Still from El Cid (1961)TWITTER/CLASSICSMAN70

There was a curious fascination among twentieth-century dictators for the medieval past, and its use was widespread as a central theme in their propaganda campaigns. There are many examples: Gustav Ucicky adapted the story of Joan of Arc for Nazi propaganda in Das Mädchen Johanna (1935); Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938) used the Battle on the Ice of 1242 to prepare its Soviet viewers for war with the Nazis; and even later, Anthony Mann used the life of Rodrigo Díaz, a Castilian knight and mercenary, as the basis for El Cid (1961). This was the first of a series of propaganda films that Samuel Bronston produced for General Franco. Authoritarian leaders saw the medieval past as malleable and easy to repurpose for political ends and to develop their cult of personality. Film provided the most effective medium for doing so.

Joan of ArcTWITTER/URDAILYHISTORY

There was a precedent for using medieval heroes for political ends that predated the twentieth century. Empress Catherine I of Russia developed the myth of Nevsky to inspire military prowess, introducing the Imperial Order of Saint Alexander Nevsky in 1725, centuries before Stalin would further develop the legend. In the same way, Joan of Arc has long been used as a political prop. Her contemporary Jean Gerson used her to challenge the supreme authority of the Pope as head of the Roman Catholic Church. Authoritarian leaders merely continued this tradition for their own political objectives but in a more modern vein, through this new medium of film.

The Middle Ages were easy to repackage for propaganda purposes principally because there was a lack of reliable sources. The blurred line between historical reality and myth that plagued contemporary medieval sources had long provided the perfect basis for authoritarian propaganda. Only one major contemporary source about Alexander Nevsky survives, and only in a revised form from the 1280s; similarly, much of our historical understanding of El Cid is based on the Poema de Mio Cid, an epic poem that was orally transmitted between generations by public performers (juglares).

A painting of Franco with overt religious imagery and depiction of Franco himselfTWITTER/LABERINTOSARTE

Obvious parallels between historical figures and dictators abound; the strongman leadership of Eisenstein’s Nevsky equated with Stalin’s own, Ucicky’s John of Arc was a female embodiment of the Führer, and El Cid’s portrayal harked back to the Francoist narrative of the Spanish Civil War. Film, however, enabled medieval figures to be used to develop leader cults with greater subtlety compared to other propaganda forms. Mann’s El Cid (and, by implication, Franco) was presented as a successful military leader who was a merciful and devout Christian too. Many acts of violence occur off screen, such as El Cid’s murder of Count Gormaz. Direct comparisons are even made between El Cid and Christ; the scene of El Cid breaking off the arrow in his chest during the Siege of Valencia mirrors an earlier scene in which he did the same to arrows stuck in a statue of Jesus. This nuanced portrayal of Franco using El Cid was simply not possible in other forms of propaganda, such as Arturo Reque Meruvia’s Alegoría de Franco y la Cruzada (1948/9).


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Not only did film allow these comparisons to be made with greater subtlety, but it also enabled multiple propagandistic outcomes beyond the simple development of leader cults, and this was the reason why film became the most prominent medium for appropriating the medieval past. In fact, broader ideological points could be encouraged and expanded. Das Mädchen Johanna drew parallels between the diplomatic situation that faced France in 1429 and that of Germany in 1935. Alexander Nevsky was part of an extensive attempt to psychologically prepare the Soviet population for war with Nazi Germany. Eisenstein overtly linked the Teutonic knights with the Nazis through the striking inclusion and association of the swastika symbol – their helmets also drew strong parallels with the Stahlhelme worn by German soldiers in the First World War. Beyond this, the film glorified communist values as part of the socialist realism movement in the 1930s. The character of Ignat the Armourer, killed unarmed in battle after valiantly giving away his weapons, emphasised the self-sacrifice that Stalin would demand of the Soviet population in World War II. Mann’s El Cid was designed to advance Spain’s national image, accounting for the survival of its fascist political system following the Second World War.

The Battle on the Ice scene from Alexander Nevsky (1938)TWITTER/MTPENNA

The obsession that dictators had for medieval history is not surprising. Joan of Arc, Alexander Nevsky and El Cid were well-known historical figures who represented malleable subjects for authoritarian propaganda. Attaching a cult of personality to a myth or legend with such a murky past had long been a method of lending credibility to a new regime. Film offered itself as a new central medium for the authoritarian appropriation of the medieval past, mostly because of its ability to convey multiple ideological and political points at the same time.

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