King Arthur
directed by Antoine Fuqua
(Touchstone, 2004)

Arthur didn't ponce about in plate armor, nor did he live in a lofty castle. The latest production of King Arthur, directed by Antoine Fuqua, got that bit right.

The story, on the other hand, will be completely unfamiliar to anyone, Arthurian scholar or not. This tale, written by David Franzoni, puts Arthur in a more historically correct perspective, but ignores pretty much everything else about the legend -- except for the modern versions of certain characters' names. Yes, there's a Guinevere. Yes, there's a Merlin. There's even a Lancelot, damn it.

And there's Arthur, of course -- son of a Roman warrior and a British woman, wielder of Excalibur, charismatic leader of Rome's cavalry in Britain. His "knights," however, aren't British or Roman; they're Sarmatians, fierce horsemen from Eastern Europe who are pledged to give 15 years of their lives to the Empire's service. Thus, they feel no particular allegiance to Rome, nor kinship to Britain; but Arthur, who has led them through many great battles, has their undying loyalty.

Their service is over once they complete one final mission: to rescue a Roman noble and, more importantly, his son (the Pope's godson) from a villa north of Hadrian's Wall, where they are about to be overrun by invading Saxons. Native Britons were once the big threat; now, a Saxon army is cutting a swath through northern Britain en route to the wall, where they intend to rout the remaining legions and send them scurrying back to Rome.

The only thing in their way is Arthur (Clive Owen) and his few remaining knights: Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd), Gawain (Joel Edgerton), Tristan (Mads Mikkelsen), Galahad (Hugh Dancy), Bors (Ray Winstone) and Dagonet (Ray Stevenson). As the Romans flee the oncoming army, Arthur is joined by the true Britons -- the blue-painted people of the North and Arthur's erstwhile foes, who will fight to keep the land from the Saxons -- and their leader, Merlin (Stephen Dillane), a wild-haired green man of the forest who believes Arthur is more British than Roman, but doesn't know it yet.

Owen's Arthur clearly stands out as a noble, compassionate leader and warrior, if a bit flat in presentation. His knights, while distinctive in their own rights, work best as an ensemble -- so sometimes it doesn't seem to matter if you can't always tell them apart. Their exhaustion from years of battle and their longing for home conflicts with their devotion to Arthur, and the actors project weariness and fealty with equal skill as the story unfolds.

While the movie gives good service to Arthur's noble fellowship, the other peoples of the story are given two-dimensional roles. The Romans are elitist, cowardly snobs; Christians are holier-than-thou thugs; Saxons are unredeemably brutish. Even the northern Picts sound little more than a single note, never gaining a real identity. There are, of course, a few exceptions.

Keira Knightley's Pictish Guinevere is no dainty flower of the court, nor is she the object of a French Romantic-inspired lovers' triangles. She's tough, passionate and daring, and a wicked archer to boot. (She also looks great in woad.) While some critics have written her off as a modern-day feminist lost in the Dark Ages, the early Celtic tribes did boast a high standard of gender equality and their women were often skilled fighters -- so kudos to Knightley for making it work! Merlin's role as a wise mystic is intriguing and harkens back to certain less-magical versions of the legend; I wish he'd been given more screen time so the character could have been more fully developed.

Stellan Skarsgard plays the Saxon leader Cerdic with quiet menace and mindless brutality; picture a very hairy Geoffrey Rush on steroids. Til Schweiger, as the Saxon heir apparent Cynric, mostly scowls and gets smacked down by his power-grasping dad.

It's good to see this oft-filmed story finally wrenched from the 15th century and planted back in the 5th, where it belongs. The effort to do so makes certain anachronistic missteps -- most visible in weapons and armor -- all the more puzzling. I mean, crossbows and chainmail? Come on. Also, a last-minute decision to go for a PG-13 rating might be a wise fiscal move, but the relatively bloodless battles (as well as the lone, emotionless love scene) seem too tame by far for the story being told.

Arthur is without question a mixed success. Some points in its favor: Arthur wields Excalibur, but it's not the mystical, throne-endowing broadsword of lore, but an honest-to-god real sword inherited (at a time of dire need) from his late father. Lancelot (silly name notwithstanding) doesn't have to suffer through the indignities of an affair with his best friend's wife (a plot line that originated among French revisionists, not the early British legends). And Guinevere is cast as a real Celtic woman, a fighter with the sense to bind up her breasts before going into battle. (This point more than any other seems to upset people, for some reason.)

On the other hand, there's a Pope (which there shouldn't be at this time). The Picts are called "woads" (which is just plain silly). And, while the ancient Sarmations did ally themselves with Rome, what twist of logic places them in Britain at Arthur's noble table? And why is Rome still in Britain, anyway? The script, while inventive, did not work hard enough to make the historical elements of this tale mesh with what is actually known about the era in question. That's fine if, like Excalibur, the film is a fantasy, but instead filmmakers went out of their way to promote this film's historical basis.

Still, despite a few obvious failings along the way, Arthur is a solid action film with grand scenery and exciting fight scenes throughout. While the "truth" about Arthur may never be known for certain, this movie feels much closer to the mark than any I've seen before.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 17 July 2004

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