King Arthur: Extended Unrated Director’s Cut (2004)

I mean, those weapons were made to kill you, they were made to take your head off, or a limb.
— Antoine Fuqua, commentary track, King Arthur: Extended Unrated Director’s Cut

It wasn’t about a magical sword for me… One day, you’re gonna have to pull the sword, representing your strength, you’re gonna have to defeat your dragons.
— Antoine Fuqua, commentary for alternate ending, King Arthur

“The idea of these young boys being taken away from home at a young age, to be folded into the Roman military, to fight against an enemy not of their own, reminded me a lot of my own culture: being African American, my ancestors being brought to this country. Most of the American military is fought by African Americans and Latino young men… Knowing a home existed that you know nothing about. It’s like Africa.”

Antoine Fuqua’s thoughtful commentary for the director’s cut DVD of King Arthur begins with an explanation of his interest in the project. Though he had assumed Jerry Bruckheimer — who invited him into his office for a talk — wanted him to do “an urban film,” he was soon rethinking his Joseph Campbell and engaged in deep conversations with screenwriter David Franzoni, concerning the mixed race-and-nation makeup of the Roman army in the fifth century. “We discovered there was no Camelot at that time,” he notes. The location for this Arthur was, rather, dark, cold, and castle-less. “It feels ancient,” he says of his film, “We spent a lot of time looking at Delacroix paintings.”

He also remarks on the film’s rating constraint: though he conceived it as an R, the studio decided to release a summer flick, rated for kids. “Battles, in my imagination,” he says while looking at the film’s first conflagration, “were bloody and vicious, people’s heads come off, as we see in this version. Blood splatters on your face, it’s just not pretty. In the PG-13 version, we had to cut around all of that, we had to CGI taking blood out, and we had to tone down the sound… That’s always difficult to do because I shot it a certain way. When you try to make an orange out of an apple, it’s tough.”

The story of the changed rating made King Arthur vaguely legendary in its own right, its release accompanied with tales of production tensions (as this came on the heels of the tumultuous Tears of the Sun, it’s good that Fuqua’s Lightning in a Bottle has earned excellent reviews). Kling Arthur was clearly (the “very opinionated”) Bruckheimer’s project from jump — he brought in his girl Keira Knightley to play a Guinevere as part elfin warrior, part woodsy beauty (“When you meet her,” says Fuqua, “She’s such a tough, pretty, smart teenager, and when you put her on film, this woman just explodes onto the screen”) and the producer had lots to say about the film (“We always came to a mutual understanding of what we wanted it to be,” says Fuqua, “We were just in it deep”).

If you just gauged by the DVD’s extras, everyone loved everyone on the set. These include a standard “making of” documentary, “Blood on the Land: Forging King Arthur,” the principals recall the historical roots, the design obstacles (the crew built a Hadrian’s Wall, rather than CGI-ing it in later), and their training for fights and horseback riding; as well as a heavily edited “Round Table Video Commentary” with filmmakers and cast (“I had no idea how difficult it would be,” says Fuqua), a video game, and an alternate ending.

The DVD’s most impressive asset is Fuqua. He made smart use of writer David Franzoni’s ambivalent Arthur (played by mournful Clive Owen), gritty and ruthless, but maintaining a faith in a Christian God and a soft spot for abuse victims. You know this from narration by Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd): the knights are all conscripts, picked up as children and trained to fight in support of Rome’s imperialist land-grabbing. Some 15 years after Lancelot is dragged off from his family, in 452 AD (as opposed to the usually cited Arthurian medieval times), the renowned Sarmatian warriors are eagerly anticipating their promised freedom. Then comes the plot: sniffy Italian Bishop Germanius (Ivano Marescotti) assigns them one more indentured task, namely, fetch the Pope’s favorite nephew, Alecto (Lorenzo De Angelis), from his home in the Saxon-besieged North, beyond Hadrian’s Wall.

The pagan knights — including ambidextrous Lancelot, boisterous Bors (Ray Winstone), dull Gawain (Joel Edgerton), duller Galahad (Hugh Dancy), and Tristan (Mads Mikkelson), who travels with a nonsensically mysterious hawk — want to resist this stop-loss tactic. Their distrust of the Bishop is exacerbated by their perception that Arthur is selling them out for a God who doesn’t look after them. Worse, the empire is in fact cutting and running, leaving Britain (the “land” to which the knights have dedicated their violent services) to the Saxons. Skeptical at first, the knights eventually accept Arthur’s self-admittedly schizzy allegiances, to his British heritage as well as the Romans (his “other” name is Arturius, and that sword of his, Excalibur, is a family heirloom rather than supernatural implement; apparently, a Lucius Artorius Castus did exist, but in 184 AD). They’re mates, after a fashion, and share with their chief a long history of combat and mayhem, all in the name of (their) freedom.

The knights’ current enemies, the Saxons, first appear as a horde, knotty-haired and lurching about. Flames and smoke billow in the background as they rape and pillage. Even less differentiated than the decidedly uncolorful knights, the Saxons are unquestioningly devoted to their superiors, the glowering, despotic Cerdic (Stellan Skarsgård) and his ornery son Cynric (Til Schweiger, whom Fuqua describes as having a great sense of humor). This absolute loyalty, shown by their Braveheartish chest-pounding and feet-stomping, might have something to do with the fact that Cerdic kills anyone who even thinks about disobeying him.

Arthur is less certain about his leadership. Not a big believer in supreme privilege, whether conferred by God or some other force, he’s by turns fretful (because Romans like the Bishop take their administrative rule as God-given), guilty, and philosophical. Leading his men into battle, he embodies both apprehension and that the thrill of the mêlée thing, familiar from Franzoni’s Gladiator and the Lord of the Rings movies.

Staged as brutal free-for-alls, the combat scenes are less concerned with delineating moral sides than with showing Arthur’s determination and the horrors of warfare; the R rated version is more effective in conveying the awfulness. The exception to the ferociousness is the singular sensational set piece, when Cynric and company come after the knights and a suddenly perked-up Guinevere on an icy pond. Each step taken cracks the ice, with increasing tension shot from under and over. The clever visuals of this scene make the lack of cleverness in the rest of the film all the more excruciating.

For the most part, however, Fuqua underlines the “leather and dirt.” As he puts it, “The Saxons were vicious and brutal, and they were more of a military force that came at you and believed, ‘Destroy everything and everyone.’ Their thinking was, make war so ugly that no one would ever want to fight with you again… Fear as a tactic.” The poky surfeit of King Arthur results from too many scenes, but also from too few ideas. That’s not to say it doesn’t affect a kind of politics. Arthur here is a standard liberal do-gooder, deciding that he not only needs to free the serfs he finds being abused by Alecto’s tyrannical dad (including the aforementioned Guinevere), but also take them along with his knights, over difficult terrain as they are pursued by the pitiless Saxons: “Freedom is yours by rights,” he announces. The other knights see the problem immediately; suddenly their potent number is encumbered by injured slowpokes. And most of the movie just feels hard. “I wanted everything to be real,” says Fuqua. “I wanted to be able to walk in the set every day and touch it and stand on it, and not have to rely on fixing it later in CGI.”

In this mix, Knightley remains resolute and gallant, her Guinevere another revisionist element in this Bruckeheimerized Knights of the Round Table. Opening with an epigraph that explains it draws from “new” information concerning Arthur, that is, “the untold true story that inspired the legend,” the movie proceeds to trample all over previous Hollywood and traditional-legend incarnations, turning everyone into an action hero — including lovely Guinevere, whom Arthur finds inside a walled up dungeon, where she’s been “tortured with machines” and is now tended by twitchy monks who eagerly await her death, as some vague judgment on her sinfulness.

Almost gleeful in assault mode, Guinevere brings in her own people, called Picts, for the final battle with the Saxons — a gnarly, living-off-the-land band led by scruffy Merlin (Stephen Dillane), adorned with blue body paint and swirlies on their faces. Fuqua says that he had “Vietnam” in mind throughout the shoot. He considers the Picts “inventive,” not magical. “The VC, in Vietnam, they had underground tunnels, very inventive.” Guinevere looks most fabulous in her outfit, essentially bandage-strips cut from animal hides. She also looks awfully vulnerable, compared to the chain-mailed, horseback-riding, sword-and-spear-carrying knights. She inspires Arthur to action, half-flirting and half-competing with Lancelot for the future king’s attention. Along with the Picts, she launches flaming arrows and throws herself into battle, leaping and spinning like a ninja. She’s easily the movie’s liveliest, most outrageous creation.