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King Arthur (2004) Print E-mail
Wednesday, 07 July 2004
The advertising for “King Arthur” trumpets loudly that this is, at last, the true story. Okay, maybe it is (probably not), but was anyone really yearning to see a tale of King Arthur stripped of all romance, all beauty, all mysticism and magic? This outing is set in the 5th century A.D., as the Romans are preparing to abandon Britain. The script by David Franzoni never makes clear why this—or many another event—is happening, but everyone is all upset about it.

That is, except for Arthur (Clive Owen), leader of the “knights” of the Round Table. All except Arthur are Sarmatian captives yearning to return home, somewhere in Central Europe. No, I hadn’t heard of the Sarmatians before this either, but they were real, and well-known as great horsemen. We learn very late in the movie that Arthur is Roman on his father’s side, Briton on his mother’s. He’s well-educated for the time, and hopes to go to Rome and read books. He also frequently extols virtues not really very common in the 5th century, such as freedom and equality. (That’s why the table is round, see? There’s no head, everyone is equal.) But they all sound like current ideas forced into a context in which they’re not applicable.

Although the movie is earnestly historical, it still uses the character names familiar from Arthurian legends. Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd, TV’s Horatio Hornblower) is a great warrior and Arthur’s closest friend. (He unaccountably also narrates the opening scene of his own capture while yet a child.) Bors (Ray Winstone) is a big, blustering bear, strong, lusty (he has kids so numerous he’s given most of them numbers rather than names), and hairy. If this were a Robin Hood tale, he’d be Little John. Gawain (Joel Edgerton, who’s very good) gets a few words in, as do Galahad (Hugh Dancy) and the others.

The knights are all looking forward to retirement and returning to Sarmatia, and Arthur backs them in this—the movie depicts their camaraderie very well—but there’s one last task for them to perform. They have to go north to Hadrian’s Wall and bring back a boy who is something on the order of the Pope’s godson. The knights grumble and grouse, but all agree to make the trip.

Things are complicated, of course. North of the wall are the fierce, primitive Picts—here called Woads, after the blue stuff they smear on their faces—who are led by the almost legendary Merlin (Stephen Dillane). Merlin is worried that the fierce Saxons are planning to sweep over England from the north on down. The Woads cannot stop them alone; Merlin wants to enlist Arthur and his friends in the cause.

The Saxons are led by loud (everyone is loud) and bold Cerdic (Stellan Skarsgård, doing a perfect impression of Mickey Rourke). He also has a son, but I never caught the name, so I don’t know who he is. But he has ambitions of taking over the Saxons. This is a very busy script.
It gets busier when Arthur has to rescue the boy at swordpoint. There are more words here about freedom and equality. Merlin doesn’t quite convince Arthur to help the Woads against the Saxons, but Arthur does end up taking along Guinevere, Warrior Princess, the daughter of Merlin. She doesn’t wear very much other than woad, which is okay by me, because she’s played by Keira Knightley, from “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Bend It Like Beckham.” She looks great in her leather skivvies and fires deadly arrows very convincingly. But there’s more here: this is Knightley’s star-has-arrived performance. She’s quite astonishing, and not just for going about in winter weather with hardly any clothes on. She doesn’t get as much screen time as the trailers and posters promise, but she uses what there is very well. With director Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”), Knightley blasts through the deficiencies of the script with as much power as Audrey Hepburn did in “Roman Holiday.” She’s the best thing about “King Arthur.”

The battle scenes look like they might have been powerful in the earlier cuts of the movie, before a lot of violence was removed to get a PG-13 rating. The armor and weaponry are authentic, and everyone on screen looks like they really know what the hell they’re doing. Sometimes we don’t, particularly in the climactic battle, but there’s a great deal of energy, damaged somewhat by today’s weary choppy editing style.

Clive Owen makes an imposing, if confused, King Arthur; he’s also in the just-released “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead,” and gives strongly contrasting performances in the two films. He has the same kind of screen presence as Sean Connery, but at this point in his career is a better actor than Connery was at an equivalent point. He’s also reminiscent of Richard Burton at his best. Like Knightley, Owen is going to be around a long time.

The setting is late fall turning into winter, and snow falls increasingly throughout the movie. The production design by Dan Weil is tough and realistic, but the whole thing seems to wearisomely alternate between metallic blues and metallic greens. It was shot on location in Ireland, and a lot of money was spent—the section of Hadrian’s wall we see was a mile long—and every penny is on screen.

It’s an interesting idea to do a somewhat more historically accurate tale of King Arthur, but the movie cuts itself off at the knees by insisting on using all the familiar names. Arthur wields the sword Excalibur, but he didn’t pull it out of a stone, it has no magical powers, and it isn’t a symbol of the true king of England. So why call it Excalibur? There is no Camelot here, none at all, though there’s the hint of its birth at the end. This therefore means that there is no great kingdom to be brought down by Lancelot’s love for Guinevere, and Arthur’s betrayal by his own bastard son. He HAS no son, bastard or otherwise, and Lancelot and Guinevere think each other is hot stuff here (they’re right), but there’s no love affair.

In other words, by stripping the Arthurian legends of all their intrigue, magic and glory, what you end up with is a chilly, muddy tale of brave men on horseback charging through wintry landscapes, battling other men. (And one woman.) There was a leader of Sarmatian cavalry in England at roughly this time, who did win several major battles, and who MIGHT have had a name (or title) that sounded something like Arthur. It’s enterprising for someone to try to tell that particular tale—but it’s gummed up here with those familiar names, an overemphasis on modern-day values, and murky storytelling.

There have been a lot of movies and books about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. The best movie is probably the ahistorical “Excalibur,” the best book may be T.H. White’s glorious “The Once and Future King.” “King Arthur” is likely to go down in movie history as an interesting idea that, despite good efforts by all concerned (except Franzoni), adds little to the Arthurian legends. They’ll survive long after this movie is forgotten.

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