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King Arthur
cast: Clive Owen, Ioan Gruffud, Ray Winstone, Keira Knightly, and Ken Stott

director: Antoine Fuqua

130 minutes (PG-13) 2004
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Buena Vista NTSC DVD Region 1 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Amy Harlib
I really loved the concept of this film directed by Antoine Fuqua (Training Day), scripted by David Franzoni (of Gladiator fame), under the aegis of blockbuster producer Jerry Bruckheimer. The all-too-frequent Hollywood formulaic-popularising syndrome somewhat diminishes this otherwise excellent straight, historical drama based on (admittedly vague) archaeological evidence concerning the real nature of King Arthur during his actual time period when the Roman Empire abandoned its occupation of Britain in the 5th century AD. The stuff of legends associated with this heroic figure in question: Guinevere, Lancelot, Gawain, Galahad, Tristan, the Holy Grail, etc - were all additions that occurred over centuries of oral myth-making layered with further interpretations by medieval scribes recording this material and adopting it into the forms now familiar.

This new cinematic King Arthur simultaneously dramatises de-mythicised history while still using the nomenclature of folklore - setting up pre-programmed, cultural zeitgeist expectations that fail to be met. The resulting effect feels forced and awkward. The whole effort would have worked much better if the characters, that do nothing at all the same as their legendary counterparts, had been given researched, unfamiliar, period monikers. Some anachronistic errors of detail in the production also detracted from the overall positive aspects of this opus.

The film's story, to reiterate, set in the mid-5th century AD, gets propelled by a too medieval-looking and behaving Christian Bishop Germanius (Ivano Marescotti), sent from Rome and delivering the unfortunate news of Rome's withdrawal from Britain to General Artorius alias, Arthur (Clive Owen). An esteemed warrior capable, with his trusted coterie of knights, of thwarting attacks by the indigenous Pagan Woads (Celtic people) led by an elder named Merlin (Stephen Dillane) revered more for his political role than for Shamanic activity - Arthur also earned his reputation by successfully repelling the sporadic raids by sea-going Saxons. Respect for Arthur gets enhanced further by his philosophical and challenging ideas about freedom, equality, free will and respect for others - attitudes embodied by his specially built Round Table designed so that during official gatherings, none of his compatriot knights will feel inferior or superior to another.

Arthur's companions-in-arms, so the prologue informs us, actually Eastern European 'Sarmatians' admired for their superior horsemanship, captured by Romans 15 years prior to the film's main events and coerced into 15 years of elite cavalry mercenary service on the British fringes of the Empire, yearn for their impending freedom soon to be granted by the official documents in the Bishop's keep. However, this longed-for release won't go into effect until the Sarmatian knights perform a crucial final task - rescuing a wealthy, high-status Roman family from their isolated, illogically too far in the north, country estate situated in the direct path of the largest, fiercest Saxon invasion so far.

While performing this mission, Arthur and his men all establish themselves as robust, appealing, vivid personalities who, in addition to their leader, most prominently include: 2nd in command Lancelot (Ioan Gruffud); Tristan (Mads Mikkelsen); Gawain (Joel Edgerton); Galahad (Hugh Dancy); and the biggest, strongest, most eccentric, scene-stealing, funniest Bors (Ray Winstone). At cruel, Christianised Marcus Homerus' (Ken Stott) estate, the heroes find an absurdly inquisition-like set-up where perverse monks torment, in a dungeon, prisoners taken mostly from among the oppressed serfs.

After their master and the torturers get what they deserve, amongst the liberated captives, Arthur finds Guinivere (Keira Knightly), a Woad woman who, along with Marcus' blameless widow and son and heir, accompanies the protagonists back to the Roman stronghold. The expedition fends off, along the way, pursuing Saxons in a very exciting fight sequence on a frozen lake, an homage to Alexander Nevsky's famous scene that does that one better by using clever underwater shots for some unique perspectives on the action. Here also, Guinevere reveals herself to be a brave, Amazon-type and expert archer.

Back at the Roman settlement near an incredibly impressive, recreated Hadrian's Wall, the protagonists have their climactic showdown with the Saxons - typical, Hollywood barbarian caricatures led by the memorably nasty, ultra-gruff Cedric (Stellan Skarsgard) and his equally sinister son Cynric (Til Schweiger). Before the big battle, Arthur enjoys an all-too-brief romantic interlude with Guinevere, which does not involve Lancelot at all. The final frenzy offers thrilling sequences of rather bloody ancient warfare in which the Saxons use crossbows a thousand years too early, although the Romans' trebuchets did exist in that time period. Despite the predictable outcome of all this, some significant characters surprisingly and poignantly do not survive.

The best things about this King Arthur film include the fine performances of the leads, especially the portrayal of Arthur and his altruistic, tolerant Christianity in which he never proselytised but let his ideals speak for themselves, practicing the 'Golden Rule' as much as he practically could, given the violence of his milieu. The dazzling visuals featured: fascinatingly detailed costumes and blue woad body paint; sets and locations (actually Ireland standing in for England); weapons and Roman armour used in terrific fight scenes all, like the whole shebang, gorgeously photographed by Slavomir Idzik. Hans Zimmer's lush, symphonic and choral score added beautiful, atmospheric accompaniment to the proceedings.

This splendid-looking picture had many satisfying moments of drama, humour and warrior action, but by trying to be history and mythology simultaneously, it never quite works as either with the already mentioned anachronisms negatively detracting from the production's positive aspects. Diehard period epic fans like me will definitely want to see this film for its merits even while nitpicking its faults. There is a very good time to be had here if you don't fuss too much about this version of King Arthur's story, which probably will not be one that will pass into legend.
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