Friday, October 17, 2003

Whosoever pulleth this sword from this stone....

Over at AICN there's a bit about a King Arthur movie that's filming now, appropriately titled, King Arthur. It's pretty amusing to read the comments and all the Talk Back stuff, because many of these folks are completely unaware of any way of treating the Arthur story outside of the Sir Thomas Malory-and-T.H.White way of doing it. To the extent that Arthur is a historical figure at all, he's most likely a warlord from post-Roman Britain, not some King who ruled a glittering castle in the High Middle Ages. Harry Knowles is really revealing his lack of knowledge here ("This has nothing to do with the Knights of the Round Table!" he exclaims in breathless stupor), and a lot of his TalkBackers are charging in to follow. Well, at least some of them are. In some of the posts you can almost detect some thought processes going on, beneath the insistent profanity and typical Net-board oneupmanship that is so common to the TalkBacks. But even then you'll find people joyfully calling a movie that isn't even done shooting yet a "piece of shit".

Here's a picture from the new film (from this site):

Anyway -- and I'm just rambling on a bit here, really, 'cause it's Friday -- Knowles says that John Boorman's Excalibur is the definitive Arthurian movie. I can't agree, inasmuch as there simply hasn't been a definitive Arthur movie yet. And I'm not really sure there ever can be, unless someone were to do it Peter Jackson-style with a trilogy of big-budget three-hour films. This is because the Arthurian legend -- the "Matter of Britain" -- isn't a single story. It's a collection of stories, with no real "set" starting point and no real "central" story thread. Sure, overall it's the story of King Arthur's rise and the subsequent fall of his realm, but it's not clear what's essential there. Is the Grail Quest a central part of the story? Maybe it is, but the problem there is that Arthur himself never goes on the Quest, so you'd have a significant chunk of the story where Arthur's not around at all. Why did Camelot fall? The easy answer is because of Lancelot and Guinevere's affair, but even then problems arise: some versions of the story don't even include Lancelot (he was not even present in the earliest versions of the story), you still have to decide if Mordred (Arthur's bastard son) plays a role, et cetera. And then one has to decide whether to use Arthur's killing of the children, which might not play so well in Peoria.

The Arthurian story, then, needs to be changed significantly -- at the risk of seeming terribly incomplete -- or condensed drastically, if it's to work in a single two or three-hour film. The latter approach was taken by Boorman in Excalibur, a film which is admirable for its production values (Boorman gets the visual feel just about perfect) but one that I've always found rather antiseptic and unsatisfying. The film always feels to me like a re-enactment of a sacred drama, curiously unemotional. I don't mean to imply that I don't like the film, because I do -- I even own the DVD -- but it's not definitive by any stretch. It's got a lot of faults, including the use of excerpts from Wagner's Ring Cycle and Orff's Carmina Burana in the score, which I find terribly distracting.

The former approach -- making wholesale changes to the Arthur story -- was taken by the producers of First Knight, in which Sean Connery is Arthur, Richard Gere (!) is Lancelot, and Julia Ormond (whatever happened to her, anyway?) is Guinevere. Here, the focus is almost entirely on the love-triangle, with no fantastical element at all. No Grail, no Merlin, no Mordred (we get an evil guy named "Malagant"). Again, we get a very unsatisfying film that seems to reduce the Arthur story to something smaller than we feel it should be. I did like how they attempted to make Lancelot into not a "perfect" character brought down by the foul temptress Guinevere, but a flawed guy who tries -- and fails -- to rise above his appetites. But Gere is never quite convincing, and the film just cuts too many corners. (The score, by Jerry Goldsmith, is in my mind the most overrated film score of the last ten years. Film score fans seem unanimous in thinking it's a classic score, but to my ears it's bombast marked by endless repetition of a single theme.)

Then, there's Camelot, the Lerner-and-Loewe musical based on T.H. White's The Once and Future King, which is -- well, it's pretty close to unwatchable. I like Richard Harris as Arthur, and the songs really are wonderful, but all the other actors are lousy. (Except the guy who plays Pellinore; that guy's golden.)

For my money, the best Arthurian film is the television miniseries Merlin, in which Sam Neill plays the great wizard. Here, too, changes are made that some might find cloying, but they mostly worked, in my opinion. The story focuses, as expected, on Merlin, so a lot of the Arthurian details are either left out (no Grail) or reduced in importance, and the film's magical stuff seems partly out-of-place in the Celtic-Britain Arthurian mythos. But I do like this film, a great deal. (BTW: if you choose to investigate Merlin, get the DVD and not the VHS release. The VHS version is actually condensed, with a significant chunk of material excised for the tape's running time concerns.)

A few years ago there was a TV version of Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon, but I haven't seen it. It sports a wonderful score, though, by Lee Holdridge. And of course it's doubtful that any Arthurian movie made can ever totally escape the long shadow of this film.

(By the way, that guy playing Arthur in the movie Knowles is railing about is Clive Owen, who is rumored to be favored for the next James Bond.)

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