From Arthur to Aliens Via Iraq

By BILL GEIGER | May 31, 2017
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

Lots of mythology, folk legends, and backstory in this week’s review, and we can really see how history and legend infuse nearly everything we know. Two of our films this week have extensive backstory, and one of those, “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword,” has been in continuous historical circulation, in one way or another, from the late 4th century A.D. right up to now.

The other, “Alien: Covenant,” has been in our mythology since 1979, certainly not as long as the Arthurian legend, but, given how quickly things change in this age of hustle and flow, nearly 40 years is nothing to be ashamed of. Our third film, “The Wall,” is about the war in Iraq but it trades on the idea of America’s role in that part of the world, specifically our long, tired presence there. And it asks, through one of the main characters, the essential question “Why are we there? Still?”

So let’s start with Arthur in “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword,” who legend says was most probably a chieftain who helped his native Britons fight off Saxon invaders. That’s the hard historic “truth” of the legend. But the Arthurian story, along with an unlikely blend of fantasy and folklore, has come down to us in written, cartoon and movie form, and a cursory check in the Internet Movie Database comes up with 23 titles, not necessarily all about King Arthur, but others dealing with Sirs Percival, Lancelot, Gawain and others.

So what is new this time around? Guy Ritchie, once known only for being married to Madonna, has written and directed his version of the legend, with two heavyweights battling each other.

Jude Law is one, appearing in the form of the usurper Vortigern (user of dark, or black magic), and Charlie Hunnan is the other, as Arthur, the true king (who also uses magic, but the good kind). If you know anything about how Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes films are structured, you’ll know something about how he paces a film, how he likes to use flashbacks explaining how some event happened, or flash-forwards, explaining how some event will happen.

Since he realized he couldn’t tell the whole Arthurian story, he decided to film Arthur’s origin, his rise from humble beginnings, living in a brothel, running with the ne’er-do-wells in the shady part of Londinium (Latin for ancient London, obviously, but with this Ritchie gives a nod to the Romans, who spent nearly 400 years on the island and gave many names to now-familiar places), and practiced in the manly art of self-defense.

According to this story, Arthur did not know his father, whom we identify as Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana), who early in the film, with the help of the magical sword Excalibur, killed Mordred, an evil Mage (one practiced in the art of magic).

Mordred’s evil magic then transmuted into Vortigern, Uther’s brother. Vortigern first kills his wife, using her blood to gain strength, and then kills Uther, but not before Uther sends his young son down the local river into Londinium, where he is found and taken in by various ladies of the evening. Shades of the Biblical Moses story, yes?

One day, the water in the moat below Vortigern’s castle mysteriously drains away, leaving a sword sticking out of a large rock that is at the bottom of the moat. All the local boys of what Vortigern decides must be the age of the young lad sent away by Uther, are rounded up and shipped to Vortigern’s castle to try to pull that sword out of the rock. Ultimately Arthur is brought in and forced to stand above the sword and try his hand at an extraction. Of course, he easily removes Excalibur from the stone.

This convinces Vortigern that Arthur must be his nephew, and he vows to kill him, and rule with no worries. But Arthur is rescued by those who had been in the service of Uther, thus begins a rebellion that lasts until Arthur, using the magic of Excalibur and tutored by the Mage (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), whom we are told was sent by Merlin to safeguard Arthur, fights Vortigern to reclaim the kingdom. And what a fight it is.

So how does “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword,” pass the verisimilitude test? Going into this, I knew there would have to be a healthy dose of fantasy (the magic) that surrounds these types of stories. Without the Lady of the Lake, the sorcery and the power of the sword itself, the Arthur story is just another story of a brutal tyrant riding herd over his people. And even though Merlin is not physically in the story, his alter ego, the Mage, has enough magic in her that she can fight Vortigern’s sirens and give Arthur the boost he needs to best Vortigern.

Does it pass the “worth the price” test? Historically Arthur was thought of as a rallying point between the native Britons and the invading Saxons, but when the Vikings showed up, they had to be fought, too. So that’s the basis to the story – everything else is embellishment. As an origin story, the film works. As the beginning of a new take on the legend of King Arthur, it works as well. Hunnan is a worthy Arthur, strong, tough and able to wield Excalibur as a key rallying point.

As a result of the fantasy and the history, “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” is worth the price because Guy Ritchie was able to handle both questions and create a new chapter in the canon of the ages-old Arthurian legend. I’m really looking forward to the next chapter. 

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There will be two opinions given of the film “The Wall” – mine, and that of a veteran who happened to be screening the film the same time I was. I noticed several men sitting in front, and a little to the left, of where I was in the theater. During the previews, the group in front of me was very vocal about some of the films to come, so much so that I wondered just who they were and why they had come to this particular screening. At the end of the film I found out.

“The Wall” is a tight, claustrophobic film with only three characters, two if you count the ones with physical bodies. The third plays an enemy sniper who is only a disembodied voice, but the voice of the very capable, very lethal killer named Juba.

The two characters are Isaac (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Matthews (John Cena). They play an American sniper team, sergeants both, who are called on to protect American contractors who are working on a pipeline in Iraq. An enemy sniper has killed all the contractors, as well as the squad of soldiers sent in to protect them. Soon Isaac and Matthews are dispatched to investigate, locate and kill the sniper.

If only it were that easy.

As the film opens, the Americans are perched on a hillside above a gruesome tableau that has unfolded below. Both are under deep camouflage, and as the camera lingers on the hillside, they literally cannot be seen, so good is their cover.

Part of being a sniper is patience, the ability to stay in one position for very long periods of time, interspersed with brief periods of blazing activity. Soon Matthews is jittery, and ultimately cannot stay in hiding any longer. He firmly believes there is no threat left in the diorama below. Isaac is the spotter, the soldier with the range-finding binoculars who scours the scene looking for any sign of trouble. He’s not sure. He notices that the soldiers and contractors below had been killed with head shots, what he is sure is the work of an enemy sniper.

He wonders if it is Juba, the legendary Iraqi sniper who has become a sort of ghost sniper, admired for his flair, terrified by his efficacy. Matthews dismisses the idea and decides to go below for a look-see. Big mistake.

As Matthews walks among bodies, he realizes that Isaac might be correct in his assumption that the soldiers were killed by a damn good sniper. Soon Matthews is down, and Isaac tears down the hillside to help him. He’s shot first through the radio he carries, then through his canteen, and finally in the knee. His wounds make it impossible to help Matthews, but he manages to stumble over a wobbly wall and takes cover behind it.

From this point the film, directed with intimate claustrophobic effect by Doug Limon, becomes a two-person story as Isaac tries to contact Matthews, who is quiet, then his captain, to send rescue choppers to extract him. Soon he is speaking to someone on the radio who claims to be his superior officer, but later figures it out to be the sniper, playing games with him.

Isaac reasons that this sniper must be Juba, the legend, because as he tries to get equipment from the soldiers who have died near the wall, they have the same kinds of wounds as he does, and have had their canteens and radios shot. The radio works short range, like Isaac’s, but not long range. Juba must have procured one of those radios.

It becomes obvious that Juba has either been educated in America or been trained by Americans, for he knows the idioms of English and the literature. Soon Isaac asks him some questions, and Juba asks the most important ones, why is he here, how is he helping anyone, what is he trying to prove.

And the shaky wall becomes a metaphor for the distance, and the unsteadiness, of the relationship between America and Iraq, and between Americans and Iraqis. In the small, intense exchanges between Isaac and Juba, this kind of understanding is abundantly clear. Americans don’t want to be there, and the Iraqis don’t want them there, not even to build a pipeline for moving oil, something Isaac believes would help the Iraqis.

As the film faded to black and the closing credits came on, one of the nearby veterans yelled out, “That film sucked.” So there’s one opinion about “The Wall.” I’m sure the downbeat ending contributed to that gut reaction to the film, but while I applaud your years of service to our country, especially as we pass this Memorial Day holiday, I have to respectfully disagree with your trenchant analysis, sir.

While I do not want to give away any spoilers about the ending, I thought the film passed the verisimilitude test with ease. Nothing about it seemed outside of the truth. It was a small film and very intense, but it all added up. I was once told that good writing consists of going around hanging a lot of bells in a prose piece, then going back and ringing all the bells. I can honestly say all the bells are rung in “The Wall.”

And that adds to the idea of the film being worth the price. I didn’t think that it sucked, and I didn’t think that it was a rip-off. I thought Limon did a good job within a very small, intense thriller. By the way, in Roman days, Juba was the name of a Numidian warlord, a very brave and strong fighter whom many Romans and Carthaginians wanted to get as an ally.

I walked out of the theater with a number of those veterans, who no doubt harbored like-minded thoughts about the film. I judged them to be of the age of Vietnam vets, and thought to myself that after fighting in that war, didn’t they have the same feelings about the war as these soldiers in Iraq? Oh well, good films have a way of dividing opinion.

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Our last film is Sir Ridley Scott’s “Alien: Covenant,” about a colony ship bound for a planet way out in the galaxy. The crew receives a transmission luring them to a nearby Earth-like planet that harbors creatures like the ones Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) battled in the original “Alien” (1979). It turns out that “Alien: Covenant” is a sequel to “Prometheus,” Scott’s film from 2012 that wonders how humans were created and generally looks at creation as a concept that might have been accidental.

“Alien: Covenant” looks at creation, too. The colonists bound for the new world will create that world themselves, with terra-forming equipment they’re carrying in their cargo hold, as well as is a complement of 600 or so humans and embryos, all in stasis for the long journey.

As the film opens, David is taking care of the ship while the crew sleeps. The ship is controlled by a computer called Mother, as in “Alien,” and by David, who oversees everything else.

An electro-magnetic pulse from a nearby star damages the ship and brings the astronauts out of stasis, although one of them is stuck in the stasis pod, unable to escape, and is burned to death. This is the ship’s captain, the lover of science officer Daniels (Katherine Waterston), so as the film begins there’s a death to be dealt with, negative plot-point number one.

Number two comes up pretty fast, as they receive a transmission of people singing John Denver’s “Country Roads” and figure out that it’s coming from not too far away. The new captain, Oram (Billy Crudup), decides to take the ship near the planet and to take an orbiter to land there. They decide to go out and look for the transmission’s origin, which leads to lots of bad things for them.

The alien creatures reproduce within the bodies of their hosts, and soon one or two are running around trying to kill and/or reproduce further. A hooded figure approaches and tells the crew to follow. They do, and arrive at a place the hooded figure calls home.

Soon it’s discovered that the hooded figure is an earlier version of their android crewman David. This one is named Walter (Michael Fassbender again), and he’s a holdover from the film “Prometheus.”

Walter has been very busy since we last saw him in the 2012 flick, learning how to incubate the creatures and get them to grow. So Walter’s something of a creator of the aliens. As we’re looking for creators, Scott seems to be saying that if we create artificial intelligence, the curiosity of these creations could cause unwanted creatures to proliferate.

Taken in conjunction with the ideas presented in “Prometheus,” Scott seems say the process of human creation and reproduction is guesswork and haphazard. That’s not a very reassuring idea.

The film is loaded with lots of blood and gore. It’s part of the alien reproductive strategy – incubate in a human host, then kill the host. Daniels battles the alien on the ship, thinks she’s killed it, but the humans can never rest easy.

Does “Alien: Covenant” pass the verisimilitude test? Indeed, it does, given that it boasts 22nd-century technology that seems reasonable, given what we know about space travel now.

Is it worth the money? I think it is, and I found no problem understanding the film or the references to creation because I was able to remember “Prometheus” and the ideas contained therein. I don’t think it’s as good as the original “Alien,” but it packs a pretty good wallop.

Plus, it quotes Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias,” which I think is pretty cool, and Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen,” specifically the gods’ entrance into Valhalla. Also pretty cool.

All three films this week get a thumbs-up. With the essential questions left unanswered in “The Wall” (but you know which way the film leans) and with the collective mythologies of King Arthur and the “Alien” franchise, we can see how one thing builds on the other. “Alien’s” mythology is relatively young, but it still works. Like Arthur, we’ll look for more ideas in the future.

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