This film boasts the world’s first working-class Arthur (Clive Owen, The Croupier), who kept reminding me of Michael Caine as Alfie — or better yet, Caine as Austin Powers’ father in Goldmember. (David Franzoni’s screenplay even scarfs a description from that film, of someone’s endowment resembling “a baby’s arm holding an apple.”)
Guinevere (Keira Knightley, Pirates of the Caribbean) paints herself blue, runs around in a leather bra and is a virtual Robin Hood with a bow and arrow. Lancelot (Ioan Gruffud, TV’s Horatio Hornblower) plans his funeral and offers a spot-on assessment of the whole affair when he opines, “This journey is taking far too long.” Merlin (Stephen Dillane, The Hours) also paints himself blue, but doesn’t indulge in magic — not even a card trick. The bad guy here isn’t Mordred — he and Morgana are apparently too fanciful — but a brutish Saxon with the un-brutish name of Cedric. Although he’s played by Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgard (Dancer in the Dark), Cedric appears to be from the southernmost parts of Saxony, judging by the Kris Kristofferson accent he affects. (They might have called this thing King Arfur to match the dialects.)
The idea here is to strip the Arthurian tales of their legend and present us with the “real” story. Well, even if this was the real story — and it’s as historically specious as the most mystical version of the legend — it wouldn’t keep this film from being just a painfully dull collection of generic battle scenes cribbed from other (better) movies, and a host of one-liner spouting generic-buddy-picture characters with dubious hygiene, whose fates aren’t likely to matter a damn bit to you.
In a word, King Arthur is mundane — as seems to be the fashion of the day. First Mel Gibson gives us a fleshy Jesus picture that concentrates on sadism over spirituality. Then, Wolfgang Peterson serves up a de-mythologized Troy that’s heavy on the beefcake and light on the legend. And now we get this. The only thing that sets King Arthur apart is that it’s far more inept than the other two. OK, so the “Your wife has left with the Trojans” line in Troy was pretty funny, but it pales in comparison with one character’s objections to Christianity spoken here: “I dislike anything that requires a man getting on his knees.” Well.
In this version, Arthur is a Roman soldier who’s been sold a load of clams about the freedom he’s fighting for and, in order to obtain liberty for his men, is called upon to take them on a “certain death” mission on the bad side of Hadrian’s Wall to rescue the Pope’s “favorite godson.” Now, you might rightly wonder why this highly regarded Roman family (we know they’re some kind of upper-class folk, because like the nobles in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, they’re the only ones “not covered in s**t) chose to build their medeival bungalow in the heart of enemy territory
From the looks of Merrie Olde England in this movie, you’d be hard-pressed to understand why anyone would build there at all. The place resembles for all the world the post-Apocalyptic England of Richard Lester’s The Bed-Sitting Room or the dragon-infested landscape of Reign of Fire. A more depressing prospect could hardly be imagined. Perhaps that’s why the Roman family in question takes it upon themselves to torture the locals — called Woads — into Christianity. The sheer dreariness of the place probably drove them to it to help pass the time in those pre-jigsaw puzzle days. Of course, if they hadn’t built in this locale and they didn’t torture Woads, the movie would have no place to go.
The problem is that even with these plot contrivances, it still doesn’t have anyplace to go. King Arthur simply lurches from one scrupulously bloodless PG-13 battle to the next. The first big fracas attempts to duplicate the “Battle on the Ice” from Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky — something Ken Russell played with back in the late ’60s in the third Harry Palmer spy film, Billion Dollar Brain. Well, Fuqua ain’t Eisenstein and he ain’t Russell, but even so, this is the best sequence in a movie that otherwise strives to be Braveheart and fails at even that none-too-lofty goal.
Possibly Fuqua lacks Mel Gibson’s bravura sado-masochism, though that seems unlikely for the director of Training Day. I suspect this is more the meddling of Jerry “Pirates of the Caribbean Was a Fluke” Bruckheimer and his insistence on a film with atrocities suitable for the whole family — a very easily amused whole family. In between battles, we get a little romance for Arthur and Guinevere (and one of the worst sex scenes in history); a lot of male bonding, complete with nudge-nudge-wink-wink dialogue; duplicitous representatives of Rome; characters listed in the credits as “Mental Monk” and “Obnoxious Monk” (those’ll look good on the old resume); and the glowering villainy of Skarsgard’s Cedric. The best thing in this melange is, in fact, Cedric. He’s at least rather lively — “Kill them all; burn everything” — but seems kind of shy on motivation and certainly wanting in intellect and cleanliness.
Radical rethinkings of standard classics can sometimes bear fruit. Consider Richard Loncraine’s “fascist” version of Richard III, for example — or, more to the point, John Boorman’s Excalibur, which took the same material that makes up King Arthur and reworked it in terms of Wagenerian opera. Those films, however, built upon central, strongly focused re-imaginings, and soared with them; King Arthur merely turns a classic myth into the boringly ordinary. Forty-two years ago, John Ford concluded his film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance with the idea, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Messrs. Fuqua and Franzoni ought to have taken heed of that.
“Rule your fate,” advises King Arthur‘s ad campaign. And well you ought to — by going to see something else.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke