King Arthur 2004

An Advance Impression by Kai MacTane

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King Arthur, slated for release “this summer”, is already raising eyebrows at the non-standard portrayal of Guinevere in the trailer. Billing itself as “the true story behind the legend”, the movie’s not really bothering with the “canonical” rendition of the Arthurian legends. Its official Web site has a couple of Shockwave trailers, including one “enhanced” version, that give a few tidbits of advance information about the film. [Edit, September 4th, 2006: The official site is no longer available.]

Guinevere in battle
Guinevere, showing tattoos

Guinevere (pictured, right) is played by Keira Knightley, previously seen in Pirates of the Caribbean and the sleeper hit Bend It Like Beckham. Practically every shot we’ve seen of her so far involves her charging into battle, firing flaming arrows, and generally being even more butch and warrior-ish than Éowyn (save when she chopped off the Nazgûl king’s mount’s head). This is definitely not your mother’s Guinevere. Looking like some fey woodland creature, I predict that variations on her tooled leather straps and intricate woad tattoos are likely to set the style for the well-dressed Otherkin for at least the next eight months. If she lives up to the foe-smashing, weapon-wielding potential we’ve seen so far, she should be a big hit, even if the movie tanks.

Which it may well do. It seems to be steering a middle course between authenticity and Hollywoodization. This means it’s introducing a load of new ideas that are likely to annoy and confuse the mainstream audience, while the Hollywood elements are liable to piss off the historically aware Arthur fans who might otherwise be enthusiastic, repeat viewers.

In this rendition, Arthur is a Roman officer, stationed at Camboglanna near Hadrian’s Wall at the time of Rome’s withdrawal from Britain and the onset of the Dark Ages. It looks like he may even be Sarmatian — certainly Lancelot and Galahad are, though what they’re even doing in this movie is a little unclear. Lancelot du Lac is a blatantly French name, obviously inserted into the legends by the Medieval French, along with Galahad the perfect, pure and innocent. If the producers of this movie want us to believe that it’s as true as possible, they should have left out these interlopers.

But, whether you stick with well-attested analysis that makes Lancelot and Galahad French, or take this movie’s odd course of considering them Sarmatian, you still find that opting for a Roman Arthur leaves Guinevere and Merlin as the only authentic Britons in Arthur’s inner circle. Portraying Guinevere as a Pictish warrior queen is not too great a stretch, really... even if her name is generally traced to Welsh roots. However, the description of Merlin as a “guerilla commander” of the “Woads” (Picts) doesn’t inspire much confidence.

Authenticity enthusiasts will, of course, find lots to be annoyed at. Even in the trailer, there are explosions galore, prompting the obvious question of where they found all that gunpowder in early Dark Age Britain. We can also see trebuchets in use, despite the fact that they weren’t used in Britain until hundreds of years later. There’s plate mail galore, and probably dozens more anachronisms will be discovered once the movie is actually released. None of this, of course, will bother the mainstream audience in the slightest.

What probably will bother them is the painful fact that, with the Arthurian legend, it’s folly to expect a happy ending. The first half of the cycle is the glorious, triumphant crescendo of Arthur uniting Britain and bringing justice to the land, but the second half is the awful, slow-motion car-crash of seeing everything Arthur built come tumbling down into ruin. There’s no word yet on whether Hollywood will try to juice up the ending into something happy enough for American audiences. And there’s no way of telling how well Americans are ready to accept a canonical (read: intensely depressing) ending — short of finding out at the box office.

Marion Zimmer Bradley fans will be disappointed to note that there is so far not the slightest hint of Morgan Le Fay, nor of Mordred, the Lady of the Lake, or matriarchal religion. The Picts (even if they’re called “Woads” everywhere in the promotional material) may well have some feminist elements to their culture — they’re led by Guinevere, after all — but we just can’t tell from the brief bits of battle and action that take up most of the trailer.

Indeed, there’s only so much we can tell from what’s available so far. But if I may go out on a limb: It looks as though the movie’s producers are walking a tightrope between history and pleasing the audience. But trying to second-guess your audience is nearly always fatal for any sort of artistic vision, and the tightrope routine can also be seen simply as cherry-picking story elements, nearly at random. While this movie may well be enjoyable on a visceral level — filled with battles and action, and Keira Knightley looking lovely in very little clothing — I think it will be painfully flawed on any intellectual or historical level. I think the disparate plot threads they’re trying to weave together will ultimately tear apart.

Come this summer, we’ll know for sure.