Alas for King Arthur.
Other legendary heroes have their classic Hollywood incarnations, from The Adventures of Robin Hood to The Mark of Zorro, but no comparable Arthurian classic ever came out of Hollywood.
Even in the silent era, with Douglas Fairbanks playing every legendary hero from Zorro to Robin Hood to D’Artagnan, seeking adventure everywhere from the Spanish Main (The Black Pirate) to Arabian Nights territory (The Thief of Bagdad) to South America (The Gaucho), King Arthur was overlooked.
The closest Hollywood ever got to an Arthurian classic, which is not very, was Richard Thorpe’s 1953 Knights of the Round Table, a rather stolid but watchable affair starring Robert Taylor, Ava Gardner, and Mel Ferrer. Later, in the 1970s, there were a couple of art-house French films, Robert Bresson’s grim Lancelot du Lac and Eric Rohmer’s Perceval le Gallois, followed by John Boorman’s interesting but muddled Excalibur, which honored the diversity of the Arthurian material but failed to shape it into a coherent whole.
After the bathos of First Knight, I’ve just about given up on Hollywood ever getting this story right. The worst thing about the latest version, Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur, is that Fuqua and writer David Franzoni haven’t even tried to get it right. Despite marketing claims about "the truth behind the legend," King Arthur bears virtually no resemblance either to Arthurian fact or legend.
Instead of demythologizing the legend, or working with what little data exists regarding an historical Arthur, Fuqua and Franzoni simply discard virtually all the data and craft an entirely unrelated story in its place. Along the way, they find time not only to disparage Rome, the Church, and historic Christianity, but also to mount a curious rehabilitation campaign for the founder of the Pelagian heresy, which taught that man can achieve salvation by his own effort, without divine grace.
Earlier this year Troy sparked controversy with its revisionist, demythologized take on the Trojan War. But Troy preserved important plot points from the traditional accounts: the affair and subsequent flight to Troy of Paris and Helen; the siege of Troy by Menelaus and Agamemnon; the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon over the captured Trojan girl Breseis; a case of mistaken identity in battle; Hector’s duel with Achilles and the brutal display that follows; Priam’s heart-rending appeal to his enemy Achilles; and of course the Trojan horse and the arrow in Achilles’ heel.
Not so King Arthur. Arthur’s illegitimate birth with Merlin’s complicity; Arthur’s hidden youth in a foster home, again through Merlin’s aid; Arthur’s foster brother Kay, later one of his knights; Merlin’s advisory role in Arthur’s early career; Arthur’s treacherous kinsman Mordred, who ultimately undoes the Round Table — nothing remains of any of this.
At least there is a Round Table, though no Camelot, except by inference. Arthur’s sword is once referred to as Excalibur, and there’s a kind of homage to the sword and the stone, though the way it plays out only raises questions about Arthur’s parentage and the sword’s history that the film never even gestures in the direction of addressing.
Arthur (Clive Owen) does eventually marry someone named Guinevere (Keira Knightley), unrecognizable as a painted Celtic warrior princess. And there are knights named Gawaine (Joel Edgerton), Bors (Ray Winstone), Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd), even Galahad (Hugh Dancy) — all these, but no Mordred or Kay, even though Mordred and Kay belong to the earliest strata of Arthurian material, and Lancelot and Galahad in particular are late arrivals in the roster of Arthurian heroes.
Even more inexplicably, having gone to the trouble to have a knight named Lancelot, the filmmakers scrub the romantic triangle of Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot. In fact, Arthur and Guinevere don’t even get married until Lancelot is out of the picture!
In any Arthurian tale that aspires to any degree of historical plausibility, Lancelot is a problematic figure to begin with. Not only is he a late creation literarily, he has to be imported all the way from Brittany, which requires explanation.
The only rationale for going to this trouble is that in the developed tradition Lancelot’s relationship with Guinevere plays such a crucial role in the downfall of Camelot that it makes sense to retain it. But to include Lancelot and omit the romantic triangle — that just defies explanation. (The prologue actually seems to foreshadow Lancelot’s future romantic woes, by implying that even as a boy he has a way of attracting the ladies.) That Galahad is apparently no relation to Lancelot is only one more inexplicable disconnect.
Franzoni and Fuqua jettison even the most basic facts about Arthur’s historical setting, relocating him from post-Roman Britain to Britain at the time of Rome’s withdrawal. In one fell swoop, they eliminate Arthur’s predecessor Vortigern, who was responsible for inviting the Saxons into Britain to help fight against the Picts and Scots in the wake of Roman withdrawal. As a result, the Saxons are thus no longer entrenched in East Anglia, pushing their way west and north, but instead invade Britain north of Hadrian’s Wall and fight their way south.
Even the attempt to tie the climactic battle to Arthur’s famous victory at Badon Hill is botched. Badon Hill is traditionally the site of a Saxon settlement, and Arthur led the attacking force. In the film, it’s the Saxons who are laying siege, and Arthur is the defender.
Having omitted virtually everything of interest from Arthurian legend and fact, Fuqua and Franzoni substitute a central plotline apparently borrowed from Fuqua’s earlier Tears of the Sun, with King Arthur in the Bruce Willis role. Here as there, Fuqua’s protagonist is a warrior under orders to lead a small group of men deep into hostile territory, make contact with a specific group of at-risk civilians, and escort them to safety.
The similarities don’t end there. In both films, the civilians resist relocation, and the warriors end up taking along a large crowd of helpless bystanders. Later, the fighters come upon horrific cases of human-rights abuses that move them to intervene despite orders. Eventually there’s a big standoff against a numerically superior enemy, and a contingent of reinforcements arrives to aid the beleagured warriors.
Why? What possesses a screenwriter to take on on legendary characters and scenarios that for centuries have been scrutinized by historians and celebrated by storytellers, and conclude that instead of all that he can tell another story entirely and that this will be just as interesting?
Because it isn’t. There is one (1) creative and well-staged battle sequence on a frozen lake, and a few other isolated sequences of minor interest. Otherwise, it’s bland, boring, and generic. The climactic battle sequence is nothing special; Arthur squares off one-on-one against the heavy in a sequence that only reminded me how much more visually and emotionally involving Achilles’s and Hector’s big duel was in Troy.
Then there’s the theological angle. That the film makes the pagan Celts enlightened and sympathetic while church representatives range from unsympathetic to downright psychotic is hardly surprising nowadays. More surprising — and insidious — is the way the film invokes the name of Pelagius, a heretical monk who denied original sin and taught that salvation is attainable by human effort apart from grace, as a touchstone of compassionate Christianity. Pelagius’s exaggerated regard for free will is absurdly extended here to notions of political freedom, while implicating Roman orthodoxy in the persecution of non-Christians.
Arthur is a good Christian — the only good, sympathetic Christian in the entire film — and is loyal to Rome, but he’s also an ardent supporter of Pelagius. The film doesn’t go into detail on the nature of Pelagius’s heresy, but it does link Arthur’s Pelagianism with his ideas about treating Christians and pagans alike with dignity, with the nasty corollary that Roman orthodoxy supports imprisoning pagans in underground dungeons to starve to death listening to psychotic monks intone the liturgy for the salvation of their souls.
Arthur may be a Christian and a Roman, but King Arthur makes it clear that he’s also misguided and conflicted. We’re repeatedly told that he believes in "a Rome that doesn’t exist" (i.e., a Pelagian and egalitarian Rome, as opposed to the oppressive orthodox reality). "I belong to this land," Guenevere taunts. "Do you belong anywhere, Arthur?" Arthur has no reply; he’d like to say he belongs to Rome, but that would be a Rome that doesn’t exist.
Later, the still-unmarried Arthur and Guinevere have sex, something that Arthur’s brand of enlightened Pelagian Christianity is perhaps not as uptight about linking to marriage as is the hidebound orthodox sort of Christianity. And when they do finally marry, it’s at a Stonehenge-like stone circle, which doesn’t exactly suggest an ecclesiastically sanctioned union. So much for Hollywood’s brief flirtation with a positive Christian protagonist.
I’ve often suspected that part of the reason Hollywood has been less successful with Arthur than with other legendary heroes is that Arthur’s story is uniquely a tragedy, a story of human failure and fallibility. Human failure and fallibility is not a theme that Hollywood adventure films like King Arthur excel at exploring — as opposed to exemplifying. The tragedy of Arthur continues in the ongoing Hollywood butchery of his tale.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.