Film makers have addressed the legend of King Arthur many times, with results ranging from John Boormanís brilliant Excalibur to the hilarious Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Now comes King Arthur, produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and directed by Antoine Fuqua, which attempts to be a more historically accurate version of who the legendary Arthur might have been.
King Arthur opens with an explanation that the real Arthur may have been a Roman commander named Lucius Artorius Castus, and that his knights may have been Sarmatian cavalry sworn to serve Rome. (Perhaps, but Lancelot, Galahad, and Gawain do not exactly sound like Sarmatian names. French Sarmatian perhaps?) In any case, the story opens in the year 452 AD. The Roman Empire is in retreat, and the British Isles will soon be abandoned. After fifteen years of war, Arthur and his few remaining knights are looking forward to being mustered out of the Roman army. Their terms of service are nearly up. Arthur plans to go to Rome, and his knights are planning to return to Sarmatia.
Unfortunately, the Roman army, like the present day US military, is a bit overstretched, and a sleazy bishop, played by Ivano Marescotti, informs Arthur that he and his men must undertake one final mission before being discharged. Britain has been invaded by a Saxon horde, and a Roman family, including the Popeís godson Alecto, is directly in the path of the Saxon advance. Arthur and his knights must rescue Alecto and bring him safely behind Hadrianís Wall before they can go home.
King Arthur certainly has a very different feel from the various Arthur movies that were made before it. Much of the traditional Arthurian mythos has simply been left out. Arthur does not draw a sword from a stone, Merlin is a Celtic rebel and not a wizard, and there is no quest for the Holy Grail. Lancelot and Guinevere are never romantically involved, and Kiera Knightleyís Guinevere is a Celtic warrior who goes into battle wearing blue paint and not much else.
Generally one tends to forgive a movie about King Arthur for historical inaccuracies. The tale is a legend, so who cares if the knights in Excalibur wear suits of plate armor that werenít invented for hundreds of years? But in King Arthur the errors are more glaring, since it sets out to be more plausible than other movies on the same subject. And the errors are many. Roman cavalry used a short spear known as the lancea, but Arthur and his knights fight from horseback using only swords. The Saxons are armed with crossbows, a weapon unknown in the Dark Ages. (And they hold them at about crotch height when they fire them, even at distant targets. All those shots of men fighting while holding onto something protruding from below the belt start to look sort of Freudian after a while.) The Celts precede their infantry assault with a barrage of fire pots launched from catapults. These produce spectacular explosions like a Dark Ages napalm strike.
There are other problems as well. Part of the story revolves around Arthurís growing disillusionment with Rome, but his motives are not believable. Hollywood seems to require its heros to be champions of freedom, even in time periods where this is not appropriate. Thus Arthur frequently expresses the view that Rome is a defender of freedom, and is surprised when he learns that this is not the case. He also expresses surprise when he learns that the Roman church is not a champion of universal freedom either. Granted news traveled slowly in those days, but is hard to believe that a fifth century Roman officer could have such illusions about the nature of the empire and the church he was fighting to protect.
For all of that, King Arthur is an enjoyable summer movie, if you are willing to park your brain outside. Clive Owen turns in a strong performance as Arthur. Ioan Gruffud of A&Eís wonderful Horatio Hornblower series makes an excellent Lancelot - he can swashbuckle with the best of them. Stellan Skarsgard, as the villainous Saxon leader Cerdic, may have the best thousand yard stare in Hollywood. And Keira Knightley, who hasnít got very much to do in this movie, looks great in blue paint and leather straps. The scenery is beautiful. The battle scenes are certainly spectacular, though they are at times marred by gimmicky camera work. And spotting the historical errors can be part of the fun. If you wait for the DVD you can turn it into a drinking game. Spot an error, take a drink. Last person standing wins.