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University of North Florida/Paul Halsall/Summer A 2005
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title image: Medieval History in the Movies

Myth, Epic, and Romance: Medieval History in Film

Office: Building 8, Room 2215.
Office Hours: Tues, Thu 5-6pm, and by appointment
Class Hours: Building 50/Room 1406: Tues. Thurs. 6:10-9:40pm
Office Tel: (904) 620 1856
Email: phalsall@unf.edu

Class Website: www.unf.edu/classes/medieval/film/

The Course

Myth, Epic, and Romance addresses perhaps the most common way the modern American public is exposed to medieval history -- through the medium of film. In doing so we will take the opportunity to think about the ways that medieval people understood their own history, and, at least temporarily, to reverse current historical practice. The modern study of history is a scientific enterprise to understand things "as they really were." The various approaches of modern historians -- political history, women's history, social history, or even cultural studies -- all fall into this "let's get to the truth" paradigm. But the "past" that was important to medieval audiences was not the "past as it was" but the "past" as a series of somewhat disconnected explanatory myths, epic stories, legendary figures, and entertaining romances. In some respects, then, just the sort of "past" that enthralls modern filmmakers and audiences.

While Hollywood movies must skew the past to meet the demands of drama, spectacle, and interest, and documentaries are sometimes no better, film can also impel a fuller imaginative grasp of a period. Our goal in class then, is to bring critical intelligence to film as medium for understanding and presenting the past.

Each week, the class will focus on a particular historical theme and examine how filmmakers have treated it. Class members will view both clips and complete movies while reading original source material and critical commentary. Assessment will be based on class and Blackboard participation, a short paper, a study journal, and a final exam.

By the end of the course, students should be able: to assess the different approaches taken to the past by film makers; to establish filmographies on given topics; to defend their own point of view on given films; and most importantly to explain the advantages and disadvantages of film as a way to present pre-modern history.

Class Requirements and Grading

Short Paper - 20% of total grade (due 7/20)
Study Journal - 30% of total grade (every class)
Participation in class and Blackboard discussion
- 20% of total grade (every class) 
Final Exam - - 30% of total grade (8/5)
(Not required for students with a short paper and discussion/Blackboard grade of at least B+ and NO absences or late work.)

Graded Assignments

* Short Paper: Your task is to discuss what makes a great historical movie by comparing Gladiator, The Seventh Seal, and The Seven Samurai. 3-5 pages long. (Papers must conform to the Stylesheet guidelines, linked from Dr. Halsall's web page.) .

* Study Journal: For each of the full films (except the last) that we watch and discuss as a class, you must write a one to three page (500-700 word) discussion of the film (typed) based on questions formulated in class along with an evaluation of your own engagement. Base your discussion on the four part model presented in Thinking About Historical Film

* Blackboard Discussion: The purpose of the  reading in primary and secondary literature is so that students can discuss the films we see with some real grounding. As well as discussion in class, students will use the "discussion" aspect of Blackboard. Frequently students feel under pressure and tongue-tied in class. Contributing comments via Blackboard gives you more time to think about what you want to say. Each student should contribute at least two Blackboard posts (comments/ questions/ discussions) for each class session. These can be short or long, but over the semester they should be substantial. What I am looking for is real thinking about the issues. You are especially encouraged to comment on my class remarks and other students' comments. Any given "posting week" is taken to end at midnight on Sunday. 

See the Guide to How Discussion is Graded and Basic Blackboard Instructions I prepared for my medieval survey course for log on instructions.

Course Material: Books, Sources, Films and Internet

The required text book for this course (newly published) is:

John Aberth, A Knight at the Movies: Medieval History on Film, New York: Routledge, 2003. ISBN: 0-415-93886-4 [Can be bought from Bookfinder for $7:50: Amazon for $13:97 new]

Study materials for each section consist also of primary source readings, secondary articles/books, and films. Some of the reading (as indicated) is available from the Internet or via the University's online databases. If you are reading the online version of this syllabus all you need do is to select [often by "clicking"] the texts in question, which are listed under each class. You can then read on screen, or print out the document.

"AHR Forum: History in Images/History in Words: Reflections on the Possibility of Really Putting History onto Film." The American Historical Review. 93:5 (1988), 1173-99. [online via JSTOR]

Robert Brent Toplin. "The Filmmaker as Historian." American Historical Review 93 (1988): 1210-27. [online via JSTOR]

Martha Driver. "Writing About Medieval Movies: Authenticity and History." Film and History 29:1-2 (1999): 5-7.

Arthur Lindly. "The Ahistoricism of Medieval film."

David John Williams. "Looking at the Middle Ages in the Cinema: An Overview." Film and History 29:1-2 (1999). 8-19.

Background Reading

Students need not have any background in medieval history for this course, although it would help to have some knowledge. A good basic textbook is 

Warren Hollister and Judith Bennett, Medieval Europe: A Short History. 9th ed. 

For more detailed information there are two good encyclopedia resources you can consult:

The Dictionary of the Middle Ages [UNF Reference, 2nd Floor D114 .D5 1982]

New Catholic Encyclopedia [UNF Reference, 2nd Floor BX841 .N44 1967]

A much older Catholic Encyclopedia is available on the internet:

Catholic Encyclopedia 1908-1913

Important Web Sites

Ancient History in the Movies
My thematic list of movies about the Ancient World.

Medieval History in the Movies
My thematic list of movies about the Medieval World.

Film and History
Website of the H-Net discussion list focused on movies and history.

Internet Movie Database
An essential resource for facts about movies. The amateur reviews are sometimes very good, sometimes awful.

Rotten Tomatoes
A site that links to reviews of movies all over the internet. It is best for recent movies.

Movie Review Query Engine
A great resource that enables searches for reviews of specific movies.

About.com: World Film
About.com's guide to sites on films made outside the US.

About.com: Oscar® in the Middle Ages
Medieval Movies that have won Oscars.

Celluloid Jesus: The Christ Film Web Pages
Links to information on all the major "Jesus" films.

Class Policies

As adults in college you are entitled to know what the class policies are, and to adhere to them. They are designed to help with your education, and to enable all class members to do their best.

* Attendance: Attendance will be recorded. You are required to attend all classes. Since this class meets just 12 times, after the second absence, each unexcused absence will reduce your final grade by half a letter grade. Persistent lateness, which is extremely disruptive (4 times or more) will lead to a grade reduction of one letter grade.

* Classroom courtesy: Out of respect for your fellow students, come to class on time and do not move around during class. Turn off beepers and mobile phones (see me in emergency situations). Do not tape or record lectures. Do not talk during film screenings. Have dinner before class as major munching is forbidden.

* Class preparation: You will learn much more if you come to class prepared, therefore you must read assignments before class. Papers must be handed in on time, unless an extension is given. All class work must be submitted in order to earn a final grade.

* Ownership of class work: All class work must be your own. In any case of cheating or plagiarism, the penalty will be flunking the course. For written work, keep your preparation materials, and be prepared to explain the meaning of everything you write.

* Make up exams: Make up exams will only been given in the case of certifiable family or health emergencies.

Students are encouraged to make an appointment with the instructor to discuss papers, projects, and issues raised in class.


A very extensive thematic Bibliography of books and articles on film and the middle ages is available as part of this class site.

The "Boredom Factor" in a Film and History Course

(adapted from http://sterling.holycross.edu/departments/history/lattreed/warcnsyl.htm)

I actively encourage class participation and discussion of the films and readings. To this end, 20% of your class grade reflects your active participation and comment on both. "Boring," however, is not a word we are going to allow in this class. Some of the films here are indeed slam-bang action flicks, but others are slower, in black and white, in foreign languages, and even silent. They demand an attention span of more than three minutes!

All of these films are considered classics in their fields, and have stood the test of time. Reactions of boredom are actually self-induced by an unwillingness to engage; however, they can be constructively analyzed and the issue raised in both class discussions and the weekly writing assignment. In other words, assess and analyze why you react this way. Did the pace of the film suddenly drag? The acting droop? The script sputter into clichés? If you find yourself unable to "connect" with a film, question what you lack in terms of background and experience to deal with the film on its own level.

Course Content

Note: Individual film screenings are subject to change.

Class Title and Reading


# UNF Library has copy
* Dr. Halsall has copy

Theme 1


Blood and Sandals: The Fall of Rome from Cecil B. De Mille to Ridley Scott Filmography

*Ben Hur (1926), Fred Niblo, 141 mins.
*Sign of the Cross (1932), Cecil B. De Mille, 118 mins.
*Julius Caesar (1953), Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 120 mins.
*Ben Hur (1959), William Wyler, 212 mins.
*Spartacus (1960), Stanley Kubrick, 198 mins.
*Cleopatra (1963), Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 243 mins.
*The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), Anthony Mann, 153 mins.
#*Satyricon (1969), Federico Fellini, 129 mins.
#I, Claudius (1976), Herbert Wise. 10 x 50mins.
Caligula (1980), Franco Rossellini (and Bob Guccione), 156 mins.
*Gladiator (2000), Ridley Scott, 154 mins.
*Titus (2000), Julie Taymor, 162 mins.



Aberth. A Knight at the Movies. vii-xi.



W.V. Harris. "Spartacus." In Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies. Edited by Mark Carnes. New York: Henry Holt, 1995. 40-44

Winkler, Martin. "The Roman Empire in American Cinema After 1945." Classical Journal 93:2 (1998): 167-96.

Ron Magid. "Rebuilding Ancient Rome." American Cinematographer 81:5 (May 2000). 54-9 [Online via WilsonSelect]

6/24 Film Clips: (Sin and Spectacle)

--Ben Hur (1927)
--Sign of the Cross
--The Greatest Story Ever Told


Lawrence Russell. Fellini Satyricon.

Maria Wyke. "Ancient Rome and the Traditions of Film History."


Roman spectacles (triumphs, circuses, races and combats) have been irresistible attractions for Hollywood film makers. What elements draw cinematic attention?

How has traditional Christian understandings of such spectacles impacted film representations?

Film: Clips (pre-Gladiator)

--Fall of the Roman Empire
--*Blade Runner

Film: Gladiator



C.S. Stone. Gladiator Fact - Gladiator Fiction

Kathleen M Coleman. Movie Consultancy.

The Roman Theatre of Cruelty

Gladiator: The Real Story

The Historical Accuracy of Gladiator

Jack G. Shaheen. "The Gladiator": How in the World Did Bad Arabs Happen to This Roman on His Way to the Forum?


Gladiator: Official Site


How do the goals of modern historians and modern movie makers differ? Consider the numerous efforts to "correct" the errors in Gladiator, and especially the comments of Kathleen Coleman, the historical consultant to the film.

In making Gladiator, Ridley Scott drew on the cinematic history’s portrayal of a decadent Roman Empire. Identify three films that seem to have influenced him, and explain how they did so.

In what ways does the account of Rome by Ridley Scott (and Hollywood movies in general) accord with Roman and Christian writers such as Ammianus, Lactantius, and Tertullian?

Theme  2 Man or Myth?: Jesus in the Movies



*Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), Norman Jewison, 108 mins.
*The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Martin Scorcese
*Life of Brian (1979), Terry Jones


Passion Play of Oberammagau (1898)
*From the Manger to the Cross (1912), Sidney Olett, 71 mins.
*King of Kings (1927), Cecil B. DeMille, 112 mins.

Day of Triumph (1954), Irving Pichel, 110 mins
*King of Kings (1961), Nicholas Ray, 168 mins.
*Gospel According to Matthew (1964), Pier Paolo Pasolini,
*The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), George Stevens, 268 mins.
*Godspell (1973), David Greene, 103 mins.
*Jesus of Nazareth (1977), Franco Zeffirelli, 371 mins.

*Jesus (1979), John Krish and Peter Sykes, 117 mins
[whole film available online]
*Jesus of Montreal (1989), Denys Arcand, 120 mins.

Jesus (1999), Roger Young 120 mins/174 mins
*The Miracle Maker (2000), Derek Hayes
The Gospel of John (2003), Philip Saville, 180 mins
The Passion of the Christ (2004) Mel Gibson, 127 mins




William Telford. Images of Christ in the Cinema

Peter T. Chattaway. "Jesus at the Movies." Christianity Today. Mar/Apr 2000

Harold W. Attridge. "The Tensions between Faith and History."

7/1 Film: Clips (Jesus as Myth)

--From the Manger to the Cross
--King of Kings (1927)
--King of Kings (1961)
--The Greatest Story Ever Told
--Jesus of Nazareth
--The Miracle Maker

Film: Gospel According to Matthew



Kendrick James  kendrick@eramp.net. "The Gospel According to St. Matthew" ("Il Vangelo secondo Matteo") (Italy, 1964) A Film Review By James Kendrick".  4 Apr 1998 17:25:26 GMT. Newsgroup: rec.arts.movies.reviews. r.a.m.r. #11828


Celluloid Jesus: The Christ Film Web Pages

From Jesus to Christ

Filmography of Jesus


What problems face the filmmaker in portraying Jesus? Identify the way in which three films have addressed these problems. Do they succeed?

Pasolini’s Gospel according to Matthew is, without question, the closest to the Biblical text. Pasolini was also consciously reacting to Hollywood’s view of Jesus. Why do you think, given that Pasolini was an openly homosexual Communist, that the Vatican lists only his film of Jesus’ life in its list of recommended movies?

What stories of Jesus do you think would make sense to most Christians in the past -- Hollywood’s or modern historians’? Do you think most Christians cared nothing for historical truth?

Film: Clips (Jesus as Man)

--Life of Brian
--Jesus Christ Superstar

Film: Last Temptation of Christ



Steven D. Greydanus. The Last Temptation of Christ: An Essay in Film Criticism and Faith.

Carol Iannone. "The Last Temptation Reconsidered. " First Things 60 (February 1996): 50-54.


The Face: Jesus in Art

Face of Jesus


Is the Life of Brian really an effort at demythologizing Jesus?

How is Jesus characterized in Jesus Christ Superstar? What aspects of the film attempt to secularize the story? Does the story of Jesus make sense when presented like this?

Martin Scorsese was much criticized for Last Temptation of Christ. Explain why he was criticized. Then consider defenses of Scorsese that could be made by a sympathetic Christian. For instance, does Scorcese ever really abandon Christian concerns? Consider, for example, how Kundun could be seen as a Christian account of a Buddhist leader.

Christian art (icons, statues, paintings) over the centuries has done a remarkably successful job in presenting powerful images of Jesus. Do any of the films we have considered succeed likewise?

Theme  3 Epic Heroes: The Knight as Hero Filmography

*Siegfried (1924), Fritz Lang, 95 mins.
*The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Michael Curtiz, 102 mins.
*The Seventh Seal (1957), Ingmar Bergman, 96 mins
*Knights of the Round Table (1953), Richard Thorpe, 115 mins
*Sword of Lancelot (1963), Cornel Wilde, 116 mins.
*The War Lord, (1965), Franklin J. Schaffner , 123 mins.
*El Cid (1961), Anthony Mann, 182 mins.
*Lancelot du Lac (1974), Robert Bresson, 80 mins.
*Robin and Marian (1976), Richard Lester, 112 mins
*Perceval le Gallois (1978), Eric Rohmer, 140 mins.

*Excalibur (1981), John Boorman, 119/140 mins.
*Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), Terry Jones, 90 mins.
*Robin Hood (1991), John Irvin, 150 mins.
*Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), 138, mins
Les Visiteurs (1993), Jean-Marie Poiré, 107 mins.
*The Thirteenth Warrior (1999), John McTiernan, 102 mins.
*Beowulf (1999), Graham Baker, 89 mins.
*Just Visiting (2001), Jean-Marie Poiré, 88 mins
King Arthur (2004) Antoine Fuqua

Medieval Japan

*#The Seven Samurai (1954), Akira Kurosawa, 141/203 mins
Ran (1985) Akira Kurosawa, 161 mins.
Gate of Hell
(1953) [Alt: Jigokuman], Teinsuke Kinugasa
Lightning Swords of Death
(1974), Kenji Misumi, 83 mins.



Aberth. A Knight at the Movies. Chap 1, Chap 3, Chap 4



Alexander Murray. "Missionaries and Magic in Dark Age Europe." Past and Present 139 (1992). 186-205.

Stephen Knight. "A Garland of Robin Hoods." Film and History 29 (1999): 3-4.

Peter A. Linehan. "The Cid of History and the History of the Cid." History Today 37 (Sept, 1987): 26-32.

Brian Stone. "Models of Kingship: Arthur in Medieval Romance." History Today 37 (Nov, 1987): 32-38.

Vale, Juliet, and Malcolm Vale. "Knightly Codes and Piety." History Today 37 (Nov, 1987): 12-17.

Kaminsky, Stuart. "The Samurai Film and the Western." Journal of Popular Film 1 (Fall 1972): 313-324.

7/8 Film: Clips (Epic heroes in film)

--The Cid
--The 13th Warrior

Film: Excalibur


About.com: Knights & Armor

Medieval Knights


Consider why knights featured so frequently as the heroes of medieval literature. What other people might have be considered as heroes by people of the time (think religion)? What impact did the social power of the nobility have on the presence of knights in literature? Make up comparable questions and answers for current heroes in movies and television.

What were the important issues in medieval Spanish history according to El Cid?

7/13 Film: The Adventures of Robin Hood

Film: Clips (Robin Hood)

Men in Tights
--Robin and Marion
--Prince of



Since the Robin Hood of movies is a composite figure, is there anyway Robin Hood movies can be considered as "historical"?

Film: The Seventh Seal

Film: Clips (Modern Critics of Knights)

--Monty Python and the Holy Grail
--*Love and Death
--*Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey



Aberth. A Knight at the Movies. Chap 5



The Seventh Seal

Approaches to Film: The Seventh Seal
With film clips.

Roger Ebert. The Seventh Seal [Online review]


Why is the Seventh Seal considered a great film? Think of other movies you may have seen that address similar issues. How do they compare.

Why has the Seventh Seal been spoofed so often?

7/20 Film: The Seven Samurai

Film: Clips 

--The Magnificent Seven



Cora Agatucci. Introduction to Seven Samurai

Asian Films: Akira Kurasawa


What does Seven Samurai have in common with films focusing on Western Knighthood?

In what ways were the Samurai like western knights? In what ways was the Samurai system different?

Why has this movie been so important in later American cinema?

Theme 4 The Viper's Brood: The Plantagenet Saga Filmography

*Becket (1964), Peter Glenville, 148 mins.
*The Lion in Winter (1968), Anthony Harvey, 135 mins.
*King Richard and the Crusaders (1954), David Butler, 114 mins.
Murder in the Cathedral (1952), George Hollering, 140 mins.




Ralph V. Turner. "Eleanor of Aquitaine and her Children: an Inquiry into Medieval Family Attachment." Journal of Medieval History 14 (1988): 321-335.

7/22 Film: Becket

Film: Clips (Sainted bishops)



The Thomas Becket Page

Oscar Romero


What was historically accurate about Becket? What was anachronistic? Make a list of five points on each side. Would the film have been better as a film if it were more accurate?

After his death, Thomas Becket was one of the most important saints in the middle ages. Does the film bring out this aspect of his renown?

Film: The Lion in Winter

Film: Clips (Stars and Melodrama)

--*The African Queen
--*Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf?


The Lion in Winter, from Magill's Survey of Cinema, 15 Jun 1995


Although much praised, The Lion in Winter has also been criticized for its deliberate emotionality, and has been compared to Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Meanwhile Katherine Hepburn has been both praised and criticized as "star" who only ever played herself. Read the medieval chroniclers on the Plantagenets and try to come up with a defense of the movie.

Should members of royal families, or the people who govern, be the proper focus of historical investigation?

Theme 5 Feminist Medievalism: Powerful Women Filmography

Women and Power

*The Sorceress [Le Moine et la sorcière] (1987), Suzanne Schiffman, 97 mins.
*The Anchoress (1983), Chris Newby, 108 mins.
*Stealing Heaven (1988), Cliver Donner, 115 mins.

Joan of Arc

*Joan the Woman (1916), Cecil B. Demille, 100 mins.
*Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Carl Dreyer, 77 mins.
*Joan of Arc (1948), Victor Flemming, 100/140 mins
*St. Joan (1957), Otto Preminger, 110 mins.
The Trial of Joan of Arc [Alt: Procès de Jeanne d'Arc](1962), Robert Bresson, 65 mins.
*Jeanne la Pucelle 1. Les Batailles [Alt: Joan the Maid 1.: The Battles] (1993), Jacques Rivette, 160 mins.
*Jeanne la Pucelle 2. Les Prisons [Alt: Joan the Maid 1.: The Prisons] (1993), Jacques Rivette, 176 mins.
*Joan of Arc (1999) [TV MiniSeries], Christian Duguay, 140 mins.
*Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999), Luc Besson, 148/160 mins.



Aberth. A Knight at the Movies. Chap 6



Gerda Lerner. "Joan of Arc: Three Films." In Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies. Edited by Mark Carnes. New York: Henry Holt, 1995. 54-55

Carina Yervasi " The Faces of Joan: Cinematic Representations of Joan of Arc." Film and History 29:3-4 (1999).

David John Williams. "Culture Wars Medieval and Modern in Le Moine et la sorcière." Film and History 29:1-2 (1999). 56-70.

Jean-Claude Schmitt. The Holy Greyhound: Guinefort, Healer of Children Since the Thirteenth Century. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

7/29 Film: Clips

Film: The Sorceress


About.com. Witches and Witchcraft in Europe


The Sorceress is notable as a film that reflects the participation and interests of a modern historian. How does this effect the film? How does it differ from the medieval story told by Stephen de Bourbon? How does it differ from the stories the peasants told each other?

Eleanor of Aquitaine (of The Lion in Winter) is one example of a "powerful woman." What sort of "women’s power" is of interest to the makers of The Sorceress?

Film: Clips (Joan as heroine)

--Joan the Woman
--Joan of Arc
--St. Joan
--Jeanne le Pucelle

Film: Passion of Joan of Arc


International Joan of Arc Society
-- premier scholarly site.

Joan of Arc Considered
--What caused Joan’s voices?

Joan of Arc Center
--best example of a devotional site.

Joan of Arc Online Archive
--another devotional site


Historians know more about Joan of Arc than almost any other non-royal medieval person. In some respects, since the records of her trial interviews survive we know more. She lived the most conventionally "heroic" life of any woman history , at least according to the conventions of male heroism. Film makers have either tried to re-interpret her, or simply stick to the texts. Which approach do you think works best?

The Passion of Joan of Arc is a silent film. Do you think it would work better with spoken dialogue?

Theme 6 Hollywood's Best Efforts Filmography

*Ivanhoe (1952), Richard Thorpe, 106 mins.
*Ladyhawke (1985) Richard Donner, 124 mins.
*Name of the The Rose (1986) Jean-Jacques Annaud, 130 mins.
*Braveheart (1995), Mel Gibson, 177 mins
*A Knight’s Tale (2001), Brian Helgeland, 132 mins.
Shrek (2001), Andrew Adamson,Vicky Jenson, 90 mins.
Fellowship of the Ring (2001), Peter Jackson, 165 mins



Sid Ray. " Hunks, History, and Homophobia: Masculinity Politics in: Braveheart and Edward II." Film and History 29:3-4 (1999).

Vivian Sobchack. "The Insistent Fringe: Moving Images and the Palimpsest of Historical Consciousness."

Paul Halsall | Sharon Krossa. The Case of Braveheart: Two Points of View

Film: Clips

Film: Braveheart or 
The Name of the Rose


How Accurate was Braveheart?

Braveheart and Nationalism: Letters in the Glasgow Herald

Sir William Wallace


Scotland’s War

The Case of Braveheart: Two Points of View


Make a list of ten historical inaccuracies in Braveheart. Do they add up to a political program by Mel Gibson, or are they simply a result of efforts to make a better film?

Consider Sobchak’s article (it is difficult to read, but try in any case). Is she defending or attacking movies such as Braveheart?

8/5 Final






Site Design: Paul Halsall

created 6/25/2001 : revised 6/19/2003

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