Running Time: 130 minutes
Jerry Bruckheimer's King Arthur begins with the assertion that recent archeological discoveries (I'm paraphrasing) allow us to tell the TRUE history of the King Arthur legends. The assertion is, in fact, a fabrication. The truth of this Arthur is just another fiction. But who cares? This is a movie, not a history text. And I, for one, was suckered into the charming imaginings of Arthur (Owen) as a Roman commander with British blood at the time of the Empire's withdrawal from the Island. To rescue a favorite Roman pupil of a 5th century Pope and save the native population, Lucius Artorius Castorus (a.k.a Arthur) must lead his band of conscripted Sarmatian warriors against a Saxon assault on Hadrian's Wall. Meanwhile, Merlin (Dillane), a Pictish Shaman, and his daughter, Guinevere (Knightly), gather an allied force of Druidic Britons who romp through muddy forests like combat-ready, dyed-blue leprechauns.
Suckered indeed. For all it's fanciful potential, the film eventually descends into a series of bad, unnecessary speeches and sweaty battle scenes that would be incoherent if not for their sheer predictability. Director Fuqua ("Tears of the Sun' and writer Franzoni ("Gladiator') seem determined to merge these two previous films; Arthur invokes obvious elements of both. Sadly, the pairing fails to produce a worthy off-spring. The hopelessly mediocre "Tears of the Sun' drags "Gladiator' into a Dark Ages muck.
There is no Camelot, no Holy Grail, no love triangle - Lancelot (Gruffodd) does make constant jokes about cuckolding his friends, but never gets a chance with Guinevere - but why should there be any of the artifacts of Arthurian legend? After all, this is the truth behind the legend! There is some almost interesting ado about Arthur's tolerant Christianity juxtaposed against a corrupt Roman authority, but we never really get deep enough to figure out what we're supposed to make of all it. Arthur's the good guy. That's all we need to know.
And that he has to stop the enormously one-dimensional Saxon bad guy, Cerdic (Skarsgard). Perhaps, sensing how stupid the script has rendered his character, Skarsgard seems to whisper all his lines (maybe he hopes we won't notice?). His marauding Saxon army is something of a mystery. Banned from raping (demonization through an implied rhetoric of racial purity that Hollywood seems to assign to anything German) and with not much to pillage, we are never really sure what these Saxon invaders are doing. They have stormed half-way through what will later be Scotland before the opportunity to capture and ransom a Roman family presents itself as a way to pay for the campaign. But barbarians are barbaric, so we shouldn't expect more from them.
The film is not entirely without entertainment value. There is a wonderful set-piece battle scene that takes place over the cracking ice of a frozen lake, and just the idea of the early Britons gathered around a fire deep in the woods speaking whatever Druids speak (Runic?) over sub-titles is marvelous. Knightly's feline antics as the bikini-clad warrior-princess bring a welcome levity to the dull and plodding battlefield scenes. And Ray Winstone ("Sexy Beast') is wonderful. His less-than-knightly Bors seems to be the only character who understands this film is actually The Magnificent Seven in Armor or The Dirty (half) Dozen with (the probably not yet invented, but who really cares about historical anachronism?) Crossbows.
I cannot let this review go by without mentioning that the Round Table Knights seem to have been cast from the real-life friends of Harry Potter. Ioan Gruffudd? Mads Mikkelsen? I would love to see those names up in lights.
Noting Arthur's penchant for contemporary rhetoric about freedom and the equality of men, whatever were the "archeological finds' that allegedly gave rise to all of this, they must have been discovered in the boot of Bruckheimer's BMW. I wonder if he considered that recent dubious invasions leave us more analogous to the occupying Romans who invade then abandon the than the freedom-fighting blue leprechauns leaving them a reluctant king?
Harden Grace is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Film Office.