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Archive for the ‘King Arthur in Film’ Category

Since I don’t have Starz, I’ve been anxiously awaiting a chance to watch Camelot and finally found it online at http://www.watchseriesonlinehere.com/camelot-s01e01-episode-1/ thanks to a member of the Facebook King Arthur group. It’s an annoying website full of pop-ups, so if you’d rather wait to watch the show on TV, it will be airing on CBC this fall.

Camelot StarzThere is a lot to say about Camelot, so I’ll only discuss the first three episodes here. Of course, I’m eager to watch any program about the Arthurian legend, but I think this program has more marks against it than positive points, and I’m not surprised that it was announced recently that it would be cancelled, based not just on the cost to make a historical production piece but also for the flaws in the story and characters and that the episodes drag a bit. I’m not saying I dislike the show. I don’t think there’s much on TV worth watching anymore so it’s one of the better shows out there, but for lovers of the Arthurian legend, there’s much to complain about it. It’s too bad because nothing would make my TV viewing more pleasurable than a long-running Arthurian series.

Here are my issues with Camelot:

  • The actor playing King Arthur, Jamie Campbell Bower, just doesn’t do it for me, and that’s a big problem since he has the lead role. He may be a good actor, and yes, Arthur was young and naive when he became king, but Bower’s Arthur looks more like a rock star wannabe bad boy than a young man capable of becoming king. Nor is he in any way an imposing or kingly figure–his bio on IMDB says he’s six feet tall, but Guinevere looks taller. And seriously, how can we believe Guinevere would pick this Arthur over Leontes, a trained warrior, better looking, better built. I don’t mean to be offensive to Bower, but King Arthur he just is not. As I watch the show, I keep wishing Peter Mooney, who is playing Kay, were playing Arthur; he much more looks the part.
  • Arthur’s sword – why is the Sword of Mars or Sword of the Gods, or whatever they are calling it being called anything but Excalibur? I suspect because in legend, there are two sword stories–the sword pulled out of the stone which Arthur loses, and then the sword the Lady of the Lake gives him. In the second episode of Camelot, Arthur manages to release the sword, but since it’s sticking out of the middle of a waterfall, when he pulls it out he loses his balance, and consequently loses the sword when he falls and goes underwater. The whole waterfall scene is rather stupid in my opinion, but I do like that the show makes a point that Merlin planted the sword there and planned out the entire thing, much like in Malory. But a smarter Merlin wouldn’t have put the sword where Arthur was likely to lose it.
  • King Lot – he dies in episode 2. That’s a big difference from the legends since he gives Morgan le Fay (or more commonly Morgause her sister; they are often confused and one or two people depending on the version) four children, namely Gawain, Gareth, Agrivaine, and Gaheris. Not to mention being a pseudo-father for Mordred once Morgause/Morgan gets pregnant by Arthur.
  • Gawaine – obviously, he’s not Lot and Morgan’s son in this version.
  • Vivian – why is she black? Don’t get me wrong; I’m not prejudiced, and in the Merlin series, while I was surprised that Guinevere was black, at least that series is far more like fantasy. Vivian is traditionally the Lady of the Lake; instead, here she’s acting like a servant to Morgan. What’s the reason? Perhaps there will later be a Nimue as Lady of the Lake since Nimue was the original Lady of the Lake while Tennyson renamed her Viviane.
  • Merlin – I know Joseph Fiennes is a fine actor, but I like my Merlin’s to have at least a little bit of beard–just a little gray to make me believe he’s old and wise–pretty please? Never mind, obviously this Merlin isn’t very smart. As if putting the sword where Arthur will lose it isn’t enough, he makes a totally idiotic decision when he and Arthur go to visit Morgan at her castle without bringing along any guards, or even that they go at all. And of course, Morgan uses her spells on them–they couldn’t see that coming? Dumb, dumb, dumb. Did what happened at the castle make good television viewing–sure, but not at the expense of logic and characters with common sense. If this Merlin were in a slasher film, he’d play the dumb blonde girl who goes back into the house with the ax murderer.
  • The Nudity – right off we have a nude scene in the first episode – Arthur fooling around with a girl whom Kay is apparently interested in. And what’s the point? Gratuitous nudity from the start. Merlin shows up to say Arthur is the true king of Britain, and Arthur rides off, taking Kay along–poor girl got naked for no reason. She’s not spoken of again. Taking your clothes off just isn’t enough for a long-term role in Camelot apparently. Later we get a wild sex scene between Morgan and Lot, and of course, sex between Arthur and Guinevere. I’m not going to complain though when Eva Green as Morgan drops her clothes to have sex with a wolf. She’s stunning–but seriously, a wolf–I know a metaphor for some dark spirit, but still–bestiality?
  • Leontes – the number one thing people have been Googling to lead them to my blog is Leontes. Everyone wants to know who he is–is he from the legend. NO. He’s completely fictional. Why is he in the story? I don’t know. He seems to be some sort of juxtaposed Lancelot figure. Traditionally in the legend, Arthur and Guinevere are married but Guinevere is in love with Lancelot. Camelot‘s creators apparently decided to twist the storyline and have Guinevere engaged to the made-up Leontes, and then have her in love with Arthur. By episode three, Guinevere and Leontes are married, after Guinevere had sex with Arthur. I can’t wait to see how this triangle is going to work out. I’ll bet Leontes ends up dead–or worse, it won’t be resolved because the program’s already been cancelled and it was planned to be on for five seasons. I will say that Philip Winchester, who plays Leontes, is a great actor and I used to enjoy watching him in the cancelled TV series Robinson Crusoe (2008-2009) on NBC. I hope a series picks him up that will make him a success.

Okay. That’s enough of ripping on the show. There are a few things I like about it. Here they are:

  • Camelot itself – the set of the castle is stunning. I love that it’s an old ruin that Arthur will revitalize. It’s beautiful. In fact, all the scenery and sets are very well done. It’s filmed on the Guinness estate outside Dublin according to an interview with Joseph Fiennes.
  • Eva Green as Morgan – as far as I’m concerned Eva Green is the reason to watch this show. Ever since I saw her in Kingdom of Heaven (2005), one of my all time favorite movies, I’ve thought she was one of the most distinctively beautiful women I’ve ever seen. She’s incredibly sensual–who doesn’t want to watch her suck food off her fingers like Orlando Bloom enjoys doing in the film? She’s equally beautiful, if not quite as exotic, in Camelot. She’s a wonderful actress but I feel like the script may be holding her back. Her character is a bit cliched, but still it’s an interesting role, and Morgan le Fay is perhaps my favorite Arthurian character anyway.
  • It’s a TV series about King Arthur – yes, there are some bad King Arthur films, but for the most part, Camelot is a good show. It’s entertaining. The episodes may drag a little. It’s not perfect, but similarly, I now really like the Merlin series, but it took half-a-dozen episodes to win me over and go from disgust actually to appreciate the talking dragon. Will Camelot have the power to win me over as I watch the rest of the episodes? I’m a bit more skeptical if it’s been cancelled already, but I’ll keep watching. I’m sure I’ll watch it several times over.

As I watch the rest of the episodes, I’ll be posting more of my impressions and where Camelot coincides or strays from the various versions of Arthurian legend. I don’t suppose I’ll be lucky enough to see the program create a child for Arthur, so I can add another chapter to King Arthur’s Children.

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Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, available at www.ChildrenofArthur.com

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Of the three recent films about the Ninth Legion in Britain that mysteriously disappeared in the second century, The Last Legion (2007) was the film I was most interested in watching because it took place just prior to the time of King Arthur and was said to provide a link to the Arthurian legend. In that respect, it did not disappoint, and while I think The Eagle was a more intelligent film that raised questions about Rome and its right to occupy Britain, I enjoyed The Last Legion the most. One of my friends said it was more “predictable” than the other films, notably The Centurion, but I feel the film set out to tie the legend to the Roman emperors and successfully did so.

The cast of The Last Legion is more impressive than the other two films. Colin Firth plays the lead role, the soldier who must protect the child emperor after Odaecer of the Goths invades and conquerors Rome. Ben Kingsley plays the wise old man Ambrosinus who has come from Britain seeking Julius Caesar’s lost sword, and the child emperor, Romulus Augustus, is played by Thomas Sangster, who will be known to Arthurian film fans as playing the boy Tristan in Tristan and Isolde with James Franco playing the adult Tristan.

The story begins with mention of the sword of Julius Caesar which is fated to become the sword Excalibur. The boy Romulus Augustus has just been made emperor of Rome. The film is a bit in error timewise by saying it begins in the year 460 when Romulus Augustus reigned from 475-6 (the book the film is based on gets this fact correct–why the change?). The Goths invaded Rome and Romulus was deposed as Caesar after ten short months, although in the film it is the day after Romulus is crowned. The Roman empire then fell with a Goth taking the crown and ruling the empire, while the Eastern (Byzantine empire) would remain in power another ten centuries. History does not state what became of Romulus other than he was sent to live in Campania and then disappears from the historical record. The film takes advantage of this lost information to tie the boy to Britain. But first, he is taken as a prisoner to the Isle of Capri.

General Aurelius is determined to rescue the young emperor, and meanwhile Ambrosinus has come from Britain to Rome to seek the sword of Julius Caesar. It is predictable that the sword will be found on Capri, formerly home to Roman emperors, and then Aurelius, Ambrosianus, Romulus, and a few other companions, including a woman disguised as a male soldier (Colin Firth’s required love interest in the film), manage to escape Capri, make it over the Alps, and eventually reach Britain, where they also discover the remainder of the Ninth Legion (although it would have disappeared three hundred years earlier – the film’s largest historical inaccuracy, while in the book a fictional Twelfth Legion was actually used). Together they join in fighting Vortigyn (the film’s version of Vortigern) and his Saxon mercenaries (in the novel, but not the film, it states that it’s the legendary Battle of Badon Hill where Arthur defeated the Saxons, typically dated to about the year 516).

If you read this article farther, there will be a bit of a spoiler, although any discerning filmgoer will foresee what happens next. Aurelius is typically in legend King Arthur’s uncle, the brother to Uther Pendragon. He is often known as Aurelius Ambrosius, so the film is obviously using a version of Ambrosius for Ben Kingsley’s character. No blood relationship exists between Aurelius, Ambrosinus, or Romulus in the film, but the suggestions behind the familiar legendary names are there. In the film, in Britain there is also a young girl named Igraine who ends up later marrying Romulus, who decides to change his name to Pendragon. Guess who there child is. In the final scene, Merlin (another of Ambrosinus’ names – another big surprise) tells a young Arthur the story of his parents.

The film plays fast and loose with history, but Arthurian works always do, trying to create a historical atmosphere against which the legend could have taken place. I find the way the film links Arthur to Rome to be interesting since Arthur typically claims to be descended from a Roman emperor, although it is usually Magnus Maximus, and in Malory, it is Constantine. Arthur’s lineage also traces back to Rome through, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth in the Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), Brutus from whose name Britain comes. Brutus was a descendant of Aeneas, the founder of the Roman empire and one of the survivors who fled when Troy was destroyed (both the costume designer and swordmaster of the film, interestingly, had worked on the film Troy). Romulus, besides being the historical last emperor of Rome, also has a counterpart who is the founder of Rome in ancient legend.

The film has its moments of corniness and exaggerated action, but most films do, and this film at least is trying to be corny in its romantic and adventurous storylines. It is not a great film. I would not even say it is one of the better Arthurian films (it’s questionable whether there has ever been a great Arthurian film), but it succeeds in what it sets out to accomplish, creating an intriguing storyline that ties Rome and Arthurian Britain together, provides some light moments of comedy, and a lot of magic in creating a sense of wonder about how the legend of King Arthur may have happened. If you like a little myth and wonder woven into depictions of Roman Britain, this may be the film you will most enjoy, while if you like gritty realism, The Centurion or The Eagle may be more your style. I’m not sure that one of these films is better than the other–they are just different. If I had to choose a favorite, it would be The Last Legion. If I had to pick one as the best, I would say The Eagle. Interestingly, The Last Legion may be the film least about the Ninth Legion, yet the only one named for it.

For those interested in Arthurian literature, the film is based on an Italian novel of the same name written by Valerio Massimo Manfredi in 2003. It was translated into English in 2005.

In future posts, I will write about more films that tie Arthurian Britain to Rome, but more specifically in the time of Arthur. I’ll note here that Rosemary Sutcliff, author of The Eagle of the Ninth (upon which The Eagle was based) was the first author to create a novel, Sword at Sunset (1959), based upon trying to place King Arthur within his historical post-Roman world, and that effort along with continued archeological efforts, has contributed to this trend to create a more historical depiction in fiction of King Arthur and his world.

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Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, available at www.ChildrenofArthur.com

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What happened to the Roman Ninth Legion has inspired three films in recent years:

Of these three films, I’m afraid The Centurion is the one I find the least interesting. Like the other films, The Centurion is about what happened to the Ninth Legion that seemingly disappeared – although historians now think they were transferred and later destroyed on the continent. How they were destroyed remains lost to history, but authors like Rosemary Sutcliff, whose novel The Eagle of the Ninth, which the film The Eagle is based upon, have been writing books about it for many years, surmising what may have occurred. Usually the stories suggest the legion went north of the area where Hadrian’s Wall separated the “uncivilized” Britons from the territory the Romans had conquered.

The problem I have with The Centurion is not the suggestions of what may have happened to the Ninth (an interesting historical mystery) but the film’s lack of character development as well as my difficulty with identifying with the main characters. In this film, the Roman legion is led north with the aid of a Brigantes woman who is apparently going to lead them to where they can attack the Picts. Instead, she tricks the Romans and leads them into an ambush (big surprise). The sad thing is that while I just watched this film a few days ago, I can’t even remember any of the characters’ names and I can barely remember the actors’ faces. I know there was a main character Roman, the deceitful native Briton woman, and a bad guy who caused treachery, and a couple of other survivors. Eventually, the Romans who survive the attack and enslavement manage to escape from the Picts who have captured them, and the rest of the film shows their attempts not to be recaptured or killed and to get back to the Roman outposts. The villainy by a fellow Roman is almost a subplot and the overall plot is loose and not in any way complicated. Perhaps the best part of the film (SPOILER ALERT) is the end when the surviving Roman returns, only to have his fellow Romans try to cover up what happened to the legion so its defeat will not make Rome look bad.

What makes this film additionally difficult for me is that because none of the characters were strong enough for me to identify with one of them, I wasn’t sure what to think of it. When the film started, although I knew the Romans would be “the good guys,” I wanted the Picts to win. Why? Because I know I am descended from the Picts through Scottish royalty, while I do not know of any Roman ancestors in my family tree, though I do not doubt I have them, and also because the Picts and other Britons were conquered people whom Rome just felt it was their job and right to conquer and civilize or eliminate. While I did not agree with this philosophy in either The Eagle or The Centurion, at least in The Eagle, the main character played by Tatum Channing is well portrayed as a very loyal Roman who believes in his Roman traditions and duties. I may not agree with what makes him tick, but I understood his motives. The Eagle also raised interesting questions of right and wrong and Channing’s character has a slave who makes it clear that Rome is not in the right, leaving a world of questions for viewers to consider, even while Channing’s character is left staying staunch to what he believes in, too brainwashed into the Roman way to consider what he may have done wrong as a Roman, although I think the film’s viewers realize the film questions who he really is. The Eagle is still somewhat weak in this respect, but far superior to The Centurion.

By comparison, the native Britons are given almost no sympathy in The Centurion. The Brigantes woman who deceives the Romans is insulted by them as being a “she-wolf.” She seems merciless in her desire to destroy the Romans, but her behavior is completely understandable to me despite the Romans thinking ill of her. We are told that she watched the Romans destroy her family, then rape her and cut out her tongue. Despite this information, she is impossible to identify with because she is unable to speak her pain, and similarly, except for one of the Picts telling the Romans what the other Romans did to her, equally the film is unable to speak about who is right and who wrong in this film. In short, it is unfocused and uncertain if it has any agenda or message to share. I know life isn’t always possible to tie into a neat message but the woman becomes so focused on her mission and so unable to display any emotion or human characteristics we can identify with, that while she is the character I felt most sympathy for in the film, she is unable to make a real connection with the viewer, she is unable to speak her pain, and therefore, unable to make the viewer form a bond with her or anyone in the film. And I think the film itself, or its creators, were unsure themselves what if any point the film was supposed to make.

I don’t want to say this film is a mess, but it is a disappointment. It kept my attention due to some of the action as the Picts chased after the Romans, but I had a hard time knowing what to think at the end. Ultimately, I have to say that if the Roman Ninth was slaughtered by the people it was trying to conquer, well, who can blame the Britons for protecting their homeland? I don’t condone killing, but the Romans started the killing in Briton and they got what they deserved.

The film also raises questions for me about King Arthur himself, often depicted as heir to the Romans and of Roman descent, yet considering himself a Briton–and fighting against the Saxons who would conquer him. If he’s of Roman descent, is Arthur a good guy? If he is of Briton descent, then Arthur must see the Saxons as equal to the earlier Roman invaders. More likely, Arthur’s bloodline would have been a mix of Briton and Roman. In the end, did the two races not blend? Were they not allied at the least in their fight against the incoming Saxon invaders?

Eventually in all cultures, the conquerors and the conquered’s great-grandchildren intermingle and hatreds are put aside and forgotten as time marches on. Too bad the great-grandparents couldn’t learn to do that themselves to save a great deal of bloodshed.

I encourage lovers of Arthurian literature interested in the prehistory of the Arthurian legend to watch both The Eagle and The Centurion to understand what Briton would have been like in the Romans’ early years in Britain and how those events shaped the world a historical King Arthur would have been born into. And I’d welcome comments from other viewers.

And if you are interested in reading more about Roman Britain in novel form, I highly recommend Rosemary Sutcliff’s novel series, including The Eagle of the Ninth and Sword at Sunset (the first novel to create a historical King Arthur), and especially, I recommend for great reading pleasure Jack Whyte’s novel series The Camulod Chronicles, about Arthur’s Roman ancestors and how they established Camelot as a way to maintain peace in the years when Rome was pulling out of Britain.

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Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, available at www.ChildrenofArthur.com

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The recent film The Eagle raises many interesting questions about how we are to interpret it, and perhaps best of all, it provides a glimpse into Roman Britain and the outlying territories above Hadrian’s Wall that I haven’t seen depicted previously in film. While the film depicts Britain in the mid-second century, about three centuries before the time of King Arthur, it provides a fascinating look into the Britain the Romans would have experienced.

The movie is based upon the book The Eagle of the Ninth (1954) by Rosemary Sutcliff, best known to Arthurian enthusiasts as the author of Sword at Sunset (1963), the first Arthurian novel to have treated King Arthur from a historically accurate perspective. Sword at Sunset is also part of the Eagle of the Ninth book series, all connected by the Aquila Family dolphin ring, although Sword at Sunset is only very loosely connected.

The film and book’s main character, Marcus, is a Roman soldier stationed in Britain who wants to know what became of his father, who led the Ninth Legion beyond Hadrian’s Wall. The legion was never heard from again, but Marcus hears rumors that the Eagle standard of the legion has been seen north of the wall and is being used in pagan ceremonies.

Of course, Marcus wants to know what became of his father and to reclaim the Eagle. I won’t give away any more of the plot. What interests me is how Marcus is the commander of a fort that is attacked by the local Britons, who yell about how the Romans have raped their daughters and stolen their land. Marcus never for a second considers that Rome is at fault. He simply does his duty as a Roman soldier. Later, on his quest to regain the Eagle, Marcus is accompanied by Esca, a slave and the son to the late King of the Brigantes. Marcus’ uncle warns him that Esca is a Briton so he will betray him on the journey, but Marcus has Esca accompany him anyway and Esca appears loyal, at least at first. Later, the two will encounter the Seal people, a term Sutcliff uses in her novel.

What is fascinating about the film is the depiction of the local Britons. The Seal people are fictional largely because so little is known about the local people of Britain in Roman times, who were mostly Celts and Picts. Wikipedia does a good job of discussing the film and the issues with depicting the native people at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Eagle_(2011_film) The confusion and difficulties of pinning down the Celtic peoples of Great Britain is understandable, considering how many different tribes there were as evidenced in the list at Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Celtic_tribes#Great_Britain

I admit I haven’t read the novel, which was actually written for children, but the film definitely made me want to read the entire series and reread Sword at Sunset. I was surprised by the film’s lack of a politically correct or multicultural message—I don’t expect a book written in 1954 would have a politically correct tone, however, so perhaps the filmmakers decided to be true to the book. In any case, Marcus never thinks that he or Rome is in the wrong for how they have treated the native peoples of Britain. Although Marcus and Esca become friends of a sort, and Marcus does save Esca’s life early in the film, otherwise he does not show any great tendency to be sympathetic toward those who were conquered, and he is not in any way a dynamic character who has a new understanding about the situation in Britain.

Equally fascinating is the depiction of the native peoples. It is difficult to imagine such a “primitive” way of life as they experience compared to Rome, which we can perhaps more closely relate to. And I know “primitive” is a judgmental term, but their life is so vastly remote from ours today. In truth, my sympathies lay more with the native Britons who have been conquered and even betrayed by their own people. Of course, you don’t want Marcus or Esca to be killed, but I found it difficult to have my sympathies with them.

In the end, I wasn’t sure how to feel. It was more an interesting look into the mind of a Roman than one where I could identify with any character, and in that way, because I had no emotional reaction to the film, I felt like it somewhat failed to do its job.

It would be interesting to read all of Sutcliff’s series and how the stories link to Arthur, who is more Roman than Briton in most versions of the legend. In a film adaptation, one would expect a more politically correct and sympathetic view of the native Britons, but at the same time, perhaps I appreciate the film more for not taking that route which would be a modern twist and not one Marcus or the Romans themselves probably would have considered taking.

The Eagle may not be a perfect film, but the actors do an excellent job; both actors playing Marcus and Esca are completely believable in their roles; whatever faults the film has are due to the screenplay, or perhaps the original novel. The story opens up many questions about right and wrong while creating an imaginative, yet as historical as possible, depiction of what second century Britain may have been like. Altogether I give this film 4 out of 5 stars and remain with mixed feelings about it.

If you’ve seen the movie or read the book, I’d love to hear your comments.

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Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D. is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, available at www.ChildrenofArthur.com

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