When the Zemeckis Beowulf movie came out last year, several commentators insisted that a “fresh reading” often gives new life to an ancient work. Blogging medievalists weren’t necessarily hostile to that notion, accustomed as they are to studying stories that change over time, but most didn’t think the reworking of the epic succeeded on its own merits. Recently I wondered: Which film adaptations of medieval stories, if any, have succeeded without being true to their sources?
Expecting the answer to be “none of them,” I revisited what may be the most famously awful “medieval” movie: the 1984 film Sword of the Valiant: The Legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I hadn’t seen this turkey in 20 years, but I expected to find a wonderful piece of evidence against the “fresh reading” argument. In fact, I envisioned a world in which simply declaring “Sword of the Valiant! Sword of the Valiant!” would shut down any response from reckless modernizers who can’t be bothered to contend with a work of medieval literature on its own terms. Instead, what I found in Sword of the Valiant surprised me: a laughably bad movie, to be sure, but a most intriguing mess. The film fails not because its creators gave the story a “fresh read”; it fails because they loved its medieval sources just a bit too much.
If you’ve seen Sword of the Valiant, you know that the first ten minutes are somewhat faithful to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and there’s a five-minute section near the end that reminds you what this movie purported to be. The rest is a disaster. (Bafflingly, Sword of the Valiant is a remake of a film made more than a decade earlier by the same writer and director; that long-lost original is being reissued on DVD next month, I suppose to capitalize on the success of the Armitage translation.) The faces of familiar actors pass in and out of the frame—Trevor Howard, John Rhys-Davies, David Rappaport, even a weary Peter Cushing—but their presence fails to comfort, because Miles O’Keeffe, playing Gawain, is omnipresent.
How much Keeffe is in this movie? Miles O’Keeffe. Star of way too many awful, awful 1980s sword-and-sorcery flicks, O’Keeffe dons a Prince Valiant/Peter Frampton wig and takes up the challenge of the Green Knight, played by Sean Connery, whose pranceworthy outfit, spray-on tan, facial glitter, and exposed fuzzy midriff go a long way toward explaining why his wife from the original poem is nowhere to be seen.
En route to the Green Chapel, Gawain inexplicably wanders out of his original story and into another romance: the Yvain of Chretien de Troyes. Like Yvain, he’s trapped between two gates and then rescued by a maiden named Lunette, who brings him an invisibility ring. Three or four plot twists later, he falls into another lousy movie entirely and gets caught in a war between two barons, Bertilak and Fortinbras. Along the way, Gawain slays Morgan le Fay, whom the Green Knight turns into a talking orange toad. He acquires a squire, befriends a friar, interrogates a dwarf, and often earns praise and love for no apparent reason. We even see our hero chasing a unicorn through the woods with a crossbow because he hopes to kill and eat it. At that point, I don’t know why the filmmakers didn’t just show Miles O’Keeffe enjoying a Bavarian hang-gliding adventure over Neuschwanstein. That’s what he did as Ator in the equally terrible fantasy movie Cave Dwellers, and it couldn’t have made this movie worse.
Actually, I know why Sword of the Valiant never gets quite that random. Sure, the movie chokes on its own haphazard storytelling, but its randomness is of a particular type, resembling the immature but effusive novelty of the Squire’s story in The Canterbury Tales. When a pavilion full of food appears out of nowhere or a rainbow gleams in the sky after Gawain blows a horn by the seashore, the movie still stinks, but these strange moments at least make Sword of the Valiant a unique curiosity, ensuring that the film harks directly back to medieval literature in ways that most bad fantasy movies do not.
Consider the medieval storytelling motifs that don’t need to be in Sword of the Valiant but somehow get thrown in anyway. The unnamed, Arthur-like king declares that none shall partake of the Yule-feast until someone in the court proves he’s worthy of his spurs. The king is mouthing a cliche, of course, but the knight literally earning his spurs is a common folklore motif. (In fact, it pops up in the final reel, so to speak, of Ralph the Collier.) Unlike the hero of the original romance, who needs only to fulfill his promise after a year, our big, stupid O’Keeffe is also charged with solving a murky riddle, not unlike certain knights in Gower, Chaucer, and at least one other medieval Gawain romance. There’s even a stock encounter between our hero and an irascible porter, a scene with roots in countless medieval romances, even though it serves no purpose here. The inclusion of these and similar details suggests an interesting ambition on the part of the filmmakers: that they’re playing not to popular expectations regarding medieval adventure stories, but to the specific expectations of people who’ve actually read medieval literature.
Sword of the Valiant is random, episodic, unsatisfying, and incoherent. But when its actors deliver such interesting lines as “A sword is three feet of tempered steel, with death dancing on every inch and hanging like a dark star on the very point” or “The old year limps to its grave, ashamed,” they try to sound like they mean it, because it’s clear that the filmmakers want them to mean it. The movie bristles with this sort of unfocused ambition, much of it hinting that its creators resisted cinematic competence for the greater glory of half-assed medievalism.
Maybe that’s why I find Sword of the Valiant worthy of affection, if not an ounce of respect. Despite their desperate visual references to Excalibur, Conan the Barbarian and The Empire Strikes Back, the filmmakers aspire to rise above the usual fantasy cliches, even when they so obviously don’t know how. You can almost imagine them puzzling over dim memories of undergraduate lectures, as fascinated by Middle English as the haze of a hangover will allow, trying to rework the material not out of a need to freshen up their sources for modern audiences but because they loved the sheer medieval strangeness of it all. That’s why it’s fascinating, and a little sad, to see their apparent affection for medieval literature mated with sheer pretentiousness to spawn what is, in effect, a terrible work of medieval-lit fan-fiction.
Sword of the Valiant closely approximates a student’s first reading of the strangest medieval romances: you’re confused by an alien mindset, you’re served up a dog’s breakfast of medieval motifs, and you start to suspect that the storyteller has inherited an ancient pile of symbols that he doesn’t fully understand. It took centuries for medieval romances about grail-seekers and courtly love to seem outlandish and weird, and no actual romance is as blatantly strange as this movie, so let’s give Sword of the Valiant some credit: to accomplish that in less than 25 years—heck, to accomplish that just by releasing the film—sure must be some kind of art.