The History Before the Myth King Arthur: the Movie (2004)

Email Print
FacebookTwitterShare

John Boorman's
Excalibur
(1981) remains the best film ever made about the King Arthur legend.
It now has an equal – Antoine Fuqua's King
Arthur
(2004) – except that this one largely dispenses
with the mythic Arthur, with all its medieval embellishments,
and concentrates on the historical foundations in post-Roman Britain.
The Roman imperial government withdrew its legions and administrators
from their far-flung province of Britannia in A.D. 407. Germanic
tribes were threatening the heart of the empire (Italy), and all
available forces were necessary for its defense. Roman civilization
and culture did not vanish from Britannia, nor did her people
cheer the departure of Roman forces. The Romano-British were
a wealthy and civilized people; many were Christian; and they
were now alone.Warlike tribes from north of Hadrian's Wall (the
Picts) and from the western island of Hibernia (the Scotti, the
Irish) had long coveted their lands, launched raids, and attempted
to colonize the western fringes of the province. And within a
few decades, they were threatened by an even more formidable foe
– Saxon invaders from northern Germany. Nevertheless, the
Britons managed to hold back these various voracious tribes for
over a century, and consequently Romano-Celtic Britain survived
as a distinct political society and culture until late in the
sixth century.

One
of their most effective military leaders was Lucius Artorius Castus
(Arthur in Brythonic, the language of the Celtic Britons), a Romano-British
cavalry officer whose family had resided in the island since the
late second century. Arthur's elite armoured cavalry defeated the Saxons in twelve engagements,
culminating in the decisive battle of Badon Hill (A.D. 493), which
won for his people a forty year respite of relative peace and
safety – the probable origin of the mythic age of Camelot.

[1]

Ignore
the critics who have panned this film.
From the reviews I have read, most of those who have done
so, know nothing of the history of the period, and have misinterpreted
their own confusion and bewilderment as products of a weak script,
rather than their own ignorance.

[2]

In addition, many of them are, frankly, politically
correct commissars who regard Kill
Bill (2004) as a great work of art but The
Passion (2004) as excessively violent and anti-Semitic. Any film that seeks not to vilify the western
past but to honor it, in all its complexity and magnificence,
is sure to incur their ire. The
film is gorgeous, moving, and conveys a realistic sense of fifth
century Roman Britain.

David
Franzoni's screenplay is quite good (he wrote the screenplay for
Gladiator). He keeps his story true to the larger historical
narrative, while only altering and compressing some details – necessary
poetic license to find a smaller story that can stand for the
whole enormous scope of the history.
The story begins as the Romans are withdrawing from the
island. Arthur (Clive Owen) is a Roman officer, commanding
a small contingent of elite Sarmatian cavalry, with whom he has
formed a tight bond; they are nearing the end of a twelve-year
period of service to the empire, after which they plan on returning
to their native land, in what is now Hungary.
These are honor-bound men, who will keep their word and
fulfill their oath of service to the very end.

[3]

Arthur
himself plans on moving to Rome.
Although he is of mixed parentage – his father a Roman
and mother a Briton – he sees himself primarily as Roman.
This will change. Gradually, Arthur comes to identify with the
land in which he was born and with his mother's people, who seem
more honorable than the rather decadent and deceitful Roman officials
and aristocrats. The most decisive influence on him is Guinevere
(Keira Knightley), a beautiful female Celtic warrior who is unwaveringly
devoted to her people. Her
first words to Artorius are devastating: u201CArthur, the Briton who
kills his own people.u201D She
respects his abilities, knows he is an honorable and humane man,
and believes he can be won over to their side.
After he describes to her the glories of Rome (perhaps
hoping she will go with him), she replies: u201CI belong to this land,u201D
meaning she will never leave it, no matter how luxurious life
may be in Rome. In the
end, Arthur decides to remain in Britain to fight off the invading
Saxons, who are pouring in to colonize the island; and his Sarmatian
knights, adoptive Britons now, join him. He
makes common cause with his old foe Merlin, Guinevere's father.

[4]

After their combined forces crush the Saxons,
in a beautifully choreographed battle scene, Arthur marries Guinevere
and is anointed king of his people, the Celtic Britons. Marvelous.

Readers of
a paleolibertarian persuasion can find much to love here. This
glimpse of the last days of the Roman Empire gives us hope that
the American empire will some day experience the same deserved
fate. In addition, we see that the collapse of Roman political
authority is not followed by anarchy and bedlam, as neocons and
other statists would predict, but by the resurgence of the native
Britons, the elevation of their natural leaders – Arthur,
Merlin, and the restoration of a natural social order, based on
ethno-cultural kinship and common consent.

[5]

Were the United States to fall apart, we can be confident
that the disjointed fragments will sort themselves out in a similar
way.

Notes:

[1]

For those interested in the fascinating history of this
age, see P.F.J. Turner's The
Real King Arthur: A History of Post-Roman Britannia, A.D. 410–A.D.
593
(1993).

[2]

See, for instance, the review by Joe Williams
in the St. Louis Post
Dispatch and Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times; both available online through the movie review
search engine, mrqe.com.

[3]

After defeating the Sarmatians in A.D. 175,
the Emperor Marcus Aurelius dispatched some heavy Sarmatian
cavalry to Britannia; their lives were spared in return for
life-long service to Rome.

[4]

In the film, the native Britons are known
as u201CWoads,u201D after their habit of painting their skin with blue
dye from the Woad plant, and they are depicted as residing north
of Hadrian's Wall, in what is now Scotland.
That would make them Picts, who actually made common
cause with the Saxons against
Arthur and his Britons. But
again, the film need not be truthful in every detail to be truthful
in the larger telling.

[5]

We cannot help noticing too that if Arthur
had been a radical individualist and solipsist, concerned only
with enjoying his rights and maximizing his comfort and possessions,
he would have returned to Rome; but then there would have no
heroism, no legend, and no movie.

July
26, 2004

H.
Arthur Scott Trask, Ph.D., [send
him mail
] is an historian.

Email Print
FacebookTwitterShare