Hollywood, History, and the Art of the Big Anachronism

Anachronisms in movies get a bad rap from historians… of which I’m one. That “thwack!” you hear in the theater whenever King Arthur (who lived in the 5th century, if we give him the benefit of the doubt on whole “really existing” thing) clanks onto the screen in full plate armor (invented in the 15th century) is some historian having a facepalm moment. Again.

Even historians, though, recognize that not all anachronisms are created equal. We don’t (well, most of us don’t) sit there in our local multiplex or on our couch obsessively checking Hollywood’s latest vision of Way Back Then to see if the US flags have the right number of stars, the stamps on the letters are the right denomination, or the car license plates are the right color. We also get (well, most of us do) the whole concept of “Hollywood reality”.

Everybody in Hollywood’s version of back-in-the-day—unless they’re the villain or the comic relief—is going to have perfect teeth, just-washed-this-morning hair, and a four-times-a-week-at-the-gym body, just like their counterparts in Hollywood’s version of the here-and-now are always going to be able to find a parking space. That, we can live with. However, the anachronisms that bug historians, are the ones that the filmmakers could have gotten right—no extra cost, no damage to the flow of the story—and yet, they still didn’t.

All that said, though, anachronisms have their uses. A film can teach the audiences more about certain historical eras by deliberately getting a few selected details wildly, absurdly “wrong” than by getting them right. Call it the Big Anachronism: The detail that’s so over-the-top wrong that audiences start wondering why the filmmaker did it.

The past, as somebody once said, is a foreign country. Except for the Middle Ages, which are more like a foreign country on another planet. Distant from us in time and worldview, the thousand-odd years between 500 and 1500 are hard to wrap a 21st century mind around. Thanks in part to popular culture, much of what the general public “knows” about life in medieval Europe is flat-out wrong, and much of the rest means something different than what they think it means.

That’s where the art of the Big Anachronism comes in. It breaks, just for a moment, the spell of that preexisting understanding, forcing viewers to think about why what they just saw feels as wrong as a red ace of spades. The “Wait… what?” moment produced by a Big Anachronism may only last a split second—just long enough to get a laugh—or it can last long enough to get viewers thinking. A ridiculous film about the Middle Ages, such as Monty Python and the Holy Grail or A Knight’s Tale or Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, can actually convey more about the period than one that’s played straight.

Applying a concept like “historical accuracy” to a film like Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) is flirting with absurdity. The film follows King Arthur and his knights across a version of 10th century Britain that interleaves mud-caked reality and mist-shrouded fantasy, and through a series of ever-more-bizarre encounters: with knights who demand shrubbery as tribute; with the virginal-looking, but sexually aggressive, women of Castle Anthrax; and with a lethally vicious bunny rabbit that, when swords and lances fail to do the job, is dispatched using the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch. When Lancelot and Galahad gallop across the countryside on imaginary “horses” simulated by pantomime and clacking coconut shells, it’s hard to work up much concern about whether they’re doing it in proper 10th century armor (although, for the record, they are).

Early on, though, before the film has wandered quite that far into historical surrealism, it chronicles a series of encounters between Arthur and a series of villagers and, in the process, unleashes the Big Anachronism to spectacular effect. “I am Arthur, King of the Britons,” he tells a peasant couple gathering manure, only to find that they are utterly unimpressed by his name, his title, or his claims to be the leader of the Britons (a term that leaves them utterly baffled).

“Who does he think he is?” the peasant woman asks her husband, Dennis.

“I am your king!” declares Arthur, exasperated.

“Well, I didn’t vote for you,” the woman retorts.

The conversation spirals further out of Arthur’s grasp with each successive line. When the woman asks how he got to be king, if not by election, he grandly recounts the story of Vivian, the Lady of the Lake, bestowing the sword Excalibur on him. Unimpressed, Dennis lectures him on political philosophy:

“Listen—strange women lying in ponds, distributing swords, is no basis for a system of government! Supreme executive power derives from the mandate of the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony!”

The torrent of political rhetoric that the couple unleash on Arthur, is comic because—from Dennis’s channeling of the ideas of John Locke, a good seven centuries before he had them, to his wife’s casual description of the village as “an autonomous collective”— it’s so pointedly modern. Behind the absurd anachronism, though, the scene raises legitimate historical truths.

Political authority, in the Middle Ages, was atomized. The bonds of mutual loyalty and mutual obligation that bound the peasant to the lord whose lands he worked were far more immediate, visible, and tangible—far more real to him—than those that bound that same peasant to the king, much less to a geopolitical abstraction like “Britain”. The king’s authority over his lords, though real, was also fragile. It was broken more than once in medieval England, when the ambitious noblemen like Henry Bolingbroke (Shakespeare’s King Henry IV) seized the throne of England from weak, unworldly, or distracted monarchs.

“Who does he think he is?” also underscores another seldom-considered reality of life in the Middle Ages: the “softness” of personal identity. How, in a world where literacy is rare, written documents sparse, and realistic visual art unknown, do you recognize the king when you meet him for the first time? How do you verify that he (or any stranger) is who he says he is?

In identity, as in politics, the local trumped the national in the medieval world: The residents of your own village, the neighboring village, or the nearest market town were people you knew on sight from a lifetime of face-to-face encounters. The King of the Britons would, as a practical matter, have been, for the average villager, a figure as hazily abstract as (say) the Emperor of China or the Caliph of Baghdad.

The plot of A Knight’s Tale (2001) hinges on precisely that idea. Its ambitious young hero, William Thatcher, rises to fame and glory on the jousting fields of 14th century England, sidestepping the requirement that participants be of noble birth by simply declaring himself to be so. Thatcher’s deception—which he begins by impersonating his master after the older man dies between rounds of a tournament—is gradually embellished with an assumed name and an invented pedigree, but it runs on sheer bravado fueled by Thatcher’s conviction that nobody really knows who that stranger from out of town is. He soon falls in with an equally ambitious young poet named Geoffrey Chaucer (yes, that Chaucer) who writes glowing tales of his jousting prowess and so makes his invented identity “real”.

The film is a gleeful mash-up of a medieval adventure tale (William’s trajectory, after all, echoes Arthur’s in The Sword in the Stone) and triumph-of-the-underdog sports story, and the opening scenes squarely split the difference between the two. The film, like its hero, shows its convention-defying colors early. William famously—or, depending on your feelings about Big Anachronisms, infamously—rides out to his first jousting match with the stomp-stomp-clap baseline and defiant lyrics of Queen’s “We Will Rock You” pulsing on the soundtrack.

It isn’t just on the soundtrack, though, setting the scene for modern viewers. It’s also “playing”, somehow, in the fictional world of the movie. The fans, in their rough brown homespun clothes and artfully unwashed faces, are stamping the floorboards and pounding the railings in time with it, the teenaged girl in the uppermost row of the bleachers is dancing to it, and everybody in the place is singing along with it. It may be England in the late 14th century, but Brian May and the boys are in the house.

“We Will Rock You”, a song that’s shaken the rafters of a thousand modern arenas, breaks down the barriers between the viewers’ own memories of Big Games past and the joust that’s about to unfold on the screen. The extras are all dressed in impeccable medieval gear, but their behavior feels familiar and modern. The four pear-shaped, middle-aged guys in the stands—bare-chested and boisterous, sloshing beer on each other as they gesture with their cups—could be rooting for Milan or Miami or Manchester United. The bored-looking nobleman watching from his canopied enclosure could, as easily, be a bored-looking businessman conspicuously consuming the experience from his skybox. The earnest boy with his face painted in his hero’s colors and his eyes fixed on the field could, as easily, be watching his favorite quarterback, midfielder, or first baseman. Turkey legs may take the place of hot dogs, but even in the Middle Ages—at least the version of it in A Knight’s Tale—fans still do The Wave.

And that, of course, is precisely the filmmakers’ point: that Medieval England (or, for that matter, Medieval anywhere) had its moments of communal recreation, of coming-together, of eating and drinking and whooping it up for a few hours under a bright blue sky. Students of the Middle Ages (both the ones in the halls of academe and the ones at the local Renaissance Faire) have known that for decades.

Popular culture, though, tends to overlook such possible moments of joy during that ear, painting the Middle Ages as dark and dour and imagining everyone living during the time as grim, stiff-necked, and pious. Hollywood images of the Middle Ages—whether they’re the Technicolor-and-lofty-language version in Camelot (1967), the mist-and-mud version in Robin Hood (2010), or the stalking-through-candlelit-corridors version in The Name of the Rose (1986)—all have this in common: nobody in them seems to be having, or to ever have had, at any time in their mortal lives, any fun. Even Monty Python and the Holy Grail, possibly the funniest movie ever made about the Middle Ages, gets its laughs by having the “real” medieval characters—Arthur and his knights—act as befuddled straight men engulfed by lunacy.

A Knight’s Tale turns that convention on its head in its opening scenes, insisting that the sun shined, and music played, and people celebrated in the Middle Ages—as they do in our age, and as they’ve done in every age. That the celebrations weren’t as big, as frequent, or as colorful then as they are now—that nobody actually stamp-stamp-clapped to “We Will Rock You, and nobody actually did The Wave —isn’t the point. The point, lest we forget, is that things like this happened.

The Big Anachronism isn’t a particularly a subtle instrument, but it’s a versatile one. Used over and over in rapid succession — as in Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men In Tights (1993) — it works as a form of (low) comedy. Tossed in casually, at the edges of the main narrative, it rewards the older, better-informed, or more-attentive viewer. Set up artfully, it can draw that viewer’s attention to things that are uniformly funny on the surface and subtly thought-provoking beneath it. It can even work, quite successfully, in an awkward, clanking train wreck of a movie like Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991).

The future shows up multiple times in Robin Hood: Prince of Thievesversion of 12th century England. Each time, it’s in the hands of Azeem the Moor, who escapes with Robin from a Turkish jail and, because of an unpaid life-debt, follows him home from the Third Crusade. He spends the balance of the movie producing scientific and technological wonders at the drop of a hat: a pocket telescope here, a pile of gunpowder there, and an emergency Caesarean section that Little John’s wife Fanny (seemingly) recovers from in a matter of days.

Azeem, in other words, isn’t just the smartest guy in the room but, in the context of the 1190s, he’s the smartest guy on the entire European continent. He beats real-world Europeans to usable gunpowder by 100 years, to a workable telescope by 400 years, and to a survivable C-section by nearly 700 years. Even by the standards of his own people he’s decades, maybe centuries, ahead of his time.

Azeem is, at first glance, a historically absurd character. Medieval Islamic civilization, centered on Baghdad, stood astride the Old World’s trade routes and gathered in the knowledge and technology that flowed along them. Muslim scholars led the world in their grasp of optics, chemistry, and medicine. A bright 12th century Moor, heir to knowledge, might have been able to cobble together a telescope, or create gunpowder from found ingredients, or even do an emergency C-section under battlefield conditions. Azeem, however, does all three, with complete confidence, long before anybody in the Islamic world (that we know of) had figured out any of them. Nobody’s that good.

He gets away with it because, in the context of the film, he’s not a character, but a concept. He’s stands for all late 12th century Moors and, in fact, for all medieval Muslims. The intellectual gulf that separates him from Robin is the one that separated medieval Islamic civilization from its European rival… condensed into one individual and cranked up to “11”. Azeem, with his scientific, technological, and medical wonders, exists to startle moviegoers with things that couldn’t have existed in medieval Europe, and get them wondering whether such things could have existed in the medieval Middle East. The conclusion—that Europe wasn’t the center of the medieval world—is left for the audience to draw.

Azeem’s wonders, like Dennis’s political rant and the sounds of Queen echoing through medieval grandstands, aren’t subtle. They’re the storytelling equivalent of a two-by-four to the temple, but that’s the point. Big Anachronisms exist to overcome uncertainty, and to eliminate any question of whether or not you’re supposed to notice.

So the next time a big, absurd, can’t-miss-it anachronism flashes on your movie screen, ask yourself: “Why?” It may just be the director going for an easy laugh. Or, it may be an invitation to view the past, differently.