Buena Vista // 2004 // 139 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge David Johnson // February 7th, 2005
The untold true story that inspired a legend.
This Jerry Bruckheimer-produced, sword-swinging action flick re-imagined the legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, becoming a box-office chump and a critical piñata. A new unrated, extended cut has now been released to sell the film as a more worthwhile diversion than its PG-13 predecessor. Is it? Or does it deserve to be tied up in a burlap sack and tossed into the Lady's Lake?
King Arthur posits that a real man inspired the legend we all know -- Excalibur, Merlin, Camelot, all that fun stuff. Director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) has put together a gritty story of Arthur and his Knights, framing them as Roman soldiers tasked to serve and defend a wild and woolly proto-Britain. Arthur (Clive Owen, Closer) and Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd) head up an elite unit that makes it way through the countryside protecting Roman bigwigs, and beating the living snot out of anyone that messes with them.
Thus far, their primary enemy has been the indigenous tribes led by Merlin. And after fifteen years of mayhem, Arthur and company are on the cusp of being released from their duty. However, one last mission awaits them.
The unstoppable, marauding Saxons, led by Cerdic (Stellan Skarsgard), have poured into Britain, and aim to pillage, plunder, rape, et cetera. Caught in the crossfire is a Roman noble and his Papal-potential son. Arthur's knights are given orders to rescue the family before they're Saxonified.
Arthur, forerunner of the Boy Scouts that he is, rescues the family and the surrounding serfs, refusing to leave them to the hands of the merciless Saxons (derivative of Fuqua's previous film, Tears of the Sun). Everyone gets out just in time, and they even manage to pick up a straggler named Guinevere (Keira Knightley, Bend it Like Beckham), who immediately casts an amorous spell over Arthur and Lancelot. But the Saxons are hot on their heels, and before the Knights can kick back at the Round Table for coffee and crumb cake, they will have to mix it up one last time.
I didn't catch this one in the theatre. Repelled by bad word-of-mouth and a puzzling PG-13 rating (a sanitized swords and barbarians epic? Please...), I stayed put and let this summer turkey ebb into the background. Now here's the new "uncut" director's version, featuring "more intense action." Much had been said about director Antoine Fuqua's reluctance to scale back to a PG-13 appropriate film. Even the title sequence seems to be further evidence he wishes to distance himself from the film that was in theatres: when the film opens, the main titles read "King Arthur: Director's Cut."
I don't know what the movie was like in its age-appropriate form, but I dig this version. King Arthur is a gritty, violent movie that is long (139 minutes), but doesn't feel long. Is it flawed? Sure. But I submit it is not nearly the catastrophe I was expecting, and even if I hadn't gone in with low expectations, I would still have come away pleased as punch.
The main hurdle this film had, I think, was the idea of overhauling the story of King Arthur. Aside from character names and a few blatant plot devices, this film bears little resemblance to the legend that is so well known. Though it appears that a good amount of research went into the history of this film, I think at the end of the day audiences may have felt that this stone was better left unturned. Just conjecture.
See, our characters are named Lancelot and Galahad and Arthur and Guinevere, but that's pretty much where the similarities to the standard mythology end. Merlin suffers the worst in this translation. Far from the wizard everyone knows and loves, this movie's Merlin is simply the name of one of the head barbarians. And yes, Arthur uses Excalibur to smite many a marauder, but the way he pulls it from the stone -- yanking it from his father's grave -- just stinks of contrivance. Audiences see through these gimmicks.
Perhaps if this movie were called A Group of Badasses from the Dark Ages Run Around and Kick Butt it may have been more successful. Because that's what it is. Arthur and his boys are the Emperor's Special Forces, and they're given a mission to accomplish, and besides taking some time out to bloviate about free will or make googly eyes at Keira Knightley, they lay waste to any punks goofy enough to tangle with them.
And it is on that level that I enjoyed this movie.
Try as it might (and it did try), it didn't speak to me on the subject of freedom, it didn't move me with the triangle of Lancelot, Arthur, and Guinevere, and it taught me very little history.
The movie lives and dies with the action, and Fuqua has manufactured some sterling sequences here. There are essentially three major action set-pieces, and they are long and robust and violent as hell.
The first finds Arthur's cadre defending a Roman bishop from a guerilla attack. It's basically a vehicle to set up our characters and their adeptness at killing people. It's a long battle, and shows off each knight's fighting style: Lancelot has his dual-wielded blades; Bors slices and dices with his gauntlets; Gawain wows them with his elegant sword-fighting; that huge guy demolishes with his axe; Arthur makes mincemeat of the bad guys with mighty Excalibur. And make no mistake -- this is not PG-13 footage. Heads are lopped off, blood spurts, limbs are chopped, and arrows are shot into eye sockets.
Second is a great battle on a frozen lake. Through a near-seamless mix of CGI and set-work, the Knights face off with a contingent of Saxons on brittle ice. It doesn't take a quasi-Merlin to foresee what happens next.
Finally, there's the climactic skirmish at Badon Hill. This may be the longest battle I've ever seen, and ends up being quite thrilling. It's bloody, boisterous (thanks to the shrieking Blue Man Group castaways-turned-barbarians), and fulfills all the necessary requirements for a Hollywood action climax (also a negative; see below). You get the face-off you were anticipating, and the villains get their comeuppance in satisfying fashion.
Because Fuqua shoots the action well and knows hot to put together enjoyable sequences, the film doesn't meander. The acting is iffy, with Clive Owen actually coming across as pretty wooden; of course the relentless monologues on free will do little to energize the character. But the guy has stage presence, and he can turn the kick-ass meter up to 11. Keira Knightley's Guinevere transforms between heavily-made-up noblewoman to a barely-clothed, snarling Amazon with laughable ease. The rest of the guys pull their own as gravelly-voiced hulks -- and really, that's all we can ask of them, isn't it?
The film is given a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that didn't blow me away. Color appeared washed out in some scenes, particularly the first and last battles. The ice battle looked better; but overall, it's just an okay presentation. Similarly, the 5.1 Dolby Digital mix, while strong, failed to push this movie like it should have. Surrounds were used meaningfully, but the overall aggression of the mix lacked punch.
A decent crop of extras accompany the film: an alternate ending, which I liked more than the melodramatic original, a casual, enjoyable round-table discussion featuring the cast and crew, a trivia track, and a well-made making-of featurette. Additionally, Antoine Fuqua provides a candid commentary track, where he hits upon some of the frustrations he faced in being forced to turn his R-rated spectacle into a PG-13 affair. A photo gallery and a playable version of King Arthur for the XBOX round this group out.
King Arthur suffers from some formulaic Hollywood foreshadowing that completely gives away pivotal end sequences and lessens the dramatic impact of a few key deaths. If you've ever seen an action film before, you know that the main good guy and the main bad guy will have to face off before the end. And as such, you know that any other good guy who tries to take on the main baddie will wind up horse-whipped. And the good guys should know that! So I don't feel bad for them when they get wasted. Or, if a character describes in detail how he wants to be buried, there's a good chance we'll see that process in action before the end of the film.
Overall, as an action film I quite enjoyed this unrated King Arthur. As the moving, sweeping historical epic that it kind of wants to be...well, it's like the runner-up in the Excalibur competition: a lot of huffing and puffing with no big payoff.
Don't believe the vitriol. King Arthur isn't King Ralph. The court approves of this sword-fest and deems it not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2005 David Johnson; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Buena Vista
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
Running Time: 139 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* Director's Commentary
* Alternate Ending
* "Forging King Arthur" Documentary
* Cast and Filmmaker Round Table
* "Knight Vision" Trivia Track
* Photo Gallery
* Playable XBOX demo for "King Arthur"