Medieval Matters

Bruckheimer Make Boom with the “Real” King Arthur (2004)

I’ve said it before, in talking about the brilliance of Firelord, Parke Godwin’s novel of Arthur, that I can trace my choice of professional study, at some deep level, to a love of Arthur and his knights. Sure, Arthur is kind of a nebbish in a lot of the tales—which makes me all the more amazed at what Godwin did with him—but there’s just a lot of great stuff in the vast mythic complex that surrounds him.

King Arthur, as I tell my students, is like a little snowball rolled off the top of a tall, snowy peak. It gathers snow to it as it rolls, getting bigger and bigger until it’s really hard to find any trace of the original little clump of stuff that started it off.

Which is one way of explaining why anyone who tells you they know who the real King Arthur was… is full of bull dung.

We have some vague notions, it’s true—he’s likely rooted in regional Brythonic resistance to the Anglo-Saxon invasions of the fifth and sixth centuries—but we don’t have anything resembling a solid case. This rather inconvenient truth has hardly stopped a great many folks on various conspiratorial fringes from claiming otherwise, though. Like those ancient alien hunters, they’ve got the secret that those pointy-headed ivory-tower academics (::waves::) don’t want you to know.

A number of these folks are behind 2004’s King Arthur, directed by Antoine Fuqua and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer—the man who never met something he couldn’t make explode on film: “Okay, yeah, baby, I can see it: King Arthur! Yeah. Knights. Horses. Sexy, baby. Loving it. Swords! And then there’ll be explosions, right?”

Sigh.

Yes, Jerry. You’ll get your goddamn explosions. Because somehow, in defiance of both sense and sensibility, the Picts in this film inexplicably know how to make explosives in the fifth century…

…which pretty effectively sums up a whole lot about the movie’s historical accuracy: it ain’t good.

And that’s, you know, really odd, because the title scroll is keen to assure audiences that this Arthur—unlike all the other Arthurs, apparently—is on historical footing:

Historians agree that the classical 15th century tale of King Arthur and his Knights rose from a real hero who lived a thousand years earlier in a period often called the Dark Ages.

Recently discovered archaeological evidence sheds light on his true identity.

Riiiiiight.

So, again, anyone who says they know the “true identity” of Arthur is selling some wicked snake oil. Also, “the Dark Ages.” Ugh.

Things don’t improve when the film gets underway and we learn that it’s AD 452 and the Sarmatian cavalry, defeated by Rome, is now incorporated into the Roman army: Sarmatian sons are indebted to serve Rome as, ahem, “Knights.” We watch one of these lads being called up to join the Romans. His name? Lancelot. His battle cry? “Rūs!”

::takes deep breaths::

Fifth-century Sarmatians. Knights. Lancelot. Rūs.

I could write a book on how screwed up this is, and the main plot hasn’t even started.

Credit where it is due, the Sarmatians were a real people, a conglomeration of a number of East Iranian peoples settled around the Black Sea. We don’t know nearly as much as we’d like to know about them, though there’s a lot of consistency between ancient accounts and archaeological findings regarding the fact that women were held in high regard among them as both leaders and fighters… enough that connections between them and the myths of the Amazons are possible.

That’s cool stuff. But that’s not the story here.

No, no. Here the Sarmatians are totally, pointedly bro-centric, and their cry of pride is to shout “Rūs!”

Rūs, which is the name of a people from whom the word Russian derives, is a term with two primary (and very distinct) theories about its origins. One theory is that the word comes from the Old Norse word for “rower” and dates back to the arrival of the Northmen from Scandinavia who took control of the region (making Russia a kind of Scandinavian colony). The other theory is that the word is Slavic, threading back to a particular Sarmatian tribe called the Roxolani, who lived around the mouth of the Danube. Having these fifth-century bros shouting “Rūs!” means this movie is definitely espousing the latter, Slavic-not-Norse theory. That also happens to be the one that nationalist Russians like these days.

So okay, comrade movie, let’s accept that your Sarmatians are specifically Roxolani. Fair enough, I suppose, but they still wouldn’t shout “Rūs!”

You see, the name Roxolani comes from (dead language alert!) Scythian, and it appears to mean something like “Alani of the light”: Alani is the people part of the equation, so if these folks were shouting anything it ought to be “Alans!” And even if you wanted them to be shouting about brightness—for, I dunno, subtle pro-Russian sentimentality—it’d be “Ruxh” and not “Rūs”.

Speaking of languages, Lancelot is a French name—a straight-up, could-only-be-more-French-if-it-was-Francois kind of French name. And as a character he doesn’t even exist in Arthurian stories until the 12th century writer Chrétien de Troyes invents him.

Which of course makes me wonder why the living hell these pro-Russian East Iranians are giving their kids 12th-century French names in the 5th century.

::screaming into the void::

Anyway, the Roxolani in this movie are super good horsemen—which is actually possibly true—who function as knights—which is super not true—and the Romans have taken them to England to fight on their behalf—and, hey, that’s sorta true, too!

I feel like we’re sorta getting somewhere good now. The Sarmatians did indeed become Roman auxiliaris in the early Empire, and it’s true that there was a group of them in England. In Ribchester, in fact! Isn’t that cool? We know exactly where these guys were! You’re really turning things around, comrade movie! This is…

Wait. Wait. Why does this movie have these guys living at Hadrian’s Wall? That’s like 70 miles from Ribchester.

Goddamnit.

And then (then!) the movie jumps forward 15 years and introduces us to a sleepy-eyed Roman commander named Arthur (Clive Owen), who is the leader of the Knights of the Round Table. This makes literally no sense (see problems with Lancelot, listed above). At the same time, I will admit that it’s an excuse for a great cast. Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd) is all grown up. There’s also Galahad (Hugh Dancy), Bors (Ray Winstone), Gawain (Joel Edgerton), Tristan (Mads Mikkelsen), and Dagonet (Ray Stevenson—who is and will always be my Titus Pullo).

Look, this movie is just silly. Profoundly silly. It has gestures at history—it might be the only Arthurian movie to have the Pelagianism as a subplot—but it consistently sets those gestures on fire just as surely as it sets fire to a bunch of arrows at one point.

Because of course it has flaming arrows.

As an example, the villain in this movie is Cerdic, the leader of a bloodthirsty Saxon invasion. Stellan Skarsgård has a lot of fun playing him in the most over-the-top manner he can manage, and it’s fair to say that, like Alan Rickman in Kevin Hood, he pretty much steals the movie from its bland leading man. And, yeah, the Saxons were indeed invading the island at the time. And the little snowball of what became Arthur might well date from this period. Good, good, and good.

Except this movie has the Saxons landing in modern Scotland and then marching south toward Hadrian’s Wall.

That’s off by 400 miles, give or take, since Cerdic and the Saxons came ashore in Hampshire, on the southern coast of Britain. They never went to Hadrian’s Wall, as they founded Wessex (which derives from “West-Saxons”). Also, this movie is set around 485ish, but Cerdic didn’t arrive until 495 and didn’t die until 534.

Speaking of dates, the Roman withdrawal from Britain is absolutely central to the plot: Arthur and his bro-knights need to rescue a wealthy Roman from his villa north of the wall. That there were no such villas is one problem. That the withdrawal happened 75 years earlier is another.

Oh, and the bishop ordering them to the task on behalf of the Pope (who didn’t yet hold the kind of powers they give him in this movie) is Germanius—whose two visits to Britain were in 429 and 447.

What else … Merlin is a Pictish politician and spiritualist. Guinevere (Keira Knightley) is a Pict, too, only she’s a dying slave to the Romans who is rescued by Arthur … with whom she then exchanges Meaningful Looks(TM) before revealing that she’s (medieval movie cliche alert!) amazing at using a bow apparently on account of her being born on the island of Britain. It’s something in the water, I think. The Picts also use trebuchets that are wildly inaccurate. Oh, and the Saxons have crossbows with—wait for it—“armor-piercing” bolts.

Ow. Ow. Ow. Ow. OW.

Comrade movie, you can’t be all things. Want to be a historical look at the Anglo-Saxon invasions? Cool. Let’s do it. But you can’t also try to name-check like every damn character and moment in the expansive King Arthur mythology. I love both these things, you see, and they Do Not mix.

And—damnit, Jerry—keep your explosions out of my history.

So is there anything redeeming about this film in historical terms? No. Not even a little bit. (If I get started on the arms, armaments, and costume choices in this film we’ll be here all week.)

It’s sadly not very entertaining, either: despite the decent cast and a big budget, the acting paints by numbers, the pacing is painful, and the direction isn’t good. This is a shame, because despite all the historical nonsense the writing has some good lines, especially among Bors and the other knights. Oh, and I loved this exchange:

Lancelot: You look frightened. There’s a large number of lonely men out there.

Guinevere: Don’t worry, I won’t let them rape you.

There’s also a decent set-piece that’s a battle on ice in which Ray Stevenson takes a leading role. But part of that might just be because it doesn’t matter how many times the people in this movie want to call him Dagonet… he’s Titus friggin’ Pullo.

What do y’all think? Did anyone find anything else redeeming about this film?

Michael Livingston is a Professor of Medieval Culture at The Citadel who has written extensively both on medieval history and on modern medievalism. His historical fantasy trilogy set in Ancient Rome, The Shards of Heaven, The Gates of Hell, and The Realms of God, is available from Tor Books.

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