Saying that this “King Arthur” is “The Truth behind the Legend” is an overstatement of epic proportions, making the movie’s tagline the only thing epic about it. The battle scenes, the dialogue and the attractive actors all place this film squarely in the realm of summer popcorn flicks – entertaining and briefly uplifting but not destined to linger in memory, much less in history.
The story sounds complicated, especially considering that it jettisons just about everything you expect in a story about King Arthur but the Round Table. It piles on the history, but there is just enough plot to fill the scenes between battles.
Arthur and his severely depleted Round Table of six knights have completed the fifteen year tour of duty guarding Hadrian’s Wall required of them by Rome. Arthur’s knights are conscripts from Samaria, young, pagan horsemen from the Steppes of present day Georgia/Russia, who cannot return home without safe passage papers from Rome. Meanwhile, half-Roman/ half-Celtic Arthur hopes to be reuinited with his friend, the moral reformer, Christian, and free-will proponent Pelagius, to partake of the democracy and equality that Arthur believes now rule Rome.
However, the Bishop who carries their release papers also brings the news that Arthur and his men have one final mission to complete: they must cross Hadrian’s Wall to face the blue-painted tribes to the North led by the sorcerer-warrior, Merlin, in order to retrieve a noble Roman family, a sort of Saving Private Roman. The hitch is that Rome is abandoning Britain to the conquest-hungry Saxons who are landing on the island’s shores as Arthur’s men celebrate their impending freedom at the local tavern. Needless to say, Arthur rescues a damsel, skirmishes with the Saxons, learns that the Rome of his dreams no longer exists, and, by the time the drums herald the final battle, finds a new mission in life .
If only Clive Owen were not so very easy to watch, this “King Arthur” would be soggy fare at best. As the title character –-albeit “King” for only two of the movie’s 210 minutes -— Owen’s Arthur is a hard-eyed study in leadership, asking nothing of his fighters that he would not do himself. He communicates well the difficulty in balancing on the sword’s edge of living by a code of equality and simultaneously determining the fates of others. It does not hurt the movie that Owen wears his chest plate well. Danish film star, Mads Mikkelsen, plays the knight Tristan with a feral charisma that might make Isolde and her contenders swoon, while Stellan Skarsgard as the leader of the Saxons projects a natural, grumpy style of leadership that contrasts nicely with Arthur’s more magesterial approach.
It is too bad that many of the other folks onscreen mistake facial hair for acting. As a Saxon invader, Cynric (German tough guy Til Schweiger) glowers as if he is suffering from a massive hang-over. Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd, hiding the talent he displayed in Black Hawk Down behind his beard) moons about in the background, while the rest of the knights have just enough character to hold up a sword but not to add much to the story.
The tale of Arthur is significantly refreshed by having a strong female figure as a colleague on the battlefield and not just as a trophy, even though Guinnevere’s avenger in a leather bikini is something of a distraction. Kiera Knightly plays Guinnevere, re-imagined here as a Bodicea-styled warrior princess of the Britains, as if she were back on the set of Pirates of the Caribbean with a bit of Kill Bill thrown in for good measure.
Those looking for the familiar terrain of King Arthur’s legend — the silvery arm holding Excalibur aloft, the search for the Grail, and the illicit love between Lancelot and Guinnevere — should head to the library or the video store. Those in search of the true stories behind King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table can look to Celtic, Scottish, Welsh, Roman and Assyrian legends. But those looking for some memorable battle scenes and some attractive actors without too much plot to slow things down can fill up the popcorn bucket and sit back for some summer entertainment.
Parents should know that this movie has many battle scenes and deaths, with the lots of swords flashing and arrows flying, even if they do not depict gore and explicit violence. Young Arthur sees his town burnt and knows that his parents have been killed, which will disturb some children. Several victims of torture are shown in weakened states and refer to machines of torture. Two characters have a sensual scene with non-explicit sex. Characters talk about women, sex and their physical attributes. Arthur’s men drink to celebrate and drink to mourn loss.
Families who see this movie may wish to discuss leadership and the characteristics that inspire loyalty in this movie, as displayed by Arthur, Merlin, and the Saxons. The horror on the face of the Bishop’s men at the sight of the famous Round Table is a statement on hierarchy. Families might wish to talk about the notion of equality that Arthur discusses versus the manner in which the Romans are depicted. The concepts of freedom, duty, and service are all used frequently in describing reasons for battle. Do you think these rallying speeches are moving? Do you think other factors (and if so, which) are what motivate the troops?
Families that enjoy this movie might wish to see Excalibur (mature audiences) and A Knight’s Tale. Those looking for more humorous takes on the theme of knights might enjoy Monty Python and the Holy Grail (which has mature humor), while an uneven movie it is one of the most quoted movies of all time for its absurdly funny sketches of King Arthur’s knights. Alternatively, renting the classic The Court Jester is highly recommended for all audiences. Other versions of this eternally appealing story include the Lerner and Lowe musical, Camelot, Disney’s animated The Sword in the Stone and many versions of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
Families looking for a good read on the subject of King Arthur, but one that takes its perspective from the women of the story, are recommended to pick up “Mists of Avalon” (mature audiences), but to ignore the made-for-TV movie that it inspired.