Movie response assignment

Over the course of the term, we will watch five movies (and TV productions) on historical topics related to our course material. These films seek to recreate the distant past, more or less accurately; at the same time, they inevitably contain traces of the historical contexts in which they were made. You will be required to respond to four of these films, including the ones marked with an asterisk below, via the course website. You may find it useful to think about the materials you view by reading Arthur Lindley’s The ahistoricism of medieval film and Paul Halsall’s Thinking about Historical Film: Is it Worth the Trouble?

Movies will be available on Course Reserve (in Uris Library) for individual viewing. You should plan to watch each film in time to post your response by the posting deadline listed below. After responses have been posted, we will make them available for viewing on the course website discussion board.

Your response should be no longer than 250-300 words. You may choose to address any aspect(s) of the films that piques your interest: as the term ‘response’ suggests, I am interested in hearing how you react to the films you watch. Your response should demonstrate careful, critical viewing; you should consider the films’ effectiveness at giving you insight into the history we study, as well as how themes discussed in this course may be reflected in these films. Some issues you might want to think about are:

Grading : each response is worth 1% of your overall course grade; you need only post a thoughtful response to earn this grade. Exceptionally insightful reflections will be rewarded with extra credit (counting towards you participation grade).

You are asked to watch & respond to the following films:

* Week IV: I, Claudius (1976)

For the purposes of this assignment, please watch episodes 2 & 3 of this 13-part BBC television drama series. You may wish to watch episode 1 as well, for context, as well as any & all other episodes, for pleasure. The entire series is available on BlackBoard; the Robert Graves novels on which it is based, I, Claudius and Claudius the God, are available on course reserve in Uris Library. Please consider, in addition to the general questions above, the following points:

  • How does I, Claudius portray the tension between Republican and Imperial ideals during the early Principate? What roles do the Senate and the Roman people play in this account?
  • What legacy did Augustus leave his heirs? Did he set them up for success? Did he care?

Posting deadline: 12:00 noon, 21 September 2014.


I, Claudius
Patrick Stewart as Sejanus, Commander of the Praetorian Guard and Emperor Tiberius's right-hand man

Week V: Jesus of Montreal (Jésus de Montréal, 1989)

Somewhat less gory than Mel Gibson’s contribution to the Jesus-film genre, this Quebecois (Canadian) production follows an actor hired to play the Saviour in the annual Passion Play at a local church, as he slowly gets into his role. NB: unlike other movies on our list, this one is not set in the distant past; instead, it portrays a present-day experience of historical empathy (and may enable yours thereby). Please consider, in addition to the general questions above, the following points:

  • Does Jesus of Montreal allow you a better understanding of what the life experience of someone like Jesus may have been like?
  • What does it tell you about the relationship between ideas and practice, piety and institutional religion?

Posting deadline: 12:00 noon, 28 September 2014

Jesus of Montreal
Lothaire Bluteau (Daniel), Catherine Wilkening (Mireill) and Johanne-Marie Tremblay (Constance) channel the Gospel

Week IX: Beowulf & Grendel (2005)

Director Sturla Gunnarsson’s adaptation of Beowulf was filmed with an international crew in Iceland – which doesn’t look a thing like Denmark or Geatland (presumed to be somewhere in southeastern Sweden) but has a raw, early-medieval feel to it. There is no CGI-enhanced Angelina Jolie here; on the other hand, Iceland’s real landscapes and weather sometimes seem just as surreal. The script is by Andrew Rai Berzins. Please consider, in addition to the general questions above, the following points:

  • How does Beowulf & Grendel portray the social bonds holding together a medieval warrior society, as well as the tensions threatening to tear it apart? What roles do gift-exchange, honour, and violence play in this society?
  • In the film, Grendel (and his family) and the women in Beowulf’s life are portrayed rather differently from how they are presented in the poem. What are the effects of these changes? What do you think motivates them?

Posting deadline: 12:00 noon, 26 October 2014.


with fourteen others / the warrior boarded the boat as captain / a canny pilot among coast and currents (& Icelandic glaciers)

Week XI: Sorceress (Le moine et la sorcière, 1987)

Based on the records of the 13thC Dominican, Etienne de Bourbon. A friar out to hunt heretics arrives at a sleepy village, where he quickly detects irregularities, some more shocking than others; but his allies and rivals don’t all live up to expectations, nor does he do what’s expected of him. You may be interested in an account of St Guinefort, excerpted from the original document, De Supersticione. Please consider, in addition to the general questions above, the following points:

  • How does Sorceress present differences between local, rural religion and the centralised authority of the Church? Does it portray either position as right or wrong?
  • Which effects of the economic, spiritual & political revolutions of the central Middle Ages are evident in Sorceress?

Posting deadline: 12:00 noon, 9 November 2014.

éky Karyo (Etienne) and Christine Boisson (Elba), from the movie poster
* Week XIII: The Return of Martin Guerre (Le Retour de Martin Guerre, 1982)

The original of which Sommersby (1993) was a poor rip-off. In 16thC southern France, a youth abandons his family, only to return after a few years as a mature man; but some begin to suspect he may not be who he claims to be. Also available on Course Reserve is Natalie Zemon Davis’s book, The Return of Martin Guerre, a fascinating monograph by the historian who served as consultant for the film. Please consider, in addition to the general questions above, the following points:

  • The Return of Martin Guerre, like Sorceress, features an outsider coming into a village to conduct an inquest. How else are Etienne de Bourbon and Jean de Coras similar in their circumstances, goals & methods? How are they different? What about their different historical contexts explains these similarities and differences?
  • Why does Bertrande de Rols accept the husband who had run off on her back? Why does she stick by him when doubts begin to grow? How can you make sense of her motivation(s) at the beginning, middle & end of the film?

Posting deadline: 12:00 noon, 23 November 2014.

érard Depardieu ("Martin") and Nathalie Baye (Bertrande)



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