The Princess Bride and How Image Shaped the Pirate

Piracy has never gone out of style.

Pirates have been a constant throughout world history but the pirates we think of today often take form in how we imagine early modern Atlantic pirates. The late 1600s and early 1700s saw a surge of piracy throughout the Caribbean and into the Americas. Their targets were often British ships and the constant battle against these criminals threatened to destabilise the British American colonies. At least, that’s how British officials viewed the situation.

Our fascination with pirates stems from the colonial era because the colonists often happily worked with pirates. In many cases, the criminals were seen as almost heroic because they smuggled illegal yet desirable goods into the colonies.[1] Colonists wanted more options and pirates provided such goods.

However, in order for pirates to seem a legitimate threat to trade, they had to appear frightening. Newspapers in London and North America printed thousands of reports about pirates’ crimes. In turn, pirates broadcasted their crimes to newspapers that would publish their accounts. They frequently let sailors on captured ships go free so they could warn authorities about the pirates’ horrible crimes.[2]

This historical detail has not gone amiss in 20th and 21st-century popular culture. There have been numerous big screen adaptations of the popular pirate novel, Treasure Island, while, over the past 13 years, Disney has created one of the most lucrative franchises of all time based on its own theme park ride with the Pirates of the Caribbean films.[3]

However, an alternate example shows Hollywood’s success in conveying how pirates had to maintain a specific image in order to succeed. This historical detail shines in the 1987 film The Princess Bride (based off the 1973 novel by William Goldman) with the Dread Pirates Roberts.

In the Princess Bride, the heroine Buttercup has fallen in love with the ‘Farm Boy’, aka Westley, who must leave to make enough money to marry her. Unfortunately, he is soon reported dead at sea at the hand of the infamous Dread Pirate Roberts who leaves no one alive. Later, Buttercup has agreed to marry Prince Humperdink, who in turn has arranged to have her kidnapped and assassinated to start a war with the rival country, Guilder. The kidnappers are soon pursued by a lone ship captained by a ‘Man in Black’, who is no doubt the Dread Pirate Roberts. He is referred to as such because he dresses in all black, including an eye-mask, which adds to the mystery behind his origins and identity.

After besting the three kidnappers in a battle of skills and wits, the Dread Pirate Roberts takes Buttercup for his own. Yet, this is where the twist of the film is revealed. It turns out the Dread Pirate Roberts is actually her true love, Westley.

The twist in Westley’s tale is that one day the Dread Pirate Roberts told him he wished to retire with his riches. Roberts then revealed his secret: ‘I am not the Dread Pirate Roberts. My name is Ryan’. It turns out he had inherited the ship from the previous Dread Pirate Roberts just as Westley was set to do after serving as valet for three years. It turns out the real Dread Pirate Roberts had been retired for over fifteen years and was living like a king in Patagonia. However, the most significant part of this story is this: ‘The name was the important thing to inspire the necessary fear. You see, no one would surrender to the Dread Pirate Westley’.[4]



The Dread Pirate Roberts holds similarities to the real-life infamous pirates Blackbeard and Bartholomew Roberts of the eighteenth century. Both of these pirates depended very much on their reputations for success.

Little is known about the pirate Blackbeard, but thanks to his image he is to this day the most notorious pirate who ever lived. Blackbeard was actually named Edward Teach (sometimes referred to as Thatch) and likely hailed from Bristol. He only served as a pirate captain between 1717 – 1719 until he died in battle off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina. Unlike Bartholomew Roberts, he did not amass much wealth but his notoriety terrified both colonists and British authorities.[5] His most powerful weapon was his image. He grew his hair out long and sometimes attached lit sparklers to his beard to make himself look as frightening as possible. This image was the deliberate antithesis of early modern polite society, with its popular trend of maintaining a clean-shaven face to express cleanliness and civility.[6]



Blackbeard the pirate from A General History of the Lives and Adventures of the Most Famous Highwaymen, Murderers, Street-Robbers, &c., Vol. 1 (London, 1734).


Bartholomew Roberts has the reputation for being the most successful pirate in the history of the Atlantic.[7] Without this pirate, there would be no Dread Pirates Roberts in the Princess Bride. His success, wealth and loyal crew served as the direct inspiration for the fictional pirate of a similar name.[8] He and his crew sailed as far south as Brazil and as north as Newfoundland and gained sinister reputations as pirates. Like Blackbeard, Roberts likely changed his surname for the role and he certainly looked the part. He was described as dressing in crimson coats with feathers in his hat, and wore gold jewellery to signify his wealth.[9] The visible display of wealth indicated his power as a pirate to the public, but in reality he did not embody many piratical characteristics. For instance, he abhorred drinking and maintained a strict order on his ships. He was also surprisingly kind to his victims and, contrary to his cinematic namesake, preferred not to harm anyone if possible.[10] With his strict discipline he intended to create a large and successful fleet of pirates, which he did, and to allow survivors to tell their stories to newspapers.



Similar to the Dread Pirate Roberts, both Blackbeard and Bartholomew Roberts changed their image and their names to create their own personal brands. As Westley said to Buttercup, the name was the most important part of the story. In history, the name of these pirates conjured up frightening images and kept these pirates in our memory to the modern day. Film franchises and movies like The Princess Bride do well to remind us that it is not the actual criminal pirate we admire, but the image they send to the public.

Rebecca Simon recently submitted her PhD thesis to King’s College London. Her thesis examines the public executions of pirates, British legal history and print culture in the early modern Atlantic world. You can find her on Twitter @beckalex. 


[1] Many goods, such as textiles, spices and tea were banned because the British desired a trade monopoly to weaken European competitors in the Americas. Douglas R. Burgess, The Politics of Piracy: Crime and Civil Disobedience in Colonial America (Lebanon, NH, 2014), 27.

[2] Peter T. Leeson, The Invisible Hook: Hidden Economics of Pirates (Princeton, 2009), 117.

[3] The films, I argue, that would not have succeeded were it not for Johnny Depp’s interpretation of Captain Jack Sparrow.

[4] Clip via youtube:

[5] Angus Konstam, Blackbeard: America’s Most Notorious Pirate (Hoboken, 2006), viii, 293.

[6] Alun Withey, ‘Shaving and Masculinity in Eighteenth-Century Britain’, Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 36:2 (2013), 229 – 230.

[7] Marcus Rediker, Villains of All Nations: Atlantic Pirates in the Golden Age (Boston, 2004), 33.

[8] Barb Karg and Arjean Spaite, The Everything Pirates Book: A Swashbuckling History of Adventure (Avon, MA, 2007), 228.

[9] Captain Charles Johnson, A General History of the Pyrates (London, 1724), 212.

[10] Ibid, 183.




Quadrophenia and The Boat That Rocked: Representations of Youth on Film

“Look, I don’t wanna be the same as everybody else. That’s why I’m a Mod, see? I mean, you gotta be somebody, ain’t ya, or you might as well jump in the sea and drown.” Jimmy, Quadrophenia (1979)

“You know, a few months ago, I made a terrible mistake. I realised something, and instead of crushing the thought the moment it came I… I let it hang on, and now I know it to be true. And I’m afraid it’s stuck in my head forever. These are the best days of our lives. It’s a terrible thing to know, but I know it.” The Count, The Boat That Rocked (2009)

When we think of the 1960s we invariably think of youth culture and ‘Swinging London’: Carnaby Street, Twiggy, the summer of love. The list of cultural signifiers of this era is almost endless. Quadrophenia and The Boat That Rocked, two films based in the 1960s, present us with two very different versions of youth culture in this decade. The way that these films have been received reveals a lot about attitudes to popular culture, and the issue of authenticity.

With the sort of melodramatic sentiment that can be found in all Richard Curtis films, ‘The Count’ reflects on his years as a pirate radio DJ. Very loosely based on the famous Radio Caroline, The Boat That Rocked is the story of Carl, a young man (very questionably) sent aboard the pirate radio ship ‘Radio Rock’ to learn life lessons. The film is nostalgia incarnate, and is unapologetic in its over-the-top representation of the ‘swinging sixties’; the hair, the clothes, the music, the counter-culture, a celebration of the anti-establishment sentiment that is so often invoked with regards to the 1960s, are all used by Curtis to portray the lives and mishaps of pirate radio DJs.[1] It is exaggerated, and it is far closer to fiction than fact in its portrayal of the life of a pirate radio DJ. But does this matter? I don’t think so. I can’t imagine that many people would watch The Boat That Rocked and think that Richard Curtis had accurately recreated what life was like in the 1960s. On its release in 2009 Empire magazine described the film as “a mix-tape of successes and failures, perhaps too light for its subject, but a silly, easy watch”.[2]



Quadrophenia poster, 1979


Quadrophenia, on the other hand, has retained its cult status as an ‘iconic ode to fallen youth’ since its release in 1979.[3] With its gritty realism and coming-of-age storyline, Quadrophenia has been well-received as a portrayal of life as a working-class teenager in post-war Britain. The film is based on the album of the same name by The Who. Set in 1964 and telling the story of Jimmy, a mod from London, Quadrophenia tackles issues of identity and group belonging, in one of the most iconic of all subcultures. Focusing on the famous seaside clashes at beaches between mods and rockers the film culminates with Jimmy realising that his mod idol is a bellboy at a seaside hotel. The release of Quadrophenia in 1979 came during the mod revival of the late 70s and it therefore became a part of youth culture, as well as being a portrayal of it.

Both films depict youth culture in the 1960s, but while one is dismissed as silly and easy, the other has earned its place as a cult classic. Why is this? Style is certainly one element. In this respect the two films are incomparable. One was created as a light-hearted comedy, the other as a gritty depiction of teenage issues. But I would argue that this is not the sole reason. Historians have come to value certain forms of youth culture above others, with subculture and the counterculture receiving the bulk of academic focus. ‘Mainstream’, or more popularised forms of youth culture, have often been dealt with as part of large sweeping histories of post-war Britain, as opposed to more ‘authentic’ forms of youth culture which have been the subject of rigorous analysis by historians and sociologists alike. Authenticity, the signifier of ‘proper’ youth culture and anti-commercialism, is central to discussions of youth culture and as a society we have come to value most those forms of culture that are seen to be ‘authentic’. Commercialisation is the enemy, the point at which culture becomes meaningless and monopolised.[4] (Spoiler alert: I’m not too keen on this whole commercialism is where youth culture becomes meaningless argument. I’ve written about it, and you can read that here.)

The Boat That Rocked focuses on a commercialised and generalised version of the 1960s, tapping unreservedly into the image of the swinging sixties and dolly birds that holds very little in common with reality. Despite this, I love it. It has a brilliant soundtrack, and is almost solely responsible for beginning my love-affair with 60s music and fashion. Quadrophenia, on the other hand, is based on the mod experience and remained close to the experiences of post-war British teenagers. Quadrophenia is, well, cool. There’s no denying it. It’s a gritty film about teenage angst, and who can’t relate to that? Aside from the obvious stylistic gulf, the key difference between these two films is the type of youth culture they represent. Authentic versus inauthentic. Cheese versus grit. These two films present two very different images of youth culture. Historical representations of youth culture comes in many forms, but perhaps we should reflect on why certain forms of youth culture are dismissed far more easily than others.

Sarah Kenny is a PhD student at the University of Sheffield researching youth culture, space, and identity. You can find her on Twitter at @SarahL_Kenny.

[1] This uncritical nostalgia is not without its problems. The Boat That Rocked has a very troubling portrayal of gender and sexuality. A fantastic summary of these issues can be found here:



[4] Obviously the debate is much more complex than this. This article does a good job of summing it up:

‘To Love in Troubled Times’: the Spanish Civil War as ‘Telenovela’

The Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 was a battle between two sides for competing visions of the future of Spain. On the one hand, the military rebels who rose up against the democratically-elected Second Spanish Republic envisaged a return to ‘traditional’ values, and the preservation of the old hierarchical hegemony of army, church and the landowning classes. On the other, supporters of the incumbent Republic hoped for the consolidation of Spain’s fledgling democracy, and the empowerment of previously disenfranchised sectors of the population.

The Republic managed to hold off the insurgent forces for nearly three years, but in the end, the ‘Nationalist’ rebels defeated the loyalist army. Leader of the rebel forces, General Francisco Franco became dictator of Spain, ruling over the country until his death in November 1975.

The Spanish Civil War and ensuing dictatorship have left a troubled legacy in Spain. That Franco was able to die an old man, of natural causes, points to the fact that the dictator enjoyed significant support during his lifetime. These supporters did not necessarily die with their master, and many still occupy prominent positions in power and society.[1] Meanwhile, the families of the victims of Francoist repression continue to seek justice; many of those killed during the civil war and repressive aftermath still lie in unmarked graves throughout Spain.[2] This contentious history continues to be invoked in present-day politics, particularly on the left of the political spectrum.[3]

Given this lack of consensus on the country’s recent past, civil-war Spain might seem an unlikely setting in which to base a daytime soap opera. Yet the success of the telenovela Amar en Tiempos Revueltos (To Love in Troubled Times) hints at more relaxed attitudes towards Spain’s turbulent history. Amar, set in Madrid from 1936 through to the 1950s, tells the story of a set of characters whose lives are transformed by the military coup. The telenovela has enjoyed considerable success, and is now in its twelfth series.[4]



Working class Antonio punching above his weight in the first series of Amar. Source:


Amar’s success can in large part be understood by its lack of political judgement. The first series, aired in 2005, tells the story of Antonio and Andrea, two star-crossed lovers from different social classes, whose relationship blossoms despite the opposition of their respective families. Intersected by contemporary newsreel cuttings, the telenovela certainly addresses the violence and hostility of the civil war: Andrea’s brother, a militant for the far-right Falange party, is responsible for the murder of his sister’s art teacher and close friend, Eduardo, and her father frequently expresses his disdain for what he perceives to be the inherent inferiority of the working class.

Yet, such political positions are not dwelt upon. Rather these form the parameters around which the main plotline can develop. For example, the death of Eduardo, a rival pretender to Andrea’s heart, leaves the road open for the consolidation of her relationship with Antonio. Similarly, Andrea’s father is not presented as a one-dimensional bogeyman, hell bent on impeding his daughter’s burgeoning love affair with a worker. Rather the audience witnesses moments of tenderness between him and his daughter, which subvert clear-cut historical understandings of the conflict as a fiercely ideological battle between good and evil. In this sense, the heroism present in Amar is not that of the victor or the vanquished, but rather ‘of daily life with its daily fears and hardships’.[5]

That is not to say that the historical setting of Amar is inconsequential. Indeed, many of those who tune in regularly to Amar view it as a ‘pedagogical novela’.[6] In her 2011 study on the reception of Amar, sociologist Mar Chicharro interviewed a sample of female viewers from a range of different backgrounds. One important recurring theme in their responses was the educational value of the telenovela, as one 49-year-old primary school teacher explained: ‘I think that it is important for Spaniards to know how people lived during that time, to realise that we have not always lived as we are now, in democracy, and that before, we were not allowed to read what we wanted…’.[7]



Amar’s fictional scenes are separated by contemporary newsreel footage. Source:


Another common theme amongst Chicharro’s respondents was the relatability of plotlines. One 80-year-old housewife commented: ‘The telenovela showed the story of a man who was locked up, and well, I have lived that experience because in my town they locked up a kid. It is like my story, because I have lived that’.[8]

Indeed, Amar’s success could in part be attributed to its ability to present a coherent and generally palatable (if trivialised) view of Spain’s recent history, a feat that historians have struggled with for decades, if not longer.[9] Chicharro explains:

‘Following the idea of national community and the reinforcing of national values, the Spanish nation is represented as having a common history built on the confluence of conflicts. The telenovela materialises its role as a community text by recreating the conflicts of a society and its ability to overcome such problems for the sake of future progress, that is to say, the viewers’ present’.[10]

Yet it appears that viewers did/do not necessarily swallow the historical content of Amar uncritically, with some pointing out the overrepresentation of luxury objects such as telephones at a time when these would have been rare.[11] Similarly some viewers expressed scepticism at the professional success of certain female characters at a time when women were expected to maintain the family home. In addition, although there are references to rationing and the black market, the soap rarely gives an indication of the true hardship of the post-war, during which an estimated 200,000 people died of starvation.[12]

The telenovela’s glossing over of some of the more contentious aspects of Spain’s history risks presenting a sanitised vision of the country’s recent past, particularly to younger viewers born after the period in question. Such viewers may not have had the opportunity to learn about the Civil War at school, and may be more likely to consume Amar uncritically. As one 21-year old student stated:

‘I never studied that part of our history in high school and I have only learnt about it from this and other telenovelas or series or other programmes, and based on what my grandparents have told me… that it (what the telenovela shows) is actually true.’[13]

Amar is thus entertaining but problematic viewing, and reflects present-day dilemmas over the difficult balance between justice and reconciliation. Yet the soap’s popularity also points to the cleavage between those who continue to feel very strongly about Spain’s recent past, and those who are largely unaware or, even, indifferent. Indeed, travelling within Spain, it is often surprising how few people know on which side of the national divide their own grandparents stood, undoubtedly a product of years of silence under the dictatorship, and the transition to democracy’s so-called ‘pact of forgetting’. In this sense, the trivialisation of the Spanish Civil War in Amar en Tiempos Revueltos is almost an inevitable consequence of attempts over decades to bury the finer details of Spain’s troubled past.

Stephanie Wright is a PhD student at the University of Sheffield. When not watching trashy Spanish TV, Stephanie researches the experiences of Nationalist veterans of the Spanish Civil War whose mental or physical injuries challenged mainstream notions of Francoist masculinity and health. Find her on twitter @estefwright and @authlanguage. 


Title image:

[1] Some prominent examples include former conservative (Partido Popular) Prime Minister José María Aznar and the Juan March foundation, named after businessman Juan March Ordinas, one of the Francoist war effort’s biggest financial backers. In addition, the controversial Fundación Nacional Francisco Franco (National Francisco Franco Foundation), which aims to preserve the memory of the dictator, has in the past been the recipient of government funding.

[2] The Asociación para la Recuperación de la Memoría Histórica (Association for the Recuperation of Historical Memory), aims to help families find and exhume the mortal remains of relatives killed during the Francoist repression. A map of civil war graves can be found here. The former socialist government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero provided funding for such projects under the Historical Memory Law, but these provisions were halted under the subsequent conservative government of Mariano Rajoy.

[3] See Jonathan Blitzer, ‘Spain’s New Old Flag’, The New York Times, 19/10/2012.

[4] Aired on public TV channel La 1 until 2012, Amar moved to private channel Antena 3 in 2013 under the new title Amar es para siempre (Love is forever).

[5] Manuel Palacio, ‘La television pública española en la era de José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero’, Journal of Spanish Cultural Studies, (March, 2007), p. 79. The translation used here is my own.

[6] Mar Chicharro, ‘Learning from Television Fiction. The Reception and Socialization Effects from Watching “Loving in Troubled Times”’, Comunicar 36 (2011), p. 184.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., p. 185.

[9] Carolyn P. Boyd, Historia Patria: Politics, History and National Identity in Spain, 1875-1975 (Princeton, 1997), p. xvii. Boyd argues that Spain’s inability since the 19th Century to agree on a cohesive national history helps to explain its troubled political trajectory over the course of the twentieth century.

[10] Chicharro, ‘Learning from Television Fiction’, p. 184.

[11] Ibid., pp. 185-6.

[12] Antonio Cazorla Sánchez, Fear and Progress: Ordinary Lives in Franco’s Spain, 1939-1975 (Chichester, 2010), p. 9.

[13] Chicharro, ‘Learning from Television Fiction’, p. 186.

For History is Dark, and Full of Spoilers: The Real Game of Thrones

When considering George R. R. Martin, Game of Thrones fans often wonder how one man could invent such creative demises for hundreds of fictional victims. The answer? He couldn’t.

Game of Thrones is, on many levels, directly inspired by historical events and narratives. Take, for example, the Wars of the Roses, which are strikingly similar to the clashes between the Lannisters and the Starks. The Lannisters’ historical counterpart was the wealthy House of Lancaster, whereas the Starks were inspired by the House of York. Furthermore, several parallels can be drawn between Henry Tudor and Daenerys Targaryen. Both were exiled across the ‘narrow sea’ when their enemies were in power, Daenerys to the Free Cities and Henry to Brittany. Both had a tenuous claim to the throne that they relentlessly pursued, as well as friends in high places. Is Henry Tudor’s success, facilitated by the Lancastrians, an indication of Daenerys’ eventual victory, aided by Tyrion Lannister’s machinations? Perhaps.

The tension between the Starks and the Lannisters forms the backdrop for many of the show’s most important events, some of which have their own historical counterparts. One such event is the Red Wedding, which allowed the Lannisters to regain a measure of control. In a graphic, prolonged slaughter, George R. R. Martin killed off several of the main characters and an unborn child, and rounded off the scene with a questionable attempt at direwolf taxidermy. The Red Wedding’s historical parallel is the Massacre of Glencoe in 1692, when the Campbell clan murdered unsuspecting members of the MacDonald clan whilst the latter were staying as their guests.


Image: Kim Traynor, Creative Commons License

As reflected, albeit in a warped way, by the struggle for the Iron Throne, a feature of paramount importance throughout history has been heroism. This was particularly true for the Middle Ages, when heroism was notably demonstrated by the Mercian kings of the eighth century such as Offa, and immortalised in fiction by Beowulf. In every series of Game of Thrones the theme of medieval, masculine heroism is central to many of the plot lines. The heroes of Game of Thrones all have one or more of the trappings of medieval heroism, be it a preoccupation with material culture like the Lannisters, a strong sense of honour that led to the demise of Ned Stark, or military victory, achieved most recently by Jon Snow.

Alongside what is a primarily masculine and military narrative there also exists a kind of subversive heroism. Prominent female characters Sansa Stark and Daenerys have set their sights on revenge, and Daenerys in particular has gathered widespread support, reflecting the warlord and thegn dynamic; both vengeance and thegns are central to the narrative of medieval heroism. However, in many ways Daenerys is portrayed as above the petty struggles within Westeros, setting herself beyond the heroic code that destroyed the Starks.

In keeping with the concept of alternative heroism, King Tommen’s suicide should be interpreted as a vengeful, heroic act; by taking his own life Tommen robbed Cersei of her last child, her children being what she valued most in the world, and avenged the death of his beloved wife Margaery. Tommen therefore regained his autonomy, and joined the ranks of alternative (and admittedly deceased) heroes such as Hodor and Osha.

Not all of the events in the Game of Thrones world revolve around a conflict of political interests. Religion, as expressed by the subtle schemes of the High Sparrow and the burning of a certain child princess, has a central role in Game of Thrones. Casting our minds back to series one and two in particular, the primary religions were the worship of Old Gods of the Forest and the Faith of the Seven.

With a pragmatism that echoed the syncretism in the centuries following the official conversion of Anglo-Saxon England, best exemplified by texts such as the Lacnunga which contains both Christian and pagan elements, characters swore by ‘the old gods and the new’ to encompass both belief systems. However, the Faith of the Seven bears greater similarity to pagan beliefs than Christianity. As time progresses, worship of the Old Gods is somewhat eclipsed by that of the Seven in a way that echoes how the Roman Pantheon gained precedence over local deities.

The Seven find a worthy divine competitor in R’hollr, the Lord of Light, and perhaps monotheism will increasingly become the norm as the Red God’s followers become more powerful and outspoken, in a similar way to the eventual prominence of Christianity in the Roman Empire. Martin has stated that Zoroastrianism, the world’s oldest monotheistic religion, was the primary inspiration for the followers of R’hollr. The “prince who was promised” narrative, used by the Red Priestess Melisandre to refer firstly to Stannis Baratheon, and then to Jon Snow, has obvious messianic overtones that are linked with Zoroastrian belief, though are more easily recognised in relation to Christian traditions.


Daenerys Targaryen’s historical alter ego? Henry Tudor.

Interestingly, Daenerys Targaryen has also been cast as the “prince who was promised”. These conflicting predictions are an intriguing reflection of how religious groups throughout history have struggled with internal conflict, best exemplified by the Reformation. Potentially the followers of the Lord of Light will soon face a schism, which Melisandre would doubtless welcome; if people were to be branded heretics, she would have a plentiful supply of victims for her fires.[1]

Game of Thrones will continue to delight and distress audiences, but whether its plot will follow the historical narratives it is based upon is yet to be seen. Will there be victory for Daenerys, whose rule would eliminate the need for heroism and petty kingdoms? Perhaps a split in the followers of the Lord of Light, akin to the Reformation? Whatever the outcome, George R. R. Martin’s fictional world is closer to reality than we would like to think.

[1] It is worth mentioning that although Game of Thrones attracts a high volume of fan theories (helpfully organised and frequently updated on; few are directly based upon historical narratives such as the Reformation. It will be interesting to see if this historically informed speculation pays off.

Mary Hitchman is a third year undergraduate student at The University of Sheffield, a relentless tea drinker and a future medieval historian. Interests include dragons and narratives of conversion. You can find her on Twitter @maryhitchman. 


The End is Nigh: Medieval Apocalypse Tropes in Hollywood Disaster Movies

In the first of our Apocalypse Now series, Liz Goodwin looks at how our biggest disaster blockbusters prompt modern audiences to ask very medieval questions.

Warning: spoilers ahead!

“This marks the last day of the United States of America – and by tomorrow, all of mankind!” So says Woody Harrelson’s conspiracy-theory espousing hermit Charlie Frost in 2012, watching the world end in cinematic, literally earth-shattering style. After warning other characters and announcing that governments are building salvation ships for a select few, Charlie stands jubilantly, watching his volcanic prophecy come to pass: “the earth crumble[s] before my eyes. The giant ash cloud created by this super-volcano will first envelop Vegas and then St Louis and then Chicago and then, at long last, Washington DC will have its lights go out!” Charlie isn’t greeting the end of the world with fear, like so many other characters in this epic disaster film. He’s greeting it with joy.

A millennia before, an eleventh-century monk of St Vaast’s monastery felt much the same way. His apocalyptic vision – “rather, the whole magnitude of earth shook everywhere with a general and vast tremor,” – is accompanied by hope of redemption at the predicted Last Judgement: “so that that which had been promised before by the mouth of Truth might be made manifest to everyone… our hope is made more certain in the sight of all regarding those that remain to be completed in due order.” We might imagine that, had this vision come true, this anonymous monk would have greeted this natural disaster with every bit of relish shown by Woody Harrelson facing off against a volcanic eruption.


Fourteenth-century manuscript displaying Death, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, as a decaying skeleton.

As Independence Day: Resurgence explodes onto cinema screens, it’s clear that Hollywood hasn’t forgotten the Book of Revelations-inspired rhetoric and spectacle that have defined disaster films of the past seventy years. Lee Quinby and John Walliss have pointed out that the threat of human annihilation on a Biblical scale has been found to be ‘a more fitting cinematic muse for an age beset by possibilities of human-made destruction’, through Cold War-inspired sci-fi paranoia, environmental catastrophe or nuclear disaster.[1] Yet as a medievalist, it’s clear to me that often, the tropes that characterise disaster films – the threat of impending, plausible-sounding apocalypse, the questions of who will survive, the thrill in viewing destruction amid human fear – inherently belong to the Middle Ages.

While historians have contested the extent to which Judgement Day feeling gripped medieval people at certain times (the writings of the monk of St Vaast has been used as evidence for the so-called and problematic Terrors of the Year 1000, for example), apocalyptic rhetoric and subsequent expectation was never far from the medieval mind. As Bernard McGinn has pointed out, the sense of apocalyptic anticipation, utilised and asserted by Christian writers in rhetoric of recreation, renewal and reformation of the medieval Church, is ‘difficult to understand for most of us today, [through] their sense of imminent final events.’[2]

The understandings central to rhetoric of apocalypticism is that of religious impetus: come the looming Day of Judgement, who will be excitedly going to Heaven? Who should be frightened of Hellish retribution? In the language of reformers, who wanted to reorganise and restructure the Church, questions like who would rebuild a better, less corrupt and purer faith after an apocalyptic event are central. The emotions with which medieval people listened to tales and prophecies of blazing destruction were characterised both by anticipation and fear; fire and brimstone preachers like Savanarola warn of punishments for lazy elites with rewards for the good, while eleventh-century writer Ralph Glaber points to rulers anxiously building so many houses of worship for subsequent remission of sins that it were as if the world ‘were clothing herself everywhere in a white garment of churches.’

It is these tropes that are central not only to medieval apocalyptic understandings, but to the modern-day Hollywood disaster film. The question of ‘who is saved?’ is asked by many films from the outset, echoing the prophecies directly posed to the medieval listener; the nuclear family, often in crisis, is emblematic of this need for characters to be saved and punished. The relatable every-man (and it is, this being the film industry, so frequently a man) lead role is just flawed enough to make audiences care, yet gains redemption (the reunification of his family, or forgiveness for past sins) through fighting imminent threat – be it from aliens (Tom Cruise in War of the Worlds), environmental disaster (John Cusack in 2012), or a rogue asteroid (Bruce Willis in Armageddon).


Sin and salvation rhetoric on the 2012 film poster.

The thrill and fear we feel watching these movies similarly mirror this emotive apocalyptic expectation. Despite the enormity of grand-scale, city-obliterating destruction, it is through the main, intimate nuclear family that we can see ourselves and feel moved. The crowd-pleasing moment when Will Smith’s family dog survives in Independence Day and the emotional punch of Elijah Wood’s parents being swept away by a tidal wave in each other’s arms in Deep Impact are all the more emotional because we feel saved, or damned, with them. The punishment of villains (the estranged wife’s cowardly new boyfriend in San Andreas) further fulfils this need for damnation – some people aren’t, and don’t deserve, to be saved, so there’s always hope for the moral.

The outcome – the building of a better future, the entrance into Heaven – is further evidence of this Revelations-inspired medieval rhetoric. The reform and renewal of society is mirrored in the salvation-heavy symbolism at the end of so many of these blockbusters: the world, now saved, moves on to become more environmentally conscious (The Day After Tomorrow), more peaceful (2012) and more united (there’s a whole speech made in Independence Day: Resurgence that outlines the rejection of ‘petty problems’ of individual nations who have come together to work as one world).

The irrationality of apocalypticism often feels so inherently alien, so very distant, so extremely medieval. Yet as Hollywood shows us time and again, these same fears and questions that engrossed Middle Age rhetoric and created tropes are the very same that not only makers of disaster films are keen to exploit, but that we as viewers are desperate to keep asking and watching the answers ourselves. The end, it appears, is always nigh in the disaster movie, but our survival or damnation through it is what keeps us watching.

[1] J. Walliss and L. Quinby, ‘Introduction’ in John Walliss and Lee Quinby (eds), Reel Revelations: Apocalypse and Film (Sheffield, 2010), p. 1.

[2] B. McGinn, ‘Apocalytpicism and Church Reform: 1100-1500’, in Bernard McGinn, John J Collins and Stephen Stein (eds), (New York, 2003), pp. 273-298.

Liz Goodwin co-runs this blog, works on research into the lives of medieval and sixteenth-century nuns, and has seen The Sound of Music, without shame, more than 50 times. Find her on Twitter at @ElizMGoodwin.