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King Arthur (DVD)
Member Name: collingwood21
King Arthur (DVD)
Date: 26/06/05, updated on 30/06/05 (278 review reads)
Advantages: Ioan looked good in his armour, Stunning scenery, It finished
Disadvantages: Poor historical research, Clumsy scripting, Wooden acting
Running time: 126 minutes
Director: Anthony Fuqua
Producer: Jerry Bruckheimer
Clive Owen – Arthur
Ioan Gruffudd – Lancelot
Ray Winstone – Bors
Mads Mikkelsen – Tristan
Hugh Dancy – Galahad
Keira Knightley – Guinevere
Stephen Dillane – Merlin
Ken Stott – Marcus Honorius
I wanted to like this film, I really did. I have enjoyed reading the Arthurian legends in their many different forms, so when I heard that not only was there a new film out about King Arthur, but that it was based on a new archaeological theory, I just had to see it. The signs looked good - Jerry Bruckheimer (CSI, Law & Order, Pirates of the Caribbean) was involved; there was an element of historical accuracy about it (I heard tales of sword designs being rejected for not being technologically possible in the era portrayed), and the cast look potentially promising, even given the surprise of the lead being handed to the permanently on-the-edge-of-stardom Clive Owen. So, after ignoring all the reviews warning me to run the other way, I saw it for myself.
“King Arthur” is set in Northumbria in the early 400s AD. For those of you unfamiliar with the Arthur myth, there are basically two strains of it – the medieval Arthur with all the accompanying chivalry and Holy Grail stories that I suspect a lot of you will be most familiar with, and the earlier 5th/6th century AD version that usually features Arthur fighting against Saxon invaders to Britain. It is generally agreed by historians that the chivalrous Arthur is a later embellishment on the earlier stories, and the thinking is that any real Arthur was likely to have been some kind of warlord (as portrayed in Bernard Cornwell’s excellent Arthurian trilogy, for example). This film goes for the earlier (and arguably more historically correct) Arthur, which again I found to be encouraging. However, rather than featuring a usually West Country or Welsh Arthur fighting Saxon invaders along the southern and eastern coasts, this film has a foreign, Romanised Arthur living near Hadrian’s Wall as the Romans are withdrawing from Britain.
The source of this version of the Arthur story comes back to that new archaeological theory I mentioned previously. The theory itself is based on a recently published book called “Arthur the Dragon King” by Howard Reid, who suggests that Arthur was never British at all, but rather from a band of nomadic tribesmen (Sarmatians) who lived in Southern Russia. Reid has pointed out a number of potential links between the legends of the people of this region (now called Ossetia) and the mythical Arthur: there were skilled horsemen and knights in the stories who practised sword worship; there are stories of magical swords and a “chalice of truth”, and there is abundant dragon imagery (Arthur’s surname is often given as being “Pendragon”). That in itself is pretty slim evidence, but the Romans did conquer this region and absorb some of its horsemen into the Roman cavalry – and one group of these soldiers were led by a Roman General named Lucius Artorius Castus (Artorius possible being a Latinised form of Arthur). Such foreign auxiliary soldiers are also known to have been mobilised to the Wall to protect Rome’s northern frontier in the later days of the Empire. Having not yet read the book (I have been trying to get a copy through my library for some months now) I wouldn’t like to say how well founded such points are, but they are certainly enough for Hollywood to grab hold of them and use them as an excuse for a swords and sandals film, at any rate.
So here we have a Russian/Roman Arthur (Arthurski?) brooding his way around Northumbria with his attendant band of Sarmatian knights (Lancelot, Bors, Galahad, etc), wiling away the time left on their commissions in the Roman army before they can return home. As the rest of the Roman world prepares to pull out of the region, Arthur is given one of those famous movie “one last missions” – in this case, to rescue an isolated Roman family before the savage “woads” (native Brits) see them as unguarded oppressors and kill them all. This also sets up another movie stalwart, the Race Against Time. All well and good. However, things soon start to unravel and we find the thus far careful historical detailing doesn’t extend as far as major plot points.
You see, as well as the Race Against Time with the woads, Arthur also has an impending Saxon invasion to contend with, as you may have come to expect from an Arthurian story. However, I find this a little strange given the geographical setting of the film. The Saxons were Germanic people, so naturally when the time came to invade Britain (which was incidentally after the Romans had gone, not as they were leaving), they invaded the bit closest to them, occupying the south and east of England. Yet, in this film, there is a small army of them coming from the north. Hmmm. Now, if you were a Saxon warlord, would you go on a long trip to Scotland to invade an England that was still teeming with Roman soldiers, or would you wait a little while and go for a shorter crossing to a virtually undefended country? Yes, finds of Germanic origin have been found in the Hadrian’s Wall area – but these were from Germanic auxiliary soldiers serving in the Roman army. Yes, there were attacks on the Wall from the north around this time in history – but they were from Picts, Scoti and Irish soldiers, not Saxons. The other oddity is that the high class Roman family Arthur is to save is living north of the Wall. Imagine it, the entire Roman Empire to live in, and some guy thinks it would be a good idea to set up home in a highly dangerous stretch of barbarian territory. And wears a toga. I ask you, wearing a cotton dress in the middle of a Scottish winter!
Still, this little adventure allows Arthur to not only save the day, but also to meet up with a beautiful and scantily clad woad warrior by the name of Guinevere, and to have some dramatic battles with the geographically misplaced Saxons. But what is this? Some of the Saxons appear to be fighting with advanced trigger crossbows! Perhaps someone should have pointed out to Mr Bruckheimer that archery played only a very small role in the Saxon battle plan, and that trigger crossbows were a medieval invention (putting the weapons the soldiers were using say 500 years or so in the future). Saxons fought with swords, spears and axes – in fact, their very name comes from their weapon of choice, the seax (they were originally seax-ons).
But of course these historical slip-ups are not the only aspect of this film that I should be discussing. In accordance with the old saying that if you can’t say something nice then you shouldn’t say anything at all, I will start by finding something nice to say. The costumes appeared rather good; the boys got to be terribly manly and wear flashy armour (Ioan looked particularly hot, I have to say), while Keira got some pretty dresses and rather kinky battlewear that I’m sure a lot of male viewers greatly appreciated. Oh, and the landscape (Irish, incidentally, not Northumbrian) was put to good use as a suitably stark and stunning background to the story. Right, that’s it, I’ve run out of nice things to say. The scripting was clumsy and rather painful to listen to in places – as an example, Arthur at one point exclaims to his future subjects “you, all of you, were free from your first breath!”, rather overlooking the fact that all of his band of knights had been pressed into 15 years of servitude to the Roman cause, and he was the one who insisted they finish their tour of duty. The acting was also rather ropey. Clive Owen was completely out of his depth. The usually reliable Ray Winstone looked embarrassed to be playing a one-dimensional character in such a bad film (although we all suspected he would have been a far superior Arthur). The rest of knights were so wooden that you began to wonder if any of them had any previous acting experience. To the line “last night was a mistake” in Troy we can now add to our collection of unlikely historical statements, as Arthur and six others prepare to do battle with thousands of Saxons on an improbably frozen lake, Lancelot’s line to Guinevere: “there are a lot of lonely men over there”.
Overall, although not quite as silly as Troy, “King Arthur” appears to be one of those films that the phrase “unintentional comedy” was invented for. I would have like to have seen greater depth (any depth?) in the characterisation, as well as a nod to the tried and tested elements that makes the Arthurian myths so compelling and enduring. Where was the evil force of Mordred? Where were the traitorous actions of Lancelot and Guinevere? Why was Merlin reduced to a bit part with barely two lines of dialogue? The whole underpinning of the myth is that Arthur was a good man doomed to be betrayed by those closest to him, but this film misses that point entirely. Although I do accept that Arthurian legend is open to be interpreted and reinterpreted into cycles of varying stories, cutting out such a key element as this leaves you with just another film about men wielding swords, winning the war and getting the girl at the end. At no point did I feel convinced by the actors or absorbed by the story, and I was unable to suspend my disbelief sufficiently to enjoy this film as a piece of drama. This is just a second rate “Braveheart”.
Official film website: http://kingarthur.movies.go.com/main.html