King Arthur (Touchstone, Jerry Bruckheimer Films, 2004)
I love Arthurian legend to bits, though it’s been a long time since I went through my last intense Arthurian phase. I’ve never minded all the many reinterpretations of Arthurian legend either. I’ve read some rather good books that completely changed the story around, but that I still felt had some merit for perpetuating Arthurian myth. To put my tolerance for reinterpretations of classic stories another way, I’ve learned that it’s not the names and minute details that are truly important to stories. It’s the core of the story, the basic meaning and theme.
So I went into King Arthur, this recent Bruckheimer film that purports to deconstruct Arthurian legend, thinking that I might find something to enjoy. I knew it wasn’t going to get Arthurian legend “right,” but I had hopes that it would be a decent story on its own and still carry some of the themes that are inherent to Arthurian legend while it got at the supposed true story behind those legends.
Oh, no, I was so very wrong. In short, this film makes four major mistakes: its name, its use of legend, its claim toward historical accuracy, and the story itself.
The first mistake is that this movie is improperly named. If you claim that you’re going for the story behind the legend of King Arthur, don’t give it a legendary name. How about Cassius the Bear, considering this movie goes with the theory that Lucius Artorius Castus, a dux of the Roman forces in Britain at the time, is the historical basis for King Arthur? That would have worked just fine, and would have dispensed with several of the audience’s expectations: that this movie would transmit some of the values of Arthurian legend, even as it supposedly deconstructed the myth.
The second mistake is that this movie makes a claim toward historical accuracy, proclaiming in the opening text that new anthropological evidence has yielded conclusive evidence as to the real identity of King Arthur (which is simply factually incorrect). The audience is then told that the film is a record of those occurrences. Yet, as it begins, the movie immediately pulls in characters from Arthurian myth. Lancelot is the first character we see, a young Sarmatian man who is being pressed into military service to the Roman Empire. The only problem is that Lancelot is a literary invention, originating in Arthurian legend in the twelfth century. We may accept that Lucius Artorius Castus is the man who came to be renowned as King Arthur, but what about the “Woads” calling his sword Excalibur in the film? As far as I know, the name Excalibur and the legends that surround it are also literary inventions no older than the twelfth century. And what about the rest of Arthur’s cadre, pulled from the various legends: Galahad, Bors de Ganis, Tristan, Gawain, Dagonet? How are they justified to be in this film, what historical evidence does the writer base their presence on?
Thirdly, this film is not historically accurate. As far as I can tell, this film takes point some time in the 5th century, C.E (which puts a few holes in that Artorius theory considering he supposedly lived in the 3rd century). We know the film takes place before the collapse of the Roman Empire, but that Rome is pulling its forces out of Britain. Therefore, by this tangential evidence, we can conclude that there was no Pope in Rome at the time of the film– the Church was still headed by a bishop. Yet that’s a major plot point– it’s the Pope’s favorite godson and pupil that must be saved by the good Arthur and his knights. There’s a sticky point right there– there may have been wealthy Romans living on the wrong side of Hadrian’s Wall, but a high-ranking nobleman whose son is the Pope’s favorite godson is going to be living on the periphery of the Empire when Rome is already making preparations to withdraw? I don’t think so. How about calling the Picts “Woads”? How about bandying about the term knight, when knighthood hasn’t been conceived yet (considering what became knighthood started evolving in France in the eleventh century)? I could go on, but I think those are plenty of points to put holes in the historical accuracy claim-boat.
Finally, last but certainly not least, the story is simply not a good one. I was aghast when I discovered the screenplay was by the same writer responsible for Gladiator, as Gladiator is a rather good movie, story-wise. The plot for King Arthur is contrived and annoying, depicting indentured soldiers thirsting after their freedom being pressed into doing a last mission for the Roman Empire. This last mission involves going into incredibly dangerous “Woad” territory to rescue a wealthy noble Roman family who’s in the path of an advancing Saxon invasion. Various things happen which are supposed to demonstrate Arthur’s legendary noble heart, but you really just get conflicting messages of how he feels about the British natives and dubious messages about the commitment of his “knights” to any higher ideal. In a similar vein, the cinematography of the movie was as lame as the story. Instead of grand shots lending the film an epic scope, we are treated to somewhat drab landscapes and horrible battle scenes. The battle scenes are confusing and monotonous, featuring dizzying shots and men making the same slashing motions at opponents who fall down unbloodied, again and again. While we’re on the subject of battles, how about five knights and a small contingent of “Woads” taking out an entire Saxon army? I don’t care how many smoking tar hills they built to confuse the enemy, that small a contingent would not be capable of destroying an entire Saxon army on open ground.
I was highly disappointed by the King Arthur film: as a film relating itself to Arthurian myth, as a historically accurate film, and as a story in itself. I even feel that I wasted the money spent to see it, and would exhort everyone else to instead spend their money on renting Monty Python and the Holy Grail. That movie is much more consistent and amusing, and doesn’t leave me feeling as if I wasted my time.
This review was originally published at Green Man Review on August 1st, 2004, and was a Featured Review in that edition. It also received the Excellence in Writing Award and the Grinch Award from the editorial staff for that edition.