The year is 517 AD, known as the Dark Ages, and for fxcking good reason. An endless war between the armies of man and the creatures of darkness has raged across Britain. And in retribution for man’s injustices to creatures, the immortal witch Vivien Nimue has spread her deadly plague threatening to wipe mankind off the face of the Earth. And so at Pendle Hill, beneath an ancient oak tree, King Arthur, yes that King Arthur, and his powerful wizard Merlin, were forced to surrender to Nimue, the Queen of Blood.
In this backstory, Arthur and Merlin cut up the witch and send the remains to different parts of the kingdom to never been restored, until they are of course restored and she comes back to make Hellboy her instrument of world destruction, unleashing hell itself.
Yes, I was predisposed to regarding David Harbour as good news. Milla Jovovich can destroy the world with armies of demons any day of the week if it was down to me and is delicious even when being sewn together by blind hags. However, neither of these biases of mine shift my negative judgement of this film.
In this academic blog context, who cares?
Well, I was gravely disappointed to find the fun, humane, Lovecraftian steam-punk flavour of the previous Guillemo del Toro’s Hellboy (2004) and Hellboy: the Golden Army (2008) films replaced by a substandard romp through British folkloric tropes – bad witches, even badder witches, with more bad witches behind the bad witches walking backwards on wooden legs. There is Pendle Hill, ‘sacred’ oaks, giants, trolls, mediums, shapeshifters and toffs pretending to be medieval knights. It makes the Minions (2015) portrayal of Britain’s past look inspired and refined. The lacklustre acting and disastrous dialogue don’t help. It’s so dumb: when McShane as Broom says ‘that King Arthur’, for example, what other King Arthur might the audience have been expected to be depicted? For crying out loud!
Beyond that, I think it is worth pointing out three dimensions about the ‘Dark Age’ and mortuary material cultures of this version of Hellboy. I can’t be arsed to discuss the portrayal of the cliche medieval monastery and its crypt with stacks of skulls, Merlin’s grave and other pseudo-medieval ‘gothic-y’ nonsense. But before I review three points, I want to share the most hilarious line delivered by McShane’s character Professor Broom which I think sums it all up, since I think it should have spoken with the nasal urgency of the voice of Thornton Reed (Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place):
“…this shit has gone way beyond the fan. Out there is a 5th-century sorceress and her pig-monster, who want to bring down the curtain on London, and the world! Now please tell me where the fxck they are!”
It’s almost as if Broom was watching yesterday’s debates in the House of Commons…
The Chivalric Dark Ages is Alive and Well in Comics and Films
The first point is perhaps so strikingly obvious that it needn’t be said. However, a chivalric fantasy Dark Ages is so deeply infused into popular culture that the knights of an imaginary later Middle Ages can be readily transported back c. 800 years to the early 6th century. This makes me reflect again on my views regarding the use of ‘Dark Ages’ for the early medieval phases of ‘Tintagel’ – a focus of recent controversy. In the light of Hellboy (2019), if international visitors don’t understand that the 13th/14th-century imagination is not the same as 13th- and 14th-century societies, and neither has much bearing on the 5th-7th centuries, then where do we start with engaging people with post-Roman material culture, settlements and burials? Calling them ‘early medieval’, to me, seems just as problematic as using ‘Dark Ages’. We either embrace the terminology and explain what’s problematic with it, or we should ditch it all as tainted and useless. See my earlier position on this debate here.
What is surprising and interesting about Hellboy (2019) is that there is actually one artefact depicted in the film where an attempt has been made to replicate an early medieval item. I refer to the sword Excalibur. We see it 3 times: once in the backstory where Arthur uses it to slay Nimue, then when Merlin conjures it for Hellboy to wield, and third when we find it in King Arthur’s tomb (see below). The only difficulty is that its pommel is a crude emulation of 9th/10th-century swords – ‘Viking’/’Anglo-Saxon’/’Carolingian’ martial implements, and so far too old for a chivalric context and far to young for a 6th-century one! It is simultaneously ahead and behind its time: perhaps apposite for a unique heirloom? Or is it just evidence that the film-makers haven’t a single clue…
St Paul’s has no tombs and memorials!
The final showdown between Hellboy and his sidekicks with the ‘pig-monster’ Gruagach and Nimue takes place in the nave of St Paul’s Cathedral. This is a good choice and it is one of the older Christian places of worship in Britain, as the likely burial place of 7th-century East Saxon kings and many subsequent monarchs, clerics and aristocrats down the ages, and by the 19th century it became a temple of victory to the British Empire’s martial heroes. It’s on the tourist trail, so Americans might have heard of it.
Here’s the odd thing, however. For the Hellboy CGI, St Paul’s has no funerary monuments on its walls filling its spaces. Take a look at these stills and you can see for yourself.
Any visitor to St Paul’s will know that the nave is packed full of tombs and war memorials: Lord Kitchener, Joshua Reynolds, Sir Thomas Picton, Captain Robert Faulknor, Major-General Thomas Dundas, Major Gender Andrew Hay, etc etc. This version is not – it is completely empty, with the aisles and the recesses filled simply with multitudes of candles. I guess Christians like candles, and that’s what should be in a cathedral church….
My point? 1300+ years of Christian worship and architecture, burial and memorialisation at this most holy of buildings is reduced to a crude backdrop for a fight, bereft of history.
But there’s a qualifer: the tomb of Arthur is discovered at St Paul’s! Where is it located? Using scenes from the film, we can locate it precisely within the building. One can see that fight is carefully restricted to the west end of the nave around the font.
During the fight, the pig-monster with the scouse accent destroys the font, and Nimue crashes Hellboy through the dias to reveal…. The Tomb of King Arthur.
It’s worth pointing out where precisely this is supposed to be. Here’s the view of Hellboy and the randomers he’s with entering St Paul’s. He doesn’t get to pay for entry and buy a guidebook! The location is clear here too when Broom’s ghost talks to Hellboy, calling him back from his path of evil and destruction. He’s rising up from the dais. As a side-note, this is very much a spatial translation of the location of the grave of King Arthur in Glastonbury Abbey – and there was an Anglo-Saxon crypt found here too in a comparable position – so some underlying thought has gone into this as the possible situation of a legendary king’s grave which has lain hidden over 1400 years!
And here, looking east down the length of the building, with the font in pieces to the right and the dais free and clear for Hellboy to be broken on it.
Just beneath the floor surface, held up by four columns a bit akin to the 8th/9th-century Anglo-Saxon crypt at Repton, Derbyshire, we are shown a burial space hitherto unknown.
King Arthur is buried seated, dressed in armour and in that ridiculous crown. He is facing east, and in front of him is Excalibur, with its Viking-period hilt, set in ‘the stone’. This is an evocative burial space for a once and future king. I liked this bit and no matter how fanciful, I do appreciate the idea of a high-status royal burial of early date was located beneath St Paul’s nave! And we do have late 6th-/early 7th-century chamber-graves decked out as ‘rooms’ with furnishings, so perhaps even King Arthur has interred in a plausible fashion in crude terms.
Of course, any visitor will know that under the nave is the crypt, the west end of which is now a lovely cafe…. I wonder why no one noticed King Arthur’s tomb whilst they were supping soup and chomping on over-priced crisps?
So Hellboy (2019) gives us a chivalric and magical Dark Ages with an evil witch, Merlin the wizard and King Arthur, and monsters of all sorts, and also it gives us Excalibur as an Viking-period sword. It offers a very dark Dark Ages, a monument and memorial-free cathedral, and the hidden tomb of a legendary king who probably didn’t even exist situated close to/inside what is now a crypt eatery.
That’s it, now you don’t need to watch the film…