This 1991 TV film adaptation of the famous medieval poem has one of the oddest plot lines involving a mutual promise of decapitation and quasi-redemption – chop of my head and prove your loyalty to me! Its Christmas time, at the court of King Arthur. A giant of a man arrives on horseback.
He is vegetative green in appearance: unsheathing his sword he requests someone to take part in a be-heading contest. The Green Knight’s head is immediately chopped off by Arthur’s knight, Gawain. After a year has passed Gawain must then be decapitated by the Green Knight.
Gawain goes in search of the knight’s green palace. Gawain arrives at the castle of a lord (Malcolm Storry). Here he is tested by the seductive power of his lady (Valerie Gogan). Gawain does not succumb to her sexual charms or appreciate the lord’s wild boar hunts. On escaping from this prolonged Christmas hospitality Gawain finally encounters the Green Knight. Gawain offers his head to be cut off (This felt like a very Christian sacrifice echoing the Old Testament story of Abraham and Isaac). But Gawain’s head is only marked not injured. The Green Knight applauds his courage. And Gawain returns to the court of King Arthur.
Gawain and the Green Knight is a heroic quest of a journey posing ambiguous questions about heroism examined in the light of sacred rules of chivalry. These codes of honour are not spelt-out in the poem but they are in David Rudkin’s literate screenplay. Sir Gawain (Jason Durr) kneels before his shield and declares out loud his five adherences to duty and integrity of purpose.
Yet Gawain’s noble intensions are placed under stress. For in a closing moment of the film Rudkin reminds Gawain about “The order of imperfect man.” This sense of uneasy vulnerability also accompanied David Rudkin and Alan Bridges’s 1974 film Penda’s Fen. Here King Penda spoke of “The Angel or the Pandemonium; the sickness of power, or the sacred demon of ungovernableness.”
Rudkin maintains an occasionally alliterative style that pleasingly recalls earlier translations of the poem. The film sounds and looks good. Despite budgetary limitations the sets and costumes have an earthy and plush charm. The music score is authentic and I liked the merriment of the dance scenes at court. Of all the film adaptations of Gawain I think this is the best but it’s not a definitive version. What was lacking was a more energised direction – the films over-slow pace caused it to get stuck between dreamlike ritual and careful reverence causing the story’s humour to go astray.
The opening scenes of Gawain and the Green Knight are quicker yet their flash forwarding to a horse-backed Gawain looking for the green knight and then flashbacking to the Green Knight’s first appearance, before the king, has a disconcerting rhythm: though I loved the use of slow motion by director John Michael Philips as the vegetative green spectre asserts its power.
I was happy with the film’s casting. Malcolm Storry convinced me as a man of moral purity. Valerie Gogan was effective as the steely temptress. Initially I felt Malcolm Storry played the extrovert lord as if he was imitating the blustering manner of Brian Blessed. However his acting soon settled down. And he was on strong form as the green knight.
Gawain and the Green Knight is a serious and intelligent attempt at making the poem work on film. It eschews any Hollywood portentous dialogue and relentless action. The very fact that ITV commissioned the project is remarkable. It’s impossible to imagine that happening now and the creative freedom they had.
I would say go and buy the new Network DVD reissue and also read the poem. This great work of British literature is about 60 pages in length. Marie Borroff’s translation splendidly reproduces the alliterative meter of the original Middle English. Whilst Simon Armitage goes more for a blank verse style and conveys well the humour of Gawain.
- Alan Price