2004Director: Antoine Fuqua
Cast: Clive Owen, Keira Knightley
bout ten minutes into my viewing of King Arthur, I was hit by a sudden realization: I have grown tired of the sword and sandal genre. It’s unfortunate, really, because some of my favorite films (Spartacus, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and of course, the immortal Clash of the Titans) are of the sword-fighting, spell-casting, tyrant-slaying ilk. But the current crop of hack-and-slash epics are little more than mediocre detritus surviving off their savior, the Lord of the Rings movies. The low point was Troy, a supremely awful film that succeeded only in stamping a big black mark on Peter O’Toole’s wonderful career. My faith is lost—my swash, as it were, has buckled.
King Arthur, as you may have already guessed, did nothing to change my mind. While expecting a masterpiece would have been a little excessive, I did find it strange that such an epic story could have inspired such a curiously joyless film. A somber, muted affair, King Arthur bears no resemblance whatsoever to the classic Arthurian myth. Some knucklehead at Touchstone Pictures evidently decided that what the story needed was some “gritty realism,” so we get an Arthur stripped of magic, Camelot, the Lady of the Lake, the sword in the stone (except for one brief and thoroughly uninspiring reference), and even the Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot love triangle. Merlin is no longer a magnificent sorcerer, but rather some vaguely heroic rebel leader who, the movie implies, might have had a psychic vision once. Screenwriter David (Gladiator) Franzoni concocted this story under the apparent belief that one of the most enduring myths of western civilization was insufficient for a Hollywood summer release, that modern audiences would instead flock to a muddled but more “realistic” story about warring tribes and the political ramifications of Rome pulling out of the British Isles. This was a great decision, because I, for one, had been itching for Hollywood to finally tackle the ancient Saxon-Woad-Roman blood feud that has so dominated our storybooks.
"On second thought, let's not go to Camelot. It is a silly place."
Franzoni and director Antoine Fuqua tell the story as a struggle for Arthur to abandon his Roman allegiances and finally take up arms on behalf of the Britons. Arthur, you see, was actually a great Roman commander who, along with his ever-loyal knights, kept Britain tamed on behalf of the empire. But then Rome leaves the island to its fate at the hands of the invading Saxon hordes, Arthur gets pissed and unites with his former enemy Merlin, leader of the Woads, and goes to kick some Saxon ass. When victory has finally been secured at the end of the film, Arthur makes an emotional speech to the cheering Britons about how they “were born free men,” while donning his crown to become king, an irony so blatantly missed by the filmmakers that I nearly coughed up my popcorn in a fit of hysterics. But this is par for the course—Arthur’s ahistorical blatherings about freedom and rights, over a thousand years before John Locke made his presence felt, are stuck in the movie by filmmakers who otherwise fancy themselves committed to realism.
Ignorance of history can, under some circumstances, be forgiven, but incompetent storytelling cannot. The viewer is never able to shake the feeling that he has being shown the middle of a story, rather than the beginning of one. The film starts after Arthur and his knights have established themselves as heroes on behalf of the Roman Empire, with whatever heroic deeds they have done only referred to by suitably impressed supporting characters. Thus, with no real background on either Arthur’s story or the historical situation, we are told we must care about Arthur’s sudden realization that his people are getting screwed and that only he can do something about it.
Arthur vs. The Tattoo People
The cast does what they can to salvage this mess, but there is only so much one can do with a shitty script. The Knights of the Round Table are given no depth, with Lancelot, Galahad, Gawain, and rest reduced to one-note ciphers of absolutely no interest. Keira Knightley, as Guinevere, fares slightly better, although the obligatory love scene between she and Clive Owen is cringe-inducing when you recall that he is 39, and she only 19. Yuck. But the truly comical piece of casting is Stellan Skarsgard as the brutal Saxon leader. Skarsgard, an good and occasionally great actor, looks utterly embarrassed to be involved in these proceedings, camouflaged as he is by a cheesy beard-and-long-hair combo and forced to mumble his lines under his breath to achieve what I think is supposed to be an “intimidating” effect.
King Arthur is characterized by bad writing, poor casting decisions, excessive concessions to modernity, and unaccountable alteration of the great core story. Come to think of it, this also describes Troy, although King Arthur isn’t quite as offensively idiotic as that film, merely boring and useless. There is a decent battle at the end, but by that point any viewer with stamina enough to remain seated until the credits has probably stopped paying much attention. This is what has become of the sword-and-sorcery epic, sadly enough. I guess we’ll have to wait another forty or so years for some future generation’s Peter Jackson to revitalize an always-promising genre. Until then, don’t make the mistake of parting with your hard-earned money to see this dog.
By: Jay Millikan
Published on: 2004-07-09