Opinion and comment stimulated by the newly-released King Arthur movie, a story of "gallant knights in shining armour, ladies draped in silk and satin, lavish banquets, medieval castles, a round table, and the Holy Grail - a world of courage, honour, romance, glory and, of course, Camelot." Touchstone Pictures claims it is a historically accurate epic of the monarch.
[ From The Guardian ]
King Arthur without chivalry and romance, without spells, curses and tragic destiny, is a national insult. The Cornish fishing village that [recently] turned into a torrent is nestled in one of the most mythic landscapes in Britain. Boscastle is close to the seashore castle at Tintagel, where King Arthur was conceived. There Uther Pendragon slept with his enemy's wife, Igraine, less than an hour after killing her husband, having been enchanted by Merlin to look like the dead man. And so Arthur was born.
Yet, this summer Britain's national myth has suffered its own catastrophe, as Arthur and his knights saw their home Camelot washed away along with the Seat Perilous, the Holy Grail and Merlin's magical powers, by a river of pseudo-historical garbage in the film King Arthur.
King Arthur is one of the worst historical, or history-esque, films ever made. It begins with a claim to archaeological veracity. It proceeds to concoct a totally unnecessary and lumpen alternative Arthurian story, in which Merlin is a woad-covered guerrilla leader - the Ho Chi Minh of the ancient Britons - Guinevere his toughest cadre and Arthur a Roman soldier who sees the error of his ways. There isn't a hint of jousting, sacred quests or piteous damsels. In Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, published by William Caxton in 1485, the knights of the round table say things like: "Fair lord, I am a stranger and a knight adventurous, that laboureth through many realms for to win worship." In this King Arthur, Ray Winstone as Sir Bors says things like, "I love my kids!"
Why is the film industry intent on taking the magic out of stories that really only exist as magic? People have, of course, speculated about the existence of a historical King Arthur for centuries. Geoffrey of Monmouth's 12th-century History of the Kings of Britain presents Arthur as an early British leader who fought the Saxons and Romans.
He also says Merlin magically flew a stone circle from Ireland and landed it on Salisbury Plain, where Stonehenge can be seen to this day. There is no historical key that reduces the legends of Arthur and his court, which accumulated in the middle ages not just in Geoffrey's chronicle and the Welsh Mabinogion but in the French romance cycle and the German epics of Parzival and Tristan, to flat, sombre fact.
There is something more, and nastier, going on here than just a bad summer film. Arthur, in the version that has been best known for centuries with its romantic picture of Camelot, its honourable knights who fight tournaments and go in search of adventure, and the tragic death of Arthur in his last battle with his incestuous son, Mordred, is a sad, subtle, poetic legend, full of emotional nuance. The filmmakers' assumption seems to be that modern audiences need something harsher, simpler, more political - Arthur and the Britons fight for "freedom". But in evacuating myth from the world we rob ourselves of an imaginative, and even a moral, resource. By turning Arthur into a statebuilding soldier defending "freedom", his story is made glibly compatible with the way things are done now, the lies that make wars rational.
The stories of King Arthur are about war, and so is Homer's Iliad. But when these stories are told properly, in the grandeur and passion of myth, they are far more wise about the futility of war than any supposedly "realistic" retelling.
In Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, the armies of Arthur and Mordred stand ready to fight one last cataclysmic battle, but there is a slender hope of peace. Arthur and Mordred meet for a desperate parlay, after warning their armies to attack at the least sign of a sword being drawn.
"Right soon came an adder out of a little heath bush, and it stung a knight on the foot. And when the knight felt him stungen, he looked down and saw the adder, and then he drew his sword to slay the adder, and thought of none other harm. And when the hosts on both parties saw that sword drawn, then they blew beams, trumpets, and horns, and shouted grimly."
And so the battle began, and Arthur was mortally wounded, and the age of chivalry came to an end.
[ From Edinburgh Evening News ]
Set on the Border between Scotland and England, the film places Arthur - played by British star Clive Owen - in the Scottish Lowlands. "You've got a Lucius Artorius Castus in the second century, on whom all of the subsequent Arthurian characters are based. The one in the movie is a descendant of that first Arthur," explains the film's consultant historian, John Matthews, who has written several books on Arthur.
"We're saying in the movie that Arthur comes from the Borders. We have evidence that Arthur lived and fought and died around the area of Hadrian's Wall.
"The theory is that there is this character, Lucius Artorius Castus, a Roman officer from the Borders, in charge of Sarmatian knights, and that they were stationed at several forts along the wall, particularly at Birdoswald, and that they fought against the Picts. This is the same Arthur. When I started work on the movie two years ago I was aware of the theory but wasn't sure of it.
"I have now found so much evidence that links Arthur with this part of the world that I am completely convinced by it."
He adds: "The forts at Camboglanna, now known as Birdoswald, and Port Avalanna so closely tie in with the Arthurian stories of later times. Their names are very suggestive. Avalanna sounds like Avalon.
"Camboglanna has common elements with Camelot and also with Arthur's last battle at Camlan and the terrain is very suitable for descriptions of the battles that he is supposed to have fought.
"The last and most significant battle is listed as taking place at Badon Hill. Several sites have been associated with this place, including a hill near Bath in Somerset, and the fortress of Caerleon in Wales. In the movie, it is located at Hadrian's Wall, which is in keeping both with the historical theories relating to Arthur in Scotland, and to the presence of other significant sites with Arthurian associations in the area."
The film itself is set three centuries later than Lucius Artorius Castus, a historical figure who commanded troops in 175AD, with another Arthur Castus, a descendant of Lucius Artorius, as the main character. "The overwhelming circumstantial evidence supports a belief that a man called Arthur - or even more than one man with this name - lived in the fifth or sixth centuries and led the Britons to victory against the invading Saxons," explains Matthews.
[ From the Chicago Tribune ]
The new movie "King Arthur" links the Arthurian legend to a half-British, half-Roman soldier named Artorius (Clive Owen), who holds up the democratically minded theologian Pelagius as a mentor and father figure. Was Pelagius a real person?
While evidence of Arthur's existence remains in debate, Pelagius was indeed a 4th and early 5th Century personality. Probably of British or Irish descent, the monk "taught that man possessed free will and could decide his own destiny," said John Matthews, movie historical consultant and author of the forthcoming book "King Arthur, Dark Age Warrior and Mythic Hero".
Pelagius' philosophy, however, "flew in the face of the accepted teachings of St. Augustine, who said that men could only reach heaven through the mediation of Christ," Matthews says. "After being condemned as a heretic by Pope Zosimus, Pelagius left Rome for Africa and Palestine, after which he vanished from history."
The link between Arthur and Pelagius, however, represents a narrative leap by the movie-makers.
As the "King Arthur" press kit notes: "Historically, we know nothing of Arthur's beliefs, other than that he was probably a Christian. The fact that he is represented as a Pelagian in the movie is wholly in keeping with his character. As someone devoted to the preservation of individual freedom as much as to the freedom of a nation, it would have been a natural choice."
[ From The Exponent ]
Some Purdue professors think 20th-century thinking will prevent the new "King Arthur" movie from being true to history.
The History Channel is airing a special called "History vs. Hollywood: King Arthur" which Dorsey Armstrong, assistant professor of English, was interviewed for. She said the idea behind the show was to fly experts on King Arthur to New York to watch the movie and talk about its accuracy.
"The film has been marketing itself as a real story behind the legend," she said, but when she arrived in New York, the movie wasn't finished. She and the other experts had to watch clips instead.
"On the one hand, the film gets the Arthurian legend right because it sets the story in the fifth century, when the historical Arthur probably lived. (The film) gets it wrong by including characters like Lancelot and Merlin, which were late additions to the story that didn't show up until the 12th century," Armstrong said.
She said she could see that the moviemakers had a dilemma because when people think of King Arthur, Sir Lancelot is one of the main characters, so they had to appeal to the expectations of their audience.
Armstrong also said the film depicted Guinevere as a warrior queen, running around on the battlefield in what looks like a leather bikini.
"In the legend, Guinevere was never a warrior. Even though there is evidence in Celtic culture that women fought, we can be sure Guinevere didn't fight," and women who did fight didn't wear skimpy clothing, she said.
John Contreni, dean of graduate school and professor of history, specializes in medieval history and thinks society's interest in the Arthurian legend says more about us than it does about Arthur himself.
"I think we like adventure stories; we like the heroes fighting against tremendous odds," he said.
He said historical evidence of Arthur is basically nonexistent and what has been passed down are mostly stories. He also said it would be difficult for a movie to portray what actual living conditions were like during the fifth century.
"(The language) would be incomprehensible to us; they wouldn't be speaking anything we would recognize today," Contreni said.
He said life was not glamorous and people didn't look anything like the handsome actors who depict them in movies. People then probably looked more like residents of Indiana in the 1820s and 1830s, who worked hard and lived in a difficult world.
"In the movies, we'd be repelled by that," Contreni said.
[ From Associated Press ]
There's no Camelot, no Excalibur. There's no Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot love triangle.
There is a table, and it's round, but nobody sits at it for too long.
And nobody ever, ever bursts into song in "King Arthur" -- although it might be sort of fun if they did, if only to break up the intensity of the battle scenes, and to brighten the literal and thematic sludge through which the warriors valiantly slog.
All this movie shares with the King Arthur you're familiar with is a name.
Supposedly, it's the story behind the legend -- set in the Dark Ages, not the Middle Ages -- with the half-Roman, half-British Arthur (Clive Owen) leading a seemingly outmatched band of Sarmatian knights, including his best friend, Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd), against the invading Saxons.
Although he's torn ethnically and struggles to maintain his religious faith in the face of cynicism and hypocrisy, Arthur somehow finds time to get it on with Guinevere (Keira Knightley), who is not the fragile flower you've seen before but a buff warrior princess who's deadly with a bow and arrow.
The real story behind the story-behind-the-story, though, is that this is a Jerry Bruckheimer movie, striving desperately to be taken seriously.
"King Arthur" was directed by Antoine Fuqua, and resembles his earlier film "Training Day" in the visceral, gritty nature of its battles. It was written by David Franzoni, and resembles his earlier film "Gladiator" in its manly manness and its obsession for historical lore.
If "King Arthur" brings to mind any previous film that Bruckheimer produced, it's "Black Hawk Down." Both share the same cinematographer, Slawomir Idziak, and at times share a similarly bleached-out, grainy look. It's an especially effective aesthetic when Arthur and his heavily armed posse are trekking on horseback through the snow, and on a cracking frozen lake, where the film's most suspenseful brawl occurs.
For all its attempts at innovation, though, "King Arthur" falls back on the hackneyed "one last mission" idea. Arthur, Lancelot, brutish Bors (Ray Winstone) and the rest of the knights -- who aren't nearly so well characterized -- must rescue a Roman nobleman and his family, which includes a son who's a favorite of the pope.
Their assignment takes them north as Saxon forces are spreading under the leadership of Cerdic (Stellan Skarsgard), whose long hair and messy, braided beard make him look like a redheaded Rob Zombie. His men, meanwhile, who are heavily garbed in leather and fur, seem to have stepped off the runway of a Sean John fashion show.
The point being that despite its pretenses otherwise, this is still a big summer action movie, full of cliches and sexed-up details.
It's hard to believe Guinevere actually chose her own battle gear, which consists of little more than a couple of brown leather belts strapped across her chest. Granted, the movie takes place far prior to the advent of the jog bra, but this is a woman who apparently managed to find lipstick and eye liner in the forest. She should have been resourceful enough to craft more protective clothing during the dead of winter, as her male counterparts did.
But Knightley continues to prove herself a versatile young actress: She can do comedy ("Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl"), she can do romance ("Love Actually"), she can be young and fresh in a girl power movie ("Bend It Like Beckham"). Here, she just plain kicks butt.
Winstone, so excellent in "Sexy Beast," here provides sporadic, much-needed comic relief as a knight whose girlfriend has given birth to so many of their children, they've assigned them numbers rather than names.
They "mean something to me," Bors says during a rare moment of introspection. "Especially No.3 -- he's a good fighter."
The best fighter of all, though, is Arthur himself. And Owen, so suave in the excellent noir hit "Croupier," provides weight, intelligence and heroism to go along with his dark good looks.
He deserves a movie more worthy of his innate magnetism and strength -- and following "King Arthur," he should be able to find such a holy grail of roles.
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