Arthur: A king for every Hollywood season

Story of chivalry, honor and passion proves irresistible to movie directors


July 04, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

Thanks to the stage and screen Lerner-and-Loewe musical Camelot, Americans know something about the legends of King Arthur. Maybe it's the keenly weighted three-way love tale, with the good king's nearly perfect knight, Lancelot, falling for his queen, Guinevere. Maybe it's the dueling magic of Arthur's slippery half-sister Morgana and his mentor-wizard Merlin, or the villainy of (depending on the version) his cousin, nephew, son or brother, Mordred. Maybe it's Arthur's proof of destiny when he wrests a sword from a stone, or his formation of his Round Table and its codes of chivalry. Or maybe it's his knights' quest for the healing Holy Grail, usually associated with the chalice Jesus drank from at the Last Supper.

Most likely, it's his plea for remembrance of a heroic age as expressed in Lerner's lyrics: "Don't let it be forgot / That once there was a spot / For one brief shining moment / That was known as Camelot." For those are the lines that Jackie Kennedy famously remembered her husband listening to on the original-cast album before he went to bed.

The latest big-screen chronicle of King Arthur -- called, simply, King Arthur -- intends to blast the mold off medieval folklore and the sheen from its Broadway rendering. Director Antoine Fuqua of Training Day and producer Jerry Bruckheimer of Pirates of the Caribbean set their production in the falling years of the Roman Empire. They reposition Arthur as a half-Roman commander of a band of military knights who rescue innocent Britons from marauding Saxons. There's no illicit love between Lancelot and Guinevere, now a woman warrior -- only her seduction of and climactic marriage to a bold, savvy Arthur.

But can any piece of high-concept revisionism, even from these Hollywood super-pros, undo our own Arthurian traditions?

The linkage of JFK and Arthur as fallen heroes has cemented the Camelot story in American minds as a tale of ruling-class idealism undone. Even before Camelot (the play had its premiere in 1960, the film in '67), Arthur's knights had invaded our culture as gun-slinging natural noblemen in cowboy films like Shane (1953). And a dozen years after JFK's assassination, the Arthur fables fueled an intricate pop mythology in George Lucas' Star Wars films.

When he was finishing his King Arthur epic, Excalibur, British writer-director John Boorman spelled out the connection between Star Wars and Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur, telling the movie magazine Sight And Sound that Lucas' series was almost "a straight transposition of the Arthurian story," with Alec Guinness' Obi Wan Kenobe as Merlin and Mark Hamill's Luke Skywalker as "the boy Arthur, suddenly chosen to be King."

In times of tumult

The core tale of handing down righteous power in troubled times and healing a broken universe appeared universal to Boorman and pertinent to Anglo-American audiences in the post-Watergate and post-Vietnam era, whether dressed in medieval duds or sci-fi clothing. Over the last quarter-century, new renderings of the Arthur story have frequently appeared at times of tumult, whether in Star Wars or medieval guise.

Excalibur appeared at the start of the Reagan era, between the first two Star Wars films (Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back) and Return of the Jedi. First Knight, with Sean Connery as Arthur, Richard Gere as Lancelot and Julia Ormond as Guinevere, premiered in 1995, during Clinton's first term -- while Lucas was digitally revamping Star Wars for its re-release a year and a half later. Of course, the new King Arthur arrives between the first two episodes of the Star Wars prequel trilogy and the final chapter, due next year -- and at a time of epochal turbulence in America.

Ridley Scott, who directed Gladiator, has described knight-in-shining-armor films as "Westerns indigenous to England." Scott didn't direct King Arthur, but Gladiator's screenwriter, David Franzoni, provided the script. The trailer, featuring a bow-wielding Guinevere (Keira Knightley) helping Arthur (Clive Owen) and Lancelot (Ioan Gruffud) fight off barbaric hordes, does suggest frontier survival sagas. But surely the "Westerns-indigenous-to-England" formulation goes the wrong way around. Like Westerns and Lucas films, knight movies are full of armed men of honor battling "savage" bands across an untamed countryside. The Western is actually a sort of knight story indigenous to America.

Boorman is right in his instinct that, with each retelling, grasping Excalibur or the Grail, like mastering the Force, represents an attempt to transcend the chaos not just of Arthur's or Skywalker's time, but of the audience's. Each big-screen version of the Arthur story has mirrored its own cultural history.

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