, since there is no rigidly set convention governing the recreation of history (any piece or period of history) in cinema. And it is precisely this lack of convention that opens up many possibilities – possibilities often overlooked in much mainstream medievalist scholarship that overwhelmingly focuses on Hollywood narrative.


Let us begin this exploration with a simple paradox, known to every art director or production designer who has ever worked on a so-called costume drama or historical recreation. How brand spanking new should things – houses, clothes, streets – look? Even if, within the logic of the plot or diegesis, they have just been built or made? At certain moments, things that look too new, too shiny, too well-scrubbed in a film can seem to spectators – and, before that point, to their producers or directors – as (in a leap across the rails of logic) therefore not old, i.e., not convincingly historic! As a result, so much of a production designer’s work has to follow the illogical path of making everything look somewhat ancient, weathered, lived in for centuries – as they would look to us now, viewing them from the present, not as they would look (or feel) to those living within the period.


A similar, purely associative logic governs the mania (which ebbs and flows in cinema history) for depicting the past (especially the early twentieth century past) in the glowing, yellow-brown tones of sepia, or in some tricky simulation of black-and-white or greyish tones (even when the film is shot in colour!). Often, when it is a question of a single flashback sequence, this sepia or black-and-white comes overdetermined also with frame-jumps, carefully contrived scratch marks and (my favourite touch) the off-screen sound of a whirring old film projector! (This overload of signifiers of pastness is the subject of constant parody in the works of Guy Maddin.) Of course, the link here is to early forms of cinematic representation in the silent era. Films such as Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator  (2004) are elaborately built on the chintzy conceit that the depiction of stages in the passing of twentieth century time should follow the various technological evolutions in classical Hollywood film form. But, once again, this is an idea – Raúl Ruiz has had fun with it, both in his film work and his theorising – that envisages the depiction of history precisely from the vantage point of a viewer: a typical film viewer now or then, or an imaginary contemporary viewer looking in on the past through the filter of audiovisual media.


As can be seen from these standard examples of filmic practice, modes like realism or naturalism – the supposedly more authentic, true-to-life forms of representation – usually come with their own in-built paradoxes, contradictions and tripwires. It could even be said that mainstream (and also much independent) historical reconstruction in cinema tends to catch itself in an endless back-and-forth loop between two broad tendencies: stateliness and spontaneity. Stateliness is the default option, beloved of cinema and television alike: everything is calm, majestic, clean, static, disposed for the contemporary view. Then comes the backlash: for a film wave or two, suddenly everyone and everything is dirtied up a bit, the dialogue delivery is more frantic, and a handheld camera (not “of the period”, to use the frequent irrational description of this technique by piqued reviewers) captures scenes on the fly. Mira Nair’s take on Vanity Fair  (2004) provides a textbook case, but even Excalibur, in its early ‘80s moment, was conceived thus by Boorman: “I want it to have a primal clarity, a sense that things are happening for the first time. I tell the actors that they are not re-enacting a legend. They are creating it”. (15) And then we switch from such contrived, in-the-moment naturalness back to the picturesque and stately … A key mid-way moment in this stylistic history was provided by Stanley Kubrick in his William Makepeace Thackeray adaptation, Barry Lyndon (1975): an endlessly fascinating amalgam of stylised, minimalist tropes and the type of “authentic realism” provided by, for example, candle lighting.


A completely different angle into these questions has been provided via the intermedial approach to contemporary costume drama offered in recent years by Belén Vidal. (16) In contrast to the idea that historical reconstruction is all about a blending of elements in order to frame the illusion of a seamless (or at least coherent) fictional world – whether that is the stately world of Jefferson in Paris   (1995) or the rawer, more rambunctious world of Jude (1996) – Vidal proposes a notion of intermediality that is stronger than the now common scholarly appeal to intertextuality (which has ended up, rather uselessly, being posed as the sine qua non of all texts). The intermedial text is one in which the various, different levels – pre-existing pieces of theatre, literature, design, but also of the social practices of cultural tourism, reading groups, media spectaculars, and so on – are held apart from one another, more or less unsutured and left for the inspection (and pleasure) of the modern consumer-viewer (hence, for example, the emphasis on the physical words on a printed page, and the act or gesture of reading itself, in so many recent literary-classic adaptations). Here the past is not depicted (truly or falsely) so much as it is figured – and figured in a multiple layering of texts and references, echoes and allusions, times and spaces.


Again, this returns us to Eco’s idea of an instrumental, working hypothesis of a historical period. The hypothetical mode of filmic practice – which lays out its elements, often in a literally flat way (such as via a presentational technique of frontal framing) (17), and with their qualities of artifice heightened – is central to Sergei Eisesntein’s extravagant historical reconstructions in Alexander Nevsky (1938) and Ivan the Terrible (Russia 1944); and also to Andrei Tarkovsky’s method, especially in Andrei Rublev (1966), where the appeal to archaic forms in religious icon-culture – plus his felt need to constantly and explicitly posit cinema as the endpoint of a lineage of pre-existing high arts of music, theatre and painting – leads to a constant layering and virtual citing of materials, documents, texts … (18)


A key precedent for Vidal’s work is to found in a celebrated 1977 essay by Jean-Louis Comolli, “Historical Fiction: A Body Too Much”. (19) Comolli here zeroes in on the major support for the various and varying regimes of our belief in an unfolding fiction: the actor’s body. It has become commonplace in the years since this piece (and others in the same vein) to gesture towards the split levels of actor, character, body and figure that always operate (more or less obviously, more or less happily) within cinematic fiction, the levels that superimpose to form what we regard as a filmic being or creature. Comolli’s interest, however, is quite specific: he pinpoints the interplay between a known (or unknown) actor on the one hand, and on the other hand the always hovering archive of depictions that comprise our knowledge of a historic personage: paintings, prints, stories, myths, legends, gossip, parodies, other films … Historic fiction in film then becomes a perilous juggling act: its naturalness must ceaselessly be won in the face of our encroaching awareness of the real actor’s body (necessarily marked by the history of its own time – for Comolli’s subtitle can also mean “one body too many”), and in the way it manoeuvres the passage of its central sign (the hero of history) between many, often contradictory incarnations in many representational media … Comolli well describes the canny and radical game that Jean Renoir’s La Marseillaise (1938) plays with the vague but pre-established “memory image” of Louis XVI that spectators come in with:


No question in La Marseillaise of attempting to obliterate the memory image. On the contrary, its persistence is allowed to float, it is played on as a kind of embarrassment, a screen, a rival for the current image. As if it were necessary that it could survive throughout the struggle unleashed against it by the image of the actor’s body for that struggle really to take place. (20)


The effort to congeal the body-too-much and the mass of converging historical representations into what Eco called an “efficient and credible” historical fiction exhausts the entire craft of many medievalist films – at most, they might manage to work (as Boorman does) on a double register of History and Mythology (which is what, to take a comparative case, cinephiles have always praised John Ford’s history films for doing: they show the often raucous immediacy of a reality unfolding, while also majestically inscribing the legend-to-be on the horizon of a history that will written in retrospect …). (21) More interesting are the mainstream limit-cases (frequently bordering on the zany) that admit to the multiplicity of their sources, such as Oliver Stone’s intriguing Alexander  (2004). Or, better yet, the openly adventurous art films inspired by the model proposed by Rossellini in the 1960s and ‘70s.


In this progressive type of cinema, the intermedial effect arises in part from the layering of different regimes of representation: cinema, literature, theatre, musical performance, and so, each laid out, in turn or simultaneously layered, in terms of certain of their recognisable, coded, classic or modern forms. Eugène Green begins to give a sense of this complexity when he evokes the differences, in his practice, between theatre and cinema (or cinematograph, in the Bressonian usage) – media he in fact combines, alongside others including the musical recital, in his own films:


Even though theatre and cinema can arrive at the same spiritual result, the means they use are completely different, and even opposite. […] For me the reality of theatre is always based on something completely false, and assumed as such; that is, for the theatre to be real, the actors and the audience have to be aware at all times that they are in the theatre, and that they are using and recognising codes: it’s through the absolute falsity of these codes that they arrive at an absolute truth. Whereas in the cinema – which is of course also a representation – the basic raw material is always a reality, whether it’s that of a human being, an inanimate object, some sort of material, a tree, or an animal: in every case, the shot contains a real energy. The specificity of cinema is to capture fragments of reality, and to make the spectator see in them things that he wouldn’t have been aware of had he observed them in their natural context. (22)


For much progressive cinema since the 1970s, such exploration of the blatantly intermedial – darting between and complicating the perceived poles of the theatrical-artificial and the cinematic-real – begins with Éric Rohmer’s remarkable adaptation of Chrétien de Troyes in Perceval le gallois (1979) – but an equally potent starting point, less known outside its country of origin at the time, could have been provided by Manoel de Oliveria’s work in that period, such as Amor de Perdição (Doomed Love, 1978). In these films, we see the flowering of a particular inflection of the archaic-innovative approach: the appeal (however re-imagined or reinvented) to a medieval aesthetic provides a way of inventing a cinematic modernity (or later, from the ‘80s inwards, a mannerist post-modernity). The literary weight of recited text is insisted upon; the action stops for a song or dance or intermedial demonstration of some sort. And theatrical artifice – whether the literal stage sets visible everywhere in Oliveira’s work or the wonderful constructed-painted unnatural backdrops in Perceval – is proudly displayed and explored at every turn, creating all manner of deliberate anachronisms within the conventions of historical depiction. Raúl Ruiz’s work, too, goes increasingly in this direction, especially in a multi-layered fiction such as Combat d’amour en songe (Love Torn in Dream, 2000).


There is a large pool of fascinating cinema which has yet to be fully discussed in this neo-medieval light: apart from key figures already cited, such as Green and his artistic mentor Bresson (whose Lancelot drew from praise for its kinship to the modernist medievalism of e.e. cummings’ poetry), there is also the Trilogy of Life by Pier Paolo Pasolini (Il Decameron [I1971], I racconti di Canterbury [1972] and Il fiore della mille e una notte [I1974]), the historical fantasias of Sergei Parajanov (Tini zabutykh predkiv [Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, Russia 1964, Sayat nova  [Colour of Pomegranates, 1968) and Walerian Borowczyk (Goto, l’île d’amour [1968], Blanche [1971]), or Hans-Jurgen Syberberg with his transposition of Wagner’s opera version of Parsifal (1982) – among much else.


Rather than the endless seesaw between stateliness and spontaneity, these films reflect the influence of another major historiographical approach: they seek to exaggerate, rather than to eliminate, the strangeness of the past, ita alienness and unreadability – its alterity – in relation to our present-day codes and mores. (Science fiction regularly faces the same issue: should the future be any more comprehensible than the past – perhaps it will be even less so – to the present?) In academic medievalist discourse, the debates on this point were crystallised by the discussion started by Hans Robert Jauss in a landmark 1979 issue of New Literary History. (23) In cinema studies, the influence of alterity and the archaic-innovative has seeped in more through a classic work of literary criticism and philology, Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. (24) Many passages in this book bearing on medieval aesthetics – and especially the trope of parataxis (the “varied repetition of the same theme”) (25) – have a striking applicability to the most progressive art cinema of the past three decades:


The things which happen are stated with a paratactic bluntness which says that everything must happen as it does happen, it could not be otherwise, and there is no need for explanatory connectives. […] [Events] are posited without argument as pure theses: these are the facts. No argument, no explanatory discussion whatever is called for. (26)


Varied repetition of the same theme is a technique stemming from medieval Latin poetics, which in turn draws it from antique rhetoric […] Whether one comprehensive representation is replaced by a reiterative enumeration of individual scenes similar in form and progress; whether one intense action is replaced by a repetition of the same action, beginning at the same starting point time and again; or whether finally, instead of a process of complex and periodic development, we have repeated returns to the starting point, each one proceeding to elaborate a different element or motif: in all cases rationally organized condensations are avoided in favour of a halting, spasmodic, juxtapositive, and pro– and retrogressive method in which causal, modal, and even temporal relations are obscured. (27)


The value of Auerbach’s philological poetics is in the way it takes us back to fundamental questions of – and options within – the entire historical span of narrative representational form. What, after all, is the “complex and periodic development” to which the plot is submitted in Excalibur, the digital Beowulf or King Arthur (2004)? This development derives from a relentless, finely honed centring on character – and on the driving of historic events through the category and force of the character’s Will. (28) Boorman in fact summed up Excalibur as the myth that expresses “man taking over the world on his own terms for the first time”. (29) But is this specific representational regime, with its ingrained assumptions of agency, causality and so on, really a given of film narrative – let alone the complex movement of real history? The constant attempt in popular culture to forge a strong, unbroken, cultural link between a distant past (such as the Middle Ages) and a mercantile present – whatever its other ideological sins – simply takes too much for granted, and leaves too much behind, in the global history of representation.


To watch even the opening shots of the “Erzsebet Bathory” episode of Borowczyk’s Contes immoraux (Immoral Tales, 1974) – a film that systematically proceeds backwards, by episodes, through history into ever-stranger alterity – is a salutary shock to every single convention of the mainstream neo-medievalist plot. Landscapes insist monumentally, outside of narrative time; and when characters such as Bathory (Paloma Picasso!) are introduced it is as tiny figural specks in the very bottom corner of the frame; from the first signs of conventional costume-drama we are whisked to a peasant farming community where signs of physical deformity reign and clothing is swapped for the sake of a literal body-too-much: nude bodies, female and male. And, at every point, we are confronted with the stark frontal (and often serial) framing of Borowczyk’s archaic-innovative aesthetic, whether of parts of faces framed by gaps in the décor, lined-up parades of marauding guards, the limbs of animals or the genitals of humans …


Borowczyk was also a pioneer in intermediality: his fictional worlds always had (in a manner he bequeathed to the Quay brothers in the UK) an evident air of op-shop bricolage. When he devoted a short study to the sex toys and pornographic image-trinkets of another, lost era, he simply filmed … his own private museum, Une collection particulière (1973), using his own body parts, dissected by the camera and drolly set in illustrative, demonstrative poses in relation to this profusion of enigmatic objects. Such a film is exactly the neo-medieval, avant-garde solar-lens we need to crack open, all over again, the baroque splendours of Josef von Sternberg’s The Scarlet Empress (1934), A Walk with Love and Death, Combat d’amour en songe … or even, for that matter, Gladiator (2000).






1. Peter Wollen, “Delirious Projections”, Sight and Sound, Vol. 2 No. 4 (August 1992), pp. 25-26. back


2. Ibid, p. 26. back


3. Kieron Corless, “Standing on Earth”, Vertigo, Vol. 3 No. 1 (Spring 2006); accessed 11 January 2020. back


4. Ibid. back


5. Jill Rowbotham, “The right recipe for a knight to remember”, The Australian Higher Education Supplement, 6 February 2008, p. 22. back


6. Ibid. back


7. Harlan Kennedy, “John Boorman – in Interview”, from American Film (March 1981), accessed 11 January 2020 . back


8. Anonymous, “Dandalf the Dragon”, no longer on-line in 2020. For more on such mythomania, see my Phantasms (Melbourne: Penguin, 1994). back


9. Umberto Eco (trans. William Weaver), Travels in Hyperreality (New York: Picador, 1986); the section “The Return of the Middle Ages” contains the influential essays “Dreaming of the Middle Ages” and “Living in the New Middle Ages”. back


10. Ibid, p. 74. back


11. Ibid, pp. 61-72. back


12. Ibid, p. 74. back


13. Dudley Andrew and Carole Cavanaugh, Sanshô dayû (London: British Film Institute, 2000). back


14. Ibid, p. 19. back


15. Kennedy, “John Boorman”. back


16. See Belén Vidal, “Labyrinths of Loss: The Letter as Figure of Desire and Deferral in the Literary Film”, Journal of European Studies, 36/4 (2006), pp. 418-436; “Playing in a Minor Key: The Literary Past Through the Feminist Imagination”, in Mireia Aragay (ed.), Books in Motion: Adaptation, Intertextuality, Authorship (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2005), pp. 263-285; and “Classic Adaptations, Modern Reinventions: Reading the Image in the Contemporary Literary Film”, Screen, Vol. 43 No. 1 (2002), pp. 5-18. back


17. On the politics and aesthetics of frontality in cinema, see Paul Willemen, “Regimes of Subjectivity and Looking”, UTS Review, Vol 1 No 2 (1995), pp. 101-129; and Adrian Martin, “Sergei Parajanov and Frontality” (2007). back


18. See V.N. Lazarev (trans. Robert Bird), “Historical Documentation on Andrei Rublev”, accessed 7 January 2020; Mikhail Iampolski, “Russia: The Cinema of Anti-modernity and Backward Progress”, in Valentina Vitali and Paul Willemen (eds), Theorising National Cinema (London: British Film Institute, 2006), pp. 72-87. The latter offers a far-reaching discussion of Tynianov’s archaic-innovation concept, referring inter alia to Eisenstein’s stance of “backward progress” in relation to “archaic essentialism as super-modern” and “art moving forward into the future retrogressively” (pp. 79-85). back  


19. Jean-Louis Comolli (trans. Ben Brewster), “Historical Fiction: A Body Too Much”, Screen, Vol. 19 No. 2 (1978), pp. 41-53. Originally published as “Un corps en trop”, Cahiers du cinéma, no. 278 (July 1977), pp. 5-16. back


20. Comolli, “Historical Fiction”, p. 49. back


21. See Andrew Sarris, The John Ford Movie Mystery (London: Secker and Warburg, 1975). See also Sam Rohdie, “Ribbons of Time”, Screening the Past, no. 22 (2007); and his posthumously published book Film Modernism (Manchester University Press, 2015), pp. 153-155. back


22. Corless, “Standing on Earth”. back


23. See the dossier in New Literary History, Vol. 10 No. 2 (Winter 1979), especially: Hans Robert Jauss, “The Alterity and Modernity of Medieval Literature”, pp. 181-227; Eugene Vance, “A Coda: Modern Medievalism and the Understanding of Understanding”, pp. 377-83; and Paul Zumthor, “Comments on H.R. Jauss’ Article”, pp. 367-76. back


24. Erich Auerbach (trans. Willard R. Trask), Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1974); see also William D. Routt, “For Criticism (Parts 1 & 2)”, Screening the Past, no. 9 (2000). back


25. For a discussion of parataxis in contemporary cinema, see Michel Chion, The Thin Red Line (London: British Film Institute, 2004). back


26. Auerbach, Mimesis, p. 101. back


27. Ibid, p. 105. back


28. See Raúl Ruiz (trans. A. Martin), “Three Thrusts at Excalibur, Screening the Past, no. 26 (December 2009). back


29. Kennedy, “John Boorman”. back



© Adrian Martin June 2009

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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