Filming the Middle Ages: Nightfall and Pilgrimage.
Warning, opinionating in progress yer honour
Both Nightfall and Pilgrimage are set roughly around about the same time. Both are set in historical contexts. Both revolve around a sacred relic. The difference lies not in ‘historical accuracy’ whatever that might mean, but in the attempt by Pilgrimage to capture a different way of thinking about the world, and the total failure of Nightfall to even make the attempt.
What interests me about films or tv series set in 'the middle ages' or 'the dark ages' is their attempt, successful or other wise, to evoke a different world. You may not be interested in this aspect of films set in the past, and if not, its presence or absence should not affect your attitude towards them.
Exactly what Nightfall is supposed to be is a problem in itself. Although from the history channel it’s obviously not ‘history’ in the sense of documentary history or reenactment. It’s fictional entertainment. But it’s pseudo historical entertainment, containing names that occur in the historical record. And so, the question is why didn’t the writers create their own fantasy world, why did they hang their characters on real names, and place the action in real places, when they’re obviously not interested in how those characters would have acted. It’s possible they are simply shirt tailing the words Templar and grail, exploiting what people think they know about Templars or the grail in order to establish an intial audience base.
The rivet counters can complain about the fire bombs and the exploding ships and castles, the holy grail, the fact that some of the knights are called Gawain and Percival, and that there seems to be some confusion between Knights of the Temple and the Knights of the Round table. (It would take a far more subtle approach to pull this one off; the Templars were a religious order, the Knights of the Round Table were not.) A queen of France who wanders the streets of Paris alone and unattended? Mounted Knights who dismount to fight superior numbers?
I have no objections to any of this as entertainment: the minute the word Grail appears we’re in the land of fiction.
What put me off the story from the first episode is the idea of a ‘Master of the Temple’ having an affair with the Queen of France.
What most versions of the middle ages on film fail to take into account is how different these people were in the way they thought. They were not you and me in fancy dress. The Bold and The Beautiful in medieval costume doesn’t work except as pastiche or parody.
We’ve become inured to sex as an essential part of narrative, especially as part of historical fiction. Everyone it seems was dropping their clothes at the drop of a hat. But the morality of an American soap opera doesn’t translate into the European middle ages.
In the story world of Nightfall, our central character does not believe God exists. He Knows God exists. He has touched the relic of the Last Supper. For him Jesus is an historical character and he has seen the evidence. He wants to reclaim the Holy Land for the Christian church and is willing to die fighting for it because of this faith. It motivates him powerfully.
This man has sworn to this God a vow of chastity and poverty when he joined the order. He knows adultery is a sin. He also knows that adultery with the queen is treason. And his sensuality will undermine everything his order stands for, if it’s found out it will hand his enemies a weapon he cannot fight against. He cannot play the games soap opera characters play; I’m sorry, it didn’t really mean anything, it was just sex, a bit of fun. I won’t do it again.
Nor is it a matter of whether or not they can get away with it. He cannot ‘get away with it’ because his God is watching everything he does. And in the crowded world of Paris, it’s unlikely that someone isn’t going to notice him climbing a wall and wonder where he’s going.
So this man is a lying, adulterous treasonous hypocrite. And a fool. If he’s not caught he’s going straight to a hell that he believes in. Even if he believes he can find absolution for his sins, when he is caught his death is going to be horrific and will damage his order irrevocably.
It’s this failure to understand that sex is out of bounds, and the queen is simply off the planet that suggests the writers have not bothered to consider their material. There’s no attempt to understand the difference between now and then, and that reduces this to farce.
It’s interesting to compare Nightfall to the film The Pilgrimage (2017). Again your average rivet counter could probably find fault with the monks’ habits, their belts, their tonsures. I’m fairly sure a weapons expert might have something to say about some of the weapons on show. And the graphic violence might be off putting to some.
But what the film does is catch at something alien: a profound belief in the reality of relics. As someone says, ‘it’s a rock some dead saint bled on’, but for the monks, it is manifest holiness, and terrible in the precise meaning of that term. For the Cistercian and his masters, it is a thing of power that will aid them in their plans. For the Normans in Ireland, it is a piece that can be used to secure their future by giving it to a King struggling with the Pope.
There is an immanent violence all through the film. It’s not glamourized or sexualized, there’s nothing heroic or sexy about it, but it is there and the casual brutality and indifference to suffering that explodes sometimes unpredictability add a menace to the story which is missing from Nightfall. In Pilgrimage faith exists in the face of such ugliness. And there are different types of faith, shades of belief and devotion, and in the case of the Cistercian, it is an ugly and unattractive faith.
The characters: the Monks, the Cistercian, and the Norman, Raymond, all feel like they belong in a different time. Raymond is by far a better character than the central Templar in Nightfall as an imaginative attempt to answer ‘what would someone in that time and place be like’? He is proud, brutalized, seething with contempt, worried that this family’s position is jeopardized by John’s unpredictability but still not ready to get rid of an aging father. And his ferocity simmers beneath a barely controlled frustration with the world. The Norman invasion of Ireland was not pretty, and the Irish resistance was not a matter of knights meeting in the open field. It was an encounter that brutalized both sides. Just as the crusades did.
When, searching for the relic, Raymond says ‘I will find another rock and pretend it is the relic’ or words to that effect, he is not expressing a modern skepticism about relics, but a profound disillusionment and consequent lack of faith that defines him as a character against the believers in the film.
He would not have sex with the queen. Even if Isabella of Angouleme was the stunning beauty she is rumored to have been. But if he’d lived, you can imagine him a few years down the track, having run out of patience, joining the baronial revolt against John and meeting the cruelty of John’s mercenaries head on.
My reaction to these two films is probably clouded by the fact I’m currently working my way through translations of the Works of Gerald of Wales, who was still alive at the time of Pilgrimage, who described the Norman Invasion of Ireland and the English and French attempts to subdue Wales. I admit I’d rather read Gerald than watch either, but Pilgrimage seems to resonate with his writing. Nightfall doesn’t.
End of opinionating.