Tuesday, November 4, 2008


Anybody who knows anything about the history of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table in the cinema knows that English director John Boorman staged the best version of the Arthurian myth in 1981 with his classic sword & sorcery saga "Excalibur." Before "Excalibur" set the gold standard, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer produced as their first widescreen film "Knights of the Round Table" (1953) in blazing Technicolor with Robert Taylor and Ava Gardner. The 1967 musical "Camelot" featured Richard Harris as Arthur and Vanessa Redgrave as Guinevere and the serviceable 1995 Sean Connery/Richard Gere swashbuckler "First Knight" both deserve honorable mention.

Any of these four, however, would eclipse the latest rehash of the Arthur legend. Not only do "Training Day" director Antoine Fuqua, "Gladiator" scripter David Franzoni and "Pearl Harbor" producer Jerry Bruckheimer strip the luster off the legend in their new movie "King Arthur" (** out of ****), but also they forego full-blown fantasy for half-baked fact. Based on 'recent archaeological findings,' Fuqua, Franzoni and Bruckheimer have revised the fable, so they can tell 'the untold true story that inspired the legend' in their tedious, long-winded, grimy, 130-minute mishmash of British mythology. Sure, this may be closer to the truth than any other King Arthur movie, but historicity isn't everything in a movie. Romance takes a back seat to the shoddily choreographed action sequences, and to preserve a PG-13 rating the filmmakers could only show blood on the combatant's swords. This time around Merlin appears as a wise elder with zero magical powers, while Guinevere emerges as a feisty battle maiden dressed up as a dominatrix packing a sword or a bow in either hand. Despite its mostly-Brit cast led by actor Clive Owen in a sterling performance as Arthur and "Black Hawk Down" lenser Slawomir Idziak's atmospheric cinematography, "King Arthur" does everything wrong in its misguided effort to create a new, different, and more realistic Arthur.

"King Arthur" concerns itself with the roots of the Round Table. In this handsomely produced but hackneyed hokum, we learn that the mythical Arthur owes everything to a real person who lived back in the Dark Ages during the Fifth Century. This Arthur (Clive Owen of "Beyond Borders") is a Roman officer in command of an elite cavalry unit consisting of guys from Sarmatia (somewhere near the modern Republic of Georgia in Europe) who made a pact with Marcus Aurelius to serve in his army for fifteen years. Imagine a gritty, down-to-earth "Magnificent Seven" as knights on horseback, and you'll have an idea what to expect. As the story unfolds, our heroes await their walking papers as Arthur discusses terms with Roman Bishop Germanius (Ivan Marescotti of "Hannibal"). The Bishop cooks up a last-minute suicide mission for Arthur and his knights that requires them to cross Hadrian's Wall and liberate a Roman family living on a farm in the middle of enemy country. The savage Saxon hordes, like the Apaches in a western, are descending from every quarter, and the Romans are pulling out, so the Bishop needs somebody expendable. After Arthur and his knights reach the farm, they discover the slimy Roman has natives holed up in a dungeon where he tortures them in the name of the Vatican. A wizened shaman named Merlin advises these rebellious Woads, and Guinevere (Keira Knightley of "Pirates of the Caribbean") is one of them, locked up and tormented until Arthur sets her free. Now, our heroes must escort this motley crew through treacherous territory with the murderous Saxons breathing down their necks every inch of the way.

The chief problem with "King Arthur" lies in David Franzoni's dreadful screenplay. The rescue mission on which Arthur and the knights embark resembles an uninspired 1950's era cavalry western. Interestingly, the rescue recalls Fuqua's lackluster last opus "Tears of the Sun" with Bruce Willis. In "King Arthur," Franzoni and Fuqua make the fatal mistake of taking themselves far, far too seriously. Not even actor Ray Winstone's churlish character Bors can redeem "King Arthur." As a chivalrous Round Table Knight, Bors is a poorly dressed shaven-headed lout with several illegitimate children who threatens to marry their mother. Fuqua and company play Bors largely for laughs. Using crude contemporary slang, Bors becomes the first on-screen knight to carp about the need to urinate. Hans Zimmer's dirge-like orchestral music hangs tragically over the ponderous action. Fuqua should stick to helming urban thrillers like "The Replacement Killers" and "Training Day," because he cannot orchestrate epic battle sequences. The larger-than-life battle between our heroes and the villainous Saxons on an iced-over lake lacks dramatic intensity, though the underwater shots bolster the suspense. Watching Keira Knightley triumph over opponents twice her size in combat stretches credibility to the breaking point. Meanwhile, the underwritten characters of Gawain, Tristan and Galahad spend most of their time on the periphery of the action, while the heavy-handed historical exposition bogs down the action. Stellan Skarsgard doesn't make much of an impression as the villain behind his bearded jowls and whispered dialogue. Franzoni pulls a surprise that cannot be revealed without spoiling the plot. Believe me, when it happens, you will feel cheated.

As for the love triangle involving Guinevere, Arthur, and Lancelot, "King Arthur" leaves it out! In their quest for a more historically accurate interpretation of the Arthurian legend, the people who made "King Arthur" strive to live down the legend. (Note: This review applies to the theatrical release, NOT the director's cut that struck me as being marginally better.)

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