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King for a Day

 

King Arthur

Antoine Fuqua, USA, 2004

Rating: 2.8

 

 

Posted: July 13, 2004

By Laurence Station

The time: 450 A.D. The place: Britain. The situation: the fading Roman Empire is pulling out of the isles, retreating from the incursion of Germanic barbarians. For the poor natives left behind, it's an uncertain time, filled with marauding Saxons and power struggles among local chieftains. What the land needs is a champion, someone to unite the people and restore order. Fortunately, just such an individual exists: Arthur, born of a British mother and Roman father, a gifted warrior, penitent Christian and believer in personal freedom. Arthur will beat back the Saxon invaders, take a native woman to be his queen and usher in an era of peace and prosperity not seen in Britain since... well, ever.

Sounds like a fairly decent concept for a movie. Sure, it's a tad contrived, with an overly familiar plot and a by-the-numbers happy ending, but all the ingredients are in place to fashion a solid summer blockbuster. Unfortunately, rather than follow this basic template, producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Antoine Fuqua attempt an "authentic" take on the legend of King Arthur but leave out one key ingredient: Any sense of the man himself. In lead Clive Owen, they certainly get a talented actor with the right look and authoritative bearing. But King Arthur isn't really about King Arthur (that title only gets assigned at the end); it's about the last mission of a Roman commander named Artorius (a centurion named Lucius Artorius Castus apparently operated in Britain some 300 years before the film takes place) and his faithful knights to guide a favored understudy of the Pope to safety behind Hadrian's Wall before the bloodthirsty Saxons cut him to pieces.

Bruckheimer and Fuqua seemingly equate the term "authentic" with a lack of whiz-bang, Lord of the Rings-style magic tricks. But it's really hard to glean any Black Hawk Down-style veracity from a film that includes a round table and jarringly atypical period names like Lancelot, Galahad, Tristan, Guinevere and Gawain. By picking and choosing which aspects of the Arthurian tale they want to use, Bruckheimer and Fuqua forfeit any claim to authentic storytelling. Better to just borrow the more interesting elements and fashion a unique epic from the diverse parts -- John Boorman's Excalibur is a (very) bloody good example of this. One interesting change is the transformation of Guinevere (Keira Knightley) from willowy maiden to butt-kicking Celtic archer. Regrettably, we never get to learn anything about her life among the Woads (as the Romans derisively refer to the forest-dwelling natives). She's simply inserted into the plot as a romantic device who just happens to be a crack shot at two hundred-fifty paces.

Artorius (just Arthur to his fellow knights and close friends) and his band of brothers manage to save the young Pope-in-training and usher him off to safety, which leads to the final showdown with a Saxon warlord (the great Stellan Skarsgård, affecting a weary, "what am I doing here?" demeanor) and his unwashed horde. Since everything's preordained -- Arthur needs to get crowned -- the outcome is hardly a shock, though a few of his knights do give up the ghost, thus levying a personal cost for the newly crowned king.

The obligatory romance between Guinevere and Arthur generates zero sparks, and their equally obligatory love scene is forced and unnecessary. The love triangle between Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd) falls flat as well, primarily because there's simply not enough time between battles to establish the requisite degree of interpersonal tension (making goo-goo eyes at one another does not count).

Black Hawk Down cinematographer Slawomir Idziak gives King Arthur an appropriately grim and doom-laden look, though the battle scenes are a bit too confusing and choppily edited. The costumes, at least, look, well, authentic. But King Arthur doesn't add anything unique to the Arthurian legend, instead coming across as a History Channel-meets-Braveheart popcorn drama too self-serious to be fun and too fast and loose with its selection of sketchily known facts to be taken seriously in the field of Arthurian studies. Too bad Xena, Warrior Princess wasn't available to spice things up.

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