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Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

Digital Nation: Going Medieval for Real in ‘Black Death’

Finally, from England comes a movie that can be enjoyed by history buffs and zombie aficionados, alike. Christopher Smith and Dario Poloni’s “Black Death” recalls a time when the dead – or very near dead, anyway – haunted villages, cities and thoroughfares from China to Great Britain, awaiting their turn to be thrown into a pit and set ablaze in a futile attempt to keep the dreaded bubonic plague from spreading.

Even the most inventive of today’s horror-meisters would be hard-pressed to imagine a monster or madman so evil it could unflinchingly wipe out an estimated 75 million people in Europe, alone, and return centuries later to try and finish the job. In the mid-1300s, doctors and other learned men had yet to establish a connection between rodents, lice and the transference of disease, so they turned to all the usual suspects.

The clergy promoted the theory that devastation was caused either by a wrathful God or vindictive Satan, intent on tormenting humans. The inexactitude of this diagnosis allowed priests to promote both the curative powers of prayer and necessity to burn heretics at the stake, especially women accused of being witches. “Black Death” isn’t as concerned with solving ancient medical mysteries, however, as it is depicting the horror.

“The Church couldn’t decide who to blame – God or the devil – but, anticipating chaos, assumed the responsibility of taking control of society,” said Smith, whose previous directing credits include the thrillers, “Triangle,” “Severance” and “Creep.” “King Edward III was powerless against the Black Death and there was no science for the people to fall back on, so the priests simply encouraged them to come back to the Church. That same ignorance was demonstrated during the AIDS epidemic when several prominent evangelists trivialized it by ascribing the disease to God’s wrath at the gay lifestyle.”

In Poloni’s screenplay, a bishop hires the devout knight Ulric (Sean Bean) to lead a band of mercenaries on a mission to determine how a small collection of reed-dwellers is able to avoid the ravages of the plague. The cleric had decided that the village either didn’t exist or resident witches were in league with the devil to convert fearful Christians. A young monk, Osmund (Eddie Redmayne), has a better hold on the real reason the residents have avoided the disease, but, because he refuses to be seduced by the pagan goddesses, he also must be neutralized.

As if depictions of human suffering in the movie weren’t sufficiently horrifying, the violence and punishment inflicted on the combatants in the disputed village are, well, downright medieval.

“Thanks to Quentin Taratino’s reference to medieval torture in ‘Pulp Fiction,’ people associate the period with twisted behavior,” Smith argues. “They’re fascinated with the hangings, beheadings, torture and extreme violence. If the story we told wasn’t compelling historically, though, we ran the risk of looking like a sequel to ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail.’ We needed to make the mayhem look realistic.”

Smith and Poloni invested a considerable amount of time into researching the period, but finally came to the conclusion, “too much knowledge can stifle the imagination.”

In fact, Smith’s research suggests that “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” is the movie that’s come closest to getting the look of medieval life right. If anything, “Black Death” takes its authenticity from looking “dirtier” than previous period adventures.

Smith admits to inserting the occasional homage to a favorite director, or two, at key points in the narrative. He refers to a scene in which a procession of flagellants takes to a river, rather than risk the hazards of the beaten path, as his “Aguirre moment,” after Werner Herzog’s “Aguirre: The Wrath of God.”
The scene in which the mercenaries are imprisoned in a cage submerged in a water-filled pit clearly harkens to a similar holding cell in “The Deer Hunter,” a movie Smith considers “brilliant.”

“Black Death” was released last summer in Great Britain on the same night as the opening game of the World Cup, a strategy that nearly doomed the movie.

“The distributor thought the kids who love horror would go see it,” said Smith, with a chuckle. “What they didn’t know is that everyone in England is a soccer fan during the World Cup. The movie did brilliantly in DVD, though.

“I’m glad people here will have the opportunity to watch it on the big screen.”

Folks sitting in the first few rows might consider wearing aprons, lest the splashes of blood and body parts soil their clothes.

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2 Responses to “Digital Nation: Going Medieval for Real in ‘Black Death’”

  1. Mr. Wu says:

    “Thanks to Quentin Taratino’s reference to medieval torture in ‘Pulp Fiction,’ people associate the period with twisted behavior.”

    Good lord. Is this another person, like Mr. Tarantino’s ‘Inglorious Basterds’, who believes that history occurred only in the cinema or on your television set?

    This is a fascinating subject and I will assuredly see this film. However, I think I will mostly be reminded of Barbara Tuchman’s excellent chapter on the Black Death in her ‘A Distant Mirror’ before I think of Zed’s final deserved pliers-and-blowtorch demise. If you dig depictions of human suffering, degredation and horrific death, why watch a reenactment of it when you can read about the real thing?

  2. Gary Dretzka says:

    No, I think he was referring to the first thing that comes to mind for many Americans, certainly not all, when the word ‘medieval’ pops up on their radar screens. In our discussion, I asked if the period and various plagues were a large part of any Brit student’s education — compared to the chapter devoted to them in American textbooks — and he assured me that it was. However, since a good portion of “Black Death” was intended to be a horror adventure, he decided to add some relish.

    When you say, “If you dig depictions of human suffering, degredation and horrific death, why watch a reenactment of it when you can read about the real thing?,” it makes me guess that you’re old enough to remember a world in which authors were better able to describe horrific events than Hollywood special-effects experts. I would argue that at least one generation of film-goers wouldn’t trade two hours in a movie theater — watching CGI and special makeup effects — for the imagination-tickling experience of reading a work of non-fiction … sadly.

Digital Nation

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon