USA (US-Ire-UK) 2004 : Antoine FUQUA : 127 mins
Hollywood deconstruction of the Arthur myth – a little bit Gladiator, a little bit Braveheart, but most of all it’s Lord of the Rings sans wizardry and beasties. Despite hostile reception from UK critics and box-office disappointment, this is quite hearty, suety, meaty ancient/British fare – if you can get through the hefty side-orders of modern/American corn and cheese.
From Gladiator scriptwriter David Franzoni, the tale of 5th-century Roman warrior Artorius Castus (Clive Owen) and how he became legendary British monarch King Arthur. The film takes its grave, downbeat tone from serioso star. Lack of jokes will surprise those lured in by ads – strapline “from the producer of Pirates of the Caribbean” (Jerry Bruckheimer), Pirates‘ Keira Knightley front & centre as Guinevere. Arthur a million miles away from Gore Verbinski’s shiver-me-timbers pantomimey romp – a chasm indicated by the Depp vehicle’s basis as a theme-park ride, King Arthur‘s lineage as one of the most august and enduring examples of English folklore (inspiration for poems by Tennyson and Malory; and films: Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac, Boorman’s Excalibur, etc.)
The lineage here takes a detour via Middle-Earth: all-powerful sword wielded by future-king warrior; perilous quest undertaken hardy band of ‘brothers’; Merlin (Stephen Dillane) a more earthbound forebear of Saruman/Gandalf; a gallant girly archer (tomboy Guinevere a butch-er cousin of Legolas). Tolkien did of course plunder Arthurian legends for his Rings books, but Fuqua and Franzoni don’t miss any trick in emphasising the similarities with Peter Jackon’s moneyspinning adaptations, right up to the finale featuring a joyous clifftop coronation. And both Jackson and Fuqua misguidedly ‘Celtic up’ an explicitly Anglo-Saxon tale – Enya-clone wails on the Arthur soundtrack, location filming was done in Ireland. As with Isle of Man-lensed Reign of Fire, the match isn’t exact: since when did Hadrian’s Wall snake across such steep hills? (All the geography is a little off, in fact).
Closest Rings parallel is with the very Orc-ish Saxon horde: “a vast and terrible army is heading this way!”. Grunting, marching, undifferentiated bruisers of whom very few get any lines. Main exception is the villainous leader: Stellan Skarsgard as Cerdic, the Swede’s American-tinged accent (legacy of Deep Blue Sea, Good Will Hunting, etc) somewhat incongruous on the ear among such a conspicuously all-European cast. His convincingly windblown, world-weary hulkiness recalls Macbeth line to Banquo’s ghost: “Shake not thy gory locks at me!”
Post-Gladiator, Roman-themed epics were suddenly in vogue. So Franzoni had little trouble getting the go-ahead for two more scripts featuring rebellious Roman heroes: King Arthur, followed by the upcoming Hannibal with Vin Diesel (that title will presumably be changed in order to avoid Lecter confusions).
Fuqua (Training Day, Tears of the Sun) a moderately safe pair of hands. Laborious early stretches focus on young Lancelot (is this picture called King Arthur or Lancelot?). Things thankfully pick up, however, with Owen’s arrival – his dour, grave solidity single-handedly gets the picture back on track, and he’s complemented nicely by Ray Winstone’s brutish brio as Cockney-lout knight Bors.
Franzoni’s aim: scraping away the soil of legend to find the deeply-hidden “factual” roots. Ambitious turf for a supposed ‘summer tentpole’: historical, not mystical treatment of Arthur (as with Troy, magic is dispensed with). Dillane tall and bald like Excalibur‘s Nicol Williamson, but filthier and no special powers. Arthur does remove a sword from a large stone, but it’s in juddery flashback and more a matter of physical strength in an extremis situation than anything supernatural.
Franzoni’s approach means that anything goes – license to play around with the personnel. Another Troy parallel: some surprising demises near the end… we even suspect that Arthur himself might cop it (“But in legend, he would live on … as KING Arthur!”) This doesn’t happen – as with Return of the King, title is something of a spoiler. Doesn’t quite fit: Arthur only becomes king right at the very end. Essentially a prequel (cf Thunderbirds) charting his rise to the throne – all that sword-n-sorcery Camelot / Excalibur / Morgan le Fay stuff came later.
Instead presents Arthur as idealistic, forward-thinking, egalitarian crusader against injustice. Half-Brit, half-Roman, his allegiances decisively switch in midsection which, while meandering and confusing features what is picture’s best sequence: spectacular ice-lake set-piece mismatch battle between Arthur’s knights and Saxons. Reportedly an offcut from Gladiator script, scene is apparently ripped off from Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky. If you’re going to steal, steal from the best.
Otherwise, flawed by cliche-ridden visuals (cinematography by Slawomir Idziak) and music (Klaus Badelt): much slomo in flashbacks and battles. Of which there are perhaps too many, and none of them sufficiently gory (edited as they are with eye on certifications boards and lucrative teenage audiences). Fuqua’s limitations mean many sequences feel a little “off” – both action bits and quieter moments, the latter often having feel of dream-sequences. But well-cast actors cope OK – convincing band-of-brothers knights (some underused: more of Mads Mikkelsen’s Tristan and his pet hawk would have been nice, likewise Ray Stevenson’s man-mountain Dagonet).
Knightley somewhat out of place as an inexplicably-posh Guinevere. Not much of a lovematch between Arthur and Guinevere, and she seems more interested in Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd). Gruffudd must have one hell of an agent. While King Arthur‘s flop performance at the US box-office has once again set back Owen’s claims to be Next James Bond, and despite the fact that even (non-Welsh) Brits think he has a strange name, Gruffudd (pron. “Griffith”) has somehow shimmied up the 007 rankings. He’s also managed to nab the nominal-lead Reed Richards role in upcoming and long-awaited Fantastic Four movie, though it’s a poisoned chalice: Gruffudd will be blasted offscreen by Michael The Shield Chiklis as Ben Grimm, aka The Thing.
1st August, 2004
(seen 20th July : Odeon, Newcastle : press show)
by Neil Young