Being a Brit of Celtic origin and a fan of mythology (of which comics are but a modern iteration), the Arthur story is something I was drawn to at an early age. The first ‘proper’ books (i.e. no pictures) I remember actively purchasing as a young teenager were the Susan Cooper ‘The Dark Is Rising’ cycle, which intercalated the Arthurian legend into a modern story. I even had The Knights of Pendragon comic book, the first series, and how many people can say that? All of this preamble is to say that I may not be completely biased in opinion but, at the same time, I have a history, although I apologise in advance if I ramble and it ends up not looking like a traditional review.
This version is based on some new evidence that suggests that the legend of Arthur is based on a real person who lived in 5th-century Briton. This is an interesting idea, even if it’s probably nonsense. Arthur/Artorius (Clive Owen) is a half-Roman, half-British commander of Samartian knights, who are finishing their 15-year term of service for the Roman army. They are to be set free but first Rome wants them to rescue a Roman living north of Hadrian’s wall, as Saxons are invading there. It is a dangerous mission because of the Woads, a guerrilla army led by Merlin living north of the wall, who hate the Romans and want them out of Briton. Along the way, Arthur learns about being responsible, picks up Guinevere, battles a Saxon army and founds Britain.
The good aspects of the film? Well, I liked that the Saxons and Britons speak a language without subtitles, possibly indicating the commonality of the tongues, whereas the Celtic of the Woads is almost undecipherable (which is true if you’ve ever actually heard any spoken Welsh or Irish). There is a grittiness that is nice compared to the shiny armour of such nonsense as the awful First Knight. The fight scenes, although not great (will fight scenes with extras ever be any good after we have been spoiled by the CGI majesty of Helm’s Deep?), have a certain something to them. All of which isn’t saying much, is it?
Some of the bad things. Even though they admit that the true life Artorius lived in the 2nd century and that they moved the story forward 300 years, there are lots of historical aspects that seem out of place, which jars throughout. Fuqua seems more at home with the fight scenes, which have been restored to their bloodier versions (before, presumably, they decided to go for the supposed Keira Knightley, Guinevere, teen audience and had to tone it down), even though they don’t really zing. His alternative ending is presumably some attempt at deeper meaning, but it’s just silly and was rightfully changed, even if the other ending has problems. The story itself should have ignored trying to link to the Arthur story (why have Ioan Gruffudd as Lancelot eyeing up Guinevere, when that was a known invention by the French when they introduced it into the myth, because cuckolding was a popular story trope at the time?) and it could have worked better on its own (but then we wouldn’t have the recognisability of the Arthur story, working as a known quantity to get people into the cinema in the first place).
Screenwriter David Franzoni struggles with history, the legend, pace and dialogue, making it hard to imagine that he is responsible for Gladiator, although easier to believe that he was responsible for Amistad and Jumpin’ Jack Flash. Clive Owen doesn’t really look or sound like a leader of men, lacking any kind of authority. I don’t want to be prejudiced against him just because he comes from Coventry, but his voice doesn’t sound right, which makes me wonder how he would cope as James Bond, as the rumours suggest. Knightley doesn’t sound like a Woad at all, her plums tones at odds with the Celtic sound of everyone else, but at least she is good in the fight scenes. Gruffudd comes out best as Lancelot, boding well for the Fantastic Four film, with Stellan Skarsgard, as the head of the Saxons, holding his own.
For the most part, you get the feeling that there might a good film struggling to get out. But, when a film has Stonehenge next to the sea at the end of the film, it gets to be irritating. My girlfriend, also someone who has more than a passing knowledge of the Arthurian legend, had given up on the film long before the end, suggesting that they didn’t know where they were aiming the film. If, as some aspects of the film suggest, they were going for an Ancient Briton version of The Seven Samurai (well, The Magnificent Seven; they weren’t aiming that high), then it might have worked on the level of Braveheart (Gladiator had a more romantic edge to it, all the bloodletting aside, and the nod towards romance here really doesn’t count) but it tries to please too many people and ends up pleasing nobody.