These are three of the main thoughts I have after reviewing this film 19 years after its release, when it quickly became and stayed a favourite film.
Criticisms slipped in, but then I realised that what I thought were faults were actually hints of a different reading.
It is easy to see how beautiful, wise, good Guinevere wins the hearts of two men. But I never felt either really deserved her or were right for her. I also had trouble seeing the love between her and Arthur. I note Guinevere lost her father within the year and has only older men as companions – such as Oswald who keeps calling her “child” (far more bearable in Cold Comfort Farm), in Jacob, and then Arthur. Her mum isn’t mentioned, and nor are siblings. Ladies in waiting are given non speaking roles, and are a minimal presence. I hate Freudian missing parent theories, but Guinevere’s love for Arthur does seem to be similar to the love she may’ve felt for her late Dad: a deferent and quiet passion, unafraid but not quite equal, and not a sexual love. When Arthur greets his bride on the hill over Camelot, he arranges a military show to make an entrance, though it is not a public event (a grand debut was in Connery’s contract, but it undermines the relationship). They do not rush to greet each other, even though she’s suffered an attack en route, but he debonairly takes her hand as one would a political ally or dance partner. When they speak about their marriage the next day, there’s no physical contact until Guinevere gets out his scratch on his hand. Even when she is rescued from Malagant’s lair, the embrace there could almost be converted to beloved child and father. We never see a love scene or any other passionate kiss. At his death bed, I fail to see the look of love that Arthur notes is missing; this is again a daughterly sorrow at yet another older man leaving her.
Note he speaks of the love of Guinevere as sweetness, not passion, not a soulmate.
I felt we needed more to believe in this marriage, supposedly a love match, but I wonder if it is meant to be a will (not heart) powered steady devotion – a paraphrase of what she says to Arthur when she is discovered with Lancelot.
Lancelot appeals to the physical, courageous side of otherwise intense and sensible Guinevere, who’s already having to run kingdoms on her own as Lady of Lyonnesse. Guinevere, who wishes to live and die there (so having a great sense of settling), has been born into duty, no doubt with finery – though she says he’s taught not to put faith in it. Here comes a man without home or finery, a man who speaks his desires – but doesn’t act until the lady asks – ie gives not only her permission but initiates. He is not the body man of Lehman and Hunt’s sex obsessed essay on Titanic – the contrast is less crude than a physical macho hunk, for Lancelot is polite (compared with Mr Turner in my next post) and unthreatening. He doesn’t care about hierarchy and I think that’s what shocks Guinevere at the first rescue as much as his implication that he’d like a sexual thank you: because for him, pretty women are no better if they’re dairy maids or ladies, and he doesn’t care about monetary rewards. He’s not suddenly deferential when he learns who she is – why should saving a lady be more gratifying for him? Once I stopped expecting Lancelot to be a particular kind of man, I accepted him better.
Guinevere, like Rose in Titanic, is an action heroine. When we first see her, she’s playing a vigorous football game – foreshadowing Jennifer Elhe’s Elizabeth Bennet which came out in the UK a few months later – who is also corporeal and enjoys physical exercise (particularly under Andrew Davies interpretation). Guinevere doesn’t wield an axe like Rose, but she does escape being hacked The Shining style by one into her carriage. Like an agile Western hero, she grips unseen to the running boards and throws her world be assassin off the careering carriage, before leaping and rolling from it, then lying low and making a well judged sprint. She kills a man with a crossbow at short range. Later, she rides a spirited horse considered unsuitable for a lady by the king’s horseman, without a lady saddle; she throws a kidnapper off the boat; she has the nous to put a scrap of her dress on a tree as a breadcrumb trail to her rescuers; she twirls on a bridge over an abyss, she leaps over a waterfall and swims in the rapids.
But in all those examples, Guinevere swaps from Grace Kelly in Rear Window – remaining feminine but active – to distressed damsel. I note a powerful man – not a generic enemy – is in her presence each time. When Lancelot first appears, she’s gasping and afraid as the Malagant minion holds her. In Malagant’s slate mine palace, she is silent and compliant, again shivering as he undresses her and pushes her across the bridge to the oubliette with the slightest arm touch. And when Malagant attacks at the end, she rushes to Arthur’s bedside and never takes up a sword. But in front of Arthur and the knights of the round table, she does stand up verbally to Malagant when he attends a council meeting.
Now I’m coming to explain one of my themes. I see two Marys in Guinevere – Magdalene and The Virgin. Guinevere’s virginity is never mentioned but is prized, and there’s care for her never to even kiss Lancelot while she’s engaged (meaning that Arthur has the first experience with her) and for only a kiss to happen at Lancelot’s leaving – novel tie-in author Elizabeth Chadwick points out that such a kiss was only stopped becoming an act of love by Arthur’s interruption. Arthur, like Jesus, sees adultery of the heart as an equal sin. I see two readings of this story as allegory – one of the future, the other, the past.
As a wise spiritual ruler with a specially picked band of men, Arthur can feel Christlike. Guinevere could be his Mary Magdalene, but his relationship with her is more like mother son (or father and daughter) – linking to the other Mary of the gospels. Mary Magdalene is the naughty Mary, but some understand her to be the Kingdom’s co-creator, the enlightened one, not just the reformed demoniac/prostitute of tradition. Mary Magdalene might be the other side of Guinevere, the side who is drawn to the nomad (which Jesus was) who unlike foxes and eagles, does not have anywhere to lay his head.
But she’s also the one the villagers turn to for succour after two attacks from evil – firstly on bended knee, calling her Lady; and secondly for physical comfort after the forces of good save them – thus her Mary the Mother analogy is heightened.
Malagant is a Lucifer – once the highest of the elect, who left after a quarrel about supremacy and now seeks to terrify all Arthur’s people – a row, like in the Bible, which is never explained. I would like to have seen the “tyrant” speech of Malagant developed. In a way calm, kind Arthur is a tyrant, as is the portrayal of many monotheist’s God. Love me, and I’ll love you – cross me and there’s public judgement and death. You can only come into my kingdom by invitation, as Lancelot finds out (a bit like Calvinist theology). Arthurian god has a tempter, and both he and Malagant speak of the Law as the ultimate justice; Malagant claims he is the law, while Arthur points to something greater than himself, which is also potentially manipulative. Serving God, a country, a family or band of brothers raises the stakes and makes heavier the responsibility. The brotherhood/leadership dichotomy is a topic for another time, but I note these politically leading knights are not elected, they’re all military, and there’s no ladies – and despite having no head or foot, the round table does accommodate not only a king but a first knight.
And Camelot is the Kingdom, the heavenly city, built from his father’s legacy, a place, says director Jerry Zucker that we all want to live. Thus this neo Jerusalem is a place to aspire to, and not get cast out of for bad behaviour, or else you’re in the subterranean has-been of Malagant’s world. But it’s not just Jesus who is building a kingdom – there’s a currently earthly realm, like Camelot, which is built on ideals and ideas. Like a church, it’s not the stones themselves, but the people and dream that lives on – good job, for this fortress proves to be as robust as the cheese stall in its likeness that we see on the run the gauntlet day. That place is America. So the Disney castle look of Camelot makes sense – if it is intended: the American romanticisation of a medieval mythological ideal, the appropriation of a history they don’t have. Note the French renaissance windows: this is a new birth.
And Arthur’s existence is unproven, and so imaginations can set to work, inventing architectural details and costumes (is it coincidence that Arthur’s knights wear Star Trek like garb?). Saxons didn’t build cities so the only walls and gates around would be ex Roman – again, a great empire imposing itself, sophisticated on one hand, brutal and rash on another. Much like Arthur. His trial of Guinevere and Lancelot says – my personal hurts are a matter of state. I humiliate these people and call it an act against the realm, and I’m telling you – mess with mine or be unfaithful, and you’ll die.
Who the faithful are is my final point: the triangle is not the shape I’d assumed. Arthur is in love, but not with Guinevere. He has fallen for Arthur in a courtly ideal of unconsummated deep love that I call man love – not exactly gay (it’s so feeble that Hollywood is still not good at dealing with that in its mainstream films – yes Brokeback Mountain but think of Troy!). They couldn’t have been lovers or it alters the offence of Arthur’s discovery the love of Guinevere and Lancelot, whose “innocence” (ie lack of physical love) is important.
Arthur waits patiently for his wife to answer him and to formally marry him, but he rushes Lancelot onto his council with wedding like vows, preceded by a night of prayer and purification. This is man marriage. The scene when Arthur slips into Lancelot’s chamber and touches his bare back holds back from homoeroticism but I think the point is implied. Why, when Arthur discovers the near affair, is Arthur aggressive to Lancelot but composed with Guinevere? Because his love for Lancelot is the greater. He twice speaks of loving Lancelot to his face – “I don’t love people in slices” and “I loved you, I trusted you!”
Note Lancelot’s lack of aggression or even justification; he defers to his love, offering to die for him. In another Jesus paraphrase, Arthur brings up the theme that to die for another is the highest love (which can also be manipulative, it’s how any leader has got men to go to war) – and now Lancelot will give his life to serve his master and the kingdom.
And in Arthur’s last scene, he needs to make up to his two loves as much as they need to placate his rent heart over the discovery that the triangle does indeed have three sides. To prove the third one is most powerful, contrast Arthur’s goodbye to Guinevere to his send off to Lancelot. Arthur asks for his sword – not a phallic symbol, but as a shiny almost magical object throughout the film, to bestow a highest honour on a beloved friend. They hold hands and Arthur not only implies his blessing on Lancelot and Guinevere, he gives Lancelot the greatest privileges he can – being First Knight isn’t just political and military (I hope he doesn’t reign Camelot with only sword skill, and not state craft), it’s saying, You are my main man, I love you.
Mark Adam’s synopsis in Movie Locations of Britain started me on this road when he describes the film as Guinevere coming between Arthur and Lancelot (p151). I think he’s correct as both US and UK film covers have the two men as large and Guinevere in the background in the middle; and on the British cover, the picture of Guinevere is inside the sword, dividing them. So the courtly love here is Arthur’s for his knight; the nation state with universally applicable ideas is America, and this is the tale of taming the wanderer to become part of society rewarded by romantic love, brotherhood and knighthood – but does Lancelot lose something in becoming part of Camelot?
I look forward to getting the region 1 DVD and seeing if the extras support this, or whether this is my reading; but I enjoyed the film far more since seeing all this in it.