I’ve read all of John Steinbeck’s books, but in some ways the most interesting is the one he didn’t finish, “The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights,” a retelling of Sir Thomas Mallory’s classic fable about the Knights of the Round Table.
Steinbeck had played with the Camelot theme before. His novel “Tortilla Flat” is clearly based on that legend. This tale of a loose gang of jobless locals who gather at Danny’s house in Monterey is mindful of King Arthur’s knights hanging around the Round Table.
While Steinbeck was fixated on Guinevere’s betrayal of King Arthur, my favorite Arthurian story is the one about Sir Gawain. “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” is a late 14th-century Middle English poem. It is one of the best known knights of the Round Table stories, a prototypical chivalric romance – a story that involves a hero who goes on a quest which tests his prowess.
What’s surprising is that Hollywood didn’t glom on to the story of Sir Gawain earlier. There have been dozens of movies about King Arthur – ranging from “Camelot” to the eponymous “King Arthur,” “Excalibur” to “The Black Knight.” But fewer about Sir Gawain.
Director Steven Weeks was enamored by the story. He brought it to the screen in 1973 with “Gawain and the Green Knight,” starring Murray Head and Nigel Green in the respective titular roles. And Weeks even remade it in 1984 as “Sword of the Valiant” with Miles O’Keefe as Sir Gawain and Sean Connery as the Green Knight.
Now writer/director David Lowery tries his hand at Sir Gawain with a new film simply titled “The Green Knight.” You can still catch it in theaters – including Tropic Cinema.
Lowery re-tells the story of Sir Gawain, King Arthur’s headstrong nephew. But it’s more like Sir Thomas Mallory on drugs.
The film is stylish, with smoky scenes that dazzle the eye. However, the storytelling is nonlinear, allowing Sir Gawain’s quest “to stop, reverse and come unraveled.”
“Brace yourself for a surreal and mystical treat unlike any other medieval tale previously adapted for the big screen,” warns one moviegoer. Obviously pleased with the result.
Another calls it “a medieval mind-bender.” Obviously baffled by the film.
But that’s the way David Lowery wants it.
“The finished movie is far bigger than what we set out to make,” Lowery admits. “We wanted a film that felt as epic as ‘Lord of the Rings’ but was completely unique in the way the story was told.”
The colorblind casting features Dav Patel (“Slumdog Millionaire”) as Gawain, who is not really a knight, and Ralph Ineson (TV’s “Game of Thrones”) as the voice of the Green Knight, who is not really human.
The story is familiar: During a Christmas Eve celebration, King Arthur (Sean Harris), his Queen (Kate Dickie), and the knights of the Round Table – which includes Gawain, Arthur’s slacker nephew – are confronted by the Green Knight. A strange, plant-like creature, the Green Knight makes his grand entrance by riding his feisty horse into the room where the Knights are gathered at their Round Table and puts forth a challenge: “Oh greatest of Kings, let one of your knights try to land a blow against me. Indulge me in this game….” Is anyone brave (or foolish) enough to take up this offer, strike him now, but let him return the blow a year hence?
Only Gawain is willing to take on the challenge. So he lops off the Green Knight’s head with his uncle’s sword, Excalibur.
Is the movie over?
No, it’s just beginning. Now Gawain must go forth on a mission of honor, to allow his opponent to return the deadly blow. Needless to say, Gawain is unprepared for many of the obstacles he will face as he heads toward the Green Chapel several days north of Camelot. These include a deceitful forest scavenger (Barry Keoghan); a ghost (Erin Kellyman) trying to locate her missing head; and a Lord (Joel Edgerton) and his mistress who offer Gawain shelter and then call his honor into question.
Can Gawain rise to the occasion? After all, he is merely “a hanger-on at the Round Table, coasting on his charm, his good looks, and his family connections.”
On this hallucinatory journey he is accompanied by a mysterious (read: magical) red fox who will help him understand the meaning of his quest. It has to do with the inevitability of death.
This is a weird movie, one moviegoer concluded.
Sure. But what do you expect when your title character is a gigantic tree-like creature who you can’t quite kill?
With “The Green Knight,” a little spritz of herbicide might be more effective than Excalibur.
On reflection, this movie is closer to Steinbeck’s “Tortilla Flat” than all those other King Arthur movies – for here Gawain is more akin to those aimless paisanos who hang out at Danny’s house in the Steinbeck story.
“Tortilla Flat” was John Steinbeck’s first commercial success. Let’s see how David Lowery’s “The Green Knight” fares at the box office. So far, it’s doing 1/6 the ticket sales of “Jungle Cruise,” the Dwayne Johnson adventure. But that’s not bad for a movie based on a 14th-Century poem by an unknown author.
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