Watching history happen

You don’t have to go far in watching films set in medieval times to encounter the depiction of warfare; whether warfare is central to the plot of the film or not, various aspects of medieval warfare are nearly always present. From knights in shining armour or mail coats to serried ranks of soldiers or cavalry and arrows which darken the sky, all can be found in the wide variety of medieval films. The trouble is, how many such depictions can be trusted?

One aspect of historical films which is both a great strength and a weakness is that they are visually persuasive – it looks as if we are actually watching history happen up on the screen and the responses that such films can evoke can be wonderful for the study of military history. When Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (1995) came out there was a surge of interest in the warfare of that period, despite that film’s many errors. One problem arises, however, when what we are seeing isn’t all together accurate; not helped by various members of the film team telling us about the accuracy and meticulous nature of the research which went into the film’s making – its worse when they proclaim that they are presenting the ‘truth’. For most viewers, what they see on screen is how it happened and claims of accuracy back that up. For some, however, those inaccuracies are ruinous and, at worst, a crime against history. I remember as a student seeing Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V (1989) and loving the battle scenes until my medieval history lecturer complained that Agincourt was turned into ‘the Somme.’ Or Charlton Heston claiming “I know in my bones and in my blood, what it is to take a city”  because of scenes he had filmed during Samuel Bronston’s El Cid (1961). The thing to remember (and it is difficult to sometimes) is that film is not history no matter how persuasive what we are seeing may be on those around us.

In this brief article I cannot hope to cover anywhere near all aspects of medieval warfare in film – whole books could be written on the way warfare is depicted in Robin Hood films alone, for instance, or indeed King Arthur films. Likewise, a list of ‘the most accurate’ or ‘inaccurate’ films is actually of little use and more likely to spark a debate itself. 

Do not think, however, that this is article will be a negative take on medieval warfare in films – good or bad, each has things to offer the viewer and the historian. It’s all a matter of how you receive the information, how you intend to use it, and if you can control your blood from boiling when something ‘just wasn’t like that!’, or when people tell you they know the history of the period because they saw the film.

The historian’s craft often does the film-maker no favours. The film maker cannot use “we do not know” to depict an aspect of medieval life and they must make a single visual choice where the historian can explore the various theories without choosing any one in particular. Even employing a respectable historian as the consultant on a film does not guarantee its accuracy or quality – Kevin Reynold’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) is a case in point. Not that a film’s failings are the fault of its consultant(s); questions of budget, time constraints and a thousand other things can also decide whether aspects of story, kit and equipment are accurate enough. ‘Accurate enough for who’ is also a question which needs to be asked – ‘we’ (military history enthusiasts small and large, professional and amateur) are often not the target audience of such films and our cries of “why couldn’t they get it right?” will fall on deaf ears for a whole range of reasons. The re-enactor who has spent years and thousands of Dollars, Pounds or Euros and research on their kit will always be able to find fault with the costumes or equipment of a medieval warfare film. For most of us, though, they look ‘right’ – and probably more importantly, they evoke the period and the feel of the warfare of the period. Even a film whose history is all wrong can look right (Braveheart is but one example; for another: Cecil B. DeMille’s The Crusades (1935) “wilfully garbled every single character and incident” according to Pauline Kael). My best memory of a medieval warfare film is still seeing the battle scenes in Clive Donner’s Alfred the Great (1969) on video in the early 80s. The impression that film made on me is still strong and it is the best depiction I have seen in film of a shieldwall battle; but others may disagree. Indeed the film has been called “dreadful” since it makes Alfred almost a pacifist – but then this is probably because it used Asser’s biography as its guiding source.  From a military perspective, however, there is much to revel in – the Battle of Edington in 878 is depicted complete with the authentic shieldwall wedge formation of the ‘swine’s head.’ Usually in medieval warfare on film, what should be a shieldwall type battle disintegrates into a series of one-on-one melees which fill the screen – and where no unit cohesion can be seen at all. Alfred does have the Vikings in a kind of uniform, black clad, marching in-step villains – modelled on the Nazis is a claim repeated more than once. Most medieval films cannot avoid the idea of uniform even though during the medieval period the idea of a uniform would have been foreign to any army. Embracing ‘the evocation of period’ allows one to still enjoy a film in which aspects of the film’s military history are not right, for instance in the Agincourt scenes in Henry V (both Kenneth Branagh’s and Laurence Olivier’s (1944)). The nitty gritty of which bits are right or wrong can be hashed out later in discussion, on internet forums and in articles.

Another issue with medieval warfare on film is that the topic covers such a wide period and geographic span – from the Dark Ages to Agincourt, Vikings to Crusaders, Iceland to China. The pages of Medieval Warfare magazine alone show how much debate surrounds a small period or region – what hope does any film have to depict things accurately. Added to this is the quality and genre of the films themselves, some medieval themed films which necessarily feature warfare are legendarily poor, such as Howard Hughes and Dick Powell’s The Conqueror (1956), with John Wayne as Genghis Khan (and notorious for entirely different reasons). Others are cinematic masterpieces such as Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal(1957). All represent aspects of warfare and all can be useful as both positive or negative examples. The same can be said of genre, from the grandest historical epics like El Cid or Ridley Scott’sKingdom of Heaven (2005) to ‘low-brow’ parody like Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood. Men in Tights (1993) or comedy like Terry Jones’ Eric the Viking (1989). Again, viewed the right way, all can be useful; Eric the Viking’s exploration of the idea of the berserker is actually quite stimulating.

Similarly, fantasy medieval films can also be useful for their depiction of warfare – John McTiernan’s The 13th Warrior (1999) and other Beowulf films or John Boorman’s Excalibur (1981) are but two useful examples and, arguably, the most impressive ‘medieval’ cavalry charges depicted on film occur in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. That is not intended as an incendiary comment. For me, the most evocative image of the power and effect of a massed ‘medieval’ cavalry charge is either the arrival of Gandalf and the Riders of Rohan in The Two Towers (2002) or the charge of the Rohirrim in The Return of the King (2003). I can ignore the use of magic, the angle of the descent, the fact the cavalry charge a phalanx of pikemen and the fact that King Theoden’s sword changes hands; the evocation of the power of a cavalry charge is palpably, even viscerally, on the screen. Likewise, if you want to evoke a military villain you cannot go past how it is done in Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938).

Some of the most memorable scenes of warfare for me occur in films from a wide range of medieval periods both in terms of film-making and in terms of the period depicted. Silent and early films can have moments of military insight – the epic battle scene at Orleans in Cecil  B. DeMille’s Joan the Woman (1916) is still impressive, complete with combat in the moat and bombards breaching the city wall. Franklin Schaffner’s The Warlord (1965) with Charlton Heston as the Norman knight Chrysagon defending a manor from siege is satisfying on many military and historical points. As with El Cid, Heston himself took a great interest in the period – visiting the Sutton Hoo exhibition to corroborate that a noble in the ninth century would have worn mail. Richard Fleischer’s The Vikings (1958) is also evocative and informative – some of the equipment is spot on, including three longships – but still some aspects are lacking, such as the ladder of axes thrown into the raised drawbridge (echoes of the storming of the Bastille perhaps). The cast of that film also toured a Viking museum in order to see what they would be handling and wearing. Returning to Braveheart, a film which seems to have been ignored for its place in spurring the revival of historical epics; there could have been no Gladiator without it. One aspect ofBraveheart which was satisfying was the depiction of the effects of archery – fired by gas cannon into shields. In earlier films it seemed as if arrows would be seen in flight (even painted on the sky) but arrows striking home would be absent. Even here, however, film and history depart – there were probably no archers at Stirling Bridge and archers would have kept firing until their arrows supplies were exhausted; at a rate of 6 arrows loosed per minute, the idea of reacting to each flight of arrows seems highly unlikely (shared by other films too). Other aspects of warfare in the film were incredibly evocative if not downright gory (perhaps I was, indeed, one of those ‘young men’ the film was aimed at!). Nonetheless, I am not ashamed to say Braveheart was inspiring. As a young military historian this film vindicated to me the discipline of military history in an age where military history was almost the only unstudied history at my university. I knew there were several errors of fact and chronology in Braveheart but the number of military mistakes when I learned of them was staggering – from invented equipment (the schiltron was a formation, not a spear itself; the fire arrows at Falkirk are invented) and clothing (none of Wallace’s Scots would have worn kilts; none were in fact from the Highlands) missing commanders like Sir Andrew Moray and even the massed cavalry charge at Stirling Bridge – which never happened. Still, knowing all this and watching the film again I still find it stirring. What is more, the film inspired me to go out and discover the ‘actual’ history of the warfare of the period, and while that led to some uncomfortable discoveries in regard to the film, without seeing the film in the first place I would not have searched. 

Therefore a final point should be made that medieval warfare on film (or any history on film for that matter) should be regarded as a starting point rather than a finishing one. If through a flawed film you discover aspects of history you didn’t know existed, you have the film to thank. You can still enjoy the film: just remember, it’s a film, not history. History still has to be found in good old fashioned sources and research, but if film leads you there – All hail the film!

Further reading

  • John Aberth, A Knight at the Movies (London 2003).
  • John Cary, Spectacular! The Story of Epic Films (London 1974).
  • George MacDonald Fraser, The Hollywood History of the World (New York 1988).

Films mentioned

  • Mel Gibson - Braveheart – 1995 
  • Kenneth Branagh - Henry V – 1989
  • Samuel Bronston - El Cid – 1961 
  • Kevin Reynolds - Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves – 1991
  • Cecil B. DeMille - The Crusades – 1935 
  • Clive Donnner - Alfred the Great – 1969 
  • Laurence Olivier - Henry V – 1944
  • Howard Hughes & Dick Powell - The Conqueror – 1956
  • Ingmar Bergman - The Seventh Seal – 1957
  • Ridley Scott - Kingdom of Heaven – 2005
  • Mel Brooks - Robin Hood. Men in Tights – 1993
  • Terry Jones - Eric the Viking – 1989
  • John McTiernan - The 13th Warrior – 1999
  • John Boorman - Excalibur – 1981
  • Peter Jackson - The Two Towers – 2002
  • Peter Jackson - Return of the King – 2003
  • Sergei Eisenstein - Alexander Nevsky – 1938
  • Cecil B. DeMille - Joan the Woman – 1916
  • Franklin Schaffner - The Warlord – 1965
  • Richard Fleischer - The Vikings – 1958
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