By: Robert Sherman
The film King Arthur (2004, directed by Antoine Fuqua) is the story
of an ancient legend brought back into mainstream culture by Hollywood. King
Arthur and his knights’ stories have been enjoyed for many centuries but
will the twenty-first century film goers enjoy this film? Through thorough analysis
and explanation of expectations, a potential viewer may have an idea of what
to expect from the film.
The film starts in 425 A.D. England, showing Arthur’s knights on their first days of fifteen year tenure of Roman service. A flash to fifteen years later, 467 A.D., Arthur and his knights are talking but it is obvious most have not survived the years. His remaining knights include Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd), Bors( Ray Winstone), Dagonet (Ray Stevenson), Gawain (Joel Edgerton), Tristram (Mads Mikkelsen), and Galahad (Hugh Dancy). His knights are depicted as sons of captured Sarmatian cavalry,who have not converted to Christianity. Although Arthur himself is devout Christian, he does not resent his men because of their pagan beliefs. Arthur is half Roman and half Celtic Roman cavalry officer, who is ready for his duty to the Romans to be over so he can venture to Rome. Arthur is played by Clive Owen, a renowned English actor. Arthur and his knights have been fighting the Woads, Celtic natives of the land, for fifteen long years. A skirmish ensues between Arthur and his knights and the Woads in the opening minutes. To Arthur and his knights’ dismay they are ordered by Bishop Germanius (Ivano Marescotti) to complete one final mission. The mission is to rescue Alecto, the Pope’s godson, who is located in treacherous territory. Woads infest this treacherous territory and the mission seems like inevitable death. Arthur’s knights are reluctant to go, but know that this is their only path to freedom. Alecto is in trouble because of the coming of a great army, the Saxons. In the midst of this, Rome is evacuating Britain because of bigger imperial problems.
Once Arthur and his knights reach Alecto, Arthur is alarmed by the atrocities being inflicted on the people by Alecto’s father Marius. Arthur condemns these atrocities towards the native pagan people and frees all who are being tortured in Marius’s “holy” chamber. Arthur insists that all of the citizens of the town should follow him to safety behind Hadrian’s Wall. It is here Arthur meets Guinevere, who is the daughter of the great leader of the Woads, Merlin. She takes Arthur to make an alliance against the Saxons with Merlin. Arthur is very reluctant to meet Merlin because the Woads killed his mother. In this flashback the legendary sword, Excalibur, is ripped from the stone by Arthur. The Saxon force soon catches up with Arthur and his companions. The Saxons are led by a father and son in tandem, but there is no doubt the father, Cerdic (Stellen Starsgard), is in charge. Cerdic’s son, Cynric (Til Schweigner), catches up with Arthur and his knights with a small infantry force in a valley of ice. Arthur and his knights are seriously outnumbered but through valiant effort they hold off Cynric. They use the treacherous terrain to fend off Cynic, breaking the ice which drowns most of his force. This skirmish does not come without cost as Dagonet is fatally wounded. Cynric returns to his father in shame, and is humiliated in front of the other officers. The insanity of Cedric is shown when he reacts by mutilating his own son’s face.
Arthur and his knights safely return Alecto to Bishop Germanius and are given their freedom. Arthur is distraught when Alecto tells him his hero, Bishop Pelagius, was executed in Rome by Germanius. Arthur’s knights ride out with the retreating Romans to seek a new homeland. Arthur, compelled by a patriotic speech by Guinevere, stays and prepares to fight the Saxons. Arthur now realizes that he is a Briton, through and through. He rides outside the walls to talk terms with extremely arrogant Cerdic. Of course there is no truce and the Saxons march towards the city. The situation looks dismal for Arthur and Merlin’s few Celtic warriors but, spurred by a bond with Arthur, the knights ride back to help defend the city. The Saxons seemed to be confused and disoriented by the smoke and fast charges of Arthur's cavalry. Arthur finds Cerdic, after Cerdic kills Tristram, and kills him in an epic sword fight. Cerdic, when on his knees, smiles and says “Arthur.” It seems that Cerdic is excited to see that he has finally met his match. Lancelot sees Guinevere almost killed by Cynric and rushes to the rescue. Cynric and Lancelot both inflict mortal wounds and each other and perish. After the victory, Arthur marries Guinevere and Merlin proclaims him to be their King. King Arthur, who has lost all faith in Rome, is now dedicated to protect the English people until he dies. The film ends showing Arthur’s knights horses grazing in a field.
This film puts a new spin on the Arthurian tales; there is no
reference to popular themes such as the search for the Holy Grail, or the love
triangle between Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere. The film’s depiction
of Arthur’s knights as pagans and not on Christian quests is different
from many tales. Many Arthur fans may be turned away by this new dark depiction
of Arthur and his knights. The movie seems very dark with the many evil things
Arthur and his knights encounter along the way. The evil deeds are only brought
to justice by Arthur, whose Christian faith is strong. His knights, numerous
times, ridicule Christianity because of the intolerance displayed by the bishops
towards their pagan beliefs. In turn, every member of the Christian Church shown
in the film is evil. This stereotype of an evil early church could be quite
offensive to Catholics and other Christians. The pagan knights who follow Arthur
are seemingly glorified for their resistance to conform to such a church. This
film is probably the most realistic and historically accurate depiction of Arthur
and his knights. Touchstone Pictures claims the movie is a historically accurate
epic of the monarch. The Saxons are displayed as heartless, brute pagans who
destroy everything in their path. The role of the Saxons is surely to add to
the good versus evil theme. The Saxons are arrogant about their race; this is
shown when Cerdic punishes a soldier for trying to breed with a British native.
Cerdic states that “We don’t breed with these people, they are weak”.
The film never explains why the Saxons are invading Britain; they just burn
everything in their path.
The critics had mixed views of this film; however the majority seem negative. The Internet Movie Data Base has the movie rated as 6.1 out of 10. The 6.1 is determined out of 48,051 voters. Renowned movie critic, Roger Ebert, gave the movie three out of four stars. He states the “I would like to have seen deeper characterizations and more complex dialogue as in movies Braveheart or Rob Roy”. The film was produced by the acclaimed Jerry Bruckheimer, who has brought out epics such as Armageddon and Black Hawk Down. The film brought in $203,567,857 in gross worldwide, ranking 60th compared to other films in 2004. Out of the total gross only around 25% was brought in from the United States. This may be due to either lack of interest in the Arthurian legends in the US or possibly to bad promotion. The average critic reviews did not help sway potential viewers towards seeing the movie either. For example, a well known critic site, rottentomatoes.com, gave the site 31% out of 100. The site states that “The magic is gone, leaving a dreary, generic action movie.” Peter Travers of Rolling Stone magazine gives the movie the humorous title “Gladiator lite”. This humorous comparison to the box office hit Gladiator, which also involved Rome, seems to be reflect the views of most critics. The movie has good action sequences but fails to put the viewers on the edge of their seat. Do not expect to witness the next Braveheart or Gladiator when you rent this film, but if you just love action sequences then this movie may be fine and dandy for you.
Clive Owen plays a grizzled, virtuous King Arthur. Owen plays
this role well and his performance stands out amongst the rest. There are oftentimes
where Arthur could be tempted to lookout for himself other than for the good
of others, Owens’s gestures and attitude never leave any doubt that he
will do the right thing. Owen has played in another British history film, Elizabeth:
The Golden Age. Ray Winstone, who plays Bors, is fantastic in his supporting
role. He is a big brute, loose cannon, who hammers the enemies with his strength.
Although this character may not be meant to stand out as much as Lancelot, he
does so because of his authoritative voice and gestures. Lancelot is quite an
annoying character with his constant complaining and questioning of Arthur.
I believe it is the script that hinders Lancelot and not the actor, Ioan Gruffudd.
There is almost constant snow throughout the entire movie. The scenery definitely
adds to the movie’s impact because it shows the beauty of the land that
Arthur is trying to protect. Guinevere states “This is a beautiful country,
is it not?” The film’s main set represents Hadrian’s Wall,
and is the largest set ever built in Ireland, according to Touchstone Pictures.
Most other scenes were shot in wilderness or on mountains. There cannot be enough
emphasis on how incredible the landscape is in this film. The landscape almost
takes your mind off the mediocre film in which is being watched.
For action buffs and medieval battle fans, this movie is right up your alley. The battles are bloody, but not horribly gory. There are plenty of limbs hacked off but the blood itself is not ‘over the top.’ The film is rated PG-13 because of intense battle sequences, a scene of sensuality, and some language. The close range hand combat is realistic, not a drawn out sword fight as in a fencing match. The siege weapons make for quite a display of special effects. The Celtic trebuchets, which fling flaming boulders, smash into Saxon forces in the last epic battle. There is quite a variety of weapon technology in the film. The Saxons have axe men, with crossbowman following behind. Arthur and his knights have a variety of weapons as well, all of which are used from horseback. Arthur has traditional Roman armor but has a long sword. In the final epic battle the Saxons drums and chants would send most men running, but of course would be something worth hearing in a theatre or on a surround sound system. Although the action is not relentless, it dominates the movie by far. This is the reason why viewers feel that they cannot meet the characters appropriately and in depth.
King Arthur is an enjoyable B list action flick which may spark interest in Arthurian legend fanatics. It is not recommended to any viewers who seek an extensive plot or solid historical accuracy. King Arthur is an intriguing story; this movie does give a different point of view than most Arthurian flicks, so for anyone who has an interest in King Arthur tales, it is enjoyable.
Http://rogerebert.suntime.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20040707/REVIEWS/407070301/1023. Roger Ebert. July 4,2004.