A film review by Craig J. Koban




2004, PG-13, 130 mins.

Arthur: Clive Owen / Guinevere: Keira Knightley / Lancelot: Ioan Gruffudd / Bors: Ray Winstone / Cerdic: Stellan Skarsgard

Directed by Antoine Fuqua /  Written by David Franzoni

You know, the trailer for KING ARTHUR was a predicating factor in why the film was doomed for ultimate and certain failure.  It described how this new, updated version, under the watchful eye of producer Jerry Bruckheimer and Antoine Fuqua, would present “The untold true story that inspired a legend.”   Yeah.  Sure.  Right.  The much more appropriate tagline would have been, “The generic ancient combat epic that’s bland and recycled at its core and features a title character that lacks charisma and has too much angst.”  Oh, I also should add that it also has Guinevere portrayed as a female William Wallace wannabe that’s half naked and painted from head to toe. 


This new film is not so much a final untold telling of the “true” story as it is a Tim Burton-esque and egotistical retelling or “reimagining” of the legend of King Arthur.  The problem with this is that the makers are trying to pull a fast one on the audience by selling this film as a historical film.  What they do is present the “myth” of King Arthur (let’s face it, it owes more to that!) as a historical fact and subsequently strip away all of the wonderful and colorful mythic, romantic, and fantastical fairy tale elements of the story.  Sure, the Excalibur story is ever so briefly touched on, the round table is seen, and so is a brief appearance by the wizard Merlin. Beyond the use of these elements (and the character’s names) this film has nothing to do with Arthurian legend.  It just goes to show that when you have the economic interests of Bruckheimer and a huge budget in the hands of a skilled action director, you can pretty much screw with legends.  Moreover, KING ARTHUR feels more hollow and lacking than it does feel “historical” and “accurate”. 

In the film Arthur (Clive Owen) is the leader of a group of loyal knights in the service of the Roman Empire.  He basically hopes, at one time, to finally fulfill his obligation to the Empire and return to the city of Rome to live out the rest of his life in peace. Unfortunately for him, times have radically changed; The Roman Empire has become dangerously corrupt and now faces the threat from Barbarian tribes like the Saxons, who seem to kill anything they feel like. The Saxons now have their eyes set on Britannia.  Arthur and his knights are then sent on one last mission for Rome, which is to bring the favourite godson of the Pope of the Catholic Church to safety. However, Arthur begins to have doubts about the once great center of civilization.  Arthur comes to decision that he must take up arms with his former enemies in order to unite the people of Britannia and repel the Saxon force that has invaded their homeland.   

Well, this “historical film” does have familiar people, and many will recognize the names, all right:  there’s Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd), Tristan (Mads Mikkelsen), Gawain (Joel Edgerton), Galahad (Hugh Dancy), and Bors (Ray Winstone).  Merlin (Stephan Dillane) is also around, but don’t expect any Gandolf miracles out of him.  He’s essentially portrayed as an old, muddy, disheveled man who rules the rag-tag Britons.  Merlin decides to join Arthur in driving out the Saxon invaders. The invaders are led by the great Stellan Skkarsgard, who is almost unrecognizable as the bearded barbarian.  Guinevere (Keira Knightley), is also around, but she is less a damsel and more a warrior is this version and could easily match Legolas in spirited match with a bow and arrow (in the most obvious attempt at going against the Arthurian legend).  Not only that, but Guinevere completely has her way romantically with Arthur, and her and Lancelot barely say two words to each other.  Oh, wait, they do exchange the odd glance, just to keep the purists happy. 

Hmmmm…something was just not right here from the start.  Yes, I know, putting a new and fresh spin on old legends is noble, I guess, but this version seems watered-down, preachy, disenchanting, and relentlessly dull. The “historical” Arthur fails to have any of the heart or spirit that the “mythical” Arthur most assuredly would have had.  I have great difficulty, in the long run, having faith in any film that says its attempting to present the “truth” to the viewer, especially when it involves the words “King Arthur” and “legend” in the same sentence.  Realistically, there is NO REAL historical congruence about a real King Arthur and his story.  No one historian will be alike in his or her views about the legend.  Watching this film would be like going to see a film about the Kennedy assassination that portrayed a lone gunman with a title card at the beginning saying, “There is evidence to support that the story we are telling is accurate”.  Again, whatever! 

Not only does this film fail to convince, but the characters are so weakly realized and underdeveloped that’s its difficult to instill and real resonance (or sympathy) in them.  Clive Owen is basically adequate in the title role, but he is so unapologetically angst-ridden and brooding that you just want to slap some wit and charm into him.  Lancelot is another character that is not given any justice, as actor Ioan Gruffudd seems to whine more than appear dashing and heroic.  Guinevere appears so late in the film (about an hour in) and is so quickly established that one feels that her character is too hastily realized and is more of an afterthought to the production.  Bors, on the other hand (as played by Winstone) has moments of humour and Skarsgard grunts and groans his way to a fairly effective performance as the antagonist.  Unfortunately, when most of the characters lack energy and intensity in an Arthur film, then it’s a lost cause, especially when the sorriest of the lot is Arthur himself! 

If there is one thing that KING ARTHUR is successful at is in its large-scale battle scenes, and there are many.  Fuqua directs them all with a sure-fire confidence.  I truly admired an action scene late in the film where the two bands of warriors fight over a frozen lakebed, with predictable, yet tense results.  The final battle scene is also expertly handled, but one feels that they really held back in the editing room (the film was apparently chopped down to the more ticket friendly PG-13 from its original R, thus, the action tends to lack that visceral and graphic feel that permeates epics like GLADIATOR and, more recently, TROY).   

It's only shame that Fuquo could not have been as focused on narrative and character as he was action and spectacle.  Fuqua is capable of being a good, well-rounded director (his TRAINING DAY was one of the better police procedurals of the last few years, and he directed Denzel Washington to an Oscar), but here he falls flat.  By going for his revisionist look, he drains all the life out of his actors where they desperately need it.  The story is also a dim and convoluted as the characters.  In the end, it’s just hard to invest in this. 

As a deconstruction experiment of an age-old legend, KING ARTHUR is a mess and a failure.  It’s a work of impressive production values, but it expends its energies with trying to be realistic and “accurate” and not enough on character and story.  In an ironic way, the “history” does not hold up as well as the “legend” of King Arthur.  It's amazing that with the gigantic success of THE LORD OF THE RINGS films that you would think that producers would want to instill more fantasy into their works.  It's funny how films like TROY and KING ARTHUR completely strip away all of the mythic and fantasy elements of the original stories and try to pass them off as historical and real.  In a way, the filmmakers screwed themselves, because KING ARTHUR is no more real then any LORD OF THE RING film.  When it comes right down to it, KING ARTHUR does not hold water because, deep down inside us all, we really prefer the legend.  Isn’t that what escapist entertainment is all about?

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