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

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    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.

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