Tuesday, November 10, 2009

"Pendragon: Sword of His Father" — movie review

Movie: Pendragon: Sword of His Father
Length
: 110 min
Rated: [Phillips family rating: PG]
Starring: Aaron
Burns, Andrew Burns, Chad Burns, Marilyn Burns, Nicholas Burns, Raymond Burns (— noticing a theme, here?), Erik Dewar, Wally Patton (—hey! how'd they get in?) 
Director: Chad Burns
Producers: Ray, Chad, Marilyn, Andy, Aaron and Nick Burns
Screenplay: Burns Family Studios

Whoa. It's like... a Burns-a-palooza. Can that possibly be good?

Read on.

My dear wife pointed this movie out to me. First impression came through the trailer.  I clicked with low expectations... and for the first 30 seconds or so, thought, "Wow, this actually looks cool."

Then the first actor spoke, and I thought, "Uh-oh."

So when we made this a Burger Night movie for the whole family, I said, "This movie may be a disaster, I really don't know what to expect." Why the warning? Several factors. To wit:
  • It was from an independent studio.
  • IMDB had no reviews, external or internal.
  • IMDB featured fewer than two dozen votes, total, for a movie made in 2008. And...
  • It was direct-to-DVD.
These are often red flags. But we watched.

What is Pendragon about?
The movie is set in Britain. The year is 411 AD. Our tale generally follows the story of Britain's King Arthur, called Artos here. Artos' father is killed, Artos is held captive, and he pursues a vision of driving the Saxons from Britain. At a pivotal point, Artos meets Lailoken (played by the director, Chad Burns), which in some legends is another name for Merlin. Artos/Arthur encounters tragedy, battle, intrigue, treachery, love, and challenges to his Christian faith.

Is Pendragon a good movie?
It is a remarkable movie, particularly considering its genesis (more later). It is also an uneven movie — but if one takes the movie for what it is, the good well outweighs the not-so-good.

In fact, what is good about Pendragon is almost startlingly good. We said an appreciative "Wow!" more than once. For a low-budget independent movie put together by two homeschooling Christian families, it is clear that this was a labor of love with literally not one wasted penny.

The scenery and camera-work, for instance, is sometimes remarkably beautiful and convincing. The screenshots at the official site do not highlight this aspect of the movie as they should. I think this is a regrettable choice, since Pendragon's visual feel is worth showcasing. Every aspect of the production is crafted with evident care. The movie contains some truly beautiful images of castles, green moors, smoky villages by the light of a full moon. Again, for a low-budget movie, some CGI is employed to top-notch effect.

However, my readers deserve the best. I snagged these, just for you (click to enlarge):



 


Additionally, the camera work is often very clever. Relatively small crowds and sets are made to look large and imposing by the use of close angles and very well-conceived pans. Dramatic cuts and editing often effectively highlight the tension. Particularly for the first 2/3 or so of the movie, Pendragon has a sure and professional feel.

Yet this too is uneven. At times, the picture is out of focus or shaky, then it snaps back to clear focus. One odd shot of the random back of a head gives a "Huh?" moment. There seem to be switches to video-quality footage at arbitrary moments.

Some edits are abrupt. A couple in particular were unintentionally amusing. For example, Artos makes an impassioned plea of the lady Wenneveria, who is then abruptly seen dashing out of the room in high-speed, hands over her face. Gales of laughter from the boys and a "What th--?" from Dad.

Plus, I'd swear that Artos' beard changes configuration within the same time-frame. In fact, a number of the beards were too neatly-trimmed for the time. These were exceptions to the overall very authentic and era-appropriate feel of the production.

The music similarly ranges from adequate to really good, stirring and enhancing. The costumes are better than those in big-studio movies in the 50s, usually looking authentic and lived-in. The sets are very well-designed, and again have a gritty, real feel to them.

The action and the battles are mostly very well-done, very impressive. Some vast flights of arrows and of flaming projectiles call to mind Peter Jackson's The Two Towers, which is an accomplishment. There are clashing swordfights, swinging trebuchets, crashing rams. Similarly, a couple of pivotal hand-to-hand duels are gripping — not Princess Bride nor Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, yet my wife and sons liked them a lot, and the boys will be watching them again.

The story is interesting and layered, if not always easy to follow. I had to pause a couple of times and ask if anyone understood what had just happened. Usually, someone did. But the transitions are not always smooth. Once, with no transition, Artos is suddenly — we have no idea how — conferring with his mentor Lailoken, whose presence is never explained.

Still, we all really appreciated two aspects of the story. Unlike most dramas set in this period, the Christian faith is present and robust. Artos and his family are Christian, Lailoken is Christian. A portion of an early worship service is shown. The expressions of faith may be anachronistic, but they are better than the usual Christian-Schmistian-what-Christian? approach of Hollywood. Also, Artos faces challenges to his faith, and not only sees them through but himself bears witness to Christ in the face of his enemies.

But now reluctantly I must come to the single, most consistent and glaring weakness of the whole: the acting. The impression I had of the trailer held true through the whole movie. It was as if a high school acting troop, or a small community theater, had been filmed in (relatively) high-quality — with amateurish acting intact.

As with the trailer, the very first words in the movie give one a lurch, an "Uh-oh." Artos' father may be played by a very good man, but he's not an actor; ditto Wenneveria's father, and ditto virtually every person with anything to say.

Perhaps worst of all is the actress who plays Wenneveria (Marilyn Burns). Unfortunately, hers is a major role. Pleasant to look at, lovely smile, probably a delightful person — but oh, my. Virtually expressionless. At critical, intense moments, she either displays no emotion whatever, or an inappropriate emotion, or she hides her face in her hands. I'm afraid her performance brought inappropriate mirth when it ought to have been moving us to other emotions.


Thankfully the actor in the main role (Artos; played by Aaron Burns) was adequate, though he's no Mel Gibson nor Sean Connery. The most "invested" performers may have been The Bad Guy (Caydern; played by Nicholas Burns) — a bit cartoonish, yet at least bringing his character to hateful life —; the little sister — who, however, did not age over the passage of time —; and the lead Saxon, tromping about, grabbing people, being menacing, and growling out Saxonspeak like an evil Schwarzeneggar.

See, they're all (or just about all) of them Burnses. And there's the weakness as well, I fear. Every other aspect of this movie was given such careful, devoted attention — effects, sets, costuming, music, camera-work — only to fall to the ground on distractingly amateurish acting.  This holds even after forgiving the fact that only one of the actors playing British characters attempts a British accent.

What did your family think?
Most of what I've said represents all of our impressions.

My dear wife Valerie agreed with Jonathan and Josiah that the battles were very good, very well-done. Jonathan (10) liked the movie a lot, as did Josiah (14). Josiah felt the transitions from scene to scene were sometimes hard to follow, but he really appreciated the respectful way Christian faith was presented.

Plus — two Wilhelms!

All of us found a sequence at the end jarringly ill-conceived. No way to tell you about it without a spoiler, but you'll know it when you see it. It involves the generally expressionless Wenneveria smiling fondly at a sword, then dropping it. (The boys are still laughing about this one, and re-enacting it.)

Would you recommend it?
Having set your expectations thoroughly, yes, I would. It's fun for a family to watch together: family-friendly, Christian-friendly, earnestly-made. We were all glad we saw it together.

Also, the film truly is a remarkable achievement. One is not surprised at the awards Pendragon has accumulated. It is the realization of a vision developed by two home-schooled families, helped along by an all-volunteer assemblage. A little knowledge of the background highlights the accomplishment that this epic independent Christian film represents.

I'd like to see the Burnses again, behind the lens, bringing the same commitment to excellence and earnest, family-friendly film making to telling another story.

Only this time, put talented actors in front of the lens, to adorn the Burns' otherwise earnest and artful labor of love.


30 comments:

Fred Butler said...

One sniggling historical point:

I thought the Saxons didn't really arrive in Britain until after 1066. So isn't it a bit off setting this in 411 AD? I could be totally wrong about that and eagerly await any correction from other readers in the historical "know."

Andrew said...

Dan, where did you find this movie?
I cannot find it within our public library system, which has seemingly everything.

Do we need to join NetFlix or buy it from Amazon?

Either way, thanks for a thorough review. I want to watch it with my family too.

DJP said...

The post links to their web site, you can get it from them. It also links to the IMDB article. Doesn't seem that Blockbuster has it. Amazon does. Don't know about Netflix.

SandMan said...

Funny. Paraphrasing "You guys worked really hard, and your heart was in the right place, but your sister can't act."

Thanks for the review. You've got me curious...

DJP said...

Yes, why did I use all those words when I could have just said that?

:^P

Naw, I agree with the unedited me. For a first-time independent volunteer effort, the whole thing is an amazing achievement. It's just that so much is so good, it's a pity the acting isn't up to par with the rest.

SandMan said...

No offense intended. I really did read and appreciate the unedited you.

It sounds good... I can't even shoot decent Christmas morning footage of my own kids in my own house, so I am unlikely to notice any "inconsistencies."

Thanks again for making us aware of worthwhile Christian media.

Brad Williams said...

Fred,

The Normans came in 1066. The Saxons were still there, however, highlighting the failure of Pendragon to drive them out I suppose. They entered Britain about the 5th Century. I suppose that makes Pendragon an Angle, but I thought they arrived about the same time. Soooooo...that's all I know about that for now.

Back to work!

Fred Butler said...

I guess I was thinking the Normans were part of the Saxon influence. At any rate, from the history of the English Bible I have read, Britain had a thriving community of Bible believing Christians that pretty much got wiped out when the Norms came and fully brought Roman Catholicism.

RT said...

Fred:

The church in England was Roman Catholic from 597 A.D., when the See of Canterbury was established by St Augustine, until Henry VIII reformed the church between 1534 and 1536. I doubt the church was any more or less "Bible believing" than the rest of Christendom during that era and I have never heard of the Normans "wiping out" the Anglo-Saxon church during or after the Conquest. Of course they eventually substituted Norman prelates for Anglo-Saxon ones, but mostly through attrition.

DJP said...

"The Return of RT," I say.

"About time," the crowd murmurs gratefully.

jrbaker said...

Looks interesting, but what I'd really like to see is a movie adaptation of Stephen Lawhead's "Pendragon" triology, which is an unashamedly Christian (and Welsh-centric -- Hooray!) retelling of the Arthur myth. From the looks of this movie it sounds like the Burn's family may have been inspired by those books as well.

The Saxons landed in Britian throughout the 5th and 6th centuries, and were a thorn in the side of the native population for a long time, until they began intermixing. In the original stories, Arthur and the others were Welsh (consider Merlin was "Myrddin") with a strong Roman Imperial influence.

DJP said...

So you enjoyed that series? I stuck with it for, oh, about 500,000 pages or so, and it just never caught fire for me. Dull, dull, dull.

Did I just give up too soon? Does it all come together on p. 500,001?

jrbaker said...

Yes.

:)

Actually, I've been re-reading the series lately and had that his dialogue (at least in the first book) sounds nothing at all how real people talk.

But, you know, lots of sword fights.

DJP said...

Well, there y'go! (c:

One trilogy (quadrilogy in paperback) that I ended up loving just killed me for the first, I don't know, 245 pages or so. The Dragonbone Chair, by Tad Williams. Just painful... until this one character is introduced. From then on, it's quite a ride.

I only endured that far because someone had so highly recommended it.

Anyway, no part of this movie is painful like that. It is never boring.

RT said...

When you say that "the expressions of faith" in this film "may be anachronistic" (and thanks, by the way for the warm welcome back - I am glad to be back) do you mean that in the coordinate conjunctive sense, as in the "although - but" construct, or are you expressing uncertainty? I think it would render me absolutely berserk, for instance, to hear "Jesus loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life" out of Arthur's mouth. Although it is certainly true that the paucity of reliable information about Christianity in Britain during this period is a positive invitation to artistic license, one hopes the anachronisms are not as grotesque as my example. Upon reflection I guess I can assume they are not since you did not expose, ridicule and otherwise make blog fodder out of them.

Fred Butler said...

RT
Yes, I don't mean to imply they were Fundamentalist Baptist in the vein of the "trail of blood." I am thinking more along the lines of drastically changing the culture and climate, which the Norms certainly did. Being isolated from the main continent, there was an ability for the church to thrive more healthily apart from the corrupting influence of Rome. David Daniells talks about this a bit in his book on the History of the English Bible. William's invasion took that away.

P.D. Nelson said...

Well Dan I have to say I was expecting "Yonder is the castle of my father." And to fine out I was wrong is a pleasant surprise. I might have to see if I can pick this up for family viewing.

DJP said...

LOL, PD. Surely you and I are the only ones "in" on that joke. (But isn't it "Yondah is da castle of my faddah"?)

While the acting isn't professional, it's the earnest, unpretentious sincerity of it all, I think, that saves it from such wince-inducing moments, overall.

LeeC said...

Thanks for the review Dan,

I tend to be loath to watch ANY historical film of this type. I can barely sit through Braveheart, and I have yet to make it all the way through Gladiator. Between bad battle scenes (unfortunately I am ruined. What most consider an excellent one I usually find intolerable), massacres of historical fact, and gratuitous graphical violence I go into most historical films with a sense of dread.

But now knowing what to expect here I will give this one a try with my family. Worst case scenario I will get a chance to excercise discipline and keep my yap shut so they can enjoy it. ;)

DJP said...

Sounds like a win/win.

The battle scenes are in no way gruesome. My family felt it would be a relatively mild PG.

Susan said...

1. Ten sixty-six...hmm. Without cheating and reading the rest of the meta, that sounds like a year having to do with William the Conqueror??

2. You know, when I glanced at the cast list and saw the name "Aaron Burns", I began to think "Aaron Burr" but quickly perished the thought, realizing the sheer possibility of that happening...unless, of course, this was a zombie movie. :)

3. Those shots of the castle and the countryside really do remind one of LOTR, don't they!?

Okay, now I will finish reading the rest of the meta (because I am enjoying my holiday) and get a history lesson on the year 1066.... :)

Susan said...

All right, I read through the comment meta...

1. I think I was right about William the Conqueror!! All is not lost!! (My memory, that is.)

2. RT said: I think it would render me absolutely berserk, for instance, to hear "Jesus loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life" out of Arthur's mouth.

I'll have you know, RT, that as I was reading this sentence I was actually having chicken spaghetti noodle (as opposed to the short, flat, fat noodle) soup--and I COULDN'T STOP LAUGHING WITH FOOD IN MY MOUTH!!! (Sorry, that's gross, I know. Look what you made me do!!) If ever anyone should come up with a "Top 10" list of the worst anachronisms in literature or film, your hypothetical example, if realized in real life, would easily rank in the top 3, if not at #1, IMHO.

3. All this talk about English history is bringing me back to my high school world history mock trial of Henry II. We put him on trial for the murder of Thomas a Becket, his Archbishop of Canterbury. I don't remember who played Henry II, but I remember who played Eleanor of Aquitaine--yours truly! My hamming up the lines that I was given saw many a fellow classmate giggling under his/her breath...it really was quite embarrassing. I guess if I were Lady Wenneveria in this film, Dan, you'd be commenting on my melodramatic delivery instead of an expressionless face!?

Susan said...

(Ooh...I just reread my first comment about "Aaron Burr"--and I meant to say the "sheer impossibility". Anyone ready for "Pendragon II: The Zombie Emerges"?)

LeeC said...

BTW, for some reason I have no problem with 50s era action flicks historicity. I guess they make it clear that they are trying to entertain more, wheras I'm always hearing about the "high level of accuracy" with a lot of the more modern films. You know, like Robin Hood, Knights of the Round Table, The Black Shield of Falworth...El Cid.

BTW all, Arthur was known for fighting off the Saxons during the power vaccuum left by the waning of the Roman Empire in the 6th c.

The Battle of Hastings in 1066 was between the Norman William and the well established ruling Harold the II of the Saxons/Angles/Anglish.

One of the best historically minded Arthurian works of fiction is "The Sword at Sunset" by Rosemary Sutcliff. She does a brilliant job of mingling good history with a rousing story.

Brian said...

The Best "Pendragon" Novel ever written comes from Gillian Bradshaw, a Trilogy begining with "The Hawk of May" as the first, and if ever put into a movie and done right, would be the best Arthurian Film bar none, check it out, original print circa 1980ish.

Brad Williams said...

All I can remember of my Arthurian history is that at Camelot, they ate ham and jam and spam alot...and that it was a silly place.

John said...

"Jesus loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life"
Out of curiosity, why would King Arthur not say something like that?

brinkwerks said...

@John 1/1/10: In content and spirit, perhaps Arthur *would* have said something akin, but considering that phrase and its history in modern evangelism (The 4 Spiritual Laws by CCC), if placed in a period film that pursued authenticity, it would be more than conspicuous to a contemporary audience, it would be cheezy, unless perhaps the film was being deliberate about mixing disparate historical idioms, like some films, spoofs in particular, have done. I think that's what the commenter meant: not the spirit of the saying, but the form of it, would be jarring. It's not a question of Arthur's piety or lack thereof.

Tony said...

William of Normandy invaded in 1066 with his troops(mostly heavy cavalry)and pretty much wiped out the saxon army at the battle of hastings, ending a run of Saxon kings of England.

David Crowe said...

The Saxons arrived in Britain during the Early Middle Ages or "Dark Ages," about the time period this movie portrays. As the Romans were pulling out of Britain "Barbarian" tribes began claiming the lands the Romans were no longer controlling. It was the Normans that arrived in 1066 with William The Conquerer. He is the one that put an end to Saxon rule in Britain.