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Friday, May 26, 2017

On Some Visual(King)Arthurs

Arthur. Public domain.

Here's a link to an entertaining article I read yesterday. It was ranking ten Arthurian films from worst to best. I can't say I agreed with all the ratings, but I found that I had actually seen most of those on the list. Of those I hadn't, there was one of which I had seen the original version - I never knew there had been a remake of Prince Valiant! That was one I considered silly but fun, despite all those American accents. The only Brit I recall was the villain, played by James Mason. It had some good music and a singing sword that hummed the film's main theme as it was wielded by the hero..

Anyway, I thought it might be fun, since I've long ago posted on my favourite Arthurian books, to talk about some of the films and TV shows I've seen over the years. I won't bother rating them, just give my opinion. Some are on the Tor list. In no special order...

Monty Python And The Holy Grail: Loved it! On the remote chance you've missed this, King Arthur(Graham Chapman)goes searching, accompanied by his faithful squire Patsy,  for knights to join him in a quest for the Holy Grail. They don't actually have horses, so Patsy carries coconut shells to clop together to make the sound of hooves as they gallop along. This, in its turn, leads to a long argument with men on a castle wall as to how a coconut got to Britain in the first place(carried by a swallow). Along the way, as they collect knights, they encounter various obstacles such as the Knights Who Say Ni, who demand ... a shrubbery, a murderous rabbit and a bridge which will toss you over if you fail to answer three questions. (It ends up tossing off the bridge keeper when he fails to answer a question put to him). And there's no Merlin, but there is Tim the Enchanter, who warns them against the rabbit. There are communist peasants, carts collecting plague-ridden bodies, even if they're not quite dead, a witch trial in which the accused is weighed against a duck... I have shown the plague scene and the witch scene to my Year 8 history class, who thoroughly enjoyed it. The Pythons knew what they were sending up. It's intelligent writing. It's funny whoever you are, but much funnier if you know the background. I first saw this when writing a thesis about Arthurian literature and couldn't stop laughing. 

Excalibur: a stunningly beautiful film made in Ireland back in the 1980s. It stars Nicol Williamson as Merlin, and what a wonderful Merlin he was too. You never found out his background but it didn't matter. It was a mixture of the late Middle Ages and the Dark Ages. Magic filled the air, though Merlin told anyone who would listen that the age of magic was coming to an end. Arthur and Guinevere were played by Nigel Terry, who had played Prince John in The Lion In Winter, opposite Peter O'Toole and Katherine Hepburn, and Cherie Lunghi, who played quite a few roles later, including Beatrice in the BBC Much Ado About Nothing. Lancelot was played by Nicholas Clay, who later played Glaucus, the hero, in a mini-series of The Last Days Of Pompeii, opposite Franco Nero, who had played Lancelot in the film version of Camelot. He played a villainous priest!   In fact, Excalibur featured quite a few future stars, including Patrick Stewart, Helen Mirren and Liam Neeson. The music was mostly Wagner, and whatever I think of Wagner, it fitted beautifully here. I'm afraid the Orff O Fortuna tune played while a healed Arthur and his knights galloped across a blossoming land, while wonderful, had been used in a coffee commercial shortly before, and people in the cinema I saw it in burst out laughing. Not the film's fault! 

Camelot: In my opinion, neither Richard Harris nor Vanessa Redgrave can/could sing. It didn't matter much in his case, because Arthur is a sort of Rex Harrison role, singing-wise, who can talk-sing most of his songs, and Richard Burton, the Broadway Arthur, couldn't sing either. It did matter in her case, because Guinevere is a singing role. Why couldn't they have had Marni Nixon or some such person to do the singing? Still, it was visually stunning, especially the wedding scene, with a wedding gown stitched with thousands of glowing pumpkin seeds. The designer was our very own Aussie John Truscott. I've read The Once And Future King, on which it was based, and whileRichard  Harris was no singer, he got the spirit of T.H White's Arthur across amazingly. I should add, though, that many years later I saw him on stage with beautiful young Aussie singer Marina Prior as Guinevere. Quite apart from the fact that he was way too old for the role by then, he seemed bored after so many performances and, sadly, was walking through it. A great disappointment. After all, Chaim Topol had played Tevye many times when I saw him on stage and he was as amazing as ever. 

Oh, and Italian actor Franco Nero was a lovely Lancelot, but eventually returned to Italy, because he was fed up with playing villains in the U.S. Which didn't stop him from taking the role of an evil priest in the Pompeii mini-series. 

The NBC Merlin mini-series, starring Sam Neill as Merlin and Isabella Rossellini as a Nimue who was not evil at all. It was choc-a-block with big-name stars, such as Miranda Richardson as a villain - I'm so used to seeing her in comedy, I had to adjust. I thought it a bit silly, but it had quite a few elements of Geoffrey of Monmouth's version. And watching it, I wished that someone had made a full-scale version of Mary Stewart's Merlin novels, because IMO, Sam Neill would have been perfect for the role of Stewart's adult Merlin. And those books, too, were inspired by Geoffrey Of Monmouth. 

There was, in fact, a British children's version of The Crystal Cave, Merlin Of The Crystal Cave, with a young actor called Michael Winter, who had appeared as a long-lost prince in The Knights Of God, which had vaguely Arthurian elements in a futuristic dystopian setting. It began at the end of the second book, The Hollow Hills, in which Arthur is made king, when Merlin says he wouldn't wear the cliched starry robe even for Arthur. As Merlin rides off with his servant, he tells the man his own life story and the rest of the film is a flashback. I enjoyed it, though it had some changes from the novel. As far as I know, it's the only time any of the Stewart Arthuriad has been dramatised. If you've heard otherwise, please say so in the comments below. 

King Arthur, a 2004 film in which Arthur is a Roman cavalry officer, as he may well have been, and his knights are all Sarmatians. I recall the Sarmatian theory being aired in a non fiction book which I didn't take too seriously, but it seemed to work for that film. He and his little troupe of knights have finished their time in the Roman auxiliaries and are looking forward to retirement, when they're required to do one more mission. Of course, it's likely to kill off one or more of our heroes, no spoiler as to which of them. Meanwhile, they face danger from the "Woads", led by a tribal chieftain called Merlin. Guinevere, played by Keira Knightley, is Merlin's daughter and a warrior lass who can shoot arrows amazingly. It may be the only Arthurian film in which I've liked Lancelot, a brave fighter who believes firmly that after his death he will return as a glorious white horse, an animal which his tribe holds sacred, and begs not to be buried if he is killed. He might be attracted to Guinevere, but there's no romance here and Arthur and Guinevere only marry in the last scene anyway. Woads and Romans must join to deal with the mutual enemy, the Saxons. There's this delicious scene where the knights are riding off after finishing their mission, and turn to see Arthur, who will fight the whole damned Saxon army alone if he has to. Of course, you know what cones next!  I liked it. It was anachronistic in many ways, and the Romans were out of Britain by the time the story is set, but I still couldn't help liking it. By the way, if you look quickly, you'll see a Round Table. The Tor review says it isn't there, but it is, at the army's HQ. Of course, with a tiny group like Arthur's, it isn't for them, but it's still the Round Table. 

Sword Of The Valiant, a film of Gawain And The Green Knight, the only one I know of. That alone scores points for it in my opinion. Mind you, it's not too faithful to the poem, in which the jovial Sir Bertilak was really the Green Knight, and the whole thing is a test of young Gawain's honouring of his promise, not to mention set up by Morgan Le Fay to scare Guinevere, but Sean Connery was just right for a Green Knight who is, as we're told while he is dying, an embodiment of the land and nature. In fact, I've read theories that state he is a vegetation god. The scene where Gawain is peeing with his armour on is utterly cheeky! Not the best Arthurian film ever made, but worth seeing at least once, and I vaguely recall that Rosemary Sutcliff was involved. 

Arthur Of The Britons: A children's TV series with Oliver Tobias. This Arthur rules a few villages, not Britain, though he is highly respected as a leader, and the Saxons are already long settled in Britain. His foster brother, Cei, is a Saxon brought up by Britons, and gung ho for his adopted people, but has a re-think about the enemy when he sees how they live and the fairness of their justice system. In fact, Arthur almost makes peace with them in the course of the series. King Mark of Cornwall, played by Brian Blessed, would probably have made mincemeat of Tristan if he had existed in this series , but he doesn't. The costumes look well and truly lived-in, the sets are fairly typical British low-budget, but it was an entertaining show. I should add that the show's theme tune was composed by Elmer Bernstein, who wrote the score for The Ten Commandments

Look, there are plenty more, but this will do for now. If you have a favourite I haven't mentioned, tell me about it in the comments. 

Now for one or two I wish had been filmed, but weren't. 

An adult version of the Mary Stewart novels. See above.

Rosemary Sutcliff's The Sword At Sunset. This Arthur is a Romano-British cavalry officer, who works to save Britain from Saxon invaders. He has his sword thrown into the lake so that the enemy, who would recognise it, won't know he's dead. It's the best "real Arthur" version I have read. It has been dramatised, but only for stage. I think you can catch an amateur version on YouTube. 

The novel Arthur, King, by Dennis Lee Anderson, which was set in wartime Britain. King Arthur follows Mordred into the future to get back Excalibur and Merlin's journal, which goes till 1945, because, like T.H White's Merlin, he's living backwards. This Arthur became a father in his teens, seduced and abandoned by Mordred's mother, so is in his prime, not middle aged. He has to pose as a British pilot - well, he learns how to take off, but never gets the hang of landing! He is befriended by an American volunteer(the Yanks aren't yet in the war). He falls in love with a beautiful doctor called Jenny. Think of the film Time After Time. Yes. Like that. The author of the novel was a screenwriter, so it read like a film anyway. 

Do you have any favourites you wish gad been filmed? 


Christine O Cheallaigh said...

Well, there was First Knight, starring Sean Connery as Arthur, Julia Ormond as Guinevere, and Richard Gere as Lancelot. Okay, so that one mostly focused on Lancelot and Guinevere, and of course at that point Connery had more gray hair than anything (and as far as I can tell, Arthur was NOT old enough to be her father in any of the stories), but it does a decent job of telling at least part of the story.

I saw Camelot while I was still in school, I don't remember what grade I was in or which teacher showed it to us, but we watched it over the course of a couple days or so. I didn't even realise it was Richard Harris playing Arthur until long after he played Dumbledore...and naturally he was a lot older by the time he played Dumbledore, so he was going to look a lot different.

I think one of my favorites is the Merlin mini-series with Sam Neill. I watch it every time it's on TV. Then there's Mists of Avalon (I like the book series way better, though), which definitely puts a new perspective on the story. I can't think of any others right now. I think we actually have Holy Grail on DVD finally, although I've never watched it if we do. My favorite scene is still Arthur arguing with the knight ("It's just a flesh wound!").

Sue Bursztynski said...

Ah, First Knight, yes, though I didn't much care for it. But even then, Sean Connery, grey hair and all, had been voted Sexiest Man Alive. I think it might be that twinkle in the eye and the gorgeous deep rumbling voice... ;-)

I read Mists of Avalon years ago, soon after it came out, but I HATED what she did to my beloved Arthur, turning him into a wimp. And while I was okay with Merlin as a title, it would have been nice to have a slightly more dignified personal name than Kevin, surely...?

I have the Sam Neill version somewhere in my huge DVD collection, must find it and watch it again.

You know, there are quite a few politicians who remind me of John Cleese's Black Knight, refusing to accept that they have lost because they're crap rather than because people were just wanting to send a message and didn't really want their government out...

It's a delightful scene, I agree.

Unknown said...

My favorite is the Monty Python version too! I love the Mary Stewart books, although I'm not a big fan of the Camelot mythos (always hated the love triangle). I also really like the new series in the UK starring Colin Morgan and John Hurt (as the dragon). It's funny and cute! Have a good weekend!

Sue Bursztynski said...

Is that the BBC Merlin? I haven't seen much of that, though it was interesting to see Uther played by Rupert Giles the librarian. :) But our students loved it when it was on. They would come in at lunchtime to watch the latest episode on line, no doubt illegally.

I see your point about the love triangle, though it isn't always as presented in, say, Malory. Parke Godwin's Arthur, for example, understands it only happened briefly because she was suffering a bad bout of depression and needed cheering up. The real victim is poor Ancellius(Lancelot), a rather sweet man who is dominated by the women in his life, including his wife. When Guinevere tells him to piss off, she's returning to Arthur - whom she chose freely, by the way - he remains her friend- that eventually gets him killed, in the next book... Guin gets into trouble not for the affair but for killing a perceived rival.

Sharon Himsl said...

This is quite the list! I definitely remember The Lion in Winter. Peter O'Toole was fabulous and of course Katherine Hepburn. Camelot too gets my vote. Everyone loved Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave. You sometimes wonder though if they would be as popular today. Times and tastes change.

Sue Bursztynski said...

The Lion In Winter was wonderful! It was a very early film of Anthony Hopkins, playing Richard, who said Katherine Hepburn taught him quite a lot about acting. It must have been a master class!

I imagine if Camelot was remade it would feature young actors instead of people in their prime. Fortunately, there are plenty who can sing these days!