King Arthur. The phrase conjures images of fair maidens, brave knights, chivalry, and twelfth century armaments. The fact is that everyone’s favorite British king lived in the fifth century. He probably had hand-me-down armor, sword, and shield. He may not have spoken Latin, but he knew enough about the past to respect Rome. His life was hard, consisting of poor hygiene, bad diet, and battles as a part of everyday life.
I say all this by way of an introduction. In our era of realism, where every period from the Trojan War up to the present day is portrayed with accurate weapons, tactics, and technology, the Arthurian period is still waiting on something resembling the real article. Till then, I’ll keep you occupied with a list of Arthurian period movies and some of their more irritating traits.
King Arthur is probably the most accurate we are likely to get for the period. I read someplace that the horse paraphernalia is inaccurate. I can live with that. If I wanted to be difficult I would mention the contemporaneity of Pelagius and Arthur,
No, let’s stick with the bad stuff. Arthur is a Latin name, yet he is called a Sarmatians. The Sarmatians were Germanic and had faded from history by 400? Arthur is sent to guard Britain for a predetermined number of years by the Romans? But Roman mercenaries settled their entire tribes in the areas they protected. It makes no sense to even connect Arthur with the Romans; he was most likely born long after the Romans left Britain.
Tristan and Isolde is technically not an Arthurian film. The story itself is mythological and involves a dragon. Still, the movie is set in the ancient world, and of course Tristan, Isolde, and Mark – or rather Drust, Iseult, and March, are considered Arthurian characters. Though the storyline strays badly from the legend itself, the movie has the gritty, bloody feel of the period much like King Arthur.
The big problem with it is the fortress which is Mark’s stronghold. The castles of the period were hill-forts, nothing more than a hill that took advantage of natural rock formations to construct a wall. Within it there was normally a hall that could seat all dozen to a hundred warriors, a granary, perhaps a smithy and several huts and merchant buildings. Everything was made of wood. The multiple levels of the movie’s fort could not have existed at any time before the tenth century.
The movie is too civilized as well. A meeting of all the major kings? A contest between them? The period’s kings were more like gangsters in how they dealt with each other and their subjects than any royalty we would be familiar with. To see them acting like modern statesmen is painful – and insulting.
First Knight. Where to start. The machine which brings Lancelot to Arthur’s attention? The twelfth century armaments? The plot twist that Meleagant was once a member of the Round Table? That stupid theme about the man with no fear (no warrior worth his weapon is afraid to die, but fear is what keeps a person sharp on the battlefield)? It isn’t even a good adaptation of the famous poem “Le Chevalier de la Charrette” on which it was based with the absence of the intriguing character Bademagus and the minimization of Kay.
A good Arthur movie has a great deal of potential, whether one based on the literature or the history. There is the obvious love triangle of Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot and the lesser one of Mark/Isolde/Tristan. There is the obnoxious knight who made the butt of other knights’ valor. In Palamedes there is the bad knight made good, in Perceval there is the great fool made wise. Such a plethora of good stories are there to be told from a literary standpoint, and the best we can manage are bad interpretations or insulting historical adaptations.