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Wearing Historicity: Genre, Stardom, and American Identity in Hollywood's Medieval Films, 1949-1956

Clarke, Daniel (2019) Wearing Historicity: Genre, Stardom, and American Identity in Hollywood's Medieval Films, 1949-1956. PhD thesis, University of Sheffield.

[img] Text (A thesis exploring the cultural and political significance of films set in the Middle Ages and produced by Hollywood cinema between 1949 and 1956)
Daniel Clarke - Wearing Historicity - edited.docx
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Abstract

In a 2017 interview for HBO’s medievalesque television series Game of Thrones (2011-2019), actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau discussed a popular fan theory about the show in which he was a main star. Based upon the show’s anxious rhetoric of ‘Winter is Coming’, the theory suggests that Game of Thrones provides its audiences with an allegory for climate change. While the commercial and critical success of HBO’s series has reaffirmed the status of the Middle Ages as an enduringly popular historical period for reinterpretation at a time when big budget television serials rival the production costs and values of their Hollywood counterparts, readings of the series as allegory expose a mode of appropriation that has long been a staple of the American cinema in its representations of the medieval. Consequently, an in-depth if chronologically partial history and analysis of allegory in Hollywood’s medieval films offers a timely and culturally relevant subject of study. In recent years, several critical commentaries on Hollywood’s depictions of the Middle Ages have considered films set in the period for their applicability to historical grand narratives relevant to their moments of production. These discussions have tended to organise themselves according to subject matter, or the specific historical icons that the films reimagine. Susan Aronstein, Alan Lupack, and Robin Blaetz consider the enduring appeal of films about King Arthur and Joan of Arc to the Hollywood imagination, respectively, arguing for the relevance of those tales to specific American socio-political zeitgeists. Like the approaches taken by scholars such as Kathleen Coyne Kelly, Laurie Finke, and Martin Shichtman, Blaetz’s method involves the discussion of promotional texts disseminated for the films’ release and exhibition, such as theatrical posters. Consistent with Gérard Genette’s ideas on the epitext, that approach reveals to us the narratives that the films’ concerned commercial parties attempt to construct about the films, their social functions, and their stars. Developing Aronstein’s approach in Hollywood Knights, the primary aim of Wearing Historicity is to expand the textual remit of her project by envisaging a field of study that comprehends any Hollywood film set in the Middle Ages and released between the years 1949 and 1956. In that process, this thesis also extends Andrew Elliott’s work on the cinema’s paradigmatic re-constructions of the medieval. Considering the relationship between Hollywood’s medieval films of the 1949-56 period and their contexts of production, I go beyond the premise of Elliott’s insightful and necessary study to consider some of the historicised ideological interplays that exist behind his proposed paradigms. Here, my focus is upon the meanings engendered by allegorical representations of character and narrative; I place particular emphasis upon constructions of kings and knights because of their roles as rulers and defenders of cinematic medieval realms that serve as metaphors for visions of America during the 1949-56 period. In combining narrative analysis with discussions of genre, stardom, and promotion, I redress methodological aspects that were lacking in Aronstein’s study. Accordingly, I also raise questions of whether narratives of contextual zeitgeists are always forthcoming in reading a corpus of films that includes Rudolph Maté’s The Black Shield of Falworth (1954) and Richard Thorpe’s The Adventures of Quentin Durward (1955). In this sense, this project’s contribution to the field is one of extension and reconsideration rather than the wholesale repudiation of established arguments and readings. Its case studies involve in-depth readings of the following films: The Black Rose (1950), Ivanhoe (1952), Knights of the Round Table (1953), The Black Knight (1954), Prince Valiant (1954), The Black Shield of Falworth (1954), The Adventures of Quentin Durward (1955), and The Conqueror (1956). The case studies that feature in this thesis are not limited to these films and include analysis of cultural artefacts concerned with the promotion of the films for initial exhibition and reception. Additionally, they incorporate films not set in the Middle Ages but which helped to establish certain registers of representation that the medieval films assumed either knowingly or unconsciously, such as the Western Red River (1949) and the teen rebellion films Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Blackboard Jungle (1955). My analysis concludes that readings of the medieval film for its historicist representations complement non-contextually specific readings of genre offered by commentators such as Elliott, Nickolas Haydock, and Finke and Shichtman. As my opening reference to Coster-Waldau’s interview suggested, and as the conclusion to this thesis will argue further, my method is applicable to readings of more recent representations of the medieval in screen media, such as Game of Thrones.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Academic Units: The University of Sheffield > Faculty of Arts and Humanities (Sheffield) > School of English (Sheffield)
Depositing User: Mr Daniel Clarke
Date Deposited: 29 Jul 2019 09:20
Last Modified: 13 Jul 2020 00:18
URI: http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/id/eprint/24450

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