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Monday, July 27, 2009

On "Excalibur"

Lila came late Friday (after having dinner out) and we got started on our movie weekend. Altogether over the weekend we watched Rio Bravo (John Wayne, Dean Martin, Rick Nelson, Walter Brennan); Primal Fear (Richard Gere, and the powerful debut of Edward Norton); Dungeons and Dragons (meh--nice enough), and the remainder of John Boorman's amazing Excalibur, which we started last weekend. (We also tried to watch Cuba Gooding Jr. in The Devil's Tomb--but we're trying to forget that.)

Nigel Terry as Arthur and Nicol Williamson as Merlin in "Excalibur"I've always loved Excalibur, and by coincidence, I ran into a little insight about it last week. Stefano gave me a book for my birthday called Witches, Druids And King Arthur. Not the sword-and-sorcery fantasy it sounds like, it's actually written by a historian, and reviews what we know--historically--on these topics.

The author, Ronald Hutton, writes that Arthur's status as an historical figure rose and fell during the 20th century. For a while, more or less mid-century, scholarly opinion held that he was a real person. In the 70s, though, doubt was creeping in until, in 1977, the final blow was struck: David Dumville, whom Hutton calls "Arthur's executioner," wrote a piece that pointed out "simply and crushingly" that there was absolutely no evidence for an historical Arthur. (Hutton goes on to say that, while the public never got that message, academics thereafter shied away from attaching themselves to Arthur as anything but a literary figure.)

Excalibur? Oh, yeah. Hutton says that when everything was ducky, the 60s, free love, hippies, etc., the portrayals of Arthur were commensurately earnest. But the tide turned. "[T]he youth culture had shifted again," writes Hutton;

the Year of Dumville was also the year of Punk Rock. The 1970s had brought Britain not spiritual rebirth but inflation, unemployment, energy crises, industrial unrest and an increasing extremism in street politics. The mood of optimistic idealism among the young in the first years of the decade [riding in the wake of Camelot -J.B.] had given way to an exuberant nihilism. To those who embraced the latter, Arthur was yet another despised authority figure or part of the childlike romanticism associated with the now even more despised hippies. When Arthur returned to the screen, in John Boorman's Excalibur, it was once again in the glamour and melodrama of medieval legend. In place of the earnest hippiedom of Arthur of the Britons [a purportedly "authentic" representation of Arthur on the BBC], the grotesque armour and brutal ways of Boorman's knights were the chivalric equivalents of Punk.

Funny to run across this reference when we were in the midst of viewing the film (having watched part the previous weekend).

The weekend's and today's (Monday's) posts:

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