Friday, 13 February 2009

Time Travellers and the Middle Ages

Beside Philip K. Dick (1928-82), Michael Crichton (1942-2008) is probably the science fiction author who has had more of novels turned into movies than any other. Well, he has had more full length novels adapted whereas Dick had more short stories used.

Dick had: 'Blade Runner' (1982) from 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?' (1968); 'Total Recall' (1990) from short story 'We Can Remember It For You Wholesale' (1966); 'Confessions d'un Barlo' (1992) from 'Confessions of a Crap Artist' (1959); 'Screamers' (1995) from short story 'Second Variety' (1953); 'Imposter' (2001; short story 1953); 'Minority Report' (2002) from 'The Minority Report' (1991); 'Paycheck' (2003; short story 1952); 'A Scanner Darkly' (2006; novel 1977) and 'Next' (2007) from short story 'The Golden Man' (1954).

Crichton had: 'The Andromeda Strain' (1971; novel 1969); 'Dealing: Or the Berkeley-to-Boston Forty-Brick Lost-Bag Blues' (1972; novel written with his brother in 1970); 'The Carey Treatment (A Case of Need)' (1972) from 'A Case of Need' (1968) - neither of these two are science fiction, but I include them here for completeness; 'Westworld' (1973, Crichton wrote the screenplay and directed it rather than it coming from a novel); 'The Terminal Man' (1974; novel 1972); 'The First Great Train Robbery' (1979 - Crichton directed) based on his novel 'The Great Train Robbery' (1975); 'Looker' (1981 - Crichton wrote screenplay and directed); 'Runaway' (1984 - Crichton wrote screenplay and directed); 'Jurassic Park' (1993; novel 1990); 'Rising Sun' (1993; novel 1992); 'Disclosure' (1994; novel 1994 too); 'Congo' (1995; novel 1980); 'The Lost World: Jurassic Park' (1997) based on 'The Lost World' (1995); Sphere (1999; novel 1987); 'The Thirteenth Warrior' (1999) based on the novel 'Eaters of the Dead' (1976) - set in Viking times; and 'Timeline' (2003; novel 1999).

Even in contemporary-set movies such as 'Rising Sun' and 'Disclosure' Crichton included elements which were technologically cutting-edge at the time, if less extraordinary than those of 'Jurassic Park' or 'Timeline'. I am sure we will see many more of Crichton's novels made into movies in the coming years. Anyway, this forms a rather distracted introduction to this posting. The reason is that having seen the movie 'Timeline' twice I started reading the novel. Friends have said how good it is, but actually I find it incredibly frustrating for a number of reasons, and I enjoy the plot of the movie much more.

The movie cost US$80 million to make and only took US$19 million in the USA because of condemnation by critics. It is an enjoyable film about archaeologists who using quantum physics technology created by a company called ITC, pass through a wormhole back to the castle and monastery in medieval southern France that they have been excavating. It turns out that an employee of the corporation that has invented the technology has made a career there for himself and causes problems for the time travellers combined with the fact that they arrive in the middle of a battle between French and English forces forming part of the Hundred Years War.

The direction of the movie was criticised. Perhaps director Richard Donner (born 1930) was simply getting too old and should have retired. Despite a strong record, his direction in this movie is poor in allowing the dialogue to overlap and become confusing and some of the actors to seem to lack conviction in what they do. There are criticisms of the extras, I read them described as 'bored union workers', in fact most were amateurs, people who do re-enactment for a hobby and are probably not used to being extras. Maybe this was an error.

The movie suffers from miscasting. Anna Friel is inappropriate as a French noblewoman and Billy Connolly just about pulls it off as the archaeology professor, but someone with more gravitas would have done better. With better direction we could have seen the quality of acting that he delivers in 'The Last Samurai' (2003) but instead he is on default setting, not bad but not good enough. Interestingly, two of the female characters in the novel, Kramer and Gomez are replaced by male characters in the movie. It would have been a better movie if rather than playing Robert Doniger, the US head of ITC, British actor, David Thewlis had been cast in the Professor Johnston role. In addition, as some critics suggested, if Marek rather than Chris was the hero of the movie, though this ambivalence between the two leading male characters is present in the novel too.

Paul Walker who plays Chris who in the movie is the son of Professor Johnston (in the novel is just another archaeologist), is particularly criticised. He is not a good actor, but even in the novel he is supposed to be a weak character concerned with trying to get off with women, which usually fails. In the movies we (well especially US audiences) cannot tolerate such a weak person in the lead. Walker is a poor actor put into the part of a man in a position to talk the blows. In the novel he is weak, but knowledgeable. In the movie he does not even like history and it seems foolish to send him back. Frances O'Connor is another poor actor and seems suited only for playing rather brainless American women and so is miscast as the archaeologist, Kate Ericson, who is also supposed to be a very competent rock climber, she looks like she would curse if she broke a nail let alone scale a mountain.

Many of the things that the movie was criticised for actually come from the peculiarities of the novel. People felt that for time travel there should be more effects. In some way the lack of effects reflects the methodology for the time travel as described in the novel, so you cannot really blame the director Richard Donner for that, though he did drive for low CGI content in the movie. Many critics were surprised that the time travellers gave no thought for the future consequences of their actions. However, from the novel, you know that Crichton believed there can be no future consequences of time travller's actions, certainly not in this universe. Unlike the travellers in the movie who simply move through our time, those in the novel go into a different universe, so whatever they do there will have an effect, but only in that universe, not our own. I dislike the fact that, because ITC have no way of reconstituting the bodies teleported through the wormhole (effectively 'faxed') we have to accept that the people that arrive are their exact replicas sent from a different universe where they have the capability to do the reconstitution at the end of the journey.

Aside from this different interpretation of time travel, which it is clear would be incredibly difficult to get across in a movie, there are other reasons why I prefer the story as it plays out in the movie rather than the novel. In the movie seven people are sent back rather than five. The two security staff are eliminated at the beginning so causing the damage back at base. In there are only three rather than four archaeologists, but it almost feels like it is an episode of the 'Keystone Kops' on paper. They simply run from place to place to place incessantly in the story and it gets bewildering. In the movie they are pursued regularly, but there are also moments of tranquility for the audience to catch up. In the novel almost every person who is met in the past is utterly cruel. In the movie some of this is retained as illustrated by the arbitrary killing of French archaeology student, Francois Dontelle (who does not appear in the novel) by Lord Oliver de Vannes (played by good actor Michael Sheen) brings this home. However, we do not need the constant cruelty that Crichton lays on so thickly and repeatedly in the novel. Ironically, he points out the sophisticated elements of medieval life and yet undermines this by suggesting that you could not walk a couple of metres without someone beheading you.

Crichton's novel also annoys me as he seems to subscribe to that horrible American attitude that hard times bring out the best in people. Chris in the novel goes from being a whimpering worrier to some macho-man, not as strong as his re-enactor friend Marek, but still, very different from what he was in the 20th century. This is a dangerous attitude to adopt. It smacks of the culture fostered by 'Iron John: A Book About Men' (1990) by Robert Bly that modern men are weak and useless and only by going back to primitive behaviour can they be 'real' men. This myth fosters that terrible American post-apocalyptic dream that after some disaster a simpler, better world would arrive which would be like frontier society and allow men to run around with guns being 'real' men. These sentiments in fact conflict with Crichton's portayal (presumably to instil drama) of an utterly cruel, brutal, arbitrary medieval society in which thinkers are slaughered and even the strongest (like Marek who can ride, joust, fight with a sword and kill) suffer.

As I have noted reviewers expect characters in movies to have complete awareness of all movie culture. A number ask had the characters not seen 'Back to the Future'? To some degree we could ask the reviewers if they think that physics actually works the way it does in movies? They seem to say that it must and anyone ignorant of movie physics is foolish. I suggest they check out the 'Hollywood Science' programme which puts numerous portrayals of scientific occurrences to the test. How do we know that the Bob Gale/Robert Zemeckis writing of time travel is any more or less accurate than the Michael Crichton one? Of course the reviewers had no knowledge of the novel and so could only criticise the movie. It does raise an alarming thought though, that audiences will no longer accept characters who do not have the same level of media awareness as themselves. Interestingly a French character might have had their view of time travel far more influenced by 'Les Visiteurs' than by 'Back to the Future'.

Saying all this, I like the fact that in the movie the actions in the past influence the future. There is a flaw in Crichton's novel, because for all he says about the different universes, Professor Johnston's spectacles which he dropped at the other end of the wormhole turn up back in our world. So I am glad to see in the movie that the severing of a character's ear and his subsequent marriage and the smashing through of a secret passageway are reflected in the archaeological finds of today. I suppose this is because I am a romantic.

Another criticism of the movie is the lack of issue over the languages people speak. Again the movie was hampered by what is written in the novel. In the book the travellers have earpieces that translate for them. Half of them have studied Occitan, the language of southern France and they know Latin. For a movie this would probably all seem too scholarly and anyway mainstream US and UK audiences loathe sub-titles or characters speaking in languages they do not understand. They would always prefer strangely accented English.

Crichton put immense effort into researching for the novel. The idea for it was triggered from real accounts of a medieval 'magister', an intellectual/inventor/scholar working in the Dordogne region and travelling with a group of assistants during the Hundred Years War and from this basis Crichton wove the story. However, even he makes some mistakes. We know now, that in contrast to the example illustrated in his novel, trebuchet siege machines work far better is put on wheels when firing rather than being flat on the ground. The movie is criticised for showing Johnston using Greek Fire, the formula for which has still not been rediscovered. Yet, again, this stems from the fact that in the novel, that Johnston creates better gunpowder and a far more flammable oil which is difficult to put out. They are not Greek Fire but they satisfy the lords seeking assistance; for the movie the explanation of these chemicals is simply termed Greek Fire.

It is a shame that flaws in the movie made it a flop. However, being based on the novel made it impossible to make a movie that contemporary English-speaking audiences would have willingly accepted. If Crichton had directed it the acting may have been better but viewers would have found it much harder to comprehend and it would have been purged of the romance and the genuine excitement (as opposed to repeated terrors) that are a part of its appeal.

Having read this novel and reflected on it, I began thinking about other stories revolving around time travellers to and from the Middle Ages. I suppose the era is a popular destination as it allows writers to get in more drama that is wrapped up in a style familiar to the audience. Of course the first entry in this genre is 'A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court' (1889) by Mark Twain (there have been movie versions in 1921, 1931 and a musical version which I have seen, with Bing Crosby in the lead, in 1949; a stage musical version was first produced in 1927, an animated movie in 1970 and another live action one in 1989). It was published six years before H.G. Wells's 'The Time Machine' and has a non-mechanical method of time travel, like that found in novels such as 'A Traveller in Time' (1939) by Alison Uttley. In Twain's story, Hank Morgan is beaten up by one of his employees and wakes up in 528 CE, the time of King Arthur. He manages to survive and strengthens his position by using modern technology to the extent that by the end of the novel with 12 Gatling guns and a belt of dynamite to face down thousands of soldiers. Merlin is electrocuted when he touches a wire that operates part of Morgan's system. Twain was trying to dampen the late 19th century enthusiasm for their view of the medieval past, which was often inaccurate anyway, and which he felt had led to misguided men of the Confederacy to go to war under some illusion that they were a kind of modern knight (perhaps we still see echoes of this delusion in the post-apocalyptic dream noted above).

Morgan wins by using modern technology and advancing the abilities of the locals, a theme taken up in 'Lest Darkness Fall' (1941) by Le Sprague De Camp set at the end of the Roman Empire; 'The Cross Time Engineer' (1988), 'The High Tech Knight' (1989), 'The Radiant Warrior' (1989), 'The Flying Warlord' (1989) and 'Lord Conrad's Lady' (1990), 'Conrad's Quest For Rubber' (1998), 'Conrad's Time Machine' (2004) and 'Lord Conrad's Crusade' (2005) by Leo Frankowski featuring a Polish engineer of 1986 travelling back to help the Poles of 1231 against the coming Mongol invasion of 1241 by developing their technology. Whereas Twain's hero came into friction with the Catholic Church, Frankowski's, Conrad Stargard, assists it. In contrast to these novels in Poul Anderson's short story, 'The Man Who Came Early' (1956) - 10th century Iceland and especially Ford Maddox Ford's 'Ladies Whose Bright Eyes' (1911; revised 1935) - 14th century Europe, which was provoked by Twain's story, both see their heroes have an inability to alter technological development at the time.

Other movie jaunts into the Middle Ages have included the Disney movie, 'A Spaceman and King Arthur' (1979) in which a spaceman from the 20th century, Tom Trimble, and his replica, an android, Hermes, travel faster than the speed of light and end up at Camelot, though the high medieval rather than early medieval version usually shown. As in many of these stories, it is influenced by Twain's novel, and he uses his technology (which appears advanced even for the time the movie was made) to impress Arthur and he helps to defend him from a plot by Merlin to dethrone him. The movie is filled with British actors - Kenneth More is King Arthur, Ron Moody is Merlin and other British acting stalwarts like John LeMesurier, Jim Dale, Rodney Bewes and Pat Roach appear. Disney also produced 'A Kid in King Arthur's Court' (1995) about a boy thrown back in time to the 6th century by an earthquake. He assists the elderly King Arthur by using modern technology he has brought with him. The US movie features leading UK actors: Kate Winslet (born 1975) as a princess, Ron Moody (yet again) as Merlin though on Arthur's side this time, Joss Acland as King Arthur and Art Malik as a lord. Another Disney movie on this theme is 'A Knight in Camelot' (1998) with Whoopi Goldberg as a physicist going back to King Arthur's court and using her knowledge to predict an eclipse as in the Twain novel and subsequently as Sir Boss of the Round Table uses modern technology to defend the king. Paloma Baeza who appeard in 'A Kid in King Arthur's Court' is also in this movie; British actors are represented by Michael York as King Arthur and Ian Richardson as Merlin. Then there is 'Black Knight' (2001) which features Martin Lawrence (all of these three movies have had black US actors as the lead) as a worker at a medieval theme park who being knocked into a fake moat ends up in medieval England we assume, but there is a King Leo on the throne who has overthrown the previous queen, so this is clearly some alternate universe. He learns useful lessons about hard work and honour and getting on through education for when he is thrown back to 21st century USA. His burgeoning romance with Nicole (seemingly the descendant of the Victoria he met in the Middle Ages) comes to an abrupt halt when he is again thrown back in time to find himself in a Roman gladiatorial arena facing lions.

To some extent time travel stories to the Middle Ages are about reflecting on our own time. Crichton does this with even Doniger the entrepreneur noting how much of modern society rests on medieval roots. It also puts forward thoughts about whether our world is better than the past for being healthier and less brutal or in some ways worse, for becoming over-complex and in some people's views very 'weak'. Perhaps the only people we can ask to judge this effectively are those women who claimed to have memories of being Cathar heretics who were violently purged in the 13th century (featured most recently on 'Tony Robinson and The Medieval Reincarnation, shown 31st December 2008 on Channel 4).

The other side of the time travelling coin is the travelling of medieval people to modern times. Generally these scenarios are played for humour. The stories that I know in this regard are 'Catweazle' (1969 and 1971) about a down-at-heel sorceror, Catweazle (brilliantly played by Geoffrey Bayldon (born 1924) from 1066 travelling to contemporary Britain. There were two series (all now available to buy on DVD) in the first he arrives at a farm in Surrey and in the second at a stately home in Bedfordshire. Getting to grips with modern technology and the reaction of modern people provides much humour. The second series was aimed more at the US audience and unfortunately substituted slapstick humour and extended chases for the more involved stories and fish-out-of-water focused humour of the first series. The series does lead us to reflect on the elements of modern technology and how much we take them for granted.

These themes are also taken up in the movies, 'Les Visiteurs' (1993), Les Visiteurs II: Les Couloirs du temps' (1998) and the US remake of the first movie, 'Just Visiting' (2001). All of these movies star internationally known French actor Jean Reno and Christian Clavier (who along with the director Jean-Marie Poire was co-screenwriter). 'Les Visiteurs' was one of the most successful French movies ever. Its sequel was poorly received because of changes in the cast (though given how horribly squeaky Valerie Lemercier's voice is, it was quite a blessing to have her replaced by Muriel Robin and product placement in the movie, no doubt a consequence of the previous movie's success, notably for Nestle chocolate and Nesquik, Bosch car parts, Pizza Hut, KFC and Grand Marnier. The French movies feature the Count of Montmirail (Reno) who is cursed by a witch and consequently kills his fiancee's father, the Duke of Pouille. In an effort to correct his error Montmirail gets a wizard to send him and his servant Jacquouille (Clavier) back in time instead he is sent forward to the same area but in 1993. Montmirail finds his descendant, Beatrice (played by Valerie Lemercier), is still living there though his castle has been transformed into a hotel, which ironically is owned by a descendant of the Jacquouille (again Clavier). Beatrice thinks Montmirail is her long-lost cousin, Hubert and takes him in while he tries to find the way back to his own time. Anyway, humour results as the medieval men deal with modern technology. The second movie despite the flaws, is still very funny with comedy both in the 12th and 20th centuries of the same ilk as in the first movie. I felt it could have been wrapped up a little more neatly, the relationship between the Count and Jacqueline (Arielle Semenoff), daughter of the cousin Hubert and the hints of an admiration from Hubert's estranged wife, Cora, seem unresolved. Also we do not know if the corridors of time which have been causing plagues in the 12th century are ever closed. It feels as if a third movie was expected which as it never appeared, is a shame. Anyway, it is still a laugh.

In 'Just Visiting' the story is similar but set in 12th century England where the Count Thibault of Malfete (Reno) is coming with his servant Andre (Clavier) to marry the King of England's daughter, Lady Rosalind (Christine Applegate) but the Earl of Warwick tries to use a witch's potion to make the princess see Thibault as a demon, instead Thibault drinks the potion and kills his fiancee. Arrested for murder, Thibault employs a wizard who sends him and his servant to 21st century Chicago (where a chunk of the castle is on show in a museum). Here he finds his descendant, Julia Malfete (Applegate) works at the museum and is being exploited by her unfaithful boyfriend who wants her to liquidate the lands she has inherited in Britain and France. Again there is humour around the count and his servant misusing modern technology. US reviewers felt the humour in 'Just Visiting' was more family-friendly than the more crass humour of 'Les Visiteurs', but that is simply snobbery, aside from the joke around the servant's name being 'jackass', the jokes in the movies are almost identical.

Though these are comedy movies, there are underlying currents which are interesting and to some extent show up the differences between how the societies of France and the USA see themselves. Of course, they have often seen paralllels between the two in the past, but nowadays, I would argue there are more differences than similarities, something, that I imagine, Reno who has worked on both sides of the Atlantic is very conscious of. In 'Les Visiteurs', Montmirial is proud to see he has a descendant over eight centuries into the future. There is a lot of emphasis on the continuity of life in a French town, that local people have connections. He is disheartened his descendant is not as powerful as he was and has lost the castle, but seems reconciled to the differences. Importantly, learning of the French Revolution (referenced in 'Les Visiteurs II') Jacquouille sees that he does not have to be beholden to feudal rules and sets out to establish his own life in late 20th century France. The appreciation is for the continuities and differences in French society and of the potential that can come from a family going on.

Ther US perspective is different. To some degree it reflects the attitude to the Middle Ages that I noted in Crichton's work above, i.e. that these were times when men were 'real' men. Malfete's chivalry is contrasted with Julia's boyfriend Hunter. She is encouraged by her ancestor to be 'lion-hearted' and is taught to wield a sword. The correct path for her is seen as connecting back with her noble heritage and keeping the lands, and meeting a handsome Frenchman. To some extent rather antithetical to the 'land of opportunity' of the USA. However, that perspective by Andre who learns that in the USA anyone with wealth can have everything and lift themselves up to a life of luxury. This contrasts with the more meritocratic situation in the French movie, though there, Jacquouille's descendant is rather looked down upon by the Montmirials as noveau-riche, but he is the one who owns the hotel. Thus, the French version has a different view of the past, that it is important but there is no way we should really be apeing it, whereas the American version has a kind of idea that we need more medieval values in our current society and to some degree that does not mean opportunity through effort or merit, but, just as in the Middle Ages, through arbitrary things such as titles, a family name or wealth.

Have we exhausted our interest in time travelling to the Middle Ages? I do not think so. Though there are some examples that suggest that travel to other time periods may be becoming popular, e.g. the early 19th century in 'Lost in Austen' (2008) and I know there are thousands of people out there begging the BBC to release on DVD its excellent 1978 series of 'A Traveller in Time' featuring a 20th century girl travelling back to Elizabethan England. Please BBC, you can do it! However, for now, I think the ease of slipping into medieval settings and similarly the humour of medieval people coming here will mean we will see regular revivals of this kind of story. The challenge is always going to be balancing authenticity against what the audience feels it can comprehend, without then facing criticisms for anachronistic elements in the movie.

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