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Sunday, July 19, 2009

A Knight at the Movies, part 2 (originally published 5/01)

Being a knight in the modern world just doesn’t have the same cachet as it did in medieval times. Paul McCartney and Elton John, although estimable fellows to be sure, don’t project the same swashbuckling image somehow as Lancelot and Percival. In the old days you had to slay a dragon or seek the Holy Grail to be knighted; nowadays selling a whole lot of CDs is enough to make the cut.

For those who yearn for the heyday of chivalry when knights were bold, there are movies like the currently playing “A Knight’s Tale” to recreate those halcyon days. As we saw last week, this story of a young squire striving to attain the ideal of knighthood is the most recent in a long line of films dealing with the theme. Here are some additional knightly titles to look for on home video.

“The Black Arrow” (1948). For those who like action packed period films, it’s hard to do much better than this lively adaptation of a Robert Louis Stevenson novel. Louis Hayward stars as a British nobleman returning from the War of the Roses only to learn that his father has been murdered. His quest for vengeance leads to a substantial body count, culminating in the obligatory jousting contest pitting good knight against bad knight.

“The Seventh Seal” (1957). If you like your knights a bit more cerebral, try this enduring classic from the imagination of Swedish cinema master Ingmar Bergman. Max von Sydow, a perennial Bergman collaborator, plays Antonius Block, a weary, disillusioned knight returning from the Crusades to find his homeland ravaged by plague. When he himself is confronted by Death, in the person of a shadowy figure robed in black, he is bold enough to ask Death for a reprieve. He proposes to play a game of chess with Death. As long as he can escape checkmate, Death is to allow him to continue living. Death, who is intrigued by the challenge, and who enjoys a good game of chess, agrees to the terms. Bergman uses the duration of their game to raise fascinating questions about the meaning of life and death, including the theme that he would return to again and again in his films: the difficulty of maintaining religious faith in the face of the silence of God. Heady stuff, to be sure, but Bergman carries it off impressively. If you’ve only been exposed to this film by way of its many parodies, you owe it to yourself to experience the original.

“Lancelot of the Lake” (1974). Last week I called your attention to “Knights of the Round Table” (1953), which glorifies and romanticizes the legendary court of King Arthur. At the other end of the spectrum lies “Lancelot of the Lake,” written and directed by French filmmaker Robert Bresson. Camelot is presented here as a failed ideal populated by petty, avaricious knights. The fabled Lancelot is no better, pursuing his affair with Queen Guinevere in the full knowledge that he is undermining everything that Camelot stands for. Bresson’s films are virtually an art form unto themselves, bearing little resemblance to anyone else’s. Chances are you will either love this film or hate it.

“Knightriders” (1981). Paradoxically, one of my own favorite films about knighthood is set in the Twentieth Century. Written and directed by George Romero, who is best known for “Night of the Living Dead” (1968), it includes many of the familiar appurtenances of courtly romances, including chain mail armor, maces, lances, and, of course, jousting contests. The difference is that these latter day knights ride motorcycles rather than horses. The itinerant group travels from one location to another staging medieval style tournaments for the amusement of the locals. The twist is that the leader of the group, played by Ed Harris, has persuaded them to adopt the social mores and ideals of the mythical Camelot. Setting himself up as king, he seeks to embody the chivalric ideal in the modern world.

I suspect that the impulse, dramatized by Romero, to transplant into today’s world that which was noble and high-minded about the age of chivalry lies at the root of our continuing fascination with movies about knights of old. If only those who engage in today’s jousting contests, from corporate board rooms to the halls of Congress, could be held to those age-old standards, we would probably all be better off.

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