The Arthurian myths have been handed down from generation to generation. Like all great myths, a new look or chapter was added or changed as the story grew. This seems to be the same way with King Arthur's journey on the silver screen.
With each new screenwriter and director we have seen a new King Arthur emerge. There is the pure myth version in the 1981's John Boorman-directed classic, Excalibur, which harnessed the power of the myth as we know it and presented a story in that light.
In recent years, two television mini-series stuck to the myths but changed the perspective of the story. In 1998's Merlin, actor Sam Neill portrayed Merlin, the magician to the legendary King, and all the events were seen through his eyes. In 2001's Mists of Avalon, the story was seen through the eyes of the women in Arthur's life, including his mother, wife, and daughter.
Over the years before and after Excalibur, we have seen many incarnations of Arthur and his knights. It really doesn't seem 'til recently that historians have tried to uncover the basis behind this vivid of all myths. Folklore experts, interpreters, and analysts, as well as Arthur enthusiasts, all have their theories as to the origins of this epic king who drove back the Saxons during the dawn of Britain.
Now in the 2004 version, director Antoine Fuqua and super-producer Jerry Bruckheimer have opened up a new interpretation of the myth, but instead try for a more realistic approach to the events that could have spawned the myth. There is no lovers' forbidden tryst, the mystical magic of Merlin, or the revenge of Mordred.
The story begins with a legend of sorts as we learn about a group of knights from Sarmatia who fought the Romans to a stand-still but eventually were absorbed into their ranks. Their leader, Artorius (Clive Owen), born of Roman and British lineage, is skeptical about the Roman withdrawal from Britain and that his blessed empire is abandoning his dreams of justice, order, and purity of state. Artorius is the only true Christian and Roman among his men, but in their 15 years together they have become one. Arthur's knights include the gallant Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd), Galahad (Hugh Dancy), Bors (Ray Winstone), Tristan (Mads Mikkelsen), Dagonet (Ray Stevenson), and Gawain (Joel Edgerton).
Rome has one last mission for Artorius and his knights as they must save the god-child of the Pope before the onslaught of the Saxons rape and pillage the land in their mindless conquest.
During that desperate mission, the knights will face the unconquerable Saxons; develop a new alliance with an indigenous guerilla army led by the courageous Guinevere (Keira Knightley); and possibly find a cause worth dying for.
There are a lot of reasons to dislike this film: its obvious comparisons to the Mel Gibson epics Braveheart and The Patriot, the radical departure from mystical elements of the legend, and the film's lack of the infamous subplot of sexual betrayal between Lancelot and Guinevere.
But if you liked Braveheart and The Patriot, possibly you can embrace this version of Arthur and see it in that context. I love the whole Arthur myth and its epic scale of story-telling, which in a lot of ways bugged me when I watched this new version, but when I was able to separate the two as different entities I began to see what the filmmakers were trying to make.
What you get is a steadfast leading performance by the much under-rated British import Clive Owen as a struggling leader who is in constant conflict between his moral code and what is right. He is a flawed leader and Owen is brilliant as this legendary but flawed man.
I also really loved the performance from Ioan Gruffudd, who starred in those brilliant Horatio Hornblower films on A&E. Gruffudd's Lancelot seems to be cocky and gallant on the outside but lost in the inside. It is a brilliant performance because we see a lot more in this man than the script allows.
Arthur's supporting knights including Hugh Dancy of Ella Enchanted and Ray Winstone of Cold Mountain, who each have their own moments in the film. Winstone's Bors is hilarious, tender, and boisterous all in the same moment, which makes him a fan favorite.
If I were to really think hard for a comparison to this version of Arthur I would more likely look to the World War II films of the 1970s. The era is different, but the people are the same. Films like Guns of Navarone or Operation Crossbow, or even the infamous Dirty Dozen, come to mind. Flawed characters on one last desperate mission to redeem themselves and become heroes.
Some of the problems I had with the film, without the obvious ones pertaining to the change in the subject matter, come from the performances of Keira Knightley and Stellan Skarsgard.
Knightley's gung ho warrior princess works in certain situations but lacks in others. I never once for a moment believed in her connection with Arthur. In part, you probably can partially blame the filmmakers since their love scene is pretty pathetic as love scenes go. I also found that her character lacked the necessary depth and fleshing out to be effective with all these other beautifully flawed performances. I won't even get into her warrior wardrobe.
I was also disappointed with Skarsgard as Cerdic, the overtly hairy leader of the Saxons. I felt that he wasn't menacing enough or roguish enough to lead such a vast army. He almost came off as a clown. I felt that the portrayal of his son, Cynric (Til Schweiger) was more effective. You could tell that the filmmakers wanted the Saxon leader to be ruthless and sadistic, but it never reached its blood-thirsty fruition. You should have wanted to drool at the fact that he and Arthur would square off.
I enjoyed this version of Arthur but I still remain a purist at heart. It is interesting, entertaining, and a romp of a good time. Speaking of updates, how about a realistic update on Robin Hood without Kevin Costner? (4 out of 5) So Says the Soothsayer.