Movie Reviews

Movie Review: King Arthur – A Very Different Take on the Camelot Legend

Written by David Franzoni
Directed by Antoine Fuqua

I love Ioan Gruffudd. When I saw a trailer for Fantastic Four recently, I was disappointed to hear him talk without that wonderful Welsh accent I so grew to adore in his performances in the Horatio Hornblower series of tele-films. However, that was remedied by renting the film King Arthur.

While most people know the legend of King Arthur and Camelot, it is just that – a legend. What the truth is and where it begins and ends in regard to that legend are widely debatable.

David Franzoni penned the script for this film, based on the story of a man named Arturius who led an army in Britain during it’s occupation by the Romans in the 6th century. Here, Arthur (portrayed by Clive Owen) is being used by the Roman Empire to try to keep Britain subjugated. Many of his men, including Lancelot (Gruffudd) are Sarmatians, kidnapped from their homes and forced to serve after being conquered by the Romans in a brutal opening battle sequence.

In Britain, they are guarding Hadrian’s wall, which keeps the more brutal Saxons in the north from the more “civilized” subjects in the south. Into this comes Merlin, not a wizard, but the leader of the native Woads who are trying to get the Romans out while at the same time staying away from the Saxons. When he gets his wish and Rome is about to pull out to consolidate it’s power, now he must scramble to protect the population from the brutality of the Saxons.

It’s then that he turns to Arthur. Arthur has learned a few lessons of his own about Roman brutality, thanks to having to go into Woad territory and bring a Roman governor and his family back behind the wall. The atrocities committed by the Roman are enough to earn Arthur’s contempt and to push him into questioning the occupying authorities and what he has believed about the occupation all along. It doesn’t help that his men were supposed to be released from service and then given this assignment which almost certainly meant death, just to protect one sniveling aristocrat (although the son of the governor seems to have a better head on his shoulders).

Guinevere (portrayed by Kiera Knightley) is one of those Arthur rescues from the Roman governor. Shes not a lady here, but a real spitfire and survivor, holding her own with the rest of the men Arthur commands as they try to make their way back to the wall with the refugees while fleeing the oncoming onslaught of Saxons.

The plot was good, if hard to follow. Many of the terms used are not those I was familiar with and it could make it hard to follow. However, I didn’t mind watching it twice to get some of the points straight. It’s very entertaining, if brutal. The cut I watched on DVD is the director’s cut. Antoine Fuqua had to cut many of the more brutal scenes on the battlefields to earn the PG-13 rating, but put them back in for the DVD.

War is brutal, and the hand-to-hand, one-on-one combat depicted here is even more so. There is a lot of blood and a lot of splattering, so if you are squeamish about this the movie might not be for you. The battle scenes are very well done and filmed at a different speed/clarity/aspect. There’s a terrific battle on a frozen lake in the snow between the fleeing army and the Saxons that took my breath away. With Jerry Bruckheimer on board as producer, I was afraid these scenes would be over-the-top but he seems to have been reigned in a bit here.

I enjoyed the performances. No, I didn’t get enough of ogling Lancelot, hence why I didn’t mind watching this again. I wish he was given more to do in the film rather then just sort of seeming like the second in command to Arthur. Gruffudd carried himself quite naturally as a knight and fit in well with the other knights. His relationship with Arthur seemed quite natural, as if he were the intermediary connection between Arthur and the rest of the knights. He had a few scenes with Guinevere which hinted at a potential romance, but Lancelot holds back, whether it’s his sense of duty or deference to Arthur.

Clive Owen was good as Arthur. It was hard for me to think of this as the Arthur of legend I’d heard about but Owen was good at separating this man from that legend. He’s not power-hungry or war-like, but comes across as a very thoughtful and intelligent character with a deep sense of right and wrong and concern for others. This may be brooding to some, but to me it was indicative of what he was going through both as a commander and as a human. It’s this degree of compassion which Owen infuses in the character which gives him the regal air he needs. At the same time he displays the strength of character to do what needs to be done, even when it means he might lose his life or the lives of those he has been commanding for fifteen years. He also grew throughout the film and learned from things that happened to him, and Owen brought enough of who the character was at the beginning of the film to the end of it to make that transformation believable.

There were lighting issues which seemed a bit inconsistent. There were a few scenes which were supposed to be night scene which were obviously filmed during the day. I loved how the lighting was used during the confrontation between Lancelot and Arthur in stables in the darkness, however, and this was a favorite scene of mine.

The costuming was good for the time. I really liked that when showing Guinevere going into battle with the men, she’s not shown in full dress. Rather, she wears something that, while showing some skin, gives her better ability to move around the battlefield and set up launching arrows from various places. Women did go into battle, as Fuqua explains in the commentary, and this seems more practical to me than many of the depictions which show women in earlier times always walking around in heavy dresses covered from ankle to neck with their boobs mashed and pushed up.

There’s not much armor here, which is probably correct as well as it would have been harder during this earlier time to have it crafted. The swords are shown as is Excalibur. At times I thought the knights appeared a bit too clean-cut and well dressed, but that’s a minor complaint really. There’s only so much you can do to get back to the sixth century and since we don’t have any photographs from then, it makes it easy to imagine.

At 130 minutes long I was glad to have it on DVD so I could get up in between. It does run long, but to get the whole feel for the story it’s necessary. I liked the film enough to add it to my wish list (and no, not just for Gruffudd) and I’ll pick it up when I get the chance. It might not be completely accurate, but how could we know what really went on 1,400 years ago anyway when we see history of the last fifty or so years constantly being rewritten? The entertainment factor here is high and anyone who can deal with the brutality of what a hand-to-hand combat war is like will get an eyeful.

Bonus material:

• Commentary with Director Antione Fuqua – director’s cut is gorier, shows heads being cut off, brutality of battle. He had to cut a lot of that out for the PG-13 version of the film.
• Blood on the Land: Forging King Arthur – featurette
• Cast & Filmmakers Roundtable – interview with various members of the cast & crew
• Alternate Ending: Badon Hill (also available with commentary)
• Knight Vision
• Producer’s Photo Gallery
• King Arthur Xbox Game Demo

DVD Issue: Had a problem with the DVD trying over and over again to get the English subtitles for the hearing impaired coming on, no matter how many times I overrode it. I finally did it by resetting both the DVD player and the captions setting on the DVD itself.

Trivia: The man who portrays Jols (Sean Gilder) was also in the Horatio Hornblower series with Gruffudd as Styles.

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