Cinema/TV, Film Notes

Film review – King Arthur (2004)

My notes on King Arthur (2004)

The high concept here, slightly echoing the 1970s Oliver Tobias series Arthur of the Britains, is that Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, later mythologised in romance, were originally a bunch of Sarmatian bruisers (Russian horsemen impressed into the service of the Roman Empire in far-flung outposts) who took the strain of seeing off the Saxons when the Empire withdrew from Britain. Clive Owen, potentially a Great British movie star landing his first major lead in a huge film, see-saws between effective gloom and unfortunate woodenness, while his merry band manage to be thundering clichés (especially Ray Winstone’s brawling, lusty, beery Porthos type).

KING ARTHUR, Clive Owen, 2004, (c) Touchstone

Taking the historical battle of Badon Hill, where one Lucius Artorius Castus saw off invading Saxons around Hadrian’s Wall, the film is an odd melange of recycled plot bits. Director Antoine Fuqua’s disastrous earlier movie Tears of the Sun is about an American team sent to rescue one of their citizens from a third world trouble-spot and a leader who goes against orders to get a lot of innocent peasants out of harm’s way on a trek that costs the lives of some of his men — that’s the spine of the middle-third of this film too, as Arthur is sent to get the Pope’s favourite godson out of a villa where a nasty Roman (Ken Stott with an Italian accent) has been abusing the local populace. This turns into a wagon-train Western, perhaps derived from Major Dundee, as a disparate group become a cohesive nation while campaigning against someone else, and pays off with a Seven Samurai-Meet-Alexander Nevsky bit as seven lone knights see off a whole Saxon horde by luring them onto a frozen lake and breaking the ice under them. Merlin (Stephen Dillane) is a blue-faced Woad rebel who realises that he needs to get Arthur onside when the Romans leave, and Guinevere (Keira Knightley, in blue body-paint and a bikini for the big battle at the end) the woman who manages to persuade him, especially when he learns his dream of a democracy-loving, free Christian Rome has been trashed behind his back by unworthy politicians.

Coming off Pirates of the Caribbean, producer Jerry Bruckheimer goes for an earthier, drabber action-adventure look – with the knights resolutely deglamorised (and surprisingly charisma-lite) and much messy skirmishing, though a decision has been made to hold back on the gore and the final battle falls apart with the film’s inability to show what’s going on as a few jotted notes turn into a notionally brilliant battle plan and hairy Stellan Skarsgaard’s mob get their just desserts. Arthur is only crowned (and married) at the end, justifying a title whose main job is not to confuse people who remember the Dudley Moore film. In this reading, Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd) dies but Arthur lives – though the film seems to have Lancelot as a narrator/viewpoint character in the early stretches, then drifts away from him as he can’t work up much more than some grudging tough talk with Guinevere (‘I’ll make sure they don’t rape you,’ she tells him as the Saxons charge) since the love triangle isn’t part of this concept. It has the usual melange of British accents, with West Country burrs dominating in the scenes set North of Hadrian’s Wall – fair enough, since this takes place before the nations of the United Kingdom really exist, but still strange. It’s a reading of the myth, which can easily co-exist with Camelot, Excalubur, Monty Python or Lancelot du Lac – though there’s something smugly unpleasant about the this-is-what-really-happened take on a story (like The Passion of the Christ) far more important for its cultural significance than its hotly-contested historical roots. A few bits refer to the well-known Arthurian gimmicks, like the Round Table (so the nasty Bishop can’t sit at the head of it) and young Arthur pulling Excalibur (not from a stone but his father’s grave), but they feel obligatory rather than significant.


One thought on “Film review – King Arthur (2004)

  1. Chris Cooke
    Cheers, it does, now, sound interesting (I tend to categorise Owen as more than possessing “unfortunate woodenness”, he’s like a plank of wood with a cold). It’s a film I gave a wide-berth to when it was initially released, but now…

    Michelle Drayton-Harrold
    Blimey, ARTHUR OF THE BRITONS! I used to watch that every week and I think I have a grainy video of some episodes buried in the loft somewhere.

    Amy Goldschlager
    I found it helpful to think of it as a fantasy picture with characters who had the same names, but almost completely different histories, than the legend I was familiar with. Still didn’t care for it much, despite the hot actors, but….
    And incidentally, Kim, do you just watch movies all day, or something? When do you find the time to, I dunno, write NOVELS?

    Dominic Wells
    I once met the lovely comics artist Chris Achilleos, who was “visual consultant” for King Arthur, and he said Fuqua was so isolated from his team and so out of his depth, that he sort of fell in with Chris, kept extending his contract to keep him near, and asked his opinion about everything because he had no one else he could trust. Still, there are worse stupid historical/erical movies…

    Ken Kupstis
    CLIVE OWEN as KING ARTHUR?!?!? That guy gets around! Seems like yesterday he was starting out in “Croupier”.

    Chris Cooke
    “Clive Owen manages to make Arthur a bit like a more sensible version of Jeremy Clarkson…” that’s one of the best reviews of Owen’s acting I have ever EVER EVAR read!!!!

    Anne Billson
    Clive Owen is preposterous in period movies. See also (or rather don’t) Elizabeth: The Golden Age.

    Posted by kimnewman | January 24, 2022, 8:37 am

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