Another ornery boar leaping atop the new millennium’s pig-pile of demi-historical and/or magick-stuffed battle sagas, King Arthur is, on the surface, a familiar parade of McEpic flourishes: calamitous (but decidedly bloodless) combat scenes, anachronistic Asian sword antics, hilltop posturing, helicopter shots, and thundering one-liners. But there are differences, namely in the provenance of David Franzoni’s screenplay. Apparently having swallowed popular historian Howard Reid’s 2001 book Arthur the Dragon King: The Barbaric Roots of Britain’s Greatest Legend whole, Franzoni has attempted to rehistoricize the legend. We’re back to the fifth century, and Arthur and his knights are Sarmatian warriors (Indo-Iranian, by way of the Caucasus) conscripted by Rome to guard interests in the wilds of Britain. Merlin is now merely the shaggy rebel leader of the Highland Picts (derisively called “woads,” after the plant that supplied them with blue body paint), and Guinevere his forest-savage daughter. (The absence of wizardry is an outright blessing.) No romantic-tragedy triangulating with Lancelot, no Holy Grail, no Mordred, no Camelot. Excalibur is merely the Arturius family sword, pulled from the dead father’s grave. The villains are the Orc-like Saxons, and, of course, the corpulent Roman Empire itself, which betrays Arthur’s noble individualists—seat belts, people—one . . . last . . . time.
It’s a fresh theory for a movie, for sure, and the blitzkrieg shorthand so typical of the Bruckheimer School can go a long way toward obscuring how interesting the revisionism is as the narrative wrangles it out. Arthur (Clive Owen) is a devout Pelagian, and his quiet evolution from obedient soldier to rebel king (once he silently realizes he’s been fighting for years not for the Romans but for the Britons) is adroitly brushed in between sword-thwacks. Chivalry is swapped for an awakening sense of social injustice and self-destination; T.H. White’s essential idea—of Arthur being the world’s first Jeffersonian leader, his consciousness dawning amid the pre-Enlightenment days of might-is-right—dominates the film’s dramatic motion. The repeated references to secular-Stoic Pelagius peg the movie squarely in Beverly Hills–style humanism. It’s certainly the only action film of the summer whose narrative revolves around the creation of a proto-socialist ethos. Even the romance with Guinevere takes a backseat (no wonder, really: Keira Knightley, a pint-size Xena dressed for arrow-slinging battle in Maori markings and a leather athletic bra, is no one’s idea of a legendary love interest).
The attempts at period authenticity are admirably nasty, as when the Saxon leader Cerdic (Stellan Skarsgard) interrupts a soldier from raping a Brit with the disgusted question, “What kind of offspring do you think that’d produce?” before killing both rapist and victim. Everything is pre-medieval and unwashed, but with Antoine Fuqua at the steering wheel King Arthur is still a comic book, if a little more Classics Illustrated in tone than we’d have the right to expect. The film’s veneer has a glossy, smoke-machine, blue-dawn anonymity to it. Most of the non-stars filling out Arthur’s Justice League barely emerge from the Road Warrior clothes and rock-star coifs, except shaven-headed Ray Winstone, who as Bors the company’s barbarian clown presents to us the disconcerting vision of Curly Howard wielding a battle-ax. The knights are far too prone to sticking their swords in the air and bellowing triumphantly. As it is, if the Sarmatians did indeed spend 15 years fighting for the pope, then Hugh Dancy’s Galahad must’ve begun swinging his broadsword when he was six. For his part, Owen doesn’t get to act so much as intone regally, but his sad, intent gaze does a lot of the story’s spadework.
And then boom, boom, boom, out go the lights: The climactic battle, fashionably edited around any display of convincing carnage, is reduced to mano a mano face-offs against lead Saxons Cerdic and his son Cynric (Til Schweiger)—Guinevere vs. Cynric, Tristan vs. Cerdic, Lancelot vs. Cynric, Arthur vs. Cerdic. (Someone should tell Jerry B. that the surest way to stop a war epic in its tracks is to reduce monstrous battles to main-characters-only duels.) In the end, at the center of a Stonehenge mock-up, we have the ultimate secular fusion, a literal marriage of Christianity and paganism. However anthropologically accurate King Arthur may or may not be, it turns out to be as much of a swoony valentine to a social ideal that never existed as any other Arthurian text. But at least it takes the conversation with history somewhat seriously.