Wednesday, July 07, 2004


No man fears to kneel before the God he trusts. Without faith, without belief in something, what are we?

If you don't expect much from summer movies, this one may not disappoint. And if that sounds like faint praise, I'm afraid it's all I can muster.

KING ARTHUR sets out to tell the true story behind the Arthurian legends that are familiar to most of us only through movies and children's books, and while its claims to history are pretty questionable, I got a kick out of seeing bits and pieces of the well-known stories juggled around and fit into an unexpected historical context.

Even though the setting is primitive celtic instead of shining-armour medieval, we start spotting unusual twists on familiar stuff right away. There's Arthur – some folks call him Artorius – and half a dozen knights, some with familiar names like Galahad, Tristan (though I don't think Isolde ever shows up) and Lancelot. Merlin gets name-dropped pretty quick, Arthur's sword gets called Excalibur, and eventually we even get a convincing enough rendering of the sword in the stone business. We even get a damsel-in-distress Guinevere (a feisty and fetching Keira Knightley, the best thing about the movie) – and though she definitely fits the "fair maiden" bill, this warrior princess is more Lucy Lawless than Vanessa Redgrave. Kinda fun.

The idea here is that the knights of the round table are Roman conscripts, the sons of fierce warriors who were the only survivors of the empire's military campaigns in Sarmatia – think Afghan horsemen and you won't be far wrong. Nearing the end of fifteen years service protecting Roman interests in the south of Britain, these boys want only their freedom. It's time to go home.

Turns out the Romans are feeling pretty much the same way. It's half past 300 AD, and the empire is a bit over-extended. After decades of fending off nasty northern natives who paint themselves strange colors – think BRAVEHEART and you won't be far wrong – and now faced with Saxon hordes who've invaded the north and are bent on the destruction of everything non-Saxon – think orc-wannabes and you won't be far wrong – the Romans are wondering whether discretion might not be the better part of valor, and maybe it's time to head back to their Mediterranean villas.

On the day of their promised release from service, Arthur (played by a humourless Clive Owen) and his not-so-merry men are handed one last assignment: go to the heart of enemy territory and rescue a Roman family, one of whom is destined to be a great leader in the Roman church. It's practically a suicide mission, but Arthur is a soldier under orders – and a committed Christian, interestingly enough – and his men are the only ones capable of carrying out the assignment. So off they go.

It's a bad sign when you keep thinking of other films that are "just like" the one in front of you. It's a worse sign when each movie you think of was a lot better than the one you're actually watching. In the early stretches, as we see this Dark Ages Magnificent Seven ride to the rescue, arrayed in various picturesque formations – seven is a good number for that kind of thing – there's some pretty nifty soldier banter amongst Our Heroes that begins to distinguish one amazingly gifted warrior from the next. It's sort of SEVEN SAMURAI, transported to the wilds of ancient Britain instead of the wild west of not-quite-so-ancient America. One problem: this kind of movie depends on well-drawn, interesting characters who we come to care about as they carry out their various heroics, but in KING ARTHUR, most of the character development that starts out so promisingly – Bors (Ray Winstone) is particularly well drawn, and the soldierly comraderie convincing – falls completely into the background once the main plot kicks in.

You see, when Arthur and his posse find the folks they're supposed to evacuate, they can't bring themselves to leave the family's serfs and slaves and such to be slaughtered by the savage Saxons. Of course it's impossible for the seven of them to safely transport all these village people to safety, pursued by the blood-thirsty enemy soldiers, but they can't leave these defenceless people to be slaughtered.... And then you think, no, this isn't Kurosawa or Sturges, it's Fuqua, and isn't this just TEARS OF THE SUN GOES TO SCOTLAND, without the passion?

There comes a point where the Roman-led forces stare down the fur-clad barbarian hordes, and I could only think that even though the tables were somewhat turned, we'd seen this before. When I got home I found out screenwriter David Franzoni also penned GLADIATOR, and I remembered where.

Enough already, you get the idea: for all its claims to be offering a fresh spin on the Arthur legends, this bit of summer bombast is mostly a massive cinematic recycling project. If you're content simply to get out of the summer heat and settle in for some more-or-less diverting riffs on about twenty familiar story ideas, you'll have a reasonably good time. There's lots of chilly mountain scenery, including a pretty cool (if ultimately improbable) showdown on a frozen lake. There's plenty of Legolasian archery, great horse riding and stirring adventure music, and all kinds of neat fighting (though the obligatory climactic battle scene ends up being a confusing mess that makes you realize how well-thought-out and well-directed the battle scenes were in THE LAST SAMURAI. Or LORD OF THE RINGS, for that matter. But the less comparison made with Tolkien the better...)

Most intriguing – and, when all's said and done, most disappointing – is the fact that KING ARTHUR also tries to deal with spiritual and philosophical issues. I don't want to give too much of this away, since part of the movie's interest lies in figuring out what's going on with the central character himself, but let me say that Arthur is torn between loyalty to his men (Central Asian conscripts), service to his country of allegiance (Rome), and an inescapable sense of identification with their enemy (the land and the people of Britain). It is to the movie's credit that the religious life of each of these groups is an important part of their identity, and I was fascinated to see that Arthur himself is passionately committed to serving the Christian god, even when he stands alone in that belief. Historical theology students will be intrigued at the medallion of Pelagius that Bishop Germanius finds in Arthur's quarters, but I'm afraid in the end that the character's – and the film's – spirituality ends up being mostly a way to talk about far more conventional themes of freedom, earthly and political.

That's the problem with the whole movie: it nods in the direction of tons of potentially interesting developments of plot, theme and character, but doesn't bother to follow through on any of them enough to pay off. It could have been a pretty good movie – heck, it could have been a dozen pretty good movies – but it settles instead for being merely good enough.

Originally published in somewhat different form at Christianity Today Movies
Available at Videomatica

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