King Arthur (2004)
There are some stories that seem to touch something in our human consciousness, tales of courage, honor, and faith. Among the most popular to these stories is that of King Arthur. It has been sung in Camelot and subjected to satire by Monty Python. One of the latest entries into this foray states up front that it was based on new "archaeological evidence". While I have certain trepidation as to the validity of this statement my purpose of watching this film was enjoy a movie not have a history lesion. This statement did, however, set a different tone for this telling of the Arthurian legend, one that does not rely on the mysticism of Merlin or the honor bound Knights of the Round Table. It appears to more influenced by the success of Braveheart than reliance on archaeological digs and research. While there are two actual men called King Arthur in British history neither appears to be ‘the’ King Arthur of lore and legend. That Arthur (Clive Owen), actually Artorius, was a general of a garrison patrolling Hadrian's Wall in Celtic lands around 450 CE preventing the northern and southern factions from engaging in open warfare. Arthur discovers that Rome is about to abandon Briton and leave the population to be over taken by the Saxons. Arthur and his troops have one last mission, to free a politically connected Roman boy imprisoned by a pagan group. On the way they find a Roman torture chamber containing a muddy young girl, Guinevere (Keira Knightley). Some other familiar characters such as Merlin (Stephen Dillane), here the leader of a forest tribe, do show up but this is far from the story any of us are used to. This villain here is in the personage of Cerdic (Stellan Skarsgard) a brutal Saxon leader bent on conquest. There is also the loyal knights, Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd) and Galahad (Hugh Dancy) but as with other in this film, familiar in name only.
Now, while this is not the story most would expect there are some interesting aspects to the plot. There is more of a parallel to modern politics, soldiers facing the extension of their service, factions at war for ancient ground and a little love story thrown in for good measure. This film owes more to the influence of the current trend of CGI driven action flicks than it does to any "recently unearthed" archaeological finds. The story is little more than something to hold together the various battle scenes. Perhaps if the setting was something other than such a beloved classic as the King Arthur we grew up loving so much it would have come across as bit better than it did. By attempting to modernize this legend they lost what made it special, the magic and wonder of it all. At this time in history we need characters that are pure of heart and driven by virtue, not another mindless sortie into violence. Sure, there were plenty of battles in the Lord of the Rings trilogy but not at the expense of honest human emotional involvement. I found I merely witnessed this movie instead of becoming invested in it. While those that make a living in as stunt men and extras love such films the audience deservers a lot more.
The casting here is somewhat haphazard. Clive Owens has been an actor on the verge of his big break for years. Fortunately for him his next film, Closer, permitted a far better showcase for his professionalism in the craft of acting. Here, that skill is hidden behind a ill constructed set of lines. He delivers the words with overly important and foreboding tone. To his credit his abilities are well honed enough that even this script can not hide them and his turns out to be one of the better overall performances. He has a command of the screen that all the mud in England, most of it finding its way to this feature, cannot cover. Keira Knightley is present in this film for one reason, she is young, beautiful and has the best six pack abs ever seen on film. In a behind the scene featurette a comment was made that when the producers saw her abs orders where immediately issued to the costume department to lose the middle part of her wardrobe. Like many young actresses Knightley has decided her ticket to the ‘A’ list will come with out doing the boys in an action film. Only 18 at the time of filming she has time to develop her acting talents and take on more serious roles. Here she is given only ultra violent scenes punctuated by the occasional witty quip, I’ve seen her in films like ‘Love, Actually’, and she can do better.
Directed by Antoine Fuqua under the watchful eye of successful producer Jerry Bruckheimer attempt to make the Arthurian legend more realistic, the question is why? This legend has severed well for many generations. Fuqua has demonstrated that he is able to direct a story with action and plot; after all he did a fantastic job with ‘Training Day’. Here, the script by David Franzoni leaves him with little to work with. That in itself is surprising since Franzoni has penned such classics as Gladiator, Amistad and even the comical ‘Jumping Jack Flash’. With all of this talent perhaps I expected too much from this film. The main negative may be that this film set itself up with a lot of expectations, so many that there was no way to satisfy the audience. The script has a lot of potential it just didn’t come across as being paced correctly.
The film was original made with an ‘R’ rating in mind but at the last minute Buena Vista wanted to appeal to a wider audience and cut it down for a PG-13. Now, with the DVD the 15 minutes or so of material, mostly in the battle scenes, has been added back. The Dolby 5.1 audio is stunning; it places you in the middle of the action with a good workout for all six speakers. The video holds together without defect even in the bleakest of scenes. In all this is not a bad film, it delivers plenty of action but it could have been so much more.