King Arthur (8/10)

Copyright © 2004 by Tony Medley

At no point in this film does Guinevere (Keira Knightley) turn to King Arthur (Clive Owen) and ask, “What do the simple folk do?” Nor does Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd) say, “C’est moi!” or bring someone back from the dead. Nor does Merlin (Stephan Dillane) live his life backward.

Indeed, this is a King Arthur you’ve never seen before, one that Producer Jerry Bruckheimer, Director Antoine Fuqua and screenwriter David Franzoni have tried to make as historically accurate as possible, given the fact that little is known about the Fifth and Sixth Century A.D., the time many think that the person lived upon whom the Arthurian legend is based. In fact, the only thing you’ll see in this film that will seem familiar is the Round Table, even though there are only six knights who join Arthur at it.

Arthur (real name Lucius Artorius Castus, an actual historic personage from the Fifth Century) is a half Roman, half-British descendant of a Roman warrior, who was a Roman ruler of Britain in the Second Century. His small band of knights is ready to be returned to Rome after 15 years in Britain. But a Bishop arrives from Rome to tell them they have one more task to fulfill, rescuing a Roman family outside Hadrian’s Wall (which protects Roman Britain) which will bring them in conflict with the invading Saxon horde led by the cruel Cedric (Stellan Skarsgard).  This causes them to link up with the native Woads who are led by Merlin, who has a daughter named Guinevere. This Guinevere is closer to one of Charlie's Angels than Julie Andrews, a fighter by nature. All this is the setup for the climactic Battle of Badon Hill.

Because it was the Dark Ages and little was written, whether or not this battle actually took place is debatable. A British historian named Gildas wrote around 550 A.D. of the Battle of Mynydd Baddon, which, according to him, resulted in decades of freedom from Saxon hordes. Bruckheimer and Company place the happenings in the Fifth Century, but most historians date the Battle, if it occurred, at 500 A.D. or later, which would make it the Sixth Century. Gildas doesn’t mention the winning commander, but a later historian, Nennius, wrote about it several centuries later and mentions that the war leader was Arthur, and the Arthurian legend was born. Bruckheimer and company have included all the well known knights of the legend to this story. Who knows? This is certainly more believable than Richard Burton and Julie Andrews singing their way through Camelot.

Owen has done his phlegmatic hero so many times now he can mail it in. This film is no exception. He’s a Richard Burton clone without the charisma (and what’s wrong with that?), but for this role he’s perfect. He’s not helped by Franzoni, who gives him some hopelessly melodramatic lines to utter. Owen is better when he’s the strong silent type, with the emphasis on the latter.

The film isn’t perfect. In the climactic battle that takes up the last half hour of the film, there are thousands of men and one woman, Guinevere. The men are all dressed in armor with shields and protective covering. Guinevere dashes in clothed in little more than a flimsy bustier. While the men are demolished one by one in violent hand-to-hand combat (Nennius claims that 960 men died, all killed by Arthur alone!), Guinevere emerges with little more than a few scratches. Also, if they’re interested in historical accuracy, historians will say that their scenes of Arthur and his knights attacking on horses could not have happened in the Fifth Century. If they fought, all the fighters would have been on the ground.

But even with these criticisms, rather than magnificent castles filled with knights romantic and damsels beautifully clothed, King Arthur brings us a view of life much closer to reality. Everyone wears the same clothes all the time. They’re dirty. The weather’s bad. The only thing that I thought was unrealistic was Keira Knightly’s portrayal of Guinevere. Even when she’s dirty she’s beautiful. And she’s not dirty for very long. The film never explains how she got where she was when Arthur finds her.

The film also raises a 1600 year-old controversy about Christian theology by bringing up the conflict between St. Augustine and Pelagius, which is interesting, but too esoteric to get into in this review. Since the film raises the subject it might be helpful for you to know that Pelagius rejected the concept of Original Sin and claimed that man can achieve grace through free will and without the Church and its priests; Augustine believed in Original Sin and the necessity of the Church for salvation. For the record, the Arthur in this film says he is on the side of Pelagius, who was branded a heretic by the Church (although his ideas were accepted by churches in the East). This is clearly fantasy since little is known of the historical Lucius Artorius Castus, and certainly nothing is known of his theological ideas. What this has to do with the story of King Arthur and why it’s raised in the movie is a puzzlement.

While the costuming (Penny Rose) looks fairly authentic, in the final scenes when Guinevere is getting married…in the wilds…on a bluff overlooking the ocean…, she’s in a gown that looks as if it came straight from Donna Karin.

Despite that, this is an entertaining new look at an old story. It’s a movie; it’s fiction; and I enjoyed it.

June 30, 2004