King Arthur has been the subject of myriads of adaptations in many media. In 2004, his name became the title for a film which radically reimagines the legend. There's neither Holy Grail nor love triangle. The sword in the stone gets cleverly recontextualized, while the film xenafies Guinevere into a Celtic archer-woman protected by the well-established principle of bulletproof nudity.
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Writer: David Franzoni
Director of Photography: Slawomir Idziak
Bishop Germanius.....Ivano Marescotti
It's certainly an original take, this de-magick'd account of Arthur, who must lead his knights on one last, dangerous mission to in order to gain their freedom from the Holy Roman Empire during its final days. Along the way he meets Guinevere, befriends Merlin, and stops a Saxon invasion.
The opening text informs us that "historians agree" that Arthur is a legend, based on some actual British hero from the final years of the Roman Empire. Historians agree on nothing here, save that such an inspiration for Arthur could theoretically have existed. While this introduction informs us that we're not going to see a traditional version of the Arthurian legend, it comes very close to suggesting we're seeing the True StoryTM. We're not, and that's not the point. King Arthur plays as heroic adventure, wherein idealized warriors who always seem to be in just the right light and mise en scene win against overwelming odds using implausible tactics. They wield powerful weapons, wear armour of uncertain origin, form heroic bonds, and ride non-defecating horses. No one should pretend this is history.
As befits heroic adventure, the film has been beautifully shot. While the sets may be low-budget and historically problematic, everything has been framed nicely. Snow swirls round our warriors. Battles feature blood and cuts.
Arthur, of course, is idealized, a man devout in his Christianity, and appaled that the Roman aristocracy and clerics give so little heed to its true meaning. He stands by his Pagan knights, who form a kind of Dark Age magnificent seven. He urges them to fight for a higher cause, for the egalitarian England in his mind's eye.
Ray Winstone's gives a biker-like characterization to Bors, half paternal and fraternal concern, half testosterone-driven machismo. He's terribly entertaining during the first half of the film. During the second half, his character has been sombered by the death of a friend, and pushed into the background by plot demands.
Guinevere gets rescued from a kind of proto-Inquisition, though we never learn too of the backstory here. She is one of Merlin's people, primitive Celts who have resisted the Romans. Gradually, she falls for Arthur; the film only hints at her traditional attraction to Lancelot. Far from being the feminine queen featured in many Arthurian adaptations, she ranks among a small elite of female archers who stand alongside the male warriors in battle. Putting Guinevere in ceremonial paint and skimpy leather outfit certainly qualifies as an original take on the character.
Arthur and Merlin's people come together because of the mutual threat presented by the Saxons. They're led by Cerdic (Stellan Skarsgård), a sociopath with his own problematic code of honor. Skarsgård speaks in a deep, whispered voice that conveys a strong sense of menace.
King Arthur's characterizations, however memorable, lack much depth. They prove to be more about moments than overall performances. The actors do well, but they haven't been given the opportunity to do much development of their characters.
The film's second half becomes somewhat confusing, but it delivers a fair bit of visceral action, balanced with images of corpses. The series of military successes, however, rely rather heavily on implausible tactics, which may tax the willing suspension of disbelief.
For all its originality, King Arthur ultimately makes the legend yet another action movie. It does manage to be entertaining-- more so than summer '04's other, bigger-budgeted sword-n-sandal epic, Troy. Cinematically, it proves far less groundbreaking than its premise. And, of course, it may disappoint those expecting the traditional Arthurian Legend, a Holy Grail, or taunting by a French Knight.
A variation of this review, by this author, first appeared at www.bureau42.com