King Arthur’s legend has been the subject of many films throughout the years, ranging from Disney animation to the numinous Mysts of Avalon. Some paint Arthur as the noble warrior who brought peace and equality to those he ruled. Others have portrayed him as a tragic hero, torn between his own faults and the strains of his position. With so many variations on the theme it’s clear there is no one right way to tell that story. Having seen Antoine Fuqua’s version, King Arthur, it’s clear there is definitely a wrong way.
According to the filmmakers of King Arthur, history recounts a great battle at Badon Hill along Hadrian’s Wall in which a great Roman warrior named Artorius Castus defeated a daunting Saxon army. From this thin thread of history the script for King Arthur was born. Not wanting anyone left out, other great characters like Guinevere, Galahad, Lancelot and of course Merlin are all crammed into whatever relatively accurate historical positions they could occupy. Throw in director Antoine Fuqua’s lack of experience directing dramatic period films and Jerry Bruckheimer’s passion for unrealistic action and you have the half-baked, comatose movie that piddled its way through theaters, and is now limping its way into living rooms on DVD.
For this retelling, Arthur (Clive Owen) is a Roman captain (real name Arturius Castus) leading a band of six endentured Sarmation warriors. Among those soldiers are Galahad (Hugh Dancy), Gawain (Joel Edgerton) and Arthur’s best friend Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd). In the service of Rome they have fought many battles and achieved an almost legendary status. When their time of service to Rome is come to an end, a bishop is sent to provide them papers declaring their freedom, but he also brings them one last duty to perform. They must travel into dangerous enemy territory against two daunting foes to retrieve a Roman noble’s family whose lives are in danger.
The two enemies they must face are the native Woads and the invading Saxons. The Woads are an earthy people led by the mysterious and cunning Merlin (Stephen Dillane), fighting to defend their land against the Roman Empire. By contrast, the Saxons, led by the bored-with-war Cedric (Stellan Skarsgård), have come to claim the same land for themselves. While battling these foes Arthur allies with a beautiful Woad warrior named Guinevere (Keira Knightley). Through her friendship, and the betrayal of his Roman superiors, Arthur begins to discover a new purpose for his life and a new cause to champion in his quest to make the world a better place.
I suppose I could complain about the obvious similarities between this movie and The Seven Samurai, but there are far more basic problems to deal with. As much as this movie wants to play on the same level with other great war epics like Gladiator and Braveheart, it’s missing too much of what made those other movies classic. Some might argue the missing element is the R rating. That’s a fair argument, especially when the movie was originally written and filmed to take advantage of the dark tones and brutal violence afforded R movies. Post-production meddling by studio moguls who wanted that PG-13 rating for the cinematic release were brutal on movie’s outcome, but this film needed more than a heftier rating…it needed some heart.
The unrated director’s cut is still lacking, despite being a much grittier, much bloodier film, but you need more than rhetoric speeches about freedom and sweeping dramatic music to make an audience care about characters. Fuqua seems to have missed that point, focusing too much on the blood, gore and horseback riding while his actors wallow in a script that needs a stronger director’s skill. As well, there are too many laugh-out-loud moments of absurdity that just don’t fit, none of which were addressed in the director’s cut. Oh Ridley, where art thou?
Despite their lack of a sufficiently capable director, the cast give it their best and those efforts show. Owen and Gruffudd are particularly interesting to watch as they struggle to make sense out of the absurd conversations they have to carry. Stephen Dillane does amazing things with Merlin despite the fact that his character is all but castrated of his mythical powers. He and Stellan Skarsgård are absolutely stunning and seem to be the only actors able to push past their wandering director and create characters whose dialogue makes sense.
Antoine Fuqua proved himself a strong director with Training Day. Jerry Bruckheimer has produced many successful projects in the past. Writer David Franzoni is the man responsible for triumphs like Amistad and Gladiator. The cast is riddled with actors who turn in amazing performances time after time. Yet for all that, this group of people simply couldn’t pull it together for what ended up being a movie that is painful to watch. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to clear my head with a pleasant viewing of The Sword in the Stone.
I am quickly growing weary of the phrase “Unrated Version”. The idea that a movie is somehow more violent or titillating than what I saw in theatres is hardly appealing when there are so many more basic things in the film that needed fixing. A better title phrase for the DVD cover should have been “Uncastrated Version”.
The one thing about this movie that I enjoyed in the theater was the use of color and lighting. I know I’m walking a fine line of sounding artsy-fartsy discussing things like visual elements, but the THX Optimization and digital transfer for this film really came through. I could watch it five more times with the sound turned off, or better yet, with an isolated score soundtrack (which, by the way, isn’t an extra feature…but should be). This movie is a visual feast and the DVD captures every living frame of it.
The bonus features are rather standard fare, nothing to get excited about. Antoine provides a director’s commentary so heavily edited and patched together that you can actually hear his voice change mid sentence, replacing some misspoken character’s name with the correct one. As if that weren’t bad enough, he spends most of the time discussing why his version of the story is more interesting than all the others. It’s a “must skip” feature, unless you enjoy listening to a man worshipping Jerry Bruckheimer and sticking his foot in his mouth for the better part of two hours.
The best extra by far is an alternate ending that should have been the actual ending to begin with. Fuqua and Franzoni’s movie is a dark one full of sad stories and suffering characters. It’s a mood that works for the film and is totally ruined by the overly optimistic ending. The alternate ending is perhaps the best scene from any part of any version of this movie. Too bad it’s stuck in the bonus features.
There’s a brief impromptu round table discussion (pun intended and shamelessly used in the feature) including cast, director, writer, and producer. They pleasantly pat each other on the back for a quarter of an hour and reveal some interesting background on the filmmaking process. The more honest assessment of the film comes in the making-of featurette “Blood On the Land: Forging King Arthur”, where even Bruckheimer acknowledges that Fuqua was a little raw as director. Unfortunately the featurette spends too little time showing the production process and development of the design of the film. A lot of amazing work went into making King Arthur, and while it’s not worthy of six discs of coverage like The Lord of the Rings, it deserves more than the mere twenty minutes it’s given.
For folks with an X-Box there’s a playable demo of King Arthur the video game, cross media marketing at its finest. Production photos, a trivia subtitles track, and previews of other Touchstone products round out the package. It’s not a bad set, but shamefully tainted by the general badness of the movie it contains.