1 item from 2004
Hollywood has refined and redefined the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table so many times over the generations that one would imagine this war horse craves retirement from the world of remakes. Then along comes King Arthur to completely revitalize the legend. Like Spider-Man 2, this is a smart action movie, allowing its impressive sets, costumes, effects and battles to serve as handmaidens to story and character. Screenwriter David Franzoni supplies a much more historically plausible tale than previous forays into Camelot, while director Antoine Fuqua brings the gritty naturalism of Training Day to this story of men -- and one woman -- at war.
The film should attract a wide demographic, for despite male orientation there is enough of the romance and legend of Arthur to interest women of all ages. A PG-13 rating positions King Arthur to be the most successful Arthurian film at the boxoffice yet.
The Jerry Bruckheimer production plunges us into an early Dark Ages of furious violence. Battles are fought with vastly different weaponry -- highly accurate archery, heavy swords and spears, balls of fire, axes, shields, hefty body armor and body-paint camouflage. It's a savage, intolerant time where religion is a tool for subjugation, yet concepts of justice and heroism do flourish.
Franzoni's historical revisionism moves the tale back to 452 A.D. The Roman Empire is waning. Barbarians threaten frontier outposts, successfully skirmishing against Roman troops eager to return home and the Empire's mercenary cavalry made up of Samaritan warriors, who came from the area now know as the republic of Georgia. One such unit in Britain fights under the command of Roman officer Lucius Artorius Castus, or Arthur (Clive Owen).
These knights, a sort of Dirty Half-Dozen, include the level-headed Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd), strongman/family man Bors (Ray Winstone), young and passionate Galahad (Hugh Dancy), stolid traditionalist Dagonet (Ray Stevenson), inveterate fighter Gawain (Joel Edgerton) and moody and elusive Tristan (Mads Mikkelsen), whose main companion is a hawk.
On the day the knights' 15 years of service to Rome supposedly expires, the group of weary fighters is ordered on a virtual suicide mission. They must journey north of Hadrian's wall, the great dividing line that protects southern Britain from northern barbarians to rescue a Roman nobleman and his family. (Why a Roman would be living in hostile terrain is a mystery.) This means venturing into woods filled with their traditional enemy, heavily tattooed guerrilla fighters known as the Woads led by the mysterious shaman Merlin (Stephen Dillane). Much worse, they will probably confront the invading Saxons led by Cerdic (Stellan Skarsgard) and Cynric (Til Schweiger), who mean to take over Britain once the Romans decamp.
It is on this mission that Arthur not only meets his Guinevere (Keira Knightley) and learns that the privilege of being a subject of the Roman Empire can mean slavery to many, but he also discovers his soul. As he joins forces with Merlin to take a stand against the Saxons -- early practitioners of "ethnic cleansing" -- he shocks himself with the realization that he is more a Briton than a Roman.
"I belong to this land. Where do you belong, Arthur?" demands Guinevere. His Rome no longer exists except in his mind. Corrupt and dissolving, Rome has fallen to totalitarian instincts and decadence. So Arthur quickly reinvents himself as a freedom fighter who will stand by the British people to turn back the Saxon hordes. (The notion of Arthur as a freedom fighter rings false historically because 1,000 years of feudalism lie ahead for the British people.)
In most epics, we barely meet characters before they are off and running. Here, carefully written dialogue scenes (a few a tad pedantic), all wonderfully played by the excellent cast, establish characters and situations before battles rage.
Owen is very much associated with contemporary roles, so it's initially a jolt to see him in fifth century armor. But this is very much a contemporary take on the Dark Ages, and he is most effective playing against the usual heroic gallantry one associates with King Arthur. Instead, we get a conflicted leader, struggling to find the right path through an unknown ethical battlefield.
Gruffudd's Lancelot is less a son to Arthur than alter ego and his conscience. He is ever on hand to point out Arthur's dilemmas and urge pragmatic solutions. Knightley's Guinevere is, admittedly, a male fantasy figure. A damsel in distress when first we meet her, she suddenly transforms into a warrior princess, possessing furious guerrilla fighting skills and outfitted most fetchingly in a skimpy leather get-up, armbands and henna-like body makeup more at home at a fetish club than in hand-to-hand combat with men in full body armor. But Knightley is sexually alive in every scene, even when lying in filth in a dungeon, and gives the film an eroticism it would otherwise lack.
The villains are terrific. Skarsgard's bearded Saxon leader, looking like a foul priest, is cruel and sadistic but with high intelligence and a zeal to encounter the great Arthur. Schweiger is pure Teutonic evil, his eagerness to kill almost comical.
Fuqua encourages most of his male warriors to play their parts with a heavy-limbed lassitude, reminding us that these guys have lived on battlefields for years. His battle scenes are brilliantly staged so we can quickly surmise the strategies that will win the day and feel the ruthlessness of fighting in close quarters. One especially dramatic encounter on dangerously thin ice in a mountain passage is one of the great cinematic fight scenes of all times.
Slawomir Idziak's moody, elegant cinematography of a wintry Britain -- actually Ireland -- sets a somber, tense tone where enemies lurk in the mist and behind every bush. Hans Zimmer's fulsome orchestral score nourishes the accelerating dramatic stakes. Dan Weil's sets are notably rustic, but costumes and hairdos supply a touch of glamour. After all, King Arthur and his knights still have a reputation to maintain.
Buena Vista Pictures
Touchstone Pictures/Jerry Bruckheimer Films
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Writer: David Franzoni
Producer: Jerry Bruckheimer
Director of photography: Slawomir Idziak
Production designer: Dan Weil
Music: Hans Zimmer
Costume designer: Penny Rose
Editors: Conrad Buff, Jamie Pearson
Arthur: Clive Owen
Lancelot: Ioan Gruffudd
Tristan: Mads Mikkelsen
Gawain: Joel Edgerton
Galahad: Hugh Dancy
Bors: Ray Winstone
Dagonet: Ray Stevenson
Guinevere: Keira Knightley
Merlin: Stephen Dillane
Cerdic: Stellan Skarsgard
Cynric: Til Schweiger
MPAA rating PG-13
Running time -- 126 minutes »
1 item from 2004
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