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The International Writers Magazine
: Deconstructing Cinema

WHEN LEGENDS RULED THE HISTORY BOOKS: "KING ARTHUR" (2004) Directed by Antoine Fuqua
Rev. Dr. Antonio Hernández

A
rthurian legend has always angered the scientist in me. It is no more than early Crusader propaganda, first written in the 12th century by some nutty Frenchman (viz., La Morte D'Artur). I do like the mythology that was regurgitated by the movie machine.

Though Hollywood could have done much better, they made one shining gem a possibility. My generation was reared on that gem: John Boorman's incomparable, paradigm-shifting 1981 film "Excalibur". Forget "Camelot". Having passed on the recent Arthurian film (I choose to forget the title) starring Sean Connery, I made bold to finally watch "King Arthur", the 2004 'historical extravaganza' directed by Antoine Fuqua. Boasting some actual scientific "proof" to its genuineness at the beginning, this film is a mixed bag mostly a bag of tomfoolery. Representation of true history it most certainly is not. A dopey grade school kid's version, maybe.

The film starts, narrated by Ioan Gruffudd (Lancelot) telling us all about Rome's manifest destiny delusion, and how it wanted all of Britain to go along. Then we are treated to a dubious map of Europe, showing us Rome and the region of "Sarmatia". This is vital, because most of Arthur's "knights" are supposedly "Sarmatian" conscripts.

After the introductory Roman army scenes, we go to a little community of huts somewhere in England. A boy named "Arturius" (Arthur, misnamed because the correct Latin is "Arcturus") is about to be conscripted. They take him, after he says his goodbyes to his mother and foster father, a priest named Pelagius. Though a child, Arthur is already strong, handsome and ready to go. Asking the Roman officer how long he will be gone, he is told, "Fifteen years." DUH!

It is sometime around 452 A.D. We don't really know, because the date is flashed on the screen at a weird time. All grown up, with his "Sarmatian knights" hard alongside, Arthur (Clive Owen) and the knights are drooling for their freedom from the Roman army. The goofy Bishop Germanius (deliciously over-acted by Ivano Marescotti) arrives, in full Roman battle gear, ready to deliver the conscripts' freedom papers. The knights, like the bishop, are a sketch.

The stalwart round table fellows consist of Lancelot ( Ioan Gruffudd), Tristan (Mads Mikkelson), Gawain (Joel Edgerton), Galahad (Hugh Dancy), Bors (Ray Winstone) and Dagonet (Ray Stevenson). For all the personality these fellows should have, the only interesting one is Tristan, only because he is wearing Mongolian armor and wields a samurai/scimitar like a... well, like a samurai. Will wonders never cease.

The knights are cornered by the bishop for one last assignment, handed down directly by the pope: go beyond Hadrian's Wall and fetch a wayward Roman family. We do not know who they are or why they're up there in the North but the bishop says this Roman's handsome son is a "personal favorite" of the pope's. This is a rescue mission for the boy who would be pope. They have to get those Romans outta there before the evil, lip-smacking Saxons run over them and eat them alive. Just like Tolkien's Orcs want Hobbits.

Bitching and grumbling, the knights obediently prepare for what they are sure will be their slaughter. They obey only because Arthur asks them. So the "quest" begins. Arthur and his semi-retarded knights are being followed by the creepy Wodes, a fictional people who serve no purpose. Actually, the Wodes are a vehicle for Merlin: he is their leader. The Wodes have waged war for decades, and they seem to be a mish-mash of Picts and Celts, so no wonder. At the Roman's villa, Arthur rescues a Wode woman who turns out to be Guenevere. Aside from her vampiric gyrations, we are treated to some mysterious language that is supposed to be Old English. Everyone speaks with Eurotrash accents, but the "Wodes" speak a gobbledy-gook Saxon language requiring subtitles! At least the bishop sounds Italian, but then, Marescotti is Italian.

Merlin appears, well past the halfway mark in this 140-minute borefest. This guy is a must-see: wild-eyed, scruffy-looking, like a cross between an African witch doctor and refugee from "Clan of the Cave Bear". He begs Arthur to come back (later, of course) to lead the Wodes into a new British era. Nothing comes of any of this, and Merlin, who gets a few seconds' screen time altogether, plays no further part in the story.

The film is ultimately hilarious, and not just because it has a few clever, snappy bits. The battle scenes are a joke, the story arc is a muddied mess, the acting is dreadful and the lines are silly. Somehow, it's all so bad that it really does seem "the true story". But just a moment......This thing is set in the middle of the 5th century A.D. What was going on then, exactly? After all, this film purports to tell the "true" story. Let's begin with the Sarmatian "knights". Sarmatia existed, near the Caspian sea. By the 2nd century A.D. the Sarmatians were no more. Even when they were plentiful, we cannot tell, the Romans couldn't tell either who the hell they were. Romans had nothing to do with them except to destroy them. And, sorry folks, there never was any such thing as a Roman "knight". So that's that.

The Saxons were a Germanic grab-bag. In the 5th century, a Saxon detachment was conned into helping the British Romans. Later, when the Romans refused to re-supply the army, the Saxons revolted. So this part is accurate enough. Also, as to the Romans, the last legion of the army in Britain at this time was the LEGIO II AUGUSTA. They were still in Britain, so this too is accurate. However, Britain had fallen to the Saxons by 455, so whoever Arthur really was, he lost in the end anyway. Unless he was a 5th century Saxon.

The pope at the time this film is set was Pope Leo I (St. Leo the Great). At the time, the pope was not yet a ruler/warlord, but he did hold the highest imperial civilian rank in all of Rome. Arthur's handsome priest/mentor in the film, Father Pelagius, was actually dead by 418 A.D. (Remember "King Arthur" is set in 452.) Huge and fat, the real Pelagius caused a lot of trouble with his weirdo ideas, and Pope Leo sent one Bishop Septimus (not "Germanius"), to put down the Pelagian Heresy. They all laughed at Pelagius, mocking him as a "Scotsman stuffed with Scottish porridge." Historically, Father Pelagius was overshadowed by the big names in Heresyland: Father Arius, Father Nestorius and Father Mani. So much for Arthur's 'foster father'.

Pelagian Heresy was a kind of Celtic Stoicism. The Emperor of the time, Valentinian III, had an on again/off again relationship with the pope. But hate as they might the Pelagian problem, they were all so busy fighting Attila the Hun, the Goths and the Vandals that the Arthurian legend is a farce by comparison. Who gives a crap about the fate of Britain, with a world of enemies coming out your ears? Perhaps this film wanted us to get that much out of it, at least. By the way, in the time "King Arthur" is set, Attila the Hun was killed by Theodoric I, king of the Visigoths out of Gaul and Spain. (It is said the holiness of Pope Leo was what really killed Attila.)

In this film, as in real life, "King Arthur" never gets to be king of anything. He may as well have run off to Italy. The Irish landscape used in the film is so dreary that I, too, longed for Rome. Who wants mud, huts and pigs when Rome awaits? This is just the tip of this silly Arthurian iceberg. Couldn't the movie makers get at least some of the dates and details right? Such as setting this film a generation earlier? And showing us REAL cultures? After all, the man identified as the possible King Arthur was an early 4th century Cornish man, not a mid 5th century loser.

We all want action and good dialogue, but the film offers little. Even my accurate historical record, above, is sleep-inducing. Arthur is no king (and not much of an actor). Guenevere is some kind of wildwoman. Lancelot is a mincing whiner who obviously wants to sleep with Arthur, not with the filthy, repulsive Guenevere. The other knights are so bland and generic that we forget their names. Merlin looks like a Neanderthal hobo. And Excalibur? A "Wode" warrior spared by Arthur mutters something about the Wodes ensuring the "coming of Excalibur to Britain". That's it. There be no Chaucer or Austen prose here.

"King Arthur" might as well have been titled "Somewhere, Sometime in Britain, We Think". Or perhaps, It would have fared so much better in the hands of a man like Terry Gilliam. But you really should watch it, even if only once. Be ready to laugh and suspend your belief in all the wrong places. Finally, watch this film for free; Pay-Per-View or a video is highway robbery at any price. Hell, just pop in "Excalibur" and all will be well again.
© Rev Antonio Hernandez March 2005

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