King Arthur: Legend of the Sword directed by Guy Ritchie (Sherlock Holmes, Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels) is just the latest in what has been a long Hollywood fascination with King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Consider the following.
The Sword in the Stone (1963) This animated Disney classical musical concentrates on Arthur’s boyhood. Young Arthur is a lonely twelve year old orphan known as Wart, under the care of his foster father Sir Ector and serving as squire to Ector’s brutish, bullying son Kay. One day a chance meeting brings him to the cottage of Merlin who declares himself Arthur’s tutor and insists on coming home with him. Thus begins a charming and delightful coming of age story based on part one of T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. Of particular note is Merlin’s magical duel with arch-nemesis Madame Mim.
Camelot (1967) John Logan (South Pacific) directed the film adaption of the Tony Award-winning musical of the same name. King Arthur (the one and only Richard Harris) prepares for a battle against his dearest friend Sir Lancelot (Franco Nero of Django fame) and sadly reflects on the circumstances that have brought them both to this point. A young Vanessa Redgrave plays Guenevere. It was nominated for five Academy Awards and won three including Best Musical Score. It was also nominated for six Golden Globe Awards and won three including Best Actor for Motion Picture Musical or Comedy for Richard Harris.
Lancelot du Lac (1974) Renowned French filmmaker Robert Bresson (A Man Escaped, Mouchette) wrote and directed this take centering on the doomed love affair of Lancelot and Gwenivere. Like most of other Bresson’s films he used a cast of unknowns for the roles and his depiction of the Middle Ages emphasized blood and grime over magic and fantasy. It won the FIPRESCI prize at the Cannes Film Festival and has a fresh rating over 90% on the Tomatometer.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) This British slapstick comedy parodying the Arthurian legend was the source material for the blockbuster musical Spamalot. With such classic bits as the Knights Who Say Ni, the Rabbit of Caerbannog, and the coconuts…dear god the coconuts. It was the highest grossing British film released in America that year, has a 97% fresh rating on the Tomatometer, and is universally considered one of the most hysterically funny movies of all time. Do NOT try to drink anything while watching!
Excalibur (1981) John Boorman (Point Blank, Deliverance) wrote, directed, and produced this bloody and brutal British Fantasy drama based entirely on Thomas Malory’s writings of the Arthurian legend. Shot entirely in Ireland with an Irish cast it helped launch the careers of such performers as Gabriel Byrne (Uther Pendragon), Ciaran Hinds (King Lot), Helen Mirren (Morgana), Corin Redgrave (Duke of Cornwall), Patrick Stewart (King Leondegrance) and Liam Neeson (Gawain). The main love triangle is played by Nigel Terry (The Lion in Winter) as Arthur, Cherie Lunghi (King David) as Gwenivere and Nicholas Clay (Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Lionheart) as Lancelot. It was nominated for Best Cinematography at the Academy Awards and Boorman was nominated for two prizes at the Cannes Film Festival winning for Best Artistic Contribution.
Top photo: Bigstock
As a fighter, Vinny Pazienza was no stranger to emergency rooms. The injury that almost ended his career didn’t happen in the ring, however, but as the result of a car accident. After sustaining a broken neck, doctors told him he might not walk and definitely would never fight again. Pazienza refused to give up and the result is the greatest comeback story in boxing history.
Bleed for This also represents a comeback for talented writer/director, Ben Younger. Once praised for the 2000 crime drama Boiler Room, Younger hasn’t made a film since 2005’s romantic comedy, Prime. With an intense performance by Miles Teller as Pazienza, Bleed for This enters the pantheon of great fight films. One of the best is, of course, Raging Bull, whose director, Martin Scorsese, is Younger’s executive producer.
In 1988, a day before a title match in Las Vegas, Vinny is in his hotel room, bound up in plastic wrap, pedaling furiously on a stationary bike, hoping to meet his weight requirement of 140 pounds. He shows up late for the weigh-in wearing nothing but a leopard print jock strap, and just makes the cut. Rather than rest, he stays up all night playing blackjack. It’s no surprise that he’s easily defeated.
Aaron Eckhart and Miles Teller
The boxing world quickly dumps losers and, with a string of three losses, Vinny struggles to find another match. His new trainer, Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart), comes with baggage of his own; he was fired as Mike Tyson’s trainer after being arrested for a DUI. Eckhart, in a memorable supporting role, is virtually unrecognizable as the bald, pot-bellied trainer. Rooney hasn’t stopped drinking, but he still knows what it takes to win. Rather than battle to keep off the pounds, Rooney suggests that Vinny box at his more natural weight of 154, which means moving up two categories.
The strategy works and Vinny is once again winning and scheduled for a title match in Las Vegas. Fate, however, takes a cruel turn. A horrific head on collision leaves Vinny with a serious spinal injury. When Vinny wakes up surrounded by his concerned Italian family, he tries to make light of his situation. Reality begins to sink in and, vowing to fight again, he agrees to wear a medal device called a halo that is held in place with four screws actually drilled into the skull. Younger doesn’t spare us the sight of watching that gruesome operation.
Vinny spends his days lying alone in a hospital bed in his parents’ living room. (A girlfriend leaves in a huff after getting her hair caught in his medal device.) While his parents supported his boxing – his father Angelo (Ciarán Hinds), was literally in his corner for every fight – they don’t want him back in the ring. Vinny can’t see himself doing anything else and soon, joined by Rooney, is in the basement working out.
After three months, the halo is removed. This scene is more difficult to watch than the first since Vinny refuses anesthesia and screams with each screw that is removed. Back in the gym, he can’t find a sparing partner. No fighter wants to be the one to inflict what could be a killer blow. Once Vinny shows that he’s in shape, people begin to fall into line, including fight promoters Lou and Dan Duva (Ted Levine and Jordan Gelber) who know a good publicity “hook” when they see one. The fight they line up is a big one, with more than a million dollars for the winner.
Ciarán Hinds, Miles Teller, and Aaron Eckhart
There’s a buildup to that final fight scene and it doesn’t disappoint. Younger has said that the film was shot in three weeks on a shoestring budget, but it has the feel of a much larger film, thanks to all that expertly shot action in the ring. We hear and feel every blow that’s landed.
Vinny’s father attends the match and, despite saying he couldn’t be in his usual corner, eventually ends up in that spot cheering on his son. Meanwhile, the other relatives watch from home. Vinny’s mother, Louise (Katey Sagal), avoids the television and prays in an alcove before an altar crowded with statues of saints and burning candles. Vinny’s sister, Doreen (Amanda Clayton), watches with assorted relatives, bowls of popcorn on their laps. (All three actors playing members of the Pazienza family offer some comic relief with their zaniness without going over the top. Sagal is particularly effective as the ever-protective mother.) Kudos to set decorator Kim Leoleis for creating the type of overstuffed home environment that will resonate with many baby boomers, especially the Italian-American ones.
The film’s success rests with Teller, and he builds on his breakout performance as a drummer in Whiplash. As Vinny, he holds nothing back, whether inside or outside the ring. While the fight scenes are, at times, painful to watch, the scenes where he struggles with the halo, bumping against a car door, for example, may have you grabbing your own head.
Stay for the credits to see photos and interviews of Vinny Pazienza himself.
Bleed for This opens nationwide November 18, 2016.
Photos by Seacia Pavao courtesy of Open Road Films