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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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It is curious to reflect that, as he settled comfortably into a prosperous middle age, Sean Connery seemed quite happy to spend most of his professional life in the middle ages, too. Think of a noteworthy Connery film from the mid-seventies to the mid-nineties and there’s a good chance it will feature our man swinging a sword and possibly wearing chain-mail, too: Robin and Marion, Highlander, The Name of the Rose (all right, he’s a monk in that one), Robin Hood – Prince of Thieves, Dragonheart… in retrospect it’s something of an achievement that he managed to wrench himself back to the present day for so many of his final films.

We can only ponder as to what quality Connery possessed that made him such a good fit for this sort of film – Terry Gilliam once spoke of Connery’s essentially telluric nature (in the context of why he would have been a poor choice to play Quixote), and he does have that unreconstructed alpha-male aura going on for him, which may indeed go quite well with tales of an earlier and simpler time. Whatever the reason, the result is a CV featuring such plum roles as Robin Hood, Richard the Lionheart, William of Baskerville and (potentially the biggest of the lot) King Arthur.

This was a late-middle-ages role for Connery, coming in Jerry Zucker’s 1995 film First Knight. (Connery had previously played another of the great Arthurian roles, the Green Knight, in 1984’s Sword of the Valiant.) Zucker had scored a big hit with his previous film, the extravagant weepie Ghost, and this has the feel of a ‘classic’ Hollywood period movie, the spiritual successor to things like The Black Knight and Knights of the Round Table.  From the opening moments it goes full-bloodedly in search of the closest thing to Merrie Olde England camp you will ever find in a Hollywood movie of the 1990s.

King Arthur’s realm is finally at peace (it’s taken longer than usual, as he’s clearly in his sixties) and the monarch is intent on marrying, despite the lurking threat of a renegade knight (Ben Cross is playing the role of Malagant, who is essentially playing the role of Mordred in this version of the tale). Also wandering the realm is Lancelot (Richard Gere), who on this occasion is a charmingly roguish trickster leading an aimless life.

Prince Malagant is intent on taking over the land of Leonesse, which appears to be a titchy little realm between Malagant’s domain and that of Camelot, and this involves his men terrorising the local peasants (keen-eyed viewers may spot a young Rob Brydon hamming it up ferociously in the crowd scenes – Brydon was offered a bigger part but had to go and be at the birth of his child, or something). Playing Malagant’s chief lieutenant is Ralph Ineson, who – at the time of writing – is appearing (or not, depending on where you live) in the title role of David Lowery’s The Green Knight, and you have to wonder if the two facts are in any way connected.

Off the peasants stagger to tell the ruler of Leonesse, Guinevere (Julia Ormond). Her one-of-the-people credentials are established by the fact we initially find her playing football with another bunch of peasants. Lending the film some twinkly gravitas but making no substantial contribution to the plot is John Gielgud as her wise old mentor. It turns out that in addition to facing the threat of annexation, Guinevere has to decide whether or not to marry King Arthur. Needless to say she agrees.

However, on the way to Camelot, Malagant’s men have a go at kidnapping Guinevere, and she is only rescued by the timely arrival of Lancelot, whose charmingly roguish ways we have already been introduced to in the pre-credits sequence. Guinevere is soon roguishly charmed up to her eyeballs, but her sense of duty and self-respect require her to carry on to Camelot where she (and the audience) meet King Arthur (finally).

The film has been going for a bit by this point and it’s frankly a relief to finally meet Sean Connery, who is, after all, top-billed. To be honest, I find I can often take or leave these mid-to-late period Connery performances, as the actor often seems just a bit too ready to trade on his natural charisma and established screen persona rather than actually do any work. Here, though, he is rather good as the aged version of the King, a decent and just man, veteran of too many wars, who wears his vast authority very lightly. You can see why Guinevere loves him, but is it in truth a love with any fizz and wow to it? How does it, in fact, compare to the sizzling chemistry she clearly shares with Lancelot? Hopefully the threat of Malagant will somehow enable everyone to work through all their personal issues…

So: a story credit for Lorne Cameron, one for David Hoselton, and one for William Nicholson (who’s credited with the actual script). No story credit for either Chretien de Troyes or Thomas Malory, presumably because they just don’t have good enough lawyers (being dead for centuries can really affect your ability to get good legal help). Still, this is fairly recognisable as the classic story of the love triangle between Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot, very much chopped down, speeded up and rendered digestible for the perceived requirements of a modern audience.

As you might expect, the various changes to the story inevitably impact on how it plays out – Lancelot meeting and falling for Guinevere before he even meets Arthur or becomes a knight really shifts the dynamic of the story – but none quite as much as the decision to dispense with virtually all of the mythic and mystical aspects of the story. So this is (spoiler incoming) a tale of the twilight and fall of King Arthur with no Mordred, no Morgan le Fay, no Merlin (not that you’d strictly speaking expect him to be around at this point), no Excalibur, no Avalon, and so on.

A non-mythological King Arthur movie is a curious choice but not necessarily a risible one; the 2004 film with Clive Owen made a similar choice, going all in on historicity and period detail and gritty realism. First Knight ditches all the mythology, but (as this is a family-friendly romantic adventure) can’t find anything to replace it. As a result the film fails to convince, either as fantasy or anything else. Even the romance feels rather turgid: Lancelot and Guinevere talk a lot about their feelings but they never come across to the audience; there is no actual sense of passion at any point, despite the fact that Ormond at least is working hard to convince. (Gere seems rather out of his comfort zone, to be honest.)

The result is one of those slick but bland movies that they seemed to make a lot of back in the 1990s. I suppose people with a taste for soft-focus romance in a cod-mediaeval setting may find it passes the time quite agreeably; the rest of it is not entirely bereft of interest – there are some interesting faces in the supporting cast, Ben Cross is not bad as the panto villain the film requires, and much of the fight choreography is likewise well up to standard – but it’s essentially unsatisfying as either an adventure film, a drama, or a screen version of one of Britain’s greatest myths.

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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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I did not get into music as a teenager – not until my late teens, anyway. I’m not sure why this was, possibly because we just weren’t that kind of a family. It was always Radio 4 that was on in the kitchen, not Radio 2. And I suspect liking music was just not my thing. With hindsight, I can see I took a kind of perverse, masochistic satisfaction from being into stuff which was incredibly obscure and peculiar – which is why I became a kind of comedy geek. Not even the present day stuff: I suspect I was the only 13-year-old at my school who knew the names and birth dates of the cast of Beyond the Fringe. Lots of people could quote all the usual Monty Python sketches: I was the only who’d heard of The Frost Report, At Last the 1948 Show and Do Not Adjust Your Set, and could trace the lineage leading up to Python itself. Yes, it is a strange place, inside my brain; I have learned how to hide it much better in the last thirty-odd years.

The strange thing is that I’d committed all this information to memory before even seeing or hearing most of the shows and performers concerned – a lot of it came from Roger Wilmut’s book From Fringe to Flying Circus, an exhaustive history of the generation of Oxbridge comics who rose to prominence in the late 1950s and 1960s. Strange to recount, but when the BBC actually repeated the second and third series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus in the summer of 1987 (inconsiderately scheduled to regularly clash with their thirtieth-anniversary season of Hammer horror movies on the other side), I was not entirely sure who was who amongst the team. I knew John Cleese from Fawlty Towers, of course, and I knew the American one who didn’t get many lines was Terry Gilliam; I was also pretty sure which one was Michael Palin, too. But for quite a long while I was under the impression Eric Idle was Graham Chapman, and vice versa. Which just left Terry Jones, who – and this is the reason we are here, of course – has just left us.

Things were different back in the early 1980s, of course. Things popped up in strange places. I distinctly recall an episode of Python being shown long before the watershed when I was about eight. Similarly, I remember possibly the first time I saw Terry Jones on TV: he was being interviewed on a Saturday morning kids’ TV show, Lord knows why – possibly to publicise one of his childrens’ books, I don’t know – and this was accompanied by a clip from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Monty Python and the Holy Grail! On Saturday morning TV! It was a different world, I tell you. (It may be that someone on the editorial team was an avid Python fan, for they ran an equally inappropriate promo for Brazil in the same slot a year or two later.)

I get the impression that Terry Jones was quite proud of the fact that his films tended to be controversial – his first three solo projects as a director were all banned in Ireland – and this may be why they dragged their feet a bit in reaching the TV screen. These days we’re used to films arriving less than a year after their cinema debut, but part of me is quite sure it was eighteen years before Holy Grail was eventually shown in full on British TV: it was at Christmas 1993 that I finally got to see the whole thing. (I should of course make it clear that this particular Python extravaganza was directed by Terry Jones in tandem with Terry Gilliam.)

Here is where I traditionally describe the plot, but this being a Monty Python movie, various gags and conceits keep rocketing off at right-angles to the actual story (which is still reasonably cohesive, all things considered). Ostensibly set in the Dark Ages, the film concerns King Arthur of Camelot (a silly place) and his Knights of the Round Table. (Graham Chapman plays Arthur with his usual, worryingly plausible glassy-eyed authority; the rest of the team play Lancelot and the others.) God, or possibly W.G. Grace, commands them to find the Holy Grail, that their efforts should inspire the rest of the populace.

This is basically just a simple but wonderful framework on which to hang a selection of skits and sketches. It’s almost a cliche to describe the Pythons as comedy’s answer to the Beatles, but there is some truth to that, and their range of styles is fully on display here. Some of the humour is brutal (most obviously the encounter with the Black Knight), some of it is cleverer than it looks, much of it is gleefully silly, and some of it is knowingly puerile. The practiced viewer can often figure out who wrote a particular sketch based on its style – ‘Anything that opened with rolling countryside and music was Mike and Terry, anything with really heavy abuse in it was John and Graham, and anything that got totally obsessed with words and vanished up its own backside was Eric,’ according to Gilliam (if memory serves) – but personally I don’t really feel the need to pick it apart in quite such detail.

Even so, one does note that they are generating some of the gags here by giving mediaeval characters twentieth-century attitudes and outlooks (for instance, the anarcho-syndicalist peasants Arthur encounters near the start of the film), something which would go on to be one of the main drivers of Life of Brian, and also that some of the more anarchic assaults on the structure of the film itself have obviously developed from jokes in the TV show. The opening gag (of the DVD release, if not the theatrical version) where the wrong film – Bob Monkhouse in Dentist on the Job – is shown by mistake is a close cousin to a joke where an episode of Flying Circus is introduced by a continuity announcer from the commercial network, while the subversion of the opening credits by the Swedish tourist board does recall the way in which Njorl’s Saga was infiltrated by a group seeking to promote North Malden.

I know that Life of Brian is the Python movie one is supposed to like best of all, and I do think it has some very good moments. But this one is honestly still my favourite, and that’s partly because it is still very much in the style of the TV series at its best: there is kind of a plot, but this still feels very much like a revue movie, and it does have the kind of formal daring one expects from Python – particularly in the total lack of a conventional climax, or indeed an ending. Plus, on top of this, it does look remarkably good for what was clearly quite a low-budget movie: the surreal grotesqueries of the dark ages are clearly right up Gilliam and Jones’ street (not really surprising, when you consider Gilliam would go on to make several historical fantasy films while Jones would do some substantial historical documentaries). Was it this film or Jabberwocky that earned Gilliam a complimentary phone call from Stanley Kubrick, telling him it looked more authentic than Barry Lyndon? I can’t remember.

Still, you don’t argue with Kubrick. History does not recall what Stanley’s favourite Python movie was, but this is mine. Watching it again is a reminder of just how good these boys were, all those years ago. No wonder the Black Knight and the Knights Who Say ‘Ni’ and the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch have all infiltrated popular culture to some extent. Terry Jones had one of the more diverse and eclectic careers of any of the Pythons – rather than just writing and performing comedy, he was also a brewer, a historian, a poet and a film director – which may be why he never seemed to get quite the recognition and plaudits of some of the other members of the team. Certainly he deserved them, because he was very good at all these things. Possibly that may be rectified now; better late than never. The Pythons were the closest thing I had to a favourite band as a teenager. I hope we will cherish the remaining quartet appropriately while we still have them.

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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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