As Jerry Bruckheimer’s production of King Arthur begins, a title card informs us that “historians agree” the legend of Arthur and his knights is based in fact. While this attempts to speak to the film’s veracity, mainly it sounds like a toothpaste commercial. Was it eight out of 10 historians who agreed, or nine?
Set in the fifth century, the film aims for a more “realistic” King Arthur, sans sorcery and before he was made a king. Here the Knights of the Round Table are forced by the Roman Empire to fight battles in its name for 15 years, at which point they’re set free. But when their time comes to walk away, Rome adds an asterisk: they must rescue the Pope’s favorite godchild from the invading Saxons. So Arthur and his crew become just another dirty half-dozen called out on a last mission. Director Antoine Fuqua and writer David Franzoni haven’t figured out how to make this high concept work as entertainment, though, much less something that re-paints the Arthur legend as more relatable.
This tactic might have worked if the knights had more chemistry with one another. They’re an agreeable, ramshackle bunch, but without defined personalities, except Bors (Ray Winstone), who jokes about his wives and bastard kids, as if he’s wandered in from the Dark Ages version of a CBS sitcom. The other knights engage in discussions about their place on earth; though they’re not set in medieval times, Franzoni gives them plenty of Ye Olde Dialogue.
Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd) and Arthur (Clive Owen) seem the closest to one another, possibly because they share an understanding of the value of dark and sexily mussed curly locks. Indeed, their bickering occasionally spills into couples therapy: “Why do you always talk to God instead of me?” Lancelot whines. Only hints of the famous Lancelot-Guinevere-Arthur triangle remain, but Lancelot and Arthur, at least, occasionally smolder for each other.
But this is not a campy King Arthur, even if you wish it was. Rather, Arthur and Lancelot’s relationship is indicative of an unfortunate mini-trend in recent movies, reshaping classic stories into stoic action epics. Removing the fantasy elements of tales like Arthur’s or The Iliad only allows filmmakers to indulge in their own fantasy that they can recreate the dubious triumphs of Braveheart (1995) or Gladiator (2000). How many times can one heroic man save his corner of Europe?
This generically gritty and solidly PG-13 King Arthur isn’t even much of an action picture. There is one terrific, well-paced standoff on an icy lake, but most battles feature Arthur riding through crowds on horseback, swinging his sword mightily. At first, this looks cool; after the third time, you think, “Hey, he’d be pretty good at polo.” Owen can smolder opposite man, woman, or horse, but the quality that initially defines his Arthur, a sturdy grimness, eventually traps him in a charisma-free part.
Tellingly, the more interesting Guinevere, played by erstwhile pirate Keira Knightley, is often left to the sidelines. The only woman of note in the movie, she proceeds through what appears a guided tour of Designated Female Roles: damsel in distress, native girl, voice of reason, and at last, bloodthirsty warrior. The warrior bit is the one healthy byproduct of this gritty story; Guinevere is never more disturbingly beguiling as when she’s in the thick of battle. Unfortunately, this becomes clear only at the climax, when she contrasts mightily with her accompanying knights. The wear serious expressions, but Guinevere’s face is alive with bloodlust. With her warpaint and skimpy battle gear, she looks ready to charge into another, more thoroughly re-imagined movie.