The story of Sir Gawain, the bravest knight of Camelot, and his encounter as a squire with the mysterious Green Knight is one of the best-known stories in Arthurian legend. While it appeared in various forms, its definitive version comes from an unknown 14th Century author (known among academics as the “Pearl Poet” due to North West Midland dialect idiosyncracies in the stanzas, or more familiarly “The Gawain Poet”--J.R.R. Tolkien was a big fan and contributor to the poem's preservation), who wrote a long-form poem depicting the young knight’s adventure.
Gawain, a brash and wide-eyed youth, was but a squire in Arthur’s court on the New Year’s Feast when the Green Knight burst through the hall’s doors and proposed a wager. Who among them would take the Knight’s mighty axe, strike a single blow and behead him. The catch? “Should the power remain in his body” he would deliver a blow in kind within a year and a day. Bewildered and suspicious of the challenge, the other knights were hesitant to take up the challenge, but young Gawain, seeing the others injuring the King’s honor, accepted. But once he delivered the blow, instead of dying the Knight simply picked up his head, waggled the bloody part at Queen Guineviere, and told Gawain he would see him at the Green Chamber, the Knight’s fortress, one year and a day from then.
Instead of mourning his last year, Gawain decides to seize his remaining time. Rewarded by Arthur of a knighthood, Gawain set off on grand adventures of chivalry, honor and chastity. At several points during his wanderings, he finds himself tempted by seductive women, particularly the wife of a lord who has given him shelter. He rebuffs her three times and on the last night, she rewards his honor with a gift of a magical green girdle (or shirt or sash, it varies) that will protect him from harm. Hedging his bets, Gawain meets with the Green Knight on the appointed time. However, he flinches before the Knight can deliver his killing blow. Laughing, the Green Knight reveals himself to be the Lord who gave him shelter, that he knows Gawain is cheating by wearing the girdle and instead gives the lad a mild cut on the back of his neck, a reminder of his last-minute cowardice and a lesson in gallantry to the end.
Ultimately, the whole ordeal is revealed to have been a trick of Morgan Le Fay, the enchantress and Arthur’s sister, who wanted to embaress the King and frighten Guineviere. Gawain was just a pawn and yet emerged a hero despite his failings.
Sword of the Valiant is the cinematic retelling of this classic tale.
A pet project of British director Stephen Weeks, he’d already filmed the tale once before in 1973 with Murray Head as Gawain, but a dispute between producers and studios hampered production and the film was never given proper distribution. So when Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan, the Israeli equivalents of Dino DeLaurentis, offered Weeks the opportunity to redo the movie, Weeks leapt at the chance. He loaded his cast with a handful of heavy lifters in British entertainment including Raiders of the Lost Ark co-star John Rhys-Davies, Peter Cushing in a completely sitting-down role as the Senechal, veteran character actor Trevor Howard as the King, and for the coup de gras, superstar Sean Connery (who was filming Never Say Never Again simultaneously) as the Green Knight. (He’d even managed to bring back Rhys-Davies’ fellow Raiders allum Ronald Lacey to reprise his role as the villainous Oswald from the previous incarnation of the film.) And while he really wanted Mark Hamill to round out the cast as Gawain, Messers Golan and Globus insisted on another international superstar to play the hero: Miles O’Keeffe. After his impressive and acclaimed debut in Bo Derek’s Tarzan, the Ape Man, not to mention all those stellar Ator movies, he was an obvious slam-dunk to play the role of one of the greatest knights in mythology.
Following the success of John Boorman’s Excalibur, Sword of the Valiant probably seemed great on paper. And it starts quite well with Connery’s magnificent entrance astride a white horse, his horned crown and armor glittering green, he looks magical. Good timing too, since “The King” (the name “Arthur” is never uttered, nor are any of the be-bearded knights), has just finished bitching that all his nobles have gone soft after wretched peacetie has settled over the land. “The Old Year limps to its grave ashamed,” he says, and demands to see some proof that knightliness exists within his castle walls.
Bathed in emerald light, the Green Bond uses his axe to cut through a helmet, proving its sharpness. “Let any of you take up my axe and hack the head from my shoulders. One blow only. And if the power be left in me, I demand the right to deliver a blow in the same manner.”
When no one steps up, the King is about to accept but squire Gawain leaps to the rescue. He’s knighted on the spot and the Green Knight laughs. “I ask for a knight but what do I get? A youth that has not yet earned his beard.”
So Gawain beheads the Knight, a headless Connery picks up the (lousy animatronic) head and reattachs it (both the beheading and reheading are achieved by pretty fancy invisible cuts and whip pans). The Knight grants Gawain his year and even grants him a loophole. Gawain keeps his head as long as he can solve a riddle:
Where life is emptiness, gladness
Where life is darkness, fire
Where life is golden, sorrow
Where life is lost, wisdom
(Connery’s horse does not want to stand still during this poem.) And he tells Gawain to seize his year, “Only fools and priests squander life by fearing death.”
So off goes Gawain, his new squire, Humphrey (Leigh Lawson), and his new armor—all of which once belonged to King Maybe-Not-Arthur and leaves Too-Small-for-Camelot to “seek his beard”.
And oh! The adventures. Ten minutes from the castle, he requires a church key to remove his codpiece and relieve himself. And Humphrey just happens to have one. Then he decides to eat a unicorn, since, being rare and magic, it’ll probably taste better. But that creature disappears, a tent appears in its place and an Enchantress sends them to Lyonesse, for no real particular reason.
Gawain defeats the “Guardian of Lyonesse”—a land in which no man has entered nor cannot leave—leading to a circular logic that comes from updating medieval texts for the mass market—but after taking the wounded man back to the town, the dying Guardian points at Gawain and calls him his murderer. He’s able to escape the angry mob because the beautiful Linnet (French actress Cyrielle Clair clumsily dubbed) gives him a magic ring that lets him disappear but reveals him to the Eye of Sauron… no, wait, it just makes him disappear.
Anyway, other things happen. He rescues Linnet, then loses her. Then the Green Knight tells him using magic is cheating and not part of the game. So he gives it up, meets two of the dwarves from Time Bandits (David Rappaport and Mike Edmonds), they send him somewhere else, he rescues Linnet again and then loses her again, this time to the lustful Lord Oswald and his Senechal father (who wishes to use her to bargain with a rival lord, played by Rhys-Davies doing a Brian Blessed impression).
Then more stuff happens. A lot of walking left, then right, particularly in extremely claustrophopic stone corridors and staircases, which could come from shooting on location in real castles in Wales and France. He’s involved in numerous uninspired fights, clunky sword duels and one of the worst-shot battle sequences in recent memory (involving a cast of dozens!).
Along the way, Gawain uncovers the mystery of the riddle save the last stanza, earns his spurs (or beard, once he can grow one) and meets the Knight on the appropriate day. Only this time, he’s wearing a sash of invincibility that Linnet gave him, which allows him to cheat again, battle the Knight and finally learn how wisdom is acquired through loss of life.
Though I have not yet seen Weeks’ previous incarnation of the story, I’m told that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight resembles Monty Python and the Holy Grail in terms of production value. Sword of the Valiant also has much in common with the quotable Pythonian-Arthurian take, but mostly accidentally. Everyone in it seems to be having a good time, particularly Connery, but O’Keeffe is slightly better in motion and silent than he is when having to deliver lines like, to his torturer, “Does your mother know what you do for a living?” Much of his delivery is stiff and sore-thumb contemporary. When he’s not talking, he looks okay in a romance novel-cover type of way, even when he’s trying not to fall over in his clunky armor (borrowed from Royal National Theatre and the Old Vic). But even taking that aside—I mean, who goes “Miles O’Keeffe! What a thespian!”—there are many moments where he cuts an impressive, knightly figure.
Even the clumsy action and photography can be forgiven, particularly with a modern eye, as the staging and angles call to mind some of Robert Taylor’s bosoms-and-armor pics like Knights of the Round Table or even Ivanhoe. They’re costume dramas and at heart so is Sword of the Valiant. The lame attempts to modernize the dialogue aside, it’s an earnest attempt at a story of chivalry, even if most of the source material is jettisoned in favor of Gawain’s and Linnet’s love story.
If you drop all of the niggling faults, there’s an interesting allegory going on under the surface that actually does call to mind the endless interpretations of the original poem. Scholars over the years have called Gawain and the Green Knight a Christ analogy, an early work of feminist literature (due to Morgan Le Fay calling the shots and even in young Gawain’s passive nature), even an early look at queer literature (though given the time it was written, this has been determined to be quite a stretch), due to a subplot in which Gawain must deliver a kiss to the Lord harboring him. The Green Knight is usually interpreted as the Green Man of European folklore, the guardian of the woods and an embodiment of nature. Sword of the Valiant takes this course as well. While the climactic scene seems rushed (likely due to Connery’s schedule on the non-Bond Bond movie), as the Green Knight dies from his wound, his green fades to white and he starts to crumble like snow, leaving the idea that The Green Knight was Gawain’s entire borrowed year. It’s an interesting idea and it even allows for a rewatch (which does reveal little hints to this end throughout), but by this point, you may done the first time through.
But, wait Mike, if this movie isn’t all puppies and blowjobs, why bother seeking it out? Good question, particularly due to the controversy surrounding the domestic DVD release. For all its missteps, Sword of the Valiant was gorgeously shot in 2.35:1 widescreen and makes wonderful use of the real locations (in some scenes anyway). But since it did bupkis at the box office and is pretty much reviled, the only way to get it is to locate the out of print DVD which, of course, is in an ugly cable-adapted pan-and-scan version, leaving one to focus solely on faces and acting. There is a silver lining for collectors with multi-region players: a 2.35:1 DVD is available as a Polish import and sometimes that version shows up on YouTube.
So to answer my self-posed question: that’s my riddle for you. See you back here in a year and a day.