Articles Film Irish Times

Newt’s Knights – the real meaning of First Knight

Tuesday, July 18, 1995

. . . if Ben Cross is Saddam Hussein, then (and I hesitate to say it) Richard Gere as Lancelot is Newt Gingrich

It’s a cliche that history books say more about the time they were written than the time they describe, but the recent crop of medieval-based films have shown that the same is true of historical films. You go for swashbuckling and damsels in distress, and end up with a discussion of big government versus the rights of the individual.

Rob Roy, Liam Neeson’s latest film, and Mel Gibson’s forthcoming epic Braveheart both describe the little man fighting for freedom against the English military and political machine. First Knight, despite being a reworking of the story of King Arthur, shares this uneasiness with government intervention into individual lives, however well-meant.

All three films are surprisingly secular. The setting might be the distant past, but there is no hint of magic or mysticism. This is in contrast with the sword and sorcery films of the 1980s, such as Highlander, Legend, or Excalibur. In all these, destiny and magic are important, and the worlds on show feel very different from our own. With the recent films, however, we get contemporary political concerns dressed up in armour and stuck on a horse.

First Knight show this most clearly. There is no Merlin or Mordred, and Arthur is portrayed by Sean Connery as a well-meaning liberal. The Knights of the Round Table are ‘members of the High Council’, and the carving on the Table itself declares, ‘In serving each other we become free’. 

It all sounds like democracy not feudalism, and it doesn’t take much of a leap to see Camelot as America. We’re told that having won a prolonged war, the kingdom now looks forward to peace and prosperity. Camelot also offers protection to smaller nations which share its values, such as Guinevere’s Lyonesse. Arthur is a Bill Clinton figure, stressing his belief in law and the responsibilities citizens owe to one another.

King Arthur certainly means well, but we are shown that all is not as it should be. Malagant, the compulsory English bad guy (played by Ben Cross), repeatedly describes Camelot as a dream, and his actions question how realistic Arthur is being. “People don’t want brotherhood, they want leadership,” Malagant explains, plausibly.

Despite Arthur’s attempts at diplomacy, Malagant conquers Lyonesse, and Camelot’s response is the medieval equivalent of Operation Desert Storm – an impressive show of force with an inconclusive result. Malagant is beaten but not destroyed, and you start to wonder if Lyonesse has any oil reserves.

Malagant is the Saddam Hussein or Slobodan Milosevic of the piece, showing that things would be fine for the Kings of Camelot or the White House if everybody played by the one set of rules. Malagant points out, ‘Other people live by other laws,’ and Arthur falls back on the suspicious defence that “What we hold to be right and good and true,” must be right and good and true for everyone else as well. Which sounds a lot like, “We hold these truths to be self-evident”.

However, if Ben Cross is Saddam Hussein, then (and I hesitate to say it) Richard Gere as Lancelot is Newt Gingrich, and he poses the real threat to King Arthur’s big ideas of big government.

Lancelot exemplifies the fashionable idea that you don’t need much government at all – people do much better when left to their own devices. Described in the opening titles as ‘a wanderer who had never dreamed of peace or justice or knighthood’, he knows what he wants and how to get it – twice he rescues Guinevere single-handedly where all of Arthur’s well-drilled troops had failed.

Richard Gere keeps his American accent – the only one heard in the film – and Lancelot’s brand of rugged American individualism is seen even after he has become one of Arthur’s knights. In battle, he leaves the ranks of helmeted horsemen to fight on his own, with his head uncovered.

Malagant and Lancelot have little to do with the existing Arthurian material, and the ending of the film is also more Malibu than Malory. Arthur dies idealistically and foolishly, and Lancelot is left as the new ruler of Camelot under instructions to ‘look after’ Guinevere.

There is some justice to this, as Sean Connery always looked too old for Julia Ormond, but Arthur’s death underlines what we should take from the film.  His idea of beneficent big government is a dream, and he dies with his eyes open, having been woken at the last by the realisation that people (even those you love) just can’t live up to the ideal.

So we are left with the independent Lancelot in charge, who, like Liam Neeson and Mel Gibson in the other historical summer releases, won’t be told what to do by anyone. With his dying breath, Arthur tells Lancelot, ‘you’re the future’, and in a worrying way, maybe he is.

(first published in The Irish Times, Tuesday July 18th, 1995)

Posted by David in • Irish TimesFilm

Articles Irish Times Television

Doctor, Doctor! – Medical TV Dramas

Saturday, July 15, 1995

‘You work in a pool of excrement. Your job is to swim to the shallow end’

‘Nurse, the screens!’

‘Yes, doctor, I know. They’re full of hospital dramas.’

Rescued from the mid-afternoon limbo of Young Doctors and A Country Practice, medical programs are now back in prime-time. Casualty has finished another successful season, but now we also have ER, Cardiac Arrest and Chicago Hope.

One of the most notable features of all these shows is their convincingly incomprehensible technical vocabulary. The instructions barked over the speeding trolleys make very few allowances for a non-medical audience.

Pursuing realism is fine, but what do we get out of this emphasis on obfuscation? We get security. It is comforting to place yourself so completely in the care of a doctor who speaks an obscure, almost sacred, language.  You don’t want to know what it all means, so long as these magically cryptic words (such as ‘intubate’ and ‘O neg’) somehow make you better.

The hospital dramas might use the same language on both sides of the Atlantic, but they’re saying different things with it. The American shows (Chicago Hope and ER) are much less bleak than their British cousins, which often concern themselves with the way political and medical issues interact.

Chicago Hope is named after the hospital in which it is set, but the abstract noun in the title is telling. In each episode we only see a handful of patients, and there seems to be the time (and the elaborate offices) in which to discuss abstract issues such as hope, morality and religion.  Where we do see medical procedures being carried out, however, they are detailed in the extreme, placing the discussion over issues into context, and showing us that the safe technical terms describe startlingly physical actions.

In ER (short for Emergency Room), on the other hand, everything happens very quickly, and you can see why they had to abbreviate the title – there’s no time for anything more. The fast cutting and hand-held camera work show you each new crisis with great immediacy, but while it’s very exciting to watch, it lacks Chicago Hope’s more considered stance.

Things work out in the end, and however stressful it gets, you know eventually Dr Doug will go out and picturesquely shoot some hoops, having pulled another child back from the brink. The show purports to tell it like it is, but after a stage-managed shock it offers a sugary reassurance – it’s got a good bedside manner.

Cardiac Arrest, on the other hand, has no manners at all. Written by a disillusioned former doctor, the show is the blackest of comedies. Unlike ER, things go badly wrong, and there’s no feelgood coda at the end. American medics are shown to care, whereas their English counterparts don’t have time to – they’re too busy ringing round for a bed, or treating patients on trolleys in the middle of corridors. In a recent episode, a new junior house officer was told, ‘You work in a pool of excrement. Your job is to swim to the shallow end’ – not the sort of dialogue you hear in Chicago Hope.

The British shows are much more concerned to show the political influences affecting health care. In ER, we never think to ask why the staff are busy, and hospital managers don’t figure as characters – the consultants are surgical not financial. In Cardiac Arrest, and Casualty to a lesser extent, we are shown who’s to blame for the chaos, and left in no doubt about the skewed priorities of the thrusting new NHS Trusts.

In addition, Casualty has a bit more time for its patients than the other shows. We often see them before they’ve had their accident or been struck down by their disease, and so we know something of their lives as people before they become cases. This is laudable, but it does lead to a certain fatalism. You know that everyone you see fit and well at the start of the show will end up in Holby General at some point in the next hour.

This emphasis on developing the patients’ characters means that often we forget their medical complaints and concentrate more on their relationships with their loved ones, who choose a busy emergency department to reveal their innermost feelings. Too much of this and you end up thinking that the only people to suffer physical injuries are those who need emotional counselling.

Despite some new ideas, each of these shows also draws on the existing traditions of hospital dramas. Nurses are pretty, and fall for handsome doctors, and the flow of new patients each week is balanced with the slower development of the staff’s storylines.

Also, Casualty, ER and Cardiac Arrest observe the medical unities, with the action of each episode most often taking place during one shift. Hence the familiar move in the closing scene from the claustrophobic and exhausting atmosphere of the hospital to the world outside, as the medical staff knock off and go home. To watch Chicago Hope, probably.

(first published in The Irish Times, Saturday July 15th, 1995)