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Errantry: Novak's Journal
...Words to cast/My feelings into sculpted thoughts/To make some wisdom last
Personal/Theological Notebook: Mike verses King Arthur 
18th-Jun-2005 04:33 pm
In which Mike takes on King Arthur in a battle royale with more detail than you're likely prepared to handle, so Look Out!

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.
19th-Jun-2005 04:25 am (UTC)
**wipes away tears of mirth, has no desire to watch**

That was probably infinitely more entertaining than the actual movie, which I'm certain would only annoy me. And, I'm sure, about 10,000 times more intelligent. I actually learned things while reading this! And did NOT lose brain cells!
19th-Jun-2005 07:09 am (UTC)
Actually, if you're one of the many lasses I remember over the last year, in person and online, who expressed a desire to do Keira Knightley bodily harm--I don't know why, exactly, so many have it in for her, but I remember that they do--then this is the movie for you! She gets rather savaged in the battle scenes....

Other than that, thanks for the compliments! I'm glad someone found this useful/entertaining. As I couldn't stop jotting down notes during the movie, I rather suspected that I would simply annoy the hell out of anyone who actually read it!
19th-Jun-2005 09:11 pm (UTC)
Actually, if you're one of the many lasses I remember over the last year, in person and online, who expressed a desire to do Keira Knightley bodily harm--I don't know why, exactly, so many have it in for her, but I remember that they do--then this is the movie for you! She gets rather savaged in the battle scenes....

REALLY? Neat. :D You remember correctly.

However, that doesn't seem like a very moral reason to watch a movie. Hmm.
20th-Jun-2005 03:37 am (UTC)
Well then, Jenny, it is perhaps, when you really scratch at it, one of the least immoral reasons I've ever heard given for watching a movie; so when you're looking for an immoral movie-watching experience, steer yourself in that direction so as to do you the least harm possible.
20th-Jun-2005 06:33 am (UTC)
***The best Arthurian movie is still clearly John Boorman's adaptation of Le Motre d'Arthur in Excalibur***

Thank you. When Californians overrun the midwest, I will see that you are spared.

That was an excellent review, BTW. Those are important points! I don't care how good the acting or cinematography is if I have to spend the whole movie sulking because the studio won't even pay lip service to historical accuracy.

Boorman's approach is correct: Do historical detail right or don't do it at all. A worse crime than the liberties that Boorman took is to use some made-up historical "babble" to give the movie a historical "feel". It's never accurate and it drives me insane to pay $9 a pop to be lied to.

20th-Jun-2005 10:28 am (UTC)
I bow in your general direction, and thank you for the promise to spare my life, although I'll push for a Burmese Tiger Trap-type pit to be dug and disguised on the western side of the building, just in case California should make such a move.

You make a particular point about the "made-up historical 'babble'" that I hadn't quite thought of: since most of these details are given in dialogue (in other words, at no investment cost in sets, costumes, etc.), it does seem particularly offensive that when historical accuracy is to be had with the most minimal of research, we have to sit instead through someone's programme of propaganda or social manipulation.

I had the same feelings in watching Troy the other week. Not that the ancient world was without its own kinds of sceptics, but to have the gods edited out of the drama and to have Achilles spouting Enlightenment anti-religious-establishment drivel was such a waste of an opportunity. The drama is all about the gods: without them and their interaction with the Greeks and the Trojans, the story becomes just a fight over a girl, writ large. I will allow, however, that they did preserve some of the depth of emotion in the confrontation between Achillles and Hector that I'd hoped for. But I have to stand by the judgment that to secularize Homer is to emasculate him.
20th-Jun-2005 03:31 pm (UTC)
Great review.
I'll admit, I liked the movie the first (and only) time I watched it.
But now, I hate it.
Only, because, as you mentioned, "Excalibur" is just so damn f'n awesome.

Have you seen "Kingdom of Heaven"?
I'm afraid to.
20th-Jun-2005 10:20 pm (UTC)
Again, a compliment! I had no expectation of that--again, I thought that this would just piss people off! Too funny. Yes, I did catch Kingdom. Despite having some of the same Hollywood anti-religious standbys, I did at least enjoy the fact that the Middle Ages were portrayed as a real culture, with its greatness and depth, despite being populated by too many Evil Bishops, Evil Priests, and now Evil Knights Templar. You did also get some people of some religious integrity on both the Christian and the Muslim sides, too, so that was something of a relief. The love affair with trebuchets continues with gusto. In fact, a number of the things I've written above can be transfered over, with only name changes needed to make them work. I'd catch it on the big screen if I were you: the filmmaking is worth taking in. Just don't walk away with a resolution to murder your parish priest as the start of your path to spiritual fulfillment, I beg you.
21st-Jun-2005 12:05 am (UTC)
No worries.
Typical Hollywood.
Why does every movie have to have a bad guy?
Remember "Rudy"?
Apparently, coach Dan Devine was not so adverse to letting Rudy play in blowouts during Rudy's senior year.
But you know, for the movie's sake, he had to be all evil.
Always take the "historical fiction Hollywood" with a massive chunk of salt.
Give me pure fantasy any day, though I still find myself drawn to the period pieces.
21st-Jun-2005 05:14 am (UTC)
I remember the Devine bit. But you gotta go with the formula. Just like the music business nowadays. I imagine that the best movies we see from the studios as far as sheer "creativity" goes, are the ones where the director was only able to sneak the creative part in on the edges, where it could get past the corporate board of censors at the studio.
21st-Jun-2005 02:36 am (UTC)
Kingdom of Heaven: Guys being lit on fire. 'Nuff said.
King Arthur: We should watch this together sometime. Rollicking japery for all! Check out m15m for a fantastic parody...
21st-Jun-2005 05:20 am (UTC)
Damn. Asked out by a married chick in another time zone who's never met me: what a fading social life one has as a grad student....


I've got the parody here: looks like fun. Thanks! Hope all is well and you're locking your doors before bed nowadays. (My Mom loved that story.)
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