July 12, 2004

Rex Britanorum


Last Friday I saw the new film King Arthur, in spite of the bad reviews it has been receiving. Indeed, two of the blogs I read already have comments on the movie up (here and here). Unlike some others, I thought that as a movie it wasn’t bad — maybe not great, but still not bad. My feeling is that someone who doesn’t know much about Arthurian stories might enjoy the movie. One can certainly find flaws with the script or the acting in certain places, but this is true with almost any movie. As mindless entertainment goes, it’s perfectly enjoyable.

It’s also rather pointless to really pick on the many historical inacuracies, as such things are inevitable with films set in the middle ages or ancient world. I certainly appreciate the attempt to include fairly obsure historical elements such as the Pelagian heresy and Bishop Germanus, though unfortunately these elements just don’t correlate chronologically. The movie, set in 452 AD, revolves around the withdrawal of the Roman legions from Britain, but in all probability there were no Roman troops in Britain after about 410 AD. Also, the Battle of Badon Hill is supposed to have been, I believe, much later in the 5th century, and Pelagius, whom Arthur is said to have known in the movie, died many years earlier. There is also a bit of a geographical problem. The “wall” — which I suppose is never actually referred to as “Hadrian’s Wall”, but that must be what it’s supposed to be — was in the north of Britain, and nowhere near Badon’s Hill. I could go on, but as I said, there’s not much point.

However, I think there is a more fundamental problem with this movie. The filmmakers have tried to have their proverbial cake and eat it too. As is made clear in the opening voice-over monologue — and the opening words of the voice-over monologue “Historians agree…” should trigger anyone’s warning bells — the point of this movie is to reveal the “true” story behind the legend (or words to that effect) — not necessarily a bad notion. It was an opportunity to make a film about the very interesting 5th century Britain. However, if one is to make a film about a supposed historical King Arthur, one must leave out all the later elements of the story, which clearly have nothing to do with any original story, such as Lancelot, who comes from the French tradition. The two are not compatible. It might have been a more successful movie if the filmmakers had chosen one of the medieval versions of the story and simply followed that. It wouldn’t have been historically contextualized, but it wouldn’t need to be. I also found it odd that they took the great medieval romance and converted it into what is essentially epic (though I guess it goes along with the historical contextualization angle). This movie was basically a good idea, but a misguided effort.

All in all, I don’t think King Arthur was as successful as Troy, which I quite enjoyed (see my previous comments about Troy), but if — as Troy supposedly has done for classics — King Arthur generates more interest in medieval literature, then that can’t help but be a good thing. It will be interesting to see how many students I have next year who have seen King Arthur; at least I know what misconceptions to be prepared for.

Posted by Mark at July 12, 2004 07:08 PM