King Arthur

I wish I could be quick enough off the mark to say, ‘You heard it here first.’ As it is, when I get to see a film early in its run it still takes me an age to write about it. And that’s if I can be bothered in the first place. Even if I can, I then have to get to a web café in order to post a review on my little corner of the internet, and that can take as much as a week. It all seems so much effort for seven hundred and fifty words of an opinion that nobody in their right minds would give a flying rat’s ass about. But let’s face it: I’m writing this just to give myself the discipline of producing something meaningful every week, not because I believe for a minute that it’s actually being read.

 

But I digress.

 

Recently, I got the chance to see ‘King Arthur’ (late at night in one of our big screens – in seats like armchairs. How to spoil a film freak rotten…) and it’s worth saying something about. Admittedly, that’s a back-handed compliment and in a moment I’ll explain why I’m damning it with faint praise.

 

You see, there are two ways of looking at ‘King Arthur’: either in terms of how it stands up as a piece of cinema or in terms of how well it achieves its stated aims. If you’re expecting something highbrow, give it up as a bad job and watch ‘Spiderman 2’ instead. ‘King Arthur’ is a film that should be treated with an unusual caution in a particular regard: ignore all its advertising literature. It doesn’t do a damn thing it says on the tin. The premise, as stated, is that it goes back to the historical figure that inspired the Welsh legends and the French Romances. This character was a Roman commander who led the Celtic Britons in a war that stemmed the tide of the Saxon invasions. Ten out of ten so far. Problem is, this is where the film’s sense of history ends. In order to connect Arthur more firmly to Rome, he is made not only into a general who is Roman by birth but also Roman by allegiance so the film is set during the period where the Roman Empire is pulling out of Britain: c. 420 A.D. But what is known from the historical sources we have suggests that Arthur’s resistance against the Saxons didn’t occur for another hundred and fifty years. Then again, what’s a hundred and fifty years between director’s, eh? Furthermore, the Saxons have crossbows. One thousand years before crossbows were even invented. It strikes me that Jerry Bruckheimer’s Saxons are very forward thinking chaps and somewhat ahead of their time…

 

And let us not forget the place of religion in this film. Specifically, organised Christianity: the script forever makes references to ‘the Pope’. This wouldn’t be a problem were it not for the fact that the Pope didn’t exist. Christianity in Europe was tied to bishops who each ran their dioceses from local cities. No one bishop truly held sway, though the bishop of Rome (a position that would eventually be referred to as ‘Papa’ then ‘the Pope’) claimed supremacy with varying degrees of success. And somehow the Emperor is missing from the proceedings. Would using the word ‘Emperor’ instead of ‘Pope’ have been that big a deal?

 

And my final gripe is the portrayal of the Saxons. Why were they portrayed as just another bunch of barbarian marauders out to sack the Roman Empire city by city? The true version is much more interesting: they were invited to Britain by a Celtic king as mercenaries. As part of the deal they settled in Kent but once the first wave settled the migration continued. Ok, so aggressive settlers and Anglo-Celtic politics isn’t as exciting as the straightforward ‘marauders versus natives’ setup, but it would have added a damn sight more character to a film set in such an interesting (and so little-known as to be exotic) period of history.

 

On the other hand, ‘King Arthur’ is a great piece of entertainment. If you can relax into the pseudo-historical world it creates, it becomes amazingly atmospheric. The costumes are brilliant, the open-air shots are wonderfully gloomy and the characters are very watchable. The plot isn’t at all bad either. Where it falls down is in the fact that there isn’t enough of the legend to hold down the lack of history. There are characters who are theoretically Knights of the Round Table that you’ll never have heard of. Lancelot, Galahad, and Tristram all get a mention but the knight that steals the show is Bors, a knight who only really appears in Mallory’s fifteenth century version of the legend. Bedivere would have been an equally appropriate name and would have increased the sense of familiarity.

 

So there’s no history and no legend either. This film reduces the whole Arthurian mix to a series of names. There aren’t even any deeper themes: the many religious references are too incoherent and inconsistent to be philosophical and the American heroic themes beloved of action movies are played down as is Arthur’s obvious sense of Roman pietas. So, when you buy your ticket, expect classy visuals and cool battle scenes. If you expect anything resembling a point, you’ll be sorely disappointed.

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~ by Scary Rob on 28 July, 2004.

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