An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

January 5, 2022

Arthur & Merlin: Knights of Camelot, dir. Giles Alderson

Arthur & Merlin: Knights of Camelot, dir. Giles Alderson (2020) 


Reviewed by:

Christopher Berard, Providence College

3.5/4 STARS


Arthur’s Return Home: Giles Alderson’s Arthur & Merlin: Knights of Camelot


Arthur & Merlin: Knights of Camelot is a beautifully made and intelligently written low-budget adaptation of a core Arthurian tale: Arthur’s journey home from the Roman War to reclaim Britain from his usurping kinsman Mordred. Director Giles Alderson and cinematographer Andrew Rodger shot the film entirely on location in Wales at Caerphilly Castle, Dunraven Bay, and Ogmore-by-Sea. The breathtaking Welsh landscape and natural lighting lend an air of Arthurian authenticity to the production. Equally brilliant is the plot, une belle conjointure of narrative details and themes from medieval Arthurian literature and plot devices and tropes from such action-adventure films as Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), Thor (2011), Skyfall (2012), The Dark Knight Rises (2012), and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017).


The film opens with a flashback sequence: young brothers-in-arms King Arthur (Richard Short) and Sir Lancelot (Tim Fellingham) race their horses along the coast. Traveling into a forest, the pair hear the siren song of a lady in a cave. Entranced, Arthur approaches the maiden, who then transforms into an old hag and bites Arthur on the neck. Lancelot comes to Arthur’s rescue and dispatches the vampiric witch. Arthur and Lancelot then hear a cry for help within the cave and discover the witch’s prisoner, Guinevere (Stella Stocker), whose appearance the witch had simulated. Here, writers Giles Alderson, Simon Cotton, and Jonny Grant rework the False Guinevere motif found in the Old French Prose Lancelot (c. 1210) and Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur (1470).


After this opening, which would have been more effective as a pre-title sequence, Merlin (Richard Brake) introduces the narrative proper, explaining to the audience that Arthur married Guinevere and later left her in the care of his son from a previous relationship, Mordred (Joel Phillimore). Arthur, Merlin explains, has just spent the better part of eight years fighting the Romans. Within the existing Arthurian tradition, Thomas Hughes’ Senecan tragedy The Misfortunes of Arthur (1587) offers a precedent for this narrative starting point. In Hughes’ play, Arthur’s Roman War parallels the Trojan War in duration, and Arthur, as a war-wearied hero returning to a troubled home, finds himself in a situation analogous to the Greek heroes Odysseus and Agamemnon.


Arthur, Merlin explains, is haunted by the memories of the gruesome Roman War. He appears to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. In France, the king drinks to excess to dull his pain and engages in bare-knuckle boxing to prove his martial prowess. Arthur’s display of brute masculinity evokes Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur and calls to mind Daniel Craig’s damaged and conflicted portrayal of James Bond at the start of Skyfall.


Learning of a Saxon threat to Britain, Arthur wants to remain in France and let Mordred attend to Britain’s defense. Wallowing in self-pity, he calls himself an “old drunk” and laments the loss of his sword Excalibur. In a verbal exchange with Lancelot, Arthur declares: “There is no king without Excalibur”. Lancelot responds: “It is not the sword that made you either. It has abandoned you because you have abandoned yourself.” Just as Thor loses Mj√∂lnir in Thor (2011) until he proves himself worthy to wield it again, so too does Arthur lose Excalibur. Here we are reminded that the good king must first rule himself before ruling over others. Why Arthur lost Excalibur in the first place remains unclear. Was it on account of his deeds of war or his difficulty coping with the trauma of war? If the latter, our modern sensibilities are more forgiving than those of the Lady of the Lake.


The setting shifts from a disreputable inn in France to the royal court at Camelot. Mordred is seeking to take possession of not only Arthur’s kingdom but also his queen. Guinevere rebukes Mordred, remarking, “I am neither your lady nor your creature”. Shortly thereafter, Mordred attempts to persuade the remnant of Arthur’s faithful vassals to swear allegiance to him and to let him pursue a policy of appeasement with the Saxons. A debate ensues between Mordred and Arthur’s loyal men regarding the merits of the absent king’s rulership. Arthur’s supporters proudly declare: “Arthur has no throne. Our king takes his seat at the table equal to all his knights.” Mordred reminds them that he compelled his woodsman on pain of death to destroy the Round Table. Through this exchange, we learn that Arthur is a good feudal monarch who rules as primus inter pares with the advice and consent of his vassals.


The next matter of debate concerns the justness of Arthur’s Roman War. His supporters claim that Arthur fights for honor and for Camelot. Mordred defames Arthur as a “warmongering opportunist” who fights for his own private good to the detriment of the public good of Britain. This dialogue encapsulates the just war debate at the heart of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (1137), the Alliterative Morte Arthure (c. 1400), and Hughes’ Misfortunes of Arthur. Mordred does not wait for a consensus opinion or the consent of the governed; instead, he crushes dissent by force of arms, stabbing one of Arthur’s faithful supporters.


In an ironic parallel, it is not the counsel of Arthur’s knights that moves him to return home to Camelot, but rather a failed attempt on his life that spurs him into action. Mordred’s assassins succeed in killing one of Arthur’s knights and, as is the case in the Alliterative Morte Arthure, feelings of guilt and responsibility for the loss of his men compel Arthur to act. His return home calls to mind the opening of Kevin Reynolds’ Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Whereas Robin of Locksley returns from the Third Crusade to find his ancestral castle in ruins, Arthur returns from the Roman War to find his entire kingdom in shambles.


After some cutting back and forth from palace intrigue to the hero’s progress, Arthur receives counsel from Merlin. The sage tells Arthur that he is distracted from his cause and that his heavy drinking is not helping the situation. Arthur, filled with angst, asks: “What is my cause? I fought a war and I cannot remember why. I sent ten thousand men to their death, and the reason has been lost.” Merlin responds: “What better reason than home?” Arthur, ridden with guilt, answers: “a home that I have not protected…Excalibur was my destiny, and even that has abandoned me.” Merlin consoles Arthur by stating that Excalibur will return to him when he is ready for it. Arthur then expresses fear that the day will never come. Merlin essentially tells Arthur: “fake it till you make it,” or to quote an even more popular and patriotic English aphorism: “keep calm and carry on.” This episode calls to mind Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Rises (2012), when an injured and aging Bruce Wayne must overcome self-doubt, escape from an underground prison, and save Gotham from Bane’s nefarious plans.


After Merlin encourages Arthur, it is Arthur’s turn to inspire his faithful followers with a rousing speech. Just as Merlin found it necessary to remind Arthur of his identity and purpose, so too does Arthur remind his knights of their greatness as the chosen knights of the Round Table and also their duty to defend Camelot and one another. Curiously there is no explicit mention of God in this monologue. Arthur’s Circle of Avalon speech is a far cry from Hal’s St. Crispin’s Day speech in Shakespeare’s Henry V, and this was one of the few stodgy moments in the film.


After another surprise attack that again results in the death of one of Arthur’s knights, the king sends Lancelot west for reinforcements and orders the rest of his men to make their way to Camelot without him. Arthur knows that a skilled female assassin is tracking his movements, and he wants to prevent her from harming his beloved companions. As seen in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), the division of Arthur’s men allows individual quests and shifts in narrative focus.


Meanwhile, Mordred learns that Guinevere and Lancelot are lovers. He sends his sorceress Vortigone (Jennifer Matter) to impersonate Guinevere and thereby capture Lancelot—a recurrence of the False Guinevere motif. Mordred’s plan works. Elsewhere, Arthur must confront his own demons in the form of the female assassin. She blames Arthur for not protecting her family from Mordred’s cruelty and injustice. Arthur reluctantly kills her in self-defense and then lapses back into despair. Merlin returns to Arthur in his moment of need and gives him another instruction on good kingship: “A king,” he says, “endures so that he can protect his people and his country. Most of all, he endures so that he can empower those who cannot dream of sitting at the Round Table.” Heartened, Arthur continues on his journey and encounters the Lady of the Lake. He undergoes a process of purification through immersion in water and then receives Excalibur.


At last, everything comes to a head at Camelot. Lancelot is imprisoned and awaiting execution in the castle and Mordred is about to wed Guinevere in a grand ceremony against her wishes. Arthur and his knights secretly enter the castle through a storm drain and launch a surprise attack. This combined castle invasion and wedding crash calls to mind Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves: Arthur is Robin Hood; Guinevere is Maid Marian; Mordred is the Sheriff of Nottingham; and Vortigone is Mortianna, the evil witch. Such a home invasion is certainly a familiar and convenient plot device, but it does have precedent in British history, namely the Nottingham Castle coup of 1330 that enabled Edward III to end the regency government of Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer.


Although the attack on Camelot is a familiar action-adventure plot device, the denouement of the film is not the customary Twilight of the Gods that we have come expect from Arthurian films. Arthur and Mordred do not deliver fatal blows to one another. Instead, Guinevere rescues herself by killing the sorceress Vortigone. Guinevere and Lancelot ride off into the sunset. Arthur, despite the heartache of losing his queen and his best friend, retakes his castle, his kingdom, and his crown. Arthur disowns Mordred but permits him to run away from Camelot in disgrace. The love triangle between Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot remains unresolved as does the looming Saxon threat. The closing frame of the film features King Arthur wearing his crown and sitting on his throne, an iconic image evocative of the end credits of John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian (1982).


Arthur & Merlin: Knights of Camelot has an uninspired title, and parts of the script, especially the Circle of Avalon speech, are lackluster. The clever plot, beautiful cinematography, and earnest performances from the cast more than compensate for these relatively minor quibbles. A better title for the film, in this reviewer’s opinion, would be “Arthur’s Return Home,” which encapsulates the plot of the film and subtly references Jack’s Return Home (1970), the novel by British writer Ted Lewis that was adapted into the 1971 British cult classic Get Carter—yet another film involving a man of blood who returns home to restore order and exact retribution. The presence of such timeless and substantive Arthurian themes as self-mastery, just warfare, and good rulership in a screenplay that honors both the medieval Arthurian literary tradition and the modern action-adventure genre makes this film a worthy British addition to the ever-growing catalogue of Cinema Arthuriana.


Christopher Berard


Arthur & Merlin: Knights of Camelot, Giles Alderson: director / writer; Simon Cotton: writer, Jonny Grant: writer, photography by Andrew Rodger, design by Jamie Foot, costumes by Robyn Manton, music by Nick Samuel. Signature Entertainment, 2020. 130 minutes.