This chapter focuses on a conjunction of contemporary ideas concerning nation, history and race, all of which, participated in popular and academic constructions of the medieval. As well as causing political controversy from the moment of its release, D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation was hailed as a milestone in cinema history. Endorsed on a political level by President Woodrow Wilson, whose scholarship on the American Civil War was explicitly referenced in the film's intertitles, it was also praised by film critics and viewers alike for its innovative style and use of technology. Cinematic medievalism participated in and drew on a wider cultural and political preoccupation with the Middle Ages. In popular culture the Middle Ages were often imagined in a spectacular mode, a mode they shared with 'historical realism' and cinematic technology.
Medieval film' forces us into a double-take on chronology. This book argues that such a playful confusion of temporalities is a fundamental characteristic not just of the term but also of medieval films themselves. Medieval films reflect on the fact that they make present a past that was never filmable and offer alternatives to chronological conceptions of time. The book examines the contrasting uses, or non-uses, of medieval art objects in two medieval films and assesses how they contribute to the films' overall authenticity-effects. It makes tentative contribution to a list of such characteristics: that the fragmented visual profile of the medieval makes medieval authenticity-effects particularly troublesome to produce. The reliance of film theory on medievalism has never been acknowledged by film scholars. The book shows the ways in which preconceived notions of the Middle Ages filtered into and were influenced by film theory throughout the twentieth century; and to what extent film theory relies on knowledge about the Middle Ages for its basic principles. It explores to what extent medieval film engages with questions of language, and to what extent these engagements may be distinctive. Cinematic medievalism participated in and drew on a wider cultural and political preoccupation with the Middle Ages. Romanticism posited the Middle Ages as an alternative, utopian realm promising creative and political possibility. The book argues that certain films with medieval themes and settings, mostly dating from the 1940s to the 1960s, demonstrate a surprising affinity with the themes and techniques associated with film noir.
This introduction presents an overview of key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book. The book argues that a playful confusion of temporalities is a fundamental characteristic not just of the term but also of medieval films themselves. Medieval films reflect on the fact that they make present a past that was never filmable and offer alternatives to chronological conceptions of time. The book traces the special relationship to temporality that characterises medieval film to its roots in the overlap of medievalism, film history and film theory. It suggests further examples of such new ways in which films that engage with the Middle Ages will be relevant to the present and future. Medieval film is not condemned to perpetuate the status quo, but, through its very position outside the historiographical and generic mainstreams can alter representations of history and cinematic modes.