Saturday, October 28, 2006


With all the crap going on here and all the doom an' gloom around, a man would tend to forget there's still plenty of other, more pleasant things around to grab your attention. Like - if you're susceptible to knight stories peppered with some history - the movie adaptation of the old Celtic legend of Tristan and Isolde.

Tristan and Isolde on the Irish coast

Which is what Outlaw and the wife did last weekend, a bit unplanned since looking for Mission:Impossible III and finding all dvd copies rented already. So we picked "Tristan & Isolde" by Kevin Reynolds, and never regretted it. It's not a tearjerker like Titanic, and its combat scenes are a far cry from Troy. It doesn't have the historical accuracy of Barry Lyndon, nor will it glue you to your seat the way Lord Of The Rings does. But almost as soon as we flicked off the dvd player, our appreciation started to grow.

The film is a loose adaptation of an old Celtic legend of which the origins can be traced back to either Irish or Welsh folk tales, and of which the story proliferated practically all across Europe, whence the multitude of versions. One of the best medieval authors to put the legend in crafty prose was the German poet Gottfried von Strassburg (died c. 1210). His Tristan is considered - together with Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival and the Nibelungenlied - as emblematic cornerstones of the great romantic narratives of the German Middle Ages.

The film's storyline follows the version whereby Tristan (James Franco) is a young Cornish knight (Cornish, from Cornwall, a region in the southwest of England) adopted by King Marke (Rufus Sewell) after a battle with the Irish invaders. The timeframe Tristan and Isolde takes us back to is (very) early medieval, say around 600 AD. The Roman Empire perished 200 years earlier and unity is lost among the various English tribes, which weakens them so that they cannot withstand repeated Irish invasions. In the course of a battle in which Tristan successfully repels an Irish raid and kills the enemy commander Morold, principal warlord of the Irish King Donnchadh (David Patrick O'Hara), Tristan himself is mortally wounded. According to Cornish custom his body is posed for dead on a boat and delivered to the sea. However, the currents take the boat across the Irish Sea and it is King Donnchadh's daughter, Isolde (Sophia Myles) who discovers it and its precious cargo, still clinging to life by a thread. Isolde then carefully nurses Tristan back to life in a hidden alcove on the seashore with the silent knowledge of her servant maid Brangnae (Bronagh Gallagher). Because she doesn't want to reveal her identity to Tristan, nominally still an enemy warrior, upon asked her name she gives that one of her servant. By the time Tristan has regained his strenght again, the two have totally fallen in love, but then the boat's wreck is discovered by Donnchadh's men who now suspect an English knight is around. Sick with fear for her father's reaction, Isolde, who was promised as wife to Morold, urges Tristan to regain the sea and sail back to England, and thus happens.

CaughtThe consternation in King Marke's camp upon seeing their hero returned from the dead quickly makes place for joy, but the young knight can't forget his Irish heartthrob. One day, King Marke receives a rather incongruous - given the state of war with Ireland - invitation from King Donnchadh for a tournament to be held at Donnchadh's residence, supposedly to herald a new era of cooperation. The price will be Donnchadh's daughter, Princess Isolde. Tristan, not knowing Isolde is actually his savior, volunteers to be King Marke's champion, who is a widower and to whom he feels indebted for having been adopted as an orphan. As could be expected, Tristan wins this tournament, and only then recognizes that he has won his lover for his Lord. Back in England, after King Marke's marriage to Isolde, the two try at first to suppress their emotions but soon see each other again secretly. Word of their affair spreads, and eventually reaches Donnchadh through Wictred, a renegade English knight who envies Markes' kingly rule. The two craft a plan whereby during a visit of the Irish Court to Marke, the latter will be publicly humiliated through disclosure of Tristan and Isolde's affair, and Donnchadh reckons that then is the time to dispose of a weakened Marke and replace him with the more trustworthy Wictred.

Thus happens. Marke, upon finding out he has been cheated on throws the two lovers in jail but it's too late: a number of his men, judging him a fool, have changed allegiance and Donnchadh's troops overrun Marke's stronghold. At the last moment Marke learns of the circumstances under which his first knight met his young wife, and forgives them. Even though Tristan and Isolde are set free and allowed to go wherever they wish, Tristan, not wanting to be remembered as a man who brought down a kingdom through a love affair, throws his weight into battle and narrowly tips the balance by killing Wictred. Although he himself is mortally wounded, the rest of Marke's men take courage and finally beat the Irish.

From then on Marke will oversee the ascent of a strong and unified English kingdom, undisturbed by Irish invasions. His young wife however, beside herself with sorrow over Tristan's death, fades away. So sorry, there's no happy end.

By and large I found Tristan & Isolde quite entertaining. It was also the third movie I saw with Kevin Reynolds as director, after Fandango (1985) and The Beast (1988), and I'd say that Reynolds lacks just that little bit that would make him a real powerplayer among directors. It's not that his productivity is low; Kubrick's was lower. But there seems to be lacking some drive. Either he chooses mostly mediocre scripts, e.g. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), or he isn't a tyrant enough on the set. Possibly a bit too much intimacy too (especially in Fandango). And then there's the fact Reynolds seems to have trouble finding budgets with clout to finance his films - you can see that Tristan & Isolde is really, really low budget. Not surprisingly perhaps, since the only time he really did oversee a huge project, Waterworld (1995), it flopped terribly. That said, Tristan... gets the green light from yours truly, not in the least because of the fine acting. Both James Franco (who was also in both Spidermans) and Sophia Myles (Underworld) glow in their roles - watch out for those two - and Rufus Sewell too plays a very plausible King Marke. The producer of Tristan and Isolde is Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven).

To dwell a little longer on Reynolds' curriculum, the one movie that really, really left a lasting impression on me was The Beast (1988), which came out here in Europe as The Beast of War. It tells the story of a Soviet tank crew who, after having destroyed an Afghan village in 1981, get lost in a dead-end valley and are chased by mujahideen. Not surprisingly, Reynolds too calls The Beast his best film. I saw it first in 1989 IIRC at the International Film Festival of Ghent, and back then it was really trendsetting as far as combat scenes go, if you discount Platoon (Platoon was very good for combat scenes and general atmosphere, but I absolutely disliked the pathetical way Willem Dafoe went down as well as the PC message that "the enemy was inside us"). Actually, I'm surprised that The Beast received comparatively little praise since all of it - crew, director, story, special effects - were top notch. After the performance, I walked into the lobby of Decascoop, Gents main movie theatre, and bumped into Mr. Reynolds, a guy from Decascoop and George Dzundza, who plays the bad sergeant Daskal, the tank commander. Dzundza, who I believe is from Georgian origin (that's Georgia in the Caucasus, not in the Bible Belt) is a chap who also played in Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter. I was able to exchange a few words with Mr. Dzundza about the tank which is more or less a star too in the movie, the way the F-14 Tomcat was a star in Top Gun. As a tank geek, I don't like it when directors fail to come up with "correct" tanks in depicting historical battles, think Patton tanks for Tigers in movies about the Ardennes Offensive. But the T-55 in The Beast was goddam real. I asked Mr. Dzundza how on earth they had managed to get a genuine Russian tank at their disposal (remember, it was still the Cold War) and it turned out it was a Syrian army tank captured by the IDF. For the tank nutters among you, see the poster to the left. The gap between the first and second wheel identifies it as a T-55, not a T-62. I read somewhere that Russian tank designers put in that space to allow for easily making a tank with a blasted track roadborne again in case spare tracks were missing. The idea was that the crew would simply omit "the missing links" and drape the remaining track along the shorter wheelbase.

OK, enough about adultery in the Middle Ages and Soviet Cold War era tanks.

British actress Sophia Myles

Sorry, I can't help it. Like The Beast, The Beauty also seems to have made a lasting impression on me. Sophia Myles, you are a sight for sore eyes.


P.S.: it's useless to try to warn Mrs. Outlaw. She's computerphobic and doesn't even want an email account.

P.S.S.: for the ladies among you, sorry, but as long as there are no female staffers here at DowneastBlog (Kerry where are youuuuuuuu????), don't count on hulk pics anytime soon.

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