Showing posts with label Arthurian legend. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Arthurian legend. Show all posts

Monday, 21 November 2011

King Arthur (dir. Antoine Fuqua, 2004)


Some years ago, OldHousemate(theRomeone) and I went to the cinema to see Antoine Fuqua's King Arthur. Reasonably excited by the prospect of Clive Owen snarling in Roman uniform for a couple of hours, our hopes were high. They were dashed, however, by the opening titles that started with the words 'Historians agree...' Quite apart from the fact that, in actuality, the majority of historians of the period consider Arthur to be a purely fictional character who never existed in real life, contrary to the film's opening statement, and without even going into how dubious we are over the film's claim that 'recently discovered archaeological evidence' supports their interpretation, we were entirely taken aback by the claim that 'historians agree' on anything. We'd both recently completed history degrees, and were both fully aware that historians never agree on anything, or we'd all be out of work.

Historically speaking, the film just goes from bad to worse from then on. Between its complete confusion over who should be Christian and who pagan, a Catholic Church that looks later medieval and Saxons in Scotland (words cannot begin to describe how inaccurate that is), the whole thing is just a big mess. It's quite fun in its own way though, so OldHousemate(theRomeone) (hereafter ORO) and I decided to get together and watch it, and re-live the glorious experience of seeing it together that first time, but with extra added silliness, as this is the Director's Cut. And so, inspired by SFX Magazine's Couch Potato feature, we bring you our re-viewing of King Arthur. We were joined by ORO's husband, OldestMaleFriend (OMF) who may or may not have been with us the first time we saw it - none of us can quite remember...

(This has been put together from ORO's and my written notes. We also recorded our whole conversation on a dictophone, and I've listened to bits of it. For some reason my accent gets more Estuary - probably thanks to Ray Winstone - and my language fouler as the film goes on. In the interests of keeping this post shorter than the film script itself, our conversation has been heavily edited and I've mostly relied on the written notes, with the odd bit from the recording.)

(Before we've even started the film)
ORO: I'm loving the melodrama of the menu.

('Historians agree' appears onscreen. Much laughter).

(Film starts)
OMF: Didn't Romans have rectangular shields and Greeks round ones?
Me (trying to remember the answer, write and drink all at once): It's really hard to write fast drunk.
ORO: You know, I can't remember anything about this film except it really annoyed me. Why are they calling them knights?
Me: Dunno. Are they equestrians?... The music sounds like it's trying to be Lord of the Rings.
OMF: No, it's just trying to be rubbish.
ORO: The background's trying to be as green as New Zealand as well.

(Arthur and/or Lancelot appears, now grown-up)

ORO: He's got more good-looking, good. Ah, a bishop - it's the Church, therefore they are Bad.
Me: Is that Titus F****ing Pullo? (Note: I actually knew it was, as I went to an excellent paper by Tony Keen in which he mentioned this bit of trivia last summer, but I'd had a few drinks by this point and had forgotten).
ORO: What's with all the fog?
OMF: It's Scotland, it's always foggy.

(Stuff happens. I try to keep up with who's supposed to be who, beyond the central trio of Arthur, Lancelot and Bors).

Me: That's Tristan? Tristan's supposed to be handsome!

(Mads Mikkelson is actually fairly good-looking,  but his hair and make-up here is not)

(The Table appears).

Me: Oh dear, is that supposed to be the Round Table?
ORO (who is not drinking, unlike the other two of us, and is gamely trying actually to follow the film): I wonder what time period this is meant to be? When did they have the first Pope?

(A debate about whether it's supposed to be set in a particular year follows, involving re-winding the tape to establish that it doesn't seem to be).

Me (bitterly): Christians are the bad guys, what a surprise.
Evil Bishop (onscreen): Rome and the Holy Father are leaving Britain.
ORO: So this must be AD 410...
OMF: And he's implying that north of Hadrian's Wall is Saxon...

(A very long description of Anglo-Saxon groups, where they were, where they came from etc follows from ORO, whose period is medieval history. OMF and I nod along and continue drinking).

ORO: Why do they keep on about the Pope? Since when was the Pope in charge of the Roman Empire?
(general groans)

(Continued explanation from ORO about why the Anglo-Saxons never went anywhere near Scotland. More nods from OMF and I).

Me: It is Titus F***ing Pullo!

(Film continues. ORO and I discuss the casting of Ioan Gruffydd as Lancelot, which we're broadly in favour of).

Arthur (onscreen): They're being harassed by Saxons
ORO: NO THEY'RE NOT!
(And she's off again).

(At this point, my attempts to make notes become completely unreadable and the notebook is passed to ORO. She continues to observe Saxon-based historical inaccuracies - the latest being the implication that they're basically Vikings. Which they weren't).

OMF: That was a carving knife. I know ancient weaponry, and that's a carving knife.
ORO: We're being declared free.
Me: Free from what?
OMF: Do you want to rewind it?
ORO (very firmly): No!
Me: Lancelot is very posh.
ORO: And he has some kind of modern mechanism for creating ringlets.

(Film continues. We mistake a temple for a torture chamber. Christians are doing Bad Things in it).

ORO: Why are the Christians in a temple of any sort?

(Keira Knightley turns up as Guinevere).

ORO: Why are they spending lots of time staring at each other and not talking?
Me: To cover up the fact they probably wouldn't speak the same language?

(A collective decision is made that this film badly needs to find the funny).

OMF: Now we're back to the Saxons
Me: And Swedes who are not as hot as their offspring.
ORO: And why have we got a Swede playing an Anglo-Saxon?
Me: Well, he's Scandinavian, that's close enough to German for Hollywood
ORO (sarcastically): And 'cause obviously Vikings and Anglo-Saxons are the same...
OMF: Who are the horse people out of Tolkien?
Me: The Rohirrim? They're actually supposed to be Anglo-Saxons.
OMF: Really? 'Cause there's a guy with a Rohirrim-like helmet with long horsey hair over there. It actually looks authentic.
(General surprise).

(Film continues. I repeat my insistence that Tristan is not good-looking enough. We discuss Guinevere's apparent immunity to cold, because she's so at one with the Earth, or something. There's a lot of plinky-plonky music and wailing on the soundtrack. I start thinking of better films I could be watching, like Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail, and wishing there was a Balrog in the mountains).

(Our heroes reach a big frozen lake).

Me and ORO (clearly having reached the only bit of the film we remembered): Oh, it's the bit with the ice!
ORO: Keira Knightley would be so cold by this point she wouldn't be able to draw a bow.
OMF: Why haven't they raised their shields?

(Film continues. We wonder where the snow suddenly went).

Me: Where's Titus F***ing Pullo?
ORO: I think he died hon.
Me: No! You can't kill Titus F***ing Pullo!

(Film continues. Our attention drifts and we chat about weddings and booze for a while).

Me: Oh, sex is happening.
ORO: She's found a curling device as well.
OMF: D**m, he didn't get to finish.
ORO: D**m, she didn't get to finish.

ORO: This film needs to decide who the enemy is - the natives, 'cause they kill everyone, or the Romans, 'cause they're mean, or the Saxons, 'cause they kill everyone.

(Dramatic slow motion and yelling).

ORO: Oh, this is the bit where Keira Knightley puts two belts around her boobs and thinks she's dressed.

(At this point I take the notebook back and write something completely illegible. Essentially, all three of us take apart the various nonsensical elements of the battle scene. We miss an important plot point and decide we don't really care).

OMF: Shall we just not bother watching the end of this and watch Gladiator instead?
ORO: Why is no-one talking, they're all just looking at each other! We're going into battle and no one has said a word except one character has talked to his bird.

(We discuss the latest episode of The Big Bang Theory for a few minutes. ORO reminds us all of the differences between Vikings and Saxons again. I agree).

ORO: I'm Saxon, stop making us the bad guys!

(We complain about the length of the battle scene and wish I hadn't bought the Director's Cut).

ORO: Everyone's standing around staring again. This must have been the shortest script ever!
Everybody: I'm confused.
ORO: There's a group of women killing a man like a group of vampires dragging down a man.
Me: When does this film end?
ORO: Never. It will never end.
Me: Is that non-sexy Tristan?
ORO: The only romantic story in this film is Tristan and his bird.

(At this point, my writing in the notebook becomes completely unreadable, and the discussion on the recording a tad unrepeatable. We wonder if viewers of the film realise that the Saxons will, eventually win. We are mildly surprised by the death of Lancelot. Finally, it ends).

ORO: I have one word for that film: Why?
OMF: Me too, only mine's 's***e'.
Me: I'm just completely confused.

I have now re-watched the film (sober) and assembled some more coherent thoughts. Oddly enough, it's actually better sober, as the story does make a bit more sense now, though it's still a complete travesty as far as history goes.

There is no 'historical' Arthur and writers wanting to present a less fantastical Arthur have several choices concerning how to approach it as an historical drama rather than a medieval fantasy. There's the Late Roman becoming British angle (The Last Legion), the offspring of Romans and Britons (Merlin in The Crystal Cave) or the British defender against the Saxons (Bernard Cornwell's Warlord Trilogy). Although Romans are quite frequently involved in some way, this film chooses a much more strongly Roman option than many, making not only Arthur himself Roman, but his knights, although British, veterans of the Roman army.

The reason for this, I think, is that the filmmakers wanted to depict Arthur and his knights as soldiers. Too often, Arthurian knights are such perfect examples of medieval chivalric ideals, they don't behave in a way remotely similar to any warrior who's ever lived. These knights, while they are as noble, brave and honourable as Arthurian knights should be, are also tough, hard to impress, they drink hard and they make very rude jokes. They behave as you imagine a group of fighting men would. Making them members of the Roman army reinforces this military vibe. They are part of a recognisable army, with uniforms and a command structure - which means they can embody all the military stereotypes you might find in a war movie. These stereotypes would look rather different on the itinerant wandering knights of medieval Arthurian legend. When it comes to fighting, the Romans seem rather more familiar than fantasy medieval knights.

The film is daft, and suffers from trying to be a cross between The Lord of the Rings and Gladiator, while being vastly inferior to both, but I do rather like this interpretation of the knights. It's quite fun to see Arthur and his knights actually behaving like soldiers and it offers a fresh take on some very old characters. It's just a shame the film has to be so pretentious. If it dropped any claim to historical accuracy and was happy to be a entertaining story based around Arthurian legend, I would have little trouble with it. It's that opening crawl, and the desperate insistence that we should take it seriously, that is its biggest problem.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Classical Places in Popular Culture: Brittany

Continuing the series otherwise known as What I Did on my Holidays, I thought I'd share some thoughts on Brittany, the part of France I know best, home of crepes and big rocks. Brittany has strong links with medieval culture and Arthurian legend, and one of my former housemates once referred to it as Cornwall but in French, but it was also once part of the Roman Empire and is, therefore, definitely Classical.

Like Wales, Cornwall and Ireland, Brittany is still predominantly Celtic and a substantial proportion of it is Celtic speaking. There are plenty of fascinating arcaheological sites in Brittany, including numerous prehistoric standing stones,


Menhir, one of a group at... actually I'm not sure, I think we'd stopped for a comfort break!


Many, many stones at Carnac

the Cairn of Barnanez, a dry stone tomb in the shape of a stepped pyramid, with two distinct phases of construction that was in use through to medieval times,



 and loads of medieval buildings, calverts and so on, including the amazing Dance of Death fresco, preserved in a medieval church


and some churches that are just really pretty.


The gorgeous and famous medieval town of Mont-St-Michel is just outside Brittany - but more to the point, I don't seem to have any digital photos of it. It is, however, an amazing place to visit.

The Romans conquered Brittany along with the rest of Gaul, but there isn't as much in the way of Roman remains... possibly because Brittany is the home of Asterix the Gaul!


It took me ages to work out that this is, indeed, supposed to represent Brittany, not Normandy...

It seems only right and proper that Asterix should come from a place still so strongly Celtic, and of course, Brittany's position, sticking out from the rest of France, makes it the perfect location for a lone holdout against invasion. This location is also, presumably, the inspiration for Obelix's job as a menhir delivery man.

Aside from Asterix, Brittany does not come up overly often in Classical pop culture, presumably because it isn't really on the way to anywhere. To be in Roman Brittany, you have to have aimed to go to Roman Brittany, and since it lacked major cities etc, fictional characters don't tend to do so. Dramas set in other periods do occasionally visit the region, my favourite of which is First World War story A Very Long Engagement (Une Long Dimanche de Fiancailles), which comes complete with sea, lighthouse and crepes, all familiar images to anyone who's shopped in Brittany's many cute tourist traps.


The lighthouse in the film - our family own a number of lighthouse themed placemats, purchased in the cutesy tourist shops of Brittany

However, there is at least one notable instance of Brittany's Classical past and its strong links with Arthurian legend being brought together, in Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave, adapted for television by the BBC back in the early '90s.


I absolutely adored this series when I was little, but unfortunately it isn't currently available on DVD and I haven't seen it since. I was pleased to discover that I wasn't hallucinating - it really did star Robert Powell, otherwise known as Jesus, or that dude that wasn't Jasper Carrot on that old sitcom about detectives. I think it had Mr Weasley in it as well. In the series, Merlin goes to Brittany, where he discovers that his father is a Roman soldier called Ambrosius Aurelianus and some kind of Mithraic ritual is carried out among a group of standing stones. I remember that this was the first time I'd heard of Mithras, that the religion was correctly described as a particular favourite of soldiers, and visions of a bull were somehow involved, but not much else. I do have the original novel at home somewhere, so I'll have to re-read it.

The nice thing about the series' use of Brittany is that, as I said, the links with Arthurian legend are widely celebrated in Brittany (by the tourist board, at least). You can't move for an Arthurian-themed restaurants or supposedly haunted woods in Brittany. And the Arthurian legends are frequently linked with the Classical past in one way or another. So the blending of Brittany's Classical past with its Arthurian heritage is a really nice idea, and although I barely remember the series, I do remember the combination of the exotic Mithraic cult with the haunting stones of Brittany being very effective.

It's no wonder Brittany celebrates its medieval heritage so much, when you've got buildings like these...









and no wonder it's such a good place for fantasy and folklore lovers, with landscapes like this, known as the Roches du Diable (Devil's Rocks).




If only the BBC would release the series on DVD...!

Saturday, 28 May 2011

King Arthur: Stories of the Knights of the Round Table (by Vladimir Hulpach)


When I was little, I had a couple of big compendium books I really loved. One was A Treasury of Literature for Children, which was a collection of excerpts from longer novels and poems (the story of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi from The Jungle Book, an extract from What Katy Did, 'A Smuggler's Song' and so on). King Arthur: Stories of the Knights of the Round Table, a collection of various stories relating to Arthur and his knights, was the other.

When I read it, though, I always skipped the first chapter. The second chapter told the story of Merlin's childhood and the third finally got to the birth of Arthur (and therefore, to me, the interesting bit) but the first explained how the kingdom of Britain was, in fact, founded by Trojans. This chapter, I'm afraid to say, did not interest me at all!

The story given in the book (which I presume became attached to Arthurian legend somewhere in the medieval or early modern period, though I don't know when) is that Ascanius' grandson Brutus was exiled after accidentally killing his father and was led to Britain by Artemis through a dream. However it got attached to Arthurian legend, the intention is clear - to make Arthur a great Classical hero as well as a British one and to tie the Britons, like the Romans before them, to Homeric legend. Julius Caesar's invasion of Britain is reimagined as a meeting of ancient kinfolk and Arthurian legend is made part of a larger Classical story.

This only means anything, though, if you are already familiar with Classical mythology and can enjoy drawing links between the two systems. I didn't know anything about Classical mythology as a child, so, being an obstinate child, I wasn't interested in it. This problem is compounded by the fact that the story is taken right from the Trojan War to the founding of Britain, through Aeneas, Ascanias, Silvus and Brutus, and the story whizzes through the whole of the Aeneid and more in a few hundred words, leaving no time to get to care about any of the story. Plus, the only thing I did know about Classics at the time was that Brutus killed Julius Caesar, so I was also really confused.

Going back to it as an adult, the chapter still feels a bit rushed, but works much better. Artemis, orders given in dreams, people accidentally shooting relatives and going off to found new kingdoms all seems much more familiar to me now and the tying together of the two mythologies is quite fun. I've no idea if this book is still in print, but I'm glad I still have it - it's beautifully illustrated by Jan Cerny and I always enjoyed its retellings of the Arthurian legends as a child. I'm glad it includes the Classical sections as well, as I can really appreciate them now - no more skipping Chapter One!

Monday, 28 February 2011

The Last Legion (dir. Doug Lefler, 2007)


It seems appropriate, the day after Colin Firth won a well-deserved Oscar for his brilliant performance in The King's Speech, to post a review of, shall we say, one of his lesser-known films. I know of the existence of this movie thanks to Antoninus Pius' blog, where he posted a review a while ago - the film disappeared so entirely on its cinematic release I'd never have heard of it otherwise. It is a gloriously silly concoction in which Academy Award Winner Colin Firth and Knight of the Realm, Academy Award Winner Sir Ben Kingsley travel to Hadrian's Wall with Mr Wickham to protect the kid from Love, Actually (who doesn't appear to have aged in four years) from Boring himself, Lucius Vorenus. Who is a Scots-accented Goth.

If you weren't confused enough already, Batiatus also makes an appearance, not as Batiatus (one of Firth's men) but as a slimy senator who conspires with Star Trek DS9's Dr Bashir against our heroes and is, once again, gutted for his pains. True to his later argument, regarding Spartacus: Blood and Sand, that since everyone would be speaking Latin, it doesn't matter if he uses his own Scottish accent, his character here has quite possibly arrived in Rome via Edinburgh. Trouble is, all the other Roman characters are speaking The Queen's Latin, while all the Goths use Scottish accents, so this is just off-putting (or, possibly, an explanation for why his character switches sides?).

If I poke holes in all the fim's historical inaccuracies we'll be here all day, but I feel I should draw attention to some of the biggest clangers. First of all, neither Tiberius nor Romulus Augustulus were the last of Caesar's line, as Caesar's line died with his son by Cleopatra, Caesarion. (Of course, there's always the possibility that Dodgey from Rome smuggled Caesarion away and Romulus is his descendent - but in that story, Caesarion isn't Caesar's son anyway...). Caesar left no direct descendants at all and the last emperor to be related to him was Nero - Tiberius was his nephew's step-son. Perhaps more importantly, attempts to create a hereditary monarchy in the Roman Empire were generally doomed to failure sooner or later so the emphasis on bloodline is a bit off. As for the Eastern Byzantine Empire - OK, it was becoming an increasingly separate entity from the Western Empire, but the fashions are far too Oriental and not Greek enough and I'm pretty sure it didn't extend as far as Kerala in southern India.

The film also brings up the 'lost' ninth legion, who may or may not have disappeared somewhere in Britain or Europe several centuries earlier. Antoninus Pius knows much more about the military history of this than I do (being emperor and all) so I point you in the direction of his blog for the details, but it's worth bringing up because the disappearance of the ninth is the subject of both last year's Centurion and next month's The Eagle. I also really like this film's answer to the question of what happened to the legion - they settled down, married local women, took Celtic names and stayed put. This may not be what happened to the real ninth legion, but it is something that happened a lot after the Romans withdrew from Britain around AD 410 and it makes a nice change from the usual Pictish massacre.

Really, though, it isn't fair to pick at the history in this film, because this film isn't supposed to be about history. This, like Troy, is about myth and reality really has no part in it. The writers (and Valerio Massimo Manfredi, author of the novel on which the film is based) haven't started with Roman history, but with Arthurian legend. Stories of King Arthur often claim an origin from the classical world for their hero (just like Virgil and others claiming a Trojan origin for the Romans, in a way), though the precise nature of the connection varies. In producing this story, the writers have started with Arthurian legend - Merlin, the sword in the stone, the name 'Excaliber', dragons, Vortigern - and traced their origins back into an imaginary Rome.

The film actually walks a fine line between fantasy and realism reasonably well, but balancing itself so carefully in between two distinct genres unfortunately means it doesn't seem to know where it lives, and doesn't fit into either of them. The film starts out like an historical swashbuckler, but about halfway through it seems to want to be The Lord of the Rings, which it most certainly isn't - there isn't nearly enough of a sense of scale and wonder about it, and the usually excellent Patrick Doyle doesn't quite seem to be feeling it with the music.

The actors do their best with two-dimensional characters, the central group being made up of an absolutely typical Five Man Band (as described on TV Tropes); The Leader (Academy Award Winner Colin Firth/Mr Darcy), The Lancer (possibly Vatrenus, killed off fairly early on), The Young Guy (Mr Wickham/Prince Albert), The Big Guy (this film's Batiatus) and The Chick (Mira). The actress playing Romulus' mother is rear-end-clenchingly awful, but everyone else is fine, and Firth and Kingsley could read the phone book and be entertaining, though neither are quite up to their Oscar-winning heights here. Kingsley's Welsh accent is fine but his performance in general is all too reminiscent of the narration at the fabulous North Wales tourist attraction, King Arthur's Labyrinth (this involves a boat in a cave and is brilliant - if you're in southern Snowdonia, go visit it!). Firth can do the snappy soldier pretty well and has some great comedy moments (his face when Sangster hugs him is hilarious) but he struggles, ironically, with the Independence Day-style speech he has to give which is not quite as successful as his more recent speechifying efforts (though stammer-free).

A smoking-dragon incense burner I bought from Corris Craft Centre, by King Arthur's Labyrinth

I think this could end up being a good guilty pleasure for rainy afternoons. Aishwarya Rai as Mira kicks ass, Firth and Rupert Friend are reliably sexy and wield swords, Boring gets his comeuppance and it's got Merlin in it, not to mention some really amazing-looking scenery filmed in Tunisia (though the CGI-castle thing in Britannia not only makes one think of Monty Python, but is so incredibly inappropriate for the period it takes me right out of the film). It also features Alexander Siddig, who I met at a convention once and who is lovely, so that's always nice (though he is once again playing a eeevil character - he explained to all of us that, outside of Star Trek, he has spent most of his career stuck playing eeevil terrorists). This is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a good film, but its problems are artistic more than they are historical, because this film is not meant to be any more historical than Xena: Warrior Princess. Watch it with friends, pizza and your alcoholic/caffeinated beverage of choice and you may find you have an enjoyable evening. Just don't expect it to be Gladiator.
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