Archive for TH White

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.

Page 17: The Death of the Arthur

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 21, 2023 by dcairns


For truly as thou sayest, a Fairy King
  And Fairy Queens have built the city, son;
  They came from out a sacred mountain-cleft
  Toward the sunrise, each with harp in hand,
  And built it to the music of their harps.
  And, as thou sayest, it is enchanted, son,
  For there is nothing in it as it seems
  Saving the King; though some there be that hold
  The King a shadow, and the city real:
  Yet take thou heed of him, for, so thou pass
  Beneath this archway, then wilt thou become
  A thrall to his enchantments, for the King
  Will bind thee by such vows, as is a shame
  A man should not be bound by, yet the which
  No man can keep; but, so thou dread to swear,
  Pass not beneath this gateway, but abide
  Without, among the cattle of the field.

Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where St. Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.

The castle of Tintagel, stronghold of the Dukes of Cornwall. The impregnable fortress rock, which could only be taken by guile, or treachery from within. Last night, I had used both.

There were magicians in the forest also in those legendary days, as well as strange animals not known to modern works of natural history. There were regular bands of Saxon outlaws–not like Wat–who lived together and wore green and shot arrows which never missed. There were even a few dragons, these were small ones, which lived under stones and could hiss like a kettle.

“Where I come from,” said the Black Knight, “everyone is black. As far as the eye can see. White people are regarded as freaks of nature. The sight of a white person causes cows to birth poisonous shrubs.”

SIR LAUNCELOT takes off his field helm and sits alongside the BLACK KNIGHT. A scrap of paper flutters from the lining of his helm. The BLACK KNIGHT picks it up, glances at it then gives it to SIR LAUNCELOT who looks at it idly, frowns his incomprehension and tucks it in his couter where he keeps his clean khaki handkerchief, offering:

Sir Palomides, said Dinadan, here is a castle that I know well, and therein dwelleth Queen Morgan le Fay, King Arthur’s sister; and King Arthur gave her this castle, the which he hath repented him sithen a thousand times, for sithen King Arthur and she have been at debate and strife; but this castle could he never get nor win of her by no manner of engine; and ever as she might she made war on King Arthur. And all dangerous knights she withholdeth with her, for to destroy all these knights that King Arthur loveth. And there shall no knight pass this way but he must joust with one knight, or with two, or with three. And if it hap that King Arthur’s knight be beaten, he shall lose his horse and his harness and all that he hath, and hard, if that he escape, but that he shall be prisoner. So God me help, said Palomides, this is a shameful custom, and a villainous usance for a queen to use, and namely to make such war upon her own lord, that is called the Flower of Chivalry that is christian or heathen; and with all my heart I would destroy that shameful custom. And I will that all the world wit she shall have no service of me. And if she send out any knights, as I suppose she will, for to joust, they shall have both their hands full. And I shall not fail you, said Sir Dinadan, unto my puissance, upon my life.

Seven passages from seven Arthurian page seventeens (as near as I could calculate with the various e-books involved; The King has an illo on page 17 but the para quoted starts on page 16 and concludes on page 18. So there. Thomas Malory’s paragraphs are just as distressingly overlong as I remembered.

One of the most annoying WORDS I recall ever encountering was in an afterword to The Wasteland, maybe by Eliot himself. “Obviously” said the afterword, this is based on the Grail Quest. I had just read the thing and admired the language no end, but hadn’t got that AT ALL. I still haven’t.

The Idylls of the King by Alfred Lord Tennyson; The Wasteland, from The Complete Poems of T.S. Eliot; The Hollow Hills by Mary Stewart; The Sword in the Stone by T.H. White; The King by Donald Barthelme; Knight Time, an unpublished screenplay by Charles Wood, based on The King by Donald Barthelme; Le Mort D’Arthur, Vol 2 by Thomas Malory.

Illustration by Barry Moser.

The Death of the Arthur: The Side-Quest for the Holy Grail

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 4, 2023 by dcairns

This Arthurian quest of mine…

I’m thinking it’ll make sense to carry on the TH White theme with Disney’s THE SWORD IN THE STONE. I have the DVD and I’m not even sure I’ve ever seen all of it, just highlights on TV’s Disney Time. I mean, I *think* I probably have.

I just picked up KING ARTHUR LEGEND OF THE SWORD, the unmemorably-titled Guy Ritchie film from a few years back. After the extremely distasteful THE GENTLEMEN I figured I’d sworn off GR’s work, but a thick-ear version of the Arthur legend is a novelty, it was only £1.50, and my chum Freddie Fox is in it. I’ll give it a go.

This seems like a good prompt to finally properly watch Bresson’s LANCELOT DU LAC and Rohmer’s PERCEVAL LE GALLOIS. Should I also watch Syberberg’s PARSIFAL? Is it particularly Arthurian? Arthur’s not in the cast list.

Which version of A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR’S COURT should I watch? I should read it, first. This was John Landis’ dream project (Jenny Agutter starts reading it to David Naughton in the similarly-titled AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON). I’m slightly tempted by the Will Rogers version, but if I have the Bing Crosby I could make it a Tay Garnett double feature with THE BLACK KNIGHT. As accompaniment to a Twain adaptation I could also run the short KNIGHTY-KNIGHT BUGS, featuring a certain rabbit.

The alternative to TBK, for a Hollywood version of the late classic period, would be Cornel Wilde’s LANCELOT AND GUINEVERE, or I suppose PRINCE VALIANT which is Henry Hathaway so there ought to at least be some decent camera moves. Any opportunity to retell the Timothy Carey story about that one ought to be seized upon. There’s also Nathan Juran’s SIEGE OF THE SAXONS for which I hold out little hope.

Recently, we’ve had David Lowery’s THE GREEN KNIGHT and Joe Cornish’s THE KID WHO WOULD BE KING, both of which I’m curious about. I’m not curious about FIRST KNIGHT, any of the TV Merlins or Arthurs, the animated QUEST FOR CAMELOT, the serial ADVENTURES OF SIR GALAHAD with George Reeves (hmm, I dunno though…), the 1978 DR. STRANGE, KING ARTHUR WAS A GENTLEMAN with Arthur Askey, KING ARTHUR with Clive Owen, THE LAST LEGION with everybody, TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT, or TRISTAN & ISOLDE. Unless someone wants to make a case for any of them.

The Three Stooges in SQUAREHEADS OF THE ROUND TABLE is at least short, so I’ll probably do it.

SHREK III might just about be worth it. SHREK II was a good bit funnier than the original. Do they keep improving?

Obviously EXCALIBUR (pictured) and MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL are touchstones with me. I may revisit, but I’ll certainly refer to them.

And what have I missed?