Since I actually did Celtic linguistics for my degree, I am always interested in good Celitc (or Norse/Old English/medieval) resources. Here’s a good list of King Arthur movies from Dr. Dev that skips to the true classics – Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Excalibur, Army of Darkness, and of course, Camelot (the musical).
Alas, the list is still a little skimpy, so while I’m on the subject, I’m asking myself to why it is so hard to film a good adaptation of medieval and ancient stories. I think we’ve all sat through some very expensive, very unwatchable movies. My personal unfavorites include Oliver Stone’s Alexander (which not even Angelina Jolie could save), a 1990s TV miniseries of Cleopatra (too bored to look this up) and well First Knight (sorry it was King Arthur by the book to me).
I suspect that the problem is finding that balance between authenticity and cheesy entertainment. Although we may now find these pre-modern interesting in terms of universal themes vs the original culture, it should be remembered that many were actually meant to popular entertainment much like Gossip Girl, Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek and 24. In other words, larger than life and full of drama/comedy or both (and if social criticism comes into the mix… so be it).
For me the best adaptations include authentic touches (costumes, locations, events), but don’t forget the include the swagger of the original. In fact, I’ve been very happy with adaptations that stray from the original…as long as the original themes have been kept. For instance, Excalibur is the only King Arthur movie to include an ancient Celtic language spell (just the wrong one though). And although Excalibur is neither purely medieval or purely post-Roman, it doesn’t really matter because neither was the original. What they did keep was the theme of kingship, the mix of Christian religious purity and Druid magic and kingdom-rocking sex scandals. What else do you need?
So here’s a partial list of my favorite adaptations:
Skimpy, but oh well
- Beowulf (2007) – Believe it or not, the cheesy 3D works to showcase both the pre-migration Germanic royal hall and the terror of Grendel. Plus, Beowulf comes off as a pretentious braggart who really needs to make a legitimate kill.
- Monty Python and the Holy Grail – No there are no socialism jokes in King Arthur, but there really was an obnoxious gate keeper in the Welsh Arthurian saga Culhwch ac Olwen. I can tell that someone read the Middle Welsh literature, because the same kinds of jokes and parody appear here.
- Charlemagne (1993) – Don’t sweat the French title; it’s available in English. It may not be entirely accurate, but it gives you the idea of what the secular/Papal politics of the day were. Plus, it has a fabulous Roman bath set which Charlemagne uses a lot. And it has the go-to scene of a candlelit ceremony (the coronation of the Charlemagne, The Pope and 100 candles). The candle-lit ceremony may have been pioneered in King Arthur’s wedding in Camelot, but I can’t verify that.
- El Cid (1967) – If you want a trip to medieval Spain, I can recommend this forgotten classic with Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren as his wife whose heart El Cid has to win again. Good costumes, lots of intrigue and a few lessons in honor and Christian/Islamic tolerance.
- Lion in Winter (1968) – When only one family runs the kingdom, every little squabble turns into a politico-military crisis. Great costumes combined with medieval barges and frozen bath basin water add period detail, but it’s the evilly manipulative dialogue from all the cast that makes it a true winner. For film buffs, this includes a very early Anthony Hopkins as the slightly war mad Richard and Timothy Dalton as the not-so-foppish King of France. The remake with Patrick Stewart and Glenn Close disappointed me, but Jonathan Rhys-Meyers does an excellent King Phillip.
- The Trojan Women (1971) – If you want 100% pure Greek drama, this will do the trick. This is a very faithful adaptation of the Eurpides play with Katherine Hepburn as Hecuba, Vanessa Redgrave as Andromache and Geneviève Bujold as Cassandra. But I confess that Irene Papas as Helen steals the show. Although not classically beautiful, one look from her sultry eyes and Menelaus is ready to forgive 10 years of hellish combat (oh well). Alas, the rest of the women face the more common fate of women from the losing side as slaves and concubines.
- Troy (2004) – Yes it diverges from the “novel” (i.e. The Iliad) quite a bit in ditching both the gods as well as Cassandra and Iphigenia. However it preserves the themes quite well. Agamemnon is still an arrogant ass, Helen is still a lonely wife, Paris the spoiled youth, the Trojans still overly confident in their military might and Hector still the noble but doomed hero. I think Brad Pitt does well in conveying Achilles’ heroic swagger with the ironic awareness that this will lead to an early death (but with everlasting fame). I also think Eric Bana’s Hector does a fabulous job of being both the patriotic warrior and the only one in Troy with enough sense to see what is going to actually happen, just like Cassandra would have. Good archaic Greek sets too – no Ionic pillars here.
- Cleopatra (1963) – The one with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. This movie gets a bad rap for being overbudget and for the one where Elizabeth cheats on Eddie Fisher. However the budget is really put to good use (especially in the sequence where Cleopatra brings all of Egypt to march through Rome). Also, I think Taylor makes the most convincing Cleopatra yet. Alluring yes, but also well-educated and motivated with making Egypt a political power independent (or dominating) Rome. Like the actress herself, most of the men failed to take her seriously…but she got her way in the end.
- Rome (HBO Miniseries) – This is the no-holds barred re-telling of the last days of the Republic. There’s a certain amount of silliness (Cleopatra as a tasteless slut?), but it really picks up steam as it moves along. There’s discussion in the Latinteach list about which scenes are safe to show in middle school, but this is one in which the R-rated material really, really makes the whole thing work. Polly Walker as Octavian’s mother is a blast, but James Purefoy as her sometime lover Marc Anthony has more than a few original antics on display.
- The Last Days of Pompeii (1984) – This TV miniseries hearkens back to the Sword and Sandals days, but it’s quite entertaining nonetheless. You can tell it’s a 19th century novel because it’s primarily the Christian converts who survive, but the individual storylines crossing all socioeconomic sectors of Pompeii are very appealing, and yes the sets are fabulous. When this genre works, it really is a lot of fun.
- Spartacus (1960 and 2004) – The 1960 version with Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis and Lawrence Olivier is a fine Hollywood classic, but I like the 2004 miniseries with Goran Visnijc quite a bit. Visnijc brings a humbler sensibility as a man who just suffered one too many indignity and rose up to kill his oppressor. He may not have meant to lead the revolution, but he lead it well and with honor…and scared the living daylights out of his masters.