Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A Fond Desire

You know what I'd really like to see? A good movie about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Pretty much every one I've seen to date is revisionist nonsense of one sort of another, but then that's Hollywood for you. It's probably too much to expect something reasonably close to Malory (or even Geoffrey), isn't it?

57 comments:

  1. Another vote for Excalibur. It felt the more Arthurian of all the King Arthur movies I seen.

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  2. Excalibur is great (and easily my favorite) but it does look dated. I don't think Hollywood knows how to do Arthur anymore because they consider it "done to death already"--not realizing it's never really been done to its full potential.

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  3. Excalibur was great, it's more of a Pre-Raphaelite style Arthur.
    I'd love to see Bernard Cornwell's "Winter King", "Enemy Of God", and "Excalibur" made into movies.

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  4. While I understand where you're coming from, and grew up on variants of the same versions of the myth of Camelot, Thomas Malory and Geoffrey of Monmouth lived hundreds of years after the historical Arthur (or Arthurs, depending on the theory to which one subscribes).. Their accounts are both "fictionalized" (not in any pejorative sense) to one extent or another. Calling anything dealing with Arthur "revisionist" is a bit uncharitable, don't you think? The recent (2004?) film by Fuqua, while it also takes broad liberties with what little is actually known, does incorporate recent archeological and mythographic discoveries (the Sarmatian angle, for instance) which are in fact much more accurate in some sense than the medieval versions.. Just sayin'.

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  5. Excalibur has a lot to recommend it, but there are lots of little things (and a few big ones) that just some off and so prevent me from fully endorsing it as the quintessential cinematic Arthur.

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  6. Calling anything dealing with Arthur "revisionist" is a bit uncharitable, don't you think?

    Perhaps, but I have zero interest in a "historical" or demythologized Arthur. The story of some sub-Roman warlord isn't something I much care about, while the Arthur of legend was one of my gateways into fantasy.

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  8. Fair enough, and they were one of my points of entry to fantasy as well.

    My point is more that Malory does substantial violence to the significance of the underlying Brythonic/Welsh myths from which they originate by adapting the Arthurian tales to a purely medieval notion of chivalry completely alien to them. The medieval versions are deracinated from their native time/place. I think a movie based on a more Celtic worldview and mythological structure might be neat, too. I am not claiming that Fuqua's effort succeeded in this regard.

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  9. Excalibur was fun, but things like the armor and such were a tad OOP. ;-)

    My favorite one to hate was the Richard Gere one where he's Lancelot and Sean Connery is Arthur. Not only is Arthur this old guy, but when he dies, Lancelot becomes king and gets Gwen!! oof!

    I didn't see the one where Keira Knightley is warrior-Gwen.

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  10. Hollywood somewhat attempted what you are suggesting with 2004's King Arthur. But, despite high production values, it wasn't very good.

    Excalibur is likely the best we'll get to see.

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  11. @dhowarth333: My thoughts exactly. Malory adapting the collective stories to the culture of his day was already quite "revisionist," as he was perhaps a thousand years removed from some of the folklore responsible for the character who became known as Arthur. In fact, you could argue that myths require revision, as they must be adapted to meet the needs of a particular time or environment. I suppose you could say that a filmmaker shouldn't revise Malory's specific work, but you can't say that a filmmaker shouldn't revise the Arthurian stories--for that is why they exist.

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  12. I'd love to see a mythologized sub-Roman Arthur. Why not have the best of both worlds?

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  13. Having read the various written versions "L'Morte", etc. They are all off on details. There is no truly definitive ur Arthur just a slow evolution over time of the legend. So what details are important depends which version you like.

    What Excalibur gets right is the tone, tenor, and attitudes of the classic Arthur from L'Morte, the Iydlls of the King, etc. The main issue is that they got only two hours hence the extreme compression. I rewatched it twice recently (thanks to Netflix instant play) and it still holds up as THE Arthur Movie.

    I have heard, but not seen yet, good things about the movie Tristan and Isolde faithfulness to the legend. Granted the original story is only tangent to the main Arthur Legend so it may not count.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tristan_%26_Isolde_%28film%29

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  14. Someone once said to me that, given the distance from the original source (including the idea that Mallory was recording from the verbal tradition), that all King Arthur fiction is fan fiction.

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  15. Excalibur is a really good take and combines a lot of the best elements of Malory and Tennyson into a package I love.

    Still, your usual schtick of criticizing things for not being "canon" seems particularly out of place with Arthurian legends.

    There really isn't a canon. Does anyone think Excalibur should have ended with Arthur defeating a Roman army and becoming Holy Roman Emperor, for example?

    Or should Cath Palug (a giant cat) have defeated Arthur and sat on his throne, ruling Camelot in its cat-like fashion?

    Maybe Arthur should have learned the ways of Kingship as a frog?

    I mean, *all* of these are takes on Arthur, and I find it hard to accept one and not the other. They're all as official as the next.

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  16. Excalibur is THE Arthur movie! That movie is partially responsible for my own interest in D&D among other things. Almost all my friends of my age group were into and influenced by that movie in various ways. It has a deep mythological resonance... partially, I believe, because care was taken to weave myth, history, and actual magickal process into the story. That and fine acting by the entire cast!

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  17. I found a lot to like about Tristan & Isolde. I'm not sure I'd be interested in a full treatment of King Arthur in that style, though - I want more fantasy in my Arthur. I'm actually fairly pleased with the BBC's Merlin, but whatever "revisionist Arthur" is, I'm certain that qualifies.

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  18. Let me conjure the perfect Arthurian film, just a moment....

    anul nathrak, uthvas bethud, do che-ol di-enve...

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  19. Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
    There. Done.

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  20. Next thing you'll want a Conan movie reasonably close to Howard, a Cthulhu movie reasonably close to Lovecraft, etc...

    Accept it - Hollywood seldom gets it right!

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  21. "I'd love to see a mythologized sub-Roman Arthur. Why not have the best of both worlds?"

    This is what I'd hoped King Arthur with Clive Owen would be. The thing is it wasn't a terrible film (except the opening scene, WOW was that hokey) but if you'd changed his name from "Arthur" to something totally different it was a perfectly fine medieval action flick. As soon as you attempt to make it Arthurian it fails because of what we all expect--high fantasy.

    I think James is right, who wants their mythology expunged of mythos?!

    BTW, has anyone seen the awful Merlin TV series? Ug.

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  22. i'd like to see a good take on Chretien de Troyes, since his take on Arthur was a) one of the earliest significant riffs on some very vague earlier myths/saints' lives, and b) the most influential of the 12th century romances which later were synthesized by people like Mallory.

    I am aware of Rohmer's "Percival", but it was a bit too arty and not very commercial. A nice version of Yvain or Erec would be very nice, thank you very much.

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  23. "Accept it - Hollywood seldom gets it right!"

    Yes, but here there is most definitely no "right".

    I don't often agree with James and his obsession with canon, whether regarding Conan, or D&D. I never had a desire to get as close to the "source" as possible.

    But here, there's really not a source. Even Geoffrey of Monmouth has been shown, through scholarly research, to be basing his tale on even older tales, and there were a TON of those, which vary greatly by locale and time period and are often contradictory.

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  24. "Merlin" was pretty awful.

    I think they could tell the story of Le Morte but just have the costuming contemporary with early dark ages. Keeping the historical setting but also holding on to all of the mythological aspects (like the Green Knight, Nimue, Merlin, Giants...etc.)

    The newer King Arthur movie was a decent action flick, but the story itself was a bit lacking. I liked the Sarmatian knights although I'm not convinced that this was completely accurate.

    I'm not knocking the more romantic King Arthur though.

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  25. I can't believe no one has mentioned Monty Python and the Holy Grail yet! *runs*

    I have to go with Jay... I'd like to see something period with a reasonable resemblance to the Arthurian Mythos

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  26. Well I want to see Arthur get killed by a giant cat, who then invades Britain and takes his throne!

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  27. I have to agree that no source is definitive enough for this. I also still don’t understand this desire for Hollywood to adapt these kinds of things. Be happy with what you like instead of disappointed by a film adaption. Because we all know that decent film adaptions are rare at best and end up being their own thing anyway.

    I’d rather see a film maker make their own story—designed for the medium—inspired by Arthuriana rather than another adaption.

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  28. Malory? The hackiest hack of them all. If you want the "true" King Arthur you would have to adapt Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, and even then you would have people complaining that it does not reflect the oral transmission of the material as dubiously preserved in medieval Welsh poetry, or contradicted some brief earlier mention of Arthur.

    Revisionist? Yeah, every version from about 1127, and then some. ;)

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  29. I can't wait for King Arthur Vs. Predator, tho.

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  30. I'm not arguing in favor of an Arthurian "canon," so we can put that straw man to rest. I am, however, suggesting that there is a commonly understood outline of the Arthurian story, one largely derived from Malory (and, following his lead, Tennyson and White) and it contains certain standard elements/characters that I'd like to see used unironically in a film. I'm not interested in alternate takes on the Arthurian legend, whether they be grounded in Welsh myth, historical research, or feminist agitprop any more than I am in takes on Batman that deviate greatly from the commonly understood interpretation of the character.

    If that makes me a silly, stick in the mud without an ounce of adventurousness, so be it. This should not be a surprise to anyone. If Hollywood wants to go all funky on me, then, like Robert Fisher, I'd prefer they make up their own story and riff off the Arthurian legend rather than try to pass off grubby, heretic-sympathizing sub-Romans as the Knights of the Round Table.

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  31. The main problem would be that it would cost a fortune to do properly and be far too out there for general audiences.

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  32. If that's the case, then I'd contend that Excalibur is the closest thing to that.

    Nigel Terry, Helen Mirren, Nicol Williamson, along with the (then) very young Patrick Stewart, Gabriel Byrne, Liam Neeson and other fine actors (really the cream of the young RSC core at that time), directed by John Boorman?

    Perhaps everyone else has stayed away from "traditional" Arthur because Excalibur knocked it out the park.

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  33. The main problem would be that it would cost a fortune to do properly and be far too out there for general audiences.

    Much like a proper Conan movie, it seems ...

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  34. Excalibur is a good effort; I like a lot about it, especially the first third of the film. I think it starts to stumble once the whole Lancelot/Guenevere plot line appears and its Grail quest is just incoherent. It suffers, I think, from being too ambitious, which, as movie failings go, isn't one I can criticize strongly, but I still think there's room for another traditional take on the Arthurian legend.

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  35. "I'm not interested in alternate takes on the Arthurian legend, whether they be grounded in Welsh myth..."

    Not to be rude, but now you’re just contradicting yourself. Basically you’re saying that they should do a “proper” (insert IP or idea/theme here) “in a fashion true to the original and not in a fashion based on popular convections”, except when you don’t care about the original, (which the welsh myths are) or you agree with the popular convections.

    "I am, however, suggesting that there is a commonly understood outline of the Arthurian story, one largely derived from Malory (and, following his lead, Tennyson and White) and it contains certain standard elements/characters..."

    Based on this line I could argue that to be true to Conan they should make the current movie as much like the first as possible since that’s the commonly understood interpretation of the character.

    Or to be blunt about it, your fanboy entailment is showing.

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  36. Based on this line I could argue that to be true to Conan they should make the current movie as much like the first as possible since that’s the commonly understood interpretation of the character.

    If, in 500 years, Milius' Conan has eclipsed Howard's in the popular imagination, I'd readily concede your point.

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  37. "Much like a proper Conan movie, it seems ..."

    Not at all. Conan is ultimately very much a product of the 20th century in his ways and speech.

    In a literal Malory adaptation, you'd have characters behaving according to rather alien 15th century mores and speaking in a highly-stilted fashion whilst doing so.

    Compare that to cinematic Shakespear productions. Firstly, they're based on stage plays, and hence do not require so large a budget as I suspect a Malory Arthur adaptation might. Even then they usually have to involve some edgy "modern" twist if they're to be considered marketable at all. Even then, they're basically never the sort of huge box office hits that Hollywood focuses on more and more every year.

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  38. Compare that to cinematic Shakespear productions. Firstly, they're based on stage plays, and hence do not require so large a budget as I suspect a Malory Arthur adaptation might. Even then they usually have to involve some edgy "modern" twist if they're to be considered marketable at all. Even then, they're basically never the sort of huge box office hits that Hollywood focuses on more and more every year.

    Hmm. You raise very good points here.

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  39. To do it right as a film, I would like to see the story confined to a single specific episode- less Excaliber, more Gawain and the Green Knight.

    To do the entire Matter of Britain justice, it has to be done as a TV series and it has to be a drop-dead serious drama running a decade or so of 25 episodes each (each lasting an hour apiece).

    I think I'll see either about the same time that a worthwhile film or TV adaptation of the Matter of France comes about.

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  40. I think I'll see either about the same time that a worthwhile film or TV adaptation of the Matter of France comes about.

    Oh, now you've got me thinking about a cinematic treatment of The Song of Roland. That'd be awesome ...

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  41. I'd hate to rain on everybody's parade but:

    Those of you who wish to see a "historically" based Arthur movie can't possibly see it for one reason: there is no historical basis for King Arthur.

    He's not mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle or Ecclesiastical History of Britain. Any other documented sources lack evidence to corroborate each other, let alone no archeological evidence (i.e. a tomb, fort, etc).

    I have studied this, being a medieval historian myself and spoke with a few professors about this particular issue. Almost all will scoff at the very idea.

    He's about as real as Conan is.

    Accept it folks.

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  42. Well I want to see Arthur get killed by a giant cat, who then invades Britain and takes his throne!
    Aslan!

    I think James' point, that he'd like a good adaptation of Malory, is fair enough (unresolvable questions of authenticity aside). It's a pity Shakespeare never got to it, really (I see a potentially great retake on Lear), but Henry VIII's Arthurian pretensions died before puberty.

    Re making up your own Arthurian story riff, what I see is a broad thread of mysticism that just doesn't translate well to film (cf. Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising. IMHO Gilliam's Fisher King is about the most successful thing in this vein).

    Me, I'd like to see a good film Taliesin. Or Song of Roland. But most of all, an Alp Arslan biopic. That has the potential to completely rewire American fantasy tropes for the next generation.

    Finally, sub-rosa sub-Romans of Shub-nigurome? I have no idea what these are, but I guess if you try to do a Geoffrey of Monmouth Arthur with Brutus as the progenitor of the Britons you probably wind up with some of them around.

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  43. The problem is there is no quintessential Arthurian Tale. Even Mallory is an adaption of earlier sources.

    Excalibur did an excellent job of resolving some of the contradictions of the stories (in particular by uniting the myths of Sword in the Stone and Excalibur), but there is no way it can deal with a body of myth that has been constantly reinterpreted and added to throughout history.

    For example the addition of Lancelot substantially changes the myth structure from low chivalry/romance to high chivalry/romance. But this is good, because most of the subtleties of the previous version, where Gawaine takes the role of Lancelot, would have been lost on a modern audience.

    In fact this is one of the reasons why the myth is so strong. Because it is constantly being retold and reframed. When a myth becomes stuck in history it starts to lose much of its relevance to the modern audience.

    I think that the best retellings of the myth are those, like the game Pendragon or the novel Herself by Fay Sampson, which set the evolution of the story against the evolotion of the myth or the history of chivalry. And Excalibur did this to some extent.

    I would like to see more done with some of the lesser tales of the mythos, such as Gawaine and the Green Knight, and Tristran and Isolde. The adaptions of these have been atrocious.

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  44. The problem is there is no quintessential Arthurian Tale. Even Mallory is an adaption of earlier sources.

    Indeed; in fact Malory is more of a synthesis, largely derived from the French Vulgate version, but incorporating additional material from here and there. Far more famous prior to Caxton's printings was Wace's version, which is a French adaptation of Geoffrey of Monmouth's original Latin fantasy.

    It never fails to surprise me when popular or widespread becomes conflated with definitive.

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  45. @blackstone: . . . there is no historical basis for King Arthur.

    He's not mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle or Ecclesiastical History of Britain. Any other documented sources lack evidence to corroborate each other, let alone no archeological evidence (i.e. a tomb, fort, etc).

    I have studied this, being a medieval historian myself and spoke with a few professors about this particular issue. Almost all will scoff at the very idea.

    He's about as real as Conan is.

    Accept it folks.


    I don't accept that, and you shouldn't either.

    One of the core principles of science - including history - is that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

    The period that is the best fit for the more historically serious takes on Arthur is the least well documented in Britain of the last two thousand years. I own transcriptions of many of the written materials from this period; anyone can, because there aren't many of them left to collect. Vikings and monastic closures destroyed almost all of the record from that period.

    As for archaeology, the wooden structures most popular for fortifications during that same period are long gone, whether rotted away or torn down and replaced by later stone structures, leaving only rare trace evidence.

    The one thing we can be surest of about those five hundred years is that most of the people who lived then are unknown to us, as are most of the things that happened.

    To claim that the only things that happened for half a millennium in Britain are the ones written down in that scanty record, to claim that only the paltry few people listed therein actually existed, well that's just bad history and bad science. Such claims should not pass unchallenged.

    To play the historian card for this period we have to be comfortable publicly acknowledging our enduring ignorance. The truth is that no one alive today is qualified to make either the claim that you made, that Arthur is a fictional character, or the opposing claim, that he was a real person. We don't know and we may never know.

    Not that it matters for James's original point, since he's asking for a better adaptation of the mythic Arthur, not the historic one.

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  46. It never fails to surprise me when popular or widespread becomes conflated with definitive.

    We're not talking about some passing fancy here. Malory and accounts derived from his outline have become the common understanding of the Arthurian legend over the course of half a millennium. I don't think it's unreasonable to claim that, in the English language, Malory is as close to definitive as we can get with Arthur.

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  47. In my medieval literature classes, we read Malory and we read Gawain and the Green Knight.

    What Malory did was bring all the traditions together under one roof and attempt to reconcile them, while explicitly stating that they all happened in the same time and place.

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  48. We're not talking about some passing fancy here. Malory and accounts derived from his outline have become the common understanding of the Arthurian legend over the course of half a millennium. I don't think it's unreasonable to claim that, in the English language, Malory is as close to definitive as we can get with Arthur.

    I would argue that it is entirely unreasonable to see it as definitive, rather than as the most popular version. We are not talking about a passing fancy, no, but we are talking about a large corpus of literature with significant differences. La Chanson de Roland is only preserved fully in one manuscript, yet we defer always to that poem as the earliest full treatment, rather than the Pseudo Turpin or the various additional or derivative cycles.

    It is not like we treat Caxton's Charles the Grete as definitive, nor his Godfrey of Bouilon, so why treat his publication of the third Christian worthy as definitive? Because Tennyson did? Why not T. H. White, then? Too political?

    The Matter of Britain is a very interesting subject, but I see no reason to slavishly follow Malory (or Geoffrey, for that matter) when one can do exactly as Malory did and create a synthesis of the whole (hopefully a better one), as John Boorman did with Excalibur. Of course, the elements you identify as "stumbling" (Lancelot, Grail Quest) in that film are exactly the "odd" elements not native to the original story.

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  49. Excalibur was a piece of dry ice-covered gunk. I've never managed to watch more than five minutes at a time, because it's so laughably bad and takes itself so seriously. It includes all the worst features of the Arthurian fantasy books of the Seventies, what's more. It's like some English Christmas panto, except with sex and violence.

    Yes, you can do better than that. Your three year old can make a better Arthur movie than that. I can't believe people have so much affection for that thing. But it's probably because it does actually tell the standard Arthur story, despite the stupid way it goes about it.

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  50. In no particular order.

    Excalibur.(Guy Richie and Brian Singer are working on competing remakes.)
    The Holy Grail.

    I agree with James that there is a commonly understood(Malory, Tennyson, Hollywood)Arthurian story. That is the movie Hollywood needs to make.

    I'll watch anything, even dreck like King Arthur and First Knight but what I want to see is a big screen treatment of the stories I read as a child.

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  51. If, in 500 years, Milius' Conan has eclipsed Howard's in the popular imagination, I'd readily concede your point.

    The eclipse has happened. Ask a man on the street what he thinks of when you say "Conan," and he will say something about the governor of California. Most are not even aware that the character's origins are elsewhere. In 500 years, probably no one will remember either version. (And I do feel your pain, as the populace adores the movie version of "The Princess Bride," which is a horror to me, as the film loses everything that makes the book so great.)

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  52. The problem is that with other adaptions, you at least have an chance at pleasing someone. With this one, you’re going to please no one. ^_^

    Rudd, just reread those stories. No reason to go spend money to see a film adaption that won’t do them justice.

    In fact, I suggest everyone take any money they would spend on another Arthur film or this new Conan film and go see the Rush documentary instead. Even if you aren’t a Rush fan, I think you’ll enjoy it more. ^_^

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  53. My vote for the best King Arthur film actually comes from 1953:
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0045966/

    Admoittedly, it comes from that sort of supersaturated era, but when I think of this era, characters like these are what come to mind, not the grime-covered 'heroes' you see in way too many films today...

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  54. @ Rick Marshall:

    I knew someone would throw the "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" line out there.

    (sigh)

    If you want to believe there was a real King Arthur, that's fine.

    But historians overwhelmingly agree that he did not exist.

    'nuff said

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  55. @blackstone: I don't "want to believe there was a real King Arthur." I don't take either side. But sure, "'nuff said."

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  56. I think what James wants is a film adaptation of Arthur as updated to the 20th century by Howard Pyle and T.H. White. Probably more White than Pyle but White is really riffing off some consolidations and smoothing outs that Pyle made. I would wager hat a Once and Future King Trilogy of 2.5 hour films would be the finality of the matter of britin on film.

    As an aside has anyone seen the 1953 Kights of the Round Table? IMDB states that everything up to about Excalibur is based on Conecticut Yankee and White. Even Camelot (with Richad Harris) is based somewhat on White.

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