Nennius, the author of Historia Britonum who lived around 830 A.D., was the first to write about a 5th-century hero who is now considered to be a possible model for the legendary King Arthur. This Arthur was a dux bellorum, a titled war general in the service of the West Roman Empire who led Britons against the Saxons in twelve battles. Another ancient text, Annales Cambriae, reports that he carried the cross on his shoulders at the battle of Mount Badon, while manuscripts of the marquis of Bath tell of another historical Arthur who defeated Germanic invaders and died in 542 after reigning 22 years--though, of course, coming in another century, this may well have been a different Arthur.
The legendary (fictionalized?) King Arthur as we know him first appeared in Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae (c. 1136), which gave him a lineage (son of Uther Pendragon and Ygaerne) and a source of power and authority: the famous story of how, at age 15, he becomes king by pulling Excalibur out of a stone, then defeats marauding tribes and unifies England. This is the Arthur of Camelot fame, made more famous by Sir Thomas Malory, whose Le Morte Darthur (1470) gave us the romanticized and mythic tale that we think of now when we think of King Arthur: the leader who married Guinevere, then suffered when one of his best knights, Sir Lancelot, entered into an affair with her. This is the Arthur of Merlin fame, tutored by the same Celtic magician who helped his father win the hand of his mother. This is the Arthur of "Ivanhoe," "Knights of the Round Table," "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court," "Camelot," "Excalibur," and all the other Hollywood films--all the Hollywood films except this one by screenwriter David Franzoni and director Antoine Fuqua, that is.
Little is known about the historical Arthur who lived in Britain near the end of the West Roman Empire, and Franzoni ("Gladiator") and Fuqua ("Tears of the Sun") use that to their advantage. They speculate on what type of chieftain he might have been and what manner of "knights" he actually might have had fighting in his service--though for a couple of guys intent on de-romanticizing the Arthurian legend and offering up a cinematic serving that's more accurate, they sure do play fast and loose with the characters. There's a little time travel going on, and contexts are severely changed, with people who normally wouldn't have had contact with each other thrown into the same medieval mix. Regardless, if you buy or rent "King Arthur" thinking you're in for a Camelot experience, you'd better think "Braveheart" instead. This version is positively tribal, with plenty of Ridley Scott and Mel Gibson action.
The unrated director's cut puts roughly 17 minutes of shots that would have easily pushed the PG-13 rated film into "R" territory. In the first battle there are multiple graphic beheadings, while a guy takes an arrow directly into his eye and the graphic fight goes on for what seems like real-time. Is it too much? Well, some will think so. Others will think, cool (you know who you are). There are good things and bad about this revisionist film, but much of whether you're able to enjoy it will depend not just on your tolerance for violence, but whether you're willing to chuck everything you know about King Arthur and start all over again.
In this version, Arthur (Clive Owen) is a Sarmatian living in what is now Eastern Europe when he's drafted into service by the Roman army. This was, after all, a time when the Roman Empire was stretched its thinnest. He and other lads from Sarmatia travel to Rome for training and then are sent into the service of the Emperor--not for two or four years, but for a 15-year tour of duty! When in Rome, you do as the Romans do, which in this case is turn Christian--though we have to wonder why Arthur is the only Sarmatian knight who converted. The rest remain steadfastly pagan, and these knights bear no resemblance to the ones you usually see sitting at that famous round table. They're a scraggly, mercenary-looking bunch who are bamboozled into doing one more mission before they're granted their discharge papers at the end of their 15-year term.
So Arthur, who's the blandest of the bunch, leads a rag-tag group of Sarmatian knights to northern Britain to retrieve a Roman family stranded there. It turns out that the Bishop sent to give them their release papers wants his nephew saved, especially because the lad has potential to rise in the Church. But to go on this journey with them, mentally and emotionally, you've got to leave behind anything you know about Lancelot (Ioan Gruffodd), Gawain (Joel Edgerton), and Tristan (Mads Mikkelsen), and get used to the idea of these guys being as rough-and-tumble (and about as well-mannered) as Vikings. One of the knights, Bors (Ray Winstone), is especially earthy and robust, kind of like a soccer hooligan transported back in time. He's fun to watch, a regular fan favorite. But perhaps the biggest shocker is that Guinevere (Keira Knightley) is no longer royalty, but an Amazonian-style warrior who uses a bow and dresses like the others of her tribe--the "Woads" who are led by a wild-looking guy named Merlin (Stephen Dillane), who's as far from a magician as can be.
Yet, if you roll with it, there's something fascinating about this version, a gritty survivalist epic about early Britons who have more in common with those kilt-wearing guys in "Braveheart" than they do medieval knights. Stellan Skarsgard plays Cedric, the barbaric leader of the Saxons, with Richard Boone-snarling flair and a gravel voice that sounds as if he's channeling Nick Nolte. But the bad guys are at least interesting to watch, as is Merlin and his Woads. Look for some interesting CGI work as well, with a trek across a mountain lake (where the heck are these guys, anyway?) leading to a fun-to-watch battle. The final battle goes on way too long, and deleted scenes indicate that Fuqua apparently loved graphic violence so much that he would have had these things last days if he thought any of us would sit through it, but there's enough here to make for an interesting evening of movie-watching.
If the historical vs. legendary Arthur piques your interest, check out the reading list that DVD Town's John J. Puccio assembled in a previous review.
Though the exteriors were filmed under the mists and grey skies of Ireland and Wales, the picture looks crystal clear, with great levels of detail, despite the subdued palette. The 1080p picture is presented in 2.35:1 aspect ratio.
The featured soundtrack is an expansive English PCM 5.1 (48kHz, 24-bit) uncompressed audio that fills the room with sound. There's plenty of ambient action on the rear speakers, not just during battle scenes, but even at moments of rest. A pure- and clear-sounding audio, with additional options in English, French, and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 and subtitles in English SDH, French, and Spanish.
Comparatively speaking, the extras are slight. The commentary by director Antoine Fuqua is pretty standard--worth a listen, but not earthshaking. One short featurette in the 20-minute range on "Blood on the Land: Forging King Arthur" integrates clips of the film with behind-the-scenes shots and talking heads interviews, including armourers, costume designers, military advisors, and visual effects supervisors. Content-wise, there's nothing of great depth, though. In fact, it feels more like a promo for the film. That sense is all but confirmed when you watch the other short featurette, a cast/filmmaker "roundtable" with producer Jerry Bruckheimer acting as moderator. Sitting around the table in chairs with ancient shields on the sides are Fuqua, writer David Franzoni, and stars Keira Knightley, Clive Owen, Ioan Gufffud and Hugh Dancy. It's a casual little chat that erupts, occasionally, into laughter. It's interesting to hear that the filmmakers thought they were making an origin movie about an Arthur who was (as the early Arthur was rumored to have been) stationed at a Roman garrison near Hadrian's wall.
Rounding out the extras are an alternate ending (which, if it's really one that Fuqua preferred, kind of makes you wonder why it's not in this Director's Cut) and a producer's photo gallery.
It's a bloody, barbaric version of Arthur that we see, a leader who's really not a king at all, but the leader of a Roman garrison in 4th-century Britain. There's no Guinevere-Lancelot-Arthur triangle (just implied desire on Lancelot's part), and Guinevere is as unqueenly as it gets, dappled with mud and war-paint and running across the field in battle in a shot reminiscent of Mel Gibson in "Braveheart." Get past the oddity of this version and ignore the shortcomings, and it's worth watching . . . and even adding to your collection, if you're a fan of adventure/epics.