A Plague on the History Channel

I’ve just spent a few minutes stocking up my Netflix account with a set of films and documentaries with a vaguely medieval theme, ranging in quality from “looks like a pleasant enough way to kill a couple of hours” to “how bad could it possibly be?” This is one of the ways I like to entertain myself during breaks from teaching, and sometimes it pays off with a new short scene to use or reference in a lecture, or at least with greater (if sometimes painful) knowledge of what my students may have seen or heard recently. One of the documentaries that popped up during my search is a hideous misfire by the History Channel called The Dark Ages (A&E Home Video, Dir. C. Cassel, 2007), which I actually watched during a break this past year. The Dark Ages was merely bad—poor production elements, questionable research, and people who looked as if they wished they were elsewhere. I watched it and forgot it.

The Dark Ages DVD, however, harbored a dark secret—a second documentary, The Plague (A&E Home Video, Dir. R. Gardner, 2005), which was presumably deemed so terrible that it was never given an independent release and instead was hitched onto The Dark Ages‘ bonus features rather like a surprise yersinia pestis-carrying flea on a rat. I watched this second excremental documentary in a state of disbelief—and, caught somewhere between horror and grudging wonder, I offer the following comments. In the interest of getting on with my day, I’ll limit myself here to just five moments in The Plague that made me want to scream out my pain and agony and then track down the writer and director to make them suffer as I have suffered.

FIVE MOMENTS IN THE PLAGUE THAT SAPPED MY FAITH IN HUMANITY

1. The narration
The story this documentary and its guest experts (who acquit themselves reasonably well and, I assume, had no idea what was going to be done to their efforts) are trying to tell is already quite dramatic enough–the Great Mortality (the actual name used in the 14th century for the plague; “Black Death” wasn’t coined until the 19th century) wiped out something close to half the population of Eurasia in the space of a few years, and left a fundamentally different geopolitical and socioeconomic world behind. Apparently this wasn’t thought to be enough to sustain the interest of the target audience of this documentary (children? Intelligent border collies? Steven Seagal fans? Steven Seagal?), so the producers tracked down a voice-over actor who contributed a passable impression of the movie-trailer guy (“In a world where…”) and gave him a script that also sounds like a bad movie trailer, so that the narration provides us with grimly-intoned but oddly silly lines like “they had no idea that within the ships were cargoes of food, textiles…and death.” One assumes that, in fact, the crew of the average 14th century merchant ship did know that at least two of those things were down there, unless sailors were routinely shocked when they’d peer down into the ship’s hold: “Say, Guiseppe, where did all these carefully-stowed containers of cinnamon, pepper, and assorted foodstuffs of the East come from? And is that a waterproof-wrapped selection of costly silks brocaded with silver thread down there, or am I nuts?”

Oh, and while we’re on the voice work…

2. The silly, silly accents
Admittedly, this is a pet peeve of mine–movies and documentaries that want us to understand that the person speaking is NBOA (Not British Or American), but that don’t trust us to read subtitles. The solution, and it’s apparently so obvious that even the director of The Plague figured it out, is to bring in actors to put on fake and hilarious accents so we know they’re playing foreigners. In this documentary, there are “Mongols,” “French,” and “Italian” speakers in addition to English speakers (and, of course, the Movie Trailer guy). Leaving aside for the moment the problem of sticking modern versions of these accents on the characters, and the fact that they’re all speaking modern English anyway, it’s hard to take the whole thing seriously when half the speakers sound like Peter Sellers. The whole thing reaches the height of inanity when a voice-over, purportedly that of Italian chronicler Gabriel di Mussis, speaks on the horror of the plague: “Alla-mighty a-God, son ava de entire-a human-a race, we are-a wallowing in-a the mire av manifold-a wickedness…” I assume the voice actor was wearing a bushy black mustache, holding a plate of spaghetti and meatballs, and recording his lines on break from helping his brother Luigi to fight Donkey Kong. Later, the same actor reads an account by Agnolo di Tuola of the early mass graves dug in the Italian countryside, presumably not realizing that his I’m-a-da-pizza-guy delivery somewhat undermines the gravity of the lines: “In-a many-a places, great-a peets were dug and-a piled-a deep with-a da multitude of-a da dead…”

3. The presentation of various popular legends as fact
There are a few really egregious examples here–my favorite is the recounting of a well-known (and, quite possibly, true) story about the Mongol army using “crude catapults” to toss plague victims into the city of Kaffa. The narrative seems a little confused about whether or not this happened:
“While the story might be more legend than fact, the Mongol pestilence spreads to the townspeople of Kaffa. But while these facts seem clear, a mystery remains…”
I should say so. For starters, what facts are we talking about here? Why bother including the disclaimer immediately before asserting that the catapult-a-plague strategy was real? How, exactly, do apocryphal stories spread disease? And while we’re at it, is it worth mentioning that plague could also be spread quite easily between two clashing armies, with or without what the narrator (in another of his Movie Trailer moments) calls “the first example of germ warfare”?

4. A World Gone To Hell
I lost count of the number of variations on this particular theme–it’s almost the theme of the entire film. I counted at least half-a-dozen actual references to “hell on earth” or “a world gone to hell.” It’s not a question of whether things were really very bad in the late 1340s–they absolutely were. The problem is that these lines, almost invariably, are accompanied either by pictures of actual fire (even if that means just showing a torch on a wall) or by totally incongruous images (such as a bored-looking Jewish merchant named “Agamnet” or something similar, whose performer was apparently chosen specifically for his ability to make Jewish merchants look shifty and untrustworthy, but who here seems to be wondering whether he left the oven on). Apparently the idea of people actually dying of a disease they couldn’t explain and couldn’t stop isn’t horrifying enough, but a picture of a large candle is meant to make us widdle ourselves in horror.

5. Joan of England
The documentary builds its narrative around a number of key figures (among them Pope Clement VI, the physician Guy de Chauliac, and Agamnet). One of the major plotlines revolves around Joan of England, the teenage daughter of the English king Edward III. Since essentially the only significant thing anyone knows about Joan is that she died in 1348 on her way to Castile to meet her fiancé, the documentary has to work extra-hard to build some kind of suspense around her story. It fails utterly to do this, opting instead for a series of tooth-achingly-ironic ruminations on the elaborate security precautions and vast personal guard her father expended on getting her safely to Castile: “Along with many distinguished clergymen and diplomats, 100 bowmen will make the journey will make the journey to protect this…precious cargo. But their precautions will come to nothing. Within a year, almost all of them will be dead...” Later, in case we’d forgotten, we are reminded, “Joan is perhaps the most well-guarded woman in Europe right now…but archers and castle walls cannot shield her from an unseen enemy. The phantom, the plague, strikes randomly.”
By the time Joan finally grows ill, we are fully expecting an over-the-top moment, and even here the documentary goes beyond our wildest hopes and fears. As we watch the actress playing Joan laugh and toss her hair fetchingly with her attendants, the narrator intones, “Joan, princess of England, favorite daughter of the king of England, does not survive. Like almost half the population of Europe, she falls victim…” [dramatic pause, while church bells begin to chime] “…to the Black Death. Her father, Edward III, is powerless to do anything but mourn.” And the scene fades out, but not before we are treated to a fade-in of magnified green-tinted yersina pestis bacteria and a brief image of a skull over Joan’s face.

There’s plenty more that was equally ridiculous–the hammy overacting of the Flagellants; the constant re-use of a limited amount of re-enactment footage (so that peasant burials in Italy, France, Germany, and England all involve suspiciously familiar-looking peasants); the shots of Joan of England playing “Ring Around the Rosey” with her friends, seemingly without the connect-the-dots irony which limns the rest of her story; the depiction of prostitutes in plague-era Germany as, apparently, bawdy Italians; and on and on.

If you have the opportunity and are of a Mystery Science Theater 3000 temperament, I recommend hunting down the full documentary and treating yourself to an unparalleled viewing experience. If you take the rather narrow view that something calling itself a “documentary” ought to resist forced melodrama or, indeed, be in any way based on documentary evidence, then you can probably afford to skip it.

In the meantime, does anyone have any recommendations for me to add to my Winter Recess viewing list?

~jpsexton

2 Comments

Filed under 14th Century, History, Medieval Movies, Medievalism, Pop Culture

2 responses to “A Plague on the History Channel

  1. Pingback: Criticism or Emotion? Why Not Both? | MASSachusetts State Universities MEDIEVAL Blog

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