The Moviehunter

Pulp Culture
'King Arthur'
is neither myth
nor history


July 15, 2004
By Franklin Harris

If you're looking for history, don't go to the movies. No, I'm not talking about "Fahrenheit 9/11." I'm talking about hotshot Hollywood producer Jerry Bruckheimer's latest action extravaganza, "King Arthur."

Directed by Antoine Fuqua from a screenplay by David Franzoni, "King Arthur" stars Clive Owen as Arthur, Keira Knightley as Guinevere and Ioan Gruffudd as Lancelot. The characters may be familiar, but they have little in common with the heroes of legend.

Keira Knightley is a blue-painted Guinevere in ''King Arthur.''
Copyright © Touchstone Pictures
Keira Knightley is a blue-painted Guinevere in "King Arthur."
The story of Arthur as we know it begins in 1136, when Geoffrey of Monmouth published his largely fanciful "History of the Kings of Britain." It is here that Arthur is first depicted as king of all Britain and his legend becomes intertwined with that of the magician Merlin. Guinevere and Arthur's father, Uther Pendragon, also appear, as does Arthur's treacherous nephew, Mordred. But many of the things we associate with Arthur, such as the round table, Camelot and the quest for the Holy Grail, don't appear until decades later.

The romantic, courtly elements of Arthurian mythology came mostly from continental Europe, rather than from the British Isles. In 1165, the French writer Chrétien de Troyes introduced Lancelot, who replaced Sir Gawain as the most important knight of the saga. With Lancelot in the picture, the stage was set for the most famous love triangle in world literature.

Later writers added more to the legend, such as the tale of the sword in the stone and the account of Arthur sailing to Avalon, from which he would someday return. This continued for 300 years, until the publication of Sir Thomas Malory's "Le Morte D'Arthur" in 1485. Malory's book combined the most important Arthurian tales into one complex narrative, which has since become the definitive version of the story of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.

Malory's version is the one John Boorman used when he made his 1981 film "Excalibur," still by far the best cinematic retelling of Arthur's story.

Fuqua and Franzoni, however, turn to older sources, fragmentary Welsh accounts that predate Geoffrey of Monmouth. Some are copies of stories that seem to date to within a few hundred years of the time of the historical Arthur, from about A.D. 500 to 550, assuming there actually is a historical Arthur, of course. The few surviving documents from Arthur's time, recounting events in which Arthur is said to have taken part, do not mention him by name. It may be that Arthur is a name given to some unknown warrior centuries after his death.

But assuming there is one man who was the basis for the Arthur legend, he would almost certainly have been a Romanized Celt, probably a Welshman. And he would have lived during the early Dark Ages, soon after the Roman Empire retreated from Britain to defend territories closer to home. The film "King Arthur" gets this much right, but the filmmakers cannot resist dropping in anachronistic elements from the later myths. So, Owen's half-Roman Arthur surrounds himself with knights (including Lancelot), even though there were no knights before the Norman invasion in 1066. And Merlin appears, although as a forest-dwelling wise man, not as a magician, even though his story had nothing to do with Arthur's until Geoffrey of Monmouth combined the two.

Guinevere has a place in the earliest Arthurian tales, but the movie makes her into a warrior queen, probably based on the Celtic queen Boudicca, who fought the Romans centuries before Arthur's time. Also, this Guinevere paints herself blue and charges into battle, which was the practice of the ancient Picts, although the film calls Guinevere and her people Woads.

So, "King Arthur" is bad history. But is it a good movie?

No. It is a dreary, depressing movie, burdened by Owen's stiff performance, bloodless action scenes and a script that sends Arthur and his men on a standard-issue rescue mission.

"King Arthur" has none of the myth's magic and none of the man's warrior spirit.

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