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King Arthur

Forget all that clunky shining armor. Forget the Holy Grail. It turns out that King Arthur (Clive Owen) was actually a Roman mercenary stationed in Britain, and instead of noble knights, he had conscripted soldiers from Sarmatia. Was there actually such a place? Must have been, because King Arthur goes to such trouble to establish its historical veracity.

Yes, it's got those very serious placards up front that tell you that the take you're about to see could very well be true. At least, truer than any of the medieval versions that we might have loved. But in turning the clock on the legend back a thousand years and steeping it in supposed accuracy, producer Jerry Bruckheimer and screenwriter David Franzoni have lost some of the magic, and no amount of Kiera Knightley can get it back.

On the other hand, the film still has lots of action, and by uprooting it from the setting we know, it gives the story a sense that anything can happen. Though Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd) and a couple of familiar knights still stand by Arthur's side, the bulk of the personality belongs to Bors (Ray Winstone) and Dagonet (Ray Stevenson). Their antics get the most screen time, while Galahad, Tristan and Gawain are interchangeable.

Lancelot occasionally narrates, again to give the story seeming verisimilitude. Somebody had to explain the Sarmatians, a concept of great concern to both the Roman Empire and the invading Saxons, led by Cerdic (Stellan Skarsgard, almost unrecognizable in braids, beard and Brando/Busey impersonation). Each Sarmatian owes the Empire fifteen years of service, and when we see these men after a terrific bloody fight with the natives, it is literally the last day of their service.

Or would be, if Rome really lived by the ethics that Arthur believes it to have. Instead, Bishop Germanius (Ivano Marascotti) has a deal we've seen in hundreds of Westerns and war movies: if the knights make a suicide run to the northern end of Britain, where the savages under Merlin's command have control, any survivors will be granted their release. There's one lonely little Roman outpost up there, with a boy beloved by the Pope, and those citizens have to be rescued. The Knights of the Round Table (at least that's still here) are stuck between Woads (the natives) and the marauding Saxons, who evidently subscribe to the Necromongers creed: Keep what you kill.

As a mindless action movie, it works surprisingly well. Director Antoine Fuqua stages a couple of real corkers. In particular, a tense showdown between the knights and the Saxons on a lake of ice should have you on the edge of your seat. It's even done pretty believably, also taking a moment to prove that Arthur (also called Arturius) is the brilliant military strategist everybody keeps saying he is. Further to Fuqua's credit, he makes credible the victories of the few over the many.

But he also often sacrifices the flow of scenes for the coolness of a shot. In a confrontation between Arthur and Merlin (Stephen Dillane), the lighting careens wildly from warm amber to cold blues, depending on the angle, and this is in a densely wooded forest, at night, with no fire. However, the moon doth wax full, so perhaps that was it.

Also, do not look too closely at what purpose exactly Guinevere (Knightley) serves. After a rescue from a dungeon, in which she maintains her beauty quite well for being starved and tortured, she does a lot of sexual taunting. It's out of time and place; as an actress, Knightley does a great job of playing what she actually is, and that kind of innocent knowing seems so twenty-first century. At times, she even seems to be channeling Tim Curry in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Furtive glances dart back and forth between Guinevere, Lancelot and Arthur without any actual conflict developing. Clearly, the meat of this story is about action, and the closest it can get to emotional complexity is Arthur's dogged insistence that all men must be free. True enough, but it gets lost in the clanging of swords and the lopping off of limbs.

Franzoni does try to add some depth, mostly in Arthur's internal conflict. As a Roman Citizen, he considers himself Christian, but realistically that often brings him into ideological clashes with his best friend, the pagan Lancelot. Realizing that the Rome he holds up as a symbol of virtue no longer exists, the man who would be King struggles to hold onto his faith. Ultimately, he must forge it into something new, but again, it takes a backseat to blood and guts.

This summer has given us a Trojan War stripped of mythology, and a King Arthur devoid of wonder. Both were entertaining enough, but I have to ask - can we get back to what made us love the stories in the first place?


Derek McCaw

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