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King Arthur - John Matthews Q&A



Compiled by: Jack Foley

Q. When history and Hollywood get together, it doesn’t always tend to be a happy marriage, but I understand that you are quite delighted at the way the film company was keen to get it as right as it could?
A.
Absolutely, it is quite rare, if not unique, to have Hollywood a company saying, ‘yes, we’ll change that, we want to get it right, rather than it’s just a movie, go away’. So yeah, it was wonderful to work with a bunch of people so committed to making this the most accurate portrayal of Arthur that anyone has done yet.

Q. Is it a very different film from the one you would have made if you had everything at your disposal?
A.
Yes, I suppose it is. I don’t know what I would have done differently, but inevitably, my vision would have been different from the version that we’ve got, but I’m still incredibly happy with what we’ve got. Out of all the Arthurian movies I’ve ever seen, this is the best, I think, and I was involved in it, so that’s great.

Q. Is there a single aspect you can describe that’s the most authentic so far?
A.
The whole feel of it, and the look of it. When you’re looking at the armour, and the weapons, you’re looking at the horses, the setting of it all, the details is phenomenal, and it is very, very accurate indeed. This is about as near as you could get to going back to the 6th Century, except it doesn’t smell as bad.

Q. In that sense, you obviously worked closely with scriptwriters, etc. But what about the armoury experts, and people like that? Did you consult with them?
A.
A little bit. Not so much with them, because they were so good, and they didn’t really need any. The only point, I think, that I made an impact on, was when I first arrived on the set, they showed me Excalibur, drew it out with great pride, and it was beautiful. But when they took it out of its sheath, it had Saxon ruins down the blade, so I threw a wobbly, and said ‘you can’t do that, you know, because everyone’s going to laugh you off the screen!’
Saxons were Arthur’s greatest enemies. So he said, ‘well what can we put on then?’ And I said well, we could put Ogham on, and I had to explain that it’s an ancient system of Celtic lettering, and then somebody said that it looked like notches on a gun butt. We don’t want them to think that Arthur’s some crazed killer, who is running around notching up how many people that he’s killed, so we worked through it, and ended up with a great inscription on the blade of the sword, which says ‘defender of the land’. My wife came up with that.

Q. There’s a title card before film starts, saying about recent archaeological discoveries? Can you describe what they are?
A.
The archaeological discoveries they are referring to are connected to the Sarmatians. The Sarmatians were posted to Britain, as part of the Roman Legion, five and a half thousands of them. They basically formed a kind of unique cultural enclave up in a place called Ribchester, in present-day Lancashire, and that base has been excavated over the years, and recently more wholly than before. What’s come out of that is the fact that they not only stayed there for several hundred years, but that they kept a sense of their cultural identity, of their religious beliefs, and that’s one of the reasons that this is the film it is, and the story it is, because it’s some of their ideas and beliefs that influenced the Arthurian legend, so we believe…

Q. How involved were you with the finished script?
A.
A little bit. When I came along, the script had been through a couple of versions, and still had some very strange things in it. The bishop was a cardinal, so I pointed out that they weren’t around for a few hundred years after that; one or two things bothered me a little bit in terms of historical accuracy, but David Franzoni, as was everyone else, was very willing to change things as far as they could. There were things that had been already shot, in the early days, and they weren’t willing to go back and re-shoot all those scenes just because one costume, a bishop’s costume, was slightly wrong. But I could have nit-picked forever, but the overall situation was super, because they were willing to change things, and Franzoni was glad to bring it into line more with the true history of Arthur.

Q. Why did they choose you?
A.
Well, I’ve written somewhere in the region of 40 books on the subject of Arthur; the latest one is just out, King Arthur: From Dark Age Hero to Mythic Warrior, and it was partly a fluke. They were looking for someone, and somebody knew my name, and then he rang me and asked if I was willing to come and do it. And did I agree with the theory, which was a big question! I said, ‘I’m quite familiar with the theory, and it’s fairly convincing, so yeah, I’d love to’.

Q. Much is made of the impact of the Battle of Badon Hill. If it hadn’t been won, do you think we might all be comprised of Scottish people, Scandinavian people, etc?
A.
It would probably, because basically the Battle of Badon Hill stopped the Saxon invasion in its tracks and after that it took them 40 years to get to the point where they were in charge of the land, if you will. During that time, rather than being invaders, they became settlers, and out of that settlement came the Anglo-Saxons, which is us, basically, so if the Battle of Badon had been lost, then we’d probably all be speaking Saxon right now.

Q. How much does Guinevere figure in all the theories?
A.
Well, she’s been around for a very long time. You have to think of these Arthurian legends as rather like an archaeological dig; layers and layers and layers, and things keep getting added on as you go through time. But when you start digging back to the beginning, you find certain things are already in place, in the earliest versions. One of these is the name of Arthur, the other is the name Guinevere, although in Welsh it’s The White Shadow. And she’s one of the earliest characters who’s mentioned by name, and in every single story thereafter, Lancelot’s Queen is always called Guinevere, which, to me, points pretty strongly that she was in right at the beginning of the story.
There’s even a theory that she’s buried in Scotland.

Q. Is it likely that she was the warrior queen that’s depicted here?
A.
Yes, it’s very likely, because the Celts and the Picts both had women warriors who went into battle, next to their men, and usually went into battle naked, by the way, which we couldn’t have Keira going into battle naked, so we did the next best thing. But definitely that, and the tattoos, the markings, are all very authentic, they’re all based on Pict-ish carvings, found up in Scotland.
The idea of the women warriors is not a problem because, I mean, Julius Caesar, who was one of the main Roman leaders to conquer Britain, said that he had great respect for the Celtic warriors, but he had even greater respect, and fear, for their women, because they fought much more savagely.

Q. Are you allowed to watch other historical films with your family? And what others do you find are better examples of following history? And which are the worst?
A.
Really, very few. I find things to like in most historical movies; I loved Gladiator, which is another of David Franzoni’s work, and I felt that was pretty much an accurate portrayal of the time. The one I had most trouble with, recently, was Braveheart, which looked wonderful, but, of course, just turned history on its head, and brought people in from here and there, that weren’t supposed to be there, and generally messed it up.
So yes I am somewhat irritating to my family, because I sit there going, ‘they wouldn’t have worn that now…’

Q. But you seem to have a good balance of understanding that it is an entertainment?
A.
I think that’s very important. We were setting out to entertain, we weren’t making a documentary, and so of course there had to be some concessions. Every one of them hard-fought, I might say. I dug my toes in sometimes, and digging your toes in with Antoine is not very easy, and I usually lost, but occasionally I didn’t. But it was good to be involved with something that was so determined to be accurate, as far as it could be.

Q. The battle on the ice, was it some sort of homage to Aleksandr Nevsky? Or is there some historical context for it?
A.
Actually there is. When we were filming, Antoine had never seen the Aleksandr Nevsky movie, so he didn’t owe anything to that. But we did find out that there was a battle which took place in Gaul, against Celtic warriors, on a frozen lake, in which the Romans ended up the victors, because the ice broke. Certainly, it’s historically known about.

Q. Which battle are you most proud to have won, in terms of historical accuracy?
A.
The one that gave me most problem was that in the script, when the ride into battle for the last time, the knights are carrying huge big shields, which have extraordinary images painted on them. I think that the scrip that said, at one point, that Arthur should carry a shield with a scary Christ on the front. I just tried to point out, initially slowly and tactfully, and then with greater ire, that carrying huge, heavy shields into battle not only didn’t happen, but would be very difficult, with a spear and a sword. Then I started on the images on the shield, so the poor artist ended up hating me. It went on for quite a while, but in the end it was dropped.

Q. What is actually known about Merlin?
A
. I have a book on that coming out as well. We do know a surprising amount about him. We know that there was a character called Myrddin who was around in the 5th Century, who may even possibly have been a king of part of Scotland, who was known as a wise man, as a seer, as a prophet. And he fought in a great battle, The Battle of Arderith, which is a historically-known battle, and went mad, because he saw some of his own kin being killed. So he went mad and went into the Caledonian forest and lived there, as a hermit, for many years, talking to animals, talking to trees, until he was finally brought back to civilisation and recovered most of his senses. This is nothing to do with Arthur, it is even a little bit before the Arthurian period, but the story, when it finally got written down in the 11th Century, suddenly had Arthur in it, because there suddenly was the story of Merlin… The Merlin character goes back much further than we’re used to thinking of, and he was a sherman and not a wizard.

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