INDEPTH: KING ARTHUR ON SCREEN:|
Warrior queens and blind critics
by Robin Rowland, CBC News Online | July 13, 2004
In the climactic battle scene of the latest summer blockbuster, King Arthur, Keira Knightley plays the warrior queen Guinevere. She is clad only in a leather harness, body painted in white and tattooed in blue woad, and leads the men and women of her northern tribe into battle against the invading Saxons. Her allies are hard-riding, sword-swinging heavy cavalry, Roman auxiliaries from some unknown place far away in Eastern Europa, commanded by a half Roman-half British commander, named Artorius.
Across North America, the film critics have largely scoffed at the premise Arthur as a Dark Age cavalry commander and in that they have revealed a collective failure of basic journalism: accurate reporting.
It seems most of the critics walked into those pre-release press screenings of King Arthur expecting knights in shining armour belting out a chorus of "Camelot, Camelot" brought up to date with a little hip-hop beat. Or perhaps a computer-generated owl leading a teenager to a sword stuck in a hunk of granite.
Instead producer Jerry Bruckheimer (Black Hawk Down and Pirates of the Caribbean), director Antoine Fuqua (Tears of the Sun) and writer David Franzoni (Gladiator) delivered a sword in the gut.
It's fine when critics tell readers that, in their opinion, the acting stinks, the director went too far in the vision-thing, the director of photography shouldn't have shot the entire flick with a wide-angle lens, or a script with 20 credited and uncredited writers is awful. But these critics also work for news organizations, whose raison d'être should be accuracy and fairness.
Whether it's pop culture or literature, accounts of a historic Dark Age Romano-British Arthur (as well as near-naked sword-swinging warrior queens) have been around in print, from comic books to paperback potboilers to New York Times bestsellers, for at least the past 50 years. But this King Arthur is the first version set in the Dark Ages to reach the big screen, so it seems, for film critics at least, this fifth-century tale came like an unexpected arrow out of the dark forest.
Stephen Hunt of The Washington Post says, "the conceit is to locate the authentic Arthur…amid the suspiciously over-illuminated Dark Ages." A. O. Scott of The New York Times says, "In the name of accuracy, apparently, some familiar elements have been altered or dropped altogether." Rick Groen of the Globe and Mail seems that most outraged by it all, opening his review with "May the gods protect us from modernists messing with our myths" and calling the film "a bum's rush back to the Dark Ages."
Woad-painted warrior queens
As big a surprise as it seems, if there ever was a Dark Age Guinevere, Keira Knightley's leather-clad warrior is probably closer to the truth than the fragile damsel in distress expected and beloved by the critics. (And if you watch the movie you will see that her male counterparts among the Celtic tribes were just as naked, painted white with blue woad tattoos. It's not exactly breaking news that the ancient Celts often went into battle naked Julius Caesar and other Roman chroniclers reported it 2,000 years ago and of course used it to their tactical advantage.)
Celtic women commanded men in battle. Boudicca, a British warrior queen, along with her daughters, led a revolt against Rome that almost succeeded. There's been a bronze sculpture of Boudicca, (properly clad for the Edwardian era) outside the British Parliament by Westminster Bridge since it was presented to the nation in 1902. Scantily clad women (and men) confronted the Romans in Boudicca, the recent mini-series produced by Britain's ITV.
If there is a model for Knightley's Guinevere, it comes from Ireland, where the surviving myths give hints of ancient Celtic religion and society. There's the mighty Queen Maeve of Connaught a leader, a warrior and a woman known for her hungry sexuality, who started the war with Ulster in perhaps the most famous of the Irish hero myths, The Cattle Raid of Cooley. The war gods of the Celts were often female. Boudicca invoked her tribal war goddess, Andraste, in her battle against Rome. The Irish myths have three, Morrigan, most often depicted as standing in blood surrounded by crows, with her sister war-goddesses Badhbh and Nemhain.
The demure Guinevere comes into the story much later, when the 14th-century troubadours invented romantic love, an idea believed by some scholars to be a western reinterpretation of Muslim attitudes to women at the time, adopted and adapted by returning crusaders. And today some feminist scholars will tell you that it was the freedom women enjoyed in ancient Celtic society reported by the Romans with some disgust, in fact that is the root of the freedom women have in the West today.
What's a standing stone, Roger?
Two thumbs down to Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun Times for the last lines of his review, which say "… in the last shot, …the camera audaciously pulls back to reveal Stonehenge. This gives the audience members a choice, they can think (a) A-ha! So that explains Stonehenge. Or (b) What a cheap shot to use Stonehenge as a location when it has nothing to do with anything, or (c) What's that?"
Answer: None of the above.
It ain't Stonehenge. Stonehenge stands in the middle of the vast, usually green, Salisbury Plain. The closing scene of Arthur takes place among a group of what are called "standing stones" somewhere on the coast with the ocean in the background. Ask any historian, archaeologist or tour guide and they will tell there are "standing stones" all over the British Isles, not to mention most of Western Europe and even the island of Malta.
There are "standing stones" all over the British Isles including The
Ring of Brodgar on the Orkney Islands in Scotland. There are more than
1,000 prehistoric sites on the Orkneys, making it the greatest
concentration of any place in Europe. And since wood is nearly
nonexistent on this wind-swept cluster of islands, just about everything
is made of stone. (AP Photo/Lisa Marie Pane)
Standing stones, many admittedly similar to those in Stonehenge, have been part of the iconography of Celtic tales for at least 150 years, starting with mid-1800s engravings in the books that revived the myths, then pre-Raphaelite style paintings and illustrations in popular books and magazines in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, through countless comic books and fantasy and science fiction covers. It's not new, it's almost a cliché, but for King Arthur it's as appropriate an ending as the medal presentation scene that closed the first Star Wars movie.
Sunset, mist and crystal
If all of this were new, if the Dark Age Arthur had sprung from David Franzoni's imagination, as the film critics seem to have assumed, they could be forgiven. But as they say in journalism school, never assume, and here the critics have fallen through the ice, just as the Saxons do in the battle scene in King Arthur.
If there's a definitive Dark Age Arthur, it comes in Rosemary Sutcliff's Sword at Sunset, first published in 1963 and, in an age when publishers expect books to last just three months, Sword at Sunset is still in print and available from online booksellers more than 40 years later.
As a child, Sutcliff was diagnosed with the wasting Still's disease, a form of arthritis, and spent her life in a wheelchair. That didn't stop her vivid imagination and her passion for thorough research. She published more than 50 books, fiction and non-fiction, plus short stories and plays, between 1950 and her death in 1992. She was awarded an OBE in 1975, upgraded to a Commander of the British Empire just before her death.
Sutcliff's most popular books followed one family through the ages in Roman Britain. Sword at Sunset is a purely historical novel, presenting Artos as a cavalry leader who unites the few Romans who stayed in Britain with the Celts to fight the invading Saxons. The key battle of Badon was imagined for Sutcliff by a member of Britain's army staff college. Like the movie King Arthur, the novel is dark, as the all-too-human Artos attempts to hold off the encroaching doom.
There are at least a dozen other books about a Dark Age, historical Arthur including, a trilogy by Bernard Cornwell, the author of the Napoleonic Sharpe's Rifles books and a mega-series, The Camulod Chronicles by Canadian (and former CBC writer) Jack Whyte.
There's more. Other authors have had success by adding a fantasy element to the Dark Ages, with few of those shining moments that were Camelot. In the 1970s, Mary Stewart created a fifth-century Merlin with magical powers who lived in a solidly researched dark age, written in the tradition of Celtic magic realism. With the first book in the series, The Crystal Cave, which follows Merlin as he discovers his powers and his destiny, through The Hollow Hills which covers his loving friendship for Arthur, and The Last Enchantment which tells of the decline of both men, Stewart was on the bestseller list.
In the 1980s, Marion Zimmer Bradley rewrote the tales of the Dark Age Arthur from the woman's point of view, again with elements of magic and fantasy, in The Mists of Avalon, told largely through the eyes of Morgaine, Arthur's sister, and in the sequels The Forest House and The Lady of Avalon.
There are more, perhaps too many to count, other Arthur-related fantasy novels, again set in the Dark Ages, with authors including well-known science fiction and fantasy writers such as Anne McCaffrey and Fred Saberhagen.
But get ready. Reports from Hollywood say that Mel Gibson's next bloody blockbuster will be about the rebel warrior queen Boudicca. So here's a summer reading assignment, while on the beach: The Complete Idiot's Guide to Celtic Wisdom (and, yes, it's a real book). By the time Gibson's new epic hits the screen, the critics will be ready.
Sword at Sunset
Rosemary Sutcliff's novel of a Dark Age Arthur Sword at Sunset has been in print since it was first published in 1963.
Cover of the 1971 Coronet British paperback edition of Sword at
Cover of the current paperback edition of Sword at Sunset