Sunday, July 18, 2004

Who's afraid of the Roman Empire? 

I finally went to see "King Arthur", the more "historically accurate" take on the Arthurian legend. Well, it is, and it's not. The action takes place in the late 460s, as the Roman Empire retreats from the British Isles. The problem is the Romans have left by 410. Another problem is the "historical" Arthur hadn't been born until sometime early the following century. The real Arthur, in as much as we can tell, was not a king per se, but a dux bellorum, a war leader, or general, leading his men during the mid-sixth century. He was a native Briton, but most likely from a Romanised upper class local family. The Empire and the Roman civilisation were long gone by then, but Arthur still fought a rear guard action against assorted barbarian invaders to preserve the remnants of a lost world. He had delayed, but didn't ultimately prevent the infiltration of Britain by Saxons, Angles and Jutes. Just as well, since without them modern England would not exist as we know it. 

The movie itself faces a problem: how to make Arthur a hero, while damning what he stood for. The Roman Empire and Roman civilisation are so very un-PC these days (partly because the Roman Empire to many seems kind of like the United States today, therefore kind of, umm, you know, bad, right?) that its champion must be either bad, mad, or disappointed. The creators of "King Arthur" choose the last option. Arthur idolises Rome as the City of God and City of Man rolled into one, but the Romans he encounters in real life are cruel oppressors of the native populations which years to breathe free. The men of God aren't much better either, portrayed either as cynical and manipulative, or cruel and hypocritical. By the end of the movie, Arthur realises that his future lies not in the far away Sarmatia, where his father hailed from, but with the native people he had fought against in the past, on Rome's orders.
For those who like to find subliminal and not-so-subliminal messages in movies, "King Arthur" says this: the supposedly civilised American empire is built on cruelty and hypocrisy. You, the naive outsider, might be fascinated by the shiny ideal, but in reality America will use you, screw you over, and then abandon you to face the music. The sooner you realise it, the better. By this token, "King Arthur" will surely be a big hit in cinemas of Kurdistan.
What of the movie itself? It's not an Oscar contender but neither is it as bad as most critics imply. As "Braveheart/Gladiator"-Lite, it suffers from rather ponderous script, but the actors still manage to make the most of it. Scotland provides picturesque enough setting, and Hans Zimmer churns out another soft heroic score, this time with some Celtic tinges. Just like with previous "historical" Hollywood epics, serious fans of the past will sit and cringe at anachronisms and ahistoricisms, in this case Saxons using crossbows, Celts using catapults (in set battles, no less), Germanic invaders landing north of the Hadrian Wall (if only their descendants had attacked the Maginot Line head on), and so on. But if you're prepared to ignore such details and simply settle for a pretty easy going entertainment you shouldn't actually have too painful a time at the cinema. I was always fond of my name-sake and this most recent treatment, sans the even more ahistorical Medieval settings and magic/religious trappings like the Holy Grail is a lot more up my alley than a more "mythologically correct" atrocity like "The First Knight." "King Arthur" won't make me hate the Roman Empire or the Unites States, either.
And in the end, bear this in mind; in P J O'Rourke's famous words (quoting from memory), the Roman Empire did decline and fall, but it fell to us.


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