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Posts Tagged ‘King Arthur’

If you’re anything like me (which isn’t really a fate I would wish on anybody), there is something of an elephant in the room when it comes to David Lowery’s The Green Knight (currently enjoying a low-profile theatrical run in the UK after having its release cancelled in the summer due to a spike in the virus numbers). You may recall a movie called Gods of Egypt from a few years ago, in which Gerard Butler, Geoffrey Rush, Elodie Yung, and others played the titular pantheon; the movie wasn’t exactly great, but a lot of the stick it drew was because none of the leading cast were actually Egyptian. (The question of ethnicity when applied to deities is an intriguing one, but let’s not get sidetracked.) Ethnically-appropriate casting is, according to a voluble section of society, very important.

So, anyway, back to The Green Knight, a story set in Dark Ages Britain, concerning the hero Gawain (or Gawaine), who according to some versions of the Arthurian legend hails from the Orkneys. And he is played by Dev Patel, because apparently ethnically-appropriate casting is not an issue on this occasion, at least less of an issue than diversity and colour-blind casting.

Well, whatever. If you feel that every film, no matter what its setting and source material, has to represent an idealised version of contemporary society, then that’s a coherent position you’re entitled to take. It just kicks me out of the movie when something like this happens, that’s all. I mean, Armando Ianucci’s David Copperfield film (also with Patel) just about got away with it, mainly through being studiously non-naturalistic throughout, but I don’t think this is an option open to every film.

Anyway. Let’s talk about the movie proper, which opens one Christmas in – not that it matters much – probably the 6th century. Gawain, though kin to King Arthur (an idiosyncratic but memorable performance by Sean Harris), is still something of a young wastrel, spending all his time carousing and disporting with a young prostitute (Alicia Vikander). However, he is summoned to court by the King for the Christmas feast, and Arthur expresses a desire to know him better.

However, the feast interrupted by the coming – it is implied, the summoning – of a stranger, and a very strange stranger he is: a man made of wood. And, no, this wooden presence is not Orlando Bloom, but the Green Knight (Ralph Ineson), who has come to play a special Christmas game with the knights of the Round Table – one of them must try to strike him, gaining great renown and glory if he succeeds. But a year hence, the other contestant must seek the Green Knight out and receive in turn whatever wound he inflicted.

Looking to make a name for himself, Gawain volunteers, and after – it is implied – being lent Excalibur by his uncle, arguably gets carried away and ends up beheading the visitor. Decapitating someone at a Christmas party always casts something of a pall, I find, but on this occasion the situation is somewhat saved when the headless body clambers to its feet, picks up the severed bonce and rides away – though not before Gawain is reminded that, one year hence, he is honour-bound to receive payment in kind from the Green Knight…

Anyone’s who’s been keeping up will be aware that I’ve been awaiting this movie somewhat impatiently, filling in the time by watching Excalibur, The Fisher King, and First Knight – my friends and I have been scratching our TTRPG itch with King Arthur Pendragon for the past few months, so it’s all grist to that particular mill. It certainly offers a new and distinctive take on the Arthurian legend, not least in the way it attempts to blend historical grit and uncompromising fantasy – but perhaps that’s not the right word, perhaps mysticism would be better.

This is absolutely not a straight-forward historical adventure, but a disquieting and often spikily strange movie, which makes a point of reminding the audience that this particular tale has been told many times before in different ways. As I’ve suggested in the past, the Arthur legend endures because it is vast and deep enough to accommodate all kinds of interpretations; David Lowery’s version is certainly not going to ‘break’ the myth.

Nevertheless, the film contains an odd mixture of fidelity and innovation, some of it quite self-conscious. The legend surrounding Arthur is pared back – Excalibur, Guinevere and Merlin are all present, but not referred to by name; none of the other famous knights gets anything significant to do. Also present is the figure of Gawain’s mother, who is Orcades (also known as Morgawse) in the legends – Lowery simplifies things by making her a more famous sister of the King, Morgan le Fey (played here by Sarita Choudhury), though again this is not made explicitly clear until the closing credits. One of the innovations is the heavy implication it is Morgan who summons the Green Knight, though her motivations are left for the audience to decide.

Quite a lot of what’s actually going on in The Green Knight – and, as importantly, what it all means – is left for the viewer to work out for themselves. The bulk of the film is concerned with Gawain’s journey to the chapel of the Green Knight, which comprises a series of adventures, some of them unearthly, others mundane, some almost sumptuously surreal in their presentation, and concluding with his stay at the home of a strange unnamed nobleman (Joel Edgerton) and his wife (Vikander again). Everything feels like it’s loaded with significance; the film is obviously heavily symbolic throughout, to the point where the actual plot sometimes feels like an afterthought, but interpreting what it all means is extremely difficult (especially while you’re watching it). This is a film that demands thought and time to fully assimilate.

And this is never less true than at the end, which is the section which has outraged some Arthurian purists. Some have complained the film changes the end of the story; I would just say that the film doesn’t have a conventional ending of any kind (shades of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, another Arthurian outlier, but the actual conclusions are quite different). The director has said a more definite ending was filmed, but the one they eventually went with was a deliberate choice.

(And I can’t really criticise this. Only after watching the film did I remember that, nearly 35 years ago, I was given the assignment of retelling this tale by my English teacher: we were given the premise, and told to continue the story. I couldn’t figure out what to do once Gawain reached the chapel, so I ended the story rather ambiguously at that point (and got a very good mark). Lowery, I hasten to say, takes a slightly different approach (and has likewise got good marks, from the critics).)

The film seems to be about the question of what constitutes a good life, at least in the case of a man like Gawain – wealth, longevity and happiness? Or honour and the fame that comes with it? (Very pertinent questions to a Pendragon game.) Not surprisingly, the film leaves the answer up in the air. One thing that is certain is what a visually impressive film this is, with an equally accomplished soundtrack. It definitely tend towards the arthouse more than the multiplex, and it’s probably easier to admire than genuinely love, but this is still an impressive movie on many levels.

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Odd to think that the first of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films will be twenty years old in less than six months (the same is true of the first Harry Potter adaptation, of course). Or, to put it another way, it’s now very nearly equidistant in time between the present moment and the appearance of another great fantasy film of decades past – I speak of John Boorman’s 1981 film Excalibur.

The comparison is a pertinent one as Boorman tried for many years to mount his own adaptation of Lord of the Rings, never quite managing it (given one of his ideas was for the Hobbits to be played by children being dubbed by adults, perhaps it’s just as well). But apparently a lot of the Rings prep work ended up informing Excalibur, and you can perhaps trace a connection between the syncretic Arthurian mythology, built up over a thousand years, and the primal European myths which inspired Tolkien’s legendarium.

Boorman puts his own spin on the Arthurian cycle, as everyone who approaches it ends up doing, focusing the story on the titular blade. The film opens in the Dark Ages (real-world history and geography is more or less elided), with ferocious warlord Uther (Gabriel Byrne) intent on becoming king, assisted – sort of – by the enigmatic, and eccentric, figure of Merlin the Magician (Nicol Williamson). It is Merlin who procures the sword of power for Uther, and Merlin who is most dismayed when Uther seems intent on simply using it to satiate his own lust for power, and other things.

One of the other things is Igraine, wife of the Duke of Cornwall (she is played by another of the numerous Boormans to appear in the film; he is Corin Redgrave). But Uther’s deal with Merlin whereby he can enjoy a night of passion with Igraine (Uther keeps his suit of armour on throughout, surely the hallmark of any sensitive lover) has unexpected consequences: Merlin takes the ensuing child, and while pursuing the magician Uther is ambushed and killed, but not before he can drive Excalibur into a block of stone, from which only the rightful heir can draw it…

This first section of the film unfolds very naturally and satisfyingly; from here on things get a bit choppier, as Boorman has to start picking and choosing which elements of the Arthurian legend to focus on. So we get the sword in the stone, the struggle faced by Arthur (Nigel Terry) as he tries to claim his throne and unite the country, the coming of the invincible Lancelot (Nicholas Clay), the founding of Camelot, Arthur’s marriage to Guenevere (Cherie Lunghi), the treachery of Arthur’s half-sister Morgana (Helen Mirren) and the begetting of Mordred, the Grail Quest, and so on and so on…

Even for a film that’s pushing close to two and a half hours in length, this is a lot to handle, and Boorman omits many of the peripheral elements of the story – the May Babies are omitted, as is the story of Tristram and Isolde, along with that of Balin and the Fisher King, while the importance of Gawain (Liam Neeson) is downplayed, and Galahad is left out entirely (most of his role is given to Perceval, played here by Paul Geoffrey).

Doing the entire Arthurian legend in detail would be an undertaking beyond the scope of any sane movie – you’d be thinking in terms of a series (much as Guy Ritchie recently did), or perhaps a multi-season TV series like a cross between Game of Thrones and The Crown (this is such a patently brilliant and obvious idea I’m surprised no-one’s doing it already). So the flaws in the narrative structure of Excalibur, the jarring shifts in time and space, the odd changes of tone, are to some extent inevitable given the nature of the film.

However, the decision to frame the film almost solely as mythic fantasy is Boorman’s own: there’s relatively little grit or dirt in the world of the film, and not much sign of the common folk, either: on the rare occasions when they do appear, it’s slightly reminiscent of another great Arthurian film of roughly the same period, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. You could definitely argue that the Python film has a greater sense of reality about it than Excalibur; Boorman’s film always looks good, but it’s strangely heftless and is often easy to snigger at (Uther isn’t the only character who spends all his time lumbering around in full armour, even at feasts and weddings) – the balance of otherworldly mysticism and quasi-historical grit was handled much better by the Robin of Sherwood TV show (which possibly shows hints of an Excalibur influence on occasion).

Nevertheless, there’s a huge amount the film gets right, or at least does interestingly: the central thesis of the connection between king, land, and sword is a splendid innovation, and the film handles many of the incidental moments of the story extremely well: Merlin’s mentorship of the boy king, Arthur winning the loyalty of the barons who initially refuse to acknowledge his right to the throne, and so. It is, of course, helped enormously by what history has proven to be a really impressive supporting cast – Helen Mirren doesn’t chew the scenery as Morgana, a young Liam Neeson is sweaty and energetic as Gawain, and there’s a cracking turn from Patrick Stewart as Leodegrance. When this film was made, Stewart was still best-known as an RSC stalwart: he gives his declamatory scenes and sequences where he gets to whack people with a battle-axe the full Shakespearean beans, and you come away wishing he was in the movie more.

Perhaps the fact that it’s mostly the supporting players you think this of is another flaw in the film; Terry, Lunghi and Clay are all right as the central trio, but not exactly captivating. As a result, it’s really Williamson who ends up walking away with the film – given Merlin’s disappearance from the story, this might be a fatal flaw, but Boorman contrives things so he makes a vital contribution in the climax.

In many ways the director makes sensible choices about how to bring the King Arthur story to the screen, and occasionally inspired ones (the Wagner- and Orff-heavy soundtrack, for instance). If he ends up eventually making a film which is at best flawed, that’s because the task itself is an impossible one; ‘flawed’ is still a significant achievement given Excalibur‘s sheer ambition. Nevertheless, this is still the yardstick when it comes to movie treatments of the Arthurian legend, even if it is a bit too hectic and breathless to be much more than an introduction to the cycle.

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Sometimes one can’t help but come to the conclusion that being a film director is a grotesquely over-remunerated job. There are, admittedly, some people who never seem to stop, and have multiple films coming out every year – you know what I mean, your Ridley Scotts and Steven Soderberghs. But for every one of them you seem to have several people who make a film (not even an especially big or successful one), then apparently vanish off the face of the Earth for years at a time. Just what kind of money are they making?

I am moved to reflect on this by the career of Joe Cornish, who started off, film-wise, as a friend of Edgar Wright: he was a zombie extra in Shaun of the Dead and together they co-wrote some of the early drafts of Ant-Man, along with the Spielberg Tintin movie. In 2011 he released his directorial debut, Attack the Block, a film which was nice enough but one of those that everyone else seemed to like much more than me; subsequent developments have not really inclined me to want to revisit and reassess it. And since then? Nothing much, so far as I can tell – at least, not until late last year when the first trailers for his new film The Kid Who Would Be King started to appear.

I know, I know: I am late to the party on this one. For a long while I was doubtful about seeing it at all – I first saw the trailer in front of Johnny English 3, along with that for Robin Hood, and I believe my comment to my companion was ‘Just how many classic English myths can you screw up in one set of trailers?’ But the reviews, to be fair, have been quite positive, and there are people on this film whose work I usually enjoy, so I decided to give it a chance.

The title, as any fule kno, is a riff on Rudyard Kipling rather than anything actually Arthurian, which should tell you everything you need to know about the script’s cafeteria-style approach to this particular myth cycle. A rather nicely animated opening sequence fills in the back-story for today’s under-educated youngsters, although it does the usual thing of conflating the Sword in the Stone with Excalibur and also writes Mordred out of the story. Soon enough we find ourselves in contemporary London, capital, apparently, of a ‘divided, lost, leaderless’ nation (can’t really argue with that, alas). Twelve-year-old Alex Elliot (Louis Ashbourne Serkis – yes, it’s Son of Gollum) is having a tough time, facing bullying and harassment at school and trying to cope with the absence of his father (who’s presumably off doing the mo-capping on Shazam! or another big effects movie).

Everything changes, of course, when Alex stumbles into a building site while being chased by his tormentors and finds a sword stuck into a block of concrete. Naturally, he draws it forth and discovers it to be the fabled Excalibur, magic weapon of the true High King of Britain, Arthur. Soon enough Merlin (Angus Imrie, mostly) has also popped up, mostly to do the exposition, and reveals that an imminent eclipse will mark the moment when the evil Morgana (Rebecca Ferguson) will attempt to conquer the world with an army of undead hell-knights. It’s up to Alex to gather a new set of Knights of the Round Table and see off this terrible menace! Assuming they can get the time off school, anyway.

I have no idea about Joe Cornish’s personal situation, but this has something of a Time Bandits feel to it: you know, that moment in someone’s career when they realise they want to do something that their kids can watch and enjoy. Certainly this is much more family-friendly than Attack the Block, for all that it is recognisably the work of the same creative sensibility. It works hard to shoot for the same kind of audience that made both the Harry Potter franchise and Lord of the Rings such substantial successes, particularly in terms of its visual style: probably the most impressive thing about it is Cornish’s deft handling of big CGI action sequences – there is nothing much wrong with these at all, and one wonders why Cornish hasn’t been in more demand for a big studio project.

Given Cornish’s background as a comedian, it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that the movie also contains some very good jokes – for instance, Merlin needs magic potions containing all kinds of foul ingredients to revivify himself, but finds modern-day fast food a more than adequate substitute. When the film is moving along, it is fun, exhilarating stuff, but the problem is that it seldom stays in motion for very long – Cornish conscientiously includes a big learning-and-growing character arc for the benefit of the young audience’s moral development, but in addition to being slightly predictable this is kind of applied with a trowel, when a lighter touch would have been much preferable. This does slow the film down a bit, and it feels distinctly stretched as a result: at one point, it looks like everything has been satisfactorily resolved, but then there’s a plot twist and the film continues on for another twenty minutes.

Oh well. I am pleased to report the child acting is mostly acceptable, and Denise Gough supports well as Alex’s mother. I am trying to think of a way of commenting on Angus Imrie’s performance as Merlin which does not feel gratuitously cruel, but it is certainly fair to say that he has received the bummest deal of anyone on this movie: he plays Merlin in his disguise as a teenager (supposedly; Imrie does look a bit too old for this), but for key moments the wizard assumes a more traditional form and is played by Patrick Stewart. Stewart, needless to say, acts everyone else off the screen without even seeming to try that hard, but they can only afford to use him in a handful of scenes. Still, better than nothing.

In the end I found myself quite enjoying The Kid Who Would Be King, and feeling rather indulgent towards it: it is overlong, and it is really best not to think too hard about certain aspects of the plot, but in other ways this is a clever and imaginative movie that tells its story well. It seems, however, that the well of classic English mythology has been fouled by the likes of last year’s Robin Hood and the year before’s Guy Ritchie King Arthur film, for this new film has been a bit of a flop despite being much better than either of those. A shame: this is a fun, family-friendly film, and one hopes Joe Cornish will get another chance to show what he can do in the near future.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published August 5th 2004:

For all that it’s arguably the greatest English myth, I still think we’re waiting for the definitive movie version of the Arthurian legend. Now this isn’t a particularly easy story to fit into a two-hour movie, but that still doesn’t excuse most previous attempts being quite so dire (First Knight, this means you). And to be honest, I didn’t hold out much hope for Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur, given he’s best known for contemporary urban thrillers, producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s best known for making overblown tripe, and the publicity campaign for it runs mostly along the lines of ‘Cor, what about that Keira Knightley eh? Phwoarr!

The new angle Fuqua’s opted for in his movie is to take a slightly more historically accurate approach to the tale. Set in the middle of the fifth century, the film finds Britain still a province of the Roman Empire, though this state of affairs about to change. As the story opens, Arthur (Clive Owen) is actually Artorius Castor, the Romano-British commander of a group of indentured heavy cavalry from Samatia on the other side of Europe – his warriors are battle-scarred hard-cases who just happen to have the same names as famous chivalric figures: Galahad, Gawain, Lancelot. But their period of service to Rome is almost over: Arthur dreams of returning there, while his men just want to go home.

But before this can happen, Rome demands one last service of them. With a Saxon invasion sweeping down from the north, the Romans are leaving the native Celts to their fate. But an influential Roman family must be rescued from the path of the Saxon advance – an incredibly dangerous mission that takes Arthur and his men out of their own territory and into the wilderness controlled by native British tribes in the sway of a sorcerer known as Merlin…

The small component of this movie’s publicity not devoted to Ms Knightley’s bone structure and glandular development (both are undeniably charming) mainly goes on about how this is the first historically accurate Arthurian movie, based on actual archaeological evidence. This would be a neat trick, as – to my understanding – all the physical evidence for an historical King Arthur would comfortably fit in an eggcup. Some degree of fabrication is inevitable, but even so, those unfortunates who put historical accuracy ahead of dramatic merit in the list of movie virtues will find lots to complain about here: the climactic battle (based on an historical event) occurs in the wrong place and wrong century, while the Saxon bad guys stomp around toting crossbows that didn’t appear in Britain for another six hundred years.

None of this would matter to me if the story itself was solid but the emphasis on (rather spurious) realism guts the Arthurian legend of most of its magic and potency. The round table makes it in, along with a new take on the Sword in the Stone (conflated, as usual, with Excalibur), but virtually all of the rest of the story is omitted: there’s precious little Merlin, no sign whatsoever of Morgan le Fey or Mordred, no Camelot, Lady of the Lake, or Grail quest… in short, almost none of the stuff you’d expect in a King Arthur movie.

To be honest, King Arthur reminded me most of a fairly recent take on another great British legend: the 80s Robin of Sherwood TV show. The resemblence is there in the mixture of soft-focus historical verisimilitude and low-key mysticism, and the occasionally lyrical score. Mark Ryan, a member of that show’s regular cast, is the fight choreographer here. Most of all, I suppose, the Sherwood connection is reinforced by the presence in King Arthur‘s cast of Ray Winstone, who memorably redefined Will Scarlet as a mixture of East End bully-boy and football hooligan. His performance here as Bors hits almost all of the same notes (Winstone is surely the only knight in history to go into battle armed with a brace of knuckledusters). It’s a terrific, vital turn, overshadowing the supposed stars of the film: Bors is the only character you really like or care about.

That’s not to say that this is a film that doesn’t owe heavy debts elsewhere: that it resembles Lord of the Rings is a no-brainer: it’s punctuated with long shots across primal landscapes and there’s a lot of fuss about whether or not the lead character will accept his monarchical destiny. There’s a tiny smidge of The Magnificent Seven in the presentation of Arthur and his boys, too. Thankfully, though, beyond some blockbuster silliness and a deeply duff villain (Stellan Skarsgard with a stupid accent), this bears very little resemblence to most of Jerry Bruckheimer’s other movies.

Now I’ve been mostly negative about this movie so far but I should make it clear that I actually really rather enjoyed it. The mixture of myth and Romano-British reality is novel and quite inventive, the film goes to some lengths to make the cultural divisions between Romans, Celts, and Saxons clear, most of the performances are fine, and there’s some impressive action – a battle on a frozen lake being a particular highlight. Admittedly Clive Owen (a low-key, metropolitan actor if ever there was one) seems a little ill-at-ease declaiming in his chainmail, but he livens up as the film goes on.

King Arthur isn’t the greatest rendition of the legend (that title still rests with Boorman’s Excalibur, a film with its own set of flaws), but it is a solidly put together, highly entertaining adventure. Perhaps the truth is that we don’t want to know the true story of King Arthur when the myth is so irresistible. But enough of it shines through to make this movie worth a look.

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