Roger Shattuck* once observed that there are only two great myths produced by the Western “postclassical” tradition. They are King Arthur and Faust. King Arthur and the legends that arose from his emblematic role in the transition from Roman domination to the foundations of early Europe have received ample attention in the movies. Faust, on the other hand, has a musty, academic odor. He was never played by Charlton Heston in a blockbuster epic, though he was played by Richard Burton in a less ambitious filmed drama.
The King Arthur theme gets its own blog post but Faust is a topic best suited to the book that will follow on the heels of this website. The best-known literary sources for the Faust legend are The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus, a play by Christopher Marlowe (1592); Goethe’s Faust, Part I (1808) / Part II (1832); Gounod’s Faust, the opera (1859); and Doctor Faustus, a novel by Thomas Mann (1947/8), set in Nazi Germany in the midst of World War II. There is also an Americanized version of the legend by Stephen Vincent Benet called The Devil and Daniel Webster (1937).
In early medieval times, there were pageant wagons that pulled into city squares and performed biblical dramas for the largely illiterate populace. A favorite moment in these spectacles came near the end when sinners were cast into the Mouth of Hell. This gaping maw was set into a Satanic head built over a trap door in the wagon. As the centuries went by, the folktale of Doctor Faust became popular in the public places of these same cities. It was the story of a learned professor who sold his soul to the Devil in return for possession of all knowledge combined with the fulfillment of certain sensual fantasies involving Helen of Troy. While King Arthur taught the next stage of Civilization its core ideals, Faust provided a cautionary tale on the betrayal of those ideals. In later centuries, Faust was popular as a puppet show on European street-corners. It is said that Goethe enjoyed these shows in his youth. As the legend matured into a myth, its enduring power in our times has something to do with possessing access to all knowledge. Faust is a parable for the Information Age.
The movie that best captures the spirit of the medieval folktale is the silent classic, Faust made by F.W. Murnau in 1926. Richard Burton filmed a college production of Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus in 1968 featuring his wife, Liz Taylor, in a guest appearance as the immortal beauty, Helen of Troy. There is a Czechoslovakian movie, called Faust (1994), that is set in the 20th century and uses puppets to tell the folktale. A film version of The Devil and Daniel Webster premiered in 1941.
Faust (1926) – Murnau
This is the classic film version of Goethe’s Faust, directed by F.W. Murnau, though it is only loosely based on the original. The heavy black and white gives a lurid quality to the picture. It opens with an argument between an archangel of God and the Devil over the matter of good versus evil. The angel points to Faust as a man dedicated to the good of humankind. He is old and bearded, Moses-like. The Devil proposes a wager that he would win if he can turn Faust away from his altruism. The angel takes the bet. Now the Devil, called Mephistopheles, causes a plague to descend on the town where Faust has his alchemical laboratory. The alchemist tries all in his power to find a cure for the plague but fails. He is disillusioned and throws his books onto a fire, including his Bible. He ritualistically summons “Mephisto” from out of the darkness, now transformed into a slick devil-may-care fellow who comes bearing a pact involving the renunciation of God in return for earthly power. They argue but Faust finally agrees to a one-day trial. He will be able to cure the plague without jeopardy to his soul. Using his new powers, Faust ministers to the sick. When he approaches a woman with a cross clutched to her bosom, he is repulsed. People nearby see that he cannot abide the cross and cry out, “Stone him!”
Thwarted in his efforts to serve humankind, Faust contemplates suicide. The Devil appears and offers him the restoration of his youth, bringing him a vision of a beautiful blond woman. Faust makes the infernal bargain and is transformed into a handsome young man. The Devil takes him on a magic carpet ride to experience “all of life’s pleasures.” It is a brief orgiastic whirlwind that leaves Faust unsatisfied. He longs for the simple life of his boyhood home and demands that the Devil take him there. When they arrive, it is Easter. Faust observes the lovely Gretchen at worship. They follow her home and Faust woos the maiden while the Devil distracts her old aunt. When Faust goes to Getchen’s room to make love to her, the treacherous Devil informs her brother that she is being compromised. The brother rushes to the house and engages Faust in a sword fight. Faust kills the brother and escapes. Gretchen is tried for fornication and made an outcast. Later she bears a child and goes out into a desert with the baby, alone and destitute. No one will help her. She resembles the Virgin Mother. When the child dies, she is found by some soldiers and accused of murder. She calls out to Faust for help. He hears her and demands that the Devil take him to her. She languishes in a dungeon sustained by memories of her innocent youth and her handsome lover.
Faust and Mephisto rush across the sky as she is led to the stake to be burned. When Faust sees her, he curses his desire for youth that has caused this tragedy. The Devil takes his curse for a wish and turns him back to an old man. As the bearded Faust makes his way through the flames to embrace her, she sees him for a brief moment as he once was. They appear to die together and ascend to Heaven. The Devil finds the Archangel and demands payment on his wager. The Archangel refuses, saying that one word invalidates the pact. The word is Love. The End.
To my amazement, I discovered the full version of this classic film on YouTube in September 2011. After watching this version, I found that it was also available by streaming on Netflix.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
There are several important versions of the Dracula legend, some of them drawn from deep wellsprings of medieval superstition, combined with the real-life reign of Vlad the Impaler of Transylvania (15th century) and Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel. Stoker grafted the fictional dimension of Dracula’s reincarnation onto the folkloric traditions of the deep past. The earliest of the Dracula films in my archive is Nosferatu (1922), once again by F.W. Murnau (see Faust above). The most popular of them is Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931), starring Bela Lugosi, and the most comprehensive modern treatment of the familiar story is Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), made by Francis Ford Coppola.
The Wicker Man (1973)
This is not a mainstream movie, in fact it is pretty much one-of-a-kind and has a strong cult following. Made in Britain, the plot follows a detective on a missing person investigation that leads him to a remote island in the Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland. He takes lodgings in the Green Man Inn and soon finds himself caught in a web of mysteries. Here the people worship ancient Celtic deities. The masks and pagan characters of British mumming traditions are used in local celebrations. Too late, he discovers that he is to be guest of honor in an annual sacrificial rite. Be warned: there is some extreme nudity and a horrific conclusion. There have been some truly unfortunate sequels.
The Black Rose (1950)
A sweeping medieval saga ranging from England to the realm of Kublai Khan in China, this is picturesque fiction. A voice-over narration speaks of the feudal world punctuated by splendid castles, shot on location in the British Isles. The narration establishes that it is 200 years since the Norman Invasion (1066), but there has been little reconciliation between Normans and the native Saxons. Tyrone Power escapes these troubles and mimics Marco Polo by joining a caravan over the Silk Road to Cathay (China), shot on location in Morocco. Orson Welles appears in this movie as the caravan master.
The Adventures of Marco Polo (1938)
It will go down in cinema history, I suppose, as one of the worst casting choices for a familiar figure from the past, rivaled only by John Wayne as Genghis Khan. Gary Cooper’s Marco Polo, on a visit to the court of Kublai Khan (grandson of Genghis) in China, highlights the difference between an actor and a movie star. There is a film clip on the Internet where Cooper runs a beauty contest to help the Emperor (who resembles the Wizard of Oz) choose a pretty wife. The journey from Venice to China, arriving in 1266, is accomplished quickly with little location shooting. Most of the film takes place indoors. For more on the Khans, see China. I could not find an adequate trailer for this movie.
Medieval Europe Related Posts:
*Roger Shattuck, Forbidden Knowledge (1996)
**Go to FAQ for use of the term post-paradigm and capitalization of Civilization.