Honestly, there's an entire class of movies that I probably shouldn't watch. But because I'm an historian, because I'm fascinated by all the different types of people and they way they think, everywhere and everywhen, I can't stay away from historically-themed movies. And I want to see them done well. I look at the costuming, the weaponry, listen to the politics, look at the architecture; I want to see that the filmmakers so loved their craft that they really dug into what they were doing and gave us the best possible representation of the period. And because I know that the movies teach more people history than history tends to, I look to see the prejudices that tend to be portrayed about eras other than our own. I know that people's beliefs and prejudices about the past tend to have a direct impact on the way they understand our present and work to construct our future. So I take these films very seriously, even when they're just for fun.
I'm watching King Arthur tonight--the one made last year--and all my historian's typical dread of such movies has been fulfilled. That the movie is about the Arthurian legends, which I quite value, makes it more painful. More people in the United States will likely accept the claim of this film and decide that this is "the real Arthur" than will read Le Morte D'Arthur in my lifetime. (I do understand that Le Morte D'Arthur is a work of fantasy itself.) And because of this, even a middling movie like this one has great power to shape peoples' impressions of the past. Why is it that no one seems to think that an accurate historical setting can be exciting? In this case, the plot is being driven by these innovations:
1. All Arthur's knights are not even from Britain--whether Roman, Briton, Cornish or whatnot--instead they're some barbarian tribe from the Russian steppes that I have never heard of, if they existed. What, even in their national myth, Brits are not allowed to be heroic?
2. All the knights ride horses with stirrups. No Roman cavalry had this of course, as the stirrup didn't exist for centuries. That would be the "secret weapon," the technological innovation that would vastly increase the power of a man on horseback that Charles Martel, Charles the Hammer, used against the Muslim invasion of the Franks not too far from Paris in 732. It's important, rather than "a little detail." It really is as bad a goof as portraying them with machine guns would be. Much worse than Arthur's longsword gladius, or the fact that they store their bows strung.
3. The Pope rules in Rome, even though it's supposed to be 452 and the Western Empire hasn't collapsed yet. "Papal troops" are referred to, despite the lack of any real papal military until the founding of the Papal States in 756 by Pepin the Short. In reality at this time, the pope Leo I, or "Leo the Great" saves the weakening city of Rome itself by peaceful negotiation with Attila the Hun. Given Attila's reputation for destruction that has survived even until today, you have to ask yourself about what kind of guy it is who can simply ask him and his armies to depart in peace, and who is listened to by this rambunctious pagan.
4. Evil people have scraggly unwashed hair, whatever their ethnicity; good people have great hair, whatever the length, and are totally hot, also irrespective of ethnicity. Cleanliness is, apparently, next to godliness.
5. The Pope is represented in Britain, naturally, by that daring and innovative Hollywood device of an Evil Bishop. Christians, or Catholics more specifically, are naturally portrayed as corrupt, weak, and power-hungry, except for Arthur. But, then, giving Catholics a fair shake or credit for their concept of freedom would be an act of Intolerance, and a Hollywood film could never give in to such temptation.
6. Arthur is not corrupt, weak, or power-hungry because he is a follower of Pelagius, the heretic who preaches "free will and equality" in the grandest American/Hollywood tradition. They say that freedom-preaching Pelagius was excommunicated and executed by those evil Roman Catholics? News to history! The fact that Pelagius was tres popular in Rome and most famously opposed by a provincial African named Augustine is forgotten. The African's point was that Christians don't have to be--and cannot be--perfect. Pelagius' insistence that that was God's standard--that being morally perfect was the responsibility of free will--is neglected. The Church decided to stand on the side of sinners, and Pelagius' idea that Christians had to be morally perfect or else were unacceptable to God was deemed not to be what Jesus was really getting at, or "heretical." Score one for the Church.
7. Horses can be galloped all the way across England. The long way across. Maybe walking horses aren't very dramatic, but I do ask my fantasies to be as realistic as possible. "Suspension of disbelief" can only work on the big things when you are honest with the small things.
8. Catholic missionary activity to the Celts (or "Woads") consisted of killing them as "sacrifices" in torture chambers. This is largely the source of goodwill by which we continue to remember St. Patrick to this day, right? That this missionary activity resulted in the the intellectual and cultural explosion that lead Europe in the 6th and 7th centuries seems to have escaped notice. Didn't these people read How the Irish Saved Civilization?
9. Ahhh... Pelagius' "cool Christian" ethic allows for Arthur to experience sexual liberation even back in the crusty 400s. No Questions Asked with Guenivere the night before battle. Score!
10. Arthur's rallying speech before battle went on more about "freedom" than even Mel Gibson's in Braveheart. Even though the Church eliminated slavery in the Middle Ages, this notion of freedom is entirely modern: this is an American Revolution speech, not an Arthurian one. I can get a lame version of the first from George Bush: I'd rather hear Arthur give me hope of a good and noble King.
11. Oh, my. The knight shoots a guy hidden in a tree with a horsebow from a quarter mile away. Newton, anyone? The arrowheads are around 500 years too early in style. Okay, I'm getting absurd.
12. Arthur draws the Saxons into a trap once they get through Hadrian's Wall. Okay, fine. But he doesn't even contest the Wall or use it as shelter to whittle away the Saxon army? And I'm supposed to accept him as a military genius? This is the worst thing I've seen since Peter Jackson had Faramir charge the city of Osgiliath on horseback.
13. Trebuchets. Hollywood has an absolute love affair with these things of late. Whatever happened to catapults? Oh, they went out with New Wave, man! Guinivere's leather armour is a bikini top. A bikini, but armour! Armour, but a bikini! That'll protect her from.... Well, I'm still working on that. At least she's wearing a torc and not the Hope diamond. Now the trebuchets seem to be spewing Greek Fire, the Byzantines' secret weapon. Arthur's horse is mounted with heat-seeking Sidewinder missiles, no doubt.
Well, I have to say that while kind of watchable as historical action, it was a pretty average movie. The historical liberties would probably escape most people as far as the technology goes, but the anti-Christian/Catholic agenda was so blatant as to be distracting, although perhaps as a theologian as well as an historian I might not be the best judge of that. It's the combination of bad history with bigotry, though, and the power of movies to root that in people's minds, that worries me. I have to even take a bad movie seriously when considering that. Although the film does try to ground itself historically in the conflux of Roman, Briton, and Saxon from this period, the modern agenda destroys any attempt to accept the movie as "closer to reality."
The best Arthurian movie is still clearly John Boorman's adaptation of Le Motre d'Arthur in Excalibur. Boorman clearly avoided historical detail in things like armour design (Monty Python and the Holy Grail is better for that), but his intent was clear more at capturing a mood found in the texts. The sheer mysticism of moments in that film--Arthur's wedding, Galahad's "baptism" in the river before finding the Grail--is far more true to the texts, and, indirectly, to history. The stories are woven through and through with the Christian military mysticism of the medieval era. You can neuter that, as in First Knight, which turns the story into a lukewarm reality, or you can actively try to excise it, as here, but the result is as compelling as watching a bowl of old piss.
Even the modern ideology of "freedom" is almost devoid of power here. A different vision of freedom--feudal service under a good king--would be more instructive for our own freedom in highlighting the differences between a former vision of a kind of freedom and our own understanding of it. The reduction of it here in a piece full of propaganda places its good in question. If a film promoting freedom has to be full of lies against history and a people, then the "freedom" promoted by that movie is reduced to something manipulative, deceptive, and coercive. It is not freedom, after all. It is an anti-freedom. The Bush Administration, with its propaganda fake news stories and a President who blames the press for the fault of transmitting the lies he slipped to them, is a greater example, and one that fills us today with great shame as Americans.