There will always be King Arthur movies, just like there will always be big screen riffs on Robin Hood. Characters with such mythic pedigree—and so readily available in the public domain—make this almost a given. Nevertheless, the King Arthur movies of the last few decades have left something to be desired, no?
Whether it’s Antoine Fuqua and Disney’s questionable choice to produce a King Arthur movie without any of the actual magic or fantasy that made those legends enduring, or Guy Ritchie’s bizarre attempt to turn Arthurian archetypes into another boys-will-be-boys gangster movie—but now with medieval chainmail!—Hollywood has lately tried a little too hard to reinvent the wheel. That’s why The Green Knight trailer is so refreshingly weird. Yet that doesn’t make it unfaithful to the source material. Quite the contrary, in fact.
With its ominous reveal of Ralph Ineson as the Green Knight—a figure made of green bark and seemingly mutated, emerald fauna—The Green Knight immediately grabs attention thanks to its striking visualization of an oft-told story that’s never looked quite so enchantingly bizarre.
Indeed, the below trailer is bursting with strange fantastical life, from its talking foxes to massive giants, almost all of which reveals the rare thing in King Arthur movies: the discerning eye of someone who’s actually read some of the myths.
The Green Knight is based on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a late 14th century alliterative poem in the chivalric romance tradition. Within that tale, a Green Knight appears at the door of King Arthur’s court, there to challenge one knight to strike at him with an axe and face the Green Knight’s revenge in one year and a day. Sir Gawain (Dev Patel in the movie) takes that challenge—apparently reimagined as King Arthur’s nephew in The Green Knight—striking the stranger’s head clean off. The Green Knight then lifts his own head and orders Sir Gawain to prepare himself for the return blow in one year’s time.
It’s an odd almost surrealist fantasy when one attempts to wrap their head around its full implication. And it’s ignited the imaginations of artists, poets, and scholars for centuries ever since.
Rather than just repeat the basic elements of the poem’s narrative—or desperately try to abandon them in favor of modern commercial Hollywood audiences’ alleged tastes—David Lowery (A Ghost Story, The Old Man & the Gun) appears to lean into its weirdness and highlight the many conflicting ideas admirers of the poem have had for generations.
Right down to the otherworldly build of the Green Knight, you can tell this is not going to be your Lerner and Loewe’s roundtable. But then no one has ever been exactly sure what the original Green Knight is.
Judging by The Green Knight trailer, the antagonistic knight’s hue will denote he is a creature of nature, which is one of the classic attributes symbolized by the color in both English folklore and modern pop culture. The Green Knight represents a primal natural state beyond the limitations and constraints of civilization and mankind’s darkly lit chambers. Yet green has also been thought to signify amorous love and desire, with the color being considered by some in the Middle Ages to be the color of passion; yet others contend it is the color of death and decay—what becomes of the human body after decomposition begins.
These contradictory ideas are all rooted in Arthurian legend, but reveal there is a lot for an imaginative mind to play with beyond the simple mechanics of a warrior garbed in green sleeves, showing up one evening with an axe.
Arthurian legend actually offers a seemingly endless opportunity for reinvention and creativity, and the lack of filmmakers in the 21st century to take advantage of that fact has been fairly disappointing. It appears Lowery might agree. Which makes this one of the most exciting movies of the summer season.
The Green Knight opens on July 30, 2021.