“Realistic” reinterpretation of legend offers no good knight
By Devin D. O'Leary
Directed by Antoine Fuqua
Cast: Clive Owen, Kiera Knightly
According to the tag line, the new historical action flick King Arthur claims to be the “true story” of one of western civilization's greatest legends. In fact, the film turns out to be no more “true” than any other version. This one simply demystifies the tale, stripping away all the myth and magic. More realistic? Perhaps. Truer? Doubtful.
In this new, not-so-improved version, there is no Lady of the Lake, no sword in the stone, no spell-throwing wizards, no Camelot, no quest for the Holy Grail, no doomed love affair between Lancelot and Guinevere. In other words, nothing that made the story great to begin with. It's a little like shooting a “realistic” version of Star Wars in which there are no spaceships and no lightsabers and all the characters are tax accountants from Akron. I don't get the point, but somebody obviously thought it was a great idea, because here it is—one of the preordained blockbusters of the summer.
Sure, plenty of people have interpreted the tale of King Arthur—Thomas Mallory, Howard Pyle, Ursula K. Le Guin, Monty Python—but there's always some common thread. The only connection between this version and earlier incarnations is some vague name recognition: Hey, that character's name is Merlin! If you're going to reinterpret something this radically, it's got to be awfully good. King Arthur simply isn't impressive enough to supplant seven centuries worth of literature.
Here, Arthur (renamed Arturius) is imagined as a Roman commander sent to the far edges of the empire to police the island of Britain. Aiding him in this mission are a dwindling troupe of mounted horsemen who seem to fight daily with the hoards of blue-skinned native warriors known as “Woads” (although “Picts” might be more accurate).
One day, the Saxons—who are led either by two Germanic chieftains or two members of a Norwegian death metal band—decide to invade. Arthur and his men—all of whom are just one day away from retirement—are sent on one last mission to rescue some Roman family stuck in the path of the invading Saxons. ... So, basically, screenwriter David Franzoni (Jumpin' Jack Flash, Gladiator), producer Jerry Bruckheimer (Bad Boys, Armageddon) and director Antoine Fuqua (Tears of the Sun, The Replacement Killers) have turned the legend of King Arthur into a generic cop movie.
Almost immediately, the Woads, who have been fighting the Roman occupation for hundreds of years, drop their animosity and team up with Arthur to battle the Saxons. Seems the Roman empire is dumping its expansion plans and folding up camp in England. As far as Rome is concerned, the Saxons can have Old Blighty. Arthur, the loyal Roman commander, must now decide between returning to his beloved Rome or staying and fighting for his adopted England. It's a conundrum, you see, and one that occupies most of King Arthur's meager dramatic allotment.
As long as it takes for Arthur to figure out where his loyalties lie, it takes his knights even longer. When swords aren't a-swinging, King Arthur eats up precious screen time with dramatic shots of men changing their minds. They think, they look at one another, they nod, then they think some more. They do this a lot. It'll make a fine drinking game someday.
The film seems like it's stocked with sturdy players. Clive Owen (Gosford Park) is Arthur, Kiera Knightly (Pirates of the Caribbean) is Guinevere, Ioan Gruffudd (the Horatio Hornblower series) is Lancelot, Ray Winstone (Sexy Beast) is Bors, Stellan Skarsgård (Good Will Hunting) is Cerdic. Sadly, none of them gets to do much. There's virtually nothing to distinguish one Knight of the Round Table from another. Knightly sticks out as the butch warrior babe Guinevere, but mostly because she's the only girl on display. Winstone leaves an impression because he's the big bald guy who makes lots of dick jokes. Aside from that, you'll be hard-pressed to distinguish Lancelot from Tristan or Gawain or Galahad, all of whom are dealt two or three action movie quips apiece and left to their own devices.
In the end, I can't say that King Arthur bored me. Despite its length, the film never really drags. The battle scenes are kind of exciting, even if they are trimmed to bloodless PG-13 levels. The costumes are nice, but the sets are pretty barren. Most of the action takes place outside in a field with a big wall on it. It's less boring than Troy, but also less impressive.
The legend of King Arthur is a great story. The script for King Arthur, on the other hand, is an OK story. That's pretty sad treatment for a legend.
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