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Posts Tagged ‘Arthurian films’

After seeing King Arthur: Legend of the Sword in 2017 and being disgusted, I had high hopes that The Boy Who Would Be King could redeem Arthurian films, but while it was leaps and bounds better than King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, it falls short of the magic one wants from a movie about King Arthur.

The kids in The Boy Who Would Be King, left to right:Lance, Bedders, Alex, Merlin, and Kay

The premise is good enough and the film appears to be well-intended, but its delivery is lackluster at best. The film begins with a cartoon prologue, in which we are given the story of Arthur drawing the sword from the stone. Then we are told his evil sister Morgana fought against him. She was defeated and eventually buried in the earth, but she vowed she would one day return. Arthur replied that when she did the sword would return to. This opening sequence moved rapidly and was a bit hard to follow, plus the drawing was mediocre, setting the tone for the mediocrity to come.

The main storyline, however, opens well enough. We are introduced to a modern-day young boy, Alexander, who along with his friend Bedders, is bullied by two older children, Lance and a girl named Kay. It is notable here that Alexander and Lance are white while Bedders looks to be of Indian and Kay of African descent. I applaud the film for the multicultural characters that reflect the current face of Britain. This sets the tone for a more egalitarian version of the Arthurian legend and is one of the film’s few strong points, which the film makes apparent in more detail later.

Anyway, Alex finds the sword in a piece of concrete in a construction site that he stumbles upon while trying to escape his bullies. Eventually, the bullies find him and want the sword, but when a group of skeleton-like knights appear and attack the kids, the bullies soon join forces with Alex and Bedders. Alex, of course, recognizes the sword as Excalibur because he has a book about the Knights of the Round Table that his father gave him. His father has disappeared from his life, apparently because, as his mother says, he had “his demons” but he inscribed the book as “To Alex, my once and future king.” Alex realizes that now he is King Arthur, or at least meant to play the role of King Arthur—he’s not a reincarnation—and that his friends are Sir Bedivere (only everyone in the film keeps saying Sir Bedsivere, which is very irritating) and Sir Lancelot and “Lady” Kay.

Alex begins to believe he must be from Arthur’s bloodline through his father and that his father’s demons were the real-life demons that Morgana is sending to attack them, but in time, he will learn from Merlin that this is not true. Merlin shows up as a young boy who enrolls at the kids’ school, Dungate Academy. (That Merlin is naked in his first appearance, although we only see an unrevealing side view of him, is a weird decision in a children’s film.) Merlin is a nerdy kid so Alex and Bedders at first try to avoid him since they’re already being bullied and don’t want to be bullied more, but eventually Merlin convinces the kids he really is Merlin and explains their mission to them. They must defeat Morgana before she can ascend from out of the earth and make everyone in Britain into slaves. The kids agree to the mission and despite the bullies occasionally causing trouble, eventually they band together to fight Morgana and her minions.

The film makes use of Arthurian locations by having the children travel to Stonehenge, Tintagel, and Glastonbury Tor. Unfortunately, none of these locations are used well in the film—we get no really good cinematography of them that makes them feel magical or inspiring. The most powerful moment in the film comes when Alex learns his father was just a drunk and not at all a descendant of Arthur. Merlin, who usually appears as a goofy young wizard, now appears as an adult. (Patrick Stewart plays the role, and he’s one of the few redeeming features of the film.) Merlin tells Alex that greatness has nothing to do with birth or who your parents are, and if their stories and legends say it does, then it’s time to rewrite the story—this is the egalitarianism the film promotes that I was talking about early.

The kids now get to Glastonbury Tor where they discover a secret passage into the cave where Morgana dwells. This was the worst part of the film in my opinion—Morgana is twisted up in a bunch of tree roots in the cave and she has power over trees, causing roots to come up from the ground and grab the children at times. These rootlike connections also flow over into her serpent depictions—she flies about like a flying snake or gargoyle and later as a dragon. Overall, her depiction is insulting to the character and also misogynistic. There is a long history of women being associated with serpents as a symbol of them being evil which goes back to the Eve and the Serpent and depictions of Lilith and the medieval fairy Melusine. More recently the villainess in Bram Stoker’s novel The Lair of the White Worm is a snakelike creature, as is Geraldine in Coleridge’s poem “Christabel.” No one can forget the sea witch in Disney’s The Little Mermaid, and so it’s not surprising that Morgan is like a winged serpent and later she turns into a dragon—it’s just tiresome. I hate when Morgana is simply depicted as a villain—her character is more complicated in the legends, yet the film makes no effort to develop her and she barely even gets any lines. We don’t know why she was evil or hated Arthur.

Morgana’s Skeleton Army – really, yet another film with a skeleton army!

Alex quickly stabs Morgan in the cave, she’s dead, and the adventure is over. It was anticlimactic and I was ready to go home and forget the movie, but then Merlin shows up once the kids return home to say Morgana was only wounded and will attack during the eclipse. Alex then manages with Merlin’s help to rally his school to prepare for battle. The kids even end up wearing armor (which looks ridiculous since they have shoulder pads but their chests and stomachs are exposed). Soon Morgana’s skeleton army attacks, and she leads the charge in the shape of a flying dragon. Of course, good triumphs over evil, and ho hum, after a big battle scene that fails to be inspiring or creative, life goes back to normal.

The film does end with a positive message. Alex says that the world with Morgan defeated is no better than it was before, but Merlin (as Patrick Stewart, probably the film’s only real asset) explains that the kids have it in them to make the world a better place in the future. He then gives Alex a copy of the book his father gave him, only now the cover has changed to show Alex and his friends depicted on it. It will be up to them to rewrite the future and King Arthur’s story as well. (And, after all, isn’t that what every generation has done—adapted the legend for its own needs in its own time?)

Patrick Stewart as Merlin – this tender moment at the end of the film felt unwarranted – I guess Alex sees Merlin as a replacement for his lost father.

As I said, the film is well-intentioned, but it lacks true creativity or inspiration. How many films with skeleton armies do we need? If Morgana wanted to conquer the world, why would she go after a boy with a sword and attack a school? Any villain with half a brain would have headed for Parliament instead. None of the Arthurian landmarks are used to any real purpose. It isn’t even clear why the kids have to go to Tintagel or Stonehenge. Even the soundtrack is dull—music is essential for a film to make us feel emotion, but I was left not feeling anything. Granted, I am not the film’s ten-year-old target audience, but I have watched other children’s Arthurian films—The Sword in the Stone (1963) and A Kid in King Arthur’s Court (1995) come to mind—and felt the magic. The most magical moment in the whole film might be when Alex explains to his mom that the Arthurian legend is real and to prove it, he fills the bathtub with water, then asks the Lady of the Lake to bring him the sword and her hand pops up with it. This was a bit different, and manages not to be cheesy. I do give the film points for its sincerity—it never tries to make a mockery of the legend but tries to repurpose it for a new generation.

If you haven’t seen the film yet, this is one where you will want to wait for the video. Overall, I would give the film a C-. It’s two hours long—about thirty minutes longer than it needs to be, the violence is likely scary for younger children, but boring for adults who will have seen it all before, and the sense of wonder just isn’t there. There are a few worse Arthurian films like King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017) and Merlin and the War of the Dragons (2008), but there are also many that are better, Knights of the Round Table (1953), Camelot (1967), and Excalibur (1981) lead the list; heck, even Quest for Camelot (1998) and Prince Valiant (1954) with Robert Wagner in a ridiculous wig are more fun to watch.

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Tyler Tichelaar, PhD, is the author of The Children of Arthur series, which includes the novels Arthur’s Legacy, Melusine’s Gift, Ogier’s Prayer, Lilith’s Love, and Arthur’s Bosom. He has also written the nonfiction scholarly works King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition and The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, plus numerous other books. You can learn more about Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com.

 

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Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1974) is a cult classic. As a lover of Arthurian lore, however, I found its slapstick and cheesy humor rather off-putting when I first saw this film back in 1994, and I waited that long to watch it because I didn’t like “stupid” humor. I only watched it then because I was in graduate school and took a course in the Arthurian legend and we watched it as our end of semester class party. I was about the only one in the class who thought it stupid while everyone else thought it funny.

2001 Special Edition Release Post for Monty Python and the Holy Grail

2001 Special Edition Release Post for Monty Python and the Holy Grail

And then I watched it again this past week. Either my sense of humor has gotten better (or worse), or watching it on a larger screen as a restored version did the trick (a special edition re-release came out in 2001), but I found the film very funny. A big problem with all Arthurian films, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail is definitely such a film, is that we have preconceived notions about what the Arthurian legend should be before we watch the film, and consequently, we may fail to appreciate what the film is actually trying to do. Case in point, the first time I saw the musical film Camelot (1967), I thought it was kind of boring – when were they going to get to the quest for the Holy Grail? Well, they never do because the Arthurian legend has too much in it for any one film, even for a three hour film like Camelot, and that film focused on the love triangle between Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot and Arthur’s belief that Camelot’s ideal should be not “might is right but might for right.” Consequently, it took a second viewing for me to come to appreciate Camelot. And anyone who knows me well knows that for the last twenty-five years, I have claimed it as my favorite movie and I have worn out records, cassette tapes, and then CDs listening to the soundtrack–thank God for iTunes.

But back to Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I love musicals–Camelot is my favorite–and so consequently I had to listen to the Broadway Cast Recording soundtrack to Spamalot–I have yet to see the play–but I love the music. And the musical is a vast improvement on the film. Nevertheless, I decided to watch the film again, and knowing this time what to expect, sheer humor and no real closeness to the Arthurian legend, I was able to enjoy the film a great deal, to laugh out loud in numerous places. I love the cow being catapulted, and who doesn’t love the killer rabbit! And a few things, like the mention of Joseph of Arimathea, attest to some knowledge in the film of the real legend. Furthermore, I loved the sets, the castles, and some of the songs in Spamalot, such as “Brave Sir Robin,” originated in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Finally, I remember first watching this film and thinking it had that dull, gray ’70s look that most films of that period had, but the special edition version has made Monty Python and the Holy Grail visually beautiful. I was stunned by the colors, and in some scenes, I could forget for a minute that I was watching a comedy, and think instead that I was looking at some of N.C. Wyeth’s beautiful illustrations or even some Pre-Raphaelite paintings. The only other Arthurian film that I have found so visually stunning was the NBC TV series Merlin (1998).

All in all, Monty Python and the Holy Grail is a film I can appreciate for what it tries to do–make fun of the Arthurian legend in a way that is funny and not solely demeaning. It is well worth watching and deserves its status as one of the best known and most popular films about the Arthurian legend. I do find the ending of the film very disappointing, and it is far inferior to Spamalot, but overall, it’s a film worth watching and enjoying more than once. I mean, it has even inspired people to wear pajamas with killer rabbits on them, and when a film influences pajama fashions, it has to have something of value!

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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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