Stoned swords

Caught the incredibly disappointing King Arthur this weekend; a truly dreadful, mess of a film. I didn’t have the highest hopes to begin with really – it was, after all, a Jerry Bruckheimer production. And the PR for the movie kept pushing it as the ‘real’ and ‘historical’ Arthur. As there is no real archaeological or historical evidence for King Arthur, this should set off warning bells in any discerning person’s head right away. The lengthy preamble claims that modern historians believe that the version of Arthur they are selling is accurate. What historians? Who are they and what is their evidence? Once again I state the obvious – there is no evidence. Our only trail to Arthur, if he existed, is in the intertwined realms of oral traditional tales and mythic folklore, both of which have mutated over the millennia, being added to and altered by the tellers for their audience. It seems unlikely to all but a few blinkered people (normally not historians or archaeologists) that there was no one Arthur and that the tales are a general amalgamation of various folk sources, half-remembered and continually embroidered by balladeers until we reach the apex of this process with Mallory’s magnificent Morte d’Arthur.

However, this could still have been a good film – there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the idea of having one of the gritty versions of the Arthurian sources; a real man, not one picked by the gods, no magical sword or kingdom, no court magician. It could have worked as a reasonable slice of heroic fantasy.

Alas, the film is an utter mess. I mean this literally – the editing is so awful that the narrative is entirely muddled. We have scenes which do not connect correctly with each other and sudden jumps. One minute the gorgeous Kiera Knightley is in drab rags then suddenly joins Arthur in a flowing Roman gown to do archery battle in the middle of a winter mountain-scape (naturally you’d wear a flowing gown to a winter battle). Where did this come from? Where the hell are these mountains they suddenly had to run through? They are heading to Hadrian’s Wall from the North, fleeing Saxons who have landed in the East, so where are these huge mountains? There are no mountains like this unless they travelled all the way up to the Grampians… Yes, like the execrable Robin Hood of Costner this movie has no understanding at all of the actual geography of the British Isles. Likewise the natives – referred to as ‘Woads’ are north of Hadrian’s Wall, which is fair enough. But when the big battle comes there suddenly appears piles of Picts behind the Wall. How did they get there in big numbers? When? How did they get through the Wall? How did they get past the vast Saxon army on the other side? And there’s Kiera (in a fetching, if painful looking set of tiny leather straps) in war paint to lead them. Except the previous scene had her getting jiggy with Clive Owen’s Arthur in his quarters in the Roman fort. How did she get from there one evening to leading a large Pictish army the next morning?

Now I can handle playing with some accuracies for a movie like this, but I do demand the film have its own, consistent internal logic. It looks quite clear that despite the 2 hours plus running time huge chunks of exposition have been excised when the makers decided that their ‘historically accurate’ flick need to be faster and more action packed so cut linking scenes to speed up the narrative. This has the side-effect of breaking the narrative cohesion and destroys any (already weak) attempt to build characterisation; everyone here is a clichéd character. I simply didn’t care about any of them since they never developed, not even Arthur – his motivations seems totally muddled throughout and it is hard to understand let along empathise with why he does what he does. I don’t even recall the names of half of his knights. The Saxons are cartoon bad guys – they kill every person them meet and burn all towns, kill all livestock. Now the Saxons were brutal warriors and conquerors, but you don’t conquer by destroying everything and everyone in the land you are trying to take – how are you going to live there afterwards? And if you have a large professional army and intend to assault a large Roman fortification wouldn’t you bring some siege equipment? They don’t even have scaling ladders – how exactly were they intending to breach the Wall?

And while we’re at it, if this is a ‘historically accurate’ re-telling then why is it so utterly rife with inaccuracies? Romans using long swords, wrong armour for the period, Saxons facing off the Romans, Saxons invading Pictish territory… Oh, face it; it is as historically accurate as Braveheart. Indeed it is 1/3 Braveheart and 1/3 Gladiator and little bits of Seven Samurai, Xena and who knows what. During Arthur’s pre-battle speech he comes this close to the ‘what we do echoes in eternity’ and ‘frreeeeeeedddddddooooooommmmm!’. There’s also a scene take directly from Boorman’s far superior Arthurian film Excalibur; the final battle against Morded when Arthur’s knights use the mist to their advantage against a superior force – ‘they won’t know how few we are in the fog… We’ll use the old ways; speed of horse.’ Except here it is a mess again – even the battle scenes are chopped up and messy with only the predictable but well shot battle on the ice being worth watching.

My advice is to avoid this mess of a film – it wants to be gritty and down to earth and ‘realistic’ but then it later also tries to make a play for the mythological Arthur too; you can’t have both. Boorman’s Excalibur, which is also rife with inaccuracies (medieval plate armour and castles in the Dark Ages?) understands Arthur far better – Boorman, realising there is no real history to base this on, uses Tennyson’s and Mallory’s epic poems as the basis of the narrative. He uses and glorifies the myth of Arthur to great effect (and still has some gritty realism; the battles are bloody and brutal, far more so than King Arthur manages on a far bigger budget and bigger cast) and has the bonus of Nicol Williams and his wonderfully eccentric Merlin.

And in this I think Boorman gets it right – looking for the one, real Arthur is always going to be a waste of time; it is the myth of Arthur which matters. He is the quintessential British mytho-heroic archetype. Whether he actually existed in any form or not really doesn’t matter, it is the inspiration of his myth which is the important factor. The dream of Camelot is what is important, not trying to excavate some 6th century hall which may or may not have been the real Camelot. Hell, we can’t even agree where he was bron (if he was) – Cornwall? Scotland? As Boorman’s Arthur puts it before his final battle, he was not born to be a man but to be the stuff of future memory. The Fellowship was a brief beginning, a fair time which cannot be forgotten. And because it cannot be forgotten that fair time may come again. And so I ride out one last time to defend the dream of what was and what may be again.

The Arthur we know in folksong and poetry will always be more important than any historical figure; it is a mythic type built into the very psyche of the people of these islands. He doesn’t need to have existed at all in any form to be the inspiration he is and has been for centuries. When cynics say that Arthur was supposed to rise again in our time of greatest need but has never been seen when Napoleon or Hitler threatened, so obviously all is nonsense they miss the point. Arthur may have no physical basis in our world; it’s a question of spirit. Like the Red Dragon he embodies the spirit of both the people and the land. And who is to say that spirit was not present in an immaterial but highly effective form in Britain’s time of greatest need? The poetical amongst us may argue that Arthur does rise when we need him, that the spirit of Arthur was there amongst the young Spitfire pilots of 1940 and in every other time of need. All of this is missed by King Arthur, a muddled film which completely fails to understand what Arthur represents. Forget this movie and watch Excalibur instead or read Mallory or Tennyson or the wonderful Mabinogion, an ancient collection of tales from our Celtic ancestors which most scholars believe are instrumental in the early Arthurian legends. They are also great tales on a par with those in the Iliad, Beowulf or the Icelandic Sagas.