Thursday, August 30, 2018

Movie Musing - The Magic is Gone

I’ve obviously blogged quite a bit about Excalibur and the opening scenes already. But I wanted to explore a strange phenomenon that occurred with films based on the Arthurian legends for the last couple of decades. For a lot of folks Excalibur is the definitive film version of the legend. But Hollywood is always eager to churn out films with familiar characters and situations. In theory, that familiarity entices viewers to come to the theaters and watch the film.

Often the creative forces behind the camera have a different idea. They are not content to make the same movie over and over (can't say I blame them). They will want to shake things up a bit and bring a new twist to the old story. When you are talking about something as old a King Arthur, it is hard to imagine a new twist that hasn't already been done. Mark Twain did time travel and King Arthur back in 1889.

The Arthurian legend provides plenty of stories and characters to tap into, as well as numerous versions of the familiar stories. You can focus only on the love triangle. You can focus on Merlin and the magic. You can focus on the Quest for the Holy Grail. You can select another knight’s story to explore like Gawain and the Green Knight, or Sir Tristan’s love for Isolde. Lancelot has a ton of adventures on his own and some of those are bound to make for exciting films. Or you can select one of the many other knights who manage to get mentioned in Malory’s Le Morte de’ Arthur. Who wouldn't want to see The Many Adventures of Sir Griflet.

No need to fight about it, you both look ridiculous.
But for some reason Hollywood used a different tactic during the 1990s and 2000s. In those years we had three films based in the legends. First Knight focused on the love triangle and turned Arthur and Genevere’s marriage into one of political gain. The other two attempted to place Arthur and his knights firmly in history, specifically at the end of the Roman Empire. King Arthur, produced by Jerry Bruckheimer of Pirates of the Caribbean and Top Gun fame, brought an action heavy version of the story. It was gritty, and dirty and packed with action. The Last Legion went for a similar angle trying to work a more historically believable scenario and putting Colin Firth in the lead role of the man who would become Uther Pendragon. None of these films did all that well and are essentially forgotten by most folks (except film music fans who will tell you how entertaining the scores are with the likes of Jerry Goldsmith, Hans Zimmer and Patrick Doyle working on them).

No the sword isn't helping, I still don't buy it.
You could attribute a bunch of reasons for this. Each film has some serious faults on display. First Knight throws Richard Gere into the role of Lancelot, and he looks about as out of place in medieval armor you expect him to. King Arthur looks so dower and grim that you don’t see a hint of any of the adventure or thrills you would expect in this kind of story. The Last Legion also had some odd casting and was poorly marketed.

With all the grit and realism flying around, it is no
wonder the movie looks so drab.
The main reason I found these films frustrating is the fact that they ignore the magic inherent in the legend. These films try to ground Arthur and his knights. They try to explain all the “magic” in practical and sensible ways. Merlin isn’t a sorcerer (if he even appears in the film) but he’s a druid or trickster. Excalibur is a normal Roman sword that just happens to have some Latin writing on it that could be mistaken for the word, Excalibur. Holy Grail? Who needs it. Those wonderfully weird moments form Malory’s epic where omens appear, or people transform, or the oddly wonderful Questing Beast taunts the knights. None of that to see here. We are going for realism... in a King Arthur movie.

Guinevere lets out a mighty yawp.
Are these movies ashamed to embrace the fantasy of what is essentially (and maybe quintessentially) a fantasy story? Can you really have these characters without the magic? Maybe. But then you have to have all the other elements working. Clearly that wasn’t happening in any of these adaptations.

Ok, James Franco as Tristan may have been
worse casting than Richard Gere as Lancelot... maybe.
I’ve given First Knight the most chances over the years. I keep wanting it to work, because all the story elements are in place. Even though Jerry Goldsmith’s score goes into overdrive to make it all work, the movie ends up lifeless and dull for a good portion of the film. Part of it is the lack of chemistry between Gere and just about everyone else in the movie. But I feel the lack of magic removes anything that makes it stand out from a standard medieval epic. You could have a similar story with differently named characters and it would probably be just as effective.

Does anything about this image remind you of King Arthur?
The other two films came out in the post-Dark Knight/Casino Royale world. Everything had to be realistic and gritty. I guess Jackson’s amazing adaptation of Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter films had taken up all the magic Hollywood could handle. So we get these two films that are “historically accurate”, except that historians can’t agree if Arthur was a real person and if so, who he was. Both films take major liberties with all kinds of historical details. It opens up the Arthurian legend to a bunch of scrutiny that isn’t needed. We shouldn’t be distracted by the fact that we have end of the Empire era Romans running around in the incorrect armor in front of a castle that is clearly build in the late middle ages. There is no point to that. Neither of these movies is all that fun to watch. The spirit of adventure or romance are gone. It is all grim action and serious growling of silly lines.

"Smile kid, at least Uwe Boll isn't directing this."
To not embrace the magic and fantasy is to miss one of the key reasons for the appeal of these stories. We want to see and experience the fantastic. We want to see the unbreakable sword pulled from the stone. We want to see Merlin casting spells. We want to see the dangers of the mysterious forests filled with bizarre creatures. We expect the Holy Grail. We expect the Lady of the Lake. We expect the magic.

I think they are both disappointed in Camelot's "grandeur".
While the recent King Arthur: Legend of the Sword bombed in theaters, at least it looked like it embraced the fantasy. It is obviously more inspired by Game of Thrones and the Marvel franchise, but that is another issue altogether. But it somehow managed to look more monochromatic and drab than the Bruckheimer King Arthur, a feat in itself.

These stories are timeless because they explore timeless themes. The three films from the 90s and 00s do accomplish this to a degree. But they also ignore the key elements that make them so beloved and well known. I think this may have hurt them in the long run.
"At some point, someone is going to look back fondly at this
version of Merlin."
Check out Patrick H Willem's YouTube channel for an excellent video essay about Hollywoods obsession with Robin Hood and King Arthur and his theory on why the latest films based on these stories have failed. He also has tons of great video essays about film in general. Well worth checking out.


  1. A Connecticut Yankee was one of my favorite novels back around age 11, and it still holds up for an adult reader. The rationalist storyline works there, though perhaps that is because time travel to an imaginary kingdom was magic enough for one novel.

    In general I agree that taking the myth out of mythic tales undermines their point. We saw this with Troy (2004), too. There very probably was a Trojan war and maybe it involved in some way a misfortunate royal wedding: up until the 20th century, marriage and diplomacy often were the same thing. But if you eliminate the judgment of Paris and the squabbling of the gods, the human characters cease to be tragic and just become petty.

    1. Yeah Twain’s take on it makes sense became of the themes he is working with. It was an entertaining book. A bit snarkier than I was expecting.

      Ugh that version of Troy was pretty disappointing for a bunch of reasons

  2. I agree with you, most of the Arthurian legend films just don't work for me. There are a few exceptions: Disney's Sword and the Stone, A Knight's Tale--it's not about King Arthur but in the mold, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. That might be it for me.

    1. Fun story about "Monty Python and the Holy Grail". I first saw it when I was a kid during a "summer in science" camp. The actual class (because it wasn't a camp, but actual classes) was about creating a bridge made of toothpicks and seeing whose ended up standing the stress test. Ours failed miserably.

      But the last day of the class, our teacher said we got to enjoy one of his favorite comedies, and we watched the film. I had never seen anything so absurd in my life, but I nearly fell off the chair laughing during the killer rabbit sequence. It became one of my favorite comedies from that day forward. So quotable and still brings a smile to my face.