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).
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.