Archive for Maurice Carter

The Death of the Arthur: Wilde and Crazy Guy

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 31, 2023 by dcairns

Blame the original Arthurian legends — a bunch of unrelated and mainly Welsh bits of history and legend that got gradually balled up together — for the aberrant spellings. But maybe blame TH White for repopularizing the aberrations just when things were settling down. By the 50s, everyone “knew” how to spell Merlin, so White made it Merlyn and somehow added a veneer of historical authenticity to his books, which otherwise rejoice in whimsical anachronism. The authenticity — White is very learned about everything from castle construction to falconry — makes the whimsy possible.

Anyway, here’s “Modred” in Cornel Wilde’s SWORD OF LANCELOT, monologuing to his tiny shoulder-pal. Is it technically a monologue if he’s talking TO someone, even if that someone is an intense-faced feathered shrimp perched on his anatomy? It definitely is.

“Modred” is imagined along the lines of Edmund in King Lear, an illegitimate son conspiring against a legit competitor, though here his rival is as yet only a gleam in Arthur’s eye. Having him here to plot helps push the guilt away from Lancelot and Guinivere, though how successful this will be as narrative poly remains to be seen.

“Modred” is played by Michael Meacham, who gets the kiss-of-death credit “And Introducing,” despite the fact that he’d been appearing on TV since 1952. He’s as close to the end of his screen career as to the beginning. Meacham voiced the role of Demetrius in the English dub of Jiri Trnka’s puppet version of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, long with prestigious types like Richard Burton, so I assume he had Shakespearian experience. Modred is conceived in villainous terms, but he doesn’t have Edmund’s depth or dialogue.

Anyway, Modred has hired an entire army of brigands — decidedly un-merrie men — to kill Guinevere, and Wilde delivers a nice atmospheric tracking shot across their latex-scarred faces lurking in the greenwood. So, just like in THE ADVENTURES OF SIR GALAHAD, we’re kind of grafting Robin Hood imagery into Arthuriana, but because the Arthur myth is authoritarian or arthuritarian, the outlaw-bandits have to be bad guys. It’s fine — you can do this, just as you can give Arthur a jester — it all fits in with the movie idea of medieval times, even if the legends go back to the Dark Ages.

After knocking the bandits for six — Guinivere lends a hand at the head-cleaving — the party arrives at the big village set. Camelot itself is a matte painting or photo pasted into the top right corner, a good distance off. As TH White explains early on in The Sword in the Stone, a village/town/city was always just outside the protective castle, and if a serious attack took place everyone just moved into the castle walls. Citadel as mini-city. Putting them this far apart serves no purpose. I get to see this principle inaction every time I take the bus into Edinburgh city centre: the High Street, the city’s first thoroughfare, descends the slope from the Castle Rock, the only avenue from which the Castle can be approached. Easy to beat a retreat inside and slam the gates, and you only have one side to defend. Unfortunately, not everyone has a bit of extinct volcano to build on.

Lancelot reassures the nervous king that G is eager to be his queen. Which he knows isn’t true as L&G have already fallen for each other. There’s that very striking line of Merlin’s in EXCALIBUR: “When a man lies he kills a part of the world.” A good line, it always made me feel that chivalric honour was an alien concept from another age — Is that true? I thought. It doesn’t FEEL true. But it’s striking.

Mark Dignam’s Merlin gets to present G to A. His is a thankless task in this film — if he can’t have any magic, what’s he good for? He knows about soap, this is the extent of his power. TH White’s Merlin seems to have almost unlimited power, but he has scruples that tell him when it’s appropriate to wizard things up. Boorman’s Merlin, as played by Nicol Williamson, breaks his own rules, which seem to establish the seeds of Camelot’s fall before it’s even begun. I think the best use of magic in fiction makes it clear that this shit is dangerous, to your health or your soul. But it’s better to HAVE magic in a mythic tale than NOT have it, surely? Do we want to have fun or don’t we? I was upset about TROY leaving out the gods, which are central to Homer, even if they’re very hard to render onscreen without cheesiness obtruding.

Per IMDb, filming on this was divided between Pinewood and Divčibare, Yugoslavia. There are some good castles in Serbia, for sure, but nothing I’ve seen so far looks like you’d have to leave the UK to find it. There’s a huge church interior for the wedding that somehow looks like a sound stage (overlit) but surely can’t be. Our cameraman is Harry Waxman, famed for THE THIRD MAN, although he probably only shot two-thirds of it, He hasn’t done anything atmospheric with light so far.

The script makes much of Guinevere’s youth, which is a little hard on Jean Wallace, who’s been in movies for more than twenty years. Medieval brides were often what we’d consider children, but you can have a forty-year-old Guinevere if you don’t keep insisting she’s a youngster. Of if you start the story later. I respect Wilde for sticking with his Mrs. though.

Hmm, the church is also the throne room and banquet hall and I guess they slide the two bits of round table, with its refectory chairs, in and out as needed, so it makes more sense that they might build it at Pinewood. Art director Maurice Carter also did BECKETT, and bits of those sets got recycled in MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH, probably to better effect. And THESE sets supposedly got turned into Grand Fenwick in THE MOUSE ON THE MOON, Richard Lester’s unmemorable second film. I must do a comparison… (Lester’s challenge was to make the big sets look pokey and cheap, as befits the world’s smallest duchy. Later, he would turn down the chance to use Anthony Mann’s ROMAN EMPIRE sets for A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM.)

Good news — Adrienne Corri is Lady Vivian, Modred’s romantic interest. Her characteristic red hair (Corri was Scots-Italian) dyed black, she brings a touch of lustiness.

Then Lancelot has to go off and battle an army of Viking invaders. Again, I see no reason why you can’t have Vikings, since it’s never been really clear when Arthur’s story is meant to be set. And of course your movie Vikings should and must have horns on their helmets, even though horns is the one thing Vikings never wore. The battle is large, impressively mounted I guess, but somehow not ACTUALLY impressive. Editor Thom Noble would go on to cut FAHRENHEIT 451 and WITNESS. It just doesn’t get near the visceral feel of Kurosawa. But at least we don’t have extras catching spears with their hands and stomachs like in ZULU. The arrow hits are achieved by straight cutting: archer goes twang! — victim has an arrow in him and falls over. THRONE OF BLOOD has not been studied. CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT has not yet been made, to teach the lesson: get off the tripod, allow a little shake. It’s all expensively adequate.

But the shock cut from the full din of battle to a corpse lying in red muddy water is VERY strong. I tip my visor to Wilde once more. The water eats away at the man’s outline, making him look dismembered, and the contrast from LOUD to QUIET is even more striking than doing it the other way around might be. It forces the audience to catch its breath — each one of us becomes afraid of drawing ridicule with a sudden embarrassing noise.

It’s not certain that this sequence has any effect on any other part of the film’s story, however.

I should be able to finish the film in one more blog post. Sorry this is taking so long.