by Del Harvey
Clive Owen and Antoine Fuqua rape the Arthurian legend for a pocketful of gold.
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Don’t expect to see anything you recognize from the fairytale legends we all grew up with in this latest telling of King Arthur. Excalibur is just a sword, Merlin doesn’t cast spells, and Lancelot is just a soldier. What we lose from the legend is supposed to have been replaced with “recently uncovered facts” which supposedly shed new light on the legendary figure we know as Arthur. Only, there are no real facts, only conflicting historian’s best guesses. If you do a little research it becomes readily apparent that nobody has any sort of right idea about the man or his contemporaries. There is only supposition. So, you may be asking, which is the truth? T.H. White’s “Once And Future King” or the “2004 by Fuqua” movie? Well, some of both and a lot of neither is probably the best answer there is. The most historians can say with any certainty about the man is that he was an incredible warrior who plied his skills far and wide in the then known world, including in places like Sumeria (Samatia in the film). But being a great general and warrior is a lot different than the character we are presented with in this telling.
As our story begins we are shown young Lancelot being taken from his family at the age of 15 to go off to war for the Roman soldiers—it’s a right of passage thing. The weird bit is, and this is elemental storytelling, we never go back to Lancelot’s family again. And the story is narrated by Lancelot. Uh, hellooo? Anyone bother to take a screenwriting class or even take the time to read a simple work of fiction? If you foreshadow with a certain character, then you give your audience the satisfaction of a payoff. That’s just simple Writing 101. But, wait… that’s just the first of this film’s incongruities. You know that old saying, “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”? Well, that’s what we have in King Arthur, only they contradict.
For example, the Woads are dirty people who inhabit the forests. Guinnevere is a Woad. But, hey, they also wear face and body paint that looks like it was put on by a professional make-up artist at the local beauty salon. Keira Knightley is Gwen and she’s a kick-ass warrior babe, but every other woman in the film stands in the background as subservient and docile as can be. All of the Knights of the Round Table wear leather gear with double-stitching during a period when the only sewing needles available were about as long and thick as a No. 2 pencil. The only constructed buildings in the film look as though they were just completed and utilize construction methods completely unavailable until this century and are so clean they sparkle. Hell, they didn’t even have detergent back then. And there are several “knights” whose names and characters have just been dreamt up for the purpose of the film, and on and on and on.
Okay, so I’ve blathered on about the inconsistencies and incongruities. What about the story? It’s boilerplate stuff. Bad guys (Saxons) are marching on England. The locals (Woads, or tree and mud dwelling peoples) are vastly outnumbered. Stuck in the middle is a small band of fierce warriors (Artorious and his Knights of the Roman Army Round Table Pizza). Oh, and our main character is conflicted by his love for a single Roman law-philosopher’s codes of ethics and morality, and his birthright as a Britton. You can guess the rest. It’s all been seen and done before. The Knights —- there are only six of them — are so good that when they defeat the first 200 soldiers in a single battle we know pretty much how it will go when they stand up against several thousand troops later on. To director Antoine Fuqua’s credit, the final battle sequence is somewhat impressive. It’s not as fast-paced as most contemporary battles, but it shows how great warring minds work. Still, it’s not enough to sustain the film.
The direction and acting are fine enough, and there are some very wonderful actors in the film, including the aforementioned Ms. Knightley, Ray Winstone (Sexy Beast), Joel Edgerton (Star Wars II), and Stellan Skarsgard (Ronin, Dogville). I like Clive Owen (Croupier, The Driver from those BMW shorts), and I know he’s better than what is presented here, but his Arthur is just plain lacking in some pretty important areas, including pure and simple cutthroat ferocity. He’s strong, he’s tough, he’s menacing, but he just does not seem like the incredible warring mind we are given to believe Arthur was. I know there are rumors of him taking over the mantle of Bond, and that might be a good thing, but I’m afraid he’ll be even better in the upcoming adaptation of Frank Miller’s Sin City. He has this refined quality glossed over with a sleazy veneer which I believe makes him better suited for roles such as the Sin City character.
By now I’m sure you know how I feel about director Antoine Fuqua’s (Training Day) latest film. It’s only a movie, and it’s based upon a legend that’s almost 2,000 years old. So, why should any of this bother me? Well, maybe it makes no difference to you, and if that’s the case, then go see the film and make your own opinion. If you cling to the legend as it’s been told the past several hundred years (beginning with Thomas Mallory), then you definitely will be scratching your head and talking to yourself as you leave the theatre. If you like the acting of Clive Owen or Keira Knightley, then definitely go see this film. Other than that, I really can’t say anything else, reminding myself, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”
Okay, so I will say this — if you want to see a more accurate telling of this period known as the Dark Ages, rent Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Historians generally agree that it’s closer than anything else on film. End of rant.
Del Harvey is a writer and film teacher in Chicago.
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