Just as Homer’s “Illiad” wasn’t good enough for the makers of “Troy,” director Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”) has made his blockbuster “King Arthur” with nary a trace of the legend as passed on by Malory in his 1483 epic “Le Morte d’Arthur.”
Fuqua, no doubt guided by the mall-multiplex aesthetic of hands-on producer Jerry Bruckheimer, has opted to give us a look at the “historical” King Arthur, the man behind the legend, all swords and no sorcery. Like Achilles and Hector before him, the “real” king. Arthur, if he existed, is shrouded in the mists of time. Historians vaguely place him as a local warlord in Northern England in the fifth century, carving out his own fiefdom amid the collapse of the Roman Empire and the oncoming Saxon invasions. It’s this hypothesis that “King Arthur” embraces, with Clive Owen (“Bent”) playing an Arthur who’s a Celt-born Roman commander stationed on Hadrian’s Wall, protecting the empire against marauding barbarian “Woads” from the North. His legendary Knights of the Round Table including Ioan Gruffudd as Lancelot and Ray Winstone as Bors are imagined as warriors from Sarmatia, on the far side of the empire, forced to fight in the service of Rome for 15 years.
It’s an interesting premise, but historical accuracy only goes so far when you have Keira Knightley as Arthur’s queen, Guinevere show up as a sort of pagan Xena, decking ax-wielding savages twice her size and wearing a leather bikini in the dead of winter. Then again, a bit of sexiness isn’t a bad thing in an otherwise dour battle flick, one that’s ditched all the romance of the Arthurian legend.
Take the tragic and destructive love triangle between Arthur, Guinevere, and his most trusted and valiant knight, Lancelot. It’s nowhere to be found in this “King Arthur,” when Lancelot, despite his boasts of sleeping with the other knights’ wenches, does no more than give Guin a few meaningful looks. Also noticeable by their absence are the sword in the stone, the quest for the Holy Grail, the Lady of the Lake, Arthur’s devious cousin Mordred and his incestuous sister Morgana. Even Merlin the wizened old sorcerer who was the inspiration for Tolkien’s Gandalf and hence something you’d think the filmmakers would go for makes only a token appearance as a pagan, Celt leader.
Basically everything that gave the saga any color, and any enduring resonance, or any metaphysical dimension, has been omitted from the script.
Given that the screenplay is by David Franzoni of “Gladiator,” it’s no surprise that we’re left with almost nothing of human passions, and just extended battle sequences preluded by leaden speeches about freedom and democracy. One scene has Arthur a feudal lord, let’s not forget rouse his people by declaring “You, all of you, were free from your first breath!” while the peasants get down on their knees and yell “Hail, Arthur!”
The irony seems lost on Franzoni. Also on hand from the “Gladiator” team is composer Hans Zimmer, whose poundtrack here sounds like reheated ideas from the earlier film. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer has been behind so many shallow, disappointing flicks “Coyote Ugly,” “Gone in 60 Seconds,” “Pearl Harbor” that’s it’s almost a compliment to say that there’s nothing particularly bad about “King Arthur.” It’s just that at the end of the day, there’s nothing particularly good either. Despite his professed admiration for directors like Stanley Kubrick and David Lean, Bruckheimer has always been one for connect-the-dots plots and paper-thin characters, and his films are only as good as the thrills they offer. “Pirates of the Caribbean” had a manic, zany edge to it, but there’s no Johnny Depp to liven up the proceedings here. Stellan Skarsgard has some fun growling and hissing his threats as the Saxon bad guy, while Winstone commands his scenes simply by acting like a guy, instead of some wax-figure model of chivalry.
“King Arthur”‘s battle scenes are competent enough, with a melee on an ice-covered lake even seeming like a homage to Eisenstein’s “Aleksandr Nevsky.” But after a rash of movies full of epic battles the “Lord of the Rings” films, “The Last Samurai,” “Troy” this all seems a bit tame, especially since the PG-rated carnage never hits the ferocity of “Gladiator” or “Braveheart.”
Visually, Fuqua has made the most of his evocative Irish locations and largely laid off the computer graphics, which is a good thing. But the sense of mystery, of primordial secrets haunting the untamed forests beyond the castle walls, which John Boorman did so well in 1981’s “Excalibur,” isn’t surpassed by anything here. Maybe someone should have given Peter Jackson a call.
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