While I’m not saying that Antoine Fuqua’s “King Arthur” is the definitive “real” story of the English legend, I am saying that I recently saw a special on the History Channel that seems to bear the film’s demystifying of Arthur out. Or at least, some of it. So, going under the completely random assumption that the History Channel is never wrong, I will take Fuqua’s movie at face value as the real story of Arthur and his merry men — Oh wait, that’s Robin Hood. Sorry. I tend to get these English blokes mixed up.
First off, a caveat. I never saw “King Arthur” when it showed up in theaters (and went out as a box office bust), so this review is solely based on the DVD version, which is the “Unrated Director’s Cut” (but is actually R-rated, as opposed to the theatrical version, which was PG-13). The Director’s Cut comes with 15 minutes of added footage, but rather those extra minutes add to the overall film, or detract from it, in comparison to the theatrical version is a question I won’t be getting into. Having said that, let’s get to the film at hand, shall we?
As most people already know, “King Arthur” offers up a radical “re-imagining” of Arthur, this time set in 452 A.D., hundreds of years before the accepted cinematic timeline for the legend. In this Jerry Bruckheimer film, Arthur (Clive Owen) is a Roman commander in charge of a small band of loyal Knights — originally Samartians, a race of people conquered by the Romans and conscripted into service. Having served in Rome’s faraway Britain outpost for 15 years, the Samartians are about to receive their freedom because a struggling Rome no longer has the resources to waste on Britain.
Before Arthur and his men can leave the life of warfare behind, a Bishop from Rome arrives with another mission for them. With the Saxons, led by the merciless Cerdic (Stellan Skarsgard, growling his way through the film) invading the island from the north, Arthur must race to another Roman town and save an important young boy and his family. Arthur’s men are vexed, and appropriately so, as the mission means facing the oncoming Saxon hordes as well as avoiding the Woads, indigenous rebel Britains led by some grungy guy name Merlin, who resides in the woods and attacks wearing green paint. Then again, when one of the Woads turns out to be Guinevere (Keira Knightley), who looks fetching in any paint color, who wants to fight them?
At well over 2 hours, the additional 15 minutes of added footage does seem to take “King Arthur” out of the land of PG-13 and squarely into R. The film is quite bloody, with the kind of harsh, brutal combat scene in films like “Gladiator”, although not quite on the scale of “Braveheart” in sheer brutality. Even so, director Antoine Fuqua (“Tears of the Sun”) seems to be giddy about the red stuff, because the blood flies so frequently and so masterfully, one is inclined to believe that they were induced with the help of CGI, much like the blood in Kitano Takeshi’s blind samurai film “Zatoichi”. So if you saw “King Arthur” in theaters and bemoaned the fact that it was bloodless, this Unrated Director’s Cut should satisfy your bloodlust.
“King Arthur” was written by David Franzoni, the man who did “Gladiator”, and the man who seems to be getting all the big-budget historical military epics nowadays. Franzoni is currently writing “Hannibal” for 2005, to star Vin Diesel as the Carthaginian General who decided he wants to try attacking the walls of Rome itself. On the back of a giant elephant, no less. Since I never found “Gladiator” to be the masterpiece everyone seems to think it is (probably because it started the whole “big-budget historical military epics” in the first place), “King Arthur” didn’t exactly have a lot to live up to.
As a standalone film, “King Arthur” is entertaining enough, although it’s strange that the film lacks action for most of its long running time. Aside from a short skirmish in the beginning, there is no real action until well past the hour mark, when Arthur finally collides with the Saxons once on a frozen lake, and then again for the climactic showdown. For a film about military warfare set during a time when the Romans had barbarians knocking on every one of their gates, one does expect a little more action. What we get here is simply not enough, and having seen Arthur and his Knights decimate a Woad raiding party with cool and bloody efficiency in the beginning, it’s only natural the audience will want more of the same. Alas, they won’t get it for a long, long time.
Which isn’t to say “King Arthur” doesn’t work without the action, as it is a visually stunning film to look at, and Fuqua drowns much of the film in fog and mist, the two types of natural wonders Britain is most known for, I’m told. And when there isn’t fog and mist, there is snow, or rain — and at one point, snow and rain. I didn’t even know such weather patterns were possible.
As the lead, Clive Owen (“Croupier”), who has long been rumored to be up for the James Bond part now that Pierce Brosnan has turned in his license to kill, seems mostly bored with the film. Or perhaps he’s going for stout and uninteresting. Whatever the case, the character as played by Owen lends zero credence to the film’s contention that his leadership is so mesmerizing that the Knights, when finally given the chance to race for freedom, would willingly come back to risk certain death just to fight by his side against overwhelming numbers. It’s a little much to ask the audience to swallow, especially since Owen doesn’t look like he himself believes in his character’s supposed appeal.
On the plus side, Arthur’s Knights certainly fill in for the personality and charm their dear leader lacks. Ioan Gruffudd (Mr. Fantastic in the upcoming “Fantastic Four” movie) as two-sword wielding Lancelot is good, as is Ray Winstone (“Ripley’s Game”) as the loud Bors. Mads Mikkelsen is also quite effective as the quiet but deadly Tristan, who says more with his eyes than Owen manages in the entire movie. And of course it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Keira Knightley (“Pirates of the Caribbean”), sans corset but still lugging around a sword, is a major benefit to any movie. Even so, her non-existent chemistry with Owen is laughable, as well as a shamefully tame almost-sex scene. What a gyp.
“King Arthur” is very nice to look at, and Fuqua has certainly outdone himself with the tapestry the film unfolds on, even if he doesn’t exceed in other places. The “realistic” look at the Arthurian legend deserves to garner the film some brownie points, but somewhere along the way Franzoni and company forgot that this is a big-budget action film first and foremost. As such, you can’t really save an action film with two battle scenes when the movie lasts for well over two hours, and not very much happens in the two hours between the first and the last battle. And of course, perhaps casting a leading man who can emote, or at the very least act interested in the movie he’s in, would also be a good idea.
Antoine Fuqua (director) / David Franzoni (screenplay)
CAST: Clive Owen …. Arthur
Ioan Gruffudd …. Lancelot
Mads Mikkelsen …. Tristan
Joel Edgerton …. Gawain
Hugh Dancy …. Galahad
Ray Winstone …. Bors
Ray Stevenson …. Dagonet
Keira Knightley …. Guinevere
Stephen Dillane …. Merlin
Stellan Skarsgard …. Cerdic