Posted in: Disc Reviews by Michael Durr on January 23rd, 2012
King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table has always been an interesting subject for me to research and learn about. It is a story of chivalry, adventure, and fantasy. It has great characters and even though it is hard to pinpoint an actual person in history that this legend could be assigned to, nobody can neglect the impact it has had on English culture. The History Channel decided to give us a collection of specials on the subject entitled: King Arthur and Medieval Britain
There are five specials included in this 2 disc package. They are basically programs that aired on the History Channel or A&E from the last 15 years on the subject of either King Arthur or Britain during this time period. The time period they are discussing is primarily 5th-6th century A.D. and it spreads to roughly 12th century where a lot of this material was written down by various authors.
Quest for King Arthur (1:25:59): The first one (and arguably the best out of the box) is from 2004 and is narrated by Patrick Stewart. It includes such dignitaries as Christopher Synder and Matthew Bennett who discuss trying to find the real King Arthur. They discuss the familiar legends proposed by Sir Thomas Mallory in the 15th century who wrote Le Morte d’Arthur or the story of King Arthur and how he was born to claiming the Sword in the Stone and to his death at the hands of bastard son, Mordred. But in discussion, these tales were more woven facets of fiction than the truth they portrayed.
King Arthur: His Life & Legends (44:18): The next one is from 1995 and is narrated by a two fold team of Mike Grady and John Shrapnel. Historians such as Robert Dunning and Juliette Wood are included. This could be described as a condensed version of the first feature with more emphasis on the literature aspect. In addition to Mallory, they also discuss Geoffrey of Monmouth who wrote Historia Regum Britanniae or The History of the Kings of Britain. This popularized stories about Merlin and King Arthur. These were the basis of much future literature. The program also speaks of Chretien de Troyes, a French poet in the 12th century who would popularize the idea of chivalry.
Ancient Mysteries: Camelot (45:45): Finishing up the first disc is this one, also from 1995 that was part of the Ancient Mysteries show. This particular show was presented in its third season and narrated by Leonard Nimoy. This presentation is a lot showier and deals with a little more sensationalism than the previous two. Bonnie Wheeler and Geoffrey Ashe are among the experts interviewed here. It is interesting to note that those two show up in most of the programs presented. It echoes very similar to the material in the first two but takes a harsher look. For example, we get the idea that Guinevere was depicted as an adulterer and her relationship with Lancelot was quite scandalous.
Knights & Armor (1:33:56): Disc Two starts out with a different (and welcome) subject. This one is from 1994 and is narrated by Nick Chilvers. There are a few different faces in the experts compiled such as David Crouch and David Edge. In medieval times, they did not start with plate mail as we commonly know today. In fact, it was made to resemble chain mail, a much thinner and flexible armor. They also used swords, lances, and maces to vanquish their foes. The show also talks quite a bit about jousting and how it evolved from brutal warfare to an exhibition that still has fans to this very day. They also talk about history and how a simple tapestry from 1070 called the Battle of Hastings taught us so much in early times.
Quest for the Holy Grail (45:08): The final special here is from 1997 and also part of the Ancient Mysteries line. Again this is narrated by Leonard Nimoy and comes out from the show’s fifth season. Familiar faces such as Bonnie Wheeler are here but also new ones like Caitlin Matthews who are more familiar with the exact subject. The Holy Grail is most commonly associated with the Cup of Christ that he drank at the Last Supper. From there, Joseph of Arimathea takes the cup to the British Isles where no record can be found of its existence for almost a millennium. Of course, stories start to surface and we soon discover how this cup of supposed eternal life becomes an important facet of literature. In true Ancient Mysteries sensationalism, it also dives into the concept that Jesus really didn’t die that day on the cross and that his descendants are living among us even today.
This compilation is something of a mixed bag. Three of the features might as well been named the same darn thing and they are all contained in the first disc. The only difference is that Life & Legends focuses more on literature and the Ancient Mysteries documentary about Camelot is more of what I like to call yellow journalism. The first feature with diction perfect Patrick Stewart has professionalism, content and is easy to understand without being silly.
The second disc also starts out with an excellent feature that focuses primarily on arms and armament. It is also chock full of content and fairly easy to understand. It’s only flaw has to do with the endless stream of recreated footage and that the information is a little higher brow than some people might be expected with all of this weaponry flying about. The Holy Grail feature; you can take it or leave it. It has some good information but it falls in line like the previous Ancient Mysteries hour on disc one with a little too much opinion and not enough fact.
The video is in 1.33:1 fullscreen presentation. Most of this footage is in the ten to fifteen year range and representative of television quality. There is high evidence of grain and colors are okay but far from anything special. It is television documentary footage after all. Recreation footage suffers greatly and for the most part, I would have liked it to be reduced or updated.
For the audio portion, we get a 2.0 English Dolby Digital Stereo. Just like with the video, there is nothing special here. It is basically dialog driven audio with an occasional sound of a sword clanging or lance smashing or a subtle classical musical piece. This is basically mono stretched out to stereo with little to no enhancement. No subtitles could be found.
One does not realize how much they reuse footage, pictures and ideas from special to special until you have to watch five of them in a row. This two disc set is not bad by any means but once you get beyond Quest for King Arthur & Knights and Armor, there is not much more to see. Ideas are rehashed and the only change is really in the presentation. When referring to the “Ancient Mysteries” line, we just get the material changed into something that they perceive to be more exciting for the home television audience.
The two discs are thrown together for the most part. Five specials, five plus hours, two discs. The video and audio is very average and there are no extras anywhere to be found outside of a chapter select and menu. I think a 30 minute interview with Bonnie Wheeler (since she shows up a lot) or perhaps some footage that was on the cutting room floor could have made this more than just a bland compilation. The recommendation is iffy. If you like this time period, then you might be interested in this for an afternoon. Enjoy.