"After the death of Uther Pendragon, his son Arthur reigned, who had great war in his days to get all England into his hand...."
--Sir Thomas Malory, "Le Morte Darthur"
The problem with basing any motion picture on the life and times of King Arthur is deciding if the story should be about the legendary king of song and story or the possibly real-life king. Touchstone Picture's 2004 production of "King Arthur" takes the latter ground, in the process destroying the myth and possibly compromising the reality.
Before getting to the movie, however, a few words are in order about both the legend and the real man upon whom the legend may have been based. For those who just want to get on with the film review, you may safely skip the next few paragraphs.
The Arthur of Legend:
According to folklore, Arthur was a leader of the Britons in the fifth or sixth century, A.D., shortly after the departure of the Romans from England, a chieftain who helped unite the various other chieftains of the land in their fight against principally Saxon invaders. The trouble was, none of the stories about Arthur, if he did exist, were written down until hundreds of years after his death. When they were finally put to paper, the tales were expanded and embroidered at great length to the point where any possible veracity was inextricably woven into fiction. Writers like Gildas, Bede, Nennius, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Marie de France, Chretien de Troyes, Gottfried von Strassburg, Wolfram von Eschenbach, Sir Thomas Malory, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Howard Pyle, T.H. White, Hal Foster, even John Steinbeck, to name but a few over the centuries, gave us their own views on the celebrated warrior king. Each time the tales were retold, they picked up new characters, new champions, new villains, new romances, new ladies in distress, new escapades, and new accomplishments. Which to believe? Probably none, but they're certainly entertaining.
Malory's "Le Mort Darthur," completed around 1470, was the first book to bring most of the known legends together into one compact volume, and it has been the definitive source of mythic Arthurian affairs ever since. In Malory's work we learn that Arthur was born at Tintagel Castle on the coast of Cornwall, the result of a union made possible through the magical intervention of Merlin the magician, who subsequently raised the boy. At an early age Arthur proved his worth by pulling a sword from a stone (or from an anvil, take your choice), thereby fulfilling a prophesy that such a one would become King of all the Britons (or King of England, although it wasn't as yet called England).
Arthur's first task was to bring together under one banner all the other kings of the island, which he did in a succession of bloody battles. Once banding all the other leaders together under one common rule, with Arthur at the head, the new king built a fabulous castle, Camelot, and gathered around him all the bravest knights of the country and beyond. To ensure that there would be no jealousy among them, a "Round Table" was built (or given to Arthur as a gift) that would seat all of them equally at council.
Next came years of great prosperity, where knights entertained themselves with chivalrous deeds, mighty quests (the Grail Quest being the most important of all), and tournaments. Subplots developed involving other personalities like Lancelot, Gawain, Tristan (or Tristram), Galahad, and the rest, plus the fair Queen Guinevere, the Lady of the Lake, and the lovely Isolde (or Iseult). In legend, Arthur finally met his end when at the battle of Camlan he killed and was himself killed by his illegitimate son (or nephew or whatever), Mordred. Thereupon, Arthur was taken away to the enchanted isle of Avalon, where some say he still lives. Or he is buried somewhere under a hill in a cave, sleeping until he is needed again. Or he was buried at Glastonbury Abbey. Again, pick your legend.
The Arthur of History:
There is no doubt that Arthur is England's greatest hero, a legend that will undoubtedly never die. But could there have been a real person on whom the legends are based? Probably. Although there isn't a shred of verifiable proof of Arthur's existence, there is a mountain of circumstantial evidence indicating that at least somebody fitting Arthur's description lived at about the time the legends say he did.
For instance, there is archaeological evidence of a large building, probably a royal palace, at Tintagel dating from the time of Arthur's birth. There is further archaeological evidence of a large fortification on a hilltop at Cadbury, long thought to be the original location of Camelot. This fortification also dates from the time of Arthur and is the largest such fortification from that date ever found in England. Obviously, from its size, whoever lived there was among the most powerful chieftains or kings of the country at that time.
More important, actual records show that at about the time of Arthur's death, a real historical personage named Riathamus, a king or chieftain, led an army of 5,000 men to war in France, where he was mortally wounded, taken to the nearby town of Avallon, and died. The chieftain is never named as Arthur, but the title "Riathamus" means "King," and it can be surmised that Arthur may have been so well known at the time that records needed only to refer to him as "Riathamus," or "King." Geoffrey Ashe, historian and chairman of Debrett's Arthurian Committee, argues persuasively for Riathamus as Arthur (see his book "The Discovery of King Arthur" in the selected reading list at the end of this article). Furthermore, a "sword in a stone" might easily have referred to the stone molds that were used in medieval sword making; and there is even indication that an unusual number of children were christened "Arthur" in the century following the legendary Arthur's death, indicating that somebody of renown with that name probably accounted for the many namings in his behalf.
My own pet theory about Arthur is much like Ashe's, that such a man as Arthur existed and that he was a real king; that he was born of royal parentage at Tintagel Castle; that he grew up to lead the island's feuding chieftains to band together and fight off invaders after the departure of the Romans; that he built a castle-fortress near today's Cadbury; that he went off to war in France, was wounded and taken to Avallon, where he died; and that his body was returned for a proper royal burial at Glastonbury Abbey. Most everything else was added years later by fanciful storytellers.
So, what do any of these tales, legends, and histories have to do with the 2004 movie, "King Arthur," here reviewed in its extended, unrated Director's Cut? Very little, I'm afraid. And what do the extra thirteen minutes add that wasn't in the regular, 126-minute theatrical release? I couldn't say because I never saw the film before now. I can only assume the "unrated" designation means it was not submitted to the Motion Picture Association of America's Ratings Board. Since the Director's Cut contains no chancy scenes of sex, nudity, or profanity, I would have to guess that maybe if it were submitted for a rating, it might get an R for having a bit more bloody violence than its PG-13 theatrical-release counterpart.
Anyway, almost all previous Arthur movies have set the story in the twelfth or thirteenth centuries because that's when most of the legends were written down. But this "King Arthur" prefers to be more historically accurate by setting the story in the fifth century, a period when a possibly real Arthur may have lived. The trouble is, in its attempt to be historically accurate, the movie leaves out Camelot, Merlin's magic, the love triangle, the Holy Grail, the quests, the chivalry, the tournaments, the glamor, and almost all of the mystery. And where's the fun in that?
Yet, at the same time, the filmmakers want to give us an action-adventure movie with a smattering of romance and political philosophy. As a matter of fact, the movie winds up doing little more than showing us two-plus hours' worth of Arthur fighting off invading Saxons, becoming involved with Guinevere, and doing one heck of a lot of speechmaking. It doesn't feel like two-plus hours well spent.
"King Arthur" is prefaced with a note saying that the film is based on recent archaeological evidence, but it never explains what this recent "evidence" is and makes but the hastiest of references in the closing credits and a bonus featurette to historical consultant John Matthews. (From his Web site, I learned that "Mr. Matthews and his wife Caitlin are co-founders of The Foundation of Inspirational and Oracular Studies. Together they have pioneered the shamanic use of the vatic and spiritual elements within ancestral and Celtic traditions.") The only facts I can see about this Arthur narrative is that it's based on a single archaeological theory--mostly conjecture, supposition, and guess work--and the vivid imaginations of screenwriter David Franzoni ("Jumpin' Jack Flash," "Amistad," "Gladiator"), producer Jerry Bruckheimer ("Pearl Harbor," "Armageddon," "Pirates of the Caribbean"), and director Antoine Fuqua ("Bait," "Training Day," "Lightning in a Bottle").
The movie tells us that Arthur (Clive Owen) was an ancestral chieftain of the Britons, having a mother who was a native Briton and a father who was a Roman. (Arthur's full name is given as Lucius Artorius Castus, and, in point of fact, such a person did exist; however, it was around 184 A.D., almost three hundred years earlier.) As the movie begins, in the late fifth century, the Romans are about to depart the country after occupying it for some four hundred years, but they continue to need Arthur's help. Arthur, you see, is the leader of a dedicated group of personal followers, expert horsemen whom the Romans captured in Sarmatia (in ancient times, a region in eastern Europe, north of the Black Sea) and placed in Arthur's service. Arthur and his "knights" (from an Old English word meaning a military follower) of the Round Table (yes, there is at least a Round Table in the movie, although it has no historical footing) have for some time been assisting the Roman Empire in defending the southern half of the island against rebels from the North, Picts they were called, although in the movie they are alluded to as "Woads," an obscure reference to the Picts coloring their bodies blue using dyes made from the woad plant. (The Romans did bring Sarmatian horsemen into England, but automatically assuming that they were the bases for the Round Table knights is stretching the point; and by the time the Romans left England, the Picts has ceased to be a problem.)
But now that the Romans are leaving, the Roman authorities want Arthur and his men to do them one last favor: The knights are asked to travel north across Hadron's Wall and escort a Roman family of nobility back to safer climes. (The Romans discontinued use of Hadrian's Wall in about 410 A.D., but close enough.) The dangers are not only from the Picts but, more significantly, from an invading Saxon army. If they help out, the knights will earn their freedom and be assured of returning safely to their homeland. The knights are not too keen on the idea of helping the Romans one last time, but they will do almost anything Arthur requests them to do, and Arthur persuades them it's in their best interests.
Among Arthur's knights are familiar names: Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd), Tristan (Mads Mikkelsen), Gawain (Joel Edgerton), Galahad (Hugh Dancy), Bors (Ray Winstone), and others. What's odd about this? First, despite the presumptive accuracy of the movie, there is no historical evidence that any of these people actually existed. Second, they are all characters who in legend were added to Arthurian lore much later than the original Arthur stories. Third, they are all jumbled up in relation to their legendary counterparts (which is neither here nor there, but as long as the screenwriter is adding legendary characters, you'd think he'd give them reason for their legends). Lancelot was supposed to be a Frenchman, the greatest of all Arthur's knights, and the lover of Queen Guinevere; here, he's merely a Sarmatian soldier. Galahad was supposed to be Lancelot's son and the purest, most noble knight who ever lived; here, he's the same age as Lancelot and apparently no relation. Tristan was the subject of a whole series of his own adventures, one of them paralleling the Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot love triangle, Tristan's story involving King Mark and his wife, Isolde. Naturally, none of this is included in the movie, where the knights are all simply roughneck followers of Arthur who, says the movie, were later elevated to glory by imaginative storytellers. Really? How and why? The film gives little indication of anything these men did that was particularly unique to any of them. We see them only as good cavalrymen and sword fighters.
Merlin (Stephen Dillane) enters the picture as a chief of the Northern insurgent tribes, at first a sworn enemy of Arthur and later an ally against the marauding Saxons. (There is historical evidence of a Northern shaman who may have been the inspiration for the legendary Merlin; however, he lived over a hundred years after the time of Arthur and was clearly added to the folklore at a later time.) And Guinevere (Keira Knightley)? She is a Northern warrior rescued by Arthur, a woman who comes to love him and fight by his side. She is an expert with a bow and a sword, and she must possess skin two inches thick because for most of the movie she seems comfortable wearing a low-cut gown in the ice and snow, and later she dons a flimsy, leather-thong outfit for the climactic battle of Badon Hill.
Romans, Britons, Saxons, Sarmatians, Picts, I dunno. I had a hard time following all the blood lines, and I have a decent knowledge of the people and times depicted in the story. The Director's Cut of "King Arthur" is long, at well over two hours, yet it tells only a fraction of the Arthur story (one brief battle and two longer ones, plus the business of Guinevere), and it gets most of that muddled. In the end, the movie is more confusing than stirring or uplifting. I learned little about Arthur's character except that he likes muttering ideologies about "free will"; I did not come to admire Arthur because I never came to know him; I saw his romance with Guinevere as a nonstarter, with no spark whatsoever; I found the battle scenes, with one exception, static; and I found the movie's continuous dialogue more tedious than enlightening.
Ray Winstone as the sturdy knight Bors and Stellan Skarsgard as the Saxon chieftain Cerdic are unique enough to stand out in the crowd, but the rest of the actors tend to blend into one. Arthur and his followers are handsome, athletic-appearing men, and the young Guinevere is ravishing, but they are all ciphers, pawns, interchangeable with one another. I'm sure I could not tell you a single thing any of them said or did in the film that was memorable.
Moreover, when there is some action (and the battle on the ice is the film's exception, its best sequence), it is usually filmed in such quick edits as to make an audience dizzy. There is little scope or epic presence to the warfare, just choppy close-ups of warriors chopping heads. The battle on the ice, on the other hand, shows imagination and flair, with tension in the air and genuine excitement. But it's not enough to compensate for the rest of the film.
"King Arthur" is all slice-and-dice, surrounded by endless empty talk. In seeking to demythify the Arthur legends, the filmmakers wind up creating a new mythology, one that is probably just as fanciful as those it attempts to replace. And Hans Zimmer's mythical-heroic musical score does nothing to help us see any truth behind the legend; its valorous tone only intensifies the fiction.
"I fight for a cause beyond Rome's or your understanding," Arthur exclaims. True, and the movie was beyond my understanding as well. It ignores legend and makes up its own history. I found it largely boring.
The video quality of the picture would seem to prove that THX certification does not always ensure the best possible image reproduction. In its favor, "King Arthur" sports an anamorphic transfer, enhanced for widescreen, that stretches to a ratio approximately 2.13:1 across my standard-screen HD television. Beyond that, you take your chances. The bit rate used in the transfer dances wildly all over the chart, and the end result shows it. The picture is slightly blurred in most scenes, with an overall glossy, glassy look. Darker areas of the screen, of which there are many (this wasn't called the "Dark Ages" for nothing), are often murky. Grain is present in many shots, again thanks to the dark nature of the filmmaking and perhaps to the transfer itself. Finally, the director uses a ton of weird green tints throughout the movie and an odd color scheme reminiscent of "Amelie," which adds to the picture's generally eccentric appearance.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 sonics come up better than the video does, yet its full surround capabilities aren't used as much as one might expect. In general, the rear channels are employed in conveying musical ambiance and in sundry noises like horses' hooves as cavalry ride past. It is only in the final battle sequence that the full impact of the 5.1 setup comes into its own, where a few appropriate aural effects are communicated. Bass can be deep and dynamics strong, but it isn't often. As I've said, the movie contains an abundance of talk, and it's here that the front channels do a good job keeping most of the dialogue clean.
If a movie as long as this extended, 139-minute Director's Cut had been transferred to disc at a higher bit rate (thus ensuring a better video image), there wouldn't have been space left over for much else. But the Buena Vista folks chose a different route: They compressed the video enough to allow room for a few extras. One can only imagine how much better a two-disc set might have been. Oh, well.
The disc's primary bonus item is the now-mandatory audio commentary, this one with director Antoine Fuqua. Next, we have an alternate, four-minute ending, "Badon Hill," with optional director commentary. Following that is a seventeen-minute, making-of featurette, "Blood on the Land: Forging King Arthur." It contains the usual behind-the-scenes footage and self congratulations. Here's an interesting tidbit from it: For the sake of authenticity, the filmmakers built an enormously long, full-scale replica of Hadrian's Wall. The funny thing is that while I was watching the film, I thought it looked like a CGI animation. Then, there's a fourteen-minute "Round Table Video Commentary" with the filmmakers and cast. In addition, we have "Knight Vision," a feature-length, pop-up trivia track; Konami's "King Arthur," a playable X-Box video game demo; and producer Jerry Bruckheimer's personal photo gallery. The extras conclude with a THX Optimizer set of audiovisual calibration tests; an unbelievably skimpy fourteen scene selections; some Sneak Peeks at other BV titles; English and French spoken languages; French and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
The disc and its keep case come packaged in an embossed, silver-foil slipcover, with a line at the bottom reading "The Untold True Story That Inspired The Legend." How can "King Arthur" be a "true story" when it's based on a single, untested, unproven theory?
Be all this as it may, Hollywood has been making up its own versions of history for as long as films have been around. Despite my concerns, the viewer probably shouldn't worry much that this movie also plays fast and loose with fact and theory. What's more important is whether one enjoys the result or not. I did not.
If it's hack-and-slash you're after, the "King Arthur" movie has it, although not as much as you might expect. If you're looking for something closer to the Arthur legends, or if you just want to see some old-fashioned knights in shining armor rescuing fair damsels in distress, you might consider John Boorman's excellent "Excalibur" (1981), the best of the lot; or "Ivanhoe" (1952), "Knights of the Round Table" (1953), "Prince Valiant" (1954), "The Black Knight" (1954), "Sword of Lancelot" (1963), "Lancelot du Lac" (1974), "Sword of the Valiant" (1982), "First Knight" (1995), "Dragonheart" (1996), the musical "Camelot" (1967), or even the zany "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" (1975).
Anything, in fact, may be preferable to the interminable speechifying, mundane exploits, and relentless tedium of "King Arthur."
Alcock, Leslie, "Arthur's Britain." London, Penguin Press, 1971.
Anonymous, "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," translated by J.R.R. Tolkien. Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1975.
Ashe, Geoffrey, "The Discovery of King Arthur." New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1985.
Ashe, Geoffrey, "The Quest for Arthur's Britain," revised edition, Chicago, Academy Chicago Publishers, 1987.
Barber, Richard, editor, "The Arthurian Legends." New York, Dorset Press, 1979.
Barber, Richard, "King Arthur, Hero and Legend." New York, Dorset Press, 1990.
Chretien de Troyes, "Arthurian Romances," translated by W.W. Comfort. New York, Dutton, 1955.
Coghlan, Ronan, "The Encyclopedia of Arthurian Legends." Rockport, MA, Element Inc., 1991.
Fife, Graeme, "Arthur the King." New York, Sterling Publishing Company, 1991.
Geoffrey of Monmouth, "The History of the Kings of Britain," translated by Lewis Thorpe. London, Penguin, 1966.
Goodrich, Norma Lorre, "King Arthur." New York, Harper and Row, 1986.
Jenkins, Elizabeth, "The Mystery of King Arthur." New York, Dorset Press, 1990.
Karr, Phyllis Ann, "The Arthur Companion." Reston, Virginia, Reston Company, Prentis-Hall, 1983.
Lacy, Norris J., et al., "The Arthurian Encyclopedia." New York, Peter Bedrick Books, 1986.
Lanier, Sidney, "The Boy's King Arthur." New York, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1917.
Loomis, Roger Sherman, et al., "Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages: A Collaborative History," New York, Oxford University Press, 1959.
Loomis, Roger Sherman, "The Grail: From Celtic Myth to Christian Symbol." Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1963.
MacLeod, Mary, "King Arthur and His Noble Knights." New York, J.B. Lippencott Company, 1949.
Malory, Sir Thomas, "Le Morte Darthur," R.M. Lumiansky, editor. New York, Collier Books, MacMillan Company 1982.
Matthews, John, and Bob Stewart, "Warriors of Arthur." London, Blandford Press, 1987.
Tolstoy, Nikolai, "The Quest for Merlin." Boston, Little, Brown and Company, 1985.