Just watched The Green Knight AKA Sir Gawaine and the Green Knight. I’d been looking forward to this. I’ve long thought that the poem of Sir Gawaine and the Grene Knight – which I’ve read in several translations, including J.R.R. Tolkien’s – would make one helluva great art flick, if done right. I’ve filmed it in my head several times, as I’d make it if I were a director.
In case you are unfamiliar with the poem, it has an incredible hook. The titular Greene Knight comes into King Arthur’s Court one Christmas and challenges another knight to a strange duel. Each will deal one blow, and must receive as good as he got. He even offers to let one of King Arthur’s knights go first, with the understanding that he must bring himself to the Green Knight’s chapel in one year to receive the return blow. The headstrong Sir Gawaine accepts and promptly cuts off the Green Knight’s head. So much for that kind of arrogance. But the Green Knight’s headless body then stands up, picks cup its head, turns to Gawaine, and says, in effect. “Right. Next Christmas it’s my turn.” And rides off.
There was a version in 1984 entitled Sword of the Valiant that showed some promise, but it was funded by Golan and Globus, which is the Kiss of Death for any sort of artistic integrity. It had Trevor Howard and Peter Cushing and – as the Greene Knight himself – Sean Connery (!!!).
The director wanted Mark Hamill as Sir Gawain, which might have helped enormously. I can hear you sniggering out there – but Hamill would certainly have been better than the choice Golan forced on them – Miles and Miles O’Keeffe. Yep – the forgotten Tarzan from the Bo Derek version. Ator the Fighting Eagle himself. It didn’t help at all that they put him in a stupid blonde Dutch Boy paint wig. It was impossible to take him seriously. (THe same director had evidently filmed a version a decade earlier, but I’ve never seen that film.)
So I figured this version couldn’t be that bad. It got some good reviews.
I have mixed feelings. Some of it is filmed exactly the way I would have done it. Dev Patel (I seem to be watching films starring him lately) makes a surprisingly good Sir Gawaine. .The look is very good. Lots of scenes shot through mist. The Green Knight’s head – or possibly his mask – looks like the head of the classic “Green Man” used in architecture.
So far, so good, but
1.) The film moves with glacial slowness. If I saw this in the theater I could go for a bathroom break and not miss anything.
2.) A lot of what’s going on isn’t at all clear. I confess that some of this didn’t make sense until I read the Wikipedia synopsis later. This is because
3.) They changed the freakin’ story and added whole lumps of stuff out of nowhere. On the other hand, they kept returning to the story as in the poem. Granted that you need to flesh out a story to movie length (glacial slowness enough ain’t gonna do it), but wholesale invention isn’t the way to do it.*
4.) They made the ending ambiguous. I hate when they do this, especially when the original isn’t. It bugged me with Carpenter’s The Thing and it bugs me here.
Some added and invented things:
- Gawaine isn’t a knight. He still aspiring
- Gawaine’s mother is a sorceress. Some descriptions identify her as Morgan le Fay, although the movie doesn’t say so. And that identification is at odds with the traditional relationships. But, in any case, Gawaine’s mom wasn’t a witch.
- Gawaine starts out in a brothel. His mom scolds him for it and promptly casts a spell, which suggests that the whole plot is Gawaine’s punishment for playing with the Bad Girls.
- Gawaine gets robbed in the woods by a band of thieves. The director apparently liked the Captain Feeney sequence from Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon and decided to work it in here.
- The whole Ghost Lady whose head was cut off and Gawain has to fetch it. Nothing like this in the poem.
- The Talking fox
- The Valley of Wandering GIants. WTF???
- The “Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge” escape sequence at the climax. But it was only a fantasy. Gimme a break. At least when I fantasize to escape a situation it’s not deterimental to me.
- The aforementioned ambiguous ending.
So there’s the film. I later learned that the director also did The Witch, and I can see the similarities. That one, too, moved with incredible slowness.