Sunday, May 23, 2010

Arthur Rides Again

- King Arthur On Screen
Just as Robin Hood is associated with May Day revels, King Arthur in the early manuscripts is associated with the feast of Pentecost, better known in Britain as Whitsuntide. Several mediaeval romances have Arthur holding a special court where in exchange for the feast, he expects to be entertained by a tale of some wonder or marvel.

Pentecost, still a public holiday in many European states, was also when people set off on pilgrimages, so the timing of the entertainment may have been to inspire them just before setting off. We ourselves are approaching Pentecost [7th Sunday after Easter] and the (perhaps older) British holiday of Whitsuntide (basis of the official Spring Bank Holiday = last Monday in May). As knights riding out on quest is such a cinematic image, it seems a good time to take a look at what Arthurian screen entertainments await us in 2010.

Currently, there seem to be up to half a dozen Arthurian films in the works.
One is Galahad, alias Mortal Armor: The Legend Of Galahad. It was announced as due to start filming in Britain in 2007, but didn’t. It has since got a new director, Mikael Salomon. He is the twice Oscar-nominated Danish filmmaker who has worked on Hollywood productions as a cinematographer (The Abyss etc) and director (Band of Brothers). It’s synopsized as “A coming-of-age take on Sir Galahad's quest for the Holy Grail.” This one, from Seven Arts Pictures, however seems to have stalled in pre-production again as it has recently disappeared off the “British films in production” list.
The second is an announced remake of the 1981 John Boorman film Excalibur, usually considered the most intelligent of Arthurian films. It’s being produced by ‘X-Men’ director Bryan Singer, who spent years getting the rights. The original 1981 script, by Rospo Pallenberg, focussed for the first time in Arthurian screen drama on the mythic rather than the dubious “historical” side of the legend. Boorman had wanted to make Lord Of The Rings, but couldn’t get the rights. (Boorman and Pallenberg are currently working together again, on an adaption of leading French author Marguerite Yourcenar's much-admired 1951 Memoirs Of Hadrian, so it looks like we’ll soon be back to Hadrian’s Wall, setting of the last major Arthurian screen drama, the 2004 King Arthur starring Clive Owen, which we discussed earlier.) This remake is also in pre-production, though given the director and source, perhaps I shouldn’t say remake, but re-imagining. Another project inspired by Boorman’s Excalibur, from the British outfit Pendragon, was put on hold when the 2004 King Arthur film was announced; since revived by writer-director Alan Campbell in 2006 “as an attempt to put Arthur into a historical setting,” this ‘Pendragon’ is still awaiting funding.

Another project is sometimes confused with the above, as it’s another Arthurian drama from the same studio, Warner Bros. Some press sources even refer to it by the same working title, Excalibur. (The Boorman film was only called Excalibur when the producers were told their original – less dynamic - choice, Merlin, was likely to lead to what English lawyers call a “passing-off” action due to the Robert Nye novel. The retitling ironically helped sell it as a sword-n-sorcery action drama abroad. Merlin itself of course is now also taken as a title, first by a 1998 TV miniseries starring Sam Neill, and a 1998 tv movie starring Jason Connery as young Merlin, and then a 2008-9 three-season BBC children’s series, which depicts Merlin, Arthur, and Guenevere Harry Potter style as teenagers developing their professional and interpersonal skills.)
The current director assigned to this new WB film is Guy Ritchie, best known for several violent gangster films and his recent bare-knuckle Sherlock Holmes re-working. The Arthurian legend is again to be “reimagined for a modern audience,” focusses on the Round Table knights gathering, and is being described as "The Magnificent Seven in armour," but “in the tone of Star Wars.” (Whew.) It’s being scripted by John Hodge, who adapted Trainspotting and The Beach, supposedly using Sir Thomas Malory’s 1470s mediaeval-romance compilation Le Morte d’Arthur. (Malory’s in 1485 became the first printed version, has remained in print ever since, and is the standard reference for scriptwriters, so this means little.) This is being scripted by British graphic-novel author Warren Ellis. His earlier Marvel comic-book series of the same title was otherwise unrelated, but he has done a historical graphic novel, Crecy, on the 100 Hundred Years battle which was won largely by English archery.

The final project was only announced in March, and so is still at the scripting stage, though shooting is due to start in June. (Typical.) This is Camelot, a US-financed “five-season” TV miniseries to be made over a 5-year period in Ireland, with production based at Ardmore Studios in Wicklow (where Boorman’s Excalibur was made). The producer was also involved with the 2004 Clive Owen film King Arthur and made the recent BBC miniseries The Tudors, both based at Ardmore, just outside Dublin. Scripted largely by The Tudors series head writer, Michael Hirst, this will “centre on the fellowship of the knights of Camelot. While it will feature King Arthur, it will not follow The Tudors style of focusing on one person. Scriptwriters will flesh out the characters of Sir Galahad, Sir Gawain and Sir Lancelot.” The producer says the concept is “to make the past seem relative and contemporary. That’s what we did for the Tudors.” (This caused press comment by historians about anachronisms.) Co-produced by British quality tv drama production co. Ecosse Films, it seems to have been presold to the Starz pay-cable channel in the States, which suggests it is not for children. (That's the channel that bought the Spartacus: Blood And Sand TV series, which has gory violence as well as explicit sex.) Ecosse’s Douglas Rae told trade paper Variety it would be a drama of “genuine ambition on the scale of Rome and Band of Brothers.”

A producer of one of the above projects made a crack about his being different from “the 751” earlier Arthurian screen dramas. I don’t know about the total, but I find difficult to come up with a listing of ten Arthurian films or TV dramas I would recommend to a friend. There is a book on earlier Arthurian films, though it’s an academic tome priced for the institutional market. This is Cinema Arthuriana: Twenty Essays, edited by Kevin J. Harty, author of the 2006 The Reel Middle Ages. Cinema Arthuriana has been updated since 1991 not only to cover new releases, but to reflect the changing nature of Arthurian media studies. (I gather in the 2002 2nd edition only 4 of the 20 essays were straight reprints.) I haven’t ordered it due to its price, but apparently Arthurian films go back to 1904, so 751 may well approximate the actual total. The book’s editor has a partial filmography online here, up to 1997.

Unlike with Robin Hood, Hollywood seems to have become interested in Arthur only after WWII, when they needed to free up moneys held in Britain under postwar currency export restrictions as well as to find suitable subjects for historical epic, the genre they built up to promote the new widescreen and single-strip Technicolor filming processes as production values. MGM led the way. They had done well out of a 1952 film of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, which is itself a reworking by Scott of the original French mediaeval romance Lancelot, The Knight Of The Cart into an historical setting contemporary to Robin Hood, who has a cameo part in it. So for their first big-screen colour location adaptation, MGM made Knights Of The Round Table, 1953, in Devon (on Dartmoor), Cornwall (at Tintagel) and Ireland, with Robert Taylor as Lancelot. We meet him singing along with his troop as he searches out Arthur to serve him, though when they meet they challenge-fight in the woods a la Robin and Little John. At ‘the Ring Of Stones,’ a replica Stonehenge set, where a council of war inevitably turns into treachery, Arthur's men push over a sarsen to make good their escape, and L jumps off the fallen sarsen onto his trained horse Beric, just like in a 50s western. The following pitched battle is won Agincourt style, recreating Olivier's 1944 Henry V quite openly with longbow volleys. (To be fair, the same director’s Ivanhoe had showers of arrows in the scene where Robin Hood also appears.)
Camelot itself appears later on, when Lancelot returns after fighting the usual badly-dressed Picts and dallying with Elaine the lady of Astolat, a magnificent stone castle with courtyard and lawns for jousting. Then as L dallies with Guenevere, treachery by Modred (Stanley Baker) who schemes to wreck the chance of a truce, leading to a climatic battle largely offscreen on a fogbound field, precipitated by an adder bite. (I should add the scriptwriters got this touch from the original 12th-C sources, or it might easily have been a rattlesnake.) L fights Modred to the death on a rocky headland, and is saved from the Dartmoor quicksand quagmire (you know, the ones in The Hound Of The Baskervilles) by whistling up his trusty steed Beric. After a quick visit to a now-penitent Guenevere in a nunnery (in the sources, it’s at Amesbury near Stonehenge), finally we’re back to Tintagel, whose monastic ruins represent ‘the Chapel of the Sword,’ where L casts Excalibur into the sea, and presumably casts himself into exile for his sins, the film indicating L's unborn son Galahad will carry on the Round Table tradition. The Grail manifests itself to L’s successor Percival, with a voice-over, apparently from God, as a grand finale.

One way or another, KOTRT seems to have discouraged Hollywood from doing anything more than action programmers until they decided to film the Lerner & Loewe stage musical Camelot, as a 3-hour production starring Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave (and David Hemmings as Arthur’s bastard son Mordred). This was a promising idea, because the Arthurian mythos emerged largely from a bardic tradition which demonstrated the power of verse and song in regard to reputation. (It was said even kings feared bards lampooning them.) Lerner & Loewe had already built a musical around the theme of language with their 1956 My Fair Lady, from Shaw’s play Pygmalion.
Ostensibly based on T.H. White’s novel-sequence The Once And Future King (which Disney based their 1963 animated version The Sword in the Stone on), this 1967 production, shot mainly on a soundstage (with a few exteriors shot in California and Spain), has an odd narrative framework. It opens with Arthur musing on his life on the eve of his fateful final battle, setting up the main story as an flashback. This done, it ends with an inept finale with a CU of Richard Harris shouting "Run" at the boy Young Tom he has been telling his story to. Tom is meant to be the future author Sir Thomas Malory, who Arthur tells to flee so he can write this up as a memoir later. (It’s actually some 8 centuries later, from time-setting to Malory’s era.)
White’s approach is entirely whimsical and eccentric, which is not such a problem for a stylised stage musical, but Hollywood’s treatment of it leads to unintended absurdities. For instance, Arthur refers to the other two as 'Jenny' and 'Lance.' The songs don’t deal with Shavian themes, of the power of language etc. even though this was a natural. (The words glamour – originally meaning fairy enchantment and grammar are anciently related, and White even calls Britain the Isle of Grammarye.) Here’s a paragraph from a recent piece by Alex von Tunzelmann in The Guardian [“Camelot: what a castleful of crock,” 1 Oct 2009] on how Arthur

… sets up a Round Table, and advertises for knights. Thousands of written manuscripts are scattered out of towers and from horseback, all across the land. Yes, thousands. The printing press did not arrive in Britain for another millennium, so Arthur's monks must have been slaving round the clock to illuminate all those. As they are strewn, the toiling peasants of the fields pick them up and give them a good read. So very literate, these sixth-century farmhands. It's amazing they didn't leave more written sources. Over in France, Lancelot (Franco Nero) catches one manuscript. This prompts him to take a short break from striding around his battlements showing everyone how great he is, in order to sing a song telling everyone how great he is. He's French, so it's called C'est Moi.

I’m sure there’s an interesting film in the idea of a French knight going to a British court, but no-one seems to have picked up on that yet. (In Camelot, Guenevere seems to fall in love with L because he apparently brings a dead knight back to life!) The Sixties did however produce a less overblown version with Cornel Wilde directing and starring as the French knight, together with his wife Jean as Guenevere: Lancelot And Guinevere (1963), released in the US as Sword Of Lancelot. This was one of the first period action films shot in Yugoslavia, where thousands of horsemen were available at discount prices, though it seems to have been a tough shoot, and the first to show real violence, with men having limbs lopped off. This is not gratuitous but in the context of the story shows how foolish dalliance which violates a strict social code leads to grim consequences for everyone.

However it was only in the Seventies that such more thoughtful adaptations started to appear. There were a couple of films by the French filmmakers Bresson and Rohmer (which I haven’t yet managed to view), plus the first film version of Gawain And The Green Knight – (starring pop singer Murray Head) which seems to have sunk without trace. The same director would be hired to remake the film in the 80s as a comic-bookish version, Sword Of The Valiant, with then-Tarzan star Miles O’Keeffe as Gawain and Sean Connery as the Green Knight. The first major British cinema version was actually the 1975 spoof Monty Python And The Holy Grail, shot in Scotland, which made fun of the Arthurian genre’s tropes:
ARTHUR: The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water signifying by Divine Providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. That is why I am your king!
PEASANT: Listen - strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.
ARTHUR: Be quiet!

British tv had just graduated by then beyond innocuous kiddie adventures like The Adventures Of Sir Lancelot to the more realist Arthur Of The Britons (1972), which even gained a potted-feature release under its international syndication title King Arthur, The Young Warlord. This Welsh ITV production shows, in 24 half-hours, Arthur as an up-and-coming Dark Ages war leader, with famous motifs like the sword in the stone given a ‘rationalised’ depiction. (He demonstrates the importance of tribes working together by piling a boulder atop a sword – only together can the chiefs dislodge it so he can raise the sword.)

On the other hand, Boorman and Pallenberg’s Excalibur in 1981 was the first to focus on the purely mythic aspects. It made no attempt to work in any Dark Ages background history. This had Shakespearean actors to keep the intense, poetic dialogue from becoming risible, and wild Irish countryside to give it the look of a heavily wooded Dark ages landscape, contrasting with the glittering silvery armour of the knights.

Since then, nothing has really rivalled it. American productions tend to be family friendly - indeed, many are cartoons. Hallmark’s 1998 $30-million live-action 2-part mini-series Merlin for NBC-TV, starring Sam Neill, Isabella Rossellini as Nimue, Rutger Hauer as Vortigern, Helena Bonham-Carter as Morgan le Fay etc., is perhaps the most familiar example of this ‘inclusive’ family-oriented approach, though shot authentically in Wales. The director, Steve Baron, claimed at the time it was based on "lost sources". However, a viewing of even the longer 2006 DVD version (much re-edited from the TV presentation) suggests these new sources were not anywhere within the Arthurian mythos, but found in other fantasy works such as Tolkien or Ridley Scott’s Legend.
Thus, we get cute Disneyesque characters put in for young children, such as an elf called Frick as comic relief, a talking horse, Miranda Richardson from Blackadder playing Queen Mab (basically a Shakespearean poetic figure) as a croaky-voiced panto villainess, and a dragon done by the Jim Henson muppets workshop, plus plenty of first-generation CGI effects. As far as Arthurian legend goes, it doesn’t try to dramatize this either, just takes characters like old Merlin’s young nemesis Nimue and turns the pair into lifelong lovers. Supposedly the story is about Mab trying to block the advent of Christianity, so that witches like her will not lose their power. Arthur, Guenevere et al are pallid characters with merely incidental roles.

Even when filmmakers adopt a more realist approach, this tends to flounder trying to bridge the gap between explaining the story in terms of Dark Ages political history and the motifs of a familiar, popular but mediaeval and artificial legend. While many postwar novels seem to be able to reconcile the two aspects, this is through a careful use of point-of-view (often the stories are told in the first person). American-financed films need to be understandable to a mass audience, so in films like Merlin you get an Arthur who is inevitably 'King of all England' – something that is more than just an anachronism, since any Arthur figure worth his salt would have been fighting to stop the new Germanic nation state of ‘Angle-land’ coming into being.

Even the more sophisticated recent screen drama Tristan & Isolde (2005) falls prey to this confusion. The story is an Arthurian spinoff (Arthur himself is not a character in the T&I legend), so it has no need to work in any familiar motif, the film takes pains to create a Dark Ages west country rife with inter-tribal politics, with a script development period that was a good two decades. (Producer Ridley Scott was going to make it as his 2nd film in 1979, but went to Hollywood instead.) Despite this, none of the geopolitical background the story is built around (here, King Mark rather than Arthur wants to build a tribally united ‘England’) really makes much sense on reflection, and there are other touches indicating a ‘grab-bag’ approach. Mark’s Cornish stronghold is built in Norman style (atop a Roman dungeon the builders did not notice), the poison that paralyses Tristan is from a puffer fish [Japanese], there is the inevitable talk of the English and England as well (more interestingly) of one of their more obscure tribal components, the Jutes, and so on.

It makes one wonder if the genre is so inherently confused between the legend’s Dark Ages settings, and the need to serve the familiar mediaeval motifs in a contemporary populist way that it’s simply beyond the reach of popular cinema (though not of the popular novel) to reconcile. The romantic version of the Arthurian story is one of a short-lived golden age of political unity. This probably never happened, but in terms of an artistic golden age, we had the flourishing of the Arthurian cycle as the most popular subject matter in British literature before the printing press was invented. And its legacy has continued into the modern era with a series of Arthurian novels which satisfy both realist and romantic sensibilities, something that flourished soon after WWII and still continues. (This is perhaps the topic of another post.)
However, in terms of screen drama, we definitely haven’t had our golden age yet.