Laura CliffordScratch the surface of a legend and you’ll find the man underneath. This is what screenwriter David Franzoni does in his story about Roman commander Lucius Artorius Castus and his Sarmatian Knights of the Round Table as they battle the Saxon hordes and unite the Britons during the Dark Ages in “King Arthur.”
I grew up on movies about King Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot and the rest off the knights from the 1953 film “Knights of the Round Table,” “Prince Valiant,” “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” and “Camelot” to John Borman’s 1981 sword and sorcery fest, “Excalibur.” Every one played some variation of the legend, usually with an aging Arthur, a young hottee Guinevere and a handsome, hot-to-trot Lancelot. Franzoni’s script, under the helm of Antoine Fuqua (“Training Days”, strips away the legend and creates its own vision of the birth of a king.
The Roman Empire is nearing its end and one of its far flung outposts, the north of England, is being dismantled. Arthur (Clive Owen) is the leader of the Sarmatian Knights, once numbered 28 and now a mere, but formidable, six. The promise of freedom and return to Rome are dangled before the battle weary cavalrymen provided they perform one, last, dangerous mission – to go north of Hadrian’s Wall into the heartland of the Scottish Woads and escort a prominent Roman official and his family back to safety.
Scripter Franzoni dug up some Dark Ages references to Artorius Castus (Owen), a Roman knight tasked with security for the Roman withdrawal from Britain as the Empire crumbled in the 6th century. As the film begins, he heads the remnants of his knightly entourage as they rescue a Roman Catholic dignitary from an assault by the native Woads, led by near-mystical leader Merlin (Stephen Dillane). The pagan Woads have long been under the Roman yoke and they fight to hasten their conquerors’ departure. But, the vacuum the Romans leave will soon be filled by another invader – the Saxons, led by brutal Cerdic (Stellan Skarsgard) and his equally vile son Cynric (Til Schweiger).
The stage is set as Arthur and his men head out on their mission to escort the Roman nobleman, his family and slaves to the safety of Hadrian’s Wall, but not before releasing the Roman’s prisoners, including the beautiful Guinevere (Kiera Knightley). The warrior princess joins the Knights on their mission with the hope of rejoining her kinsman and bringing the battle to the Saxon invaders.
Antoine Fuqua can be accused of derivative filmmaking with his adventure tome that gives more than a passing nod to such films a Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart” and Kenneth Branagh’s “Henry V.” The blue-stained skin of the Woad warriors and Arthur’s St. Crispin’s Day-style speech are lifted from those previous epic stories, although, historically, Fuqua and company may be more accurate in their depictions of the time. Comparison, too, can be made to both “Seven Samurai” and “The Magnificent Seven” as each of Arthur’s followers has some special skill that they bring to the equation and to the fight.
The actors take their various roles quite seriously, with the exception of Ray Winstone as the film’s comic relief. Bors is a randy fellow with a pack of illegitimate kids and three wives and a joie de vie that puts a sparkle in the aging knight’s eye. Arthur, as played by Clive Owen, is a stern taskmaster who expects the loyalty and courage of his men because he gives back such in equal measure. He is the kind of strong, capable leader that strong, capable men will follow – and has the makings of a king.
The Knights backing up Arthur are the best of the best that remain alive after so many years of battle. Ioan Gruffudd is Arthur’s right hand man, Lancelot, who may question his leader’s decisions but will lay his life down for them, nonetheless. Only passing consideration is given to the romance of legend between brave Lancelot and Guinevere. The rest of the members of the Round Table each have his own unique quality or specialty. Tristan (Mads Mikkelsen) is the loner of the group so he and his pet hawk are usually positioned well ahead of the procession as lookout. Dagonet (Ray Stevenson) is the most formidable (and compassionate) of the Knights as he does battle with his enormous, two-handed sword. Hugh Dancy, as the youngest knight, Galahad, remembers his Roman roots better than the rest and has nurtured his desire to return home. Gawain (Joel Edgerton) is most at home on the battlefield. He will dispatch as many enemies as possible but will sacrifice himself for Arthur without question.
Scribe Franzoni does not try to fit the characters into their legendary moulds but introduces the key players that will make up the legends of yore. Merlin is in the picture not as a powerful sorcerer, as we are used to, but as the skilled, brave leader of the Scottish heathens. He, too, sees the need for a real leader when the Romans leave Britain and aligns with Arthur as having the best chance of uniting the Britons and defeating the Saxons. There has been a lot of noise about Guinevere as a warrior but I have to say I like Knightley in such a role.
Techs are strong across the board with lenser Slawomir Idziak (“Black Hawk Down”) giving the film its striking look, especially during the battle scenes. Costume, by Penny Rose, captures the varied looks of the players, from the traditional Roman soldiers to the fur-clad Saxons to the heavy armor of the equestrian Knights. Makeup, especially the blue tinting and tattoos of the Woads, gives a savage, fearsome look to the future Britons.
Fuqua’s reinvention of Arthur is more a swashbuckling action adventure than an answer to the question: from whence did the legend of Arthur come? He, with Franzoni script, makes a plausible attempt to base the legend in reality but still comes up with a larger than life (read “Hollywood”) creation. I give it a B-.
Screenwriter David Franzoni ("Gladiator") found the name Lucius Artorius Castus in a student's paper suggesting he was the basis of a legend. This warrior, who drove the Saxons out of Britain at the Battle of Badon Hill in 470, was a half-Roman, half-British leader of a Sarmatian cavalry unit. History and recent archaeological finds point to him as the probable reality behind the myth of "King Arthur."
After two decades serving Rome, Arthur (Clive Owen, "Croupier," "Beyond Borders") brings his men to be released from their servitude by Bishop Germanius (Ivano Marescotti), but the wily cleric gives Arthur a terrible burden - he must inform Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd, "Titanic"), Bors (Ray Winstone, "Sexy Beast"), Gawain (Joel Edgerton, "Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones"), Tristan (Mads Mikkelsen, "Open Hearts"), Dagonet (Ray Stevenson) and Galahad (Hugh Dancy, "Ella Enchanted") that they will not receive their release documents unless they rescue a Roman family north of Hadrian's Wall. This means almost certain death as not only are the Saxons descending southward, travelling beyond the wall means facing the barbaric, blue-painted Woads whom the wall was erected to protect against.
The seven samurai are soon corralled by these Picts, but, oddly, their leader Merlin (Stephen Dillane, "The Hours") lets them live. Arthur arrives at the Roman outpost and is disgusted to find Britons working in slavery and torture in the name of Christianity. He frees Guinevere (Keira Knightley, "Pirates of the Caribbean," "Bend It Like Beckham"), an imprisoned Woad, and decides he will march the oppressed peoples away from the Saxons, whose drums can already be heard in the distance. After Dagonet's bravery buys them time during an encounter with an offshoot of Cerdic's (Stellan Skarsgard, "Dogville") army led by his son Cynric (Til Schweiger, "Lara Croft: The Cradle of Life"), Arthur is manipulated by Guinevere into a meeting with Merlin, who suggests they join forces to defeat a common enemy. Arthur's internal struggle over his allegiance to Rome is decided by two things - the execution of Christian leader Pelagius as a heretic and Guinevere's appeals to his maternal bloodlines. Arthur obtains freedom for his men from the Romans who are abandoning Britain as an indefensible outpost, then confounds them all by deciding to stay at Hadrian's Wall to battle the Saxons alongside the Woads.
Producer Jerry Bruckheimer should be congratulated for supporting this revisionist look at Arthurian legend (Franzoni's research found basis in fact for several facets of the myth such as the round table and swords buried in stones), but "King Arthur" is first and foremost a commercial endeavor that owes as much to "The Magnificent Seven" and "Braveheart" as it does to history. A good cast helps disguise the seven-dwarve-like personalities demanded by the script (each knight stands for a different ideal) and Fuqua neatly works around the PG-13 rating with plenty of down and dirty dark ages detail, but "King Arthur" cannot escape its cinematic borrowings enough to make a bold impression of its own. This is the type of film that prides itself on showing the Woads speaking their own dialect, but features the Saxons speaking accented English. It's a watered-down hybrid.
Clive Owen is an excellent casting choice for Arthur - he's handsome and noble and can express complex emotions without dialogue. He looks great on a horse or striding across a field with his Roman cape fluttering behind him. Ray Winstone provides the film's comic relief as the lusty, boastful Bors. The little known Joel Edgerton makes Gawain a standout with his trustworthiness and expressive face. Perhaps most extraordinary is Mads Mikkelsen as the mysterious Tristan who bonds more with his falcon than the other men. After his standout performance in "Open Hearts," Mikkelsen may be on his way to a truly international career like costar Skarsgard's. The more well known Gruffudd either glowers or looks at Knightley with unrequited desire and young Dancy is the fresh-faced one. Knightley convinces with her warrior princess ferocity and subtle political maneuvering, but is somewhat undercut by constant warrior glam shots. Skarsgard plays Cerdic in a gruff-voiced monotone only broken by one enthusiastic reaction to a challenge and Schweiger is simply awful as his son Cyric.
Production designer Dan Weil ("The Fifth Element") makes the dark ages come to life with his recreation of Hadrian's Wall and the bizarre sight of a Roman Villa in the Scottish highlands. Costume designer Penny Rose ("Evita") does beautiful work, incorporating the cultural backgrounds of the characters into their clothes (note Tristan's Mongolian flavored helmet), but she goes overboard with Knightley's bondage fighting gear. Film editing by Conrad Buff ("Tears of the Sun") and Jamie Pearson is terrific in the battle sequences, putting across the brutality of the fighting within the constraints of a PG-13 rating. Hans Zimmer's ("Gladiator") score is uninspired, with former co-composer Lisa Gerard (formerly of band Dead Can Dance) providing Enya-like warbling for Arthur and Guinevere's sex scene.
"King Arthur" would appear to be sequel-ready, but has oddly painted itself into a corner, especially where the Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot romantic triangle is concerned. It's enjoyable enough for its cast and new ideas, but its the old ideas, a feeling of "Braveheart" reheated, that keep it from being really memorable.
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