King Arthur (2004)

Action, Adventure, Drama, History, War
Clive Owen, Stephen Dillane, Keira Knightley, Ioan Gruffudd
A demystified take on the tale of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
The magic is gone, leaving a dreary, generic action movie.
  • Buena Vista Pictures Company:
  • PG-13 Rated:
  • IMDB link IMDB:
  • 07 Jul 2004 Released:
  • 21 Dec 2004 DVD Release:
  • $51.7M Box office:

All subtitles:

Trailer:

I cannot respect King Arthur...3/10
I did not hate this film. It was fairly entertaining, with well-staged battle scenes and high production values. The acting, though often either overblown or slightly wooden, was passable, and Ioan Gruffydd was actually quite good.

What bothered me is that the text at the opening of King Arthur promised a portrayal of the "historical" Arthur, and then manifestly failed to deliver. For the record, there is no "historical" Arthur. There are scattered references in the works of Gildas and Bede to an Arthur, or an Aurelius Ambrosianus upon whom the legend of Arthur is based. There is a fairly detailed story of a King Arthur in Geoffrey of Monmouth's History, though most of this seems drawn from Welsh and Cornish folktales of the type later collected in the Mabinogion. There is, however, very hard evidence that there ever was a King Arthur, or battles of Baddon Hill and Celidon forest.

There was, however, an invasion and colonization of Britain by the Saxons and other Germanic tribes during the fifth and sixth centuries, following the Roman military withdrawal. And it is pretty clear that the native Celtic and Romano-Celtic population put up one hell of a fight, slowing but not stopping the Saxon invasions. My own opinion is that there is enough smoke to suggest that the Arthur of medieval romance probably had some kind of historical prototype (most legends of this type usually do: a "Dux Bellorum" (war leader) as named in Gildas, possibly this shadowy Aurelius Ambrosianus.

So, I had high hopes for the movie King Arthur. After all, the film had the time period right, and the context looked convincing enough. Unfortunately, rather than using the historical material and context, the filmmakers completely ignored them. There was no consistency to this movie, and anyone with even a passing knowledge of the history of the early middle ages (the so-called dark ages) will be more than irritated by the pretended historicity of the movie. Some examples: 1. The film suggests the late-imperial Roman government and policy was directed by the Church, through the Papacy. This is absolutely false. Although the Empire was staunchly Christian at this time, it was the Emperor and his court -- at Constantinople rather than Rome -- that set and executed policy. Bishops did not order armies around. In fact, the See of Rome at the time was a relatively weak power centre at the time, especially compared to the Bishops of Constantinople and Alexandria.

2. While it is true that the Romans enlisted soldiers and units from border tribes like the Sarmatians, they were never posted at the other end of the empire. This would have made no sense, since the whole point of the foederati was to create a buffer between the empire and the northern and eastern barbarians. The Sarmatian soldiers were typically posted in Sarmatia.

3. Arthur would never have known Pelagius who, though a Briton or Irishman by birth, was in Rome from about AD 405. He was condemned by the Church, but never actually excommunicated or convicted of heresy, and probably died in Rome in AD 420, around the time the "historical" Arthur was born.

4. By the fifth century, the Roman occupied part of Britain had been quite thoroughly Romanized. The population was mostly Romanized Britons, and NOT an ethnically British population under the boot of a few foreign, ethnically Roman aristocrats. While there certainly were non-Romanized Celts like the Wodes about, most of the Britain that Arthur would have been fighting to defend would have been populated by Christian Britons who though of themselves as Romans.

5. Bishop Germanicus, or St. Germain, was not a former Roman general. He was a former Gaulish lawyer.

6. Hadrian's wall was built not to keep the Britonnic Celts and Saxons out of Roman Britain. It was built to keep the Picts and Hiberni -- who were explicitly NOT Briton and in the case of the Picts, probably not even Celts -- out of Britain. It runs/ran from Solway Firth to the River Tyne and thus is waaaaaaaaaaaaay too far north to have had much to do with the "historical" Arthur.

7. While the Church in the fifth century was certainly militant (read St. Augustine for that), the portrayal of churchmen as murderous ascetics who tortured and sacrificed pagans is absolutely ridiculous. In fact, by this time, most of the population south of Hadrian's Wall had been converted to Christianity.

What troubles me is that there is no reason why the filmmakers should have played so fast and loose with history to make this movie. I understand creative license, but the way in which they claim historicity on one hand, and then create a nonsense fabrication on the other – to no end other than the fact that they just seemed to want to do it that way -- makes it very difficult for me to respect King Arthur. I can respect Excalibur; at least no one claimed that it was historical.
It's all about atmosphere9/10
Jerry Bruckheimer's KING ARTHUR is a shining example of that new breed of mythology adaption. It is similar to Wolfgang Petersen's TROY, in that it dispenses with the supernatural splendour and phantasmagorical intrigue characteristic of traditional tales, and presents the story as (relatively) realistic historical fiction, attempting to convey the "magic" of the story through drama, rather than gaudy special effects.

This is a brave venture by Bruckheimer - and director Fuqua- and they are to be commended for executing it with such style and creativity as is displayed in this film. It has, however, enjoyed somewhat limited success, due to the fact that it presents such a radical interpretation of a story much closer to our hearts than that of the Illiad.

I believe, though, that if the viewer simply opens one's mind and attempts to enjoy the story purely for the sake of itself (forgetting, for the moment, Rosemary Sutcliff and Barbara Leonie Picard), KING ARTHUR will reveal itself as a truly fine piece of film-making.

More than anything else, Fuqua masterfully portrays the atmosphere of the tale, endowing it with a sense of time and place far more eloquent than the rather run-of-the-mill dialogue. The entire experience oozes the ambiance of the early common era, from windswept downs and hills to rugged coasts and snow-cloaked mountains; from the spartan order of a Roman camp to the hellish confines of a torture chamber. Exemplars of this perfectly-presented atmosphere are Arthur's knights(Ioan Gruffud, Ray Winstone, Joel Edgerton, Mads Mikkelsen, Hugh Dancy and Ray Stevenson).These are not the chivalrous, couth, pious Christian knights your mum told you about, but rather a troop of barbaric, lecherous, pagan Sarmatian mercenaries. Together (with excellent performances all round, particularly by Winstone, Gruffud and Edgerton) they epitomise the pragmatic, godless, exquisitely human atmosphere of the period. As Gawaine tells a cowering Roman friar in an early scene - "Your God doesn't live here".

The lead actors, too, are outstanding, from Stellan Skarsgaard's sociopathic Cerdic, to the delicious Keira Knightley's dark and beautiful Guinevere. Only Clive Owen disappoints as Arthur himself, lacking the emotion this characterisation requires to supplement his steely resolve.

Despite the lukewarm reception to which it was subjected, KING ARTHUR is a finely crafted and memorable item of film-making. Forget all your preconceptions about King Arthur - just float with it, and let the rich atmosphere engulf you. 9/10.
Dire4/10
Sorry, but this film is dire.

Primarily it suffers from a BAD case of Robin Hood Prince Of Thieves Geography... Saxons invading from the North of Hadrians Wall? With nice round shields and pretty hair? Surely Mr Bruckheimer is thinking of the Vikings? Only a few centuries early eh Jerry!

And Stone Henge on Tintagel?

Maybe if you're not familiar with the layout of England and if you don't have even a rudimentary grasp of British history, you could enjoy this film as a mindless bit of action fluff. But if you do posses either of the two above attributes, you will find this film to be another frustrating example of Hollywood not letting silly details like facts or Geography get in the way of a fast buck (a la Braveheart, U571, The Patriot etc.. etc..)

So for any non Brits reading this who like a bit of Arthurian action, allow me to give you a few tips...

Stonehenge not near sea. Tintagel near sea but no stones. Hadrians wall at top of country... Stone Henge, King Arthur, Avalon, Tintagel and Saxons at bottom of country!

See! It's easy when you know how!

Oh! And for any Robin Hood fans, white cliffs not near Sherwood Forest. Sorry.

Anyway. Poo film. Even without the Arthur stuff, it's just plain wrong in so many ways. Giant frozen lakes in England? Where?

Even without the stupidity, it's a bad film.

These actors should have known better.
Fresh Look On An Old Theme7/10

And I loved it!

Not just the new take on the King Arthur legend and the able cast, but the colors, the costumes, the landscapes, the horses, and Hans Zimmer's heart-pounding score.

I'm no King Arthur scholar but I have always been enamored with the chivalric ideals. It's great to see the knights in shining armor and Merlin conjuring up the mists and casting spells, and the young Arthur pulling Excalibur out of the stone.

But I went into this movie with an open mind. I was swiftly transported to that earlier time and happy for the journey. I could see where the elements of the now oh-so-familiar Arthurian themes may have had their beginnings. I found the on-screen chemistry between Ioan Gruffod and Clive Owen to be very powerful and it provided poignant counterpoint to Lancelot's most fateful choice.

The love triangle was never my favorite part of the Arthurian legends, so the subtle treatment of it here didn't bother me at all. In fact, I found it more intriguing in this film than in any other King Arthur movie I've seen.

I loved that there was no hocus-pocus-type magic. Instead the magic was in nature itself - the landscapes, the forests, the rain, the fog, the ice and snow - all creating an other-worldly atmosphere along with Moya Brennan's haunting vocals and Hans Zimmer's stirring score.

I loved the knights. I loved the idea that they were just regular guys and, in effect, drafted into military service. Not the privileged elite who volunteered their services to a king. Yet it is apparent that the Sarmatian knights fought more out of their love and respect for Arthur than any duty to Rome. That comraderie feels very organic and the sentiments, pure. I liked that they're not all wearing the same uniform, that they might have picked up pieces here and there as spoils of war.

I was especially captivated by Mads Mikkelson's Tristan. There appeared to be Eastern influences in his tattoos, clothing, sword, and fighting style. I love the idea of Lancelot using two swords. And I learned something about battlefield strategy, too.

Whatever shortcomings this movie may have, I found heart and soul in it. It was not only entertaining, it touched all my senses, and I felt good when I walked out of the theatre.

The legend?8/10
I have been a huge King Arthur fan ever since the night that I sat in an empty theater, in my hometown, awestruck by John Boorman's Excalibur.

Since then, I have seen the legend of King Arthur mutilated in films such as First Knight and The Mists of Avalon.

My high hopes for the movie, King Arthur, were dashed before the film even opened in theaters, by critics who were panning the movie from advanced screenings.

So, I stayed away while it was in theaters and most definitely passed on special discounts on the week it was released to DVD.

After finally getting around to renting a copy, I am left with just one burning question - Why in the hell do I listen to movie critics? The movie King Arthur has it all - a tight, well written story, believable characters, gritty realism, a great musical score by Hans Zimmer, epic battles, and more blood and splatter than you probably really wanted to see.

The bottom line is that King Arthur is a very good film. No, it's not the mythical Camelot, but it does not try to be. Nor, does it trample all over the name of King Arthur by making him a shallow or less than heroic character.

This is not Braveheart or Gladiator , but it is a film worth seeing and appreciating. Now that I think about, it's worth buying a copy to add to the home video library.