Sunday Times - Culture
July 25, 2004 -- Film: He was a dark and stormy knight
Hollywood’s blockbusting King Arthur claims to be historically
valid, but is it more about modern times, asks Stewart Lee
Building on these flimsy foundations, Bruckheimer’s King Arthur claims a genuine Romano-British general, Lucius Artorius Castus, as its Arthur, and bolts him to a band of indentured soldiers from Russia, active in Roman Britain, called Sarmatians. Artorius leads these disgruntled veterans in one last mission before uniting the helpless Britons and the elf- like Picts, here called “Woads”, against the Orc-faced Saxon in-vaders in a face-off at Hadrian’s Wall. It’s a plausible tale that is neither compromised nor enlivened by any obvious mythical elements, though it does include the slow-motion sequences and Celtoid soundscapes mandatory in Hollywood historical blockbusters.
If he existed at all, then King Arthur wasn’t a king as such, and Jerry Bruckheimer knows this. But, like those tomb-making monks, he also knows that a recognisable brand will sell. Make King Arthur and they will come. Make Arthur and they will still come, but they’ll be expecting a remake of the Dudley Moore classic, perhaps starring Steve Coogan.
Just as Arthur had Merlin to advise him, Bruckheimer also has his own courtly magician. John Matthews is the film’s historical adviser. He has a vast knowledge and a small beard, and has written more than 50 books on Arthur, ranging from lavishly illustrated coffee-table tomes such as his soon-to-be-available Merlin: Shaman, Prophet, Magician (Mitchell Beazley), to Elements of the Arth-urian Tradition (Element), an incense-suffused study of the legend’s symbolism that concludes each chapter with an exercise designed to help readers meet their inner Arthur.
By his own admission, it’s professionally expedient for Matthews, as a big player in what one might call “the Arthurian industry”, to entertain various theories without committing to any one, but he’s sold on the Sarmatians. “We know there were these Sarmatian warr-iors stationed near Hadrian’s Wall. What we don’t know about are any of the individual characters, so you do have to bring in a little bit from the later stories,” he says.
But is the film’s King Arthur the definitive Arthur? “What you can say is that it’s based on the oldest version of Arthur,” he says. “Lucius Artorius Castus is the oldest character with that name in that place at the right time. When I was approached by the film company, I wasn’t entirely convinced by the Sarmatian theory, but during the research, I found new evidence. My wife was working on translations from Old Welsh and came across this poem from the book of Taliesin, which dates back to the 6th century. It mentions Arthur, a man of Roman and British cultures who leads the defence from the Great Wall. I was gobsmacked.”
The press pack for the film opens with the verse Matthews cites, describing it vaguely as a “6th-century AD Celtic poem”, in such a way as to make it, and the information that follows it, seem suspicious. “Yes,” says Matthews, “well, it shouldn’t have been in there, because they don’t have permission to use it.” It doesn’t help that the film opens with a brief summary of the dux bellorum idea, followed by the inconclusive sentence: “Recently discovered archeological evidence sheds light on Arthur’s true identity.”
“I know, I know, I wanted them to put something else,” sighs Matthews. “‘Recently documented evidence’, anything would have been better, but having said that, the excavations at Ribchester in Lancashire have revealed a Sarmatian presence, so in that sense it’s not untrue. But at the press showing, quite a few people laughed at that and I couldn’t blame them.”
“I wish they’d either said nothing or been specific,” adds Franzoni. “ But as far as an American audience goes, they’re numb to that sort of opening. It’s like, ‘In a kingdom far away, etc.’ Jerry Bruckheimer was very concerned, but it isn’t his call. Jerry really wanted us to go back and try to find the source of the Arthur legend.”
I laugh, assuming Franzoni is deliberately painting a comic picture of the producer of Pirates of the Caribbean as a historical philanthropist, then realise that he is serious and quickly move on. Franzoni has done his research, and can stand by any historical information in King Arthur. But, like Geoffrey of Monmouth almost a millennium ago, he fits into a long tradition of Arthurian writers pursuing their own agenda. The film’s depiction of Rome’s waning imperial influence, of its exploitative client-state relationship with Britain, of its maltreatment of its prisoners and its vulnerability to bands of Pictish insurgents, seems to parallel imperialist America’s current situation.
“I understand Rome’s posturing when it became the ultimate military state,” says Franzoni. “It comes from fear. And America is perhaps going through a lot of that right now, so it’s not unfair to read into it that it could be about Iraq. But I began writing the movie before we went into Iraq. The GI connection is what is important for me. (Like the Sarmatian knights) If you’re a GI you’re surrounded by people who hate you; you hate what you’re doing, but you have to do it; and you’re living for the day you get out. I see Arthur as being like someone drafted to Vietnam, who goes there full of ideas and gung ho, then gets it all shot away and comes down to himself. And that used to be an American hero, but we’ve become so cowboyed and numbed, we’ve lost track of who we once were.”
In the film, Franzoni sends Arthur north of Hadrian’s Wall to save a Roman nobleman, but he ends up finding that most reliable of Hollywood devices, the hero within. If we’re to believe Franzoni, Jerry Bruckheimer sent the screenwriter on a special mission to 5th-century Britain to find the real historical Arthur. But Franzoni has brought back Shane, an all-American hero, missing in action, long presumed dead.
Matthews describes the lack of historical evidence for the personalities who stemmed the first Saxon advance as “an Arthur-shaped hole”. Franzoni has filled the hole with the story he wanted to tell. Though the film is marketed on its historical objectivity, the subjective influence of the people who made it is delightfully evident.
And the historical debate is largely irrelevant. Arthur is lost. King Arthur is the latest in a long line of responses to the power of his legend. The armour on screen may be more accurately re-created than ever before, but, as usual, King Arthur the summer blockbuster tells us more about our own times than it does about those it allegedly depicts.
King Arthur opens on Friday
Times - Culture (Other Interpretations)
Cathedral Carving, 1120
du Lac, Robert Bresson, 1974
and the Holy Grail, 1975
Excalibur, John Boorman, 1981 (left) Boorman ditches narrative cohesion for a rich, if ill-conceived, symbolist fantasia that approaches the strange attraction of the Arthurian myths themselves. Nicol Williamson’s Merlin is funny and terrifying; Helen Mirren’s Morgana is arousing.
Camelot 3000, DC Comics, 1988 This comic-book series sees Arthur emerge from a cave underneath Glastonbury Tor to save the earth of the future from alien invasion.
-- July 19, 2004
Disney takes the legend to the maximus - Sean
“I want peace,” Arthur says wearily. He has the childhood wound of a slain parent (attacking horsemen, flaming hay cart, slow-motion cry of “Nooooooo”) and tired eyes that have seen too much. In the love scene, he has a torso with many scars.
The film is the chance for Clive Owen (Croupier) to become an international star. One only wishes that he had injected more tension into his admirably still underplaying. He barks when needed, but his quiet moments seem inert, even though he’s ageing ruggedly and has never been better photographed. But he needs that unimpeachable authority one finds in Sean Connery and Richard Burton; Ioan Gruffudd, as Lancelot, has much more oratorical heft.
Halfway through, the film can’t decide if its quest is a get-the-villagers-to-safety mission or something more complex, like the doomed last hurrah of The Wild Bunch. It is not for lack of noble intentions. All the stars are European and the legend of Camelot, last seen in the cartoonish First Knight, has been discarded for “recently discovered” historical fact.
The script works hard to fill in the political picture of Britain’s Roman occupation, laying out the conflicts between the Woads, Sarmatians and the Saxons. But this amounts to over-ornate footwork to ensure that Arthur’s knights are in servitude to the Romans and can therefore fight for the one value that works for all modern audiences — freedom.
Mel Gibson spent half of Braveheart yelling the word and Owen’s Arthur is no different. Surrounded by colonial tyranny, he is the visionary who believes in equality for all, an enlightened Christian who will take a pagan bride (Keira Knightley as a Xena, Warrior Princess of a Guinevere, complete with Woad war paint).
Like Crowe’s Maximus, Arthur has an ideal concept of Rome, which is shaken by the reality. He outgrows his political leaders. That is quite a departure for a Bruckheimer action hero. They are mavericks, as in Top Gun and Bad Boys, but are otherwise unquestioning reactionaries.
Bruckheimer’s populism carries the day, with an upbeat coda to remove
any lingering emotional complexity. This is, after all, the man who
made Armageddon. So look for such camp treats as a high- fiving knight
and lip-smacking baddies — “A round table? What kind of villainy is
23, 2004 - Cover story
How I learnt to lance... a lot -- Damian Whitworth
As the new movie
King Arthur reignites interest in medieval jousting tournaments, our
reporter dons 15th-century armour and finds that there's something of
the knight about him - but not much
King Arthur is back. The film, starring Clive Owen and Keira Knightley, which opens next week, has spawned extensive analysis of the place of Arthurian legend in our cultural landscape. But for some battle-hardened dreamers he never went away.
We are talking about knights. Not knights of the realm, those time-serving MPs and civil servants, businessmen and veteran pop stars whose status has recently been called into doubt by proposals to overhaul the honours system. But proper knights. Those valiant warriors who understand the true meaning of honour and duty and what it meant to be abroad in the days when men were men and dragons were scared.
These knights errant venture forth every summer to tour Albion and keep alive the ancient arts of war through the booming historical re-enactment industry. In this season of historical blockbusters, I was charged with trying to cut it as an action hero; an unfit, modern male, totally unschooled in combat, facing the harsh and humiliating realities of knight life.
On a blustery and showery day I find myself at Scarborough Castle, with Alan Larson and his troop of knights. Larson is an events consultant for English Heritage and travels the country staging battles and tournaments. Next month he will be mounting what is being billed as Britain’s biggest historical action event at Stoneleigh Park in Warwickshire. This will feature 3,000 performers and span two millennia, from Boadicea’s final battle to the Great War. Napoleon and King Arthur will be among those leading their troops into a specially built arena.
Larson’s men can do you any knight you like. In the film King Arthur is a Roman-British warlord whose knights are Sarmatian mercenaries. Sometimes Larson’s men stage battles from that era and they could also offer you a Celtic Arthur. But today they are recreating a 15th-century tournament which plays out romantic fantasies based on the ideals of Christian knights immortalised by Mallory in Le Morte d’Arthur.
Larson won’t let me just waltz in and become a knight straight away. First I have to don woollen hose and doublet, a pair of flimsy late-medieval style boots and a ridiculous Robin Hood hat. “You’re a squire,” he says. “An apprentice knight. Basically you run around after people. Do you need the glasses? In terms of visual impact they’re not very convincing.” I assure him that without them I would be even less convincing. He sends me off to acclimatise to the 15th century by trying my hand at juggling with the medieval jester and playing the hurdy gurdy, a curious droning instrument that unaccountably fell out of fashion.
After an hour I have authentically soggy feet and am worryingly comfortable and unselfconscious in my preposterous kit. I am taken to meet the knights.
Their leader is Nick Musson, who for the past decade has run the Free Fighters Guild, teaching actors, re-enactors and anyone who is interested in period fighting using swords and other metal weapons. Much of what he teaches comes from years of studying medieval fighting manuals.
For him this is a full-time job. His group of a dozen fighting men are semi-professionals who hold down other jobs as well. They spend the summer touring the country from castle to country house to festival, much as 15th-century knights did the rounds of tournaments. The medieval style tournament tents pitched along the edge of the clifftop field at Scarborough are not just for show. This is where they sleep after a long hard day in armour followed by a few beers.
Their performances too, he explains, are similar to those in the 15th century, when tournaments were sport, “the equivalent of modern day football matches. People in the crowd would have favourite knights and cheer their colours.”
The difference between original knights and their imitators is that the former were “trained to kill. Tournaments were light relief from the business of war.” Musson and his gang have been training together for several years, but he dismisses this is as nothing compared to the experience of medieval warriors and speaks in awed tones of their pedigree.
Training started at the age of 10, when a boy chosen to become a knight was removed from his home and sent to live with a liege lord and start his weapons training. He would graduate from valet to squire and be accepted into the knighthood only when he was between 18 and 21.
“They would have been incredibly fit and healthy. If I met one of them today they would probably take me apart in 30 seconds,” Musson says. Given that he is a barrel of muscle and looks capable of dismembering a weed like myself with his bare hands while carrying on a conversation and probably doing the crossword, he is either being modest about how he would shape up to his medieval forebears, or they truly were terrifying. Musson shows off a fearsome array of weapons including swords, great swords, war hammers, poleaxes, maces and the Lucerne hammer, which is “designed for getting through armour and doing generally nasty things to the body”. All the weapons have blunted edges. This was also the case in medieval tournaments, where deaths did occasionally occur, for the most part by accident.
He hands me a “hand and a half”, also known as a “bastard sword”; a 3ft (90cm) weapon which is between a sword and a great sword and would have been used both at tournaments and on the battlefield. He shows me how to grip with the right hand and use the left to steady the blade and drive the cutting action. He demonstrates some moves with his own blade, bringing it within an inch or two of my head in swift, unnerving movements. There is general amusement at my obvious unease.
I get a half-hour lesson in basic moves. Musson cheerfully punctuates his lesson with descriptions of how a cut will “take stuff out” and explanations of how to “get in close and pick-axe him” and “if you get a hit in the tatters it’s going to hurt whatever you’ve got there”. The strategy, in its simplest form, is to bring an opponent down, preferably with some hideous blow to the head, and then get at his throat to finish him.
Time to suit up. Out comes a full harness of armour made from mild steel. This replica suit cost around £3,000. The real thing, forged from case-hardened steel in the 15th century, would have been extremely expensive. “The equivalent of a good Ferrari,” says Musson. The finest harnesses took between nine months and a year to make.
It takes half an hour to buckle me up, one piece at a time. The breast plate is tight and I have to breathe in like a damsel trying to squeeze into a chastity belt. But the overwhelming problem is the weight. It is hard work taking just a few steps. “A fit man should be able to do a cartwheel,” observes Musson. “For you it’s an alien experience. But to them it was just like putting on a suit of clothes.”
Despite the burden, there is no doubt that wearing armour lends you a sense of medieval manhood. Suddenly you have arms like Schwarzenegger’s that can’t hang down straight at your sides. As far as you can move at all it is with a swagger.
“This is great!” I say. “I feel invincible.” I ask Musson how I would fare now if I was dumped in the middle of a medieval battle in full armour and the very basics of sword handling. “Oh, it would be over in 15 seconds,” he says matter-of-factly. “You’d put this on, head into battle and then you’d be dead. A brief but glorious career.”
The centrepiece of the tournament is jousting and Larson wants to determine what my horsemanship is like. I have been on a horse only once before and it was a miserable experience. I have never understood how men can overcome the challenge posed by our anatomical design in order to sit on a horse without suffering extreme discomfort and endangering the gene pool.
It takes three people to heave me, swearing, into the saddle and the look of horror on my face as the horse is led around the field convinces them to haul me down sharpish. There is no way I can attempt jousting.
Walking is hard enough. The Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz moved with infinitely more ease and certainly fewer curses. I am dripping with so much sweat I’m worried the whole suit will rust up and I’ll be stuck inside for ever. The helmet is fantastically heavy and bears down painfully on my skull. It is all I can do to keep my head upright. Nevertheless, I am expected to partcipate in the tournament. I am to engage in some hand to hand combat.
“None of the fights is choreographed,” explains Nick Musson ominously. “We try to make it as close to reality as we possibly can without actually killing each other. It turns into pantomime if you don’t do it with any serious intent.”
In my case, however, he will make an exception. We practise a few moves and then I stand out of the way as they get ready to do business. Although they are out of earshot of the public the knight marshal, who runs the show, addresses them all as if they are knights and squires, barking orders and ensuring that they all have the correct gear. Fantasy and reality have begun to blur. Then the knights gallop into the arena in front of a crowd of several hundred paying visitors. They canter around shooting wild boar (stuffed sacks dragged behind horses) with bows and arrows. Then they start fighting.
This is absolutely astonishing. They go at it as if they are really trying to beat seven shades out of each other. They score points for each “palpable hit” and there is no doubt they are fighting to win. Between bouts they stagger over to where I am standing and a maid in period costume pours a flagon of water down them, as if they are prize fighters. These hugely fit men are breathing hard from the effort.
When Musson comes over I point out that he has a small trickle of blood on his chin. “Have I? he says. “It’s just a nick. Nothing.”
When the fighting is over and a winner is declared, the compere explains that a journalist from The Times has agreed, “in a faking it kind of way” to take on one of the knights. But standing in the arena is a knight I do not recognise with his visor down. “That’s not Nick,” I say to the knight marshal, unable to mask the panic in my voice. “No,” he says impatiently. “Nick has gone to hospital with a horrendous neck wound. Come on, you’re on.”
As I creak into the middle I wave my sword in the air feebly and try to rally the crowd behind me. They look back, bemused. My fear is that the knight I am now challenging doesn’t know about our choreographed routine. Alan had told me to go at Nick with “everything you’ve got”, but what if this guy fights back?
I attempt to butterfly dance around him, Muhammad Ali style. Perhaps the crowd laugh but I can’t hear above the sound of my pumping heart. He comes at me. There is nothing for it, but to abandon all attempt at dignity and leg it. I must look like someone trying to sprint through treacle. I recall Musson warning me that this is a fatal mistake: “If anyone gets behind you, you’re knackered.” So I turn to face him. We exchange a couple of gentle blows and then he raises his sword and I catch a glimpse of his terrible intent. And then he crumples to the ground and pretends to die. Just for once, a moment of the hated pantomime has been allowed into the show. The crowd give a little cheer. They’re a generous lot in North Yorkshire. I take myself off to a far corner of the field where I can remove the armour without everyone seeing how wobbly my legs are.
Later I speak to Nick Musson. He required 11 stitches in a wound caused when his opponent caught him on the lower jaw and neck with a glaive, a 6ft weapon incorporating a huge knife on a pole. He had not been wearing a bevor, the piece of armour that protects the throat. He calls it an “unfortunate incident” and is back fighting the next day.
He explains that he was born in the wrong age. “It’s something I am often lamenting. I would have been very, very at home in medieval times. As a sword master you would have lived well. Put up in a wealthy nobleman’s house, fed and watered, had your own quarters. It would have been the ideal profession.”
"Some say that the age of chivalry is past, that the spirit of romance is dead. The age of chivalry is never past so long as there is wrong left unredressed on earth"
CHARLES KINGSLEY (1819-1875)
Heritage sites around the country have a variety of participatory events
during the year: www.english-heritage.org.uk