Political Film Society - Newsletter #201 - July 15, 2004

July 15, 2004


Director Antoine Fuqua attempts to set the record straight in his epic film King Arthur. Despite previous accounts that depict his rule as idyllic, a foretaste of the birth of democracy in Britain, the current movie is a prequel to his supposed reign, set in 452. Titles at the beginning indicate that the legend of King Arthur emerged in the fifteenth century (uncited reference to Thomas Malory's 1470 classic Le Morte d'Arthur), and that archaeological evidence (also unidentified) has now established some validity to the legend. (The legend arose in part because Tudor monarchs claimed legitimacy by tracing their lineage to a King Arthur.) As the film proceeds, more details emerge. A voiceover points out that Rome had territorial control stretching from southern England to Arabia by the third century. In 437, Rome's victory over Sarmatia, present-day Georgia or the Ukraine, the cavalry so distinguished itself in battle that the Sarmatian soldiers were spared, incorporated into the Roman army, and assigned for fifteen years to Britannia. Among the Sarmatians are Lancelot (played by Ioan Gruffudd), Galahad (played by Hugh Dancy), Dagonet (played by Ray Stevenson), and hawk-loving Tristan (played by Mads Mikkelsen). The battle for Britain, of course, started much earlier. Roman Emperor Hadrian had built a wall across England in 122 to prevent the army of the indigenous Picts in the north from overwhelming the Romans, who resided in fortresses. The film begins in 452, when the Sarmatians are to be released from their military service, presumably in order to claim a generous pension in affluent Rome as free men. In a flashback, Lucius Artorius Castus (played by Clive Owen), born in Britain as the son of a Roman soldier and a Celtic mother, witnesses an atrocity against his family, pulls a sword out of his father's burial mound at an early age (played by Shane Murray-Corcoran), goes to Rome, and returns as a not so devout Christian commander of a Roman legion in Britannia; the Sarmatians are under his command. But when safe conduct passes arrive from Rome at the end of the fifteen-year assignment, carried by the Bishop Germanius (played by Ivano Marescotti), one more order accompanies the passes: They are to rescue Marcus Honorius (played by Ken Stott), a Roman living in a fortress north of Hadrian's Wall with his young son Alecto (played by Lorenzo De Angelis), who is to be trained by the pope as his potential successor. To do so, the armies must go beyond the wall, with bleak prospects for success because the Picts are defended by the Woads, a guerrilla army. Nevertheless, Merlin (played by Stephen Dillane), leader of the Woads, allows the Romans to accomplish their mission without battle so that both forces can later combine against the advancing Saxon hordes, who are advancing from the east.

When Artorius reaches Honorius, he liberates prisoners captured by the Romans from the Woads, that is, those who were not tortured to death by the Christian leaders among them for the crime of paganism. Among the prisoners is Guinevere (played by Keira Nightley), Merlin's daughter. However, Alecto tells Artorius that Rome has fallen, so safe conduct passes are useless; there is no more Rome or pensions for them. In short, they are on their own, marooned in uncomfortable Britannia. Meanwhile, the barbarian Saxons are seeking conquest over the entire island, led by Cerdic (played by Stellan Skarsgård) and his son Cynric (played by Til Schweiger), whose principal strategy is ethnic cleansing and village burning. Much of the movie depicts the Battle of Badon Hill (fought on the ice) in which Artorius's Sarmatian legionnaires and the mangy Woads defeat the filthy Saxons; Artorius has promised that those under his command will be free and equal after victory, though Guinevere oddly leads the charge against the Saxons. When that victory arrives, Artorius is crowned King Arthur with Guinevere his queen, a ceremony at Stonehenge. Despite the noble purpose of trying to depict the real King Arthur, the film merely reinvents the legend of a person whom historians do not encounter anywhere. Much of the mumbled dialog is at variance with the facts, and the location for the filming is Ireland. Boadicea is the British warrior maiden (not Guinevere), who lived four centuries earlier, according to a legend that will soon be celebrated in yet another film. Roman legions withdrew in the wake of the invasions by Angles and Saxons around 410, the year when the Visigoths sacked Rome, yet they did not destroy Rome, preferring to preserve the wealth from which they benefited. The battle on the ice, of course, is taken from the noncontemporaneous contest between the Huns and the Russians in 1240, as depicted in Alexandr Nevsky (1938). The actual Badon Hill battle was fought closer to the year 500. And so on. As for the glimmerings of democracy, the film's Arthur evidently entertains inchoate notions about the separation of church and state, political and ethnic equality, and something called freedom. Such ideas are muddled today as well, indeed deliberately so by those who believe that "everything has changed" to combat "international terrorism." Thus, rather than celebrating a democratic Camelot, King Arthur adds to the confusion over whether liberties are really inalienable when security is craftily posed as a primary concern. Doubtless the film would have been more successful with Russell Crowe in the lead.  MH

The Annual Membership Meeting of the Political Film Society will be held at 8 p.m. on July 24 at the Hyatt Sedona (Arizona). Check with Michael Haas to ascertain the suite number for the meeting.