I heard recently that Guy Ritchie has been chosen to direct a new screen version of the Arthurian legends, provisionally entitled King Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable. My immediate response to this was one of sighing and gnashing of teeth, cursing Hollywood for what is almost certainly to be another mauling of the Arthurian canon. After this initial reaction had passed though, the experience led me to pause for a moment and reflect on why it is Hollywood has not yet managed to produce a convincing re-telling of these stories, as well as any film set in the Middle Ages.
The most recent adaptation of the Arthurian tales was 2004’s King Arthur, directed by Antoine Fuqua and starring Clive Owen as Arthur opposite Keira Knightley as Guinevere. In an attempt (presumably) to reboot the stories for a modern audience, the film places events in a demythologised context, with no involvement of Merlin in Arthur’s birth (Merlin is a distant figure, leading a rebellious group of Picts to the North, and Guinevere herself is reimagined as some kind of Celtic warrior-queen in the mould of Boadicea/Boudica), and no mention of the central tragedy of Lancelot’s involvement with Arthur and Guinevere. The whole period is shifted from the post-Roman and Christian setting of the original stories, to the time of Rome’s withdrawal from Britain.
Most tellingly of all, there is a constant background narrative wherein the native pagan Britons are seen as enlightened and tolerant, versus a constant stream of corrupt and domineering Church/Roman figures. The heretic Pelagius is also mentioned, but bizarrely cited by Arthur as an unfailing supporter of political and social freedom, rather than of free will and human effort unsupported by grace. This enables the film to again paint Rome and the Church as evil figures, suppressing the heroic Pelagius because of his support for liberty and even (wait for it)…social equality and inclusivity!
Thus we discover the real reason for all this demythologising is more than anything else to do with injecting a secular way of seeing the world into a story that cannot support such a vision. This, I would suggest, is the main problem with doing justice to the Arthurian legends on screen – an inability to grasp the character’s motivations, and to instead attempt to reinterpret them in terms of how modern, Western, secular people would see things instead. This leaves us with character and plot motivations that feel either clunky or downright unbelievable, and a general feeling of disconnect throughout.
The best attempt at reading the stories as they themselves ask to be read, and of re-presenting the Arthurian world in terms that make sense of its own motivations, is John Boorman’s Excalibur. This was a worthy but slightly muddled version, as it struggled to ‘fit in’ all the different layers of the stories that had developed over the centuries, instead of focusing on one strand. However, it did at least try to see things in terms of what those stories were originally about, and what motivated the characters in them to do the things they did – which is, in essence, Christian ethics; and more specifically, virtues such as nobility, chastity, charity, and honour.
We live in a world for which such things are at best an embarrassment, the legacies of a world gone by which can never come again, and which we look upon with a mild sense of condescension, even disdain. The ‘dark ages’ or those ‘benighted middle ages’, are seen as periods of ignorance and oppression, with nothing to offer us, and no resources from which we can draw upon to reinvigorate our own culture. It is increasingly the case though, that even though these periods will be though of in those terms when considered, more often than not they are not even on our radar at all, and the virtues listed above are things that do not even compute.
This can be seen in Fuqua’s King Arthur, where the knights, instead of being motivated by ideals of honour, justice and charity, are moved instead by a thirst for violence, a sense of self-preservation, and occasionally greed. The closest we get to the chivalry of the original stories is in a grudging sense that if they are to die, they may as well do it together, giving us a skewed, reluctant version of the brotherhood of the Round Table instead of their having been united by a shared commitment to certain ideals. I am not suggesting of course, that medieval knights were never motivated by baser instincts. My point is that it rarely enters into the mind of modern filmmakers that they could be motivated by anything else.
The case of the Arthurian tales, and of many films set in medieval times (for a particularly badly represented subset of this genre, I point to films about the Crusades, where I am not aware of any that have managed to justice to their complex realities; and in recent times we have again seen the secular worldview imposed upon real history, to make them more explicable for modern audiences, and thus robbing them of any real coherence, particularly in the case of Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven and Robin Hood) represent a wider problem in filmmaking, in that directors, producers and screenwriters not only see Christian virtue as embarrassing or irrelevant, but increasingly do not understand it at all.
To what extent this is reflected in the audiences I am not sure, but it seems reasonably clear that the more they are told by film producers, directors, etc, that, for them to understand it, subject matter like the King Arthur stories needs to have sentiment substituted for romance and the ‘realism’ of human compromise substituted for honour, the more they will start to believe that they need this layering of secularism onto such topics, and the prophecy will have become self-fulfilled. How much of this is to do with a deliberate elimination of Christian virtue and ethics from history, I do not know (though I suspect this plays a large part too); but what does seem apparent is that this is language that people are becoming increasingly unfamiliar with.
That this is the case is a great shame, and not just because it means that I am going to have to wait a very long time before anything like a good Arthurian film comes out (Guy Ritchie may prove me wrong, but I’m not holding my breath on that one). It is also sad because it shows us a culture that is deliberately marginalising (for various reasons) and making itself unfamiliar with, something that forms the very basis of its own self-understanding, whether it realises it or not; and also something that would be the perfect antidote to much of our current cultural malaise.
A re-appreciation of Christian virtues like honour, charity, justice (and yes, even chastity – perhaps especially this one!) could help to imbue a rootless and rudderless people with the ideals they need to lift them out of the mire that we seem to intent on drawing ourselves further into. All the values we still hold dear (few though they are) can only be justified, both historically and philosophically, by acknowledging their Christian roots, and thus the Christian virtues are the only things that can reinvigorate and redirect our selfish and self-destructive culture. And yet, as Our Lord said, ‘how often would I have gathered you under my wings, and you would not!’ Those wings are always open, and ready to gather us again; but we must have the humility to first admit our wrongs, and turn back to the place from which we have so eagerly fled.