King Arthur (2004)

King Arthur - Director's Cut  (2004)

Ingredients for a modern epic: Hire male actors who look great in armor and robes and grime and a female actor who looks great in less clothing than that. Then spend lots and lots of money on locations, sets, special effects and such. Get a writer to put together compelling plot ideas about lost causes and freedom and big battles--be sure to include inclement weather. Add a director who knows slow motion, stop motion and how to catch spattering, spewing bits. Play it safe, though. Don't make up a new world, be sure to base it on something someone else already made up. But be bold! Claim your unique take is historically accurate based on "new evidence."

And there you have King Arthur: The Untold True Story that Inspired the Legend. And it's a real mess. I thought after First Knight that it would be hard to do as poorly with so much source material and I was wrong. Many pieces of the tapestry are all decently crafted and the quality of the thread is okay. The final piece should be better than it is. The problem lies in the overall story the tapestry tries to tell and the designers at the top end: the writer and the director. So much potential in cast, lots of money to make a good movie, even a variation on the legend that might have been sound. All that potential utterly wasted trying to make it as manfully brutal as Gladiator and as historishly truthy as Braveheart.

It's the waning of the Roman influence on Britain. The Woads are trying to drive the Romans out. Why are the people north of Hadian's Wall called Woads? Because in this "historically accurate" film, someone thought "Picts" sounded funny so discarded the real name of the people and called them instead after the paint they used to stain their skin. But I digress. The Saxons (their real name, mostly) are invading. The Battle of Badon is imminent. Drop the Arthurian legend into that landscape with Arthur as a Roman who goes native. Not bad--and already been done by fiction writer Parke Godwin in the 1980 novel Firelord based on painstaking research. So not entirely without historical merit, but not exactly new scholarship as implied in the opening credits. However, as with the naming of the Woads, the historical efforts don't follow throughout the production. The bows are too short, the roads don't have wheel ruts, the castles are too high, far too big and don't appear to be made from anything like local materials. Bloody Hadrian's Wall isn't right--it's got too-perfect CGI marks all over it.

As for representing Arthur in a "historically accurate" context, they did get the names right. He does carry a sword called Excalibur he pulled out of his father's grave. Merlin, Guinevere and Lancelot are present. Other names, available from Wikipedia, are in use--Gawain, Bors, Tristan and so forth. Otherwise, no other familiar territory is covered. For example, there are no strange women lying in ponds.*

So instead of relying on fakey legend, writer David Franzoni (Gladiator) concocted this plot instead: The knights have all been forced into their service as slaves of the Roman Empire. They are not Welsh or Cornish or Anglian, they are Sarmatian, a proto-Iranian race, located in what is now modern Ukraine). Let's not dwell much on the fact that none of the actors appear even remotely of Middle Eastern extraction, even though we've been shown a map of the region, told their lineage and that the film is "historically accurate" in the opening sequence. But I digress.

The boys are taken to serve as warriors in Britain under Roman rulers. They grow up under the Roman Arthur (Clive Owen) and believe they are earning their freedom. As a Christian, Arthur defends against the pagan Woads, who are led by not-a-sorcerer Merlin. After fifteen years of faultless fighting and now greatly feared throughout the land, Arthur wants his knights to have their freedom as agreed and makes speeches about freedom and people who need people and freedom--because in 450 AD personal emancipation was everybody's #1 issue, right after a pair of shoes.

The Roman envoy reneges on the deal to release the knights and sends them instead on a suicide mission during which Arthur stumbles across and saves Guinevere (Keira Knightly), who strikes poses and needles Arthur about his loyalties which Arthur was already questioning. She brokers a peace between Arthur and Merlin, which was inevitable because Merlin had already figured out Arthur would turn on the Romans and become the king Merlin needs to unite the land. Fear not, there is still time for several Guinevere costume changes. The knights, now free, voluntarily stay for one last battle with the now allied Woads against invading Saxons at Badon Hill.

Overall, that plot doesn't sound so bad. I would not have nearly so foul a taste in my mouth had this movie been called The Battle for Old Britain and been presented as an Arthur prequel, or an Uther story with Arthur as a boy, or not about Arthur at all. I likely wouldn't have watched it had that been the case--I'd have known it was a Gladiator-esque knock off and moved on. The silliness (and completely without historical foundation) about the knights not even being from the Great Britain or nearby lost me in minute three, though, and that was a long way to recover. However, when the band of knights ride off on their suicide mission and encounter betrayal and the truth of their enemy, the story works. That a Roman decides to fight for the only land he's ever known is plot worthy, and it's plausible that his knights could see an opportunity become landholders in a new government. Then all the posturing about personal freedom wouldn't come off so silly in the mouths of legends we have long assumed are masters of their own destinies. Also, the treatment of Guinevere would not be so vexing if she weren't, well, Guinevere. But to put "Arthur" in the title and not deliver on a fraction of the complexity that name conjures is false advertising.

There are things you just don't mess with, and I say this as a devotee of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which messed with the Arthurian legends big time. When you throw Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot into the plot blender, you MUST deal with the emotional resonance of those names. You can do it badly, as in First Knight, or with mythic image as in Excalibur, but you have to deal. This film doesn't. Evidently, the writer felt there was no historical evidence that the love triangle ever happened. Well, there's no historical evidence that the knights were Roman slaves of Iranian-Russian extraction, but that didn't stop him. That's right, there's no love triangle. If it's unnecessary, then why have Guinevere in the picture at all? Plain and simple, she's there for eye candy.

Not only is there no love triangle, there's no bromance between Arthur and Lancelot. In this telling, Lancelot acts as a conscience at times, but he's a slave like the others and that's about it. Lancelot is not even set up as the masterful swordsman, Arthur's equal, that requires Arthur's admiration and respect. Arthur feels no special duty or affection for Lancelot that is markedly more so than he feels for the others. Lancelot is easier to talk to is all, which is perplexing because Lancelot, though taken in the same manner and age as the other knights, is Arthur's equal in education it appears, but the other knights are basically illiterate drinkers who like a good prank. Didn't they get the same opportunities as Lancelot? The disparity between Lancelot and the other knights doesn't make any sense character-wise, especially when it's not put to any use in the plot, like, to woo Guinevere or act as a sub-commander or to be Arthur's bonded friend above all others.

The fact that the other knights are all emotionally simple kept the emotional arc simple, that's for sure. All complex emotions are avoided in this movie. Knights want freedom. Knights want drink. Knights want to kill things. When a friend dies, knights feel sad. Arthur hates injustice, so knights decide to hate injustice too. That's about it. A legend that has inspired so much storytelling and art and speculation, and that's all that the writer could come up with? And then excused this lack of depth by calling it a "true story"?

There are good elements to the movie, and they mostly have to do with the efforts of the cast. Clive Owen, Ioan Gruffud, Ray Stevenson, Keira Knightly, Stellan Skarsgaard -- these are actors who know why they're there, know how to look a part in period costume, have spent time swinging swords and pulling back a bow. It should have worked. (If you think it's easy, recall Kevin Costner in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves or Tony Curtis in Prince Valiant, to wit: "Yondah is da castle of my faddah.") But the cast was, at times, given some of the sappiest lines ever to be mouthed by legendary figures. The special effects crews also did their jobs, location shoots are well executed. 

Back to the eye candy problem: Keira's changes of costume and tattoos are inexplicable except for the eye candy factor. Very attractive, but annoying when the "historically accurate" card was so heavily played and the men of the cast do nothing even remotely eye candy like. She's the only actor in the movie doing "historically accurate" skin baring in a role so reduced in import that it could have been removed altogether. Look at the movie poster above. Guinevere is front and center. However, with a few line changes to preserve plot points her part could disappear from the movie altogether, it's so unimportant. She's posed between Arthur and Lancelot--but there's no love triangle. The only thing the visual has right is the eye candy: The girl has a bare tummy or shoulder and the men are covered up. In the movie only the girl is half-naked. Only the girl goes to battle half-dressed. Only the girl goes out in the freakin' ice storm without adequate gear lookin' mighty fine. Gah. 

And then there's the Peter-Jackson-shot-at-night-in-the-rain-for-four-months-so-let's-pretend-we-care-that-much-too waste of time: A lot of production money and apparently months of time was spent on a battle that takes place on a frozen lake where the band of Heroes face a huge bunch of Saxons, like 10 against 500. I am not a military expert. I thought of the problem with having a battle on a frozen lake. (Think 500 people, their carts, weapons, marching, stomping across the frozen lake.) So why did anyone involved in the production think the outcome would be suspenseful? So the movie fails even at what I think was its ultimate goal: the manfully brutal battle story. 

I'm usually a fan of Hans Zimmer's musical work, but he retreads familiar ground from start to finish. There are no surprises in the soundtrack, nothing to lift it out of the ordinary. It's Zimmer light--until I looked at the credits I thought they had hired someone cheap with the instructions to "make it sound like Hans Zimmer." I didn't even get a good score out of it. The only high spot is Maire Brennan's folk-inspired "Tell Me Now What You See" and a mid-movie folk song "We Will Go Home Across the Mountain" sung a capella.

Fans of big battle movies like Gladiator hoping for lots of gore will find that Disney had the gore cut down. Maybe that's not the director's fault, but even the Director's Cut on the DVD and cable releases won't really satisfy, though a lot of the battle sequences have been added back. There's plenty of gratuitous slashing and fancy double sword neck chopping without much gushing. However, there is a consistent pet peeve: heroes who get spattered across the face in slow motion and in the next scene have no sign of blood on them. One other pet peeve: the helicopter flyover as the heroes gallop on horseback into a Vee formation. Even I know it's a lazy, uninspired cliche. I was looking for a Terry Gilliam giant foot.*

For the Arthur film buff, this might be a must watch just to say you did. But it will annoy in that it uses the names and dismisses the power of those names. Frankly, the television show Merlin is far more inventive in spite of its many liberties--for example, they confronted the tradition of the love triangle and found a way to explain it out of their storyverse. Holy Grail takes place before Guinevere enters the story--problem solved. This movie simply ignored many elephants in the room as if its audience wouldn't hear those elephants trumpeting and yet without the echo of those elephants, namely Arthur's legendary quest for unity and chivalric justice, much of the character of Arthur in this movie is unproven by speech or deed.

Highlight the next bit in your browser to read a spoiler that finishes up any pretense at covering up weak writing with the excuse of "historically accurate": In the supposed Battle of Badon, all of the knights die except, of course, Arthur. So all the seeds for all of the legends are killed in this supposed "true story" that inspired the legends. One liberty too many. The emotion deadsville is complete here as Arthur looks over the carnage and is singularly unmoved. P.S. Guinevere is wearing a leather bikini top. The men get armor.

For me, it very much irritates that one of the few legends that features not one but TWO strong women gutted the role of one of the women and the other is completely removed. Morgaine makes no appearance at all, but there was plenty of time to add a bad guy Saxon and his bad guy son. I guess I'll have to get out the DVD of The Mists of Avalon or re-read the aforementioned Firelord to rinse out my brain.

*I can't help myself.  The Pythonites nailed their scholarship decades earlier and it still stands up to scrutiny. 

One-Line Summary King Arthur (2004):  This "historically accurate" version of King Arthur is light on the legend and weak on history and will likely annoy fans of both.   

What's It Worth? King Arthur (2004): If you must, get it at the library or in your already paid for Netflix queue or cable feed, which is how I saw it, giving me ample opportunity to rewind and shake my head. Do Not Pay Extra.
Watch it Again? King Arthur (2004): Not even for Keira Knightly eye candy, which is so blatantly eye candy that it borders on offensive. Never.