Though it may have painted a more realistic picture of the mythic hero, King Arthur was not saved from summer blockbuster cliché and groan-inducing writing. Only a few things make the film worth watching: the complicated (if unexplored) 5th century politics, a cool fight scene or two, and the painted Keira Knightly.
Lancelot's (Ioan Gruffudd) voiceover begins the tale of the conquering Romans who have indebted Lancelot to serve the Roman army after his family's tribe, the Sarmatians, were defeated. He is taken to faraway Briton where he, along with several other enslaved Sarmatians, serves under the half Roman, half Briton King Arthur (Clive Owen) for 15 years. On the day they are made to be free, the Roman Bishop (Ivano Marescotti) sets them the impossible task of rescuing a Roman family from invading Saxons. Though they have battled Britons in the past, they now team up with Guinevere (Keira Knightly) and Merlin (Stephen Dillane) to battle the vile and ruthless Saxon king.
King Arthur's opening scenes led me to believe that the geopolitical climate of the late Roman Empire might truly be explored. Instead we get a few emotional scenes where the Sarmatian knights are used and abused again and again, despite their impeccable history of military service. While the anger the actors exude is palpable, the lack of background can be frustrating as you wander through the film, not entirely sure who is Briton, Roman, Sarmatian or Saxon, and exactly what that means for their fate. And I realize that a fictional account cannot fully cover this territory, which is why I blame myself for not doing my homework. Yet, because most moviegoers probably won't either, I long for the DVD, which will, hopefully, have an accompanying PBS special.
But King Arthur also served my more prurient interests, which was potentially more fun to most than a PBS special. Guinevere's few quips with the shyly enthralled Lancelot were slyly cute, but the actual love scene between her and Arthur was extraneous and predictable. Luckily, Keira Knightly's true carnal allure shown through in battle. The two thin leather straps that bound her breasts left just the barest hint of curve. The tints of multiple tribal blue spirals echoed the slight curls of hair that fell out of their ties. But the blue of her body was quickly stained with the dark red of blood. Guinevere fought hard and with vigor equal to her round-table counterparts.
Besides Knightly, the battle scenes were fairly mundane, though they were made slightly more interesting by the clashing of weaponry and fight styles from multiple cultures. The Britons shot flaming arrows, the Saxons broad and heavy swords and axes, and the knights their long straight swords. The tense battle over slowly cracking frozen lake proved above average, as the line of knights and Guinevere stand tall and still against the advancing Saxons. After a short fight they scramble to escape as Saxons plunge into the icy water their skirmish uncovered. Only one truly awful He-Man moment marred a relatively average battle scene later in the film. The perfect beam of sun behind Arthur's high-held Excalibur made me expect him to cry out, "I have the power!"
Though the acting was decent, the production and direction felt slipshod. Making a more believable Arthur myth wasn't a bad idea, and King Arthur does have an enjoyable moment here and there. But if only as much effort had been put into making the movie as one must do to find these acceptable portions, then perhaps a decent film could have been produced.