The tagline to Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur was “The True Story Behind the Legend,” and in the opening text, we are told, “Historians agree that the classical 15th-century tale of King Arthur and his Knights rose from a real hero who lived a thousand years earlier in a period called the Dark Ages. Recently discovered archeological evidence sheds light on his true identity.” You’ve got to admire a filmmaker who completely embraces the bullshit of his premise. This film showcases the legendary King Arthur as a Roman officer when there has never been a consensus amongst historians on Arthur’s historicity.
Taking place during the tail end of the 5th Century, we find Artorius Castus (Clive Owen) — Arthur being a Celtic version of Artorius — with his Knights of the Round Table guarding one of the outermost boundaries of the Roman Empire. The remaining men under his command include Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd), Tristan (Mads Mikkelsen), Galahad (Hugh Dancy), Bors (Ray Winstone), Gawain (Joel Edgerton), and Dagonet (Ray Stevenson), all who were Sarmatian horsemen, mandated to perform compulsory militaristic service for the Roman army. On the eve of their retirement, having fulfilled their 15-year term of service, their writs of freedom are, instead, suddenly withheld and they are given one final mission.
Their mission, if they choose to accept it — which they must or be hounded as deserters — is to rescue a member of the Roman aristocracy who is living far north of Hadrian’s Wall. Being that there is an army of thousands of invading Saxon warriors heading their way, led by their brutal leader Cerdic (Stellan Skarsgård), it is a matter of utmost urgency that Arthur and his men are sent out on what is most likely a suicide mission. Along the way, they encounter the dark magician known as Merlin (Stephen Dillane) — his magical abilities are only rumoured and none are on display in this movie — and though he is the leader of the Woads (Picts), and he is the one whom Arthur and his knights have been fighting for decades, they manage to form an uneasy alliance against the greater threat of the invading Saxons. This movie also introduces to us a very different version of Guinevere (Keira Knightley). No longer is she a damsel in distress, but, instead, she is a warrior in distress — I guess that’s better — and she is found being held captive by the very same group that Arthur was sent to rescue from the Saxons. Now, it’s fair to say that the screen doesn’t exactly burn up with the budding romance between these two, with Clive Owen and Kiera Knightley having zero chemistry together, but then again, Antoine Fuqua was not all that interested in making a love story — he was all about making a grand historical epic.
Now, if none of this seems very “Arthurian” to you, you’re not alone, as Antoine Fuqua and screenwriter David Franzoni couldn’t have cared less about the Arthurian legend or its possible historical origins. The namechecking of Arthur’s legendary Knights of the Round Table in this film ranged from pointless to just plain insulting. Not to mention the fact that giving people supposedly from the Eurasian Steppes names like Lancelot and Galahad is moronic, and even worse is the complete lack of any of these “knights” having the character traits of their legendary counterparts. Aside from Lancelot being depicted as Arthur’s closest friend, nothing else is even remotely close to what is found in the legendary stories.
If we forget that the original Knights of the Round Table were Britons (knights of Romano-Celtic Britain fighting for the freedom of Britain against the Saxons), and not press-ganged Sarmatian horsemen, we still have to deal with Antoine Fuqua’s horrible version of these knights.
In this movie, Bors is a boorish and lusty warrior and the father of many bastards, which differs greatly from his namesake whose purity and celibacy allowed him to witness the Holy Grail, according to legend. As for Dagonet of Arthurian legend, he was a cowardly court jester who would often dent his own shield so that it appeared he’d been in a fight, but in this movie, Dagonet is a badass fighter who sacrifices his own life so that the others can escape the approaching Saxons. This all begs the question: if you are going to diverge so far from the legends, why even bother using those names? It’s not like Bors and Dagonet were all that familiar to the general public to begin with, and if that’s not enough to piss off fans of Arthurian lore, the movie also leaves out the love triangle between Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot, one of the most famous tragic love stories in history. If you are going to make that many changes from the source material, why use the Arthurian tale to begin with? This could have easily been a movie about the last days of the Roman Empire in Briton, with no need to namecheck the likes of Galahad and Lancelot or Guinevere.
Pissing all over the Arthurian myth wasn’t the only crime the filmmakers here are guilty of, as their claims of giving us “The True Story Behind the Legend” is an even bigger affront to lovers of history.
The King Arthur of myth and legend sat upon the throne of Britain within the walls of the fabled city of Camelot, where he and his knights held to a strict chivalrous code of ethics that was symbolized by the Round Table, which placed no man in higher standing than another. Now, in Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur, we have Arthur spouting off that “You …were free from your first breath!” with him citing the works of Bishop Pelagius to back this outlandish claim. Not only was Pelagius not a bishop, but he also was a monk who died of old age and was decidedly not murdered for his beliefs as depicted in this film, and he certainly didn’t advance any theories about political freedom. Instead, he resisted the doctrine of original sin, arguing that one was able to perform good works and achieve salvation by sinlessness alone without requiring spiritual Grace.
This skewing of history is a common occurrence in movies where the filmmakers want to give the hero more modern and enlightened sensibilities, much like what was done with Zack Snyder’s 300, where the King of Sparta was always yelling about “freedom” despite the fact that Sparta was a slave state, and in the case of this particular King Arthur, the film undercuts its own message by stating right off the top that Arthur’s knights had been pressed into involuntary servitude. You can’t have it both ways Hollywood.
• Why was a member of the Roman aristocracy living in a land unclaimed, unoccupied and undefended by the Roman army?
• Upon seeing the Round Table, the Bishop’s aide gasps, “A round table, what sort of evil is this?” I never knew circular furniture was considered the work of the Devil.
• Arthur gives so many speeches about freedom that it’s clear this movie desperately wanted to be Braveheart.
• Lancelot was Galahad’s father, yet they’re depicted here as just compatriots. Did anyone involved with this movie even crack a book about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table?
• Once again, we get a Merlin who has no magical abilities, but this film goes one step further by removing him from the role of Arthur’s mentor.
• Guinevere is surprisingly good with a bow despite recently having her fingers dislocated.
• This movie presents the idea that Roman soldiers used their swords as grave markers which is beyond the pale and ridiculous. A sword would be much too valuable to waste and this idea is only presented here as such so that we can get a young Arthur pulling Excalibur from his father’s grave.
To say that the filmmakers of King Arthur used “artistic license” in the making of this film is like saying the Pacific Ocean is a rather large and damp body of water. The historical inaccuracies could almost be made into a drinking game — take a shot anytime someone uses the word “knight” to describe a mounted Roman soldier — and the film is just chock full of armour and weaponry that is centuries too early. That all said, as a film, King Arthur isn’t all bad. If you let slide all that “True Story” crap, you can find yourself enjoying a rather fun action film, with battle scenes that are wonderfully choreographed and gore-filled — even the shaky cam is kept to the bare minimum — and the acting overall is above reproach. It’s really that acting that makes King Arthur as good as it is, and with the likes of Mads Mikkelsen, Ray Winstone, and Ray Stevenson in supporting roles, that isn’t surprising. However, the standout performer here has to be Stellan Skarsgård as the Saxon leader whose gravelly voice rarely rises above a whisper, as if the murder of thousands of people is nothing more than a tedious chore.
Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur is just another entry in a long line of films that insist on giving us a “realistic” interpretation of mythical or legendary stories, and though I find nothing intrinsically wrong with that approach, I also can’t help but wonder, “Why bother?” Thankfully, successful fantasy films like Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings have shown Hollywood that audiences are more than capable of suspending their disbelief long enough to enjoy films about wizards and knights of old, so here’s hoping that someone else takes another crack at the story of King Arthur and his fabled Knights of the Round Table.
King Arthur (2004)
Movie Rank - 5.5/10
With this version of King Arthur Antoine Fuqua rousing adventure tale that while being rather exciting also pisses all over the Arthurian legend as well as the historical events it’s apparently basing it