Some years ago, OldHousemate(theRomeone) and I went to the cinema to see Antoine Fuqua's King Arthur. Reasonably excited by the prospect of Clive Owen snarling in Roman uniform for a couple of hours, our hopes were high. They were dashed, however, by the opening titles that started with the words 'Historians agree...' Quite apart from the fact that, in actuality, the majority of historians of the period consider Arthur to be a purely fictional character who never existed in real life, contrary to the film's opening statement, and without even going into how dubious we are over the film's claim that 'recently discovered archaeological evidence' supports their interpretation, we were entirely taken aback by the claim that 'historians agree' on anything. We'd both recently completed history degrees, and were both fully aware that historians never agree on anything, or we'd all be out of work.
Historically speaking, the film just goes from bad to worse from then on. Between its complete confusion over who should be Christian and who pagan, a Catholic Church that looks later medieval and Saxons in Scotland (words cannot begin to describe how inaccurate that is), the whole thing is just a big mess. It's quite fun in its own way though, so OldHousemate(theRomeone) (hereafter ORO) and I decided to get together and watch it, and re-live the glorious experience of seeing it together that first time, but with extra added silliness, as this is the Director's Cut. And so, inspired by SFX Magazine's Couch Potato feature, we bring you our re-viewing of King Arthur. We were joined by ORO's husband, OldestMaleFriend (OMF) who may or may not have been with us the first time we saw it - none of us can quite remember...
(This has been put together from ORO's and my written notes. We also recorded our whole conversation on a dictophone, and I've listened to bits of it. For some reason my accent gets more Estuary - probably thanks to Ray Winstone - and my language fouler as the film goes on. In the interests of keeping this post shorter than the film script itself, our conversation has been heavily edited and I've mostly relied on the written notes, with the odd bit from the recording.)
(Before we've even started the film)
ORO: I'm loving the melodrama of the menu.
('Historians agree' appears onscreen. Much laughter).
OMF: Didn't Romans have rectangular shields and Greeks round ones?
Me (trying to remember the answer, write and drink all at once): It's really hard to write fast drunk.
ORO: You know, I can't remember anything about this film except it really annoyed me. Why are they calling them knights?
Me: Dunno. Are they equestrians?... The music sounds like it's trying to be Lord of the Rings.
OMF: No, it's just trying to be rubbish.
ORO: The background's trying to be as green as New Zealand as well.
(Arthur and/or Lancelot appears, now grown-up)
ORO: He's got more good-looking, good. Ah, a bishop - it's the Church, therefore they are Bad.
Me: Is that Titus F****ing Pullo? (Note: I actually knew it was, as I went to an excellent paper by Tony Keen in which he mentioned this bit of trivia last summer, but I'd had a few drinks by this point and had forgotten).
ORO: What's with all the fog?
OMF: It's Scotland, it's always foggy.
(Stuff happens. I try to keep up with who's supposed to be who, beyond the central trio of Arthur, Lancelot and Bors).
(Mads Mikkelson is actually fairly good-looking, but his hair and make-up here is not)
(The Table appears).
Me: Oh dear, is that supposed to be the Round Table?
ORO (who is not drinking, unlike the other two of us, and is gamely trying actually to follow the film): I wonder what time period this is meant to be? When did they have the first Pope?
(A debate about whether it's supposed to be set in a particular year follows, involving re-winding the tape to establish that it doesn't seem to be).
Me (bitterly): Christians are the bad guys, what a surprise.
Evil Bishop (onscreen): Rome and the Holy Father are leaving Britain.
ORO: So this must be AD 410...
OMF: And he's implying that north of Hadrian's Wall is Saxon...
(A very long description of Anglo-Saxon groups, where they were, where they came from etc follows from ORO, whose period is medieval history. OMF and I nod along and continue drinking).
ORO: Why do they keep on about the Pope? Since when was the Pope in charge of the Roman Empire?
(Continued explanation from ORO about why the Anglo-Saxons never went anywhere near Scotland. More nods from OMF and I).
Me: It is Titus F***ing Pullo!
(Film continues. ORO and I discuss the casting of Ioan Gruffydd as Lancelot, which we're broadly in favour of).
Arthur (onscreen): They're being harassed by Saxons
ORO: NO THEY'RE NOT!
(And she's off again).
(At this point, my attempts to make notes become completely unreadable and the notebook is passed to ORO. She continues to observe Saxon-based historical inaccuracies - the latest being the implication that they're basically Vikings. Which they weren't).
OMF: That was a carving knife. I know ancient weaponry, and that's a carving knife.
ORO: We're being declared free.
Me: Free from what?
OMF: Do you want to rewind it?
ORO (very firmly): No!
Me: Lancelot is very posh.
ORO: And he has some kind of modern mechanism for creating ringlets.
(Film continues. We mistake a temple for a torture chamber. Christians are doing Bad Things in it).
ORO: Why are the Christians in a temple of any sort?
(Keira Knightley turns up as Guinevere).
ORO: Why are they spending lots of time staring at each other and not talking?
Me: To cover up the fact they probably wouldn't speak the same language?
(A collective decision is made that this film badly needs to find the funny).
OMF: Now we're back to the Saxons
Me: And Swedes who are not as hot as their offspring.
ORO: And why have we got a Swede playing an Anglo-Saxon?
Me: Well, he's Scandinavian, that's close enough to German for Hollywood
ORO (sarcastically): And 'cause obviously Vikings and Anglo-Saxons are the same...
OMF: Who are the horse people out of Tolkien?
Me: The Rohirrim? They're actually supposed to be Anglo-Saxons.
OMF: Really? 'Cause there's a guy with a Rohirrim-like helmet with long horsey hair over there. It actually looks authentic.
(Film continues. I repeat my insistence that Tristan is not good-looking enough. We discuss Guinevere's apparent immunity to cold, because she's so at one with the Earth, or something. There's a lot of plinky-plonky music and wailing on the soundtrack. I start thinking of better films I could be watching, like Monty Python and the Search for the Holy Grail, and wishing there was a Balrog in the mountains).
(Our heroes reach a big frozen lake).
Me and ORO (clearly having reached the only bit of the film we remembered): Oh, it's the bit with the ice!
ORO: Keira Knightley would be so cold by this point she wouldn't be able to draw a bow.
OMF: Why haven't they raised their shields?
(Film continues. We wonder where the snow suddenly went).
Me: Where's Titus F***ing Pullo?
ORO: I think he died hon.
Me: No! You can't kill Titus F***ing Pullo!
(Film continues. Our attention drifts and we chat about weddings and booze for a while).
Me: Oh, sex is happening.
ORO: She's found a curling device as well.
OMF: D**m, he didn't get to finish.
ORO: D**m, she didn't get to finish.
ORO: This film needs to decide who the enemy is - the natives, 'cause they kill everyone, or the Romans, 'cause they're mean, or the Saxons, 'cause they kill everyone.
(Dramatic slow motion and yelling).
ORO: Oh, this is the bit where Keira Knightley puts two belts around her boobs and thinks she's dressed.
(At this point I take the notebook back and write something completely illegible. Essentially, all three of us take apart the various nonsensical elements of the battle scene. We miss an important plot point and decide we don't really care).
OMF: Shall we just not bother watching the end of this and watch Gladiator instead?
ORO: Why is no-one talking, they're all just looking at each other! We're going into battle and no one has said a word except one character has talked to his bird.
(We discuss the latest episode of The Big Bang Theory for a few minutes. ORO reminds us all of the differences between Vikings and Saxons again. I agree).
ORO: I'm Saxon, stop making us the bad guys!
(We complain about the length of the battle scene and wish I hadn't bought the Director's Cut).
ORO: Everyone's standing around staring again. This must have been the shortest script ever!
Everybody: I'm confused.
ORO: There's a group of women killing a man like a group of vampires dragging down a man.
Me: When does this film end?
ORO: Never. It will never end.
Me: Is that non-sexy Tristan?
ORO: The only romantic story in this film is Tristan and his bird.
(At this point, my writing in the notebook becomes completely unreadable, and the discussion on the recording a tad unrepeatable. We wonder if viewers of the film realise that the Saxons will, eventually win. We are mildly surprised by the death of Lancelot. Finally, it ends).
ORO: I have one word for that film: Why?
OMF: Me too, only mine's 's***e'.
Me: I'm just completely confused.
I have now re-watched the film (sober) and assembled some more coherent thoughts. Oddly enough, it's actually better sober, as the story does make a bit more sense now, though it's still a complete travesty as far as history goes.
There is no 'historical' Arthur and writers wanting to present a less fantastical Arthur have several choices concerning how to approach it as an historical drama rather than a medieval fantasy. There's the Late Roman becoming British angle (The Last Legion), the offspring of Romans and Britons (Merlin in The Crystal Cave) or the British defender against the Saxons (Bernard Cornwell's Warlord Trilogy). Although Romans are quite frequently involved in some way, this film chooses a much more strongly Roman option than many, making not only Arthur himself Roman, but his knights, although British, veterans of the Roman army.
The reason for this, I think, is that the filmmakers wanted to depict Arthur and his knights as soldiers. Too often, Arthurian knights are such perfect examples of medieval chivalric ideals, they don't behave in a way remotely similar to any warrior who's ever lived. These knights, while they are as noble, brave and honourable as Arthurian knights should be, are also tough, hard to impress, they drink hard and they make very rude jokes. They behave as you imagine a group of fighting men would. Making them members of the Roman army reinforces this military vibe. They are part of a recognisable army, with uniforms and a command structure - which means they can embody all the military stereotypes you might find in a war movie. These stereotypes would look rather different on the itinerant wandering knights of medieval Arthurian legend. When it comes to fighting, the Romans seem rather more familiar than fantasy medieval knights.
The film is daft, and suffers from trying to be a cross between The Lord of the Rings and Gladiator, while being vastly inferior to both, but I do rather like this interpretation of the knights. It's quite fun to see Arthur and his knights actually behaving like soldiers and it offers a fresh take on some very old characters. It's just a shame the film has to be so pretentious. If it dropped any claim to historical accuracy and was happy to be a entertaining story based around Arthurian legend, I would have little trouble with it. It's that opening crawl, and the desperate insistence that we should take it seriously, that is its biggest problem.