Go Big Or Go Home: Thoughts on KING ARTHUR (2004)
Back in 2004, I saw the historical epic (well, it tried to be) King Arthur with a friend from the Boy Scouts. I remember liking it, although even then I thought that the Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot love triangle was poorly done (it seemed to consist of people staring at each other) and even then I knew that the Catholic Church didn't have that much power in that time period.
Well, between then and now the film podcast Myopia Movies came to be, and this was one of the movies I really wanted to do. We watched it in late December. Here's the podcast. Let's start with some general commentary...
*For starters, the concept is sound. Most Arthurian stories depict a society more like medieval Europe with armored knights, chivalry, etc. but Arthur, if he were real, lived much earlier. Setting the story during the fall of Roman Britain--a "last helicopters out of Saigon" type of thing--is much more creative. They also went with the Sarmatian hypothesis that Arthur's knights were based on Sarmatian auxiliary cavalry, which is pretty cool. However, the fact they get the time period right means that all the stuff they get wrong (see this TVTropes "Artistic License--History" for more) sticks out even more.
For example, Arthur's "knights" are supposed to be Samartians, but their battle-cry of "RUS!" invokes an ethnic group that didn't even exist until centuries later. Furthermore, the Sarmatians were kindred to the Persians. Although they wouldn't be Asian in appearance like Turks or Mongols, they wouldn't be British either. Giving people who are supposed to be Middle Eastern the Welsh/Celtic (or in the case of Lancelot, French) names of the legendary knights and having them played by British actors gets sillier the more you think about it. I wouldn't put up there with "John Wayne Playing Genghis Khan" levels of ethnic miscasting the way Nic did, but it's getting there.
Since Arthur (Clive Owen) is supposed to be a descendant of Lucius Artorius Castus, a Roman officer who commanded Sarmatian cavalry in Britain, they could have made his "knights" (who would have been called "equites" or something similar--"knights" is a much later term) descendants of the original Sarmatians and British wives who've kept up the family tradition. This could explain their Welsh names, being played by British actors, etc. but also explain why they have very Asian or Middle Eastern-looking equipment. The decaying Western Roman Empire (or if they go with the right time period, the abandoned remnant of Roman civilization in Britain) is running out of money, they're required to provide their own gear, and this is what they've got.
*Although the "love triangle" still consists of a lot of staring like I remembered, Guinevere does have meaningful conversations with both Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd) and Arthur--she and Lancelot engage in snarky banter before a really fun battle on the ice with a group of Saxons and she and Arthur talk about politics--and Lancelot is clearly depicted as the kind of man who goes after women who are already spoken for. He claims one of Bors' many illegitimate children is really his, (I think) paws at Bors' girlfriend, and jokes that another knight will be fortunate to have children who all look like him rather than their purported father. Had Lancelot not been killed like in the film and remained Arthur's second-in-command, I could easily imagine this being a problem.
*The film does get it right that the Western Empire was a Christian state when it collapsed--the "heathen orgies and decadence" period was hundreds of years prior--but they overstate the power of the Church. Church officials are not going to be giving Roman soldiers orders and there were no "papal armies" for Arthur to threaten to fight through to get to Bishop Germanus (Ivano Marescotti) if things go wrong. It would have been better if it was a Roman general giving Arthur and his remaining "knights" the orders for one last mission to get their promised discharge papers, and when Arthur complains, the general can tell him privately that the Pope is behind this. The Pope at the time would have been subordinate to the Emperor, but that doesn't mean he couldn't pull strings for his own schemes.
*The film also gets the Augustine/Pelagius issue wrong. Pelagius was not some early version of a Renaissance Christian humanist and Augustine was not some grim-bot obsessed with human sinfulness who wanted people to just sit around and suffer. Pelagius taught that since people could theoretically not sin, if they did sin they have no excuse. Augustine's belief in Original Sin is merciful in comparison because it at least acknowledges human imperfection. Pelagianism was a very ascetic creed that became popular in Britain as a reaction to the lax "Christian in name only" attitudes of most people once the state officially became Christian. Rather than being toadies of a corrupt and overly-political state church, the zealous monks who have themselves walled up alive with the "Woad" prisoners to convert them to Christianity before they all starve to death would be Pelagian true-believer types.
(It's also described that Arthur hasn't put in much if any effort to convert his pagan soldiers to Christianity--an Augustinian could theoretically believe in predestination to the point they think it's all in God's hands and they have no responsibility to evangelize, but a Pelagian wouldn't.)
*I refer to the Saxon king Cerdic (Stellan Skarsgård) as "medieval Nazi Gandalf" at least once in the podcast. Not only is he anachronistically racist (he kills one of his men for trying to rape a Celtic woman on the grounds that "we don't mix with these people" and then kills her too, plus he sadistically tells a British traitor that they're going to kill his people and make him watch), but he sounds like he's a chronic smoker who's asleep half the time. Per TVTropes the actor was trying to play him as someone who was bored and finds in Arthur "a man worth killing," but that wasn't impressive. I've seen Skarsgård in other movies--surely he could do better than just sadistically mumble.
*Although not everybody in the podcast agreed with me, Arthur is the one with a character arc in the film. He starts out believing in the ideals of Rome and the Church, but seeing the Roman government break promises to his men, seeing Roman officials misuse Christian ideals to justify abusing the common people he feels obligated as a Roman officer and as a Christian to protect, and finally learning that the Church has executed his religious mentor Pelagius for heresy totally destroy his faith in Rome. He also has the Celtic rebel Guinevere (Keira Knightley) and her father Merlin (Stephen Dillane) trying to get him back in touch with his British heritage through his mother. This explains his decision to essentially desert the retreating Roman army and lead the Celts against the Saxons.
(Guinevere is pretty blatantly a honey-trap, by the way. Her idea of flirting with Arthur is to harangue him about politics, Merlin is conveniently around to try to talk him out of his grudge for his mother's death, and when Arthur's broody and emotionally vulnerable after the death of Dagonet and learning that Pelagius has been executed, Guinevere straight-up climbs on top of him and they go at it. Once Arthur rescued Guinevere from the odious Roman landlord, it is totally plausible Merlin and/or Guinevere saw an opportunity to recruit their greatest enemy to fight for them.)
*Bors is hilarious, by the way. He has so many illegitimate children he can't remember their names and has to rely on numbers and he's not keen on marrying the mother of at least the youngest one. Arthur is the most admirable character, but Bors is the most fun.
However, although the movie proved disappointing, it's easy to complain. In the podcast I mentioned that this could have been a Lord of the Rings-style trilogy or at minimum a three-hour mega-movie. As-is, it could stand to be tightened further (Bors' girlfriend has a musical number I thought was kind of stupid), but there's so much potential here for more. More battles to show that this is the last stand of a whole civilization, plus Arthur's arc and the Lancelot/Guinevere/Arthur triangle could have been better developed if there was more screen-time.
Phase One (Movie #1 or the first hour): We meet Arthur and his "knights" and see them fighting the "Woads," anti-Roman Celts led by the druid Merlin who've been emboldened by the Roman military withdrawal a generation earlier. They return from a hard-fought battle to find Bishop Germanus from Rome waiting for them. Given how Arthur would have lived after the Roman armies left Britain, Germanus is there as a Roman government envoy or an unofficial ambassador (think Rev. Jesse Jackson getting American POWs released) promising aid from Rome to the besieged Romanized Celts if they rescue a well-connected family whose villa is under threat from the Woads, Saxons, or (depending where it's located) both. If he's not there officially but promises to use his pull with the Pope to get the emperor to send reinforcements, this would represent the role of the Pope more realistically.
Already strained by having to deal with the "Woads" and having been on the receiving end of Saxon raids before, Arthur and the remnant Romans in Britain agree. Lancelot, Arthur's closest friend and second in command, is skeptical, but the more experienced Arthur points out that with the Saxon raids they're fighting a two-front war and need all the help they can get. If the Saxon raids are being launched from coastal enclaves established a generation or two earlier, Arthur can emphasize the importance of not conceding the invaders any more land. However, Arthur finds the Roman landlord Marius (Ken Stott) abusing his proto-serfs and killing Woad prisoners in horrific ways and justifying it in the name of Christianity, something he finds absolutely horrifying. The meet-cute with Guinevere still happens and the film (or this segment of a single film) ends with the Saxons arriving sooner than they'd thought. Arthur, his knights, Marius's family, and their abused peasantry have to beat a hasty retreat. Cerdic sends his son Cynric (Til Schweiger) after Arthur to earn his spurs and perhaps take Marius and his family hostage for ransom (this is where the British traitor can show up) while he takes the main army out for "land-taking."
(Arthur being ignorant of just what Rome really was like is much more believable if he were born after the Roman armies left and this is all based on nostalgia--an active Roman officer, even one in a isolated area like Britain, would know better.)
Phase Two (Movie #2 or the second hour): The retreat back to the coast with the Roman family, pursued by Cynric's Saxon detachment. This is where we see Arthur's faith in Rome beginning to erode, the love triangle between Guinevere, Arthur, and Lancelot begin to form (the director's cut has much more interaction between her and both men), and several deaths. Meanwhile, the main Saxon army under Cerdic is killing or driving out the native Britons (both the Romanized and non-Romanized), claiming attractive women as war prizes, etc. and Cerdic is gruffly commenting on how this is good land and his people will make good use of it. It's a lot clearer why the Saxons are there and what they'll do to the people if they're not stopped. We still have the battle on the ice because this shows off Arthur's cleverness and the banter between Lancelot and Guinevere, plus more overt assistance from the Woads on the grounds that the Saxons are the enemies to all Celts, not just the Romanized ones. Arthur also learns about the Church's torture and execution of heretics (this happened for the first time in 385), something that clashes mightily with his Christian beliefs and his nostalgia for Rome. Most of this film (or this part of a single film) will be the prolonged Saxon pursuit, with the climax being the battle on the ice and the humiliation of Cynric.
However, when they meet back up with Germanus, he takes the family and leaves, promising to return with help in such a way that the increasingly-disillusioned Arthur thinks he's either lying or simply not able to fulfill his promises. In his despair he turns to Guinevere and, well, bow-chicka-bow-wow ensues.
Phase Three (Movie #3 or the third hour): Using Guinevere as a go-between, Arthur and the Romanized Celts make a truce with Merlin and both Celtic factions gather their armies to fight Cerdic and Cynric. Nic suggested in the canonical film that Arthur should have shown the Woads how to make the trebuchets they deploy for the final battle, since this is something the Romans would know how to do but the more primitive and disorganized anti-Roman Celts wouldn't, and a longer movie would allow this. They set up the trebuchets atop Badon Hill and bombard the Saxon armies, baiting them to attack uphill against dug-in infantry while Arthur's cavalry harry their flanks, hit and run to draw Saxon forces out of formation, etc. If this is a whole separate movie, it's basically a post-Roman version of Gettysburg or The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. Arthur and friends are ultimately victorious, at the cost of many lives. Arthur and Guinevere marry in a ceremony mixing both Celtic (the standing stones) and Catholic (the wine cups and perhaps a convenient baptism for her) elements to secure the alliance against future Saxon attacks. Arthur is hailed as the new High King in a Celtic fashion, with the Roman elements throwing in "Imperator."
However, a surviving Lancelot obviously still infatuated with Guinevere is an ominous sign. If Cerdic is killed but Cynric survives as a POW, he can witness the alliance being made and sent home with a warning of who'll be waiting if he tries anything funny, But rather than becoming a sadder but wiser man smart enough not to tangle with the Celts again, Cynric pretty obviously plans to continue the plan to conquer Britain--and also avenge his father's death. Given how historically Arthur and the Romanized Celts were doomed, this would be dropping more hints that this victory will not last.