King Arthur (2004)

Starring: Clive Owen, Ioan Gruffudd, Keira Knightley, Ray Winstone, Ken Stott, Stellan Skarsgård, Mads Mikkelsen, Joel Edgerton, Hugh Dancy, Ray Stevenson

Directed by: Antoine Fuqua

Rating: 1 2 3

Clive Owen as King Arthur... but not as we know him

What do you get if you get the King Arthur story and take away Uther Pendragon, the sword in the stone, Merlin the Magician, Morgan Le Fay and Mordred, Guinevere and Lancelot's affair, Camelot, Avalon, the Lady of the Lake, the Holy Grail and, er, all the magic? Oddly, you get a poor man's Braveheart, laced with a (presumably accidental) dose of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Jerry Bruckheimer and Antoine Fuqua's King Arthur purports to tell the 'true story' of the legendary hero. Well, that's bollocks for starters. It's one possible source of the legend, but it sure as hell ain't The Truth. And to be honest, when faced with a choice between the power and passion, the magic and majesty of the traditional story and this po-faced, pared down version, I'll take the legend any time.

The real 'truth' about Arthur is that nobody knows exactly who he was or where he came from or what he did, and probably never will. Historians and archaeologists concur that the legends are likely to have some basis in fact, and, reading between the lines of ancient texts there's a theory that Arthur probably existed at some point during the 5th and 6th centuries (aka the Dark Ages, so called because the history of that period is decidedly murky). A military leader or warlord, it's likely that he was Welsh, and that he fought against the Saxon incursion, possibly at the battle of Mons Badon, which was possibly in Bath. And, well that's about it really. Countless locations across the country lay claim to the Great King, from Glastonbury, where he's supposedly buried, to Tintagel in Cornwall, to, er, Alderley Edge, and, more recently, Scotland, which is where we find Arthur here.

Gawain and Galahad

In this version of the tale, however, Arthur is a Roman commander, Lucius Artorius Castor, who must lead his hardy band of Sarmatian knights on one last mission before they can win their freedom from Rome: they must rescue a high ranking Roman family from the wilds of Scotland, territory of the fearsome 'Woads' (aka the Picts - small hairy blue people with tattoos and loincloths). But the Woads turn out to be the least of their problems as who should be landing in the Far North to lay waste to the land? None other than the Saxons (big hairy blonde people with plaits and furs) - and they ain't here for the weather. (Which is just as well, as, being Scotland, it's always either pissing down or blizzarding with snow.)

Apparently Sarmatians did call their mounted soldier knights, which is just as well for the scriptwriters, as Roman knights sounds stupid and King Arthur and the soldiers of the Round Table (the one legendary device that isn't discarded) sounds even worse. However, what also sounds stupid is this bunch of rugged, scarred and bearded warriors jovially hailing each other as Galahad, Gawain and Tristam (although 'Bors' suits Ray Winstone's appropriately 'boorish' character down to the ground).

The Lovely Keira Knightley (TM) as Guinevere

Oh, and then there's the script: pretty much all of that sounds stupid. Although I can't launch into my usual rant about big budget films paying peanuts for scripts written by monkeys because actually this film doesn't have the appearance of a megabuck movie. Mercifully short on obvious CGI and amusingly large on pitchfork-wielding peasants grovelling in the mud and huge hairy extras with rubber swords solemnly beating each other up in the fight scenes, the general tone of the film is quite gritty and, er, a bit cheap. Certainly the wardrobe department were kept on short commons - why else would poor Guinevere wear such perilously skimpy outfits in such a chilly climate.?

My biggest criticism, however, is Arthur himself. Clive Owen is woefully miscast as the mythic leader: wooden as the Round Table and completely devoid of any charm or sex appeal, he lacks the lean muscularity and grim determination of Viggo Mortensen's Aragorn, the passion and charisma of Mel Gibson's William Wallace or the dedication and innate nobility of Ken Watanabe's Samurai leader Katsumoto. Most of the time he looks rather bored, staring into the distance as if he's thinking about something else (probably 'when can I take this rubber armour off and have a nice cup of tea?') and it's only in the final battle scene that he approaches heroic stance - and even then his horse's scary armoured headdress rather steals the show.

Nigel Terry as Arthur in Excalibur... too bowlly haired  Sean Connery as King Arthur in First Knight... too damn old  Graham Chapman as Arthur in Monty Python and the Holy Grail... practically perfect  Richard Gere as Arthur's aerobics instructor, er, Lancelot in First Knight

But then again Arthur is a notoriously difficult part to play, and I don't think I've ever been happy with an on screen depiction of the king. Nigel Terry? Too bowl-haired. Sean Connery? Too damn old. In fact you who I think does the best job? Graham Chapman.

Ioan Gruffudd as Lancelot

Ioan Gruffudd fairs better as a sardonic, dark-haired Lancelot, sporting natty leather trousers and a pantomime villain's beard (well, anything's got to be better than Richard Gere's superannuated aerobics instructor in beige lycra); Keira Knightley is a beautiful and spirited Guinevere; but Ray Winstone is, frankly, taking the piss.

The film boasts a few good scenes, the best being an impressive battle across ice (although since when did the Alps shift over to Scotland?). The final battle is fairly enthralling too and some of the knights are pretty tasty. But all in all, King Arthur wouldn't let me suspend my (growing) disbelief.

In a really good film, historical anachronisms simply don't matter (so what if Braveheart's princess was only two years old when Wallace died? It's a love story!) but in a more mediocre film they can be enormously distracting. How come Romans, Britons, Woads and Saxons can all understand each other perfectly? (Although the Woads do have their own strange version of Old English - except for Guinevere, who was obviously sent away to boarding school to acquire her cut glass vowels). Why is one Sarmatian knight Cockney, another Irish and a third posh as Guinevere? (Perhaps he went to the same school.) And why is Lancelot wearing leather trews?

King Arthur as we know and love him

Okay, so perhaps the image of King Arthur as a chivalric knight in shining armour is a bit old hat. But with all the new and exciting ways the story has been interpreted in recent times, from Marion Zimmer Bradley's mystical and entrancing Lady of Avalon to Bernard Cornwall's gritty but enthralling Warlord Chronicles, it just seems a shame to film a version so utterly devoid of magic, myth and romance.

The message of the film is FREEDOM (where have we heard that one before?), a message that is certainly at the core of traditional British identity (hey, we'll never be slaves). But the myth of King Arthur lies deep at the heart of our culture as well, and it's a shame to see it sold so short.

On second thoughts, let's go to Camelot. It's not as silly as I thought.

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