Monthly Archives: January 2014

The Top 8 Movies Set in Ancient and Medieval Times (with Clips)

By Stefanie Weisman

1. Gladiator. (2000, dir. Ridley Scott)

Russell Crowe gives a searing performance as Maximus, a general-turned-gladiator who single-handedly takes on the Roman Empire. This movie makes you realize (in case you didn’t already) that gladiators weren’t just big fat oafs wearing funny costumes lumbering around an arena. They were human beings who suffered, died terrible deaths, and in some cases, found glory. Joaquin Phoenix is delicious as the twisted but pitiful Emperor Commodus.

2. Braveheart. (1995, dir. Mel Gibson)

Okay, I know this movie is fraught with historical inaccuracies (aren’t they all?), but Mel Gibson’s performance as Scottish freedom fighter William Wallace more than makes up for it. The execution scene at the end is a chilling look at what it meant to be “hanged, drawn, and quartered.”

3. Monty Python’s Life of Brian. (1979, dir. Terry Jones)

One of the funniest movies of all time in my opinion, and surprisingly realistic in parts. Take the scene where an anti-Roman Israelite played by John Cleese asks, “What have the Romans ever done for us?” Well, his cohorts answer, how about the aqueduct, sanitation, the roads (well obviously the roads, I mean the roads go without saying, don’t they?), irrigation, education, public baths, and it is safe to walk in the streets now…

4. Monty Python and the Holy Grail. (1975, dir. Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam)

A zany look at England in the Middle Ages, this is one of the movies that sparked my love of history. It also provides a foolproof way to identify a king in medieval Europe: he’s the only one who hasn’t got shit all over him.

5. The Return of Martin Guerre (Le Retour de Martin Guerre. 1982, dir. Daniel Vigne)

Perhaps one of the most realistic movies set in medieval times, this French film is based on actual sixteenth-century court records, and is a heartbreaking love story starring the ubiquitous Gérard Depardieu, who seems to have been in every French film in the 80s and 90s. It’s unique in that it depicts the life of peasants, not nobility.

Watch the trailer here. (There is a version with English subtitles, in case you were wondering.)

6. The Lion in Winter. (1968, dir. Anthony Harvey)

Starring one of my favorite actors, Peter O’Toole, as English king Henry II (did you know he also played Henry II in the movie Becket?), this movie provides an intimate look at a very dysfunctional family — which just happens to be the nascent British royal family. It also stars Katharine Hepburn as the conniving Eleanor of Aquitaine, and a very young, almost unrecognizable Anthony Hopkins as Richard the Lionheart.

7. The Decameron (1971, dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini).

This Italian movie is bawdy and somewhat pornographic, just as Boccaccio would have wanted it. You can’t do the Decameron justice without showing a little — okay, a lot — of skin. The medieval festival scenes make you feel like you’re in the middle of a Bruegel painting.

You can watch the whole film here!

8. Alexander Nevsky. (1938, dir. Sergei Eisenstein and Dmitri Vasilyev, with a score by Sergei Prokofiev)

I was lucky enough to see this movie at Lincoln Center a few years ago: the New York Philharmonic performed the uplifting score by Prokofiev while the film played on the big screen. This movie, directed by the legendary Sergei Eisenstein, tells the story of Russian hero Alexander Nevsky’s victory over the very scarily dressed Teutonic Knights in the thirteenth century. The Battle on the Ice is one of the most gripping battle scenes you’ll ever see in the history of cinema.

Runners-up: Spartacus, Henry V (the Kenneth Branagh version), The Ten Commandments, Ben Hur, The Seventh Seal.

What are some of your favorite ancient or medieval films?

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The Top 10 Literary Quotes About History and the Passage of Time

I’m a collector, and one of the things I collect is quotes from the books I read. These quotes make me think about mortality and the bittersweet passage of time. Do you have any favorite quotes about history or time in general?

1. Each of us is all the sums he has not counted; subtract us into nakedness and night again, and you shall see begin in Crete four thousand years ago the love that ended yesterday in Texas. . . . Each moment is the fruit of forty thousand years.
— Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel

2. We learn from history that we do not learn from history.
— Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

3. All things are wearisome, more than one can express . . . What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.”
— Ecclesiastes, 1:8-9

4. We could never have loved the earth so well if we had no childhood in it — if it were not the earth where the same flowers come up again every spring that we used to gather with our tiny fingers as we sat lisping to ourselves on the grass . . .
— George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss

5. As you got older, and felt yourself to be at the center of your time, and not at a point in its circumference, as you had felt when you were little, you were seized with a sort of shuddering, he perceived.
— Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure

6. There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;–
Turn whereso’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.
— William Wordsworth, “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”

7. ‘We are going simply to see the old trees, the old ruins; to pass a day in old times, surrounded by olden silence, and above all by quietude.’
— Charlotte Bronte, Shirley

8. Presently he rose and approached the case before which she stood. Its glass shelves were crowded with small broken objects – hardly recognizable domestic utensils, ornaments and personal trifles – made of glass, of clay, of discoloured bronze and other time-blurred substances.
‘It seems cruel,’ she said, ‘that after a while nothing matters . . . any more than these little things, that used to be necessary and important to forgotten people, and now have to be guessed at under a magnifying glass and labeled: “Use unknown”.’
— Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence

9. It is human life. We are blown upon the world; we float buoyantly upon the summer air a little while, complacently showing off our grace of form and our dainty iridescent colors; then we vanish with a little puff, leaving nothing behind but a memory – and sometimes not even that. I suppose that at those solemn times when we wake in the deeps of the night and reflect, there is not one of us who is not willing to confess that he is really only a soap-bubble, and as little worth the making.
— Mark Twain, Autobiography

10. I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.
— From Nikos Kazantzakis’ tombstone

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Turkish Food: What a Delight!

One of the things that surprised me most about Turkey was how good the food is. I had expected it to be like Middle Eastern food, with maybe a hint of Greek, but I was blown away by the endless variety that presented itself. Outside of Turkey, Turkish food is represented by the ubiquitous doner kebab. Well, I didn’t have doner kebab once while I was in Turkey – there was simply too much else to try. Due to the widespread reach of the Ottoman Empire, Turkish food combines the best of Balkan, Middle Eastern, and Persian cuisine, and much more. They take great pride in the freshness of their ingredients, and menus are small but robust. As an added bonus – at least for the American or European tourist – Turkish food is cheap. The food costs about half as much as what I would expect to pay in the States.

With that said, here’s a gallery of my gastronomic tour through Turkey (I went to Istanbul and Cappadocia). Bon Appétit!

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Why You Should Never Go Down Unmarked Roads in Maine Without Four-Wheel Drive (in Pictures)

I’ll let these pictures tell the story of how we almost lost our rental car in the icy waters off the coast of Maine. To read the whole story, published in The Michigan Quarterly Review, click here.

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We found ourselves horribly, helplessly stuck on a beautiful, unspoiled beach. Note to self: Camaros and sand do NOT mix.

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We tried making a loop around the beach, but that just made us more stuck.

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Ummm, is it just me, or is the tide coming in? (GULP)

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A pick-up truck found us, but they couldn’t get us out either.

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Rescue came not a moment too soon. Thank you, tow-truck guy!!!

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Looking back at what might have been…

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