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King Arthur (2004)

Rule your fate.

Rating: 6/10

Running Time: 0 minutes

US Certificate: PG-13 UK Certificate: 12a

In the second century AD, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius defeated the Sarmatians and sent a contingent of the survivors to serve under the prefect Lucius Artorius Castus in the outposts of Roman Britain. Some three centuries later, according to a hypothesis currently in vogue amongst Arthurian academics, when Rome had all but withdrawn from Britain, the descendants of these Sarmatian horsemen, led by a half-Roman half-British man also named Artorius Castus (quite possibly because he was related to the Roman prefect), united the Britons and fought off a Saxon invasion in a series of spectacular battles – and so the legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table was born, accruing ever more fanciful episodes through the passage of time.

It is a legend that has been retold in many films, but Antoine Fuqua’s ‘King Arthur’, scripted by David Franzoni, breaks new ground in trying to cast light on the Dark Ages history behind all the mythology. The sword named excalibur still has a place here, but it is now famed for its wielder rather than for any magical properties – and Arthur (Clive Owen) draws it from his father’s tomb rather than from a stone. The ’round table’ at which Arthur and the six Sarmatian knights meet on equal terms is not in some idealised Camelot castle, but in a military fort alongside Hadrian’s wall. Merlin (Stephen Dillane) is no spell-casting wizard, but wise leader to the local Picts (or ‘Woads’, as they are called in the film) – and the quest for the Holy Grail, so prominent in the later, Christianised version of the legend, has here been replaced by personal struggles for faith and freedom. Yet even if old myths are rationalised and euhemerised in ‘King Arthur’, what replaces them is not history as such, but a whole new set of myths, where a highly speculative theory about the true identity of Arthur is freely dramatised in a plot spun together less from actual historical evidence (of which there is very little) than from Saving Private Ryan, ‘The Seven Samurai’ and ‘The Magnificent Seven’.

Still, this grittier, more realistic Arthur is very much a myth for our own troubled times, with a mixed message perfectly in tune with the confusion of today’s geopolitical situation. On the one hand, viewers are encouraged to cheer on a strange coalition of the willing against cartoon-evil barbarians – while on the other hand, we see Arthur’s disillusionment as he discovers that the ‘civilised’ international power in which he has placed so much faith has been systematically torturing its perceived enemies. These contradictions are not deeply explored, let alone resolved, by ‘King Arthur’, but their obvious resonance with today’s unfolding war on terrorism expands the film beyond the limited arena of Badon Hill (where the final battle takes place), refashioning ancient myth in the image of modern history.

‘King Arthur’ has its problems: the knights’ seemingly endless discussions about freedom are too po-faced and go nowhere – although the far earthier comments of Bors (the excellent Ray Winstone) provide a welcome relief from this; and Keira Knightley has been cast as Guinevere merely to look good – certainly not to look convincing as a recent torture victim, nor to sound convincing as a Northern pagan. Yet ‘King Arthur’ is worth seeing for its impressive battle scenes – especially the face-off on a lake of cracking ice – and for Stellan Skarsgård, whose performance as Cerdic, the ruthless Saxon leader, is a masterclass in mumbling understatement that makes a potentially cardboard character come to life.

It's Got: A Saxon leader who forbids his invading forces to rape the local women because of the horrific possibility of Anglo-Saxon offspring; seven men and one woman standing up against a whole army on a lake that is iced over.

It Needs: A little more magic in its writing; and for Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd) and Galahad (Hugh Dancy) to be easier to tell apart.


Arthur demythologised and remythologised, but still in need of a little screenwriting magic.