Outlaw King on City of Man Podcast

Chris Pine and Florence Pugh as Robert the Bruce and Elizabeth de Burgh in  Outlaw King , directed by David Mackenzie.

Chris Pine and Florence Pugh as Robert the Bruce and Elizabeth de Burgh in Outlaw King, directed by David Mackenzie.

The much anticipated (by me, at least) medieval film Outlaw King dropped on Netflix Friday. The next day, Coyle Neal of the City of Man Podcast and I sat down to talk about it. Was the film just meh? A giant turd? A bloody muddle? A merely gorier Braveheart reboot? A flawed but interesting depiction of a narrow slice of medieval history? Or was it some combination of all five? Listen in to find out, and to hear Coyle and I discuss the complexity of medieval politics, the roles and difficulties of medieval kings, and the unavoidable Braveheart comparisons. (Click through for my Historical Movie Monday post on that movie from this past Spring.)

I’ve embedded the episode in this post via the Stitcher player, but you can also listen in on iTunes and other fine podcasting media. As always, I had a ton of fun and am honored to be a guest on the show. Hope y’all enjoy!

Outlaw King—an anti-Braveheart?

A few weeks ago, the trailer for Outlaw King, a new film distributed by Netflix, dropped online. Somehow I had never even heard of this project until the trailer hit, and while my first impression was that this would be another one of those low-budget, direct-to-Netflix releases with a cool poster and not a lot of substance, actually watching the trailer completely upended that assumption.

Outlaw King tells the story of Robert the Bruce and his bloody quest to unite Scotland into a single kingdom under his rule. As I summarized in my Historical Movie Monday post about Braveheart, by the time Outlaw King begins in 1304, Scotland had been in political chaos for thirty years. The death of a king with no direct heir, the death of the best potential heir to the throne on her journey back from Norway, and the interference of England’s King Edward I as a (at first) neutral arbiter spawned the anarchy and wars depicted so memorably (and inaccurately) in Braveheart. Robert spends this film reducing castles and strongholds one by one to secure his rightful rule and, in the climactic battle, fights the English at Loudon Hill, a small but important Scottish victory that came just before Edward’s death.

The cast looks great. Chris Pine is an unexpected choice for such a role, but based on early reviews he acquits himself admirably. Stephen Dillane, whose cunning gravitas has been exploited to good effect by HBO several times (as Thomas Jefferson in John Adams, which I’ve seen, and as Stannis Baratheon in Game of Thrones, which I haven’t) looks like a wonderfully ruthless Edward. The cast is also full of great faces like James Cosmo, who played Hamish’s father in Braveheart, Tony Curran, and Sam Spruell.

Netflix will release Outlaw King both streaming and in theaters. Some see this is as a bid for prestige and a place at the Oscars table. I don’t know about that, but I’m glad we’ll be able to see this in theatres, as this kind of film—with its sweeping landscapes, sumptuous costumes, widescreen cinematography, and large-scale battle scenes—needs to be seen on the big screen. Imagine streaming Lawrence of Arabia on your phone. Blech.

But these aren’t the primary reasons I’m excited. As my post on Braveheart probably makes clear, medievalists and historians have a love-hate relationship with that film. We love it for all the things I just listed in describing Outlaw King, but we hate the liberties it takes with the past—from small stuff like the Scots wearing kilts centuries too soon or the use of woad centuries too late, to big things like the early death of Edward I or Wallace’s completely fictional sack of York. As you can imagine, the Scots—real, present day Scots, not tenth-generation Appalachians who think of themselves as Scottish—feel a similar ambivalence. Great movie, terrible history, and, unfortunately, that movie is how a lot of people perceive the history.

So it looks to me like Outlaw King is positioning itself to be the anti-Braveheart, a movie more rigorously dedicated to the past as the past, taking liberties and streamlining when necessary for the purposes of the medium. The fact that it restricts its story to a span of about three years also helps.

Here are two early responses to the trailer from people who seem to know their stuff. This video essayist points out that the clothing and weapons are pretty much spot-on for the era as opposed to Braveheart’s medieval Mad Max aesthetic. He includes some addenda in his comments. This video essayist, despite advertising his video as “Crimes Against Medieval Realism,” doesn’t say much more critical than that a castle’s crenelations are too small for the period and that the movie bows to the temptation to include a fiery arrow scene. Both videos point out some minor problems, but both end on positive, hopeful notes about the authenticity of the film. And to me, the fact that the biggest problems we can spot in the trailer are unthatched roofs, unwhitewashed castle walls, and minor anachronisms of gear or dress are positive signs compared to a lot of the problems in other medieval films.

Finally, here’s the Outlaw King review from Medievalists.net. You can read the full review there, but I wanted to pull out this excerpt specifically:

The strength of the film in its retelling of history is that it allows for the tangle of relationships between families, clans, and the aristocracy that made the Anglo-Scottish wars so complex. The characters (as the real historical people) are caught in a vast web of conflicting loyalties, which makes anything as simple as “unite the clans” a Herculean task. No one’s duty is clear cut . . . There is space made in the dialogue to allow for these relationships to be uncovered, which gives the audience a clearer picture of how difficult Robert’s task to bring Scotland together under one crown really is.

That—“allow[ing] for the tangle of relationships between families, clans, and the aristocracy”—is a tall order. A lot of movies fail at it, because, like or not, the relatively slow pace at which information is conveyed visually in a film does not easily allow for great complexity. Even good historical films, like Valkyrie, one of my favorites, have a streamline a lot. The art lies in balancing streamlining with the suggestion of complexity. And that’s an essentially historical act. As Herbert Butterfield put it, “The historian is never more himself than when he is searching his mind for a general statement that shall in itself give the hint of its own underlying complexity.” That Medievalists.net highlights this as a strength of Outlaw King makes me hopeful.

If Outlaw King can give us a good movie, like Braveheart, but approach the film’s history with a care for accuracy, authenticity, and real-life complexity, it will give medievalist film buffs what we’ve never had before—a movie of our own!

A Map of the Heart: the Icelandic sagas on the CBC

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On my drive back from Georgia this weekend I listened to a two-part podcast series from the CBC on the Icelandic sagas, "A Map of the Heart." Part I provided some background on the settlement of Iceland during the Viking Age and the culture of the people who lived there, as well as where the sagas came from and how well they reflect that culture. The second part recapped some points from the first and spent a lot of time on an in-depth look at Egils saga, the story of Egill Skallagrimsson, one of the greastest works in the saga literature and one of the inspirations for my novel No Snakes in Iceland

I hope there will be more, because there are so many other great sagas—among my other favorites are Gisli Sursson's Saga, The Saga of Grettir the Strong, and Njal's Saga—and these two episodes were excellent. The CBC being Canadian, I hope they're working their way toward covering the Vinland sagas; those are fascinating bits of history.

You can listen to Part I here and Part II here. They're worth your while, especially if you've not yet had an introduction to the sweeping, dramatic, but deeply local and personal world of the sagas.

Kingdom of Heaven

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This week's Historical Movie Monday looks at another old medieval favorite that has serious historical problems. Like Braveheart, it throws accuracy to the winds. Unlike Braveheart, it is too cold, cerebral, and present-minded to make the sacrifice worthwhile. The film is Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven.

Be without fear in the face of your enemies. Be brave and upright, that God may love thee. Speak the truth always, even if it leads to your death. Safeguard the helpless and do no wrong; that is your oath.
— Godfrey of Ibelin in Kingdom of Heaven

The history

Following the fall of Jerusalem to the knights of the First Crusade in 1099, the kingdoms and counties founded to safeguard Christian holy sites in the Near East faced ongoing problems. The disorganized, underfed, disease-ridden knights' miraculous success, it became clear, had been aided by division within the Islamic world. The first crusaders had launched their pilgrimage (their word: the word Crusade was not applied until much later) at a time when the Seljuq Empire was subdivided among numerous rival lords, and the Seljuqs themselves warred off and on with the Fatimid caliphate in Egypt. Over the course of the next century, the Islamic empires of the Near East attained first equilibrium and finally cohesion thanks to a number of powerful, charismatic warlords. Among these were Zengi, Nur ad-Din, and, finally, Saladin.

With Saladin, the situation in the east was reversed. The fractious European guardians of Jerusalem now faced a determined and unified opponent and the Crusader kingdoms began to fall. Appeals for reinforcements from the West provoked little response. The king of Jerusalem and his lords had to rely heavily on diplomacy to maintain their control, and when it came to blows a new phenomenon, the military orders, took on a large share of the burden. These orders, the two most powerful of which were the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitaller, combined the traditional vows of monks with the emerging chivalric ideals of knights.

Orlando Bloom and David Thewlis in  Kingdom of Heaven .

Orlando Bloom and David Thewlis in Kingdom of Heaven.

In 1185, Baldwin IV, King of Jerusalem, died aged 24. He left the throne to his eight-year old nephew Baldwin V. But the boy king died a year later, and the throne passed, with some controversy, to the boy's mother, Sibylla. Among those debating the succession was Balian of Ibelin, whose stepdaughter Isabella had a better claim to the throne, and Reynald of Châtillon, Prince of Antioch, who supported Sibylla. At Sibylla's coronation, she brought forward her husband Guy of Lusignan to be crowned and share power with her. 

Sibylla and Guy were a disaster. In less than a year, in July 1187, Guy had led his armies against the threatening army of Saladin and into a trap. Cut off from their route of escape and with no water supply in the torturous summer heat, Guy's army was forced into combat with Saladin at Hattin and annihilated. Guy, and much of the Crusader kingdoms' nobility with him, was captured. Saladin's forces ritually massacred their Templar and Hospitaller prisoners. Reynald, a longtime troublemaker for Saladin, was killed by Saladin himself. Jerusalem lay open to attack.

Now bereft of its king, Jerusalem turned to the leadership of Balian, who had passed through Muslim-controlled territory to the city to rescue his wife and family. At the request of Queen Sibylla, Balian took command and refused to capitulate to Saladin. 

During a siege lasting just under two weeks, Saladin's engineers pounded the city walls with trebuchets and other siege engines, undermined another portion of the walls, and repeatedly attacked, though without success. Finally, on October 2, Balian agreed to negotiate terms with Saladin and surrendered the city. The city's inhabitants and the numerous refugees who had fled Saladin were allowed to leave—if they paid a ransom. Not all could. 

The fall of Jerusalem in 1187 galvanized the Latin Church and Western Europe responded with another upsurge of Crusade, this time led by three of the most powerful men in Europe—Frederick Barbarossa, Holy Roman Emperor; Philip Augustus, King of France; and Richard the Lionheart, King of England. This crusade, too, gradually fell apart, and while Richard was able to negotiate safe passage to Jerusalem for Christian pilgrims, he could not retake the city.

The film

The coronation of King Baldwin V of Jerusalem in  Kingdom of Heaven . Tiberias (Jeremy Irons), Sibylla (Eva Green), and Guy of Lusignan (Marton Csokas) look on.

The coronation of King Baldwin V of Jerusalem in Kingdom of Heaven. Tiberias (Jeremy Irons), Sibylla (Eva Green), and Guy of Lusignan (Marton Csokas) look on.

Based on a script by William Monahan (screenwriter for The Departed), Kingdom of Heaven follows the course of actual history in broad outline while having some serious, fundamental problems with that history, about which more below. 

The film's director, Ridley Scott, is one of the few "visionary directors" so frequently advertised in trailers nowadays who may actually deserve the title. His films are always visually stunning, and Kingdom of Heaven is no exception. Shot on film by frequent collaborator John Mathieson, who had first worked with Scott on Gladiator, this film looks great from beginning to end. Production designer Arthur Max, who had also worked on Gladiator, enhanced numerous preexisting Spanish locations with set dressing and props to give the film a palpable real-world sensibility. Scott himself strove to make the film feel authentic, inventing minor details for background action like a method for cleaning and polishing mail and making the combat as intense, violent, and frightening as possible. Kingdom of Heaven has stunning location photography, beautiful lighting, gorgeous costumes, and thrilling battle scenes. One reason I enjoy it is because it's not only beautiful to look at, but the sheer amount of detail makes the film feel like it takes place in a big, real world rather than a series of sets.

Eva Green as Sibylla

Eva Green as Sibylla

I emphasize the visual splendor of Kingdom of Heaven for a reason. Like Braveheart, which is a useful point of comparison, Kingdom of Heaven revels in big-budget, widescreen glory meant to evoke the epics of the 1950s and 60s. This plays to Scott's strengths as a visual filmmaker and storyteller. Unfortunately, the casting and acting and the performances—all of which helped sell Braveheart despite its historical flimflam—don't measure up, and the result is that this beautiful film is often dramatically inert.

Acquitting themselves well are Liam Neeson as Godfrey, Balian's father; Jeremy Irons as a composite character, a stalwart veteran named Tiberias; and Eva Green, who plays Sibylla as an emotionally damaged seductress and a Westerner slowly going native in the Levant. David Thewlis has an excellent turn as an unnamed Hospitaller, who may or may not be a guardian angel for Balian. Thewlis is, with Neeson, the most sympathetic character in the film. Edward Norton deserves special mention for his performance as the leper king Baldwin IV; he never once removes an eerily expressionless mask and nevertheless gives a magnetic performance.

Lesser performances come from Marton Csokas and Brendan Gleeson as Guy and Reynald, who are obviously meant to be the film's villains. I say "obviously" because their performances are histrionic mustache-twirling of silent film caliber—Csoka's Guy skulks and sneers and insinuates as if he had the words Bad Guy emblazoned on his forehead, and it seems like the usually wonderful Gleeson is just seeing what he can get away with, playing Reynald as an ultraviolent loon.

The film's biggest problem, performance-wise, is Orlando Bloom as Balian. Bloom had previously worked with Scott in Black Hawk Down—his character spent the majority of the film in a coma—but he is woefully miscast here, and out of his depth. His Balian is supposed to be a thoughtful, intelligent, but practical man who is new to the ways of the world and struggles with doubt and regret. Bloom works his hardest but most often looks confused. He is overpowered by the other performers in virtually every scene, especially Neeson, Norton, and his intended love interest, Green.

But Bloom was not Kingdom of Heaven's only problem. The film was cut down by over an hour for its theatrical release, turning some scenes into detached nonsense and excising the coronation and early death of Baldwin V completely. The pacing, despite Scott's best efforts to meet the studio's demand for a shorter film, was awkward, at best. I remember watching Kingdom of Heaven in theaters and feeling that the film lurched along, with dramatic shifts in tone and character motivation, especially Sibylla, who seemed to have a mental breakdown for no reason. As a result, reviews ranged from "meh" to negative and the film, while not a bomb, was not a financial success.

Fortunately, Scott was able to get his "preferred version" out on DVD, and the director's cut is an immensely improved film. 

The film as history

Marton Csokas as Guy of Lusignan, inaccurately depicted as a Knight Templar in  Kingdom of Heaven

Marton Csokas as Guy of Lusignan, inaccurately depicted as a Knight Templar in Kingdom of Heaven

As soon as the film begins, before we have even seen the first shot, we're in trouble. The film opens with this series of titles:

It is almost 100 years since Christian armies from Europe seized Jerusalem.

Jerusalem fell to storm in 1099. The film opens in a fictional scenario in the mid-1180s. Close enough. 

Europe suffers in the grip of repression and poverty. Peasant and lord alike flee to the Holy Land in search of fortune or salvation.

The "dark ages" stereotype right out of the gate. One might ask Repression by whose standard? or Poverty by whose standard? Europe was actually doing fairly well in the 12th century: harvests were consistently good, the population was rising, literature and the arts flourished, and the seed of the university—which often encouraged more debate and academic freedom than their modern counterparts—had taken root.

Furthermore, this title shows the film's fundamental misunderstanding of the Crusades as essentially colonial projects. For the vast majority of Latin Christians, the Holy Land was a pilgrimage destination. The Crusader kingdoms had endemic and ongoing problems manning their own defenses, since crusading knights would fulfill their vow to go to Jerusalem and immediately return home to sort out the problems that had inevitably arisen in their absence (best example: Richard the Lionheart). The Crusades-as-colonialism narrative has been so thoroughly debunked by the work of historians like Jonathan Riley-Smith and many, many others that is is laughable to see it dramatized this way. But there are reasons it is so.

Finally:

One knight returns home in search of his son.

This sets up the film's entirely artificial backstory for Balian, and off we go.

Kingdom of Heaven was not a hit with Crusade historians. Riley-Smith lamented that "at a time of inter-faith tension, nonsense like this will only reinforce existing myths." I happen to agree. Thomas F. Madden wrote that

Ridley Scott has repeatedly said that this movie is “not a documentary” but a “story based on history.” The problem is that the story is poor and the history is worse. Based on media interviews, [the filmmakers] clearly believe that their story can help bring peace to the world today. Lasting peace, though, would be better served by candidly facing the truths of our shared past, however politically incorrect those might be.

It is difficult to enumerate the historical failings of Kingdom of Heaven because there are so many on every level of historical representation, from misinterpretation of motives and character, the ordering of events, and the roles played by particular people, to quibbles about anachronistic costuming. But some of the film's historical problems are more serious than others, and those fundamental problems are the cause of most of the others.

While most of the film's characters are real people, the film plays fast and loose with their respective characters. Balian's origins are well known and unremarkable. He was not the illegitimate son of a nobleman and was not a proto-Zen modern secularist. Far from it—at one point of the siege of Jerusalem he threatened to kill Muslim hostages. He was also present at the Battle of Hattin rather than mooning around in Jerusalem. King Baldwin was a leper and did attempt to maintain the peace, but this had more to do with the ever tenuous and fragile state of his undermanned kingdom than abstract Enlightenment principle. While most of the Christian characters are exaggerated for effect, Saladin's character is substantially softened to make him more palatable to moderns. Those who could not pay the heavy ransom he imposed on Jerusalem were sold into slavery, and he personally participated in the massacres of prisoners after Hattin and the siege of Acre. 

Brendan Gleeson hamming it up as Reynald 

Brendan Gleeson hamming it up as Reynald 

The film goes out of its way to villainize its bad guys. Scott really lays it on thick. Guy of Lusignan and Reynald of Châtillon are inaccurately depicted as Templars, presumably because some members of the audience will have heard of the Templars and have a vaguely negative impression of them. This is an especially egregious error since Guy is depicted (accurately) as married, something the warrior monks of the Knights Templar were forbidden to do. The real Reynald was also married; the filmmakers seem to have conflated him with the Templars' Grand Master, Gerard of Ridefort, for no apparent reason, and to have added insult to injury by portraying him as insane. 

One could look past some of these problems were it not for Kingdom of Heaven's greatest failing—it is not interested in the past for its own sake.

In a series of blog posts from two years ago (Part 1 and Part 2), around the time of Free State of Jones's release, historian Chris Gehrz outlined four useful questions to ask of films that purport to tell us stories from history:

Is it entertaining?
Is it truthful?
Is it actually interested in the past?
Does it prompt the audience to engage in historical thinking?

The only one of these questions to which I would answer Yes, in regard to Kingdom of Heaven, is the first—and even then, with Orlando Bloom a black hole of charisma at the center of the film, that Yes would be equivocal. 

As to whether Kingdom of Heaven is truthful, the answer must be No. Gehrz quotes the novelist E.L. Doctorow: "The historian will tell you what happened. The novelist will tell you what it felt like." This, I think, is the crucial difference between Kingdom of Heaven and the otherwise historically atrocious Braveheart. For all its flaws, Braveheart conveyed some sense of the spirit of that time; Kingdom of Heaven is, by Ridley Scott's own admission, so relativized and altered to make sense to modern people in modern terms, that it fails in its attempt to transport viewers to the 12th century. 

Kingdom of Heaven . . . is relentlessly present-minded.

This brings me to Gehrz's third and fourth questions. I think Ridley Scott may be interested in the past—he has certainly made a lot of historical movies, beginning with his feature debut—but his films aren't. Put another way, he is so consumed with finding a usable past for his personal messages that he does violence to history in order to fit it to the Procrustean bed of modern film.

Kingdom of Heaven—arriving at the height of Post-9/11 political upheaval, media agony over the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and alternating accusations of Islamophobia and capitulation to Islamism—is relentlessly present-minded. (Some reviewers saw this as a strength.) Its characters are stand-ins for, on one side, right-wing hawks, depicted here as bloody-minded religious fanatics (a recognizable stereotype for anyone who lived through that time); their opponents are noble foreigners with legitimate grievances rooted in colonialism and Western oppression, creatures of the Orientalism texts of late-20th century grad schools; and caught in the middle are the open-minded, sensible, spiritual but not religious types who have somehow discovered Enlightenment-era ideals of religious toleration in the 1180s. Scott also packs in some meditations on class, equality, nobility, honor, and chivalry, but always with an eye to tickling modern sensibilities.

Witness this scene: Balian, Scott's agnostic modern hero, threatens to destroy Jerusalem while negotiating with Saladin:

Saladin: Will you yield the city?
Balian: Before I lose it, I will burn it to the ground. Your holy places—ours. Every last thing in Jerusalem that drives men mad.

In Scott's vision, religion, especially religious fanaticism (that is, anyone taking religion more seriously than I do) is the problem. By choosing the 12th century to purvey this message, he has plenty of straw men to joust with.

While Kingdom of Heaven looks great, has mostly wonderful sets and costumes, and loads of brilliantly staged action, its characters and setting are not authentically 12th-century, but puppets in a miniature theater acting out a feebly articulated morality play about religion, terrorism, Western guilt, and foreign policy. Which is a shame, because the real story is so interesting on its own.

More if you're interested

The historical literature on the Crusades is huge, and somewhat unusual in that you're best served by looking at the more recent work rather than the older stuff. Past Crusade history was often inflected with anti-Catholicism, the Romanticism of Sir Walter Scott, or Marxist theory, the latter deeply enough to have persisted in the popular imagination (and influenced Kingdom of Heaven). Fortunately, the last two generations of Crusade historians have amended, nuanced, or outright debunked a lot of old conceptions of the Crusades.

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The best one-stop book if you're looking to an accessible introduction is The Concise History of the Crusades, by Thomas F. Madden, now in a third edition. Madden offers a short, well-researched, and well-written narrative of the Crusade movement with good analysis of what the Crusades were (always a vexed question, especially since the Crusaders themselves didn't use the word), why the Crusading movement emerged where and when it did, and how it changed over time. He also, like many historians since 9/11, includes helpful discussion of Crusading's legacy. Oxford UP's Very Short Introductions series also has a slim little volume on the Crusades by Christopher Tyerman.

Other good surveys of the time and movement include The Crusades: The Authoritative History of the War for the Holy Land, by Thomas Asbridge; Holy Warriors: A Modern History of the Crusades, by Jonathan Phillips; and God's War: A New History of the Crusades, by Christopher Tyerman. Dan Jones's recent book The Templars: The Rise and Spectacular Fall of God's Holy Warriors, also covers many of the events of this film.

The work of Jonathan Riley-Smith must not be overlooked. Riley-Smith helped demolish many theories of what caused the Crusades through intensive research of Crusader wills, which demonstrated that 1) Crusaders planned to return from rather than stay in the Holy Land, 2) they were predominantly the heads of households or the heirs of great fortunes, men with the most to lose from a failed pilgrimage, and 3) going on Crusade was ruinously expensive, and Crusaders, if they took the cross out of a profit motive, would have been better off staying home. Riley-Smith's book The Crusades: A History is a good one-volume history of the period and an introduction to his work.

Two good references for medieval warfare in this period are Medieval Warfare: A History, an indispensable anthology edited by Maurice Keen, the great historian of medieval chivalry; and Western Warfare in the Age of the Crusades, 1000-1300, by John France. Norman Housley's Fighting for the Cross: Crusading to the Holy Land, also offers a lot of good insight into the lived experience of the Crusaders.

One of the best resources for serious engagement with the history, historiography, and myths of the Crusades is Seven Myths of the Crusades, Alfred J. Andrea and Andrew Holt, Eds., the first of a new series from Hackett Publishing. This short, well-researched collection of essays tackles some of the most well-known and persistent myths of the Crusades, including the myth of pure Western Christian aggression, the Children's Crusade, the Marxist myth of Crusaders as colonialists, Templar and Mason conspiracy theories, and the notion that present day Islamic terror stems from "a nine hundred-year-long grievance" with the West. It's excellent.

Next week

In an unusual occurrence, Easter falls on April Fool's Day this year. The same was true in 1945, when April 1 served as D-day for the Allied landings on Okinawa. To commemorate the battle, we'll look at a recent film about an unusual participant, conscientious objector Desmond Doss. The film: Hacksaw Ridge.

Thanks for reading!

Braveheart

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Medieval March continues with a film that poses a unique challenge to me as a movie lover and an historian: it's a rousing, beautifully shot and acted drama full of exciting battle scenes, overwhelming pathos, and sincere emotion rooted in love of family and homeland. It's also historical garbage. The film is Braveheart.

Aye. Fight, and you may die. Run, and you’ll live. At least a while. And dying in your beds many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for one chance—just one chance—to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!
— William Wallace in Braveheart

The history

In 1286, Alexander III, King of Scotland, died in a freak accident when, having lost his way in the dark, his horse stumbled over an embankment and he broke his neck. Alexander died having outlived all three of his children; his nearest heir was his granddaughter Margaret, the daughter of the King of Norway. Margaret was three years old at the time of Alexander's death, and the lords and bishops of Scotland assembled to select Guardians to protect the kingdom until she was of age. Meanwhile, Edward I, king of England, negotiated with the Guardians to marry his young son Edward to Margaret and unite their kingdoms, and sought a papal dispensation to allow the marriage. 

In 1290, the now seven year old Margaret set sail from Norway to Scotland. She never arrived, dying in the Orkneys on the voyage.

Patrick McGoohan as King Edward I of England in  Braveheart

Patrick McGoohan as King Edward I of England in Braveheart

Margaret's death left Scotland with no apparent heir to the throne. Over a dozen claimants—including Margaret's father and several grandchildren of illegitimate children of a previous king—came forward. Only four of them had serious grounds to claim the throne, but the waters were sufficiently muddied that the Guardians asked King Edward to monitor the dispute. Ever the opportunist, Edward—who had already spent fifteen years subduing Wales—agreed on the condition that the Scots lords swear loyalty to him as Scotland's feudal overlord. The council chose John Balliol as king, and Edward proceeded to treat him as an servile underling.

Four years later, Balliol, bridling at Edward's overlordship, renounced his oath. Edward invaded across the then-porous frontier, rapidly defeated the Scots, capturing many of their lords, and forced Balliol to abdicate. Edward returned to England with Balliol as a prisoner and the Stone of Scone, the traditional seat used during Scottish coronations, as a trophy. (It remained in the base of the coronation throne of the kings and queens of England up through the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1952.) Edward required homage of all the leading Scottish nobility and installed English lords throughout Scotland.

In May of the next year, 1297, William Wallace first appears in the historical record. He probably (more on sources below) killed an English sheriff in an incident at Lanark, probably in revenge for a previous attack on him by the sheriff while at court. All the circumstances leading up to this attack are unclear, but Wallace rapidly emerged as a leading brigand, fighting from the forests as part of a general uprising against English rule with many similar rebel leaders. By September, Wallace had enough clout to join forces with Andrew Moray, a leading Scottish nobleman, and defeat an English army at Stirling Bridge. The badly outnumbered Scots used the local geography to their advantage, holding a narrow bridgehead in a bend of the river. Wallace cut the English army in half as it attempted to cross and defeated it in detail. For this victory, Wallace and Moray were named the two Guardians of Scotland, and when Moray died of wounds sustained in the battle a few months later, Wallace was left sole Guardian.

Edward mustered his strength and personally led a second invasion force into Scotland the following spring. In April, Edward and Wallace faced off at Falkirk, where Wallace's static infantry, arranged in a series of schiltrons, circular formations meant to ward off cavalry attack, were weakened, broken apart, and finally destroyed by English combined arms—infantry, cavalry, crossbow, and, especially, the longbow. Wallace's cavalry, receiving the brunt of the English cavalry's attack since it could not risk attacking the spearmen, fled. Wallace fled too, and gave up his title as Guardian that fall, just a year after his victory at Stirling Bridge. 

After this year of frenetic activity, Wallace's movements become unclear. He is known to have continued fighting, but his reputation had suffered a crippling blow at Falkirk. Edward invaded again in 1300 and 1303, and either put his enemies to flight or convinced them to recognize his right to rule. Among those swearing to recognize his authority was Robert Bruce, grandson of one of the claimants to the throne after the death of Margaret. Edward behaved with clemency toward many Scottish nobles, recognizing that, after years of failed intervention, if he hoped to rule Scotland he would need their support. 

The one Scot leader to whom Edward would under no terms grant mercy was William Wallace, who was captured near Glasgow and turned over to Edward in 1305. Taken to London in chains, Wallace stood trial on charges of treason and what modern people would call war crimes. The charge of treason, writes historian Marc Morris "was somewhat ironic, for Wallace was probably the only Scottish leader who had not sworn allegiance to the English king" at some point in the last twenty chaotic years. Wallace himself pointed out that he had never sworn fealty to Edward, but his judges were unconvinced. 

On August 23, 1305, William Wallace was ceremonially dragged through the streets of London to Smithfield, the place of execution outside the city walls. There he was hanged until almost dead and, after being cut down while still alive, disemboweled. While the executioners beheaded and quartered his body, his guts were publicly burned. His head was mounted on London Bridge.

The film

Braveheart began with a trip by screenwriter Randall Wallace (no relation) to Scotland, where he noticed a monument to William Wallace at Edinburgh Castle. Having never head of this famous Wallace, he got the gist of the story from his tour guide, read a little about Wallace in the poetic retelling of a fifteenth century balladeer, and wrote his screenplay. Mel Gibson originally wanted to direct, but could only get financing for the film from a major studio if he also agreed to star. It's fortunate that he agreed; Gibson is what made—and still makes—Braveheart work.

Gibson had learned well from filmmakers he had worked with as a rising star. One can especially sense the influences of George Miller, his director in the Mad Max films, in the violence of the combat, the brilliant use of slow motion and jump cuts, and the apocalyptic dream imagery, and Peter Weir, director of Gallipoli, in the film's attention to atmosphere, landscapes, and the combination of magnificent natural beauty with violence. Crucially, Gibson was able to cut down Wallace's bloated original screenplay and refine clunky or unclear scenes, both to save money on the film's large but finite budget and to sell the story visually.

Spartacus  and  Braveheart , father and son epics

Spartacus and Braveheart, father and son epics

The most noteworthy example concerns the introduction of everyone's favorite character: Stephen the Irishman. As originally written, Stephen proved his worth as William Wallace's ally and devoted bodyguard in a long, intense nighttime battle in a castle. Lacking the budget to shoot such a technically involved scene (night shoots are notoriously long and difficult), Gibson had to get creative. What he came up with in a few minutes was a small masterpiece of visual storytelling—a scene with Wallace, Stephen, and another eager new rebel recruit hunting in the forest. (Take three minutes to watch it here.) Gibson's new scene makes the point intended by Randall Wallace's screenplay in ninety seconds and only two lines of dialogue.

The film shot extensively in Scotland but most of the footage used for the final product was shot in Ireland. The Irish Army even provided extras for the battle scenes; some of the same soldiers would go on to work as extras in the Omaha Beach scene of Saving Private RyanJohn Toll, one of the greatest living cinematographers and a master of the art, shot the film in anamorphic widescreen to capture its old-fashioned epic scope and brought out every rough texture of the sets and costumes, every lush and sweeping landscape, in a film that is both romantic in its scale and brutally real in its violence. James Horner's score is among his best; the words sweeping, romantic, and old-fashioned come to mind again. Who can't thrill to his steadily building drums at Stirling, the tender theme for William and Murron's romance, or the soaring notes of "Freedom" during Wallace's death? 

Gibson intentionally made a film in the vein of old Hollywood epics—a film of dashing rebels, beautiful princesses, breathtakingly evil villains, near misses, and hair-raising escapes—but with the violence permitted of films in the 1990s and all the modern filmmaking techniques developed since the end of the sword-and-sandal epic's heyday. A key inspiration, one which Gibson cites several times in his commentary track on the film, is Spartacus. Watch the films back to back and you'll see the continuity, especially visually.

But where Kubrick's film is cerebral and not a little cold in its approach to violence in the name of freedom, Gibson's is all heart. Braveheart continues to appeal because of the way it dramatizes human emotion, especially its finely nuanced depictions of love. Wallace and Gibson's film, thanks not only to Gibson's direction but also an excellent cast (I could write another post just in praise of Brendan Gleeson, James Cosmo, Patrick McGoohan, Angus MacFadyen, Catherine McCormack, and Sophie Marceau) begins with love of family and country. It encompasses love of fathers and sons, love for wife and children—both hopes, in Wallace's case cut tragically short—love among comrades for each other and their leaders, and, of course, love of freedom. The film is awash in emotion, with repeated setups and callbacks that tie the story together emotionally as well as narratively: a thistle, an embroidered handkerchief, a thrown rock, a strip of tartan cloth. 

The film as history

Sophie Marceau as Isabella of France in  Braveheart

Sophie Marceau as Isabella of France in Braveheart

This is where things get shaky. While Braveheart is a masterpiece of epic filmmaking and visual storytelling, I think it is best classified as historical fiction or even historical fantasy. It has almost no bearing on historical reality. It is, by now, a cliche to pick on Braveheart's historical problems, so I'm going to be brief. Here are a few:

  • The Scots did not have clan tartans and did not wear kilts in the 13th century. They would, in fact, have dressed much like the English.
  • Similarly, woad, the blue dye the Scots wear as warpaint at Stirling, had not been used for this purpose since before the Roman conquest in the first century. (To be fair, Patrick McGoohan and Sophie Marceau as Edward I and Isabella look stunning, like illustrations from Matthew Paris come to life.)
  • Prima nocte, Edward I's anti-Scottish eugenic policy, is entirely fictional. It never happened; not in Scotland, not in Britain, not anywhere in the Middle Ages.
  • The Battle of Stirling Bridge was literally fought on and around a bridge by a fortified town. Building and then demolishing a bridge for the battle scene would have proven ruinously expensive, so Gibson cooked up the Battle of Stirling as it exists in the film and shot it on an Irish army rifle range.
  • There were no Irish soldiers at Falkirk, and Wallace's cavalry were chased from the field; they did not defect.
  • William Wallace did not attack York, which is 180 miles from Edinburgh, much less sack and occupy it.
  • Edward I outlived William Wallace by nearly two years.
  • There is no definitive evidence that Edward II was homosexual.
  • Isabella of France, Edward II's wife, with whom Braveheart depicts Wallace having an affair (also neatly implying that he was the real father of Edward III), was ten years old at the time of Wallace's execution. Awkward.

There are two basic reasons for these (and many, many, many other) egregious inaccuracies.

First, Randall Wallace based his screenplay on The Actes and Deidis of the Illustre and Vallyeant Campioun Schir William Wallace, a narrative poem by the fifteenth-century bard Blind Harry. This work is one of the only detailed sources we have regarding the life of William Wallace, but it is rife with historiographical problems: it is a poem, artistic in form and intent and obviously exaggerated for effect; it contradicts verifiable fact in other earlier and more reliable sources; and it was composed at least 175 years after the events it purports to retell. While Braveheart broadly follows the bullet-point version of Wallace's life, much of the film's detail comes from Blind Harry: Wallace's personal character, his wife, her death as the catalyst for his rebellion, Stephen, etc. 

Wallace escorted to a parley with Isabella outside York, not one word of which ever happened

Wallace escorted to a parley with Isabella outside York, not one word of which ever happened

Second, Gibson's main interest as a filmmaker on Braveheart was to make a film, to tell a story and to tell it as vividly and as cinematically as possible. With no great attachment to the facts of the case thanks to the loosey-goosey screenplay, Gibson was free to shape Braveheart into a beautiful, moving, emotionally powerful meditation on love and freedom that could showcase his strengths both as an actor and a director. In this regard, Braveheart is a brilliant success.

But is Braveheart worth anything as a historical film? Despite everything, I think so. Its portrait of Edward I, while grossly exaggerated bordering on character assassination, shows the power of a capable and driven medieval monarch. The film's violence is an antidote to the castles-and-princesses view of the Middle Ages that some people have, while Gibson's obvious love of the film's characters and respect for their culture—especially Scotland's pre-Reformation Catholicism—keep the film from descending into a chronologically snobby muckworld. The film also dips its toe in the complicated structures of medieval authority, which could be useful. And I think, despite failing in pretty much every other category of authenticity, Braveheart captures a little something of the spirit of the time. But only a little something.

Braveheart is one of my favorite movies, and has remained so since high school. It's over twenty years old now, and still holds up thanks to its vision, moral ernestness, and sincere and deeply felt emotion. It's not good history—not at all—but I wouldn't mind a few more films like it nowadays.

More if you're interested

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As mentioned above, one of the most important and problematic sources for Wallace's life and deeds is The Wallace, a lay by Blind Harry the Minstrel. You can read the complete text for free at Project Gutenberg and some nicely annotated selections at the University of Rochester's Middle English Texts Series. The poem is available in a modern English translation by William Hamilton, but appears to be out of print. Start hunting through your nearest used book store.

Magnus Magnusson's massive Scotland: The Story of a Nation, has a lengthy chapter on Wallace and his context in the struggles against English overlordship. Magnusson relates the story well and is appropriately cautious about the folklore that has accumulated around Wallace.

For the English side, historian Marc Morris has a recent biography of Edward I, A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain, that thoroughly deals with the entirety of this important king's long and busy reign. Concise, well-written, illuminating looks at the reigns of both Edward I and his worthless son Edward II are available from the excellent Penguin Monarchs series.

Next week

Medieval March will conclude with another exciting, well-crafted epic that has a troubled relationship with the truth: Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven. Thanks for reading!

The Vikings

vikings title.png

This week, Historical Movie Monday is pinin’ for the fjords. The film is The Vikings, a 1958 bigscreen epic starring Kirk Douglas, Ernest Borgnine, Tony Curtis, and Janet Leigh.

I drink to your safe return in English ale. I wish that it were English blood!
— Kirk Douglas as Einar

The history

AD 793—like 476, 1066, or 1914—is one of European history's ineradicable points of periodization. Historians debate how important the date is, point to this or that precedent that proves its relative unimportance as one part of a long process, while opponents note how much demonstrably changed after it, and little by little its importance is further cemented. In this case, the year marks the traditional beginning of “the Viking Age.”

While western, Christian Europe—the world of Charlemagne—had prior contact with heathen Scandinavia through trade and travel, 793 is the year raiders attacked the undefended monastery of St. Cuthbert at Lindisfarne on the northern English coast. In a lightning strike from the sea, a small band of Norse raiders surprised, assaulted, plundered, and escaped from the monastery with a huge haul of valuables—including especially human property.

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While there are arguably slightly earlier Viking attacks, the raid on Lindisfarne, with its indiscriminate violence, shocked Christendom. The great English scholar Alcuin of York, in a contemporary letter, described how “the pagans have desecrated God's sanctuary, shed the blood of saints around the altar, laid waste the house of our hope and trampled the bodies of the saints like dung in the street.”

Despite prehistorical ties of ancestry, culture, and custom, by 793 the Norse were utterly alien to their victims in Christendom. They were still polytheists who honored heathen gods like Oðinn, Þorr, and the grotesquely endowed Freyr, sometimes with gruesome human sacrifice reenacting Oðinn’s sacrifice of himself to himself, enthusiastically practiced slavery and concubinage, and recognized no limits or boundaries to their aggression. Might made right, a point made abundantly clear in the legends and myths they told about themselves. Heroes like Volsung, Sigurð, and Ragnar Loðbrok took what they could, where they could, showed no mercy—not even to their own children if they proved weak—and all died violent deaths.

Over the 250 years after Lindisfarne, raiders from Denmark, Norway, and Sweden—the “Northmen”—repeatedly attacked along the entire coastline of western Europe and struck deep into modern-day Russia along the Volga and the Don, all the way to the Black Sea, where they were hired as mercenary bodyguards to the Roman emperor in Constantinople. Within a century of Lindisfarne they had reached Iceland, and by the year 1000 had landed in a region they called Vinland before cutting their losses in the face of repeated attacks by the native inhabitants, frightening dark-eyed people they called the skrælings—the Native Americans of northwest Canada.

Due to their proximity to Scandinavia—just a few days’ sailing across the North Sea—the British Isles were the most frequently attacked of the Vikings’ targets. Ireland’s first city, Dublin, was founded as a trading post by Vikings, and of the numerous small Anglo-Saxon kingdoms dividing Britain in 793, all but one, Wessex, fell to Viking attack and settlement, and Wessex only survived thanks to the vision of king Alfred the Great and a complete reordering of its society to defend itself against the invaders.

But like their ancient cousins who had overwhelmed the Roman Empire, the Norse were gradually absorbed from underneath by their victims. One of the most successful Viking warlords, Hrolf (Latinized as Rollo), successfully maneuvered the king of France into offering him a duchy that became known as Normandy. By the time his descendent, William the Conqueror, invaded England, the Norse influence on Normandy remained only in placenames and the big, rugged physiques of its nobility.

Christianization is directly related to the petering out of the Viking Age: whatever the motivations of Norse lords for their conversions, as Christianity took root, the random violence and pragmatic theft dwindled, and Scandinavia began to look more and more like France, Germany, and England—three regions the Vikings, a seemingly existential threat, had once challenged and changed, only to be changed in turn.

The film

Kirk Douglas produced and starred in The Vikings, which came out in 1958. He had done the same for Paths of Glory the year before and would do so again for Spartacus two years later. Like those two films, The Vikings was based on a novel and was packed to the gills with action. Like those two films, Douglas reserved the juiciest part for himself. And like those two films, he excelled in it. One might call these films “vanity projects” if they weren’t so good.

But of these three, The Vikings is probably the film most about the action for its own sake. It doesn’t have the cerebral, meditative quality of the Kubrick-directed Paths of Glory or the ideological passion of Spartacus. But what The Vikings does well, it does very well indeed.

Ernest Borgnine as Ragnar, Janet Leigh as Morgana, and Kirk Douglas as Einar in  The Vikings

Ernest Borgnine as Ragnar, Janet Leigh as Morgana, and Kirk Douglas as Einar in The Vikings

The film tells a convoluted story worthy, if not quite up to the standard, of Shakespeare. After a brief prologue with wonderful titles based on the Bayeux Tapestry (and narration by Orson Welles), we meet the rampaging Ragnar (Ernest Borgnine), who, within ten seconds of his introduction, kills an English king and—it is heavily implied—rapes the freshly widowed queen. We then see her at the coronation of her late husband's brother Aella as king of Northumbria, a petty tyrant played with arch, greedy effeminacy by Frank Thring (Ben-Hur’s Pontius Pilate). During the ceremony, the queen reveals to a priest that she is pregnant with Ragnar’s child. She hides this fact and, when the child is born, ships him off to a continental monastery for his own safety.

Years later, Aella, perched in his magnificent castle (about which more below), is consumed with defeating the Viking menace, embodied in the still vigorous Ragnar and his son Einar (Douglas). We meet them through Egbert (James Donald, The Bridge on the River Kwai’s Major Clipton) after Aella rather pointedly asks why it is that Egbert’s lands never get raided by the Vikings. Egbert, it turns out, is a traitor, who has sold out his lord and the rest of the kingdom for peace with the Vikings. He escapes to Norway and arrives at Ragnar's home in the first of several stunning sequences of longships sailing into the fjords.

James Donald gives a perfectly awkward fish-out-of-water performance as Egbert when he arrives in Norway, where he settles in with the Vikings and gives the viewer a window into their world. Ragnar spends the time between his raids on Britain partying in his hall, which is created in magnificent and authentic detail, and pestering Einar to be more worthy of him by fighting and plundering more. Einar is vain of his appearance—“He scrapes his face like an Englishman,” Ragnar tells Egbert to explain to us why Douglas didn’t grow a beard for the role—and proud of his conquests and feats, physically and sexually (though always in a 1958-appropriate manner).

Later, while out hawking, Egbert and Einar have a run-in with a slave, Eric. Eric sics his hawk on Einar, who loses an eye in the attack, which is genuinely violent and disturbing. The disfigured Einar is only prevented from murdering Eric on the spot by the old lady who casts runes in Ragnar’s hall. The two will be rivals for the rest of the film.

Also thrown into the mix is Morgana (Janet Leigh, two years before Psycho), a Welsh princess betrothed to the ageing Aella. Ragnar sends a longship to intercept Morgana on her voyage to Aella’s castle and abducts her as a bargaining chip, but Einar—being portrayed by a lusty Kirk Douglas—decides he has to have her and won’t take no as an answer. Eventually, Eric is able to effect an escape from Ragnar with Morgana’s help, and it is to Morgana that he tells his tragic story—he was sold into slavery as a baby, when the ship he was on was captured by the Vikings. No bonus points for guessing whose son he turns out to be.

I rewatched The Vikings last week to prepare for this post and can’t be sure if I’m remembering these story elements and plot devices in the right order—and it doesn’t really matter. The Vikings is high melodrama of the kind Shakespeare delighted to construct, with secret identities revealed, love triangles, tortures and mutilations, violent duels, and a high body count by the end. Ragnar meets his grisly end in a pit full of ravening wolves, there’s a great high-seas chase that ends in a fogbank, and a brutal climactic battle in Aella’s coastal stronghold that ends with a duel to the death. It’s all immensely entertaining.

The film was a major international production, with a budget over $3 million and location shooting in Norway, Brittany, and—of all places—Yugoslavia. Douglas hired Richard Fleischer, with whom he had previously worked on Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, as the director, and Fleischer’s work here is excellent. The scenery, especially the sequences filmed in the Norwegian fjords, is stunning, and the sets are great. The film’s score, by Mario Nascimbene, is rousingly bombastic even if the main theme gets a bit repetitive after a while.

Tony Curtis's gams, front and center for an unfortunate amount of screentime

Tony Curtis's gams, front and center for an unfortunate amount of screentime

The performances are good, not great, but again, they’re not really the point. Tony Curtis seems miscast for the first two-thirds of the film until he looks sufficiently roughed up and bearded at the end, when he has to be taken seriously as a warrior. Until then, his prettiness—which I think was only ever an asset as The Great Leslie—and the horrible shorts he’s forced to wear just don’t work. Frank Thring is hamming it up, to good effect. Janet Leigh is passable as the beautiful princess.

Where the actors don’t excel, I think the writing is to blame. The story is fun, but the dialogue is often really obvious. Witness that early scene in which Aella is crowned king of Northumbria. As Aella, enthroned, is presented with a ceremonial sword, part of its hilt falls off and the entire court reacts with stunned silence. Egbert steps forward, picks it up, hands it back to the bishop, glances at Aella, and says, “A bad omen.” Okay. Got it.

The two best performances are those of Kirk Douglas—naturally, since the film is basically constructed for him to show off his charisma and physicality—and, surprisingly, Ernest Borgnine, who is fully believable as a bluff, hearty Viking warlord. His final scene before being chucked into the wolfpit, a scene in which he briefly believes he will be killed in a manner that will keep him out of Valhalla, is excellent.

The film as history

Ernest Borgnine as Ragnar in his hall in  The VIkings

Ernest Borgnine as Ragnar in his hall in The VIkings

The Vikings is based on pulp novelist Edison Marshall’s novel The Viking, which is itself loosely based on elements of Ragnars saga Loðbrokar or The Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok, which describes the life of Ragnar, who married the long-lost daughter of Sigurð the Dragonslayer, and his eventual capture and death in a pit of snakes at the hands of the devious English king Ella. Ella—Ælla in Anglo-Saxon and Aella in the film—is a real person, having ruled Northumbria for a few years in the 860s before dying in battle with the Vikings at York in 867. This is how fuzzy and incomplete our sources for this place and period are.

Ragnar Loðbrok (literally Ragnar Shaggypants) exists at the hazy edges of history and legend; I’m personally inclined to believe him entirely legendary, like Robin Hood, but we can’t really know for certain.

The rest of the story and its character are fiction but, as George MacDonald Fraser writes in his Hollywood History of the World, it is “fiction against a carefully researched historical background, shot wherever possible in the proper locations, and presented with feeling for its subject.” The film “is what a historical epic should be: an excellent film in its own right, and a striking evocation of period.” Fraser also praises

the film’s atmospheric quality: it is the North on film, rough and cold and raw and beautiful to see, the longships gliding in sunlit triumph up magnificent fjords or slipping away into clammy mist, the gangers carousing in the coarse splendour of their hall, the minute detail of costume and weapon and custom, the triskelion shields advancing over dune and promontory.

“The North on film” is exactly right. The great strength of The Vikings is its evocation of a time and place, a different world. It gets the tone exactly right, and the details—the costumes, sets, props, and customs—almost exactly right.

The clothing, weapons, and other bits of material culture are just about right for the era—the mid-9th century—and Ragnar’s hall in all its beer-swilling chaos is great. The production team took special care to recreate the longships, the signature vessel of the Norse, and the many sequences in which they appear take full advantage of them.

Seen here: not 9th-century fashion

Seen here: not 9th-century fashion

The Vikings themselves are depicted with respect but not blind admiration. Ragnar is a rapist, probably many times over; Einar would be if he got the chance. They like to have a good time and they’re incredibly violent. Neither of these traits is muted or blunted. Viking religion also gets a good depiction, I think, with the myths—the thing most modern people focus on—taking a backseat to ritual, custom, sacrifice, and divination. I struggle to get students to understand that extinct religions were more—much, much more—than the neatly catalogued mythologies they get from Edith Hamilton, Neil Gaiman, or Rick Riordan. The Vikings understands this and enacts its drama accordingly.

Of course the film isn’t perfect, historically speaking. While the combat is mostly good, the realistic shield-wall (skjaldborg) fighting gives way to an Errol Flynn-style mano-a-mano sword-on-sword fight, something that just didn't happen in that era and with those weapons. The Anglo-Saxons also never built stone castles, making the entire showdown at Aella’s fortress (actually a 13th-century castle in France) an impossibility. It’s unclear whether—or, if so, how—runes were used for divination, and the handfuls of Viking funerals for which we have evidence, including the famous Rus funeral witnessed by Arab traveler Ibn Fadlan, didn’t happen like the one in this film, which is singlehandedly responsible for the way Viking funerals are usually imagined now. And, perhaps most obviously, in the dead giveaway of all historical films made in the 1950s, 9th century women didn’t wear those pointy underwire bras.

But despite some non-fatal shortcomings The Vikings is a fun historical adventure, an engaging swashbuckler with authentic Viking trappings, and succeeds better than any other film I’ve seen at—to borrow Fraser’s words—evoking an atmosphere of what C.S. Lewis called Northerness: “like a voice from distant regions . . . something never to be described (except that it is cold, spacious, severe, pale, and remote).”

More if you’re interested

Jackson Crawford, whom I've mentioned here before, is a specialist in Old Norse language, literature, and culture. He published a new translation of the Saga of the Volsungs with the Saga of Ragnar Loðbrok last year. It’s excellent. Check it out if you want a literary immersion course in the world of the Vikings and of Ragnar Loðbrok specifically.

Among the many, many books on Norse history and culture that I recommend are A History of the Vikings, by Gwyn Jones; The Age of the Vikings, by Anders Winroth, who gives a charming and informative one-hour talk on this book hereThe Vikings, by Robert Ferguson; The Vikings, by Else Roesdahl, now in a third English edition; and Viking Age Iceland, by Jesse Byock. 

And I always recommend going to the earliest sources we have, in this case The Sagas of Icelanders, a great selection of Icelandic sagas, oral stories passed down from the Viking Age that dramatically depict life in that violent era; and, for the opposite side, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which can be just as dramatic with its spare, dire record of Viking attack year after year.

Next week

Medieval March will continue! Thanks for reading.

The Norse Myths: A Guide to the Gods and Heroes

This is a good time for Norse mythor at least it should be. Thor is one of the most popular parts of the central cast of the Avengers series, TV is loaded with Viking or Norse-themed programming, and last year geek darling Neil Gaiman released Norse Mythology, his own retelling of some Norse legends. 

Unfortunately a lot of this pop culture is just Norse-flavored. The Thor, Odin, Loki, and Asgard of the Marvel franchise are entertaining but considerably different from their original versions. TV shows like Vikings have serious historical problems. And even Gaiman's Norse Mythology, an entertaining enough read, limits its focus to the gods—and not just to the gods, but to the subgroup of the Æsir—and his depictions of their personalities owe more to the characterizations of Anthony Hopkins and Tom Hiddleston than to the dark and often inscrutable gods of the eddas. 

An excellent short introduction

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I was really pleased, then, with a new book I read last week by Carolyne Larrington: The Norse Myths: A Guide to the Gods and Heroes, from Thames & Hudson. I found the book on the recommendation of Dr. Jackson Crawford of UC Boulder, about whom more below.

I was already familiar with Larrington thanks to her excellent recent translation of the Poetic Edda (a.k.a. the Elder Edda) for Oxford World Classics. She's an accomplished expert in the field and clearly loves the material, which is a good combination when approaching something as diffuse, arcane, and incomplete as Norse myth.

What we know is based almost entirely on the Poetic Edda and another work by Snorri Sturluson, the Prose Edda, and it is apparent from both that we don't have all the stories the Norse told about their gods and heroes. What we do have is episodic, allusive, and varies wildly in tone, sometimes within the same stories. Larrington retells the myths carefully, noting often what we do and do not know about the fuller mythology, and retelling them mostly on their own terms, without a lot of modern reinterpretation. Where she does offer "explanations" of certain tales, she is appropriately undogmatic.

A few things I appreciated about Larrington's book:

  • Short, well-told summaries of the major myths, with good explanations of things first-time readers of Norse mythology would need to know.
  • Larrington uses the original spellings of the gods' and heroes' names throughout, including the letters eth and thorn: thus Oðinn instead of Odin and Þorr instead of Thor. This seems like a minor detail, but I think it helps distance the reader from comic books or modern interpretations and open them to the originals.
  • Sidebars on interesting side stories or other topics.
  • Over 100 illustrations, many from Romantic era books with anachronisms like winged helmets, but the pictures are a welcome help in imagining the stories. Many others are photographs of archaeological finds like the Lewis chessmen, rune stones, or the Oseberg ship or reproductions of original medieval or early modern Icelandic drawings.
  • Larrington is refreshingly frank about the unappealing nature of the Norse gods. Where Marvel's Thor is a well-intentioned but arrogant young warrior who learns humility and self-sacrifice and Odin is a wise—and, well, godlike—old man, the real Þorr is an unapologetically violent bruiser who kills people for humiliating him and Oðinn is a malevolent trickster who first favors then traduces mere mortals in order to stock his hall with warriors.
  • Larrington includes excellent summaries of several major human heroes, including Volsung, Sigurð the dragon-slayer, and Ragnar Loðbrok. 

All in all, an excellent short book, and a great introduction to the topic. I recommend this heartily as a first stop.

More if you're interested

Check out all of the books I mentioned above, but especially the original sources for our understanding of Norse mythology, the Poetic Edda and Snorri's Prose Edda.

In addition to Larrington's translation of the Poetic Edda, the aforementioned Jackson Crawford has an excellent new translation available from Hackett Publishing. As a bonus, he includes his adaptation of the Hávamál, "The Sayings of the High One," the Cowboy Hávamál, a western-inflected interpretation inspired by his grandfather. You can listen to Crawford read it here.

Another book Crawford recommends in the video linked above is the longest and most complicated of the Icelandic sagas, Njals saga, or The Saga of Burnt Njall. I read the Robert Cook translation he recommends while I was working on the first draft of No Snakes in Iceland after college. It's a wonderful book, one I've been meaning to reread for years.

Fortunately, Crawford has just completed a six-part summary retelling of Njal's Saga for his YouTube channel. You can watch all six parts below. Check it out!

Part I: Hrút and young Hallgerð
Part II: Gunnar's rise
Part III: Gunnar's fall
Part IV: Njal's sons
Part V: The burning
Part VI: Kári