Antoine Fuqua’s “King Arthur” assumes the ambitious task of taking the romance and magic out of that familiar tale and giving us a more fact-based account instead. Fans of Camelot and Excalibur and all the sentimental trappings normally associated with Arthur will be disappointed to find that this film is more about war than chivalry, and that everyone is filthy most of the time.
The concept is intriguing. While King Arthur is among cinema’s most often visited characters, the reality of the legend has not been explored before in film. This depiction is still not entirely accurate, of course, and much of the real King Arthur is still unknown to history. But it takes a shot at it, and it tells a good story, anyway.
Set in around 460 A.D., we learn of the Sarmatians, recruited by Rome as youths and sent on 15-year posts to guard and protect the part of Britain that Rome occupies, i.e., everything south of Hadrian’s Wall, midway up the isle. These knights, under the leadership of Rome-appointed Arthur (Clive Owen), go about the countryside protecting and defending, all the while looking forward to the day of their release.
We meet noble Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd), whom we saw as a boy in a prologue that has no relevance to the rest of the film; the mighty Bors (Ray Winstone), father of a dozen bastard children by the same woman, whom he doesn’t feel like marrying; Dagonet (Ray Stevenson), strong with an ax; Galahad (Hugh Dancy), who above all wants to return to a normal life of love and romance; Tristan (Mads Mikkelsen), who has a hawk for a friend; and Gawain (Joel Edgerton), whose devotion to the battle rather than returning to his homeland makes him an easy bet for getting killed.
Arthur and the knights have two regular groups of enemies. There are rogue Britons called Woads who live like savages in the forest and who want Rome out of their country once and for all; they are advised by a mad wizard named Merlin (Stephen Dillane). And then there are the Saxons, barbaric killers from the north who seldom dare to cross Hadrian’s Wall. They are led by Cerdic (Stellan Skarsgard), who must constantly remind his bitter son Cynric (Til Schweiger) that he, not Cynric, is in charge.
The Woads are about to get their wish, as Rome is pulling its military presence out of Britain altogether. But on the eve of their release, Arthur and company are given one final order: Go north into Saxon territory and get a landowner named Marius and his family — especially his son Alecto, who is the pope’s favorite godson — out of there safely before Rome removes itself and the place goes to hell. Few of the knights are interested in this “Saving Private Ryan”-ish task — and they haven’t even SEEN “Saving Private Ryan” — but Arthur is assured by Bishop Germanius (Ivano Marescotti) that once it’s done, they’ll be free men. Arthur gives his men his word, and Arthur’s word is good as gold.
What they find at Marius’ compound is that Marius (Ken Stott) has created a nice empire for himself full of false propheting — he’s told everyone he speaks for God — and rife with the byproducts of religious over-zealousness. Naturally, he doesn’t want to leave, Saxons or no Saxons. A Woad named Guinevere (Keira Knightley) is among the people captured and tortured by Marius’ servants; her presence in the film is unnecessary, but perhaps is a gesture to those who simply can’t imagine a King Arthur story without her.
Arthur, a Christian who believes in equality and free will, is already undergoing a crisis of faith, and now here’s Marius, believing some are born to be servants and insisting Rome and the church agree with him. These deep themes of disillusionment, fate and honor fit right in with a movie that often seems oppressive and heavy. The lush green countrysides blanketed in fog, photographed beautifully by Slawomir Idziak, feel mournful and melancholy, and while there are numerous light moments in the story, it is overall one of duty and combat.
Director Fuqua, again doing “Training Day”-quality work after his “Tears of the Sun” misstep, admirably handles the scope and size of the film, and the script by David Franzoni (nominated for an Oscar for “Gladiator”) affords several opportunities for a good director to shine. There is, for example, a terrific battle sequence set on a barely frozen lake, with knights and Saxons facing off while ice cracks all around them. It thrills nearly as well as any action scene we’ll see this summer.
Clive Owen is an excellent choice as Arthur, for Owen excels at playing weary, obligated men. Note his performances in “Croupier,” “Gosford Park” — even that series of BMW short films where he played a chauffeur driver. Owen’s characters tend to be resourceful and intelligent, but secretly yearning to be freed of whatever duties have beset them. In this film, that is Arthur to a tee.
By the end, unfortunately, all of the larger themes dissolve into battle scenes that recall the battle scenes in the “Lord of the Rings” films — bearded men shooting arrows at each other all look the same after a while — only without the added layer of humanity. “King Arthur” is a good enterprise, and it makes a good run at it, but by the last act, it’s just the same old Saxon violence.
B (2 hrs., 5 min.; )