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A Hard Day’s Knights: Movie Time Travel, the Middle Ages, and a New Millenium : Gil Junger's Black Knight and Richard Donner's Timeline

John Engle


This article addresses the cinematic treatment of the Middle Ages through an analysis of two recent mass-audience American films, Black Knight and Timeline, both of which feature time travel as a leading plot element. Providing context for this discussion is a brief analysis of other similar films, as well as remarks regarding Twain's Connecticut Yankee, Ruskin's The Stones of Venice, and The Idylls of the King by Tennyson. As in these other works, the films in question use certain popular stereotypes of the Middle Ages—endemic violence, rigid class distinctions, religious fanaticism, spiritual cohesion, etc.—as lens through which to view the contemporary world. In addition to their roles as comic or action entertainment vehicles, Black Knight indirectly addresses American individualism and a cutthroat modern corporate culture, whereas Timeline touches upon millennial anxiety, '90's ethnic cleansing, and the American misadventure in Iraq.

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1Time travel and the Middle Ages: from the Back to the Future franchise through that of Terminator, from Monty Python and the Holy Grail through Excalibur, in a cinema marketplace structured around saleable formulae, Hollywood and its international subsidiaries have never been shy about exploiting the comic and dramatic possibilities of either subject. Given those varied possibilities – our fascination with Time’s fickle glass, the fish-out-of-water bewilderment, an historical setting familiar in its clichéd basics, the enduring pop cultural appeal of the Round Table or Sherwood Forest – it is no surprise that screenwriters have occasionally fused these mini-genres, streaming voyagers along the time continuum between our prosaic modern world and the realm of the medieval. One thinks of the 1993 French hit (and U.S. remake flop) Les Visiteurs, or perhaps of the less-well known The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey (1988). Produced in New Zealand, the latter brought visionary beauty to a young boy’s dream quest to protect his fourteenth century Cumbrian village from the Black Plague, while the former flung a stinky knight and his squire into memorably wacky contact with the French bourgeoisie.

2Several years on a similar balance of comic and dramatic narrative motivations held for a pair of Hollywood productions, Gil Junger’s gag-a-minute 2001 Black Knight and, two years later, Richard Donner’s Timeline, a trim adaptation of the Michael Crichton sci-fi thriller. Essentially mass entertainments, they are nonetheless entertainments fabricated in the anxious early years of a new millennium marked by contemporary tensions and the resurging horrors of ancestral religious and political conflict. Both the charm and the intellectual interest of the time travel narrative lie, of course, in its exploitation of a kind of double vision. The today is here, the past or future epoch in question there, and the best effects come when we view one through the other, as in an evocative double exposure. When the period juxtaposed with our modern world is the Middle Ages – a vaguely defined era loosely identified in the popular imagination with extreme economic and class inequality, religious idealism, and unending warfare – the optical effect can be troubling and significant, even in entertainment products of slim ambition. For all their limitations, both Timeline and Black Knight embody certain real values and fears of an American viewing audience, and perhaps of a wider viewing public throughout the developed Western world. While the Walmart accessibility of their respective presentations of the Middle Ages and the modern self tangled up with its iconic images may not make for unforgettable cinema, they do address directly and indirectly important modern perceptions of a collective past, with its shared myths and its pertinent lessons for the present.

3When one thinks time travel to the Middle Ages, of course, the gold standard is A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. If we are to understand our modern attempts to render the Middle Ages cinematically, it is perhaps instructive to begin more than a century back with Mark Twain – whose 1889 fantasy has, not coincidentally, found its way more than once to celluloid. Like such other towering nineteenth century figures as Ruskin, Henry Adams, and Tennyson, Twain instinctively grasped the narrative and thematic potential of the medieval and its eventual parallels with contemporary times. Dropping Hank Morgan into the sixth century, he targeted, among other things, Continental and Confederate social inequality and the decadent pomposity of their vestigial aristocracies, with enough ironic firepower left over to shake the practical, scientific illusions of his hero’s modern world. Twain’s Middle Ages is Thomas Malory’s steeped in a lifetime of stored-up bile. There class distinction is as thoughtlessly automatic as the savage combat of perfect knights with perfect strangers or a servant’s execution for accidentally brushing Morgan le Fay’s knee. With its moats full of dead bodies, the nightmare conclusion eerily anticipates the trenches of the First World War. A Connecticut Yankee drops certain aspects of the modern world in their tracks – though, admittedly, it often seems more like a broad, unaimed swathe of buckshot. Who can forget that Twain’s ultimate target is, famously and unexclusively, the whole damned human race?

4Twain’s dark medieval world is the diametrical opposite of that presented by John Ruskin and Henry Adams, whose roughly contemporary reflections on the Middle Ages, while eschewing the gimmicky literalness of time travel, wielded the broadsword of side-by-side historical comparison just as fiercely. Their historical/metaphorical treatments of the past are both ruled by lush Romantic nostalgia. In the philistine climate of triumphant mid-century Victorian England, Ruskin’s architectural treatise The Stones of Venice (1851) paints an idealized portrait of what would later be called a pre-Raphaelite ethos linking social unity of faith and purpose to individual creativity and expression. In the year of the Great Exhibition industrial division of labor on the Fordian scale was still over the horizon, but Ruskin’s cultural antennae were ultra-sensitive, and he could feel the storm cloud of the nineteenth century ready to burst and give us the horrid vortices of the twentieth. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was also through the stable testimony of ancient architecture that Henry Adams came to darkly similar conclusions about industrialization, modern science, and social cohesion. First privately printed in 1904, Adams’s Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres looks to the now-lost spiritual force infusing these late-medieval achievements. In his celebrated autobiography the terms are Virgin and Dynamo, and history since the twelfth century an uninterrupted decline from an idealized spiritual unity to the shattered disintegration inherent in scientific materialism.

5Responding to these same modern realities at intervals for half a century, Alfred, Lord Tennyson completed his Idylls of the King in 1888, a year before the publication of A Connecticut Yankee. The twelve blank verse books, epic in feeling, read today like an unintentional synthesis of Ruskin, Adams, and Twain. Tennyson’s Middle Ages is the misty, mythic early era of Malory’s (and Twain’s) Arthur. Yet, emotionally truer to his source than the American author, less immediately satirical and constitutionally askance, he presents a world that is neither fully the hell Hank Morgan discovers nor the unequivocal paradise of Adams and Ruskin. Drawing on the timeless seasonal metaphor, Idylls does admit the possibility of human unity and grandeur as it traces the inspiring emergence of a civilization, but it is equally honest about the painful decline which follows. Far more anxious about the apparent triumph that was Victorian Britain than many contemporary readers suspected, the beloved poet laureate drew instructive contemporary parallels in the lush retelling of the English founding myth, as clear vision and civilized values would gradually cede to degeneration and chaos. In a century of Positivist historical optimism, Tennyson joined Ruskin and anticipated Adams in his sense of a positive cycle run to its entropic end. Through their readings of history and their metaphorical use of the Middle Ages, these writers, like the congenitally cynical Twain, anticipated the radical scepticism of Yeats’s “The Second Coming” well before the Great War would definitively shatter a civilization’s last illusions.

6To Twain, Ruskin, Adams, and Tennyson, then, the Middle Ages were, variously, hell, paradise, and paradise lost. Amongst other things, their work demonstrated what the generations of writers and filmmakers to follow would confirm: that, draped in a cloudily evocative historical vagueness and dominated by certain iconic images and tales, the medieval period could be useful and extremely malleable matter. As they ran the sketchily-traced historical substance of a thousand years through such filters as individual biographical needs, aesthetic imperatives, clichéd popular readings of the period, and hypersensitivity to realities of the day, the Middle Ages became a vehicle for wild satire and reasoned social criticism, for roman à clef contemporary parallels and epochal rumination on the course of history, for comedy and for tragedy.

7Like the foreign destination in a travel narrative, an historical period – even to the pure historian – is always, at least in part, a mental construct, a supplely subjective projection born in fact, contemporary pressures, cliché, and personal needs. When the rough historical matter in question is the Middle Ages, this is particularly true. “Named,” significantly, for its indefinite status, the Middle Ages have traditionally been seen as – rightly or wrongly – a kind of shadowy absence between two shining presences, those of Classical times and their Renaissance. While scholars in fact know an enormous amount about this rich and vastly complex millennium in European history, such common perceptions often have more weight than specialist knowledge. For the modern social critic or for the artist looking back, the very indeterminateness of what is still called by many the Dark Ages has often made the period a particularly creative space with abundant room and enough dark corners for invention and personal projection. There, by the focused light of modern perspective, we can take the few central images and story structures everyone’s comfortable with and, essentially, make of them what we will.

8In the twentieth century, of course, that focused modern light often came directly from the booms of the movie set. Beginning with Jeanne d’Arc in 1899 and the first Robin Hood feature in 1907, nearly 1,000 films have taken their subject matter or setting from the Middle Ages. In most cases, the pattern set by such as Twain and company remained intact: the most consistent attention goes to a restricted number of relatively well-known tales and historical incidents – and, importantly, the contemporary parallel is never far off. Examples are plentiful. One of the more recent Jeanne d’Arc films, Luc Besson’s The Messenger, transforms its gritty authenticity into reflection on the problem of religious extremism at millennium’s end, while Ridley Scott’s post-9/11 Crusades epic Kingdom of Heaven is finally as much a laudable act of contemporary empathy as it is an examination of history. Other films may be less apparent in their contemporary objectives, but the pattern of historical examination/modern intention tends to hold. The story of the returned knight in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, for example, might seem to echo timelessly down the centuries, but its symbolic disquisition on life and death in fact owes a great deal to Sartre, Camus, and the Fifties. While the fine Le Retour de Martin Guerre stands as a model of fidelity to historical sources, it is clearly as much about our modern sense of self-creation as it is the fourteenth century pays languedoc. Even John Boorman’s brilliant Excalibur, the best of all cinematic returns to the kingdom of Malory, Twain, and Tennyson, takes us far beyond the story of Arthur and the Table Round to both universal and obstinately contemporary meanings. The chaotic, horrific unravelling in the film’s and Malory’s final chapters echoes hauntingly in a world that has known the Holocaust and Hiroshima. And of course, in a stunning example of cinematic intertextuality, the magnificent image of the eponymous sword’s surfacing from and withdrawing into the depths constitutes a chilling visual overlay to the cruddy retinal afterimage lingering from the closing scene of Boorman’s earlier Deliverance. Arthur’s tragically inspiring world is a timeless space of human universality, and it is a redneck heart of darkness just a weekend drift down river from the malls and gas stations where we live our lives.

9When the film in question draws on the fictional device of time travel between our modern world and the medieval past, the issue of contemporary relevance is self-evident. While anyone seriously comparing Timeline and Black Knight to the work of Bergman or Boorman should be met with a sharpened halberd, these slighter contributions do speak with a certain uncomplicated frankness to how we see the past, how we see our world today, and, by extension, how we see the future. Minor marketplace products are cultural artifacts in a different way than more “serious” films, but their position as such is not necessarily less legitimate or pertinent. As it does in popular fiction or television, the weight of the cinema market tends to level downward in terms of quality; yet an effect of this flattening is an extension outward into popular consciousness. The pleasures and rewards of these films are thus those of the expected and representative, and not of the original or idiosyncratic. They present the Middle Ages as they are viewed by the non-specialist audience and place familiar low brow impressions and images of the distant past alongside easily digestible mass-market visions of the present. Yet, while their goal is little more than selling popcorn at the multiplex, the creators of Timeline and Black Knight function in ways that recall their nobler nineteenth century forebears. Willing to use a broad brush for their own artistic ends, they show little fear of the stereotype or the lowest-common-denominator perception of the Middle Ages. One foot in contemporary reality, the other in that presented as medieval, they willingly set up echoes, parallels, and equivalences. Dropping shocked residents of the modern world into one of shining armor, tonsured monks, coats-of-arm, and horrific violence, they consistently draw on – and expose – contemporary fears and largely submerged political and economic sensibilities.

10Contemporary reality and the “medieval” are, significantly, the same in the opening scenes of Black Knight, where cynical, glib Jamal Walker shows up for work at Medieval World, a run-down Southern California theme amusement park now threatened by a heavily bankrolled competitor. When Jamal later finds himself thrown back in time to “real” fourteenth century England, such self-reflexive framing confirms with a light, ironic wink a preconceived modern vision of the Middle Ages: like the tourist at Amboise saying it looks just like Disneyland, the real castle looks so much like the ersatz modern version that our hero suspects he’s awakened in rival Castle World. When Jamal eventually realizes he’s travelled through time, other stereotypes kick in, notably the sense of the earlier period as particularly obscurantist, racist, and frightening in its class inequality and random, unjust violence. The frame device functions most significantly, however, as a reminder that Jamal’s journey, in the classic moralistic tradition of Hollywood, is ultimately but a journey into the self. As it did for Dorothy (structurally, the film’s nearest relative is The Wizard of Oz), here a series of outlandish adventures works to remind Jamal that there’s no place like Medieval World. On his return he is a changed man, more responsible, with a new sense of community and – comedy oblige – the reward of new love.

11Essentially a vehicle for the comedian Martin Lawrence, Black Knight tells the kind of simple story one might expect from screenwriters known for Big Momma’s House and Ice Age 2. This is African-American South Central L.A., and Medieval World has hit hard times. Jamal’s maternalistic, affectionately tough boss announces the bad news about the new theme park, at which point Jamal advises her to take her investment and cash out. Proud of providing jobs in the community for 27 years, she says that Jamal just doesn’t get it. Shortly after, when he sees a shiny pendant in the park’s slimy moat, he reaches down into the water; this distant (here inversed) quotation from Excalibur precedes another, as Jamal falls in, then bursts dramatically upward from the waters of a pastoral lake. Conditioned by movie conventions and the film’s title, the audience knows, of course, that – unmotivated as it may be in the script – time travel has occurred. Only Jamal remains in the dark, and much of the comic effect to follow will concern the wisecracking cultural confusion of this trash-talking fish as he wades ashore to his first in a series of wild encounters.

12Overcoming his compulsive concern with cleanliness and appearance (the opening scene is Lawrence preening into a mirror), Jamal befriends a filthy drunk, who, we will see later, is a disillusioned nobleman in need of a new beginning. Trying to find his way home, he comes upon a castle where, challenged to identify himself, he mentions his neighborhood intersection of Normandie and Florence, and then suddenly is heartily welcomed as the messenger of the Duc de Normandie, soon to marry the king’s daughter. In the heady sequence of events that ensues, Jamal starts to realize what has happened as he makes the requisite enemy in the form of a darkly handsome villain, keeps the king on his side by revealing that he is not only a messenger but a jester, and falls for the beautiful “Nubian” chambermaid, Victoria. Thanks to the strange amulet he had found, he also finds himself recruited against his will into the rebellion, for the evil king has deposed the rightful monarch. Intent on saving his own skin, he resists the invitation to take sides until events lead to his near execution and a final battle with the evil king and his knights. As the desperate troops regroup for a last attack, the fallen knight met earlier returns from drunken disgrace to his noble role. His redemption parallels that of Jamal who, with an aerosol can and a lighter, plays the role of the legendary fire-breathing Black Knight and leads the deposed Queen’s troops to victory. When he suddenly finds himself again in the present day after what was apparently a dream occasioned by his work accident, Jamal pleads with his boss not to give up the fight. The little guy can stand up to the forces of evil, however imposing they are. Before a superfluous gag coda, the film comes to its real ending when, sometime later in the bustling crowd at the again prosperous Medieval World, Jamal catches the eye of a beautiful woman who – amazing as it may seem – looks exactly like Victoria and who responds with a knowing eye to his gentle, teasing advances.

13Along this classic Hollywood arc leading to happy self-discovery, Black Knight misses frequent opportunities to create needed narrative “plausibility.” The pendant’s magic power, for example, could be accounted for via a brief back story, and one wonders why Jamal’s job is not that of an amusement park knight so that he could be transported through time in period costume, and in the process bring more meaning to the thinly exploited title conceit. Such congruity is beside the point, however, for what clearly matters most to director Gil Junger is creating the maximum number of occasions for Martin Lawrence to do his shtick. Half Buckwheat, half P. Diddy, his Jamal plays wide-eyed loudmouth surprise for a few laughs and occasionally hits pay dirt. Panicking before an apparently dead derelict, he screams, “White man down!” Later, challenged at the drawbridge with an aggressive “Who be ye?”, he exploits the similarity to Black English: “I be stompin’ yo’ ass!” Perhaps the film’s biggest laugh comes just before Jamal’s planned execution. Desperately vaunting himself as a powerful sorcerer, he dramatically produces a small plume of fire from a cigarette lighter. “We have fire,” comes a weary cockney voice from the crowd.

14A visual cross between Viollet-le-Duc and a tired Hollywood backlot, the later Middle Ages of Black Knight is painted, unsurprisingly, in the primary colors of modern cliché. This gives us lusty banquets with bones thrown to the dogs, scenes of picturesque merchants and mountebanks in the open market, shots of Jamal recoiling from “spoiled nacho” breath and shocked that the castle he is at the time interpreting as a theme hotel would have a fly-infested open moat for a toilet. Most notably, however, the film portrays the period as a time of severe class hierarchy and a violence that is both institutionalized and random. Heads literally fall in the film, the threat of fickle royal disfavor is palpable, and a peasant is summarily condemned to death by a wave of the king’s hand for the theft of a turnip. Amidst Lawrence’s comic mugging, the closest thing to a serious moral question the film asks is how the carefree, self-involved Jamal will respond to the solicitations of the underground resistance in their attempts to assassinate the king and restore the wrongly deposed – and, we presume, virtuous – queen to the throne.

15For much of the 92 minute running length that question is put on hold as Lawrence does his comic thing and the film creates minor flashes of pop cultural illumination with the juxtaposition of present and past. The fallen, dirty, drunken knight whose redemption will mirror that of Jamal is named, we note, Sir Knolte of Marlboro. The pun in the place name is apparent, while the family name clearly evokes the ruined mugshot features of the heavy drinking Nick Nolte. In another reference plain to many viewers worldwide, throughout most of the movie Jamal wears a jersey bearing the number “23.” This is, of course, the number of His Airness Michael Jordan, and the implication is apparent that, though they may not take their place by bloodline, we choose and elevate our own royalty today from the worlds of sports and entertainment. If there was any doubt about this message, witness Jamal’s formal presentation at court, which he turns into something between a pro basketball team intro and an Oscar ceremony: “At small forward… two-time All-County Player of the Year, Jamal ‘Skyyyyyy’ Walker…” Here Jamal draws a parallel between his story and that of Star Wars, where a technological future and “medieval” hierarchies, value systems, and conflicts echo endlessly together. Taking the famous name of the once and future Jedi knight, he also suggests the moral change to come when he too will take up arms, and fight the evil lord for the Return of the Queen. If this was not enough, that the villainous monarch is named King Leo may also, by its evocation of Disney’s Lion King, highlight parallels to the animated film’s vaguely similar plot structure and dénouement.

16One should certainly not read too much into this high concept, tongue-in-cheek entertainment vehicle. That said, Black Knight is culturally instructive in certain ways, some apparent, some less so. Jamal’s American, and more largely Western, tendency to patronize and educate the less enlightened appears throughout, from his enthusiastically welcomed preview of the pleasures of 1960’s soul, the French kiss, and rope-a-dope through his introduction of the fast food chain, the scabrously punning “Jamal in the Box.” So too his irritation with and quick-witted retaliation for the racism of King Leo’s court. (In order not to dispel the comic mood, the real racism its actors and viewers might encounter off the set and outside the theater is “safely” channelled through the film’s villain, the ironically named Percival, he of the oft-repeated, superciliously enunciated salutation, “Moor!”)

17The frame device of Medieval World and its vulnerable status at the hands of a larger rival clearly embodies other fears, notably those linked to the undeniable triumph in recent decades of the free trade economic and social model. In America such anxieties, generally unstated and rarely politicized, often do emerge in popular entertainment in forms essentially unthreatening to the status quo. Here Jamal’s advice to his boss to think of her own interests and “cash out” in response to the challenge of Castle World can’t help but echo headlines from 2001 and the “Summer of Enron” when the film was in post-production. Like his later suggestion to a co-worker to quit now and snag the best Castle World jobs, his response to cutthroat capitalism is essentially the same dog-eat-dog principle. In the sentimental confines of such a narrative, the dramatic interest of the remainder of the film thus concerns Jamal’s moral education. And indeed, thrown by circumstance into a battle that he thinks is not his, encouraged (of course) by love, he eventually assumes his social responsibility and plays a determining role in the final battle. When he returns to the present, now symbolically baptized and emerging anew from the waters, he makes it very clear to his boss that she should stand her ground and that together the ominous challenge of the rival park can be defeated. The film ends with Jamal’s present-day encounter with a modern version of the same chambermaid he fell for in the past. This conclusion inverts the opening scene: instead of a mirror filled with an inflated image of the self, our morally altered hero now looks into the eyes of another.

18Such a lesson is, of course, comforting and uplifting in a manner any cinema-goer will instantly recognize. As is often the case, however, on closer inspection the film yields a far more mixed message. On one hand, the apparent argument is that power and meaning lie in collective action. On the other, we are treated to a shimmering image of individual action in the arrival of the mythically returning, Jamal-incarnated Black Knight who turns the course of the climactic battle. Finally offering the title’s payoff, Jamal (who has mysteriously conquered a pathological fear of horses) gallops up in the raiments of the mythic figure he has symbolically become. Significantly, a black knight is one not bearing heraldic standards, thus a kind of courtly free agent without specific allegiances. While on one hand the conclusion certainly draws on our modern understanding of a medieval ideal of Round Table solidarity, Black Knight draws equally upon images of entirely personal initiative, that specifically of historically accurate “black knights” and more widely of the Pale Rider lone cowboy and a peculiarly American trust in the primacy of individual action.

19The first moviehouse viewers might have been equally puzzled by another aspect of the film. At its release in November, 2001, one wonders about the immediate audience reaction to a story in which the hero is recruited to take part in a secret plot organized by underground operatives surreptitiously infiltrated within the community. When the conspirators pull carefully smuggled knives out of their robes, viewers in those first numb months after September could certainly be excused if their minds wandered to boxcutters. Prepared before the famous attacks and released just after, Black Knight can be seen, in this way at least, as oddly innocent.

20The same cannot be said of the post-9/11 Timeline, built similarly upon a cinematic journey through time to the Middle Ages. While Richard Donner’s film is an adaptation of Michael Crichton’s 1999 novel, it is also clearly the child of an age changed forever by the events of that morning in September. One certainly recognizes the Crichton touch in Timeline: cutting-edge science, shadowy big money interests, a small group of individuals in over their heads and trying to get out. Unsurprisingly, the film takes certain liberties with the original, but the basic structure remains. After an intriguing fast-cut opening linking images of a man pursued through a medieval forest and the same figure dying today on a desert highway, the story takes us to the Dordogne region of France, where a professor of archaeology and his graduate students are conducting an extensive dig financed by an American high-tech company. At the site, the fictional Castelgard, we are informed that an important battle in the Hundred Years’ War took place some six centuries earlier. Then the village had been razed, and the French, inspired by the brutal public hanging of their noble Lady Claire, had achieved a brilliant victory, burning Castle La Roque and defeating the English forces. In the present, receiving troubling news, Professor Johnston leaves the group to return to the corporate sponsor’s New Mexico headquarters. Thus is set in motion a series of events that will project both professor and students into the past, where they will find themselves not only witnesses to but frightened participants in the seemingly endless violence of the French-English conflict.

21While the complexities of plot and subplot resist easy summary, the essential follows. Discovering a strange tunnel, the students happen upon the dusty lens of modern bifocals and a manuscript which, in carbon-dated ink from the fourteenth century, contains a scrawled plea for help from Professor Johnston. The astonishing news is confirmed when the students are rushed to company headquarters – the older man is indeed stranded in 1357 France. Experimenting with a kind of “fax machine” capable of sending physical objects through space, the company ITC had come upon a “worm hole” in the space/time continuum that returns inexorably to this particular time and place. Thus the financing of the dig to discover more about the precise past into which certain employees of the company – including the unfortunate individual of the opening scenes, and now Professor Johnston – have found themselves projected. Unfortunately, Johnston has been taken prisoner, and the best hope for rescue is to send the student team, with its intimate knowledge of the historical events and the local terrain. They have six hours before their “temporal markers” will expire and they in turn will find themselves trapped in the past.

22Complex as it may seem, the above exposition takes relatively little of the film’s 110 minute running time. The rest is devoted to the interlocking, ever more complicated adventures of the young people who scramble out of time’s river into the fourteenth century, though, in typical Crichton fashion, the plot also includes the machinations of an obligatorily slimy corporate type more worried about the technology and the company’s image than the human lives involved. In the arrests, executions, attacks, escapes, and rescues of varying plot twists, we are introduced to the dastardly English Lord Oliver, the modest and brave Arnaut de Cervole of the French forces, and Arnaut’s lovely and intrepid sister Claire – destined, we know from the earlier history lesson, to be executed by Oliver. Love interest appears in the relationship between the professor’s son Chris and his prize grad student Kate, as well as in the budding attraction between the rugged assistant professor André Marek and the fleeing Claire whom he rescues early in the film. The events are a double race against time, that allowed before reverse time travel becomes impossible and that still to elapse before the historical events in question will inevitably occur.

23In the grand finale the discovery of the hidden tunnel where the students first learned of Johnston’s disappearance helps lead to the victory of the French forces massed behind their flaming trebuchet bombardment of La Roque. The chaotic battle scenes include inevitable single combat and the death of Oliver as well as that of a bitter, treacherous ITC employee self-exiled to the past. As films of the time machine genre often do, Timeline exploits fascination with the mind-buckling paradoxes of temporal travel in its closing scenes. Battling to save Lady Claire in the final battle, Marek is severely wounded in the ear, an event recalling an earlier scene in present Castelgard, when the young archaeologist had let his personal emotions show before a fascinating sarcophagus for the buried remains of what had apparently been a happily married medieval couple. As the stonework representation of the man was mysteriously earless, the Marek of 1357 realizes with a sudden jolt that the remains are those of Lady Claire and himself. Rescuing her, he changes a detail of history but not the essential fact of the French victory, achieved, we now see, in part through the intervention of the time travellers. Choosing life with Claire, Marek refuses to return to the present with the others. Back in the present, the final scene is their discovery of the period French epitaph and its message to friends across the ages: “I chose a wonderful life… I made my own history.” Far back along the timeline Heraclitus would certainly have approved of the closing shot, a rising pan across an ever-flowing river.

24By comparison with the cartoonish Black Knight, where easy anachronisms and costume-central furnishings finally play to the cheesy fun of the film, the Middle Ages portrayed cinematically in Timeline reflect a certain research for textured verisimilitude. Particularly necessary in a film whose central characters are presented as academics, such an effort was already apparent in the novel and is clearly attested to by Crichton, who claims he spent months reading history before beginning the writing process ( and whose novel includes a five page bibliography. As for the mechanics of time travel, in what is by now Crichton’s trademark manner, the novel provides dozens of pages of detailed scientific exposition. Adapting to the needs of celluloid, Donner’s swift narrative strokes cut this to a bare-bones essential that provides just enough scientific plausibility for a necessary suspension of disbelief. With the exception of the treatment of language – beyond a few nods at (sometimes mispronounced) modern French, it can be distracting to think too hard about our English-speaking heroes in a fourteenth century French village – the film works hard to justify a certain seriousness of intention at the core of its gripping countdown action adventure. In some ways clearly intentional, in other ways perhaps less so, both book and film at times push the thriller genre towards a degree of contemporary relevance.

25Michael Crichton published his blockbuster novel in 1999 as the go-go new technology economy was still roaring along. Like such other Crichton novels as Jurassic Park or Prey, it blends respectful understanding of contemporary scientific advances with clearly expressed misgivings about the technological genie – and the varied pressures (money, fame, ego) to let it out of the bottle for the wrong reasons. Such temptations appear in the film notably in the figure of the technology’s inventor more than willing to sacrifice lives to keep his project alive. Fortunately, the screenplay simplifies his motivations through its omission of the bogus intention, cloaked in the novel until the end, to use time travel to create historically accurate theme park experiences, Jurassic Park-meets-Medieval World. In any case, in both novel and film the scientist/entrepreneur gone bad is moralistically punished by his own unwilling projection into the past, where a very nasty fate awaits him – in the film’s case, one sharply recalling the movie’s opening sequence.

26On another, perhaps less conscious level, it seems apparent that the novel Timeline also embodies millennial anxiety and, more broadly, widespread apprehensions about the future. In the last years of the millennium, writing a novel about the period where, according to Professor Johnston, “the modern world was invented,” Crichton is also speaking, at least subliminally, to our contemporary fears of what is to come. Justifying the study of history, Marek restates the now classic idea that the past helps us understand “where we come from… or where we’re going.” In this sense, the endless violence and threat that compose the past of Timeline are hardly good news. There occupied France recalls Occupied France. When warriors reach for their weapons at the first syllable of a spoken foreign language, villages burn, and populations are on the run, we may as well be witnessing the Russian pogroms or Rwandan genocide. Even across the centuries the news from such a world echoes that of the nightly news report from, say, the Balkans of the 1990’s. The fall of the Brandenburg Gate was supposed to herald the “end of history”; what Srebrenica got instead was a return to the most primal forms of ancient ethnic hatred and tribal killing. This was the universe in which Crichton wrote his book, and, though he confesses other motivations (, we cannot help feel the slow seep of anxiety as a new period gets ready to start again with more of the same. Eight years before the new millennium Leonard Cohen brought his lyric gift to a vision of the future with a chilling resemblance to the past: “Give me back the Berlin Wall / Give me Stalin and Saint Paul / I’ve seen the future, brother / It is murder.”

27Only two years after Timeline, of course, the world would see murder live, with the taped news images running for days of horrified fascination. A fantasy adventure, Donner’s 2003 film understandably makes no direct reference to the events of September 11, but the fundamental worldview shift they represent and the shocking suddenness with which it arrived are nonetheless present. The teaser for Timeline asked of its viewers: “Imagine yourself… in the Middle Ages… a time of fear and madness.” And indeed, a representative group of young people close their eyes and – literally from one second to the next – find themselves in a world of fear and madness, fighting what the trailer calls “the ultimate battle for survival.” While we all know the inflated language of movie previews and the portentous tone of the “thunder throat” voiceover, these terms hit home in a changed world that has abruptly found itself an unprepared participant in an ancestral conflict with no clear beginning and no seeming end. “Now imagine you can’t get back,” continues the teaser.

28That today’s struggle with Islamic fundamentalism recalls to some an emblematic series of events in medieval history, the Crusades, adds a further poignant relevance. Significantly, it was America’s president who used the term in the first anxious days after the September 11 attacks – when, we know now, he and his team were already beginning their preparations for the unprovoked war in Iraq. Released in November 2003, seven months after the first Tomahawks lit the Baghdad sky, Timeline very clearly reflects the months of tension running up to the Iraq War. In this sense, amongst the many small deletions and editions in the transition from novel to screenplay, several deserve particular attention. The marquee role in the film, for example, is that of Chris Johnston, the professor’s son; significantly, the same figure in the novel has no family relation. Making this change, the screenwriters were no doubt adding weight to a starring role appropriate to the obligatory name actor (in this case, Paul Walker, popular with young audiences for The Fast and the Furious). One has to wonder, though, if there is not a certain additional contemporary resonance to a journey into the endless wars of the medieval past led by a cocky young American with a fundamental disdain for history who, all action and little reflection, rescues his father and helps unseat a tyrant. While it’s silly to push such parallels too far, it is intriguing that before the final battle the tyrant in question draws on Professor Johnston’s expertise to try to produce the medieval equivalent to a weapon of mass destruction, the mythical “Greek fire.” Now we know, of course, that at least some elements of the supposedly dangerous technology used by the United States to justify its Iraq adventure were provided by the U.S. and its allies themselves at an earlier time when the Iraqi dictator was in favor. In any case, consider a line of film dialogue delivered by Johnston junior. The time is the early moments of the team’s adventure in the past, the tone one of youthful confidence bordering on arrogance: “We’ve got 650 years on these guys. If we put our heads together, we should be out of here in 20 minutes.” A little imagination and you might see a flight jacket and an aircraft carrier deck.

29Another important change in the script concerns the presentation of the French. Significantly absent in the novel, the one French member of the student team is shown in the film as sweetly diffident, the opposite of the cultural stereotype of cold French pretension. As such, he serves as a highly sympathetic victim when Oliver mocks him – “a miracle, a quiet Frenchman!” – and then commits his first on-screen act of gratuitous cruelty. The positive images continue in the portrayal of the fourteenth century French warriors who, from the resourceful Lady Claire through the fair-minded Arnaut (an impressively dignified Lambert Wilson), come off consistently as valiant resistants defending their homeland against a bloodthirsty enemy. Such characterization differs from that of the novel, which blurs linguistic and cultural distinctions between the French and the English and which presents both sides in a notably less Manichean manner. Referred to as a defrocked priest, the novelistic Arnaut, for example, is capable of a brutality that his refined and just movie cousin would never stoop to.

30This image of the French seems to be a personal choice on the part of the filmmakers, and most likely Richard Donner himself. In the months leading up to the war in Iraq, of course, the French were sarcastically demonized in the United States for their firm stand, most memorably presented before the U.N. Security Council, against the mobilization of the American war machine. Donner’s political sympathies certainly run in the opposing direction. “We are destroying our constitution,” he has said. “When I see what is happening to our country and what is happening to the American image around the world and how we are affecting the rest of the world… I just want to see a change” (Berry). In such a context, the decision to modify the image of one of the warring sides in this screen adaptation seems to have a quietly political slant. Donner’s positive presentation of the French as a discreet commentary on American political choices was also the background for an inadvertent (or very sly) casting joke. In choosing Michael Sheen for the role of the treacherous English leader, the filmmaker picked the actor who portrayed English Prime Minister Tony Blair in the September 2003 BBC telefilm The Deal (a role he would later reprise in The Queen). Within English audiences in particular, certain must have chuckled at the sight of a scheming Oliver with the face of Tony Blair, himself a villain to many of those unhappy with his willing role in the “allied” Iraq adventure.

31Whether such film elements as the above are fully conscious, of course, is unimportant. Meaning enters art and entertainment through sometimes strange and indirect channels, and often only later do we perceive patterns of theme and sense. Timeline resembles Black Knight in that its primary raison d’être is none other than entertainment and audience pleasure. When we look more closely, however, it becomes apparent that the journey to the Middle Ages imagined in each is, in more than just the most obvious of ways, a round trip. “He’s about to get medieval on you,” goes the tagline of Black Knight. A cult echo from a particularly edgy moment in Tarantino’s fractured post-modern Pulp Fiction, the expression links the past’s fear and madness with this afternoon’s. The tagline for Timeline is even more explicit. Listen through the ad-copy pomposity of the wording, and there’s a certain truth in its neat antithesis, one we can see as applying effortlessly to Twain and Tennyson, but unashamedly also, in their admittedly more modest way, to the creators of today’s Black Knight and Timeline: “They had to travel to the past to save the future.” Returning to an olde world disorder helps us see a new world order for what it is.

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Berry, Dave. “Richard Donner is like a Tickle-Me Elmo.” The Gateway, 18 November 2003,

Black Knight. United States of America, 20th Century Fox: 2001. Director: Gil Junger.

Cohen, Leonard. The Future. Columbia Records: 1992.

Crichton, Michael.

Crichton, Michael. Timeline. London: Arrow Books, 2000.

Timeline. United States of America, Paramount Pictures: 2003. Director: Richard Donner.

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John Engle, « A Hard Day’s Knights: Movie Time Travel, the Middle Ages, and a New Millenium : Gil Junger's Black Knight and Richard Donner's Timeline »Babel [En ligne], 15 | 2007, mis en ligne le 18 juillet 2013, consulté le 23 octobre 2020. URL :; DOI:

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John Engle

Université du Sud Toulon-Var

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