The legend of Arthur Pendragon
has been told and retold, analyzed and discussed, mythologized and deconstructed
so many times that there are entire fields of study dedicated to the examination
of Arthuriana. The vast pantheon of Arthurian literature is packed with volumes
of legendary tales featuring courtly love and prowess, lions, dragons, serpents,
giants, maidens, wizards, demons, and temptresses, which have delighted and
enchanted audiences for over a millennia.
So what is it about Arthurian literature that
captures the hearts of so many? Surely it can't be simple escapism; poems,
legends, literature, stories, and, within the last century, films offer an easy
"escape" from the mundane, and have done so in continuous succession for
centuries. King Arthur and his legendary Knights of the Round Table offer up
something somewhat more compelling than your basic heroic legends; they
presented an ideal which defined the hero, rather than the opposite.
The notion of chivalry balanced might with justice, prowess with mercy, loyalty
with courtesy, and the decisiveness of steel with the openness of compassion.
Arthur and his Knights were paradigms of selflessness, dedicating themselves to
country, church, unification and justice throughout Britain. They
were a group of individuals, often disappearing from Camelot for months or years
on end on individual quests, yet they were part of a singular collective that
always remained stronger and more potent than any of them as individuals.
Well, except for maybe Lancelot, but I'm not going
to split hairs here.
There have been numerous retellings of the legend
of King Arthur and his Knights of the Table Round. One can go back to the
ancient Welsh tales of The Mabinogion, which contain some of the
earliest Celtic recountings of Arthuriana, and find a completely different tale
than that spun in Geoffrey of Monmouth's phoney-baloney Historia Regum Britanniae. In
Geoffrey's work, Arthur is contextually presented within the heroic sphere of
the Aenead, a continuation of the Roman line of succession that
emanates out of the pages of antiquity. Here we begin to see some of the
Arthurian trappings take root, such as Merlin, Bedivere, Kay, Avalon, Morgan Le
Fay, and Caliburn, Arthur's legendary sword.
My personal favorite stories of Arthurian lore are
Chrétien de Troyes magnificent Arthurian Romances, a collection of French tales
that were adapted to entertain the Norman court. Within the span of a few
beautifully written romantic tales, de Troyes introduced Lancelot, Perceval,
Yvain and his Lion, the Holy Grail, and Camelot to Arthurian canon.
But the only real "definitive" Arthurian text is
Sir Thomas Mallory's classic Le Morte D'Arthur, the epic culmination of
all Arthurian concepts into a single unifying tale: from the exploits of Uther
Pendragon, Arthur's sneaky Dad, to Arthur's childhood, ascendancy, victory
against the Saxons at Badon Hill, reign in Camelot, downfall at the hands
of his wife Guenevere and best knight Lancelot, and transport to Avalon after
his death. Mallory's book has become the primary text from which all future
retellings of Arthurian legends sprung: T.H. White's Once and Future
King - a post-war British re-imagining of the legend - is directly
influenced by Mallory; Mallory himself makes a cameo appearance in the final
chapter as 'Tom'. Furthermore, John Boorman's Excalibur - which is
easily the best cinematic adaptation of the Arthurian legend ever, bar
none - is a direct descendent of Mallory.
The tales of Arthur and his knights are filled
with excitement, color, romance, danger, fantasy, jubilation, heartbreak, and
the hope of redemption. They exist, not in our realm, but in a world of fantasy,
and four-color idealism. They aspire to present a world free of mundane
concerns, petty squabbles, and the broken promises of adolescent daydreams. They
are truly larger than life because they demonstrate the potential of Camelot
within each individual.
So why do contemporary filmmakers believe that
what people really want to see is a historical reinterpretation of the
Arthurian myth, "liberated" from its fantastical trappings and replete with
slaps on the back that - at long last - we're finally getting something
tangentially related to historical "truth"? Is anyone really begging for this? I
suppose if the story were compelling enough that it would make for an
entertaining film, but I have yet to see this successfully posed as cinema.
Witness Jerry Zucker's dismal 1994 disaster First Knight, which
stripped the legend of nearly all of its potency, removing Merlin, the magical
and fantastical elements, and most of the "name" Knights, concentrating solely
on Sean Connery as Arthur, Julia Ormond as Guenevere, and Richard Gere (!) as
The latest attempt to realistically reconstruct
the historical veritas of Camelot is King Arthur,
the 2004 Antoine Fuqua/Jerry Bruckheimer collaboration which, based on
box-office receipts alone, represented one of the biggest box-office busts of
the year. With an estimated production budget of $120 million, the film
grossed a paltry $51 million stateside (although it did capture
a somewhat more impressive $150 million overseas, the combined grosses
could barely cover the studio's investment before ancillary revenues kick in.)
Fresh of the success of the previous summer's Pirates of the Caribbean,
Jerry Bruckheimer turned to Training Day helmer Antoine Fuqua to direct
this adaptation of the legend.
The film is set in the Fifth Century. Arturius /
Arthur (Clive Owen) is a Roman commander of the Samatian Knights, a dutiful
officer dedicated to battling the barbarian Saxon hordes, led by the villanous
Cerdic (Stellan Skarsgård), in the Roman outpost of Britannia. Rome, in the throes of its
decline, has decided that Britannia is simply more trouble than it's worth, and
is withdrawing from its occupation of the island. The Woads, a native clan of
Britons led by the mysterious Merlin (Stephen Dillane), are also engaged in
battle against the Saxon hordes, which make a habit out of burning, killing,
and, perhaps even most horribly, scowling at anything in their path.
Yes, they are one-dimensional villains just waiting for a group of good guys to
take 'em on. Arthur allies with the Woads to battle the Saxons, but initially
there is no love lost between them: Woads killed his family when he was a child,
you see, yet Arthur is half British himself, and thus tied to the very land he
both struggles against and vows to protect. Accompanying Arthur in his quest are
his various knights: the brave Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd), the brutish Bors (Ray
Winstone, in a lively and enjoyable performance), and the valiant Galahad (Hugh
Dancy), Gawain (Joel Edgerton), and Tristan (Mads Mikkelson). He also makes the
acquaintance of warrior princess Guenevere (Keira Knightley who, despite her top
billing, doesn't appear in the film for nearly an hour), a Woad national with
the archery prowess of a Tolkien elf and the come-hither appeal of a young Ruth
Buzzi. Together, Arthur and his Knights, alongside Guenevere, Merlin, and the
native Britons, unite to save Britannia from barbarian incursions and Roman
Generally, I found King Arthur to be somewhat rote and perfunctory, but it's far from the
disaster that pundits pronounced it to be. I found Owen's performance in the
titular role to be dark and austere, yet at all times commanding and
charismatic. He's not the type of leader who inspires through words, flash, and
promises, but through sheer intensity and presence. Knightley is an extremely
talented actress and her performance here makes for an appealing character, but
I don't quite buy her as Guenevere. The rest of the cast have their appeal, but
most of them are hampered with some fairly hokey and unbelievable dialogue.
There are more than a handful of cringe moments to be found here; "You and I are
not the polite people who live in poems," Guenevere offers up to Arthur in one
of the film's quieter scenes, a limply-written line limply delivered by
Knightley. The film looks smashing enough: there's plenty of snow, mud,
greenery, and countryside to make me earnestly believe that I am looking at
England 1600 years ago. The battle
scenes are certainly satisfactory and eschew excessive CGI in favor of more "in
your face" realism. Yet I wonder why there's nothing here that matches the
intensity and gravitas of Braveheart, a superior film that is
self-consciously (and involuntarily) reflected throughout King Arthur.
Heck, it's hard to discern how a battle on a frozen lake in this 2004 film is
less thrilling and exciting than one from 1938 (Eisenstein's Alexander
Still, the film moves at a decent clip, and has
enough satisfactory thrills and excitement to fulfill the expectations of those
who simply want to enjoy a passably entertaining costume epic/action film. The
film opens with a lot of promise but generally seems to lose steam throughout
its running time, and there is little (if any) emotional connection to any of
the characters or situations going on here. King Arthur
is an OK movie, but it's as
disposable as drive-thru Chinese food. It looks good, it tastes good, and thirty
minutes after consuming it, it's like it was never there.
The 135-minute version of King Arthur: Extended Unrated Edition is billed
as the unrated "Director's Cut"; there seem to be about ten minutes of extra
footage included in this version, with some extra violence and "intense action"
to lend the film a grittier and less restricted feel.
King Arthur: Extended
is presented in a widescreen aspect ratio of 2.35:1, and has been
anamorphically-enhanced for your widescreen-viewing enjoyment. Given that this
film is a new release from Disney, a pristine and immaculate-looking transfer is
naturally expected. The transfer is good to very good, but it misses the mark on
a number of measures. Fine image detail seems to be lacking, with overall
sharpness levels varying across the map. Colors are strong and
beautifully-rendered, accurately reproducing everything from the dismal gray
winters, bright green rolling hills, and blue skies in a pleasing manner. There
is an excessive amount of filtering to lend the
picture a dark, earthy feel. However, I found a
lot of unintentional murkiness to the picture, especially in low-lit
scenes. Black levels were lacking in a number of shots, while
grain structure pokes its way through the transfer. Contrasts in other scenes are
rather striking: witness the confrontation between Merlin, Arthur, and Guenevere in the snow.
Brilliant. Overall, the transfer is good but far from great, which can
only be viewed as a slight disappointment.
The audio is presented in a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack,
with a French language track for all you Continental types. There is a ton of
bombast and aggression during many of the film's battle scenes, with the amount
of enveloping immersion, LFE punch, and surround activity one would come to
expect. Yet much of the soundtrack seems slightly subdued in comparison, but
this is no fault of the mix; the film spends much of its running time in setup
and exposition mode. Dialog sounds bright and clear in presentation, but much of
the delivery is drawn in such dynamic undertones that I had to strain my ears,
turn up my volume, or pop on the subtitles. Again, this is an "aesthetic"
choice and not an inherent flaw. You'll find most of the action
comes to life during the final battle: most of the pinpoint directionality and
dynamic imaging is put on display during this time. This is where the soundtrack
We start off our list of
extras with an audio commentary with director Antoine Fuqua. An
unlikely choice for a costume epic (Fuqua had previously directed Tears of
the Sun, Training Day, and The Replacement Killers),
Fuqua talks confidently and informatively for the film's entire running time.
There are some silent spots throughout the commentary, but his comments are
always of interest; he relates his own experiences to the film, its production,
the cast, and the filming.
Next we have a feature
entitled Blood on the Land: Forging King
Arthur, an 18-minute documentary that examines the production of
King Arthur that features footage from the film and interviews with the
principal cast and crew. I found this feature to be a little bit too fluffy and
altogether too short. Given the enormous amount of time and money that went into
this production and given the 18-minute running time of this documentary, the
entirety of the production is given only a cursory examination. Like the movie
itself, this documentary is OK, often good, but just a little
Moving right along, we find
ourselves at the Cast & Filmmaker Roundtable, which runs
around 15 minutes in length. Hey... "roundtable"... "King Arthur"… I just got
that! Anyway, here we find the cast and filmmakers involved in a facilitative
discussion about the film. Included are producer Jerry Bruckheimer, screenwriter
David Franzoni, director Antoine Fuqua, actors Ioan Gruffudd, Clive Owen, Hugh
Dancy, and Keira Knightley. This feature provides a more candid and
refreshing look at the film, and was overall quite
We complete our tour of the
extras with a four minute alternate ending video, a
subtitle trivia track entitled "Knight Vision" which was
somewhat entertaining and informative, a photo gallery, and the
King Arthur XBox Game Demo. Also included on this disc are a
THX Optimizer and some sneak peak trailers for
The Life Aquatic and The Village.
Not a bomb or disaster, but not a great film either,
King Arthur suffers from
being a bit too earthy and by-the-numbers. It strives to be a sweeping
historical epic, but it plays more like a really well-made television miniseries
from Halmark (albeit with an extensively higher production budget.) It presents
itself as the "True Story", but the movie feels somewhat hollow in its middle.
Still, I can't say that I actively disliked the movie. It was, in the end, an OK
flick. The cinematography, action, and the charisma of its cast went a long way
in making up for the film's overall uneasiness. King Arthur is a well-dressed film with
nowhere to go.
I wasn't blown away by the film's transfer; it was good,
but not what one comes to expect from a major new release. However, the audio is
quite satisfactory, and the DVD comes with a nice array of extras. Overall, I'm
going to give King Arthur: Extended Unrated
mild Recommendation (or a strong Rent It
, depending on your POV).