Gawain and the Green Knight (Stephen Weeks, 1973) -- Movie Review

For a very long time, Stephen Weeks’ Gawain and the Green Knight stood atop the list of movies I desperately wanted to see but assumed I never would. The medieval poem upon which it is based is favored reading for me around New Year’s, and Weeks’ other, more readily available attempt at adapting it, the 1984 embarrassment to Sean Connery known as Sword of the Valiant, really led me to believe that the first try would prove prime material for homebrewed MST3K sessions. The fact that Murray Head, best known for the ‘80’s pop song “One Night in Bangkok,” plays Gawain only added to what I describe as the film’s allure and most sane people its repugnance. Really, I should have kept my expectations in check, as Gawain and the Green Knight manages to only be so not good as to be bad, rather than so-bad-it’s-good.

The film starts out more or less as the poem, with a feast in the court of Camelot, and the appearance of a Green Knight (Nigel Green) looking to play a game. He will allow any knight to strike at his unprotected neck with an axe, provided the knight offers his own neck for such a blow. The only knight to take him up on the offer is the young Gawain, who chops off the Green Knight’s head only for the Knight to pick up the head and reattach it. The Green Knight then allows for Gawain to live for one year to seek him out, at which point the game will end with the blow that he has coming.

So far into the movie, I have a few problems. First of all, why is the King (not to my recollection named Arthur in the film) so old and frail? I see no textual evidence for why film makers so often cast oldies for King Arthur. The other thing that really stands out is the cheapness of the production. Ren-faire goers often manage more authentic and certainly more visually pleasing attire than what the costuming department stitched up for this movie.

The movie takes a disastrous turn as soon as soon as Gawain embarks on his journey, wherein he finds a damsel in distress named Linet, and soon he is adventuring to save her from all of the expected kidnappings and castle fires and attempted rapes that one expects out of a lazy sword-and-codpiece production like this. The majority of the film is lost in what one might think a subplot designed to fill out the feature-length running time, (the source material makes mention of Gawain’s adventures before reaching the castle of Sir Bertilak without providing anything in the way of detail) but the subplot eventually invades what one should expect would be the crux of the film. The scenes preceding Gawain’s confrontation with the Green Knight -- the greater portion of the narrative in the source material -- lack any thematic weight and Linet’s relationship with Bertilak obfuscated by Bertilak’s lack of any relation to the Green Knight. The green sash still saves Gawain’s life, but the film’s denouement makes clear that the purpose behind the quest is the maturation of a young knight, very much unlike the poem. It doesn’t sound any more like a bone-headed deviation than any of the other deviations, (Linet, Bertilak, the entire middle act of the film) but this one not only subverts the central themes of the poem, it exposes the laziness of Weeks as writer and director. Really, how cheap can one be to turn Gawain and the Green Knight into a bland coming of age story?

Particularly egregious if one reads the poem with a religious interpretation in mind -- either the green sash forced upon the knights of the round representing a reminder of their shared failure or as an inelegant symbol of pragmatic syncretism -- Gawain and the Green Knight mentions the round table’s uniform adoption of the girdle in a brief coda that dismisses any spiritual or moral symbolism. The same could be said for the whole movie.

Taken on its own merits and not as a poor adaptation, Gawain and the Green Knight is served well by its location shooting, which is quite authentic and attractively muted. The acting from Murray Head and Nigel Green is serviceable. The plot is appropriately structured to the theme of knightly maturation, symbolized by the changing seasons. There are, however, a number of elements that work just as hard in the opposite direction. The musical score is often intrusive, sometimes cheesy (dun-dun-dun-dunnnn when the Green Knight appears); the fight scenes seem un-choreographed more out of general lack of expertise than an appeal to verisimilitude; Stephen Weeks’ direction is weak, and many of the visual techniques he uses are badly dated. The number of times I can watch the camera zoom into Nigel Green’s face with that stupid musical cue before I feel the urge to watch something else is, I assure you, quite limited.

As I end this review, I find myself about to say something that might appear rather contradictory to my general philosophy on entertainment. Gawain and the Green Knight suffers for its earnestness in a way that Sword of the Valiant’s campiness mitigates. The earnestness of the performers, writing and direction of Gawain and the Green Knight actually means that those who made this film genuinely believed that the narrative would benefit from bowdlerization of the courtly love and medieval, chivalric ethics that make the poem so rich with symbolism and even ambiguity. At least Sword of the Valiant could not, even for one in his most critically furious mode, provoke a reviewer to write so dense a sentence. Thus the worse film is actually more enjoyable.

Incidentally, the most interesting film to have been adapted from "Gawain and the Green Knight" is an animated feature made for British television, in which the animators attempt to mimic the features of stained glass windows. Easily the most lyrical (and therefore appropriate) film version, it also happens to be the most faithful. You can see it on youtube to boot.

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