© Ley Line Entertainment / Bron Creative / A24
It’s fair to say that the regal, if probably hypothetical, legend of King Arthur has suffered more than a few flesh wounds from filmmakers over the years.
At least in the case of the Monty Python team, the filmmakers were deliberately taking the piss. Their 1974 movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail inflicted on poor Arthur such indignities as the Knights Who Say ‘Ni!’, the bloodthirsty Rabbit of Caerbannog, the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch, Dennis of the Autonomous Collective (“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.”) and the outrageously rude French guard (“You don’t frighten us, English pig-dogs! Go and boil your bottoms, sons of a silly person!”).
More worryingly, other filmmakers have tried to be serious, though with cringeworthy results. I’m thinking of 1967’s Camelot, which has Richard Harris’s Arthur bursting into song and warbling, “You mean a king who fought a dragon / Whacked him in two and fixed his wagon / Goes to be wed in terror and distress? / Yes!” Or 2004’s King Arthur, which has a grimly wooden Clive Owen in the title role and which, according to the Times’ reviewer Wendy Ide, ‘attaches itself to the Arthurian legend like some parasitic worm’. Or 2017’s King Arthur: The Legend of the Sword, which was directed by Guy Ritchie in the manner you’d expect from Guy Ritchie, complete with a cameo appearance by that well-known icon of the Dark Ages, David Beckham.
Actually, I’ve immersed myself a lot in the King Arthur legend recently, not through films but through books, which I’ve found much more rewarding. Not long ago, I managed to finish off T. H. White’s Once and Future King series, comprised of The Sword in the Stone (1938), The Queen of Air and Darkness (1939), The Ill-Made Knight (1940), The Candle in the Wind (1958) and The Book of Merlyn (1977). Yes, I know, the first book was the basis for the underwhelming 1963 Walt Disney cartoon, but the series becomes impressively philosophical, political and tragic as it goes on. I’ve also lately read Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2015 novel The Buried Giant, set a short period after the death of Arthur. Come to think of it, The Buried Giant could almost qualify as a postscript to White’s series, although there are a few differences in continuity. (For example, Merlin is said to be dead by the time of Ishiguro’s novel, whereas in the timeline established by White he’d be alive. His ability in the Once and Future King books to live through time in the opposite direction from human beings, from the future to the past, would ensure that.)
© Faber & Faber
A figure from Arthurian legend who plays a major role in The Buried Giant, as an elderly man, is Arthur’s nephew Sir Gawain. Gawain, of course, occupies his own niche in the Arthurian mythos because he’s the main character in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the late 14th century poem written in a North West Midlands dialect of Middle English. The poem has Sir Gawain respond to the mysterious Green Knight who arrives at Arthur’s court one Christmas Eve with an unusual challenge: who is prepared to strike him a blow with the axe he is carrying, on the condition that one year from now the Green Knight gets an opportunity to return the blow on his home turf, a place called the Green Chapel? Gawain takes up the challenge and uses the axe to whack off the Green Knight’s head. That, however, doesn’t resolve the matter, because the Green Knight refuses to die. He picks up his head and rides off, leaving Gawain honour-bound to keep the appointment at the Green Chapel next Christmas. Obviously, there, he’ll receive an equivalent blow that he’s less likely to be impervious to.
The poem was filmed twice in the 20th century by the director Stephen Weeks, first in 1973 as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight with singer Murray Head as Gawain and Nigel Greene as the Green Knight, and again in 1984 as Sword of the Valiant. Both versions made little impact and the clearly well-intentioned Weeks was hampered by low budgets. With the second version, he was no doubt hampered too by the fact he made the film for the notoriously schlocky Cannon Group, whose co-owners Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus overrode his choice of Mark Hamill to play Gawain and instead foisted on him Miles O’Keefe, who’d previous played the Lord of the Jungle in 1981’s dire Tarzan the Ape Man. A better casting choice was Sean Connery as the Green Knight.
Now, however, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has received the big budget treatment. Well, at 15 million dollars, not that big, but certainly a lot more than Stephen Weeks had to play with. David Lowery has written and directed a new version with Dev Patel, of 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire, stepping into Gawain’s armour. I have to say the resulting film, with the shortened title The Green Knight, isn’t perfect, but nonetheless it does justice to the poem at last. It also qualifies as that rare beast – a quality King Arthur movie.
The Green Knight doesn’t present a fanciful or idealised picture of Arthur’s court, if that court had ever actually existed. While it doesn’t wallow in medieval dirt, muck and shit like Monty Python and the Holy Grail (“Dennis! There’s some lovely filth down here!”), it does show life in and around Arthur’s citadel as wintry, draughty, farmyard-y and unglamorous. Accordingly, Arthur and Guinevere (Sean Harris and Kate Dickie) are portrayed as an ageing, rather threadbare couple, who don’t even get the accolade of being referred to by their legendary names. They’re just ‘the king’ and ‘the queen’.
On the other hand, the film is keen to show how unspectacular characters, settings and events get exaggerated and mythologised and turned into legends. It makes much of story-telling and myth-making. For example, no sooner has Gawain had his first encounter with the Green Knight than the tale is being retold as a puppet show for the neighbourhood’s children. On a battlefield strewn with newly-dead corpses, a scavenger (Barry Keoghan) is already recounting stories of derring-do about the battle that are clearly over-the-top bullshit. And Arthur himself pleads with his court, “Friends, brothers and sisters, who can regale me and my queen with some myth or tale?” When he asks Gawain, “Tell me a tale of yourself so that I might know thee,” and Gawain replies, “I have none to tell,” Guinevere interjects with: “Yet. You have none to tell yet.”
© Ley Line Entertainment / Bron Creative / A24
It reminds me of another movie with a focus on myth-making, but a very different setting, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), John Ford’s meditation about the end of America’s Wild West. As Carleton Young’s newspaper-editor character says in that film, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend!”
I thought the first hour-and-a-bit of The Green Knight was splendid. The Green Knight himself is presented wonderfully as a proper green man, all gnarled wood and straggly tree-root beard, and his appearance is complemented by his voice, which is that of gravelly Yorkshireman Ralph Ineson. Actually, it’s nice to see Ineson and Kate Dickie together in a film again after they played the doomed Puritan parents in Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2015).
Once Gawain sets off in search of the Green Chapel, to keep his unwanted appointment, he has several phantasmagorical adventures that involve phantoms, giants and supernaturally intelligent animals and that are gorgeously shot by cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo. However, it’s the episode with Barry Keoghan and his grubby little band of thieves that’s perhaps most haunting, thanks to an amazing sequence with a rotating camera-shot and time-lapse special effects that makes you wonder if anything else you see in the film is going to be true.
But The Green Knight does, in my opinion, have a structural problem. This is because in the original poem the adventures Gawain has during the first half of his journey are not described in any detail, and what we see on screen presumably comes from Lowery’s imagination. However, later events in the film are based on the poem and form an important part of the plot. These involve Gawain coming to a castle near the Green Chapel and enjoying the hospitality of its lord (Joel Edgerton) and lady (Alicia Vikander) during the last few days before his appointment. His experiences there become strange and prove to be a series of tests. That’s fine, but after the fantastical episodes that Gawain’s been through earlier on, these castle-bound scenes feel something of a let-down and act as a brake on the film’s momentum.
The climax bravely departs from the denouement of the poem (which had Arthur’s sister, and Gawain’s aunt, Morgan Le Fay popping up as a sort of medieval deus ex machina). Instead, it does something that had me thinking of the climax of Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). This neatly echoes the earlier themes of storytelling and myth-making.
The Green Knight certainly isn’t to everyone’s tastes. For example, a certain well-known science-fiction author, clearly more a Guy Richie / King Arthur: Legend of the Sword man, denounced it on twitter recently as “the worst film I’ve watched this year… What a waste of good actors. I want my two hours back.” However, if you’re in the right frame of mind, not expecting anything like the usual cinematic Arthurian fare, and willing to tolerate some ruminative, slow-moving stuff in the second half, you may find it magical.
© Ley Line Entertainment / Bron Creative / A24