King Arthur

Not Quite a Damsel in Distress

We blockbuster movie addicts were been spoilt for choice this summer, with The Day After Tomorrow, Spiderman 2, I,Robot, Troy, King Arthur, The Village, Shrek 2, etc., all coming out over a few months. As there’s already an excellent review of Troy on this site and I’ve yet to see most of the others, here’s my two cents about King Arthur, which I liked very much. Though it had a few flaws, it was an enjoyable way to spend two hours.

Before I start digging into the film, what does it mean to do a ‘feminist film review’? Much the same as doing an ordinary film review – does the plot work, is it exciting, were the characters sympathetic – but with the added dimension of looking at a) whether it deals with any feminist issues, and b) whether it treats the female characters in it with respect, or whether whoever made it is still hanging on to old and annoying stereotypes or attitudes. Of course, all story-telling is prone to stereotypes and plot devices.

all story-telling is prone to stereotypes

For example, I did think about doing a review of Spiderman 2 and looking at whether Mary Jane is more than just that dreaded phrase, hated by female actors and film fans, “the love interest”. I thought about this for a while, and then I thought, “Well, the film focuses on one young man’s struggle to be a hero. Most of the characters the director shows us are those he directly encounters, and we see them very much how he sees them. Therefore, Mary Jane is going to look like the love interest, because if we’re seeing things from his point of view, then her relationship with him is the most important thing about her from his point of view“. Often, there isn’t time in a film to fully explore more than one character; that of the hero, without getting bogged down. You could, however, quite fairly ask why so many heroes in films are male, and why so few female characters are anything other than the love interest, or get to do anything other than provide solace for the hero or get rescued. Which leads me nicely to King Arthur


King Arthur aims to look at the reality behind the legend, the ‘real’ King Arthur. If he ever really existed (which is possible, but unproven), he must have lived in the fifth century CE, when the Roman empire abandoned Britain to the predations of the vicious Saxon invaders. This was a deeply frightening time in our history, when civilisation in our country really did collapse. (If you want to know more about it, there’s an excellent book set partly in this period called Coalescent by Steven Baxter).

The film aims to look at the reality behind the legend

The movie’s premise is that Arthur & his Knights of the Round Table were Samarian cavalry, serving out their time in Britain as part of the Roman army and hoping to get discharged and go home before they all get killed. Arthur (Clive Owen) – half native British, half Roman – is a man of great loyalty and decency (are you surprised?), and his men, though rough around the edges, are basically brave, good-hearted warriors. When the order comes to leave Rome, Arthur and his men prepare to pack up, but are sent on one last mission; to retrieve a Roman family from beyond Hadrian’s Wall, before the Saxons invading from the north can find them and kill them. On route, Arthur must decide whether he should take his men out of Britain and back home, or to stay and fight the invaders. This in itself doesn’t provide much dramatic tension, since it would have been a short movie if he’d made the wrong decision. The interest comes from the danger he, his warriors and the people he is guarding are in; will they escape before the pursuing Saxons get them, and will Arthur be able to forge an alliance with the native British – whom he’s been fighting for years – in time to defeat the enormous Saxon army?

So much for the plot – if you want to know more, watch the film. On to the feminist analysis! To be honest, there’s not a lot I can say about Arthur himself, except that Clive Owen was a good choice to play him. He is a classic film hero, intelligent but brooding, fearless in battle, loyal to his friends, a defender of the innocent and helpless. Perhaps the most unique thing about him is that he’s a Christian, and a particular type of Christian, following Pelagius’ teachings that – as the film puts it – “All are free to seek God”.

Although he becomes a king, Arthur is not a dictator in the mould of the Roman emperors. This belief inspires his only really brutal act; when he finds Christian priests imprisoning and torturing pagans at the home of a Roman family, he orders them bricked up in their own prison (for those wondering, at this stage the Roman Empire’s official religion was Christianity). In some ways, the film wouldn’t work as well without this scene; these were brutal times and someone in a position of authority had to be prepared to be brutal. Whether you agree with his action is up to you to decide.

There are a lot of lonely men out there – aren’t you nervous?

On to the really interesting characters; the band of knights, and Guinevere, aka Keira Knightley. Firstly, the band of knights. Yes, as one might expect, they’re rough round the edges, making jokes about peeing and shagging each others’ wives. Lancelot (Orlando Bloom – who else?) is the master of this type of joke; he’s that other stock character, the hero’s young, handsome, loyal but hot-headed best friend. But at the same time, they have hearts. Bors, the film’s comic relief (hilariously played by Ray Winstone) is at first the roughest of the lot, looking every inch the rough, bluff, tough warrior, cracking crude jokes and wielding an axe. But as we quickly find out, he’s also a family man, having the largest family of any of the knights and partners with a woman who knows her own mind; When he mutters to his infant son at the romantic marriage of Arthur and Guinevere, “I’m really going to have to marry your mum now, aren’t I?”, her sharp reply is “What makes you think I’ll have you?”.

Tristan, the shaven-headed, taciturn knight, adopts an orphaned boy on their travels, and fights to defend him against other Roman soldiers. Only Lancelot’s attitude is really unreconstructed, which though annoying, isn’t allowed to dominate. Indeed, in many ways it’s a set-up for the film’s best line; as the brave seven men and one woman face the Saxon hordes, bows in hands, Lancelot mutters to Guinevere: “There are a lot of lonely men out there – aren’t you nervous?”. Her cool reply: “Don’t worry, I won’t let them rape you”. That got the biggest laugh of the whole film when I went to see it.

The Saxons, by contrast, are what a friend of mine calls ‘Orcs’ faceless evil enemies whose motives we either don’t see or which are wholly evil. The Saxon leader is especially frightening because he isn’t a cackling villain, but a ruthless, genocidal war leader. On encountering one of his men raping a British girl, he drags the man off – only to deliver a short homily on the need to keep Saxon blood pure and kill all the English (he promptly has the girl’s throat cut). You could, if you were so minded, see quite a few parallels with our own world, where these views have caused misery, suffering and in the worst cases, death and genocide. We don’t see Saxon women, but their attitude is clear; women are there as the mothers of the one pure race, and as helpmeets for the warrior men. (Boo hiss!).

there’s an assumption that if you stick the woman in tight clothing, give her a weapon and let her fight a bit, you’ve done your bit

And onward to Guinevere, the obvious choice of subject for a feminist film review! Here she isn’t the rather selfish and silly queen of legend, cuckolding Arthur with Lancelot. To which I can only say thank goodness, because the film has a lot of plot to get through and adding a romantic triangle would just about have sunk it (will there be a sequel though, we wonder?). This Guinevere is a native British princess, rescued by Arthur from the afore-mentioned Christian priests. No damsel in distress she, handy with bow and fighting axe.

At this point I have to say that one of the things I tend to dislike about many modern films is that there’s an assumption that if you stick the woman in tight clothing, give her a weapon and let her fight a bit, you’ve done your bit and can’t be accused of not having strong female characters. I really don’t like this attitude, because so often it’s a thin cover over unchanged assumptions; that the female characters are there to bolster the men. They are often very rarely allowed to have agendas of their own (unless they’re villainesses), and are frequently either rescued by the men at some point, or more generously allowed to have a little moment of glory in which they contribute to the men’s ongoing quest, which tends to be the real focus of the film. Does King Arthur fall into this trap?

I’m happy to say that I don’t think it does. Yes, Guinevere is Arthur’s love interest; we all know that from the legends. Yes, she is stunningly attractive, especially in leather trousers, breastband and blue paint. Yes, she is rescued by Arthur. But at the same time, in a very real sense, Arthur is her love interest – he is king because of his marriage to her in more ways than one. She has her own agenda; the defence of her people against the marauding Saxons, and is prepared not only to recruit Arthur and the knights, but to fight for it; come the climatic battle, she fights beside her own people. Interestingly, we do see her fight and kill – no shy female horrified at the prospect of dealing death, this is a ferocious, yelling, female fighter, accompanied by other female fighters, using her smaller size and greater agility to help her defeat the bigger Saxon warriors.

no shy female horrified at the prospect of dealing death, this is a ferocious, yelling, female fighter

I’ve read that this is a result of Keira Knightley’s own approach to playing the role; she wanted her character to be less passive and more powerful. (You go, Keira!) There is of course another issue here, about whether it’s really a step forward to put female characters on an equal footing with men as regards their readiness to kill. I personally think this is perhaps less of an issue of sexual equality, than of our own values. If we deplore her willingness to fight and kill, we should also deplore that of Arthur & the male knights – and, perhaps, we should think about stopping watching movies that entertain by showing us battlefield scenes. When she stands side by side with the magnificent seven, she is a part of their band pulling her weight, not just the leader’s girlfriend.

In their love scene, it is she who comes to and seduces Arthur. I was rather glad that this part of the film didn’t use the two classic ‘tasteful sex scene’ shots I’ve come to know and get fed up with; the one where the man pushes or rolls the woman onto her back, and the other one where we see the man on top of the woman. There’s a nice suggestion that they are making love sitting upright, facing each other, equals in this as on the battlefield (though only a suggestion; it’s a 12A after all). And yes I was watching carefully, it was Clive Owen getting his shirt off and I’m only human!

In their love scene, it is she who comes to and seduces Arthur.

You could say that all this is terribly unhistorical and that men in this period would never have had these sorts of attitudes. Well, you could also use the ‘It’s a movie! A made-up story for entertainment!’ line of defence. You could also say that there is some evidence from the encounters of Romans with Celtic and Native British women that it was quite possible that women in these societies did enjoy what we would call a more equal role.

Finally, though, I think I would argue that all movies, historical or otherwise, reflect our own values at the time the movie was made. It’s impossible for us to recreate the attitudes of people living 1500 years ago – separated by gulfs of time and knowledge, can we ever really understand what it was like to live in the Roman Empire or Celtic Britain (or Classical Greece, or Troy)? All we can do is try to be faithful, but not be afraid to use stories about the past to explore ourselves, our own values, attitudes, beliefs and needs – whether these be for intellectual debate or two hours of watching Good give Evil a right royal thumping. And with this in mind, I’d like to say that I enjoyed King Arthur.