Sunday, 12 May 2013

King Arthur, 300, and freedom

Last night I watched two terrible films that were both interesting in a similar way. Zack Snyder's adaptation of popular reactionary bigot Frank Miller's comic book 300 was an objectively horrible film, but managed to turn out the better of the two by virtue of its sheer stylised, exaggerated grotesqueness and audacity. The trees made of dead bodies, the utterly ridiculous depiction of Persian emperor Xerxes as a towering, growly voiced, extravagantly pierced monster, the way the Spartan soldiers insist on doing all their fighting in their pants, the better to show off their immaculately sculpted pecs, all these aspects place the film in a realm beyond any need for even the illusion of reality. The claustrophobic chromakey backdrops and humourless, pretentious, childish dialogue are no better for being in such a context, but at least they have a context. They fit into some sort of overarching framework of poor artistic decisions and are piece with the flawed whole.

What's interesting about 300 is the way the conflict is constantly pitched as one between freedom and tyranny, with King Leonidas and the Spartans depicted as defenders of liberty and Xerxes and the Persians as dusky invaders. However, loudly and frequently as the Spartans may claim freedom as their goal, the image of freedom Frank Miller creates looks suspiciously like fascism. The Spartans are a military people, with the structure of the army the only social unit depicted as pure. The political machinations of democracy or something like it (Sparta was an oligarchy, strictly speaking) in the form of Dominic "Detective McNulty" West's Theron, a character absent from Miller's original comic, is shown as irreparably corrupt, in a way that only the swift justice of the blade can cleanse. In many ways, the Sparta of 300 is very similar to the militaristic world of Starship Troopers, with citizenship conferred as a reward for military service and women taking a more active role in society. However, where a master satirist like Paul Verhoeven was able to turn Robert Heinlein's moral world on its head, a screen stylist like Zack Snyder can only polish Miller's essentially fascist tale into a shinier, more crystalline form of its own fascism.

This is where Frank Miller probably deserves to be given a bit of leeway, because while he's clearly a reactionary bigot, he's not an outright nazi. He's aware of the contradiction between the fascism inherent in Spartan society and the notion (advanced by Diodorus) that they were defending freedom, and like any good writer, he finds that contradiction interesting. Unfortunately, while Frank Miller is an excellent artist, he isn't a good writer. He's a little boy whose love of bold moral generalisations and heroic posturing overwhelms his ability to explore moral ambiguities, and the movie production only simplifies it further.

The 2004 film King Arthur comes from the stable of producer Jerry Bruckheimer, a man whose cinematic oeuvre has never knowingly overcomplicated an idea where slam-the-audience-in-the-face-with-an-iron simplicity is an available option, and like 300, it's a horrible film with something strangely out of place to say about freedom.

Again there's an appalling script, which serves to undermine the efforts of most of the cast -- Clive Owen as Arthur is particularly hamstrung by the quality of the lines he's expected to deliver, although Stellan Skarsgard as the psychotic, racist leader of the Saxon invaders steals the film. The infantile script does serve one function though, which is that also like 300, it underlines the simplistic message of freedom that the film wants to push. In fact, even more so than 300, it underlines the message, scratches it out in bold and highlights it in fluorescent marker pen. Arthur's men are fighting for their own freedom from their indenture to the Roman army, and as the film progresses, Arthur comes to see his fight as one for the freedom of all Britons from both the departing Roman occupiers and the invading Saxon hordes.

Another similarity with 300 is the depiction of Kiera Knightley's Guinevere, like Lena Headey's Queen Gorgo, as a strong, active woman, willing to fight for her land. In Hollywood nowadays, women can't be damsels in distress, and the Celts and Picts seem to have had their fair share of warrior queens from which her role could be mined. In fact, the historical accuracy of the story is one point where King Arthur gives a fair shake. The setting of the story around Hadrian's Wall may not have been accurate -- the location of the Battle of Badon Hill is unknown and has been identified with anywhere from Scotland to Bath -- but the general situation described by the film, featuring conflict between Romano-Celts, Picts and Saxons is more or less as it happened, and if any Arthur figure ever really did exist, it's in this world that he probably would have lived.

Also, here, as in 300, the notion of freedom is delivered directly through the dialogue, as if speaking directly to the audience, without context, and without any notion of what this freedom actually entails. Arthur is a soldier of an occupying military power, and his devotion to the teachings of Pelagius aside, the Roman Empire was hardly an upstanding model of freedom (a point, to be fair, that the film tries to make further down the line, but it's nevertheless hard to imagine how Arthur could be surprised by this revelation). The Saxons are defeated and Arthur, a military commander, is simply declared king of the Britons, so what is this freedom that is being spoken of? Freedom to be ruled by one king rather than another? What King Arthur is really about is nationalism, another relatively modern idea that the filmmakers have decided to pin on the Arthur legend.

In both films, there's something terribly jarring about hearing the language of Western notions of freedom in the mouths of people who would likely have seen those notions in very different terms, if they had understood them at all. The way that both films are so direct in how they articulate these ideas of freedom and liberty is also interesting. The contemporary Western concept of liberty is delivered as something so natural to these people that no possible disagreement is even considered except from the mouths of tyrants. It seems like a neurotic response from Hollywood to the shaken certainties post-9/11 of America's role as a beacon of liberty, or maybe the malaise goes back even further, to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the loss of the tyrannical "evil empire" of the Soviet Union for America to define itself against. In either case, it's hard to see a Hollywood film of the 1950s delivering such a stern lecture on freedom to its viewers. Epics like Spartacus, Ben Hur and El Cid (I nearly added the explicitly propagandist 1944 Henry V to this list, although it benefitted from having a scriptwriter of rather higher calibre) all dealt with similar conflicts, but didn't feel the same need to shout their message into the audience's faces. For all its historical inaccuracies, Hollywood used to know how to have fun.

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