I Saw a Film!

Man I wanted this to be real when I was a lad. I loved this Boorman fantasy epic which leaned heavily on some old Mallory Arthurian legend fun, and imagined it to be something like a documentary of the 14th or 13th or whatever century. I understand that most of the authorities on the era suggest that Arthur, uniting the Celtic tribes and fighting off Norse hordes, was most likely based loosely on Ethelred but don’t hold me to that. It was clear that the armor was wrong for era it was meant to depict (plate armor being rather a short-lived and 16th century innovation, short-lived because long-bows and firearms were soon normal on the field), but it was hard to argue with the beauty of the presentation. Looking back from our perch now it’s fun to see so many well known actors from Liam Neeson to Patrick Stewart and Helen Mirren. Some of the main characters were stage people and never really hit our big movie consciousness again. In fact, the guy who played Lancelot (said by Boorman in the commentary to have been a difficult actor to work with) Clay, mostly did a lot of television. I couldn’t understand why these people weren’t all massive stars!

Of course, we’ll have Merlin (Nicol Williamson in perhaps his best role), and a sword drawn from a stone, and a round table, and quests (soon to be quite hilariously lampooned by Monty Python on public television late at night (in my neck of the woods)). I always took the magic aspects to be basically like any religion (pagan or not) and possibly heavily reliant on a desire to believe it anyway, rather than it being a reality (yes I actually was justifying). What I liked though, was basically the fighting. I loved the armored sword play. When the king and his knights meet the boastful (though miserable) Lancelot, and Arthur finally calls upon the sword’s power to defeat him, he breaks the sword, but also wins a devoted but troubled soldier. The sword is magically remade immediately, but soon enough Lancelot and Guinevere wind up causing some heartbreak which is not dealt with maturely, of course, and involves some impressive special effects sword-through-hip sequences. In later acts, things start getting really creepy with vengeful sons and more battlefield gore. Boorman was great for getting some gore right, and the weapons were always handled realistically (As well as in his older film The Duelists with Keitel and Carradine (the brother), this is often cited as the finest film for correct sword fight choreography).

In the real world, knights were commissioned by feudal lords to roam around and cause trouble, bringing back whatever they could in prizes (justifying their cost- which was considerable, it took whole villages to arm and mount a knight on a steed). But, this old fantasy skips over much of the problems with feudalism and the misery of life which lasted for most of human history, unlike Monty Python and the Holy Grail which dealt with most of these issues head on.

Here though, we end with the Mort d’Arthur in a grand style, and as a teenager I was totally moved by the whole package. In English class in high school, I can remember talking about the beloved film with a favorite young lady friend who sat directly in front of me. She shrugged, not having been particularly thrilled with the film, “They had sex with the armor on?” Hmm. I didn’t even consider that!

This runs a few bucks on Prime and is well worth it, it still feels like the best version of the old tale, both dark, sexually sparked, and loaded with good Boorman tactics. My brother and I can still recite the magic chant Morgana steals from Merlin!

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