Woman Around Town’s Editor Charlene Giannetti and writers for the website talk with the women and men making news in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities around the world. Thanks to Ian Herman for his wonderful piano introduction.
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.
With Dr. Strange coming out Friday, (the buzz says that it’s the trippiest Marvel movie yet), inevitably the mind turns to other magicians, wizards, witches, and sorcerers supreme who’ve dazzled us on screen. As the following examples show mastering the Dark Arts is a veritable cinematic tradition.
The Wizard of Oz(1939) This technicolor, musical-comedy-drama-fantasy, based on the beloved Frank L. Baum masterpiece, represents the best of Golden Age Hollywood with Judy Garland in the performance that made her an icon. While (spoiler alert) the titular wizard is a fraud, the powers of Elphalba the Wicked Witch of the West, and Glinda the Good Witch are very real and propel much of the events of the plot. It was nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture but lost to Gone With the Wind. Initially something of a box office disappointment, it would later go on to become one of the best known films in American history and a cultural landmark.
Excalibur(1981) Directed, produced, and co-written by John Boorman (Deliverance and The Tailor of Panama) Excalibur retells the classic legend of King Arthur primarily from the viewpoint of Merlin played with grandeur by Nicol Williamson (Hamlet, Inadmissible Evidence). From the days of Uther Pendragon (Gabriel Byrne in the role that launched his career) to Arthur’s final showdown with Mordred, Merlin steals the show. And this is among a truly great cast including Nigel Terry as King Arthur, Helen Mirren as Morgana Le Fay, Nicholas Clay as Sir Lancelot, Cherie Lunghi as Gwenevere, a young Patrick Stewart as King Leondegrance, Liam Neeson as Sir Gawain, and Corin Redgrave as the Duke of Cornwall. It was all filmed in Ireland, and holds up as one of the best Arthurian adaptions of all time.
The Witches of Eastwick (1987) Directed by George Miller of Mad Max fame and based on the John Updike novel of the same name. Alexandra (Cher), Jane (Susan Sarandon), and Sukie (Michelle Pfeiffer), are three women all living in Eastwick, Rhode Island who share two things in common. One, they’re all single having lost their husbands. Secondly, unbeknownst to them, they are all witches, and wittingly they start a coven and start practicing spells. Soon the mysterious Daryl Van Horne (Jack Nicholson) comes to town and that’s when things start to get freaky. It was nominated for two Academy Awards and holds an over 70% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) Directed by Chris Columbus. No such list would be complete without including the movie based on the best-selling book series that kicked off one of THE most successful film franchises in history. It helped that to do justice to Rowling’s vision they put together an all-star cast as well including Maggie Smith, John Hurt, Robbie Coltrane, and the dearly departed Alan Rickman. Billions of dollars later, Hogwarts has become a cultural landscape that all children secretly dream of being invited to attend, Dumbledore and Snape are now household names, and it launched Emma Watson and Daniel Radcliffe’s careers into the stratosphere.
The Witch (2015) Newcomer Robert Eggers wrote and directed this historical period supernatural horror tale that came seemingly out of nowhere to become an indie hit that grossed $40 million on a $3 million dollar budget. A puritan family is banished from their old settlement and builds a new farm by the woods. But beginning with the disappearance of their youngest child infant Samuel it soon becomes clear they are being terrorized by a powerful witch. It has an over 90% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes and Stephen King said the movie “scared the hell out of me.”
Never tell a soldier he doesn’t know the cost of war.
Eye in the Sky directed by Gavin Hood (X-Men Origins: Wolverine, who also appears on screen in a minor role) opens on an idyllic scene of an adorable little girl, Alia (newcomer Aisha Takow), spinning a hula hoop in her backyard. Since her family lives in a militia-controlled part of Kenya, her parents worry about her playing or reading schoolbooks in front of fanatics. They have no way of knowing their sweet child is about to become the center of a debate about the risks of international warfare.
While Alia is going about her daily routine, British military officials – Lt. General Frank Benson (the late, great Alan Rickman) and Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren, who can convey more steely authority with just the set of her shoulders than most performers could with pages of dialogue) – have set up a joint mission with the Americans to capture some of the worst terrorists in East Africa. Powell briefs the drone’s operators, Carrie (played by Phoebe Fox from The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death) and Steve (Aaron Paul of Breaking Bad fame) that the drone is merely to be the “eye in the sky” on what is set to be a capture mission. Inevitably though, things don’t go as expected and when the terrorists turn up in a hostile neighborhood and are seen preparing suicide vests, Powell decides the best thing is to rain down a Hellfire missile instead. Neither Carrie nor Steve has ever actually executed a missile strike before, so they’re both nervous. Then Alia shows up in the Kill Zone to set up a stall selling bread.
What follows is not only a fast-paced and intense thriller in its own right (Hood’s direction is masterful and he’s aided by a brilliant script from Guy Hibbert), but a rigorous debate about the ethics and fallout of warfare in an age where the instigators are generally making decisions from thousands of miles away. The British are in charge of this mission; Powell and Benson are in England, along with Cabinet members Brian Woodale (Jeremy Northam)and James Willett (Iain Glenn). But the Hellfire missiles will be launched by U.S. military personnel located in Las Vegas. Everyone involved tries to shuffle responsibility and potential blame. Only one Angela Northman (Monica Dolan) seems ready to make a firm decision either way; she’s opposed to the strike but it’s not clear whether she fears more for Alia or for the potential propaganda blowback.
Powell might seem the ostensible hero of the piece, but in her determination to get the job done she’s willing to cross more than one boundary. It’s not coincidental, that the most noble figure of all, local Kenyan agent Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi following up his Academy nominated turn in Captain Phillips) is the only one who’s actually on the ground of the attack site and the only one at personal risk. As the characters weigh the potential costs and damage of this one missile, we in the audience have to ask ourselves about the costs of waging war from afar without consequence.