The Mists of Avalon (2000) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

The source material for this production was a novel by Marion Zimmer Bradley. Although it has certain characteristics of a best-selling romance novel, the book is a remarkably complex and thoughtful novel which is about, among other things, the myth of Camelot and its fall, as it relates to the modernization of the world. She locates the story in the time of the "real" Arthur, which is to say the period between the Roman occupation and the Saxon dominance.

This is more historical than the usual version of Camelot. Arthur was probably a completely fictional character (see detailed notes), but the earliest "historical" accounts of him place him in this same post-Roman period. The Bretons had Albion more or less to themselves after Rome pulled out, but they had trouble defending themselves against the fierce Picts from the north, who had previously been held at bay by Rome and Hadrian's Wall. As a result, the lairds formed alliances for their own protection, and also imported Saxon mercenaries to help them fight off the Picts. The strategy worked fine, except that the Saxons didn't want to leave when the Pictish threat abated. As a result, the lairds of the Bretons had to band together again, to fight off yet another foreign influence. Arthur, if he existed at all, was not a king. The word "king," as we currently understand it, was meaningless at that time, because there was no kingdom. Arthur, or the historical man who inspired the Arthur legends, was the dux bellorum - the supreme general of the combined army of all the lairds of the Bretons, who led them in their idealistic but ultimately doomed struggle against the Saxons.

As you know, the Saxons basically won the game show, and got to keep some lovely prizes, like England. The Bretons eventually settled in Wales and Brittany, and it is the people of those areas who are the real linguistic and genetic descendants of "Arthur." The Picts essentially ended up with Scotland. That's the broad-brush version. It wasn't that simple, of course. It never is. Both the Picts and the Saxons were subject to various raids by other Germanic and Scandinavian warriors over the years, so the language I am now writing has a doubly Germanic root, first from the Saxons and later from other invaders with their own Germanic tongues. As I'm sure you all know, that whole game only lasted about 400-500 years, at which time the Normans showed up in force, and William the Conqueror become the first Norman King of England after his famous triumph in 1066. Thus, the developing English language lost its uniquely Germanic flavor and was spiced heavily with French salt. 

In presenting her version of the story, Miss Bradley laid out the reign of Arthur as the turning point between the old ways and the new, between the end of the old matriarchal culture of the Druids, and the new patriarchal world of the Christians. The Druids, at least in this version, had a central god-concept which represented the power of the universe, known as "the goddess." This would be, more or less, Mother Nature in modern terms. The goddess is represented by priestesses, led by the Lady of the Lake. Inheriting a kingdom torn by religious strife between the two groups, Bradley's version of Arthur reconciled the old ways to the new. Arthur's sister (a good person in this version) was a priestess of the old ways, while Guinevere was a Christian. Big Art declared freedom of worship, and things worked out  ... for a while.

There are some fun twists in this version. 

  • Arthur needed an heir, and feared he was sterile, so he invited Lancelot into his bed for a three-way with Guin, hoping that the manly Lance would act as surrogate father. For the pagan Arthur, this was a practical solution to the question of lineage. The Christian Guin and Lancelot saw it in a less positive light, and developed a major guilt trip over the whole thing. 
  • Arthur and his sister Morgana did end up in bed together, but only because they were both tricked into it by the Lady of the Lake. Morgana figured it out shortly thereafter, but the ever-clueless Arthur didn't know until Mordred grew up.

In addition to a fresh take on the legend, the production has other positives.

  • There are some top-notch actors like Anjelica Huston and Joan Allen.
  • The cinematography was done by Vilmos Zsigmond, who was once the favorite D.P. for Spielberg and Cimino, and has filmed some of the greatest films of all time (e.g., Close Encounters, The Deer Hunter). The visuals are beautiful, and it was filmed in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, despite being made for basic cable.

With good source material, good acting, and great visuals, it may be the best project TNT has ever done, and is one of the best projects ever turned out by broadcast TV or basic cable.

I think it does have some limitations. The creators made it into a four-hour mini-series (three hours without commercials). Given a surfeit of characters in the book, that wasn't enough time to develop them. The project might have been better suited to a 13 part Masterpiece Theater, ala I, Claudius. In addition to allowing the expansion of several characters, that tactic also would have allowed them to develop some of the more complex concepts, and the lack of a commercial sponsor would have allowed them to avoid the compromises they had to make for the TV audience. (The original concept was quite pro-pagan and anti-Christian. PBS could have handled that, but basic cable could not, and watered it down.)

Lacking that treatment, I believe the film would have been better as a nice, tight two hour theatrical film with some characters eliminated, less rowing through the mist, and less dancing around the fire. Although it looked beautiful, I fast forwarded through plenty of rowing and dancing in several different scenes, and it would not have been difficult to compress the 183 minutes of actual running time to 120 minutes, especially with some characters consolidated. I found this really draggy as a three-hour film. Three hours was too short for a profound treatment, too long for a snappy entertainment. In addition, a two hour theatrical movie would have been better able to handle the nudity and sensuality inherent in paganism.

But there's no sense quibbling. Maybe PBS will do it someday. For now, enjoy what it is .


DVD info from Amazon

  • widescreen anamorphic transfer (16x9)

  • the DVD includes many short scenes which were trimmed to create the "correct" running time (TV is precise in its demands)

  • there are some still galleries showing costumes, set design, locations, etc



Samantha Mathis exposed her bottom in the three-way bedroom scene.

Mathis and Juliana Margulies did near-nudity elsewhere, but nothing which really showed anything.

 NOTES on the Arthurian legend, from the afterword to Dancing before the Glass


It is not certain whether there was a historical Arthur. The best two proofs of his existence are as follows:

1. The Welsh author Nennius, writing his Historia Britonnum in the late eighth century, represented Arthur as a Christian knight who led the armies of the so-called "kings" of the Britons against the Saxon kings of Kent. The Angles and the Saxons, the progenitors of modern England, were continentals who were attempting to wrest an ever-greater chunk of the territory traditionally held by the Britons. As legend (or pseudo-history) would have it, the Saxons were first invited into England by Vortigern, about thirty years after the Roman withdrawal, as a last resort defense against the invading Picts. The strategy seemed to work, as the Pictish threat abated, but the Saxons had no intention of going home after their original purpose had been achieved. The legend of Arthur sprang from the noble but doomed attempt of the native Celtic tribes, freshly liberated from Rome, to expel these new foreigners from their homeland.

Modern stories commonly portray Arthur as an "English" "king," but neither of those terms makes sense in the context of post-Roman Albion, which was often still called by the Roman term Britannia .

  • The historical Arthur of Nennius was not English, but the mortal enemy of the Angles and Saxons. It is, in fact, the Welsh and the people of Brittany who are the Britons, and who represent Arthur's closest modern kinfolk, both biologically and linguistically. If the Nennius version of Arthur had had his way, the Welsh and their Druidic, Celtic buddies would still be running the country, and our words would be even harder to spell.
  • Nennius did not refer to Arthur as a king at all, but rather as a dux bellorum, a kind of compromise choice as supreme general of the consolidated armies of the Celtic lairds, somewhat similar to the role Eisenhower played in World War Two. Elsewhere in the work Arthur was dignified with a semi-regal title as "the little prince of the Silures," a tribe from South Wales. Even if Nennius had called Arthur a king, that would not have imparted the same significance and grandeur that we moderns normally associate with the position since the island was not unified or even close to it, There was then either no king or dozens of them, depending on how liberally you will extend your definition of that particular word.


2. Giraldus Cambrensis, in his De Principis Instructione, claimed to have been present when Henry II opened up Arthur's tomb in Glastonbury Abbey. Bulfinch picks up the story: "A leaden cross let into his tombstone, with the inscription in rude Roman letters 'here lies buried the famous King Arthur, in the island Avalonia'". There were bones and a sword in the grave.


The two best refutations of these points are:

1. Nennius was, to say the least, a credulous fellow. He claimed that Arthur slew 960 men in one day in single hand-to-hand combat. That's one per minute for sixteen hours. Meanwhile, the swirling hordes never surrounded and overwhelmed him. You might say that the story was already taking on certain mythic overtones. Perhaps, in Merlin's wanderings through time, he brought back an Excalibur that was really an AK-47. If you believe this story, please contact me through the publisher, as I have some swampland I'd like to sell you. Call me an old-fashioned cuss, but I'm inclined to discredit any claims that Nennius was authoring objective history. Another historian, Gildas, writing in about 550, would have been Arthur's virtual contemporary. He wrote of the famous Battle of Mount Badon (one of the great Arthurian triumphs recounted in Nennius), but did not mention Arthur at all. Furthermore, Gildas would have been in his twenties when Arthur fought the "last battle" against Mordred on Camlann Plain, yet there was no mention of that epic struggle in a Gildas work written only a decade later.

2. As for the claim of Giraldus, I don't know what to think. Historians of that age seemed to use allegorical truth as a substitute for facts. In addition, Giraldus knew that the king would be cognizant of what he wrote, and the author was vain enough to prefer the fashion statement he made with his head attached to his shoulders. To me, the inscription makes no sense. Why mention the place of burial? Wasn't it obvious since he was, in fact, buried there? Of course, the ancients did sometimes do silly and redundant things like that, but it sounds to me like a staged attempt to validate the legend. Even if Giraldus wrote the truth, which I doubt, the author and his king might simply have discovered a hoax perpetrated by just about anyone in the intervening centuries.


Arthur is also mentioned in various other works of fiction posing as history. The most important is Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, completed about 1136, which first assembled the written groundwork for the fabulous Arthur later lionized by Malory and the balladeers. Geoffrey described the ancient kingship in more modern terms as if there had been a central king ("Pendragon") ruling over the other kings. In his rendition, Uther Pendragon's death created a power vacuum, and the powerful bishops needed somebody to rally the Britons against the marauding Saxons. They chose the fifteen-year-old Arthur not because he removed a sword stuck in an anvil (that legend came later), but because he was Uther's son, and because he was well respected for his courage, generosity, and innate goodness.

Would that our own age could produce such enlightened selection techniques.

Geoffrey's work was the first written source to give us Mordred, Merlin, Morgana, and Guenevere. Merlin was mentioned by that name, but some of the key elements of Merlin's life were drawn directly from Nennius's story of another boy, Ambrosius, who had allegedly demonstrated astounding precocity in the court of King Vortigern. Geoffrey seems to have concocted his Merlin from a drib of Nennius, a drab of biblical legend, a dash of pagan legend, a smidgen of oral history, and more than a pinch of his own fertile imagination. As Geoffrey recounted the tale, Guenevere and Mordred were the lovers who betrayed Arthur, and they went so far as to sit boldly as king and queen whilst Arthur was on a campaign against Rome. Morgana was simply called Anna without the Morg-, and was identified as the mother of Gawain and Mordred, as well as the wife of King Lot(h). In typically confused fashion, the author couldn't quite decide whether Anna was the sister of Arthur or of King Aurelius (Arthur's uncle), so her son Mordred was either Arthur's nephew or his first cousin. There was no intimation of an incestuous sexual relationship between Arthur and Anna.

Geoffrey's history of the kings of Britain was a valuable source of material for many writers of great distinction, Shakespeare among them. Geoffrey is also a strong candidate for the dishonor of being the single worst historian in the annals of humanity. He presented the obviously fantastical as factual, he couldn't keep his own "facts" straight from page to page, and never considered whether his chronology was plausible. Some suggest that he also told a wee fib about having obtained his facts from a vernacular source book that he claimed to have translated into Latin before it mysteriously disappeared. Most likely he just created a compendium of the oral legends of the day, and made up some of his own details.

There is no historical or pseudo-historical grounding for Lancelot and the Round Table. These elements were not found in Geoffrey's "history," but appeared soon afterward as acknowledged fictional embellishments in works by other authors. The early fabricators of the legend also chose to place twelfth and thirteenth century characters, with pre-Renaissance motivations, into barbaric post-Roman Albion. It was useful for them to invoke a time of dim antiquity because that technique let them introduce spiritual, mythical, and supernatural elements that were demonstrable falsehoods in their own time, but were nonetheless useful to the metaphor. While the authors of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance attempted to locate the story in the time of the "real" Arthur, the world they wrote about was their own, featuring a unified kingdom, chivalry, feudalism, knights-errant, elaborate castles, jousting competitions, the domination of Holy Mother Church, and the conception of courtly love. They also had the characters speak in the High Language of their time, with no attempt to recreate the feel of sixth century life or language.

Most of the legend that we are most familiar with today comes from three major sources: T.H. White's The Once and Future King, Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, and Tennyson's Idylls of the King. Additional minor sources of our common knowledge of Arthur include movies like Camelot and The Sword in the Stone, and scores of French and English poetasters from the twelfth century onward. Even such luminaries as Spenser, Dante, and Milton have added their onions to the Arthurian stew. No two versions agree on all the details. Blatant anachronisms and obvious myths have become commonly accepted parts of the modern conception of Arthur, and the story's sixth century roots have now been almost completely lost. T.H. White really stretched the time paradox in his witty re-telling. He wrote about a sixth century warrior, to make twentieth century points (if you'll recall, Mordred is a pretty thinly-disguised Hitler), and did so with the vocabulary and traditions of the twelfth through fourteenth centuries. White has one character (not time-traveling Merlin) refer to an event that happened in 1360, yet Arthur also meets Robin Hood, who is generally placed in the reigns of Richard and John, therefore between 1189 and 1216. Mr. White, consistent with the good-humored tone of his entire piece, conceded that it happened "whenever (it) happened".  

The Critics Vote

  • no major reviews online

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 7.0 
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C+. I like many things about it, but I think it should have been (1) free from commercial TV restrictions. This is a pro-pagan story, after all; (2) either a long enough series to develop the complex characters and concepts, or a short enough movie to be a nice tight single sitting.

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