Soft history: Square knights of the Round Table
Last year about this time, Jerry Bruckheimer opened Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl and exceeded everyone's expectations, critically and financially. This year he claims the same slot for a more somber historical drama, King Arthur.
Supposedly more accurate than previous versions (that's what they said about The Alamo), from Knights of the Round Table to A Kid in King Arthur's Court, King Arthur is ambitious and handsomely mounted but never engages the intellect or emotions.
The historical detail approaches too much information, the dialogue at best sounds like bad Shakespeare, and the battle scenes, while stirring up some excitement, are oddly bloodless to stay within PG-13 parameters. The climactic Battle of Badon Hill goes on far too long.
The main story takes place post-Excalibur and pre-Camelot. It's sparsely narrated by Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd), a Sarmatian (Eastern European) who is conscripted in 452 A.D. to fight for the Roman Empire for 15 years. At the end of that period, he and his fellow knights are on the verge of being released to return home, and Rome is pulling its troops out of the "indefensible outpost" of Britannia, which is about to be overrun by Saxons.
Lancelot is one of the men serving under Lucius Artorius Castus (Clive Owen, who's starting to resemble Richard Burton)– Arthur for short. The son of a Roman man and Briton woman, Arthur is a total boy scout. He's loyal to a mythical Rome where everyone is free and equal. To this end, he and his fellow knights meet at a round table where they're all equal, yet somehow Arthur is more equal than the others.
Rome reneges on their promised discharges, sending them instead on a final mission. They're to go North of Hadrian's wall to a district the Saxons already occupy, to evacuate a Roman family that includes a teenage boy, "the pope's favorite godchild," who could be the next pope.
A third force in the country is the native rebels known as Woags. They've been trying to drive out the Romans and are no happier to have them replaced by Saxons. When Arthur and his men find the family they're supposed to escort, they've got a fiefdom going, with a number of Woags working as virtual slaves. Those unwilling to work were put away in a dungeon, where most of them have died.
The only survivors in this prison are a woman and a boy. Thus the movie's almost half over when we meet Guinevere (Keira Knightley), who is nearly dead but recovers quickly and soon starts looking hot. She has no luggage in her cell yet manages several wardrobe changes as they travel. We never see them pass a mall, but perhaps the shopping scenes were cut.
Guinevere is actually a sort of Woag princess. At least she's the daughter of their leader, Merlin (Stephen Dillane), who is not a magician in this version.
The Saxons are led by Cerdic (Stellan Skarsgard), who also has a rebellious son, Cynric (Til Schweiger), to contend with.
Arthur has six knights who break down into three all but indistinguishable pairs. Lancelot and Galahad (Hugh Dancy) are the young pretty boys; Bors (Ray Winstone) and Dagonet (Ray Stevenson), the crude headbangers; and Tristan (Mads Mikkelsen) and Gawain (Joel Edgerton), the longhairs. One of the latter couple I'm not sure which has a pet hawk.
Aside from the immediate battle with the Saxons, in which Guinevere proves to be a kickass– not to mention visually distracting– fighter, the longer view of history is served by showing how Arthur and his men are persuaded to stay in Britannia and join forces with Merlin and the Woags. Guinevere is, of course, a major selling point.
"All the blood I've shed, all the lives I've taken, have led me to this moment," Arthur says. I forget which moment he's referring to, but it doesn't matter. That's just the kind of thing he says.
Director Antoine Fuqua took care of the logistics on a moderate budget and let his actors fend for themselves. The result is an illustrated history lesson that doesn't make learning any easier or more interesting.