Intermittently throughout the summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to a major new release. This week: David Lowery and A24 have brought us a moody art-film version of most beloved of 14th Century romances in the form of The Green Knight. Let us now turn to the first of two earlier versions of the same tale - both of them from the same director, no less!

Of all the stories, legends, romances, and other literary sources that collectively make up the Arthurian cycle, the one with the most serious literary cachet is perhaps the anonymous Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which is also one of the latest;* it's a romance written in Middle English, dated to the late 14th Century. Maybe that explains its relative sophistication, both as a verse text and a work of symbolism; maybe that's pure coincidence. Whatever the case, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has received a great deal of scholarly attention through the years, surely as much as any other English-language Arthurian text (famously, J.R.R. Tolkien held it in high regarded, and published a translation into modern English).

It's perhaps a little odd, then, that it took until 1973 for the first film based on the romance to come out. And perhaps not. Given the centrality of the Arthur cycle to the pop cultural understanding of what life on the island of Great Britain looked like between the departure of the Romans and the Wars of the Roses (which is to say, it's not at all an accurate understanding, but if I ask you to think of "Medieval England" and you're not a historian, what flickered into your brain first is probably a fairly direct descendant of something from the French romances), it's a bit surprising that there haven't been more movies adapting the stories; none at all that I am aware of prior to 1953's Knights of the Round Table. And that's a mere 20 years  prior to our present subject.

Which is, to get around to naming it, Gawain and the Green Knight, hold the "Sir". It's the brainchild of director Stephen Weeks and producer Philip Breen, who co-wrote the screenplay; it must have been some kind of passion project for Weeks, at least, since he made another attempt at the material in 1984, with Sword of the Valiant: The Legend of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (which Breen has an executive producer and screenwriting credit on; I'm not sure if that was a contractual thing or represents actual artistic involvement). The best I can say about the 1973 film is that it's not nearly bad enough that I can see why a film director would think he had fucked it up so badly that he needed a do-over, but there is absolutely no denying that this is miles and miles away from any sort of definitive adaptation, and not just because it's a little bit loosey-goosey with the material.

The core of it is the same, though: Gawain (Murray Head) is a fresh-faced squire in the court of King Arthur (Anthony Sharp); he's young and brash enough that when an unknown knight dressed all in green (Nigel Green) with a ratty bird's nest of hair shows up at Camelot to challenge anybody who wants to fight him to a very bizarre "game", Gawain is the only one to take it up (and this right after Arthur offers a somewhat snitty  diatribe against his knights, a thread that pretty instantly fizzles out. But really "something is set up but doesn't actually become a plot point" just means that this is doing a good job of adapting the tone of Arthurian literature). The game is horribly straightforward: Gawain gets to take one swing at the Green Knight's neck with an axe, and then the Green Knight gets to return to favor. At Arthur's urging, Gawain - newly knighted just for the purpose - swings hard enough to separate the Green Knight's head from his body, but this barely inconveniences him; he picks his head up and jovially announces that he'll be offering his return blow one year and one day from now, giving Gawain a chance to do some questing and prepare for the event. A few sort of random adventures smack into him, but the most important is when he enters the territory of Sir Bertilak (Robert Hardy), a pompous old fart with a gorgeous and much younger wife Linet (Ciaran Madden), who is instantly smitten with Gawain. And Gawain is clearly smitten right back, though his allegiance to the honorable and chaste codes he agreed to upon being knighted are right there constraining his behavior.

Weeks and company press us through all of this in 93 minutes, which is on the one hand perfectly appropriate. After all, not much happens in Gawain and the Green Knight, and the original romance has its own share of "so anyway Gawain had an adventure and after that was finished..." storytelling ellipses. On the other hand, it's emblematic of what keeps the film locked down to such a beastly low level of accomplishment: this is a thoroughly unambitious little bauble of a movie. 93 minutes is hardly an epic length, and while Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is hardly an epic, it feels like one could have justified at least something of a weightier package for this. Hell, 1975's Monty Python and the Holy Grail is only two minutes shorter, and it's specifically meant to be a piss-take. Monty Python and the Holy Grail also pretty neatly matches the approximate level of production that Gawain and the Green Knight is operating at for most of its length. The film has the very distinct aura of a bunch of people wearing fairly detailed costumes enthusiastically running around whatever empty field the producer found that morning, play-acting at "Ye Olde Times" as children will in the back yard but not always, necessarily, acting in a motion picture. I mean, there are for sure sets, and all. But lavish this surely ain't.

Maybe that's not a real sin; the ethereal, minimalistic flavor of the Arthurian romances doesn't necessarily need the massive studio bombast of a Knights of the Round Table or Camelot or Excalibur. A sort of hollowed-out "the impression of ancient England pantomimed in empty space" vibe could, in principle, be exactly the right fit for this kind of dreamily unclear narratives that frequently make up the classic cycle; and just one year later, Robert Bresson's Lancelot du Lac would basically follow exactly that line of reasoning.

Stephen Weeks, I hope we needn't clarify, is no Robert Bresson, and Gawain and the Green Knight doesn't so much like it takes place in a haunting Mythic Time as it feels like, well, a bunch of people running around empty fields. Or sometimes under-decorated castle rooms, I assume ones found in whichever one of the many castles scattered across England that Breen could get for the cheapest price. Even setting aside the impoverished production, there's nothing else about this film that speaks of any particular artistic inspiration. It involves a great deal of people standing or walking, and sometimes engaging in knightly sword fights that clearly did not have the benefit of fight choreographers, or even particularly accomplished stage fighters.

Making matters worse, the cast is mostly made up damp rags: Green is the very conspicuous exception, playing his namesake knight as a very self-satisfied hambone, flapping his arms about and preening and wearing his goofy-ass thatch of hair like royal robes. Otherwise, the film is full of people trudging through banal dialogue without trying to salvage it. Or perhaps simply being incapable. Head is certainly a massive liability in the main role. His two best-known roles, by some distance I'd say (apologies to the Sunday Bloody Sunday superfans, but anyway that's Peter Finch and Glenda Jackson's movie anyway), are as the petulant, irritable Judas Iscariot on the 1970 concept album of Jesus Christ Superstar, and the petulant, irritable American chess player on the 1984 concept album of Chess. Those roles give a pretty good summary of Head's natural skill-set, I'd say, and it's certainly not one suited to the guileless and youthful and open Gawain; not that Head plays him as petulant nor irritable. Indeed, Head doesn't really play him as anything at all, just wearing a constant, slightly dazed look of mild surprise and calling that a performance.

As much as anything, though, Gawain and the Green Knight suffers from having no particular handle on what to do with its story or how to tell it. The original romance is a dense nest of possible meanings, and somehow, the film skips all of them to get to its cursory wrapping-up; what this leaves behind is a story about Gawain and Linet flirting listlessly and not to any clearly apparent point - it's pretty muted as a love story, but the huge amount of time that those two characters take up make it awfully hard to regard it as anything else. In the absence of spectacle, or pageantry, or interesting characters with functional acting to support them, all that the movie has to offer is just scene upon scene of people chatting about the same couple of things over and over again. You can put that in castles and reasonably pretty costumes, but that's not nearly enough to make a movie out of it.

*By which I mean, one of the last to be added to the corpus of Arthurian stories before Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur "locked down" the whole body of stories; obviously not that nobody has written any new Arthuriana in the last 650 years.