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King Arthur B-
Year Released: 2004
In Jerry Bruckheimer's universe, King Arthur is about as romantic as a prison riot. The nobility and optimism, the romance with Guinevere, the banners of Camelot flying beneath a sunny blue sky... they're just too passive for his tastes. His Arthur is an unflinching death machine, the kind teenagers embrace with adrenaline-fueled epitaphs on their lips. He strides across battlefields, he smashes local architecture, he marvels at the way the bloodstains bring out the shine in his armor. He's a badass dude doing badass deeds, and he's never more attractive than when cutting down Saxons like piles of mulch.
As a take on the character, it's certainly different. And luckily, in the hands of director Antoine Fuqua, it attains an undeniable watchability. Fuqua's previous efforts mixed street-level grit with wild melodramatics, infusing the screen with preposterous masculinity and holding it there through sheer force of will. In collaborating with Bruckheimer, he exacerbates those qualities even further. The resultant King Arthur is over the top and completely humorless, but also fiercely effective. The filmmakers demand our respect, and are willing to do whatever it takes to secure it. That, and the fact that the concept really is off the beaten path, keeps King Arthur on target.
The promotional material ballyhoos it as "the true story" of the legendary knight. In actuality, it's primarily fiction, cloaked in historical circumstances designed to convey how the Arthur tales could have started. As such, it's very different from what we've come to know. There's no magic or dragons here, nothing to deter from the notion that the events as shown might have conceivably taken place sometime in the past. It depicts a Romanized Britain circa 400 AD; the Empire is teetering and the legionnaires are pulling out ahead of the invading Saxons. Arthur himself (Clive Owen) is a half-British Roman officer, while his men originally hail from Eastern Europe. They represent the last bastions of civilization in an increasingly savage land. Fuqua paints their surroundings in a perpetual gray fog, wafting above green fields spattered with brown and a few outposts defiantly rising from the muck. The sun never shines in this Arthur's Camelot, and war is an everyday reality. It's no surprise that, while the film's Round Table can seat some 30 men, less than eight are still alive to feast upon it.
Fuqua's penchant for abstract visuals is well-suited to such an environment, and he portrays the savagery of the era with alpha-dog enthusiasm. Britain beyond the walls is populated by warring tribes of Picts, led by Merlin (Stephen Dillane) who charts a dangerous course between the failing Empire and the Saxon army striking at its fringes. The Roman forces themselves are comprised of ethnic outsiders, brought to a strange land by foreign rulers for whom they themselves hold little affinity. Fuqua does a fine job of clarifying this cultural smorgasbord, and using it to embellish the chaos of the period. Arthur stands as a badly needed force of stability: principled, honorable, and possessing a warrior's code that separates him from the howling mobs around him. Screenwriter David Franzoni borrows a page from his earlier Gladiator in developing the protagonist; like Russell Crowe's Maximus, Arthur fights for an idealized Rome, a philosophical abstract that never really existed. The slow disintegration of that dream forces him to chart a new course that (as the film assures us) forms the foundation of the famous legends.
As drama goes, it holds its weight; it has the flexibility to make huge breaks from the Arthurian canon (there's no love affair between Lancelot and Guinevere, for example), but is still similar enough to justify the title. Fuqua gives the knights some suitably epic tasks to perform, providing for several white-knuckle set pieces (including an odd homage to Kurosawa's Throne of Blood) before settling into a big showdown with the Saxons. King Arthur's best elements can be found on the level of mythmaking. As with the imagery he conjures so well (aided by DP Slawomir Idziak and production designer Dan Weil) Fuqua is most comfortable with the bigger picture: seeing characters in terms of the drama they embody rather than smaller human beings with whom we can empathize. These are important figures, the film insists; we dare not snicker at their sacrifice or trivialize the tasks they undertake. That's a lot of ask from a summer movie, but Fuqua's unshakable straight face sees it through; he never cracks a smile, and by taking it all so seriously, he gives the weightier themes an appropriate sense of gravitas.
Once we descend into more mundane details, however, King Arthur starts to stumble. While it's always exciting, it's rarely fun; a dangerous tendency for a flick of this sort. It makes copious use of titillating elements, but they are delivered as solemnly as the heavier stuff, inducing eye-rolls aplenty and making us wonder occasionally if it all isn't some huge practical joke. Stereotyping is common as well: the knights are fearsome warriors and loyal only to Arthur; the Picts are barbaric and mysterious; the Romans are scheming and duplicitous. Owen has two tones -- stoic and bellowing -- which makes him easy to watch but harder to identify with, and though Ray Winstone brings some earthy smiles as the rapscallion knight Bors, the other characters lack real personality. Considering the literary weight they carry, it's a notable letdown.
Thankfully, it all still engages us. Fuqua adamantly refuses to let our attention wander, and keeps us entertained almost despite ourselves. When Keira Knightley's Guinevere shows up in a strappy leather number, we might stifle a giggle, but we definitely don't want her to leave; the same could be said for King Arthur's other questionable elements (of which there are a fair number). For all the pomposity it throws at us -- enough to flirt with unintentional camp -- the film stays true to its purpose. It means what it says, and if it believes too strongly in what it's selling, at least it's still a real belief instead of some hipster's quote marks. That in and of itself makes it worthy of its name: not an immortal story so much as an interesting new way of looking at one.
Review published 07.07.2004.
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