A movie for every day of the year – a good one
Bubonic plague breaks out in California, 1907
On this day in 1907, bubonic plague broke out in California, USA. The disease had ravaged the known world twice before, first in the 6th century, the so-called Justinian plague. It then reoccurred most famously in the pandemic starting in Mongolia and spreading across Asia into Europe, killing a third of the population between 1340 and 1400, the Black Death. In the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries it had erupted frequently though less devastatingly, and even in the 20th century it was not unknown – Australia had 12 major outbreaks between 1900 and 1925. In 1907, San Francisco was just recovering from the 1900 to 1904 outbreak of plague – the third global plague pandemic had been raging since 1855 – which had been exacerbated by a mayor who wouldn’t admit there was a problem because he feared the impact on business, when a sailor crossing San Francisco Bay on a ferry was diagnosed with the disease. The plague took hold, with the New York Times reporting that “it looked for a time as if the city were to be decimated as was mediaeval Europe.” It was also around this time that the theory started to gain currency that bubonic plague was spread by rats. The city started a massive public health campaign, concentrating from 1908 on exterminating rats. By the following year the plague was gone.
Black Death (2010, dir: Christopher Smith)
Director Christopher Smith’s follow-up to the brain-befuddling Triangle – which ingeniously managed to mix time travel with child welfare – is another exercise in altered mindsets, this time locating us firmly in the Middle Ages, where plague is rampant and people will do the most irrational things to try and stop it. Sean Bean is the film’s star, a solid hunk of matter off which superstition is deflected, playing the leader of a band of trusties who are on a mission to find out why a certain small village has been immune to the depredations of the bubonic disease. Working to some extent in the tradition of Michael Reeves, of Witchfinder General fame, Smith locates us firmly within the ideology of the time and switches allegiances expertly between the Christians (led by the brutal Bean and his ideological warhorse, a monk played by Eddie Redmayne) and the no less brutal pagans (for that is what they are) led by the attractive Carice Van Houten, last seen in Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book. At almost every turn Black Death seems ready to plunge into the coconuts and excess of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, yet it never does. Some of that is down to Bean, playing it dourly straight as the utterly driven, entirely humourless leader of this weird gang of professional cutthroats.
But most of it is down to Smith’s control of mood, the way he infuses everything with a feeling of portent and dread. So give the film a chance to get past its shaky start and its feverish rhythms. Once it slows down and stretches out it becomes a much more meditative, much more interesting analysis of life in a time so beset by an external threat – anyone could die, for no apparent reason, at any time – that it undermined all the certainties, gave birth to ugly extremisms. This also entails ignoring Bean’s oddly inappropriate mid-Atlantic accent. Surely his flinty native Sheffield voice would have been a better fit for a film dealing in merciless inevitability. Fans of Lord of the Rings will easily go for the beards on horseback ambience, but this film is really more in keeping with The Wicker Man‘s uneasy examination of the excesses of blind faith.
- Another interesting genre movie by Christopher Smith
- Because it’s more interested in ideology than buboes
- Old school, and effective, effects
- Sebastian Edschmid’s appropriately murky cinematography
Black Death – at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2014