Gawain and the Green Knight (1973) Gawain and the Green Knight / Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (1973) **

     Originally, my plan had been to pair my review of The Green Knight with one for that infamous Cannon Films travesty, Sword of the Valiant. But while I was searching high and low for a watchable copy of that film that wouldn’t cost me more than could imaginably be justified, I learned something I hadn’t previously known about an even earlier cinematic adaptation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight called, imaginatively enough, Gawain and the Green Knight: Stephen Weeks, the director and co-writer of Sword of the Valiant, also directed and co-wrote the 1973 Sir Gawain movie. The Cannon version, in other words, wasn’t merely a remake, but a do-over, which meant that I really did need to tackle Gawain and the Green Knight first. Cirque du Soleil Wood Elf Sean Connery will just have to wait his turn.

     In place of Cirque du Soleil Wood Elf Sean Connery, this version gives us Dinner Theater Absolute Badass Nigel Green. (We’ve seen Green before in Corridors of Blood, and may see him again one of these days in The Face of Fu Manchu. It’s a shame we don’t see more of him here, since he’s far and away the best thing about the film.) He arrives at Camelot not as the result of conjuring by Morgan le Fay (who doesn’t appear in Gawain and the Green Knight at all), but seemingly in response to an inadvertent summons from King Arthur himself (Anthony Sharp, from Black Snake and No Blade of Grass). Arthur has just finished giving the assembled Knights of the Round Table a piece of his mind regarding what slovens they’ve all devolved into since the unification and pacification of the realm when suddenly there is a flash of uncanny emerald light, and a green-clad, green-haired, and green-bearded weirdo strides in with a lack of give-a-fucks worthy of Samuel L. Jackson. With a theatrical flourish, this Green Knight transforms the staff he’d been carrying into a broad-bladed axe, and proposes a test of the knightly mettle that Arthur was so recently berating. He dares any man present to take up that axe of his, and to chop off his head in a single blow— the catch being that he gets to attempt the reciprocal feat afterwards. Despite there being seemingly no chance of the Green Knight actually getting to collect on his end of the bet, not one of Arthur’s knights wants anything to do with this bizarre challenge.

     That’s when a squire called Gawain (Murray Head) shames them all by stepping forward. Chivalric protocol normally would not permit a mere squire to answer a knight’s challenge, but Arthur neatly solves that problem by knighting Gawain on the spot. The Green Knight’s axe is perfectly weighted and razor sharp, so that not even a boy has any trouble striking a decapitating blow with it. The joke’s on Gawain, though, because the Green Knight (as the lad’s elders perhaps suspected) is not bound by natural laws— or at least not by the same ones as we are. Losing his head does not inconvenience him in the slightest, and reattaching the appendage is a simple matter of picking it up and setting it back on his shoulders. For a moment it looks like Gawain is about to pay a very high price for his valor, but then the Green Knight unexpectedly offers him an out. His intention was to walk out of Camelot’s reception hall with a man’s head, not a mere youth’s. A knightly challenge is a knightly challenge, of course, so there’s nothing to be done about that now. However, there’s also nothing to prevent the Green Knight from postponing his end of the deal. Gawain may have exactly one year to use as he pleases, at the end of which his head will be forfeit as agreed. But if at any point during that year Gawain should take the initiative of seeking him out, then the Green Knight will accept that as a counter-challenge from him, and meet the lad in a fair fight (or as fair a fight as can be had, anyway, between a teenager and an immortal being twice his size). Mind you, the Green Knight won’t tell Gawain where to find him— what would be the fun in that?— but he’ll make sure the correct road is well marked with signs and portents. And with that, the Green Knight vanishes as inexplicably as he appeared.

     It should go without saying that the one person in Camelot bold enough to accept the Green Knight’s wager in the first place won’t just passively await his doom now. Indeed, Gawain begins his quest almost at once, setting off on a borrowed horse, with borrowed arms and armor, in company with a solitary squire by the name of Humphrey (David Leland, from Scars of Dracula and Time Bandits). In the 14th-century epic poem from which this movie derives, the adventures attending the hero’s quest were rather beside the point, and received scant attention from the unidentified author. Weeks and co-writer Philip M. Breen were therefore free to run totally wild in imagining them, and that’s just what they did. For starters, we get an untrustworthy magician (I, Monster’s Richard Hurndall) whose advice lands Gawain in a great deal of trouble. Then there’s an inexplicably hostile Black Knight, because of course there is. Shortly after he vanquishes the latter, Gawain gets detoured into Lyonesse, which in Weeks and Breen’s telling is less the Arthurian cycle’s answer to Atlantis than a pocket universe situated outside of time as we know it. The queen of Lyonesse (Pauline Letts, from Eye of the Devil) tries to draft Gawain into taking the Black Knight’s place as protector of her realm, but her magically talented lady-in-waiting, Linet (Ciaran Madden, of The Beast Must Die), takes a liking to the questing hero, and gives him the means to escape the bewitched land. Said escape brings Gawain into contact first with a procession of desert-wandering pilgrims whose leader (Peter Copley, from Five Million Years to Earth and What Became of Jack and Jill?) tries to recruit him away from his mission, and then with a supposed sage (Geoffrey Bayldon, of Tales from the Crypt and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed) whose wisdom proves much less useful than advertised. Gawain gets a chance to return Linet’s favor when he happens upon Lyonesse again from its Earthly side, enabling him to carry her beyond the ambit of its enchantment. And finally, he, Linet, and Humphrey fall into the clutches of the bandit baron Fortinbras (Tony Steedman), who conscripts the men into his army and imprisons the girl in his castle for safekeeping until such time as he has the leisure to appreciate her properly.

     Fortinbras has a neighbor named Sir Bertilak (Robert Hardy, from Berserk and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein) whose lands he’s in the habit of raiding, and the latter knight is thoroughly sick of the former’s shit. When Bertilak drops in unexpectedly to offer Fortinbras one last chance to avoid all-out war between their domains, the baron’s seneschal (Murray Melvin, of Lisztomania and The Devils) suggests to his master that Linet would make one hell of a peace settlement. Bertilak is prepared at least to consider the proposal, but it doesn’t sit well with Fortinbras’s son, Oswald (Ronald Lacey, from Crucible of Terror and Flesh & Blood), who was hoping Dad would give the captive girl to him. And it sits even worse with Gawain, who is by this point every bit as smitten with Linet as Linet is with him. Oswald slips away while the two lords are negotiating, in an attempt to get at least one good rape in while he still has the chance. Gawain slips away as well to go to Linet’s rescue. And there are hard feelings all around when the resulting melee leaves the heir to the barony dead, and most of Castle Fortinbras in flames. Gawain and Linet get separated in all the commotion, and so our hero is never quite sure, after he and Humphrey make their getaway, whether she was able to do the same. It puts the questing knight in quite a funk, and we all know how funks get in the way of completing quests. If you’ve read the poem, though, you’ll know there’s good reason to expect Gawain and Bertilak to meet again, and their reunion to put Gawain back on track.

     Those of you haven’t read the poem, meanwhile, are probably wondering right now how any of that could possibly relate to finding the Green Knight. It doesn’t, really, which is Gawain and the Green Knight’s problem in a nutshell. To be fair, the lack of meaningful connection between the one damn thing after another that befalls Gawain on his quest and the object of the quest itself comes straight out of the source material, and is indeed fairly typical of Medieval romances. However, in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight specifically, there’s a certain thematic deliberateness to the irrelevancy of the hero’s adventures. That is, adventure per se apparently held little interest for the anonymous author:

So many a marvel in the mountains he met in those lands
That ’twould be tedious the tenth part to tell you thereof.

     Then, having said that, he dismisses the whole quest in two stanzas, and charges ahead to Gawain’s several-days’ stay in the castle of Sir Bertilak— which is relevant to the search for the Green Knight, not only because he and Bertilak are really the same person in the poet’s telling, but also because the visit, like the Green Knight’s wager, embroils Gawain in a whole series of no-win scenarios wherein satisfying some aspect of the chivalric code requires him to violate another. Those quasi-philosophical conflicts are what Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is really about, but it would be a lot to ask of a modern cinema audience that they should care about intricate edge-cases of knightly honor. It makes sense, then, for Weeks and Breen to focus instead on their invented version of the quest. The thing is, though, that the author of the poem was right. Unless an adaptor constructs their version of Gawain’s quest to feed into whatever they’re treating as the point of the Green Knight’s challenge, then it is tedious to tell the tenth part of it! Weeks and Breen didn’t do that, so Gawain and the Green Knight never seems to be going anywhere, even though ostensibly exciting stuff is happening almost constantly.

     There is one respect in which Gawain and the Green Knight is compelling in spite of its bagginess and paucity of purpose, however. I don’t know this for a fact, of course, but I have a very hard time believing that this movie wasn’t a major influence on Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Granted, a certain amount of similarity was probably inevitable, given both films’ reliance on the same body of techniques for making an Arthurian quest film on a miserly mid-70’s British budget. Knitted woolen pseudo-chainmail, extensive location shooting at actual surviving Medieval sites, finery that looks like it could have been rented from the Royal Shakespeare Company’s wardrobe department— any film of this kind made when and where this one was would have had little reason and less opportunity to do otherwise. And maybe— maybe— the same can be said for the startling appearance here of exactly the same uniforms worn by Holy Grail’s French men-at-arms on their counterparts at Castle Fortinbras. Similarly, the library music used to score Monty Python and the Holy Grail might not have been chosen specifically to imitate Ron Goodwin’s Gawain and the Green Knight score, since the music in this movie is very much on the standard model for Ye Olde Adventure Flickes going back to The Adventures of Robin Hood at the latest, but the resemblance is undeniably there just the same. However, when it became apparent that Gawain and the Green Knight was going to mark all its act breaks with title cards in the style of an illuminated manuscript, and was furthermore going to have a Portentous Voiceover Guy talk over all of them, I could no longer justify writing off anything as a coincidence. I mean, listen to this:

Stealthily the seasons changed. The delicate hues of spring stirred a land deep in winter’s slumber. Could the budding green of spring herald the hour of combat with his mysterious foe?

     I defy anybody to listen to that without immediately thinking of:

Winter changed into spring. Spring changed into summer. Summer changed back into winter. And winter gave spring and summer a miss, and went straight on into autumn.

     The only thing missing is Terry Gilliam to animate the figures in the illuminations into a succession of subversive sight gags. Ultimately, none of this means much with regard to Gawain and the Green Knight’s innate merit, but I love stumbling upon seemingly unmistakable influences on things that I never suspected of having such specific antecedents in the first place.



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