A new "King Arthur" and Guinivere, the Warrior Queen --
A behind-the-scenes interview by Mark Kraft
I was fortunate enough to speak with Mark Ryan, sword master and fight director for "King Arthur", an upcoming Disney / Touchstone Pictures blockbuster. You may know Mark Ryan as Nasir in "Robin of Sherwood", or as the creator of the Greenwood Tarot -- he is a skilled actor, weapons expert, and author.
Interviewer: I'm here with sword master and fight director Mark Ryan, talking about "King Arthur", a Disney / Touchstone picture. It's a huge picture, I hear.
Mark Ryan: Originally the budget was $100 million, as far as I'm aware, but where it goes from there, I have no idea.
Interviewer: The movie stars Clive Owen as King Arthur -- he was in "Gosford Park" and "The Bourne Identity". He's a very good actor from what I have seen of him, but he's never had a major leading role. Do you think he did well as Arthur?
Mark Ryan: Yeah, I do. He brought a different sort of intensity to it. He's a very internal actor, he comes from inside out. And what he brought to it was this kind of brooding intensity. He's a man who's questioning his own faith and where he is in history, and that to me is what makes it interesting. It's part of the human dilemma. If there was a real man called King Arthur or Arturus or Arturus Rex, as seems to be the general consensus, then he was at a very interesting point in time in history, where the Romans had withdrawn and were leaving the British Isles to fend for themselves.
Interviewer: About 500 A.D.?
Mark Ryan: Yeah, between, say, 475 and 510 A.D., and the Romans had just basically brought out most of their forces and the Sarmatians had been there in huge numbers as one point in the 3rd century. It's recorded that there were five and a half thousand Sarmatian cavalry stationed on Hadrian's Wall. (Editor's note: The Sarmatians were prisoners-of-war taken from their homeland near Russia and brought to England to fight for the Roman Empire. Their camps survived near Hadrian's wall until the Romans left Britain.)
Interviewer: So, was Clive Owen a natural at sword fighting, or or did you have to teach him extensively?
Mark Ryan: He worked really hard at it. Clive had to work at it, and he got it.
Interviewer: Sounds like one of the real surprises about "King Arthur" is Keira Knightly, who stars as Guinevere.
Mark Ryan: ...who's fantastic!
Interviewer: She's a relative newcomer to Hollywood, but she landed a great role as the female lead in "Pirates of the Carribean". Couldn't do better than that.
Mark Ryan: No, no. (laughs) There was a real discussion about how Guinevere fits into this picture, and let me say that I am really proud. This is the first time that you see Guinevere as the classic Celtic warrior queen, in the fights, leading her people into battle. And she does an amazing job. She worked incredibly hard. I taught her the bow, knife fighting, sword fighting... at one point she uses the small axe, spears... everything. She works incredibly hard, and is a lovely, lovely person, and she does a fantastic job.
Interviewer: From what I've discussed with you, it sounds like a gritty, realistic, intense kind of combat that she did -- very demanding on an actor.
Mark Ryan: Anton Fuqua's direction for me on what he wanted visually from this was a mixture of the first twenty minutes of "Saving Private Ryan" with "Black Hawk Down", but in the 5th Century with swords. That was my brief.
Interviewer: Anton Fuqua, for those who haven't heard of him, directed "The Replacement Killers" and "Training Day". I can see him coming up with that kind of intensity.
Mark Ryan: He wanted it to be as realistic and gritty as we could possibly go, which we have done.
Interviewer: The producer is Hollywood legend Jerry Bruckheimer, who has done "Black Hawk Down", "Pearl Harbor" -- a slew of hits. I hear that he passed along the preview for you.
Mark Ryan: We have courtesy of the Bruckheimer office and Mike Stenson, the executive producer, the trailer that will shortly be out in the cinemas. I think that both Jerry Bruckheimer and Antoine Fuqua were very, very aware of the power that the Arthurian legend has and wanted to make sure that not only would it cause this discussion between people in the spiritual world and the Arthurian world about this, but also he got the approval of people, starting people talking about the different aspects he's brought into this film. They have John Matthews as the advisor on this film, and John, as you know, is the world expert -- he's written perhaps sixty or seventy books on the subject -- and even while we were working on it, we discovered things about the Arthurian legends, the Romans, and the Sarmatians. John Matthews discovered that there were two fortresses on Hadrian's Wall built and maintained by the Sarmatians, one was called Camelonduno and another was called Avalava, which are both linked to the Arthurian legend through the Sarmatians on Hadrian's Wall.
Interviewer: From what I remember of Hadrian's Wall, it wasn't just the Romans who were working and building near the wall. They had a bunch of housing put up around there by the locals, first to offer services to the Romans, and then it expanded from there. After the Romans left, who knows what happens?
Mark Ryan: Absolutely. People forget that the romans were there for nearly 500 years. My old home town, Doncaster, was a Roman town. Doncaster meaning "Crossing over the River Don", which was a Roman settlement for hundreds of years.
Interviewer: The Roman settlements proved sort of a breeding ground for all of the later British settlements. Londinium, Corinium -- all of them were there earlier, and most of the major British roads were based on the Roman roads.
Mark Ryan: Where the Romans laid out the trackways. Sure. There were trackways already across the marshes around Sommerset and Dorset all the way upriver. A lot of the roads today were based on the size of chariots and how wide you could march a legion across the road. So, the stamp left on British society is visible even today.
Interviewer: So the film is in post-production?
Mark Ryan: Yes. I believe that it is going to open July, the weekend of July 4th or sometime around that weekend, 2004.
Interviewer: Any closing words, anything you think that people will really get out of this film?
Mark Ryan: For what it's worth, having been involved with several Arthurian projects including "First Knight" and "Robin of Sherwood", we did a truely Arthurian story. Having spent time myself running up and down the Welsh countryside and sleeping in forests, I started this historically, looking at the legend not skeptically, but open-minded. What I did find immediately which drew me to it, they were using the concept of the Dux Bellorum -- Arthur as a Sarmatian leader, with an ancestry trained by the Romans; there are references in this movie to Arturius. Some years ago in Wales, they found stone burial chamber with Arturus Rex on it. So I immediately went, "Ah, this is not Excalibur, this is not knights in shining armour. This is fifth century gritty iron age, slash Romanesque. This is going to be interesting." As we got more into it, I discovered things about the Arthurian legend that I didn't know, but expert John Matthews did. All I can say to people is "Go, enjoy the film for what it is, and look at this new Arthurian story with an open mind." What it does is add for me is a new positive archetype to the legend, which is the fighting Warrior Queen aspect of Guinivere. This is not your soppy Guinivere. This is a Guinivere who is leading her tribe into battle. I think it's great.
Interviewer: A Guinivere as a leader, who follows in the tradition of Boadicea, the Celtic Warrior Queen, pratically.
Mark Ryan: Exactly. Boadicea and her sister leading the Iseni tribes to this amazing revolt and battles with the Romans, where they all got slaughtered. I mean the Romans slaughtered the entire Iseni tribe -- 50,000 people in two days. So two legions -- between seven and ten thousand Romans -- slaughtering up to 55,000 people who were lead into battle by Bodicea, because of the concept of the sovereingty of the blood lines was handed down through the women and not through the men. And so that concept that we have Arthur the warrior is about to become the king through combat and his relationship to Guinivere who is the old bloodline in the British saga basically mingling. King Arthur, who is Sarmatian by birth, now finds himself caught in this wasteland saying "I'm not Roman and I'm not British, and I am not really Sarmatian anymore. What am I?" He finds his identity by becoming a leader and uniting his people against the common threat of an invading Saxon army. It's a story that makes a lot of sense, and it's also a good dramatic setup for an interesting story. And this is really driven home by David Franzoni, who wrote "Gladiator". This is no mean writer. He's a very intelligent writer.
Interviewer: And there is a co-writer David Lee Hancock, who wrote the script for "The Alamo"?
Mark Ryan: Yes.
Interviewer: No slouches there...
Mark Ryan: Franzoni, Antoine Fuqua, myself, Steve Dennis, we spent weeks discussing this, kicking it about, talking about it even as we were going through the production. As we discovered new things, we changed certain things within the script, to bring it even more in line with what we knew historically that fitted the story. So every effort was made. You get the odd little criticism about people on the internet saying, "Well, we see horses with stirrups and there were no stirrups in Britain." First of all, that's incorrect. The Sarmatian calvary used a form of a bucket stirrup in that period. Secondly, it *IS* a movie, chaps. If one of our actors falls off his horse while filming and breaks his neck, we would be in serious trouble. So there was a little bit of leeway. I think that it is much more important that we add this new gritty reality to the legend and the actors have stirrups.
Interviewer: Really, we may never know all of the story of Arthur, but this sounds like a wonderful exploration of that legend.
Mark Ryan:Exactly and that's exactly how it should be. It's got some new twist and some new things in it, but it should be seen as exactly that, an exploration of a beautiful, dynamic, and potent piece of legend.