Movie Monday: King Arthur (2004)

Oh man oh man oh man.

OK, so I saw this one not too long after it came out, but it was suggested after my recent post about starting Movie Monday — and it was the first one of the genre that I found on Netflix. Where can I begin?

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You know it’s about to get rough when we see the opening title, which says:

Historians agree that the classical 15th century tale of King Arthur and his Knights rose from a real hero who lived a thousand years earlier in a period often called the Dark Ages.

Recently discovered archaeological evidence sheds light on his true identity.

Now, the only response a sane man can give to “historians agree there was a historical King Arthur” is “no they fucking don’t.” And indeed they don’t — and this version of King Arthur is based on a particular idea which is that the closest thing to knights that you might find in late- or post-Roman Britain would be heavy horse from the eastern Roman empire — in this case, Sarmatians — and that therefore these guys inspired the legend of King Arthur and his knights, and never you mind that there’s absolutely no mention of “knights” in our early sources, because it’s a totally anachronistic concept.

But to continue. Arthur himself is not a knight — he’s half-Roman, half-British, and he and his knights (six of them, making seven in total, each with their own gimmick) are helping defend Roman Britain against a) the barbaric Wodes (or Picts) led by Stephen Dillane from Game of Thrones and b) the even more barbaric Saxons led by Stellan Skarsgard. Arthur’s men, who are Sarmatians, have finished their enlistment period and want to go home (there’s even a song about it), but they have one … last … mission and then it all goes to hell.

Oh, and Arthur believes in the Pelagian heresy, and Germanus of Auxerre shows up to be all sinister and argue against it. Pelagianism is interpreted here to mean America, of course. Somehow the introduction of Pelagianism is really jarring here, because Pelagius and Germanus are both from like the 430s-440s, but the movie is very explicitly set in 467. They make a big point out of it. I’m not sure why not set it in the 440s? I guess they want to tie it in with the Romans abandoning Britain?

Anyway, the Saxons are invading from North of Hadrian’s Wall (the Saxon leader is Cerdic, the legendary founder of the West Saxon dynasty, who has apparently not realised he’s a long way from Hampshire) and there is a big battle, and the goodies win but at what cost, and Arthur becomes disillusioned with Roman ideals but learns about the simple values of love and fellowship and marries Guinevere (Keira Knightley) and blah blah blah.

This movie is _weird,_ but _not weird enough._

For instance, here is Arthur in the film:

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Look at him, the miserable d-bag. He looks like he’s just swanned in from bodyguarding Joaquin Phoenix in Gladiator. Look at his muscled cuirass and his pteruges and his daft helmet. He looks like he ought to be trying to catch Asterix.

And here are some reconstructions of Roman troops from the 5th century:

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So what this movie has done is take things in history that look outlandish and made them more like what viewers expect to see. Strike one.

The second thing that wound me up about this movie is the equation of Pelagianism with generic Hollywood ideals. They even talked about FREEEEEEDOOOOOM! at one point. I mean, I can totally get behind the idea of a guy who realises he serves an oppressive state and decides to chuck it in to protect the defenseless and help the woman he loves. That’s fair enough. But the moral logic surrounding Arthur’s conversion and his quarrel with Merlin is hopelessly muddled. Arthur is mad at Merlin because he thinks Merlin killed his mum. Merlin says he didn’t mean to; she was British. Are we meant to think that he would have killed a _Roman_ civilian woman and that would have been OK? If something laudable about British culture had been shown, maybe … I dunno. Potentially interesting questions of identity replaced with generic Hollywood glurge and freeeeedoooooom! Strike two.

I don’t know what strike three is. Possibly the bit where they hype up Arthur’s cunning battle plan and it turns out to be “be the hero.” Possibly the bit where they cremate some guys with tiny barbecue things. Possibly the bit where every priest who isn’t a Pelagian is the devil.

There were some good bits:

  • Cerdic, the Saxon leader, is just really moody and depressed. This is exactly how Germanic conquerors should be, in my view: grim and grey and sort of surly. He appears to bring bad weather with him in a personal cloud, which is a good stunt.
  • The “sword in the stone” being stuck into Arthur’s dad’s burial mound in what is only the most explicit of the film’s homages to The Seven Samurai is quite a clever little touch.
  • The knights are absolutely bog-standard rowdy bunch of tough guys, but they’re pretty well-executed. Rays Winstone and Stephenson are in it, and they’re pretty good, and Mads Mikkelsen is all surly and menacing.
  • Keira Knightley’s crazed combat face is really good. Way better than Clive Owen, who sleepwalks through the whole thing.

One of these days, I’m going to do a movie that’s bad history but a great movie. This is not that. The weird thing about this film is that it is a moderately OK fantasy action flick (friend Luke called it “Swords of the Magnificent Seven”) with a stupid plot and moral — but it for some reason decided to have this shite about archaeological evidence at the beginning. It doesn’t add anything to the film except my bitter derision.

EDIT: No, one more thing.

The craziest thing about the whole bit is that for all the angry debate about “in search of the historical King Arthur,” no one would give 0.1 shits about the “historical King Arthur” if it weren’t for the literary King Arthur. “There might once have been a Romano-British leader named something a bit like Arthur” is not an interesting story, so every person who does a historical Arthur thing, from Bernard Cornwell to whoever puts Excalibur and Lancelot and Guinevere and so on into it, despite the fact that the whole story is medieval romance.

It’s OK to like Geoffrey of Monmouth! Or the Morte d’Arthur. But aren’t we into this 5th-6th century stuff just because of that?

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Movie Monday: King Arthur (2004)

4 thoughts on “Movie Monday: King Arthur (2004)

  1. “his knights (six of them, making seven in total, each with their own gimmick)”

    haha. Historians agree that every knight has gotta have a gimmick… just like the strippers in the musical Gypsy. FACT.

    1. It’s like they saw James Coburn having a gimmick in The Magnificent Seven and wondered why everyone didn’t have one.

      Like musical strippers, I suppose they have gimmicks in place of personalities?

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