On Ken Russell's films,
Knights on Bikes and Dante's Inferno

Considering Dante's Inferno as the completed version of the much earlier short

In 1956, Ken Russell did his second film short, Knights on Bikes. IMDB gives it as "incompleted", though it does have an end card. The story behind its incompletedness is given in the book Small Gauge Storytelling, which is how one thing becomes another thing because it has to and is thus its own thing altogether and must speak for itself as it is.

The film is about a knight who has for his horse a ramshackle bike. The credits, showing a Benedictine Moline cross, give way to a a knight climbing a hill where he eats a sandwich as he appreciatively surveys a princess (the woman wears a crown) gathering flowers on the road below him. She then meets on the road an old man in a wheelchair that's pushed by two cloaked, aged women. Ah, but the wheelchair is a ruse that these three might seem helpless. They are instead able-bodied men who grab the princess and hurry away. The knight would pursue them but first he must retrieve his sword which he'd planted in a stone when he sat down to eat. The story of King Arthur and Excalibur is recalled--the sword that would only, originally, be extracted from an anvil by the person who would be England's true king. Russell's knight is unable to yank out the sword until the villains are well down the road, and his bike fails him as well so that he ends up in a heap at the bottom of the hill. All he can do is helplessly look on as the villains escape with the princess around the bend. The knight, whose garment is decorated with what resembles more a Cross Fleurie, picks up his bike and sword and ambles down the path, defeated. The film is directed by "Squire" Ken Russell and edited by Phillip Jenkinson, who was a few years younger than Squire Russell, then about 29.

Small Gauge Storytelling relates the film was intended to have the knight doing valiant deeds and eventually battling, on bikes, the villain who had kidnapped the princess. A man named Rich Adrian was supplying the camera and celluloid. They filmed one weekend but Rich didn't show for the second round of filming and that was the end of that. The bikes are described as having been penny-farthing, the kind with the big front wheel upon which the rider sits, but the one used in the film is just a plain bike without a seat so that the knight uncomfortably straddles a crotch-killing bar.

The short, of course, hasn't the complexity of humor, tragedy, and social commentary pulling generations of humanity together under the distilling process that would be the later Ken Russell examining, in his loving and often ruthlessly irreverent manner, the arts and their creators, their marketers, their audience. The film pokes fun at the knight in shining armor, is narrow in its scope, and that's just fine. It is what it is. A short comedy bit by Monty Python. Only not. In fact, it is so like Monty Python that if you didn't know when Knights on Bikes was filmed, and that it was by Ken Russell, if all you knew was Monty Python, then one might easily say, "Oh, that's Monty Python!" Over ten years before Monty Python, it's only partly Ken Russell. The unifying influence on Ken Russell and Monty Python will be The Goon Show and Richard Lester, but that's not where I'm going. What I want to do is skip to Russell's Dante's Inferno.

Russell's 1967 Dante's Inferno was on Dante Gabriel Rossetti, his relationship with Elizabeth Siddall, and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The film is divided into two sections. The first part is comic. The second part is a tragic, as Rossetti films himself steamrolling backward in time into the full embrace of gothic horror.

Lord Byron died in 1822, one year after the publication of John Polidori's The Vampyre, which is argued as being the first modern vampire story, said to be inspired by the life of Lord Byron. John Polidori died in 1921. His sister, Frances, married Gabriele Rossetti in 1826, and had Maria, Dante (1828), William, and Christina (1830). Compared to the early 19th century goth of Dante's uncle and his circle, the PRB, formed in 1848, was all sweetness and light. They rebelled against neo-classicism, and, following after the so-called Nazarene Movement, wanted to supplant false virtue with the natural, one's internal experience, but largely eschewed the complexities of their present environment for representations of mythological characters and situations. They called themselves pre-Raphaelites, because they felt, following and via Raphael, academia's heavy hand had separated art from nature. They were young, Dante was 20, he considered Keats and Tennyson to be high among the "immortals" who should be their influential resources (in mid-century America Keats and Tennyson were still being sold in high school lit as the immortals), and among their declarations they stated they wanted "to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues". Plus they wanted to have "genuine ideas" to express. These are the kinds of things that you say when you are young, and then you grow up and you have a chance to meditate a little more on what are "genuine ideas" and what is "thoroughly good" and you wonder at your own cockiness and how much you had to learn. I'm not saying they didn't have cause to rebel against the establishment, of course they did, and I'm not going to crash the worship of Arthur and medieval romances. I happen to love Wolfram's Parzival. But...

And this is what Ken Russell's film turns on, is that "but..."

Dante's Inferno opens on a coffin being opened, a hand reaching in and gingerly removing a small book that is pocketed beside the interred skeleton. Go to introductory credits and Oliver Reed, as Rossetti, leaping over a bonfire in which are being burned the art that the PRB rejects, much of which is portraiture, the purpose of which was not just recording the face of the sitter but testifying to their wealth. Rossetti looks through the flames of the bonfire and sees on the other side a knight who withdraws their sword and holds it high. The knight is long-haired, androgynous. Joan of Arc? No, it's Lizzie.

The last painting Rossetti was purported to have done was a reworking of the subject of Joan of Arc kissing the sword, Deliverance, that he had already painted in 1863 and again in1864, after Lizzie's death in 1862. I've read Jane Burden Morris was the model of one of the early paintings, but Russell shows Lizzie as model, and Rossetti had developed a female that resembled many of his models, seeming an amalgamation of them all, which in turn was a standard of beauty that he'd harbored from early on. Still, Jane Burden Morris does look very much the model for the 1864 and 1884 versions, only by 1884 Joan has Lizzie's fiery red hair.

After we see Lizzie through fire, cut to Lizzie partly submerged in water in a long metal tub, she turns her head to look at Rossetti who sits comfortably in a chair beside the tub, reading, while beyond stands John Everett Millais painting Lizzie as the drowned Ophelia, who will not be a decaying, gray horror but in a lovely state of suspended animation, bedecked with flowers, her cheeks flushed, lips still rosy. This introduction to the trio is hilarious, a 1960s glimpse into the artist's studio, with a voice-over on how...

"The Pre-Raphaelites Brothers have fished out a stunner from a milliner's near the Haymarket. She is working class but respectable, an admirer says."

Immediately, the problematic class situation is established between the muse and the artist, which plays out in the film with, prior their marriage, a decade-long relationship between Rossetti, of the professional class, and Lizzie, of the working class fallen from a higher estate, she also an artist who wanted marriage rather than to just be the muse-mistress who might one day end up on the street as the fallen woman. Purportedly, it was because of this class difference that their marriage would not happen until they were both in their thirties. Within two years of their marrying, Lizzie committed suicide by laudanum, which she took for pain for a long-endured, undiagnosed ailment. The suicide was subsequent a pregnancy that resulted in a still-born child, much anguish, and post-partum depression.

The turning point in the film, from comedy to tragedy, is not long preceded by the abrupt insertion of a scene in which several of Rossetti's compatriots appear in full knight's armor, flailing against the future. The accompanying commentary is,

"And it came to pass that a dreadful dragon held all the land in its thrall. Such steam and smoke came from its snout that all the land grew dark, and flames belched from its arse. And that dragon begat dragons that shrieked and roared. 'Who will deliver us from this scourge?' cried the goodly brethren, 'and bind us about with bands of iron and steel?' Then came there a full noble knight to take up arms in the name of art against the dragons of iron and steel called Progress."

At which point Rossetti rides toward the camera on a bike, brandishing an umbrella like a sword, first holding it up to the sky like the knight-suited Lizzie at film's beginning, then pointing it toward the camera. The narrator, bearing a shield with a Cross Potent, falls to the ground coughing. Cut to Rossetti on his bike, furiously cycling down the road against the future, his umbrella brandished, crying out, "Excalibur!" The knights collapse in torrents of smoke, but then rise as the smoke clears, united with Rossetti.

"And the goodly brethren were exceeding joyous, and accompanied him to that sweet city with her dreaming pires that the vulgar do call Oxford. And those who came with him were three: one exceeding hairy, named Morris, whom all call Topsy; one exceeding thin, named Jones, whom all call Ned; and one most beauteous, whom all call Algernon Swinburne, because he cannot paint, but only pose. Then said they all that he henceforth would be their liege and champion. 'Truly,' said the brethren, 'all men throughout the realm do say that ye make marvels'...and the full noble knight doth dwell among us right merrily. 'And in the castle there is much creation, and many beautiful things are done,' he said."

This moment is the transition from when Lizzie rebels against ineffective remedies given her for her ailment, when she becomes aware that Rossetti is having affairs with other models, and Rossetti meeting Jane Burden, Lizzie's most potet rival, at Oxford, where he and his fellows paint frescoes that immediately begin to fall apart as Rossetti didn't understand the technique and painted on wet wall. Plus, he left his painting unfinished. Apparently, from what I've read, he left a number of his paintings unfinished. He would enter a project with great enthusiasm, then as he worked that vigor would depart and rather than completing it he would move on to something else, even with paid work.

The train smoke is a transmutation from ivory bone dust that Lizzie had been given to take, with water and supplementary tinctures, for her illness. Russell has her dumping it out of their flat and on the head of one of Rossetti's other models she has found there. Though the knights, and Rossetti, fight the future, Rossetti is also rallying against Lizzie, he depicted as soon thereafter meeting Jane Burden, who was of even lower estate than Lizzie, yet was soon married to William Morris, about a year before Rossetti and Lizzie finally married. This is also bone dust Rossetti is fighting. Death. You can't beat death.

The quest for the grail was a subject of the PRB and it isn't without some horrible irony that Lizzie will die of suicide from laudanum, and that Rossetti will eventually be addicted to chloral hydrate "with whsky chasers".

What's interesting to me is that Russell has returned to Knights on Bikes and plopped it in the middle of Dante's Inferno. Rossetti is that knight on a bike who will flail against progress, but is also himself a dragon. His earnest idealism is broken by his own failings and insecurities, which was the problem with the Arthurian court, that all heroic characters were flawed. And the greatest torment for Rossetti, as represented by Russell, is that a few years after Lizzie's death he has her grave opened so that a volume of his poetry, his gift to her in her death, her companion, could be retrieved and augment publication of his new poems.

in Knights on Bikes, the "hero" is unable to save the princess from the villain. In Dante's Inferno, toward the beginning of their relationship, Dante and Lizzie climb a hill to a tree, above a lake, where she complains that he is ashamed of her, she's just a shop girl who sells bonnets, what does he want of her, he hasn't introduced her to his family, and he insists he wants to make her his. The villain is Mrs. Tozer, the milliner for whom Lizzie works. Dante says he will rescue her from Tozer and bonnets. "Down with Tozer! Death to Tozer!" Lizzie marvels at such a rescue and Dante throws her bonnet down the hill. Russell, at film's end, returns us to the scene, showing us this was the knight's declaration of purpose, Rossetti returning to that hill in his diminished years, befuddling himself with drink and drug, reflecting on the past. Rossetii's critical pledge, his self-declared trust, was to "save" Lizzie from, essentially, her working class origins and working class fate. And he did, as with other friends of his, vigorously promote her as an artist. She even had, for a time, patronage that successfully raised her status and provided her an income. Still, the film asks if Rossetti failed Lizzie in his shame over her--he was reluctant to marry her for a long period of time, telling her they would be married and then backing out of it. If he doesn't recognize, too late, what he had, he at least pines for his losses. And there is always the vision of the opened casket of Lizzie to condemn him for his having disturbed her rest in order to retrieve his gift of poetry to her.

Should we then look upon Dante's Inferno as the "completed" version of Knights on Bikes? That's the question I propose (though Ken Russell may have incorporated the same theme in other films, he produced so much material, much of which I've not seen as it's not available, and I'm not so familiar with his other works that I can recollect every scene). It may be a small question, a minor observation of not much consequence, but It's inviting to me, to look at an incomplete early film, and then consider that the artist resurrected it in another seemingly unrelated work which he might have viewed as the realization of that earlier film, if scripted differently than what might have been envisioned ten years beforehand.

January 2020. Approx 2066 words or 4 plus pages single-spaced. 15 minute read at 130 wpm.

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