King Arthur

July 15th, 2004 Film, Film Reviews, Xpress

Starring: Clive Owen, Keira Knightley, Ioan Gruffud, Ray Winstone, Joel Edgerton, Stellan Skarsgard

Directed by Antoine Fuqua

Two words, Hollywood; ‘battle fatigue’.

How many more historical, computer-generated battles do we have to sit through to see a decent and entertaining movie?

If the thought of more enormous, sword, spear and bow-wielding armies crashing together in an ancient field, beach, desert or city makes you yawn, avoid at all costs.

If the ‘look at me’ heroism of The Last Samurai made you gag, with its lingering camera angles and baleful slo-mo stares deifying the noble heroes, steer well clear.

If another scene showing lines of horses and men clanging weapons and plunging them into each other amid a muddy backdrop, all waiting for the hero and villain to face off gallantly (just how do they always find each other in the midst of such huge fights?) is too much, run away now.

The only original thing about King Arthur is that with all those swords, bows, battles and fantasy/mythology-era settings, Orlando Bloom is nowhere to be seen. Other than that, the Office of Film and Literature Classification needs a new rating — MBBS (More Bloody Battle Scenes).

Not that King Arthur is badly made; with Jerry Bruckheimer’s deep pockets behind it, the sets, production design and special effects are top notch.

One original aspect is the story. Rather than take a prissy Knights of the Round table approach with Camelot, sixteenth century pantaloons and wigs, King Arthur is based on what the movie claims is newly discovered evidence of the man upon whom the myth is based.

In director Antoine (Training Day) Fuqua’s version, Arthur is Artorius, a soldier who — along with his Knights — work in service of the Roman Empire just prior to their withdrawal from England in the 5th century AD.

Promised freedom from servitude, the Knights are instead given a last task — rescue an important family from an estate near Hadrian’s wall before the advancing Saxon hordes reach and slaughter them.

Arthur and his band take the family and surrounding villagers away, including Guinevere, a Woad (the tribal people from modern-day Scotland and Wales), a captive of the estate where the Roman clergy have imprisoned pagans for their heresy.

Merlin, far from the powerful sorcerer we know his legend as, is the tribal chief of the Woads who offers a truce in the face of the common threat — the Saxons.

In a desperate flight to stay one step ahead of the Saxons, Arthur and his knights stop them momentarily during a dramatic battle on a frozen lake and return to the other side of Hadrians Wall into Roman territory.

Finally free of Roman military service, the old friends prepare to part company and find their peaceful lives throughout the empire, but the Saxon’s march right up to the gate of Hadrian’s Wall and the posse have to saddle up again to stop them for good.

And while ‘posse’ might not sound like the right word, King Arthur actually has more in common with the Leone and Ford-era westerns than any British Isles legend, with the stoic, silent hero full of complexity and honour and his cadre of brothers who’ll fight to the death alongside him. There’s even the high-spirited lady who brings the hero undone by asking him about his past and allegiances (but who he gets to shag, of course).

But while it makes an interesting story of the origins of the legend, King Arthur is an overly clumsy carnival of grandiose gestures and overzealous glory, from the sweeping orchestral score to the now-tired battle cry before riding off towards the enemy hordes.

Another big mistake it makes is being just so American. The one thing wrong with big budget Hollywood movies is the politics of US popular culture. Every dispute from fisticuffs in the street to a battle in a grand war needs its goodies and baddies. In this case, the noble and fun loving Knights are the heroes, the Roman civilization and Papal church is the bloated, corrupt and elitist aristocracy Americans traditionally jeer at.

There are the Woads, who start out as enemies, but who Arthur realises are strong and noble people and obviously inspired by Native Americans (to help US audiences along, they even dress like them). By contrast, there’s the evil Saxons, a vicious, cold and Godless people exhibiting the evildoer cliches attributed to every political enemy of the US from the Viet Cong to Al Quaeda. Except that their leader — played by Stellan Skarsgard — talks like a blues musician from the deep south.

The three great actors who found their feet in the alternative or arthouse circuit — Clive Owen, Joel Edgerton and Ray Winstone should be ashamed they whored themselves to such simple-minded prattle. It’s overblown, overdone, unoriginal and corny. In fact, if you saw Troy last month, just replace ancient England with ancient Greece. They all spoke with American accents anyway, didn’t they?

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