KING ARTHUR and his compatriots get reinvigorated every few years, romantic legends and heroic figures whose tales have outlived centuries of tellers. The big-scale 2004 version, pictorially sumptuous, passionately acted by a strong cast, has enough merit to outlast the sniffs and bleats of reviewers who dissed it even as the serf masses made it one of the most financially successful films that have dealt with the subject. Woad is me, but from our peat hovel we’ll take this stout-hearted bashathon over the stone-cold Excalibur.
This revisionist take—look, Merlinites, all Arthurian stories are revised from those that came before, and they all go back to wishes, guesses and theories that can’t be proven anyway—this time sets familiar folk not in the usual medieval period, but earlier, the 5th century A.D., when the Romans are about to abandon Britain (to its inhabitants, what a concept). Screenwriter David Franzoni (Gladiator) has Arthur/Artorius Castus the leader of a tight-knit band of battle-seasoned knights originally recruited as boys, taken from Sarmatia (for this movie, essentially the Russian Steppes). When a Saxon horde invades (in this version, Saxon=Germanic), Arthur (Clive Owen) is given one last rescue mission to perform. He and his men must navigate forests filled with warrior Woads (Picts) led by the mysterious Merlin, deal with duplicitous Romans, forlorn refugees and Woad warrior princess ‘Guinevere’ (Keira Knightley). Loyalty, honor and lots of bloodshed stir the ale.
Directed with an eye for action (some would say mayhem) by Antoine Fuqua, who showed his mettle handling a desperate rescue mission in Tears Of The Sun. He, his well-prepared cast and many hundreds of energetic extras deliver three rousing battle scenes (the kind that few walk away from). Producer overlord Jerry Bruckheimer (don’t panic, Michael Bay wasn’t present) made sure the $120,000,000 spent showed up in the elaborate costumes (more than 2,500 of them), props, makeup and a massive recreation of a section of Hadrian’s Wall. The full-sized wall set, 40 feet high and a kilometre long, was the biggest ever constructed in Ireland. Besides Ireland, location shooting was done in England and Wales. Slawomir Idziak (Black Hawk Down, Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix) provided superb cinematography, Hans Zimmer a decent score with an appropriate ‘big’ feel.
Historical accuracy takes a back seat to dramatic license (first time that’s ever happened!), so those who ‘care’ can pick it apart along those lines and vent their tiresome sneer quotient, as if that matters a damn over make-believe based on… make- believe. Though some of the exhortation gigs are just variants of the kind of “why we must fight” speeches you’ve heard since you you were old enough to play in the backyard with a stick and a garbage can lid, and the “freedom” jazz is a good millennium ahead of the curve, there are touching moments of camaraderie between the Round Table rowdies that go down well (friendship and shared suffering are eternal verities, no matter who’s in charge), and the different, tentative handling of the Arthur, Guinevere & Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd) angle is a refreshing and workable spin.
Owen makes a sturdy leader, Knightley (just 18) acquits herself well with the right degree of fierceness and warmth (catnip for guys, face it), and they have sterling support from a fine lot of bruisers, led by Ray Winstone (‘Bors’), Stellan Skarsgård (bad Saxon ‘Cerdic’), Mads Mikkelsen (‘Tristan’), Joel Edgerton (‘Gawain’) and Hugh Dancy (‘Galahad’). You can’t go too far wrong with those hardy fellows on your team.
Featuring solid work from Til Schweiger, Ray Stevenson, Stephan Dillane, Sean Gilder, Ivanno Marescotti and Ken Stott. The global take was $203,568,000; it came in 59th place in the U.S. Originally 126 minutes, it clocks in at 142 minutes in the bloodier director’s cut. Underrated.