Tag Archives: Culture

The Welsh Salem

There are actually several Welsh Salems, but the most iconic is both a place and a painting: of the interior of a small Baptist chapel in the village of Pentre Gwynfrun, near Llanbedr in North Wales, by Sydney Curnow Vosper (1866-1942).  The focus of the watercolor is an elderly (even ancient) woman in traditional Welsh dress, surrounded by several other members of the congregation, most deep in prayer. Salem was painted by Vosper in 1908, a time when local Welsh traditions appeared vulnerable, and the painting reads tradition, faith, calm in an increasingly industrialized world. It also became the most accessible of images when it was incorporated into an advertising campaign for Lever Brothers’ Sunlight Soap, the first packaged bars of soap in Britain: for £7 of soap, consumers were entitled to send in a voucher and receive a color print of Salem. Many did so, especially in Wales, and consequently it adorns many Welsh walls. The painting has been the focus of a book and a recent exhibition, and Salem Chapel has become the object of many a pilgrimage.

Salem 1908

Salem on Wall

Salem, Sydney Curnow Vosper, 1908, Lady Lever Art Gallery, Liverpool Museums; a framed color print, BBC Wales

I saw my first Salem print when I was around 20, in a Welsh bed and breakfast, appropriately. Within a week of my first sighting, I saw several more. I had no knowledge of traditional Welsh clothing at that time, so I thought that this Salem pictured a seventeenth-century Salem, Massachusetts church and that the woman depicted was an ancient accused witch, being cast out by her congregation. I heard “Salem” and thought Salem Witch Trials. Believe me, I was quickly corrected! There is, however, a vague diabolical connection here: many people see the devil in the folded sleeve of the woman’s shawl–on the right, near her bent elbow, and her bible–as well as a mysterious face in the window. I have to admit that these visions elude me, but clearly there is more to Salem than meets the eye.


Thinking about Pink

Just the other day I heard my fellow Salemite Michelle Finamore, the Curator of Fashion Arts at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, talking about her ongoing exhibition Think Pink on NPR, a nice reminder that I haven’t seen it yet! The exhibition opened in October (heralded by pink spotlights on the Museum marking Breast Cancer Awareness Month), but I’m glad that I have inadvertently waited until now, because for me pink is more of a spring color, and definitely a happy one. About a decade ago, I had endured the most miserable winter (even more miserable than this past one), a prolonged period of heartache and anxiety about nearly aspect of my life. And then one day in mid-March I spotted a bubblegum pink spring coat at a vintage store in Boston, bought it, put it on, and everything just got better! It was the perfect sixties pink, not too “hot” and not too light, in the perfect Audrey Hepburn silhouette with a little Doris Day collar, and (of course) three-quarter sleeves, and I wore that coat every day through that Spring, no matter what I had on under it, until the day (or rather, night) that it was stolen from a restaurant coat room while I was eating dinner. No matter, it had worked its magic, and I truly hope that it did the same for whoever took it home. The color pink cannot fail to bring a smile to my face, whether I’m thinking about my long-lost coat, or the Diana Vreeland-esque character played by Kay Thompson in the classic Audrey (and Fred Astaire) film Funny Face, who also encourages us all to “Think Pink!”

pink MFA Boston

Pink Doll's Dress

Pink

The MFA in October and a silk taffeta 18th century doll’s dress from the Exhibition (Elizabeth Day McCormick Collection), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; still image of Kay Thompson’s “Think Pink” number in Funny Face (1957).

The Think Pink exhibition is not just about showing off pretty dresses, but also an exploration of “the changing meaning of pink in art and fashion”. It seems that pink perceptions are particularly interesting when relative to gender: the headline of Michelle’s NPR interview the other day was her statement that pink as a girl’s color was “a post-World War II phenomenon”–New York magazine proclaimed that Pink was Formerly a Bro Shade in response. A great example of looking back at masculine pre-war pink is the Ralph Lauren suit worn by Robert Redford in the 1974 version of the Great Gatsby, which is pictured in the exhibition along side a man’s formal suit in deep pink silk from several centuries earlier (which you can read more about here). This certainly rings true for me: while I don’t see a lot of men in pink in my period (the sixteenth century), there are not hard to find a bit later. Pink strikes me as a very cavalier color, and men in the eighteenth century were certainly not afraid to wear it–even Prime Ministers.

Pink Suits MFA

Benedict in Pink MET-001

Pink Pitt Victoria & Albert Museum

The Ralph Lauren “Gatsby” Suit and a Man’s formal suit, France, 1770-1780, silk satin with silk embroidery, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Portrait of Benedikt von Hertenstein by Hans Holbein the Younger, c. 1517, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Miniature Portrait of  William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham by Jean André Rouquet, 1740s, Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Appendix:  Because it is her 90th birthday today, and because the coat she is wearing is quite similar to my perfect pink coat (except mine was made of a thin wool weave, not satin), I’ve got to include this picture of the perfect pink girl, Doris Day (from the blog Cinema Style).

Doris Day (1960s)

 



Salem Film Fest 2014

Spring break week for me, but unfortunately I have no warm destination in sight, just a series of day trips and various “staycation” cultural activities (and of course it is snowing again this morning). Oh well, Salem’s annual documentary film festival is on now, and nearly all of the films look interesting, first among them Maidentrip, which documents the amazing solo circumnavigation of Dutch teenager Laura Dekker in 2011-2012, and The Galapagos Affair: When Satan Came to Eden, which examines the still-unsolved disappearance of several members of a not-so-Utopian community of European expatriates on the Galapagos Islands in the 1930s. I love stories–real or otherwise–about displaced Europeans in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, always feuding and over-estimating their abilities!

Salem Film Fest Maidentrip

Galapagos Affair

Somehow I got completely confused over the screening times of the other two films I really wanted to see: they were both up yesterday so I’ll have to see them at other venues. The historian in me mandates that I see Here was Cuba, the latest examination of the Cuban Missile Crisis using recently declassified sources from U.S., Russian, and Cuban archives, and my inner architecture buff really wants to see The Human Scale, a plea for better urban planning–hopefully from the Renaissance perspective that its title implies. Just in time for Salem.

Salem Film Fest Here was Cuba

Human Scale


In the Bleak Midwinter

Its title does not really conjure up Christmas cheer, but In the Bleak Midwinter is one of my favorite carols. I heard its melody repeatedly over the holidays and made a mental note to look into it a bit. And now that we are in the post-Christmas bleak not-quite-midwinter it seems like an appropriate time to do that. Surprisingly it is a creation of the Victorian era and after: I thought it was much older. Two early nineteenth-century composers set Christina Rossetti’s 1872 poem (first published in Scribner’s magazine) to music, creating an almost-instant classic: In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan, Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone; Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow, In the bleak midwinter, long ago. 

While the rest of Rossetti’s poem is Christocentric, this opening stanza, setting the scene, is universal. Combined with the melodies of Gustav Holst and Harold Darke, the song seems ageless, which is why I thought it was older than it actually is. Darke’s version (a nice version of which is here) won “best Christmas Carol” in a poll of the world’s leading choirmasters in 2008. Besides the beautiful melodies assigned to Rossetti’s words, I’m interested in the use of the word “bleak” here: usually this term connotes a definite pessimism, despair, even hopelessness; but I think the combination of words and music creates a feeling of comfort and hopefulness, to get everyone through the bleak midwinter. My own understanding of bleakness comes more from images than sounds, and I think midwinter can be beautiful, both as a barren landscape and as a setting for all the little details within.

Midwinter Pickering House 1900

Midwinter Boston Common 1904

Midwinter A Wolf Had Not Been Seen at Salem for Thirty Years Pyle

Midwinter Museums Karolik Collection MFA

Midwinter Tile Kate Greenaway

Favorite midwinter images, not so “bleak”:  the Pickering House, Salem, c. 1900 from a private family collection; Boston Common, c. 1904, E. Chickering & Co., Library of Congress, Howard Pyle, “A Wolf Had not Been Seen in Salem for Thirty Years”, illustration for his 1909 Harper’s Monthly story, “The Salem Wolf”, Delaware Art Museum; Anonymous American painting, 19th century, Karolik Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Kate Greenaway wall tile for Burslem, c. 1881-1885, Victoria & Albert Museum, London.


Witches Three

Because I’m not going to make it to Scotland this summer (or Fall, probably) I have been perusing the various sites and reviews devoted to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art’s current exhibition, Witches and Wicked Bodies, to see if I can find witchcraft images that I haven’t seen before. The depiction of witchcraft from the Renaissance on is a compelling visual and cultural topic: I can’t believe there hasn’t been an exhibition before this. I have a whole portfolio of images that I use in my various courses, and rely heavily on the analysis in Charles Zika’s great book: The Appearance of Witchcraft: Images and Social Meaning in 16th Century Europe (for the best analysis of the really provocative prints of early sixteenth-century artist Hans Baldung Grien) as well as the sources and images available at another ongoing Scottish(digital) exhibitionThe Damned Art: Witchcraft and Demonology. Witchcraft has been serious business in Scotland, from the days of King James VI’s Daemonologie (1597) to the present.

WitchesOnlineVersion

Looking through the images from these various sources, I am struck by the rule of three:  how very often witches are depicted in a group of three, as in Henry Fuseli’s 1785 iconic image of the Three Weird Sisters from Macbeth on the exhibition poster above. Fuseli’s image is easily explainable: it is based on Shakespeare’s three prophetic sisters which is in turn based on those of Holinshed’s Chronicle, which is in turn based on the traditional threefold warnings of doom. But even before Shakespeare’s time, witches are often found in parties of three, perhaps to depict a closed and empowered circle, the smallest coven or conspiracy, or a demonic inversion of the Holy Trinity. The Scotland show features several witchcraft themes, Macbeth and magic circles (as well as witches in flight and devilish rituals) which highlight the power of three. But then what about good things come in threes or third time’s a charm?

Three Witches  Molitor 1489p

Three Witches Flowers 1619

John Runciman

NPG 6903; The Three Witches from Macbeth (Elizabeth Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne; Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire; Anne Seymour Damer) by Daniel Gardner

William Blakethe Triple Hectate1795

Three Witches Rackham1911

Three Witches Belfast

Three Witches depicted in: Ulrich Molitor’s lamiis et phitonicis mulieribus (1489) and The Wonderful Discoverie of the Witchcrafts of Margaret and Phillip Flower (1619), Ferguson Collection, University of Glasgow; John Runciman, Three Satyrs’ Heads, 18th century, National Galleries of Scotland; Daniel Gardner, The Three Witches from Macbeth (Elizabeth Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne; Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire; Anne Seymour Damer, 1775) National  Portrait Gallery, London;  William Blake, The Triple Hectate, 1795, National Galleries of  Scotland; Arthur Rackham’s Three Witches/Gossips, 1911, from The Ingoldsby Legends of Myth & Marvels; the Weird Sisters in last year’s production of Macbeth at the Lyric Threatre in Belfast, Northern Ireland. No Goya—too scary!


Why not Alfred?

Very soon we will have a name for the new royal prince and it will probably not be Alfred (all the odds seem to be on boring George or James), but I say: why not?  The  Anglo-Saxon kings are the most English of all English monarchs, and Alfred was, of course, the Great. His lifetime (849-899) was contentious and “dark”, but he shed light whenever he could. Though officially King of the West Saxons, he styled himself King of the Anglo-Saxons, and most historians think of him as the first King of England–at least that part not occupied by the Vikings. Alfred contained these same Vikings, by building a strong fortification system and a navy (again–what could be more English than this?) He was also that very rare early medieval king–a scholar–and as such translated classical and religious works into the language (Anglo-Saxon, Old English) of his countrymen, promoting knowledge and his native language at the same time. Alfred was truly a keeper of the peace and a unifier of England–both in terms of his military and administrative systems and his codified laws–and the only English king to be titled “the Great”: what better namesake?

NPG 4269; King Alfred ('The Great') by Unknown artist

NPG D9257; King Alfred ('The Great') by John Faber Sr

Alfred Counties

NT; (c) Stourhead; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Alfred 1912 BM

The only way to see Alfred as his contemporaries did is on the many coins from his realm, another sign of his effective kingship. Much later, his image becomes much more legendary: Ninth-century coin, and 1712 print by John Faber Sr., both National Portrait Gallery, London; “King Alfred the Great forming a Code of Laws and Dividing the Kingdom into Counties, Tythings, Hundreds, &”, Charles Grignion illustration from Raymond’s History of England, British Museum, King Alfred the Great attributed to Samuel Woodforde, c. 1810-15, The National Trust @ Stourhead; Print of Frank O. Salisbury’s King Alfred the Great Rebuilding the Walls of the City of London, 1912, British Museum.


Streets of Boston

Like everyone else, I was thinking about Boston a lot yesterday and as it was a non-teaching day I was very vulnerable to the drip drip of media “updates” while at home. So I turned off everything and looked through some books about Boston:  its history, its architecture, its culture. Much better! Then I began assembling some of my favorite images and impressions of the city, and as that seemed like a somewhat productive enterprise I began to feel even better. So what I have today is a very random sample of my “collection”, including old favorites, new discoveries, and images of past and near-present. Boston is a dynamic city which has experienced a lot of change in the past few decades, but when I look at these images I still see a recognizable city, with the exception of the harbor views–visual reminders that Boston’s first and foremost identity for several centuries was that of a port. Paul Revere would draw on these prints a few decades later for his pre-revolutionary depiction of the occupation of Boston by British ships.

PicMonkey Collage with border

Two James Turner etchings of Boston’s wharves in the mid-eighteenth century from The American Magazine (Boston: Rogers and Fowle, 1743-46) and a hand-colored etching by John Carwitham of “A South East View of the Great Town of Boston in New England in America” (London: c. 1730-60), American Antiquarian Society, Worcester.

A century later, it’s more about the streets of Boston, the emerging “hub of the universe” and “Athens of America”. The mid- to late-nineteenth century were heady days for Boston, which of course had left Salem in the dust. During my hunt yesterday, I was particularly surprised to find that my favorite British pioneering photographer, Francis Frith, had included several images of Boston in his “Universal Series”. Artworks of varying mediums–watercolor, oil, another photograph–to depict other city scenes at around the same time.

Boston Francis Frith

Boston Frish State house

Boston Benjamin Champney 1851

Boston Railraod Jubilee on Boston Common William Sharp 1851

Boston Tremont Street 1860

Francis Frith photographs of Boston Common and the Massachusetts State House, 1850s, Victoria & Albert Museum, London; Benjamin Champney, Washington Street, Boston, 1850, Princeton University Graphic Arts Department; William Sharp, Railroad Jubilee on Boston Common, 1851, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Tremont Street, 1860, Halliday Historic Photograph Company, New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

And then there are the novel views of the city, created by creative and entrepreneurial publishers, cartographers, and balloonists! The nineteenth century loved the “big picture”.

Boston Balloon View 1860

Boston Birds Eye Triptych

James Black, Boston, as the Eagle and Wild Goose See It”, 1860, Metropolitan Museum of Art; a Birds Eye View of Boston Triptych, 1903, ArtHouseGraffiti.

Of the later nineteenth- and early twentieth-century “Boston painters’, I think Arthur Clifton Goodwin was particularly adept at capturing Boston streetscapes in his impressionistic way. There are lots of Goodwin paintings to choose from (in auction archives and the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, which gave him his own posthumous show in the 1970s), but I went with Copley Square (1908). Of course I had to include a painting from his fellow Boston Impressionist, the more well-known Childe Hassam, so I went for Mount Vernon Street (1919) one of the most beautiful, and reproduced, streets of Boston. Jump forward thirty years, and you’re looking at “old” Beacon Hill with the financial district rising above it from across the Charles River in Cambridge in an amazing (oil!) painting by Thomas Adrian Fransioli. I love the “modern” look of this painting, although I believe that Fransioli is referencing the present, the past, and the future. Boston looks like the “shining city on the hill” that it has always been.

Boston Copley Square 1908 Arthur Clifton Goodwin MFA

Boston Mt Vernon Street Childe Hassam 1919 Christies

Boston Beadon Hill Fransioli 1947 MFA

Arthur Clifton Goodwin, Copley Square, London , 1908, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Childe Hassam, Mount Vernon Street, Christies; Thomas Adrian Fransioli, Beacon Hill, 1947, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.


Salem Film Fest 2013

Despite some very nasty weather, the sixth annual Salem Film Fest opened yesterday, bringing 32 documentary films to town for screenings at the Peabody Essex Museum, Cinema Salem, and the Visitors  Center of the National Park Service. This festival gets bigger and better every year; I can tell because (it’s all about me) I always make a list of films I want to see and each year the list gets longer and more of my choices sell out. This year, I had The Ghost Army on the top of my list, and it sold out immediately. They’ve added another show next week, but I’m sure it’s selling out as I write. This film, by award-winning documentarian Rick Beyer, tells the incredible story of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, a World War II Army unit whose job was to deceive the Germans by staging fake battlefield maneuvers, often very close to the front lines. They staged more than 200 “performances” between D-Day and V-E day, using inflatable tanks and a variety of sound effects. Can you imagine a better subject for a documentary?  While its premiere was right here in Salem last night, it will be broadcast later this Spring on PBS, so look for it.

Inflatable Tank

Bill Blass Jeep

Pictures from the Ghost Army website: an inflatable tank an a smiling Bill Blass, a member of the unit. Yes, THAT Bill Blass, the future fashion designer.

Next on my list is another World War II-related film, Andrew Shea’s Portrait of Wally, about a Nazi-plundered painting, Egon Schiele’s Portrait of Wally (1912), its acquisition by Austria’s Leopold Museum and subsequent discovery in a 1997 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, and the long legal struggle which followed.

pow_title2

The Missing Piece: The Truth about the Man who Stole the Mona Lisa considers the motivation behind Vincenzo Peruggia’s daring theft of Leonardo’s masterpiece in 1911. Apparently Peruggia’s 84-year-old daughter believes it was a patriotic action on the part of her father, a former worker at the Louvre who committed the “art theft of the century” (actually, I think the 1990 robbery at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum takes that prize) in order to return the painting to its “homeland”. This might explain the fact that Peruggia was sentenced to a mere 15 days for his crime by an Italian court in 1914 and never served a day; no doubt a French court would have come up with a stiffer sentence.

Missing Piece

After these three, I am a little torn:  Big Easy Express, about a musical train journey from California to New Orleans, looks great, as does Radio Unnameable, about a pioneering 1960s disc jockey. Town of Runners, about a small Ethiopian town that produces more Olympic gold medalists per capita (by far) than any other place in the world, looks interesting, as does The World before Her, which takes us to a beauty boot camp for 20 aspiring Miss Indias (you can see why the festival’s tagline is “come to Salem, see the world”).  There is no question that my own award for Best Title goes to Furever, a film about the remembrance of pets past.

Furever


Reynard the Fox

That fox pulling the papal tiara off Celestine V’s head in my last post reminded me of Reynard the Fox, a very popular medieval fable which developed in the later twelfth and thirteen centuries in France and Germany, from where it spread throughout western Europe:  the many “branches” of Reynard verse are generally grouped together as the Roman de Renart cycle. Reynard is an anthropomorphic fox who is always up to no good, a cunning trickster whose escapades are both entertaining and illuminating. He is the animal representative of the medieval outlaw, far less benevolent than Robin Hood, and utilized by medieval scribes (who were of course, monks) as a form of satirical and whimsical criticism.  But Reynard is also a fox, and like all sly foxes, quite capable of feigning vulnerability (and piety) in order to elude capture and capture his next meal. One of the most common images in medieval manuscripts is of Reynard preaching, to an audience of birds whom he intends to eat.

Royal 10 E.IV, f.49v

Fox Preaching Stowe

British Library MS  Royal 10 E IV, late 13th/early 14th century, and MS Stowe 17, “The Maastricht Hours”, early 14th century.

In every Reynard tale, the fox is summoned before a court of his animal peers, headed by a lion, of course, and called to task for his bad behavior. He always manages to outfox his judges by his cunning. He feigns remorse, confesses his sins, and sets off on a holy pilgrimage of atonement, only to get into more trouble. A death sentence leads to more displays of cunning, exploits and opportunities, and consequently he becomes the sympathetic “hero”, the one for whom we root.

Reynard the Fox Bod MS Douce 360

Reynard Bod Ms Douce Reynard Dead

Reynard as a “pious” pilgrim and on the cart of a fishmonger who has presumed him dead–meanwhile, the fox is working his way through the stock of fish:  Bodleian MS Douce 360, “The Romance of Reynard and Isengrin”, 1339.

I definitely think Reynard’s popularity increased in the late medieval era along with anticlericalism and lay piety, and he makes it into print relatively early. In England, William Caxton published his own translation in 1481, and the “history” was reprinted regularly in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. There followed all sorts of literary adaptations, as Reynard, like any outlaw, is readily adaptable. The most famous modern adaptation is Reneike Fuchs, an epic poem produced by Johann Wolfgang von Geothe in 1794, supposedly influenced by the events of the French Revolution. The editions of this text issued from the mid-nineteenth century, illustrated by Wilhelm von Kaulbach and Joseph Wolfe, must have been extremely popular as they were constantly in print. There were also a succession of children’s versions of the fable issued in the nineteenth century, and really beautiful artistic editions published by William Morris’s Kelmscott Press in 1892 (a reprint of Caxton) and the Insel Verlag Press in 1913.

V0023068EL A fox in a monk's habit is apparently deeply engrossed in pr

Reynard the Pilgrim

Reynard Kelmscott Press 1892

Reinke Voss 1913

Reynard posing as a monk in order to access the chicken coop of a monastery, and as a pilgrim being blessed by a ram-priest, Wolfe and von Klaubach illustrations from 1853 & 1846; first page of the Kelmscott Press Caxton edition, 1892; Cover of first edition of Reinke Voss, 1913.

Reynard lives on in a variety of forms and formats in the twentieth century, and today can be found on everything from pillows to china to chess sets. He seems to have shed a lot of the satirical and moralistic messages of his medieval origins, but he was never that moral a character to begin with so I guess it doesn’t matter!

Reynard the Fox Coffee Service

Reynard the Fox Etsy

Two Reynards that I covet:  a Royal Doulton coffee service from 1935, and pencil illustration of Reynard the Fox Detective.


Hollywood History

This has been quite the year for historical movies: the majority of best-picture nominees are set in the past, even if it’s the relatively recent past of Argo and the very recent past of Zero Dark Thirty. In addition, there has been lots of discussion about the historical accuracy of these films which, while occasionally interesting (particularly the Connecticut v. Lincoln controversy, initiated when Connecticut congressman Tom Coutenay criticizing the film for its portrayal of two fictional Connecticut congressmen voting against the 13th amendment when in fact all four congressmen from the state voted for the amendment outlawing slavery) is hardly news. All historians know that “historical” films are never accurate, but I, for one, still have my favorite films set in the past. I like these films for various reasons– the feelings they provoke, the certain aura or spirit that they might capture, the way they look, the performances, the soundtracks– but I rarely learn anything from them. There are some films that I like to show in class just because they provide a lesson in just how inaccurate “historical” films can be!

lincoln_med

So, in honor of Oscar night, here are my top ten period films, in chronological order of setting. I’ve left out the major epic movies, most of which I do not like either as movies or history, in favor of “smaller” films that are personal favorites.  And remember, I teach medieval and early modern history, so most of my films come from these eras:  sorry, no World War II films, guys (I actually like war films, but I’m more of the Mrs. Miniver and Best Years of Our Lives type, with the exception of submarine movies, which for some reason I adore. If I could add an eleventh film, it would be Das Boot).

Medieval Movies:

The Thirteenth Warrior (1998):  this film was a financial and critical failure, but I like it, or parts of it. Based on Michael Chrichton’s novel Eaters of the Dead, the plot is a curious combination of Beowulf, pre-Christian Scandinavian culture, and a real early medieval source:  the Risala of Ibn Fadlan, the chronicle of a 10th century Arab diplomat who journeyed to eastern Europe and Russia and encountered the Vikings along the way.

Valhalla Rising (2009): an extremely atmospheric film in which a one-eyed Norse warrior (Odin?) and his child companion go on a mysterious journey, and end up in the New World. They come out of the fog into a dramatic encounter with Native Americans (apparently played by Tibetans) at the very end of the film. This is not an easy film, but its marriage of mysticism and blind faith are pretty compelling.

The Seventh Seal (1957): Ingmar Bergman’s classic film about a returning Swedish (again–I didn’t realize I was so obsessed with Scandinavia before writing this post!) Crusader’s encounter with the Black Death and Death Personified, with whom he plays chess intermittently throughout the films until Death wins. The scene in which the knight and his companions wait for death/Death at dinner in his castle is haunting, as is their “Dance of Death” at the very end of the film. This is one of the few films which I try to show in its entirety in class, rather than just clips, and the students usually get (into) it.

seventh-seal-chess

A Knight’s Tale (2001):  and on a much lighter note………….you might be surprised to find this film on my list but I love this film’s spirit as well as its use of very deliberate anachronisms. I like to think of Chaucer’s world this way. You can’t recreate the fourteenth century on film anyway, so you might as well have fun!

Henry V (1989): this is my favorite Shakespeare film as well as my favorite Kenneth Branagh Shakespeare film. The St. Crispin’s Day speech is of course extremely inspiring, as is the score by Patrick Doyle, most especially the choral epilogue at the end of the Battle of Agincourt:  “Non Nobis, Domine”. Most students have a rather romantic view of medieval warfare, which the long and bloody battle scene helps to dispel.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928): it is difficult to over-emphasize the power of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s film, which narrates the examination, trial and execution of Joan of Arc in 1431 through extreme close-ups of the participants, warts and all. The master negative of the film was destroyed in a lab fire only a year after its release, and so the complete film was lost for decades, until a copy was miraculously found in the closet of a Norwegian mental hospital in the early 1980s. The DVD release in the 1990s includes an oratorio by Richard Einhorn called “Voices of Light” which actually makes the silent film even more compelling, but the real star of the production is actress Renée Jeanne Falconetti, who appears to be in a near-ecstatic state for most of the film, as if possessed by Joan.

A Queen and Two Kings:

Elizabeth (1998): this film is a historical hot mess which plays with chronology and the facts with abandon—and the sets are terrible. Nevertheless I do like Cate Blanchett’s characterization of the young Elizabeth, and the movie is useful to me as I can teach against it.  I really like the poster too: I have framed versions in both my university and home offices.

elizabeth 1998

A Man for all Seasons (1966):  now here is an example of much more subtle anachronism, with Thomas More not only deified for his faith, but also for his individualism. There were so many English “historical” movies made in the 1960s (The Lion in Winter, Becket, Anne of the Thousand Days, Mary Queen of Scots, Lawrence of Arabia, etc…) that I felt that I should include one, and More’s struggle between conscience and obligation to Henry VIII is universally appealing. Paul Scofield as More and Richard Shaw as Henry VIII are both great; in fact, Shaw is probably my favorite screen Henry VIII. If I show clips in class, however, I feel that I have to balance the film’s portrayal of More’s resolute passage to martyrdom with his zealous persecution of Protestants.

Man for all Seasons movie poster

The Madness of King George (1994): a very entertaining presentation of King George III’s descent (and recovery) into a porphyria-induced insanity in the late eighteenth century, and the ensuing Regency Crisis. The actual events seem to be accurately, albeit dramatically, portrayed, but this is not really my period so I can’t critique accuracy; I’m just entertained. Nigel Hawthorne as King George is amazing in this film; he was robbed by Forrest Gump of the Oscar that year.

One War Film:

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930): an extremely powerful view of another descent, of innocent, whipped-up German boys into the hell of World War One. This film was on TCM several weeks ago and I sat watching it, riveted, even while it was extremely difficult to do so. I think this movie benefits from its age; you can tell that it was made by the same generation that experienced the first World War. And of course all the battle scenes would be computer-generated if the film were made today, which would transition it into video-game territory and rob it of its humanistic power.

All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

So there you have it:  my top ten list of historical films–for now.  This was tough; I think I would come up with a different list next week, or maybe even tomorrow.  All comments and suggestions are more than welcome (even for war films): the list is always subject to substitutions.


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