This is the Arthur about whom the trifles of the Bretons rave even now, one certainly not to be dreamed of in false myths, but proclaimed in truthful histories–indeed, who for a long time held up his tottering fatherland, and kindled the broken spirits of his countrymen to war. –William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum Anglorum, c. 1125 AD
The publicity for King Arthur promises a “demystified” version of the life of the fifth-century monarch, stripped bare of myth and legend. The movie even opens with a title informing us that “recent archaeological discoveries” have made this possible.
What we’re actually getting is rather more complicated. It’s true that screenwriter David Franzoni (Amistad, Gladiator) has discarded or downplayed the most romantic elements of the Arthurian legend–there’s no quest for the Holy Grail, no Camelot, and Merlin is just a weird old king instead of a sorcerer–but much of what he’s put in his script comes from the oldest versions of the myth, not from new scholarship based on fresh archaeological findings. And he hasn’t been particularly scrupulous about the period details: crossbows, for instance, weren’t introduced to Britain until 1066, but they do look awfully cool, so Franzoni equips the Saxon horde with them five centuries ahead of schedule. Then again, as evidenced by the above quote, Franzoni is only doing what the bards of the Arthurian tradition have always done: denigrate earlier “inaccurate” versions before trotting out a new embroidery as the long-sought real deal.
But perhaps I’m crediting the wrong party: although Franzoni gets the screenwriting credit and Antoine Fuqua is the director of record, King Arthur is very clearly a Jerry Bruckheimer movie. An old-fashioned mogul of the David O. Selznick school, Bruckheimer leaves a highly recognizable imprint on all his projects regardless of who he hires to make them. King Arthur has none of the distinctive snap of Fuqua’s The Replacement Killers and Training Day; his style has been flattened out beneath the weight of signature Bruckheimer touches like the hero doing a grim-faced, slo-mo walk toward the camera away from a wall of fire. Of course, visual bombast of this kind is enormously popular, which is why Bruckheimer’s name now features prominently in marketing campaigns for his films. It’s hard to think of another producer whose name has comparable marquee value.
The Arthurian legend has a long and tangled history. Many scholars regard Arthur as a composite figure built from a mixture of fact and fiction. The original historical model was probably Ambrosius Aurelianus, a Roman general whose victorious exploits in leading the Britons against Saxon invaders were described in De Excidio Britanniae (“Concerning the Ruin of Britain”), a chronicle written in 529 AD by a monk named Gildas the Wise.
Another monk, Nennius, writing in the early ninth century, probably borrowed from Gildas’s writings when he wrote his Historia Brittonum. Nennius wasn’t much of a historian and knew it: in a disarming preface to his book he begs his readers to pardon him “for having attempted, like a chattering jay, or like some weak witness, to write these things.” The modest monk goes on to explain his simple historical method: “I have made a heap of all that I could find.” In compiling his heap, Nennius, who was probably Welsh, seems to have mixed up Gildas’s account of the Roman general’s victories with elements of Welsh folklore, renaming the hero Arthur and making him a devout Christian warrior in the process.
The elements we regard as central to the story–Merlin, the sword in the stone, the Round Table, the Grail–were contributed piecemeal and over time by various authors. The English chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth was the first to mention Merlin, but called him Myrddin. The Round Table first appeared in a 12th-century poem by a French monk named Wace. Another 12th-century French writer, Chretien de Troyes, linked Arthur with the Grail and turned the king and his men into noble itinerants roaming the world doing good deeds–an ideal more closely associated with emerging French notions of chivalry than with the rough-and-tumble values of the English warrior class of the time. A third French poet, Robert de Boron, introduced the theme of the sword in the stone in the 13th century. Sir Thomas Malory’s Le morte d’Arthur, published in 1485, wove all of these strands together into the story as we know it.
The Arthurian saga was revitalized in the 19th century by the Victorian vogue for medieval romance: Alfred Lord Tennyson, Matthew Arnold, William Morris, and Algernon Charles Swinburne took turns burnishing the legend. The tradition was perpetuated in the 20th century by T.H. White (The Once and Future King), Mary Stewart (The Crystal Cave and its several sequels), Marion Zimmer Bradley (The Mists of Avalon), and, of course, by countless cinematic adaptations, including Robert Bresson’s Lancelot du lac, John Boorman’s Excalibur, Jerry Zucker’s First Knight, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Franzoni, following Gildas and Nennius, makes Arthur (Clive Owen) a British-born Roman general of the fifth century. Artorious (Arthur to his pagan friends) heads a mounted squadron of “Sarmatian knights,” eastern European soldiers indentured to Rome for 15 years of service in the far reaches of the empire. (As bogus as that sounds, the Romans did in fact defeat and colonize a nomadic eastern tribe called the Sarmatians in the fourth century, and the latter were, as the film asserts, famous for their horsemanship.) A scholar as well as a soldier, Arthur spends a lot of time talking about free will, freedom, and equality, ideas he’s supposedly picked up from reading the philosopher Pelagius. (The real Pelagius was a theologian better known for his heretical rejection of the doctrine of original sin than for any advanced political ideas.)
Just as Arthur’s knights are approaching the end of their tour of duty, the Romans announce that they are pulling out of Britain. Encouraged by this news, the Saxons launch an invasion from the continent. Inexplicably, the pope’s favorite godson lives in an estate located on the wrong side of Hadrian’s Wall, the northern boundary of the empire. On the very day his men were to be demobilized, Arthur is given a final assignment: find and evacuate the boy and his family before the Saxons arrive, which means venturing into territory held by Merlin, king of the fierce and rebellious Woads.
It’s probably a suicide mission, and even if he survives Arthur faces an uncertain future in post-Roman Britain. He’s been a zealous enforcer of imperial policy, which has not made him popular even on the south side of the wall. All along he’s believed that Pelagius’s lofty ideals are also those of the empire. The news that his favorite thinker has been put to death, combined with Rome’s abandonment of Britain, expose his image of the empire as an illusion. Can he find a way to redefine his shattered ideals and reconcile with the people he has helped oppress in the bargain?
Invasion, military occupation, colonization, and disillusionment with imperial adventures are all pretty topical themes right now. What’s impressive about King Arthur is how little the film manages to say about any of them. Arthur’s endless talk about equality, freedom, and free will is absurdly anachronistic: its only purpose is to make him superficially palatable to modern American sensibilities, but the effect stops working the second you ask yourself what such words could possibly mean in the context of the dawn of the Dark Ages. Maybe freedom’s just another word for home rule and equality means replacing the Romans with a new group of local overlords–but that raises the question why Merlin and his Woads aren’t entitled to self-determination too.
What we are left with is a vision of history as a series of costume changes in which values and ideals remain static across time and the noble individuals of every culture fight for the things we believe in. Admittedly it’s appealing to think that the whole of history has been an inevitable march toward Western liberal democracy, but it’s also appealing to believe in the Easter Bunny.
Of course, there’s nothing novel about this ideologically incoherent approach to history: Gladiator used the same gambit, as did Braveheart. But the current political atmosphere makes its shortcomings that much more evident. If historical epics have to be so hopelessly present-minded, it would be nice if they actually had something substantive and interesting to say about the present. As it is, any attempt to decipher King Arthur as a commentary on current affairs would pretty much have to begin with the identification of ancient Britain with Iraq and Rome with the United States, and somehow I doubt that’s what the filmmakers had in mind.
Gender politics have also been given a makeover here: Guinevere (Keira Knightley), a passive love object in the standard narrative, has been redrawn as woman warrior and kick-ass archer. This is arguably a progressive step for Bruckheimer, whose films are not noted for their strong female characters. Historically it’s also not quite as silly as it sounds–there is, for example, the precedent of Boudicca, aka Boadicea, the first-century Celtic queen who reportedly led an army of 200,000 in an unsuccessful revolt against Rome (and who’s the subject of four films currently under development, including one from Mel Gibson’s production company). Perhaps more important than the character’s historical plausibility is the fact that it gives young female viewers a proxy and young male viewers a chance to see Knightley get physical in skimpy leather battle garb.
Do not look to the poetry of Franzoni’s script to rescue King Arthur: his dialogue here is even windier than that in Gladiator. As Arthur, Clive Owen does his best with lines like “Let history remember that as free men we chose to make our destiny so,” but it’s a losing battle. Ioan Gruffud as Lancelot fares slightly better with his burden of portentous speeches, but Stellan SkarsgŒrd as the Saxon leader Cerdic has clearly been driven over the top by the script, delivering all his lines in a growling whisper that suggests a bad sore throat more than virile menace. The film’s one bright spot is Ray Winstone’s Falstaffian turn as Sir Bors, a lewd, profane, hard-drinking soldier with a dozen bastard children. The part is strictly a caricature, but Winstone breathes enough life, charm, and burly crudity into it to show up Arthur and Lancelot as the sulky, pompous bores they are.
One decent character part, however, isn’t much to sustain a two-hour epic, and ultimately King Arthur is as shiny and hollow as an empty suit of armor. The sweeping helicopter shots of daunting landscapes and the booming kettledrums of Hans Zimmer’s score all signal that something immensely profound is unfolding. Had Bruckheimer and company retained the mythical and magical elements of the standard Arthurian narrative, they might have been able to deliver on that promise. Instead they’ve traded chivalry for mere machismo and thrown away the epic themes and characters of the legend in favor a series of meaningless battle scenes linked by a flimsy plotline that’s equal parts Saving Private Ryan and The Dirty Dozen. If this is history demystified, give me myth.