Thursday, December 4, 2008

Keitel and Kinski in STAR KNIGHT (El Caballero del Dragon, 1985)

There's a prejudice against dubbing foreign films in America that gets in the way of a wider circulation of international cinema in this country. The troubled but often amusing efforts applied to Japanese monster movies, Italian westerns and other genres have led many people to discredit the whole concept of dubbing on principle. But certain movies that don't aspire to literary quality are sometimes enhanced, admittedly sometimes at the expense of original artistic intentions, by the dubbing process. The American dub of King Kong vs. Godzilla, for instance, is one of my all-time guilty pleasures, and I dread ever seeing the original Japanese version because it might not be as funny as the version I know. Dubbing is a performance art in its own right, and bad dubbing can be valued for its entertainment value just as bad movies themselves are. We ought to be grateful, for example, to whoever prepared Star Knight as the English-language version of the Spanish sci-fi period comedy El Caballero del Dragon, for only thus has Harvey Keitel's indelible English-language performance been preserved for the amusement or bafflement of film buffs.

I don't know enough about Keitel's career to understand exactly what he was doing in this film. Following his firing from Apocalypse Now, he spent most of a decade working in Europe before Martin Scorsese revived his standing in America with The Last Temptation of Christ. This seems like a career decline except that Keitel really hadn't risen very high since De Niro stole Mean Streets from him. But I don't really know if he went to Europe because he lacked opportunities at home, or because he found the opportunities there more interesting. He did respectable work there, as far as I can tell from his filmography, and he still does a good deal of work outside America, but Fernando Colomo's El Caballero del Dragon looks like nothing but something done for the money -- which probably explains Klaus Kinski's presence alongside him.

Readers of my political blog may know "Chrymethinc" as a longtime friend and colleague at the Think 3 Institute. He tipped me off to the existence of Star Knight, and it's his DVD that I'm reviewing here. He's not as omnivorous a movie consumer as I am, but he's always on the lookout for interesting fantasy films, and he's taken an interest in Klaus Kinski's career. On the former front his explorations have had mixed results. We suffered together through his copy of Vidocq, for instance. On the Kinski front, meanwhile, we were gratified by his presence in another guilty pleasure of mine, The Fighting Fists of Shanghai Joe. I find some of his work overrated (did I miss something or did he do nothing as Renfield in Franco's El Conde Dracula, for instance?) but more often than not Kinski adds interest to a film.

Kinski didn't dub his own performance for Star Knight, and it's unlikely that Spanish audiences heard him either in El Caballero. Nevertheless, he seems to be having a moderate good time playing a relatively rare good-guy character. He's Boethius, a sage and alchemist who has a close encounter of some kind to open the film. He's actually top-billed in the credits, while Keitel is the only actor to receive billing on the Echo Bridge DVD cover, which wildly misrepresents the film.

In short, villagers misinterpret their encounters with the spacecraft as attacks by a dragon. The Count of Rook dispatches his men, more or less led by aspiring knight Klever (Keitel) to deal with the monster, while Boethius and Friar Lupo (Fernando Rey) compete for influence over the Count. Boethius sees the dragon (or whatever he sees) as a potential source of knowledge, while Lupo sees it as a thing from the devil. In any event, Princess Alba is abducted while skinny dipping but falls in love with the Vanilla Ice-like alien in charge of the craft, who comes to be called I.X. Meanwhile, Klever pines for the princess and hopes to win her hand and other honors by destroying the dragon or "the knight of the dragon." His labors are complicated by the fact that he's an idiot. Other elements in the plot include "the Green Knight" who challenges everyone but never fights anyone who crosses his bridge and a surly peasantry compelled to dye their clothes according to the moods of the Count.

El Caballero del Dragon is really just a mediocre, derivative comedy under the influence of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, with extra inspiration, perhaps, from the bit from Life of Brian when the hero is abducted by aliens. Kinski is probably too benign for his own good, while Fernando Rey is probably the only other actor who lends his own voice to the English version -- otherwise why let the character have such a thick accent? The only real reason to bother with the film, or to expect any entertainment from it, is to hear Keitel's line readings. They have to make Star Knight a profoundly different experience for Anglophone audiences than El Caballero is for Spanish speakers, who didn't hear Keitel's own voice.

Harvey Keitel as Klever, a knight of woeful countenance, in Star Knight
(photo poached from

In the English script, it's established that Klever is some kind of exceptional weirdo. He's the only character in the story to talk in the pidgin-Shakespeare dialect people of my age will recall from the Mighty Thor comics. After an early outburst against the peasants ("Ye shall obey the law! Ye shall pay!"), the Count asks, "Must you talk like that?" Apparently he must.

Unless I remember wrong, there's a scene in Last Temptation of Christ in which Jesus hallucinates a lion speaking to him in Judas's voice, -- that is, the voice of Harvey Keitel. If I remember right, the lion says something like, "Dontcha recognize me?" at which point it may as well have spoken with the voice of Bert Lahr. Whether that scene actually happens in Scorsese's film or not, the entirety of Keitel's performance in Star Knight is just like that. It's a comedic mystery. Keitel is supposed to sound funny because his character is supposed to be stupid. But his accent and the lines he must utter ("Touch not the most beautiful Alba, damn you, whosoever you may be!" is a highlight) leaves you wondering where the intentional comedy ends and the unintentional begins. When it most certainly is intentional, as when he answers the Green Knight's challenge with, "Are ye talking to me?" it's just appalling. With all due respect to Mr. Keitel, I find his performance more amusing the more I believe that he doesn't really know what he's doing. Yet he reads his lines with such enthusiasm, perhaps with more than he actually shows on screen, that you wonder whether he's achieved some esoteric state of intentionally acting so bad that he's good.

There's no online record of Keitel's performance available to my knowledge, so Keitel completists or bad acting connoisseurs must take their own chances if they want to experience Star Knight for themselves. Bad movie buffs will most likely be disappointed, since the film isn't really that awful. The target audience may be Keitel fans who want to see and hear their hero make a fool of himself. The rest of you may just want to keep your ears open if it shows up on a station near you.

For a more detailed review of the story, look here.

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