With summer vacation done and school back in session, we’re back for more medieval movies, gang. First film on the syllabus? Michael Bay’s Transformers: the Last Knight (2017).
I sorta can’t believe I just wrote that sentence. I mean, there’s only one reason to watch a Transformers movie, and that’s to hear Optimus Prime doing The Voice. It is not—I repeat, not—to learn about Medieval History.
That probably should go without saying, but the fact is that Transformers: The Last Knight exists.
It shouldn’t. I mean, seriously, who the hell was sitting around brainstorming Transformers ideas and came up with “needs more knights”?
Ugh. Transformers movies haven’t been good in … well, pretty much ever. That they exist at all is a sure sign of Hollywood’s lack of vision regarding movie ideas.
Anyway, this new Transformers movie exists. So I’m gonna do this thing. I’m gonna watch it. I’m gonna review it in ye olde Medieval Matters fashion, hot on the heels of Jerry Bruckheimer’s attempt to make King Arthur go boom.
And you know what? I’m not going to critique the Transformers. That’s right. I’m going to assume that it’s totally reasonable and historically acceptable that there’s a race of sentient robots from another planet for whom the laws of physics don’t really apply, who come to earth to blow things up Michael Bay-style, and who pretty much all take on annoying and abusive human stereotypes.
Accepting All That, let’s look at what the hell the minds behind this madness did to my beloved Middle Ages.
::Deep, cleansing breath::
So the Paramount logo is worked into the movie opening as trebuchet stones that are both spike-covered (the hell?) and on fire (no no no no) swoop over the Paramount mountain and into a bunch of knights.
Jesus, Bay. You couldn’t let us get 10 damn seconds in before you made something go boom?
Thirty-three seconds and a dozen explosions into the movie, and the title card tells us this is “England,” and it’s “the Dark Ages,” and I’m annoyed on both accounts … but I’m also genuinely wondering what was the first movie to incorporate the corporate logo into its opening scene. Anyone? …Anyone?
The fact that I’m wondering about this is a sign, I think, that my mind wishes to protect itself from thinking too much about what’s happening on the screen.
Because it’s bad, people. Horrible bad.
I’ve been writing this column off and on for … a while now, and if you’ve been reading along you’ve surely noticed some common mistakes that folks make when it comes to putting the Middle Ages on film. Some are clichés, some are myths, some are just really stupid things that filmmakers do because they’re lazy, or ignorant, or both.
Well, the opening of this film takes a whole slew of those medieval movie mistakes and crunches them down into one truly horrifying sequence of dear-god-what-have-they-done.
I swear to Optimus Prime, it’s like they’re trying to give me a stroke.
There are explosions. Lots and lots and lots of explosions.
There are swords slashing across the stomachs of guys wearing chain over their stomachs—yeah, the armor is centuries off from whatever it is they’re thinking is the “Dark Ages”—but then these dudes in armor fold in the throes of agony because apparently their chain is made from like, Irish butter or something.
After a flaming spike-ball hits the turf, there are poor slobs pirouetting through the air in utter defiance of the physics of such an impact event.
There’s Lancelot, time-traveled a few centuries back from his invention in the later Middle Ages. (I’m #TeamGawain, btw.)
Will there be full plate armor way before it was in use? You bet!
…Armor slathered with spiky things that would hurt the person wearing it? For sure!
…Heroes who inexplicably, stupidly don’t wear helmets? You know it!
And flaming arrows. Because of bloody course there are.
And since this is a Transformers film, it’ll all be shot in a slap-dash mix of slo-mo and portentous looks cued to blandly ponderous music that beats you over the head in pleading for you to feel something now.
So … dear god … I’m two-and-a-half minutes into this, and I’m really not sure I get paid enough to make it through the full running time of what is to come.
I’m gonna try, though. For you.
Okay, we get a modicum of fun in Merlin (Stanley Tucci for the win!), who is a drunkard with a glass bottle that’s shaped pretty much exactly the way medieval glass bottles were not shaped.
And now Anthony Hopkins! Three minutes in and he’s got a brief voice-over about magic. Dude is awesome. He can make the crappiest writing sound semi-good.
Speaking of bad writing, though, Arthur now gives a clumsy cliché of a speech … while dramatically stabbing his sword down in to ground. Folks do this a lot in medieval movies, and it’s just silly. The sword is your key weapon here, Arthur. Its sharpness and its not-being-brokenness could be the difference between your life and death … but, hey, sure, forcefully jam it into the rocky ground so you can emote.
Oh, there’s also a flamberge sword stuck in the ground for no reason whatsoever, transported in from 16th-century Germany because Michael “Boom-Boom” Bay thought it would look good.
Six minutes in now.
Okay, Merlin summons a three-headed dragon transformer thing, but I said I’m gonna leave that aside. And I am. See that? A man of my word.
Aaaaaand 1600 years later—in the movie’s timeline, though it feels like it’s been that long in its running time, too—we get a plot.
But you know what? Who cares. I mean, seriously, nobody watches these movies for the plot. They watch them for the boom-booms …
… of which there should be plenty because the fate of the world is once more at stake and it can only be saved by pretty boy Marky Mark and pretty girl Oxford professor who looks like she’s 20 and says things like how historians think the myths of dragons come from medieval catapults and literally no one in their right mind thinks that and obviously there’s a prophecy and she’s the last descendant of Merlin which can’t be possible except that her family tree is helpfully in a dusty ancient tome that happens to include a picture of her from last week and Boom and BOOM and let’s blow up the pyramids that we blew up in a previous movie but BOOM let’s do it again because this time like it’ll be boomier and blah blah blah Ka-BOOM and ka-blooey.
Mike’s Medieval Ratings
Accuracy: 1 Michael Bay
Just Plain Fun: boom, I guess?
Michael Livingston is a Professor of Medieval Culture at The Citadel who has written extensively both on medieval history and on modern medievalism. His historical fantasy trilogy set in Ancient Rome, The Shards of Heaven, The Gates of Hell, and The Realms of God, is available from Tor Books.