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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 11, 2004

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Arthur, Gunpowder, and Baby Animals

King Arthur is a good movie. This will be welcome news to those who, like me, were disgusted with Jerry Zucker's wretched 1995 First Knight, which embarrassed Richard Gere and Julia Ormond and everyone who sat through the entire thing.

It's natural that in revisiting a legendary figure like Arthur, filmmakers will want to change the story enough to put their own stamp on the material.

That's why we've had previous films as various as John Boorman's quirky but brilliant Excalibur (1981) and the musical Camelot, which as musicals go wasn't bad.

(OK, it was bad. But not as bad as Paint Your Wagon and infinitely better than, say, Moulin Rouge.)

The trouble with First Knight was that the filmmakers' "own stamp" on the material consisted of putting the story through the three-act-formula meat-grinder that has ruined countless Hollywood films in recent years, turning them into worthless drivel before the cameras even started rolling.

Excalibur may have been incoherent at times, but it was magical and yet gritty and real-seeming, and Nicol Williamson and Helen Mirren nearly stole the movie out from under the purported leads. Well worth renting if you haven't seen it. (It's also worth noting as one of Liam Neeson's earliest films.)

Boorman enriched the Arthurian story by making the magic feel dark and powerful and deep and strange. King Arthur, the newest entry in the Arthurian romantic tradition, claims to do the opposite.

None of that nonsense about magic! Merlin is a tribal leader of the Picts or Woads, the body-painting barbarians from north of Hadrian's wall. And Arthur is the leader of a group of Sarmatian knights -- as screenwriter David Franzoni would have us believe, they were the "special forces" of the Roman Empire.

Um, right.

They really did try to get some things historically right. For instance, there are no lances in the hands of the mounted knights -- that came only after stirrups came into use. (The trouble is that they still have the knights fight from horseback against infantry, which really isn't the way it was done. The reasons why are far too numerous to go into here. But I appreciate the gesture toward accuracy.)

But, as with Franzoni's previous "realistic" historical film Gladiator, he takes so much license with history that it borders on contempt. But since he's writing about an era about which the ordinary audience member tends to know less than nothing -- it's called the "dark ages," not because it was dark to the people living then, but because it's dark to us looking back on it! -- it's hardly worth nibbling away at the impossibilities in the story.

If you want a romantic and magical treatment of the Arthurian story, you can't do better than Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, and The Last Enchantment. Told from Merlin's point of view, the story is faithful to what was known about the waning days of Roman Britain in the 1960s, when she wrote.

If you'd like to read a whimsical retelling of the legend without much regard for history but with dazzling charm and wit, then T.H.White's The Once and Future King is for you. The first part of it was filmed as the animated Disney film The Sword in the Stone, but the book as a whole is far darker, sexier, and more dangerous than a kids' movie could possibly be.

And if you want a true novelistic treatment of the Arthurian legend, benefitting from deeper research and many discoveries made after Stewart, then you'll love and admire Jack Whyte's brilliant Camulod Chronicles, which begins with The Skystone. Unlike the movie King Arthur, Whyte is rigorous about not violating what is known of the era, and because he's also a marvelous writer and storyteller, he will keep you spellbound through volume after volume.

But these are books, not movies, and so technically they're not competition with King Arthur. Though I must say that seeing King Arthur made me long for a film version of Stewart's and Whyte's series -- they would make very different films, and potentially far better than any that have been made so far. And a new film of Once and Future King, only this time for grownups, is long overdue.

King Arthur may have little to do with the real Britons, Romans, Saxons, and Picts of history, but the filmmakers do a fine job of helping us not only tell the different knights apart, but like them enormously. Even though the story isn't as coherent or personal as Gladiator -- no best-picture impact this time around, alas -- it is still clear and moving.

Arthur himself (played powerfully by Clive Owen) is engaging enough as a Christian who has embraced the ideas of Pelagius without anticipating that he would be declared a heretic.

And Keira Knightley as Guinevere is given some wonderful scenes. Not including the love scene, though -- it felt perfunctory and I, for one, didn't need it. It was just a time-killer. Except for those in the audience who didn't know that in the dark ages the act of mating was quite popular. No, it wasn't invented in the 1960s. That was just when filmmakers decided their audiences were so stupid or love-starved that they had to be given love-making instructional sequences in every film.

In the actual fighting scenes, it was laughable that they expected us to believe that Keira Knightley's slender arms could wield a broadsword well enough to withstand the heavy blows thrown against her by men three times her bulk.

Never mind -- despite the filmmakers' claims that this is the non-fantasy version of the Arthurian legend, in fact it's full of fantastic heroics at an almost comic-book level. Like the arrow that strikes with deadly accuracy against a man who was not visible to the shooter. Heat-seeking arrows, anyone?

So it's all right that the knights of the round table do unbelievable things. Heroics can be lovely to see, and we believe their spirit even if we can't believe their actuality.

Ioan Gruffudd as Lancelot by sheer good looks almost steals the movie, while Ray Winstone as comic-relief-brute Bors does steal it, to our delight.

You'll laugh, you'll sit on the edge of your seat ...

But unless you sneak an onion into the theater, you won't cry.

In the end there is no character that we care about so much that we are moved the way we were by Gladiator. While bad-guy Cerdic (Stellan Skarsgard) and his feckless son Cynric (Til Schweiger) are brutal and dangerous enough to be grand opponents, ultimately the movie absolutely depended on our caring about Arthur's vague Pelagian version of Christianity -- while seeing all other Christians as even crueler than the Saxons.

That was perhaps the worst thing about the film. Is Christianity so hated in Hollywood that it has to be blamed for everything bad in every era of history? No doubt atrocities like those shown happened, but the overwhelming effect of Christianity was a tempering of brutality, and it borders on slander to show such relentlessly hateful views of Christians. The bishop exploits, lies, breaks his word; the father of the young pope-to-be is a sadistic slavedriver. No Christian except Arthur is shown as decent; or rather, no decent person is shown as Christian.

Enough, already! This stream of hate toward the religion of most Americans throughout our history has gone too far. Perhaps before screenwriters use Christianity as an all-purpose whipping boy they ought to get a bit more historical information from unbiased sources -- you know, the historians who use all the facts.

Right now all we're getting is "history" the way Michael Moore creates it -- a lot of lies and innuendoes claiming to be "truth" until you challenge him, whereupon it becomes "just fiction, so lighten up."

They would never dream of slandering Islam the way they slander Christianity. That would make them "intolerant."

But you can wince and ignore the slanders; if you concentrate on the adventure, it's an enjoyable movie, even for prickly Christians like me.

Just don't ask how the Woads suddenly became so adept at making war machines that they could apparently throw them together in an afternoon and use them with deadly accuracy.

Above all, pretend you don't know that in real medieval battles you never saw such killing fields between undisciplined armies like these. Most killing took place when one army was in flight. Then the pursuers littered the field with corpses. The result of Arthur's strategy should have been the Saxons' fleeing in terror, with the Woads chasing them and slaughtering them as they ran; but how could that be filmed? The good guys, in Hollywood films, can't do most of their killing against a panicked and fleeing foe.

As for the fight on the ice -- if Saxons had really been so stupid as to stay on ice that was cracking, they could never have conquered England.

All right, I know it, nobody cares about these things but me.

*

The antidote to historical nonsense is an excellent book of history, and I have enjoyed few such books more than Jack Kelly's Gunpowder: Alchemy, Bombards, & Pyrotechnics: The History of the Explosive that Changed the World.

This book is not padded. It takes gunpowder from its origins and explains the chemistry of how it works in terms that even a chemical illiterate like me can understand. Then, at an almost breakneck pace, it shows how the substance was turned into a weapon in China, then imported into Europe, where it was further refined with superior metallurgy until it had the power to knock down castle walls.

It's a murderous history, but it does explain how narrow and yet how decisive was the technical advantage the West enjoyed in warfare against other cultures. And for those who loathe the inventors of such a terrible thing as gunpowder, perhaps it will be some comfort that working with ever-stronger explosives took a grim toll among the inventors.

This is a triumph of science and history writing for a popular audience.

*

Susan McCarthy's Becoming a Tiger: How Baby Animals Learn to Live in the Wild is the kind of science writing that I love.

When I was a kid, I was taught that animals learned everything by instinct -- they were born knowing everything -- while humans had only two instincts, the fear of falling and ... I forget the other. Fear of loud noises? It doesn't matter, because of course it's nonsense.

Not only is a lot more of human behavior largely influenced by genetics, just like animal behavior, but also a lot more of animal behavior is actually learned from parents and others of the tribe -- just like human behavior.

A lot of these discoveries came under the pressure of trying to reintroduce animals that were raised in captivity to the wild. They simply couldn't compete, because they had never learned the things that they had to know in order to survive in competition with uncooperative prey, predators, and other competitors.

So as scientists experimented, trying to figure out how to teach the animals what they needed to know, they naturally ended up discovering fascinating things about how animal behaviors are acquired in nature.

Now if they could just explain to me why squirrels don't learn how to dodge cars ...


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