King Arthur, noble and compassionate king, rules his people courageously within the domain of Camelot. Guinevere, beautiful wife of Arthur, strays from her vows with the dashing knight Lancelot. Merlin, a wizard, has a long pointy hat and a big black cauldron and hundreds of spells up his sleeve. The Knights of the Round Table, brave men, are forever in the service of their king and loyal to his every wish. We all know the legend, right? Well, this new telling of the story is not concerned with legends. It tries to re-create the time and place and the geopolitical realities of Arthur’s time with painstaking attention to historical detail and accuracy. Unfortunately, while revising King Arthur’s legend into a more “accurate” story, they forgot to make it engaging. If the filmmakers wanted to tell a true story, one informed by the historical record, they should have made a documentary. That might have been interesting. But in the hands of director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) and screenwriter David Franzoni (Gladiator), we get a muddy and bloody collection of “epic battle movie” clichés and some amazingly bad acting.
This “true” story of Arthur is sort of a prequel to the story we all grew up with. Arthur (Clive Owen) is not a king but a knight in the service of the Roman Empire. For 15 years he’s defended Rome’s interest in the north of Britain at an outpost along the legendary Hadrian’s Wall.
We are told that Arthur actually comes from the northern region of Europe, where the peoples were defeated by Rome in a fierce battle, but their lives were spared because they were such brilliant and heroic fighters. The gift of life was not given freely; Rome expects their service as fighters. For generations, the arrangement dispersed the fighters all over the map.
Now Arthur, along with his fellow Roman knights from northern Britain, is preparing to return to his homeland. Alas, a Roman bishop gives him and his brethren one last mission: to save a Roman family living in a section of Britain soon to be overrun by the Saxons, themselves busily sacking Briton villages and killing all who stand in the way. If the knights succeed, they will finally be free from the ever-receding powers of the shrinking Roman Empire.
Guess what? They take the mission! Along the way they meet with Merlin, who is not a magician but just a warrior/hippie in charge of a band of natives weary of fighting both the Romans and the Saxons and ready to join with Arthur and his knights. They also meet up with a ton of fake snow, a Guinevere (Bend It Like Beckham’s Keira Knightley) who is more “Sheena, Queen of the Jungle” than any sort of queen, and a Roman who is torturing pagans for not being Christian enough.
There are plenty of Braveheart-style battles, plenty of lines like “It is said he is a great warrior,” and plenty of mist and fog and Englishmen with really bad teeth. The whole thing is a silly, unrelenting bore.
Go rent Excalibur (1981) instead of seeing this “historically accurate” bomb. It may not be the true story, but it is an infinitely more entertaining one.
Dan DeMaggio writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].