Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Freedom and Kings

Last night I finished watching King Arthur, last year's not-so-hot Clive Owen-Keira Knightly sword and arrow epic.

Except for one ideological quibble, my entire review could be summed up as: meh.

Yes, it was somewhat more historically accurate than previous Arthurian movies/books/video games/plastic sword-and-helmet sets. Arthur is a Romano-Briton officer who leads a troupe of Sarmatian cavalry near Hadrian's Wall just as Rome is abandoning the British Isles. He fights the Picts (called Woads here), then teams up with them to fight the Saxons. Fine so far. And nobody cuts someone's head off like Clive Owen.

But the story is really, really dull. Surprisingly so, given all the carnage. I can usually just sit back and enjoy that kind of thing, but the screenwriter seemed intent on sucking all the joy out of every fight by having the characters be miserable about it. A beheading is much less interesting if it follows a dull, lengthy speech.

The movie also fails on several minor but damned irritating levels.

First, everyone has been made up in Road Warrior drag. Leather, long hair, beards (there are several knights who look just like Sam Roberts) and a strong sense that none of them have been near a bath in some time. Hey guys. These are Romans. They loved to bathe. Every small to medium town had a public bath, and elite soldiers could certainly have afforded the fees.

There is the continuing hilarity of the fact that no one in Hollywood knows what peasants do. We see them several times, standing in the background in (uncultivated) fields (of grass) waving around a bunch of agricultural tools. That one has a billhook, this one has a rake, that one has a hoe... what are they doing? Where are the plows, the hedgerows, the gleaners, the stooks of wheat, the storehouses of grain? Nowhere to be seen. This always reminds me of Monty Python and the Holy Grail's scene of anarcho-syndicalist peasants: "Dennis, there's some lovely filth down here." That's what farmers do, apparently, pile mud on top of mud.

The villains are cardboard cutouts, with silly pro-wrestler facial hair. You can tell their leader is bad, because he often kills his own henchmen. Even though, in a north-Germanic culture like the Saxons, killing off people would result in either a demand for a blood price, or a really nasty feud. Chieftains like Saxon leaders led coalitions of clans and tribes, not passive, subservient masses of arrow fodder.

The worst thing about this movie, however, is the way it over- and misuses the word freedom. For this, someone should have been punched. Hard.

Arthur, Lancelot and others are constantly yammering about freedom. About how that's what they're fighting for, what they want, what is being denied to them, etc. It's frankly pretty boring, but the worst part is that there is no real understanding, anywhere in this film, of what freedom actually is.

First off, the Sarmatians actually do seem to have a good idea of what they want, and it's simply to be released from their military service. They've been in saddle for 15 years for Rome. No bloody wonder they want out. But what does Arthur keep talking about it for? He's a patrician member of Christian, late-empire Roman society. Even if he has an interest in ancient Greek philosophy (where the notion of freedom and liberty may have come before his eyes) he won't have a modern conception of freedom. Rome, at this point, had been an empire for almost half a millenia. Democracy in Europe was dead, in any form. Is Arthur talking about freedom of speech, of religion, of movement, from want, free trade, free beer? Can't be freedom from the Saxons, because they kill everybody. Freedom from Rome? They're leaving.

Freedom is simply used as a rallying word, an emotionally loaded term the writer tossed in to give a gloss of modernism and nobility to a story about people with swords butchering each other. In so doing, he debases the word itself.

Arthur only becomes king by implication, and his real power is never clearly explained. But the end of the film is a classic power image, Arthur and Guinevere resplendent and surrounded by adoring throngs. Where's the freedom here? Will Arthur be a better ruler than the cardboard villains he's just fought off? Possibly. But there's never a mention of letting people choose their rulers, or letting them choose not to be ruled at all. There's no mention of what rights Arthur might grant to the people that the Saxons won't.

And there is no mention, of course, that the Saxons, Angles and Jutes are the ultimate winners. Arthur's defiance, according to the best historical guesses, was that of a warlord who managed to hold off the Germanic migration for about 70 years. Then they continued to land, invade, fight, farm, trade and intermarry with the locals. Until they were conquered themselves by French-speaking vikings (the Normans). Who would, within a few generations, be the cause of a political crisis that would lead to the Magna Carta. A piece of paper that asserted, for the first time in feudal England, that kings did not have the right to do anything they wanted to their subjects. A document that lead, through many cul-de-sacs and wrong turnings into the modern concept of liberty and real freedom.


Blinkit said...

Good point about the notion of freedom bandied about in the film as if it applied to 21st century America. Wait, does freedom still apply to 21st century America?

A lot of films about other medieval types, Romans etc. suffer from the same problem.

The ending for Arthur, however, was not the director's original choice. The DVD contains an alternate ending, and it's actually reasonable and nuanced, kind of puts a tarnish on the whole freedomg thing.

Anonymous said...

Oops, that first line should read: "Good point about the notion of freedom bandied about as it WERE 21st century America."

I think that makes more sense.