"You and I are not the polite people that live in poems. We are blessed and cursed by our times." - Guinevere
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Writer: David Franzoni
Principal cast members:
In general, there is nothing wrong with remakes or re-telling well-known stories. Of course, it helps if you provide something original rather than just take facets of the story away and replace them with more action scenes. Sadly, this re-telling of the ancient Arthurian cycle provides a lot less of what makes Le Morte d'Arthur a great read and a lot more of what makes movies mindlessly repetitive.
The variation on the traditional story begins with the basic premise. Arthur is not English but rather is a Roman commander and his 'Round Table' of knights aren't really knights, they aren't English, and they aren't even his Roman countrymen. They're Sarmatian horsemen, kidnapped as young boys by the empire, and sent to help pacify Britain under the command of Arthur. As they are about to finally get their release from service, they are suddenly forced to face another serious task and fight against a maniacal Viking tyrant along with the help of the natives they were trying to pacify.
Essentially, this is the Arthurian cycle in name only. The essential elements of character and plot from Le Morte d'Arthur have all been scrubbed right out of the script. Arthur and his knights aren't English and they aren't a chivalrous order. Heck, Arthur isn't even a king in any real sense of the word. Guinevere is just a native girl they rescue and whom Arthur beds. There is no love triangle involving Lancelot and in fact, the relationships between Arthur and his knights that make the Arthurian cycle so appealing are entirely avoided here. Merlin is nothing more than a tribal shaman whose contributions to the overall plot are minimal.
In essence, one of the greatest oral and written legends of western civilization has been gutted here and replaced with pretty boys in fancy leather togs whose characters are so interchangeable, I found myself forgetting who was who.
So what does King Arthur have? Well, it does have some interesting battles, including the first showdown between Arthur's troops and the Viking hordes fighting on a frozen lake. It has a passing nod at social commentary with Arthur trying to cling to his Christian faith and his loyal followers openly mocking him for it. And it has a great deal of hacking and slashing, thrusting and parrying, arrows flying and blood splattering.
And then it ends without any real sense of historical context or cultural commentary.
Clive Owen turns in a decent enough performance as Arthur, the leader of these men. His devotion to his faith, his men, and his mission is well-played, but despite all his heroic efforts and great qualities, we're left thinking he's a bit of a chump. His country has treated him badly, his men openly deride his beliefs, and he really seems to have nothing to gain by taking the stand he takes. I found myself wondering why he bothered with any of it - no one seemed to appreciate his efforts.
The other knights are generally not all that likable. The most appealing was probably Ray Winstone's Bors who not only was more sympathetic to Arthur but was also tied to this strange land by a wife and children. Gruffudd, Mikkelsen, and Dancy actually seemed more like eye candy than true characters for the most part. I found myself struggling to tell them apart as they posed heroically, performed acrobatic battle scenes, and made fun of their boss.
Keira Knightley begins as a damsel in distress - the local Celtic chick who gets captured and must be rescued by Arthur and his heroic band. She later proves herself a capable warrior in battle, but in the end, the most memorable thing about her performance is leaping into the fray in a costume consisting entirely of leather straps and blue paint.
The overall cinematic tone and feel of the movie is interesting. It is a cold film - both in the characters and the landscape. There's lots of snow, ice, and shivering people wrapped in leather and furs. The scenery is heavy on blue, grey, and white (spattered with the occasional red of blood). The action scenes are well-shot and well-choreographed and much of the credit should go to stunt coordinator, Steve Dent, and the fight director/sword master, Mark Ryan for providing some of the best reasons to watch this movie.
Unfortunately, most adults past the age of 17 come into any re-telling of the Arthurian saga with certain expectations in terms of character and plot. While it is a bold move to make this film depart so radically from the core of the ancient legend, it is ultimately doomed to disappoint any true lover of the original tales of the once and future king.
Coolness factor: 7
Overall entertainment: 5