"King Arthur" 07-14-04
The new “King Arthur” film can be enjoyable if you a) forget that it’s supposed to be anything about any King Arthur you know; and b) forget that it’s supposed to be in any way historical (as the opening titles allege—it is the funniest line in the movie, as it turns out). Despite its claims, the attachment to the theory that there may have been an Arthur or Artorius who was a holdover dux bellorum from Roman times is tenuous at best, and in reality the film is a mish-mash of times, peoples, and technologies that the writers of the Prince Valiant comic strip would sneer at. Arthur is supposedly the British-born Roman commander of Sarmatian auxiliary cavalry in Britain. (That these characters are referred to even by the Romans as “knights” is risible in itself. The nearest Roman term “equestrian” meant a middle class Roman citizen of property, which these fellows are clearly not.) After fifteen years of conscripted service, the Sarmatians have been whittled down to a mere six awaiting discharge: Lancelot, Tristan, Gawain, Galahad, Bors, and Dagonet. Dagonet? One wonders why the writers dug so far into the Arthurian canon for the obscure Sir Dagonet, who was “A foolish knight from the French Vulgate Lancelot. He is the court fool in Malory and Tennyson.” Even more curious, since the archetype does not fit the character in the least. Perhaps it’s not surprising he is the first of the remaining horsemen to die. A further annoyance is that “Gawain” is pronounced “Gwayne” in the movie, instead of “Gowan,” which any Arthurian scholar knows is correct. The “knights” have evolved into a kind of “Seven Samurai” group with each one specializing in a different weapon or fighting style, several of which have no excuse for being found in Britain at that time. (4th century Saxons with crossbows, however crude?)
The “one last mission” part of the plot, although trite, isn’t in itself ridiculous, save that it is established first thing that north of Hadrian’s Wall is the territory of the “Woads” (the hostile indigenes). Then, we are told that an important Roman has established an estate NORTH of the wall (and is apparently managing to not only hold it but oppress his tenants and harass the natives with only the help of a half-dozen armored thugs and some fanatical monks who seem to have invented the Inquisition a thousand years early). The knights have to go pull him and his family out of the path of an enormous Saxon incursion and get them back safely. There were a couple of eerily resonant moments in the script: one was the knights having their tour of duty in a foreign land summarily extended; the other was when Guinevere says the monks tortured her, asking questions she didn’t know the answers to. I give credit to the film makers for having the sheer guts to tackle a theme as legendary in cinema as a battle on a frozen lake (famously done in Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky) although the result is more tense than spectacular. I also tended to doubt that the Saxons would advance in more-or-less neat ranks, either--.
On their return, the Sarmatians are granted their discharges. Arthur, who is a Briton on his mother’s side, and who has discovered that Rome has discarded the ideals of freedom and equality he believes in, has been persuaded by Guinevere (and that really ought to be Gynhyfar--) to stay and help the British repel the Saxons. In best buddy movie fashion, the Sarmatians stay to pitch in as well. The final battle combines Arthur’s tactical brilliance and the “Woads’” woodcraft to defeat the brutish Saxon power. Well, OK—it’s established the Woads are masters of booby traps, but where’d they get the neatly-crafted albeit muscle-powered catapults from? (Same supplier that provided the crossbows, chain mail, and steel scimitars, I guess.)
The film ends with Arthur marrying Guinevere and being proclaimed king by the Britons. We had to laugh at his closing speech, which declared all Britain united. (We are sure there must be several sets of outtakes wherein Welshman Clive Owen, who plays Arthur, couldn’t get that one out with a straight face.)
All that aside, the film can still be entertaining. Owen does a very creditable job with the too-noble Arthur. We know that Stellan Skarsgard (Cerdic) can do Germanic accents, and were surprised and intrigued to find his Saxon leader spoke in a whispery rasp more reminiscent of a Western outlaw or outlaw biker, which made the character effectively scary. Good supporting performance by Ray Winstone as the lusty Bors, although one did wonder why his somewhat Midlands accent is so different from everyone else’s. Special mention to Keira Knightly as Guinevere. Not only has her beauty continued to mature, she has developed the potential to be an “action heroine” that she showed in “Pirates of the Caribbean.” In the climactic battle she fights with unsettling enthusiasm and athleticism, alternately laughing in the face of a foe who has missed her, and leaping on the back of another to cut his throat from behind. I would not have cared to meet her on the field! (Feminists will be somewhat disappointed that Lancelot comes to her aid when she finds the Saxon chief’s son too much for her to handle alone, but Cynric’s a lot bigger, better equipped, and fights dirtier even than she does--.)
Our ultimate decision on this film is to take it much like 1995’s "First Knight". It’s a story where some of the characters have familiar names, but any other resemblance to any other story is coincidental.