King Arthur. There are some who question whether he actually existed or if this knight was just the stuff of legends passed down through the years. However you want to interpret the person -- fictional or real -- the names instantly ring a bell when mentioned. There's Arthur, Lancelot, Guinevere, the Round Table, and all Arthur's noble knights. So how do you make a movie about a person/character who may or may not be real with little in the way of concrete information existing on him? Here's a doozy for you. Do the best you can, and fill in any necessary blanks with battle scenes.
That's basically 2004's King Arthur which claims to tell the most accurate account of the Arthurian legend. One of the biggest issues surrounding Arthur is when did he actually live? Was he around in the Middle Ages and the Crusades searching for the Holy Grail? Was he around near the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth and sixth centuries? Directed by Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, Tears of the Sun), this action-packed historical epic goes with the second premise and does a fair share of rewriting when it comes to the legend. This is not your grandparent's King Arthur with a romantic view of a vicious, incredibly dark historical time. It's down and dirty, and everyone is at risk.
After serving a 15-year term as a protector of Britain, half-Roman, half-Briton Knight Arthur (Clive Owen) is ready to go home to Rome. His men, Sarmatian men enlisted as Roman soldiers, similarly want to return home after many years of service while seeing their fellow knights drop one by one. With their release coming though, they are enlisted for one more dangerous mission, a trek into Woad territory (natives trying to expel the Romans) where a Roman family's villa stands. Bring them back and they will be free. Arthur convinces his men to go along on the nearly suicidal mission, but even he doesn't know what awaits them. The Woads wait in ambush for them, but news drifts down from the north. A Saxon army (led by Stellan Skarsgard) is marching south, killing everything in its path. Arthur and his knights must now band together with the Woads (blue paint warrior Keira Knightley leading) to not only accomplish their mission, but somehow survive and get home.
Historical epics are right up my alley, I'll give just about anything a try. But with an action-heavy director like Fuqua and producer Jerry Bruckheimer in charge, you're going to get a ridiculously action-heavy movie that's short on story. How often can you say that for a movie that runs 138 minutes? There is a ton of potential here because of the money clearly spent in getting the movie made. The cast is impressive, the action is on a huge scale, Hans Zimmer's musical score appropriately epic, and the story is the stuff of legend no matter what pretensions the movie has about being the most accurate telling of Arthur's story. But with all that said, it's a mess of a movie overall. An exciting, interesting mess, but still a mess.
I'm not an Arthur aficionado who will complain about the mangling of the legend's story, but this pushes even beyond my basic knowledge of the story. It doesn't have to be the romantic portrayal of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, but some of the choices here were just odd. Arthur's remaining Knights serving their 15-year tour of duty for Rome are Sarmatians, a people from Eastern Europe with an Iranian background. That's fine, but they all look very British. Guinevere is a Woad, a Briton barbarian by all accounts who is an expert with a long bow and fights alongside the men. By the by, Knightley in a skimpy leather battle attire is never a bad thing. Merlin (Stephen Dillane) is not a magician, but a Woad medicine man who looks like a barbarian heathen. Skarsgard sleepwalks through his performance, and Til Schweiger is laughably bad as his son, the also-evil Saxon warrior. Now I'm not sure what was or wasn't accurate -- history is always open for interpretation -- but this one just went too far for me.
What does work is the portrayal of Arthur and his knights, mostly because the actors playing the parts are so talented, not because these individual parts are well-written. Owen is a suitable Arthur, a commander who is not like his men but has earned their respect through his leadership and in battle. His Knights include shifty and intelligent Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd), expert bowmen, falconer and scout Tristan (Mads Mikkelsen), quiet but capable Gawain (Joel Edgerton), young hopeful Galahad (Hugh Dancy), boorish, brutish fighter Bors (Ray Winstone), and ferocious man of few words Dagonet (Ray Stevenson). As a fan of men on a mission stories, I was a sucker for this part of the story, and all of the characters left an impression on me, especially Gruffudd, Mikkelsen, and Winstone. I would have loved to see a story that focused more on these characters as opposed to such a large-scale story, but overall they are the best part of King Arthur.
Finishing the movie, I was more than a little surprised to find out it had a PG-13 rating. This movie is VIOLENT. We're not taking Braveheart violence, but it's close. Battle scenes are incredibly graphic with blood spurts, decapitations, limbs being hacked off, and countless uses of axes, knives, spears, arrows impacting and tearing bodies apart. All that said, the action is top-notch. If anything it's too good and too much. A showdown between a huge Saxon patrol and Arthur's small crew on an iced over lake especially stands out as memorable. The last battle is almost 40 minutes long and becomes tedious. It's well-handled with CGI kept to a minimum (always a positive), and the action is done on an impressive scale, but it all becomes too much after the 98th stabbing or beheading. There are only so many ways to see a man die.
King Arthur <---trailer (2004): ** 1/2 /****