by Jon N. Hall 3/26/14
NOTE: The following movie review, my first attempt at one, appeared on Sep. 4, 2006 at a long-defunct vanity website called DissectingPopCulture. I trot it out again because the movie is currently running on cable on both Encore (March 29) and Starz (April 1), so fire up your DVRs. Also, my cable provider, AT&T Uverse, let’s one order it On Demand for free. The flick may not be in the same rank as Citizen Kane and Vertigo, but it has its moments. Here’s how I saw it eight years ago:
I’ve been reading FrontPageMag for years, and I’ll be damned if I’ve ever seen where the “popular culture” was in the Center for the Study of Popular Culture. Clearly, the CSPC and its FrontPageMag focused on politics, academia, slavery reparations, jihad, the GWOT, the descent of Europe into Eurabia, and many other serious matters. But pop culture seemed to get short shrift. So I concluded that I would need to get other websites to run my odes to John Wayne, my panegyrics to Bruce Willis, and my “Lamentations on the growing putrefaction of Rock & Roll since 1975”.
However, the Center has just been renamed “The David Horowitz Freedom Center”. This is a much better name, and fitting that it bears its founder’s name. We are fortunate to have an institution dedicated to a value not understood, not cherished, and not much seen outside the West: Freedom.
But getting back to popular culture—which is the focus of this website—occasionally it produces something apropos of the Center’s new name: call it the “Freedom film”. And that’s what this article is about, a Freedom film Mr. Horowitz and his minions just might approve of.
For some time now I’ve been boycotting Hollywood. I did make one exception, however, when I went to the theatre to screen Scorsese’s The Aviator, a film so magnificent on so many levels that I forgot to feel guilty about my lapse in resolve breaking boycott. But all other recent films have had to come to cable TV. So it is only recently that I have screened what might be the ultimate Freedom film: 2004’s King Arthur.
I didn’t think I’d like this King Arthur as much as I do, but there’s so much to commend it. First off, there’s the “look” of it; shot in Ireland it’s a very pretty movie. Hans Zimmer has delivered a fine orchestral score, sort of a new-agey Brucknerian thing with Celtic overtones. And there’s some haunting singing by Maire Brennan (lead singer in the Celtic band Clannad). There’s one helluva great battle scene on a frozen lake that surely must be inspired by Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938). The special effects in this scene are tiptop. The acting is fine throughout; Ray Winstone’s Bors stands out. Screenwriter David Franzoni (Gladiator) has written a fine script, with goodly dollops of humor. Interestingly, the director is an African-American, Antoine Fuqua (Tears of the Sun).
But the most creative and original thing about this particular King Arthur, and what jazzes me most about it, is the very concept of the film. This is a de-mythologizing of the story. You get none of the mysticism and magic found in Camelot, Excalibur and other renderings. It’s an attempt to make it seem real, to set it down in history.
Arthur is a 5th century Roman commander policing Britannia. His knights are from Sarmatia, the steppes of present-day Ukraine. Arthur is Christian and his Sarmatian knights—Lancelot, Galahad, Gawain, Dagonet, Tristan, and Bors—are pagan. The story begins in 452 A.D. (Incidentally, this so happens to be one year after the great Battle of Châlons-sur-Marne, one of the most important battles in history, where Romans allied with Visigoths beat back the Huns. It was the last major battle of the Western Roman Empire, which fell in 476 A.D., ushering in the Dark Ages.) Romans have gone to the defeated Sarmatia to conscript Lancelot, still just a lad, for military service in Britannia. The action then jumps forward 15 years, and it is here that the continuing theme of Freedom asserts itself. For it is the eve of Arthur and his knight’s discharge from their 15-year military service—they are about to become free men. Arthur plans to go to Rome, which he idealizes, and his knights plan to go home to Sarmatia, although Bors is considering staying in Britannia.
But Freedom is to be postponed, as Rome has one last mission for the knights before granting them their discharge papers, and it is more dangerous than any other. A mighty Saxon army is invading to the north. (This is historically accurate inasmuch as the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes did invade the island in the 5th century). Rome is withdrawing from “indefensible outposts” like Britannia, and needs the knights to rescue an important Roman family whose estate lies between them and the invading Saxons. Trouble is: the estate is north of Hadrian’s Wall, the land of the fierce Woads (native Britons, so named for the blue pigment they apply to their skin). Since Rome is abandoning Britannia to the invading Saxons, the knights feel they’ve been fighting for nothing. But to gain their Freedom they must obey this final order and rescue the family.
As expected, while riding north Arthur and his knights are attacked by the Woads. But just as they are about to be massacred Merlin, the leader of the Woads, calls it off and lets them live. Old Merlin has other plans for Arthur. So they make it to the estate, but are shocked to see the wretched condition of the Woad slaves. They’re malnourished and are being overworked and abused by the Romans. Arthur informs everyone that a vast and terrible army that will show no mercy is fast approaching, and he prepares to evacuate everyone immediately, including the slaves. Tristan returns from his reconnoitering and informs Arthur that they have no time; the Saxons are very near. It is beginning to snow, and they hear the Saxon war drums reverberating through the hills.
Right as they are about to evacuate Arthur eyes a suspicious-looking building. Though time is of the essence, they break down the door and find a dungeon where Woads are being punished for their heresies. They rescue the 2 Woads who haven’t succumbed, a boy and one Guinevere, whom Arthur himself carries out. They then set out on their escape. (The scenes at the estate and of the subsequent snowy journey back to safety are the most beautiful in the movie. Some of the shots look like Pre-Raphaelite paintings. And on the journey Zimmer’s score blazes forth in its Brucknerian mode.)
During the trek we learn that Arthur is only half Roman, his mother was a Briton. One night during their journey back to safety Guinevere walks away from their encampment, trying to lure Arthur to follow her, which he does. And out of the snowy mists appears Merlin, Arthur’s mortal enemy. Merlin knows the Romans are withdrawing from the island and that the fearsome Saxons are on the march. Though the Britons have fought Arthur for years, they respect his military prowess and believe he can do anything. And inasmuch as Arthur is half Briton, Merlin entreats him not to go with the Romans to Rome, but stay and lead them against the Saxons. They need a “master of war”.
They make it back, and receive their discharge papers, making them free men. Guinevere picks up where Merlin left off and tells Arthur, “These are your people”. Soon the Saxons arrive. Arthur goes to the battlements and sees the campfires of the Saxons glowing in the night. At that moment he decides. He realizes he cannot abandon his mother’s people, his people, the native Britons, to the Saxons. He tells his men, “Knights, my journey with you must end here. May God go with you”.
The next day the Romans and knights head for the sea to flee the island, while Arthur stays to fight the Saxons with the Britons. But the knights can’t bring themselves to abandon Arthur and come back to fight with their great leader. And they prevail against the Saxons. And the knights decide to stay in Britain. And Arthur and Guinevere get married. And the Britons make Arthur their king. And there you have it. The End.
I could go on and on, but that’s the gist of the story. There are many wonderful scenes and details I’ve omitted, but I leave them for you to discover. The liberties taken with the story might rankle history sticklers and Arthurian purists. But I’ll have none of it; screenwriter Franzoni is after much bigger game than just another retelling. This is one big hymn to Freedom, references to Freedom echo throughout the movie.
Caveat: The version of the film I’ve seen is PG-13, presumably the theatrical release, and not the Director’s Cut, which is about 14 minutes longer. So I cannot vouch for the extended version and my comments are confined to the PG-13 version. Although there’s much action in this shorter version, there’s no gore. No severed arteries spurting, no entrails falling onto the battlefield. The PG-13 version works so well for me that I’m a bit averse to screening the Director’s Cut, which is Unrated. The PG-13 version is available at Amazon.com. Christians may take exception to how the Church comes off. But this is misguided; the hero of the story is devout. The one sex scene in the short version, which is not nude, is about as tasteful as any you’re likely to see in cinema since the ‘50s.
In my book, character is everything. So let’s look at some.
Franzoni’s knights are not your dandified goody-two-shoes affairs you find in other Arthurian narratives. They’re tough customers, hardened by years of fighting. They’re life-takers and heartbreakers, the kind of guys who eat their own guts for breakfast and ask for seconds. But they’re not stamped out of cookie cutters; each is unique. Dagonet is the strong selfless silent type. Bors is loud and lewd but dotes on his kids. Lancelot and Galahad just want to survive and go home to Sarmatia. Tristan is an uncanny shot and has a taste for fighting. Gawain seems rather jaded and tired. And Guinevere is no dainty flower, either. She enters the climactic battle along with the men and kicks Saxon butt. And the cast fleshes out these characters superbly. Stellan Skarsgård’s Saxon heavy is delicious. The cast contains a Swede, a Dane, a German, an Italian, some Irish, and lots of English blokes, but nary an American that I’m aware of.
But the title character is the one that most intrigues. This Arthur is an interesting combination of Boy Scout and Dirty Harry. In defending Rome he has spilt blood and taken lives for years, yet he talks to God. He prays to Him to spare his men on their last perilous mission so that they may attain their Freedom, and offers up his own life in the bargain. Clive Owen’s Arthur has a natural nobility, dignity, and grace, and his understated performance grows on you. (Why isn’t this guy in the first rank of matinee idols? Maybe he’s just too manly, today’s women preferring the more easily manipulated metro-sexual.)
One wonderful detail of this Arthur is that he’s a disciple of Pelagius. (Pelagius is an historical figure, a 5th century British monk whose doctrines were considered heretical.) Though Arthur loves Rome, he does not accept the Roman idea that “some men are born to be slaves”, and has embraced Pelagius’ philosophy of Freedom. Pelagius is a father figure for Arthur. When the young Alecto informs Arthur that back in Rome Pelagius has been excommunicated and killed, Arthur is stricken. Alecto continues, “the Rome you talk of doesn’t exist, except in your dreams.” (Hats off to Franzoni. Putting Pelagius in the story is marvelously inventive, and helps to make the story real. Another invention I like is calling the Caledonians “Woads”—the very sound of it. I’ve tried to ascertain if he could have lifted this from other writers. I even consulted the O.E.D. It may be original. Also, I couldn’t make out the monosyllabic word the Sarmatians yelled at each other throughout the movie. I consulted an online script. The word is “Rus”. Sticklers will point out that this is an anachronism, as the Varangian Rus hadn’t migrated to the Ukraine by the 5th century. Folks who would object to such just don’t know how to watch movies.)
Franzoni’s wonderful script teems with great dialog. I could supply a hyperlink to a website of it, but I’m not gonna do it—see the movie. But here’s a taste. Just before the climatic battle scene the Saxons wave the white flag and Arthur, sword in hand, rides out alone to parley with the Saxon warlord, also alone:
WARLORD: Arthur. Wherever I go on this wretched island I hear your name. Always half-whispered, as if you were a . . . god. All I see is flesh, blood. No more god than the creature you’re sitting on.
ARTHUR: Speak your terms, Saxon.
WARLORD: The Romans have left you. Who are you fighting for?
ARTHUR: I fight for a cause beyond Rome’s or your understanding.
WARLORD: Ah. You come to beg a truce. You should be on your knees.
[Arthur thrusts his sword to within a foot of the Saxon’s head.]
ARTHUR: I came to see your face, so that I alone may find you on the battlefield. And it would be good for you to mark my face, Saxon, for the next time you see it, it will be the last thing you see on this earth.
[Arthur turns and rides off for battle.]
WARLORD: Ah, finally, a man worth killing.
Some may contend that there are other more-deserving nominees for the title of “Ultimate Freedom Film of All Time”. Such films as Braveheart, Spartacus, The Return of the King and Glory are obvious contenders. Great films all. But I’m sticking with Franzoni’s King Arthur. And probably because it took place in the 5th century, when Western Civilization was threatened big-time. Rather like today.
I have no idea what screenwriter Franzoni’s political persuasion may be, but this is a film conservatives can love. Indeed, it is must-see cinema for conservatives. It celebrates so many of the values and virtues conservatives hold dear: Duty, Honor, Courage, Loyalty, Sacrifice, Homeland, Faith, Family, and, of course, Freedom.
But now that the Saxon is subdued, converted, and assimilated, the West sees new threats to civilization. Perhaps as never before, Freedom needs her defenders. She needs new “masters of war”—new Arthurs. Where these new Arthurs are to come from, or who they may be, I do not know. But I do know Freedom already has one new champion: The David Horowitz Freedom Center. And for spiritual sustenance, we can always use another Freedom film.
Jon N. Hall is a programmer/analyst from Kansas City. • (9207 views)