This chapter examines the various modes of film practice adopted for representing the Middle Ages, from the epic historical adventure film to low-budget art-house fare. It suggests that film-makers frequently blur the boundaries between different historical periods, and that there is something specific about the way the premodern past is represented as dangerous and dirty. The chapter compares representations of the medieval with representations of the more modern past, arguing that the former tend to adopt a more populist and masculine appeal than the numerous middle-brow costume dramas set in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It considers the ways in which the films engage with questions of national identity and national cinema, in an era in which film production is increasingly transnational. The chapter focuses on films released since 1980 - a little over fifty of which have offered some version of the British medieval past.
Contemporary ‘British’ cinema and the nation’s monarchs
The quarter century since Kenneth Branagh's Henry V(1989) has seen numerous representations of English and Scottish monarchs, both legendary and historical, in 'British' films. Some of these films function as biopics, some as dramas in which the monarch is the protagonist and some as costume dramas or historical films in which monarchs appear only briefly. At one level these films are more or less conventional products, designed to appeal to particular global markets, and often UK-US co productions. Here the relevant questions are the circumstances of production and circulation, and the extent to which the films rework established genre conventions. At another level, the representation of monarchy in these films plays a key role in the maintenance and renewal of the national institution. In this context, this chapter will examine how these films negotiate the shift from the absolutist power of the pre-modem and early modem monarchy to the 'postpolitical' constitutional monarchy of the contemporary period. As they move toward the present day, the monarch becomes both an ordinary person, the private individual in the family and household, and an extraordinary figure, surrounded by all the ceremony and pomp of royal1itual and costume drama, a spectacular image for a global brand.
Rural settings, national identity and British silent cinema
From Hepworth’s scenics in the late 1890s and early 1900s to the heritage films of the last couple of decades, the representation of a particular version of traditional, rural England has been central to the articulation of national identity in British films. It is perhaps worth remembering too that 1895 saw not only the first public performances of films, but also the foundation of the National Trust, known at the time as the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest and Natural Beauty. This chapter offers some reflections on the use of rural landscapes in British films of the silent period, and the ways in which those films and their landscapes were promoted and taken up in contemporary critical debate. Inevitably, this will touch on the role of landscape in articulating national identity – and on the centrality of the concept of the picturesque in the film culture of the period. It will also become clear that in contemporary critical debate picturesque Englishness is very often seen as synonymous with high quality photography. I will draw upon examples from the late 1890s to the late 1920s, and from fiction and non-fiction films alike.