Published August 6, 2004
Adding Jerry Bruckheimer to the mix does not brighten the prospects.
It is surprising that these three decided to film not the Arthur of legend, but the historical Arthur. It is even more surprising that they get away with it. More or less.
The historical Arthur was born in 475 and became high king, or Vortigern, of Britain around 500. His greatest achievement is defeating a Saxon army at Badon in 516. He was killed in 537 in a civil war. The civil war was fought between those who wanted to follow the orthodox teachings of Rome and those who followed the teachings of Pelagius, a more liberal and nationalist Christian.
Early on in the film, we get to see Arthur fight alongside bishop Germanus. St. Germanus was an actual fighting bishop who came to Britain before Arthur was born. This is not the only chronological inconsistency. In the film Arthur is a Roman knight, whereas Rome actually abandoned Britain in 410. But the real Arthur´s family was known for its Roman allegiance.
These are small matters. What the film manages to do is to capture quite well the feel of a new world rising out of a collapsing civilisation. In one of the films more chilling scenes, Arthur discovers a group of monks who torture heathens for the glory of God. This, the church, is the new power that will take the place of the fallen Empire. It is one of the great absurdities as well as tragedies of history how the message of Jesus Christ deteriorated into an orgy of sadism, the likes of which have rarely been seen before or since. It is tempting to go Freudian and suggest that putting power into the hands of people not allowed to have sex will force them to get their kicks in other ways.
But Arthur´s main enemy is the Saxons. The Swedish Stellan Skarsgard puts on a mighty codpiece and a southern accent to play the leader of the Germanic invaders. Why this doesn´t look as ridiculous as it sounds, I don´t know. The Saxons are portrayed as pure evil, killing each other as well as anyone else merely for the sake of killing. Are these really the ancestors of the noble Anglo-Saxons of today, who selflessly delivered us from the clutches of the evil Saddam Hussein? Of course not, says the film. Stellan gives his men orders not to rape the British women, as this would lead to a thinning out of the blood. Of course medieval Saxons were motivated by Nazi racial theory, and did not breed with the English, hence the English of today have nothing to do with them.
And yet, the movie just works. Merlin plays a minor role as leader of the Woads. Lancelot’s inability to leave other men´s wifes alone is hinted at, but despite a build up, nothing happens. If you want the Arthur of legend, look up Excalibur by John Boorman. It´s hard to capture the magic much better than that. But this attempt to show the historical Arthur is better than it has any right to be.
(For a great book on the Arthur of history – fictional though it may be – I’d recommend The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley – Paul)