Ioan Gruffudd, Keira Knightley, and Clive Owen in King Arthur (2004)


(director: Antoine Fuqua; screenwriter: David Franzoni; cinematographer: Slawomir Idziak; editors: Conrad Buff/Jamie Pearson; music: Hans Zimmer; cast: Clive Owen (Arthur), Ioan Gruffudd (Lancelot), Mads Mikkelsen (Tristan), Joel Edgerton (Gawain), Hugh Dancy (Galahad) Ray Winstone (Bors), Keira Knightley (Guinevere), Stephen Dillane (Merlin), Stellan Skarsgård (Cerdic), Ray Stevenson (Dagonet), Til Schweiger (Cynric), Sean Gilder (Jols), Ivano Marescotti (Bishop Germanius); Runtime: 120; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producer: Jerry Bruckheimer; Touchstone Pictures; 2004)

“An ordinary B-film action story.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Studio director Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”/”Tears of the Sun”) helms this action summer blockbuster version of the Round Table legend for schlockmeister producer Jerry Bruckheimer. It reduces the legend to a series of excoriating battle scenes that should soothe the beast in many a red-blooded American male, but irritate just as many others with its bogus history lesson. The film’s script tinkers with the legend and offers an almost campy revisionist version, hoping to come up with another Braveheart. It has the audacity to mention that this recently discovered untold version is the one that historians can look upon with favor as being the true inspiration of the legend, when in fact a great many historians believe the tale of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table is either a fiction or that Arthur is based on a compilation of many kings.

David Franzoni’s (“Gladiator”) screenplay takes us back to the fifth century and we find Arthur and his knights are the remnants of the Sarmatian people (Indo-Iranian people of the Caucasus). They are a brave lot of warriors whose lives were spared during the Roman siege so they can be conscripted for fifteen years by Rome to guard the territory along Britain’s hinterlands near the Hadrian Wall. Merlin (Stephen Dillane) is now seen not as a mighty magician but as an old disheveled guerrilla leader of the Highland Picts (the pagans are nicknamed “woads,” after a plant that produces a blue dye they use to paint their bodies). Merlin’s freedom fighters are at war with the Romans, and have gotten the ire of Arthur because they killed his mother on a raid to his hometown village.

The film is almost a complete bore, suffering from the usual fate of blockbusters in poor character development; but, also because of ham-fisted villains, an incoherent story and a general vacuousness to purpose. But I loved those shots of flaming arrows soaring in the sky, of soldiers posturing before battle and those neat outfits worn by the cool warriors of the Dark Ages.

It begins with the fall of the Roman Empire in 450 A.D., as lawlessness prevails as the Roman armies begin to flee the British Isles. Arthur (Clive Owen) has found a belief in Christianity but is surrounded by a group of knights that consider themselves pagans and therefore there’s no chance of them going after the Holy Grail. The following members make up the band of rag-tag knights: Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd), Tristan (Mads Mikkelsen), Gawain (Joel Edgerton), Galahad (Hugh Dancy), Bors (Ray Winstone), and Dagonet (Ray Stevenson). None of them has any character that distinguishes one from the other, but Bors is used for some lowbrow comedy as the clownish macho father of eleven bastards.

The knights faithfully serve the Roman empire, but on their last day of service before they are granted their freedom they are forced by the bishop (Marescotti) to carry out a dangerous assignment of taking the son of a high-ranking Roman official to safety across the Hadrian Wall. The son is a favorite of the Pope’s and the family lives in enemy territory on the north side of the wall. They are in danger of being killed either by the Woads or the invading Saxon forces. The Saxons are led by the ruthless Cerdic (Stellan Skarsgård) who kills everyone in his path. Skarsgård has a full beard while his warrior son Cynric (Til Schweiger) a knotted goatee. The father proves he knows how to camp it up more than any other Brit or Saxon, whispering and grunting in an effort to try and steal every scene.

On the knights last Roman mission which they reluctantly accept to gain their freedom, Arthur frees the pagan Guinevere (Keira Knightley) from a dungeon where she was kept by the Roman official. She rewards Arthur with a few sly sexual glances, a revealing look at her painted blue hot bod, and surprises as a nifty hand-to-hand combat fighter and archer. There’s no romantic-triangle with Lancelot. Excalibur is explained as merely the Arturius family sword, pulled from the dead father’s grave by the force of love. By the end the film’s ideal message becomes symbolized in a marriage between Arthur and Guinevere, representing a merging of paganism with Christianity.

Arthur’s knights have grown weary from fighting continual terrorist-like skirmishes with the Woads and wish only to retire from the army. When the obedient Arthur tires of the Roman empire and its church’s trickery and their authoritarian abuses, he rebels against their rule and anoints himself a rebel king. He seizes the moment to unite Britain when the last of the Romans flee and this leads to the payoff battle with the Saxons, where the main characters on each side miraculously find each other in the fog of war in a fight-to-the-finish.

It’s a dreary and humorless film that has diluted all the fantasy elements about the legend that always made it sparkle with intellectual curiosity and instead leaves us with an ordinary B-film action story. “King Arthur” was a cold narrative that was unable to reach us in an emotionally human way. All it succeeded in doing really well was create a mystifying look of a metallic-like blue-mist across the uninspiring battleground fields, as photographed by ace cinematographer Slawomir Idziak.