From parody to sincere tribute, the myth of King Arthur is as closely woven into the fabric of cinematic storytelling as it is the folkloric collective memory of the British Isles. With another take – Guy Ritchie’s would-be franchise spawner Legend of the Sword – arriving on disc this week we take a look at Arthur on film.
Kate le Vann
Richard Harris either whispers or shouts. My mum told me this before I knew who Richard Harris was. He is vocally at the extremes of emotion, which really makes him perfect for a musical (if you can somehow turn that into singing) and he was desperate to play Arthur. He had a sign painted up: “Harris Better than Burton, Only Harris for Camelot”, and paid a man to hold it high and walk up and down the Strand. The trouble is you can’t easily turn it into singing – or at least, it’s not for everyone – and Harris suffered on set. He insisted on performing the songs ‘live’ as they shot, and argued with producer Jack Warner and director Joshua Logan until he nearly ended it all, standing over an empty swimming pool and threatening to jump (“I fucking hate Warner Brothers and fucking Hollywood, the people here are all fucking arseholes,” he shouted – and whispered) until David Hemmings, who plays Mordred in the film, talked him down.
Film theorists like to say that the 60s was when movie musicals died because of the Beatles, but they were doing really well. The Sound of Music broke box office records in 1965, Oliver! won Best Picture in 1968, Camelot came out in 1967. It didn’t have to flop. Every TV guide I read as a kid dismissed it as ‘dated’, and there is a lot of 60s in Camelot, with its soft focus Barbarella-y sets and beehived Guenevere, whose hand-sewn wedding dress was made of fishing nets embroidered with sea shells and pumpkin seeds, undoubtedly by hippies. But I’m here to tell you that the trouble with Camelot is that it was ahead of its time. There’s a piss-poor movie musical that recently had critics gulping about modern reinvention because of the way it cast actors rather than singers, and those actors breathily chuntered out their numbers rather than belting them. Well, if you imagine those bold La La Land innovations with really gifted actors, the weightiest love triangle there is and Lerner and fucking Loewe songs, you’ll arrive at Camelot, which is in fact amazing.
It has devastating on-screen chemistry in Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero, who are so obviously agonisingly put on this earth just for each other that they make you feel it all over again in 2010 in Letters to Juliet. Try getting excited about post-marriage Bogie and Bacall. You won’t. Logan uses the same extremely extreme close-up that he pulls on Marilyn Monroe in Bus Stop, with the same invasive, painful effect. And there’s an innocence, as if no one involved in the production has ever encountered mean people who will destroy something lovely just because they’ve spotted that it’s silly, even though that’s exactly what happens in the film! So they should be cagey and cynical – they have all read the script to the end – but they are open-hearted and brave. “RUN, BOY!” Richard Harris shouts in the final scene, as he dispatches a metaphor for hope. “RUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUN!”
Lancelot du Lac
In 1974 the famously austere French director Robert Bresson premiered Lancelot du Lac, a film he’d been talking about making since the 1950s.
It’s an unusually narrow view of the Arthurian legends, taking place entirely between the return of the decimated Knights after their hunt for the Grail ends in savagery and defeat, and the final destruction of the entire order in a battle with Mordred’s alliance.
There’s no Merlin, no Excalibur, no Morgan le Fay, no spiriting away of Arthur’s body to await a time of resurrection. Just an exhausted cohort that has lost its reason to exist and is slowly falling apart in bitterness & internecine squabbling.
There’s an awkward interview with Bresson in the film’s pressbook (he hated interviews):
“What is it, this film?
I know nothing of it.
Is it a ‘super-production’?
There are horses, knights in armour, a tournament…as anachronistic as possible.
You need to remove the past to the present if one wants to make it believable.”
The anachronism in this film takes an odd form. Bresson’s knights clank & lumber in their heavy, ugly armour. Their horses whinny unceasingly in protest. The film begins and ends in savage limb-lopping violence that comes off like the Monty Python sketch about Sam Peckinpah. Yes, anachronism ends up being funny, eventually, and it’s impossible to watch Lancelot du Lac without thinking of MP & the Holy Grail. But there’s no reason these two films should be antagonistic.
Bresson treats his Knights as pathetic creatures, their time gone by, clinging to an ideal of violent battle as the only source of their identity. The final image of a mortally wounded Lancelot clanking over to a junk heap of dented, bloodied dead knights and collapsing on top of them, his final word being “Guinevere”, is terribly saddening in context but very easy to read as bleak comedy, too.
The anachronism in Lancelot is used for the same purposes as in Python, to demonstrate that the world depicted, one where people’s rank can be distinguished by the fact they’re not covered in shit and the most powerful men in the world obsessively engage in pointless shows of strength that can only end up in their own inevitable destruction, is our own.
From here we have to peer at King Arthur through the lens of Victorian romanticism (as we do with most of our myths, legends and folklore), but we can still make out the shape of the story and weave it into our own patterns. There’s no doubt that Excalibur has absorbed a lot of that Victorian romance – the taste of it is thick with the dust of darkened 19th Century drawing rooms, of florid paintings of chivalrous knights (who never take their armour off under any circumstances, up to and very much including sex) and velvet-clad ladies in towers – but it adds layers of wild strangeness, dirt, magical realism and raucous nonsense to obscure any lingering delicacy to its sensibilities.
Nicol Williamson’s Merlin embodies this perfectly – a wise and powerful wizard given to wild mood swings, erratically gnomic and violently histrionic, as likely to set you on the path to death as to glory. Nigel Terry, playing Arthur from youth to old age, has the unenviable task of grounding the film in the face of Williamson’s unhinged performance. He does a surprisingly good job, quietly growing in power and presence until he is the true heart of the film. He may not be a definitive Arthur – it’s an impossible task to cast a human to play an archetype of a god – but he gives the Once and Future King a tender humanity beneath the omnipresent armour.
This is not just a weird film, it’s a wyrd film, a strange bundle of ridiculous high-camp imagery, ludicrous overacting and bizarre decisions at every turn, held together by an absolute and unwavering sincerity, an urgent need to print the legend. Taking his cues from Malory, Boorman knows he can’t fit the whole thing in one film so he cheats. Sequences often have the feel of a dream; sometimes a bad dream, sometimes slipping fully into nightmare, with events and characters bleeding into each other (Helen Mirren’s Morgana is both Morgause and Morgan le Fey, for example). The entire quest for the Grail takes, what, ten minutes? But you feel it; the dread and the frustration, the endless grind of it. Then it’s over; the land and the King are one, and the land is healed as the King is healed and there’s Wagner on the soundtrack and knights galloping through falling apple blossom and who knows what the fuck is going on but it’s sensational and I can’t think of a better cinematic expression of British folkloric weirdness.
This isn’t the harsh, bleak, deadly folklore of The Wicker Man or The Blood on Satan’s Claw. This isn’t the brutal psychogeographic whiplash of Kill List or A Field in England. This is where all the arrogance of the island nation that rose up and slaughtered its way across the globe is rooted; deep in apple blossom and thundering hooves, in the death of kings against bloodied skies, in the dark magic of Merlin and Morgana steering the fate of a budding nation, in a quest for nobility that only ever ends in deception, self-doubt and crow-pecked horror.
A Knight’s Tale
King Arthur’s origin story is pretty vague – was there an actual Arthur? Were there really fair
ladies called Elaine and Jane? What sort of name is Gawain? The Knights of the Round Table are woven into the landscape of the Celtic archipelago, from Glastonbury Tor to Land’s End. The tales have been worked over and retrod hundreds of times by successive generations of writers and artists, yet Arthur’s image persists: the knightly ideal, the perfect king who lived among the people until called to greatness. The epitome of Chaucer’s “parfit gentil knight”.
By the time we get to the year 2000, Arthur had been worked over on film several times, whether concentrating on the Camelot legend to illustrate an idea of Britishness, reflecting on masculinity in a changing world, getting taunted by outrageously French interlopers. From the 1950s avatar of post-war patrician pluck, to the weary cuckold of the 1990s, poor old Arthur needed cheering up. And possibly a good fight.
Which brings us to A Knight’s Tale.
It isn’t strictly an Arthur story, being as how it’s set in an approximation of the 14th century, and has a lead character called William (Heath Ledger), but bear with me, there is a link.
William is a peasant who, as peasant, isn’t allowed to take part in tournaments. He discovers by chance he is really rather good at beating up posh boys and decides to get better at it. There’s no Merlin in this story, but you do have a trio of faithful friends: Wat and Roland the squires who teach him how to fight (Mark Addy and Alan Tudyk); Kate the blacksmith who invents a new type of lightweight armour (Laura Fraser); and Geoffrey Chaucer (Paul Bettany), a down-at-heel writer. There’s a bad knight, played with sneering relish by Rufus Sewell, a fair maiden who requires saving and a proper Royal (Edward, The Black Prince).
The screenplay weaves a couple of lesser-known Arthurian tales with the core elements of the Arthurian code; friendship, loyalty and being a good chap. Add a maiden fair, a dark knight and a hero who rises from obscurity to achieve greatness through his natural nobility. And fighting. Lots of fighting. Everything you need, in fact, to rework the standard Arthur story into something a little lighter, a little more…fun.
Like the other Arthur films, A Knight’s Tale is a film of its time, right down to the obligatory soundtrack featuring Robbie Williams, who was everywhere and in everything between 1999 and 2003. This is a millennial, pre-global economic crisis, even pre-9/11 Arthur. Watching this film 16 years later makes you almost nostalgic for the Noughties, when New Labour were still OK (ish), we were still riding high on a wave of dodgy credit and a pre-Joker Heath Ledger was just another ex-Home & Away hottie on his way to the big time.
With its sly feints at the highbrow, reframing one of the first poets of the English language as a cockney chancer with the gift of the gab, A Knight’s Tale is a hymn to the cheeky, breezy, knowing laddishness of a time before everything kicked off. There’s a lot of safe fighting, plus enough cleverness to make anybody with an EngLit A-level feel good, while not actually demanding they remember that the actual Knight’s Tale from the Canterbury Tales is about.
At the time of release, critics decried the use of classic rock songs on the soundtrack – even down to a tourney crowd singing along to Queen’s We Will Rock You. I think they missed the point. This entirely post-modern mishmash of modern mores and medieval myth works precisely because there isn’t such a thing as an authentic Arthurian voice. Like all good myths, Arthur can be reworked into whatever we want to make him.
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword
You probably didn’t see Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword in the theatres – very few people did. Sadly for those who ponied up a production and marketing budget of a quarter of a billion dollars, the movie sits comfortably atop the list of this year’s box-office bombs and looks unlikely to be toppled. Now, to give Mr. Ritchie perhaps the teeniest quantum of solace, it has been a bad year for Hollywood in general – these recent weeks it’s been hard to avoid being scorched by one hot take or another bemoaning the industry’s current woes and how hard it is to get a tenner out of people these days.
Well, as the proud owner of a Cineworld card, a series of fillable afternoons and an endless desire to have things to moan about, I have seen Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword, and the advice I’d offer to Hollywood from this admittedly far-off distance is ‘How About You Make Less Fuck-Awful Shit Like This, Huh, Fellas?’
It won’t solve everything – you’re still going to let Christopher Nolan make films, aren’t you, you fools? – but it would undoubtedly be a start.
The first thing to note about King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword (apart from the absurdly bland and pointless subtitle – if they were being honest it would be called King Arthur: But What If For Wankers?) is that this movie doesn’t really care about the legend of King Arthur. It’s bog-standard Guy Ritchie action/heist cockernee bollocks, with a hint of mystical Middle England flavouring, in the same way that a packet of ramen might have a sachet of something that says ‘chicken’ on it, but there’s very little in your kitchen that’s going to go cluck.
Charlie Hunnam is the titular Arthur, lost as a baby and raised in a Londinium (I *know*) knocking-shop, until his evil uncle Vortigern – who killed Arthur’s dad and took the throne in a series of Eric Bana-featuring flashbacks – notices the lad’s nifty way with extracting previously-thought-stuck weaponry from big bits of rock, and sets about trying to kill him.
And that’s it. Two hours and six minutes of Jude Law’ Vortigern making pissy faces and shouting while Charlie Hunnam dicks around the place with his little gang, doing various tasks that the script requires, all of which is in patented Guy Ritchie explain-how-we’re-going-to-do-a-thing-while-showing-the-thing-being-done style, which everyone started hating back in 1998. Every so often they remember they’re in a King Arthur movie, and say a King Arthur-type word like ‘table’ just to pretend they care. But they don’t care. Nobody does.
Oh, Jude probably had a nice time camping it up while thinking about the cheque, and the flashbacks give a glimpse into a pretty good Eric Bana movie – something previously thought impossible. But take a look at the Wiki page and you’ll soon see that the entire project is a decade-long studio clusterfuck, where everyone involved was just famous or powerful enough so that nobody had the balls to just say ‘NOBODY WANTS THIS SHIT!’ and put the whole thing out of its misery.
And so, yeah, it’s out today, costs a tenner, and if you buy it you’re going to hate yourself. Buy ANY of the other films we talk about today instead – especially Excalibur. It’s a *film*, you see? King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword is just an Amazon Prime thumbnail that nobody will ever click.