Friday, 11 October 2013

The Arthurian Review, Issue 6

King Arthur (2004) 
directed by Antoine Fuqua

I have watched this film three times now: once in the cinema, then once on DVD because I intended to write a review that in the end never materialised, and once more last week because I was reading an excellent Arthurian novel with a historical approach and I wanted to compare it to the film. On neither of these three occasions I was impressed.  

King Arthur, a Jerry Bruckheimer vehicle, promises to delve into the historical origins of Arthurian legend. Its claims are that Arthur was a Romano-British military commander and that the Knights of the Round Table were Sarmatian auxiliaries. 

So far, so good: the origins of Arthur are usually situated around the retreat of Rome from Britain, and knightly warfare did actually borrow quite a bit from the Sarmatian and Scythian way of fighting with lances on horseback, a technique Gaulish and German cavalry did not practise. 

The essence of the plot is not so bad either. Arthur, son of a Roman father and a British mother, dreams of Rome, a city he idealises as civilised, tolerant, just and peaceful. His retreat as an army commander is imminent and he looks forward to leaving Britain behind. As the action unfurls, however, Arthur learns that Rome is not at all what he imagines it to be. It has burnt his beloved teacher Pelagius as a heretic. It has been torturing indigenous Britons in the name of the True Faith. It treats non-Romans like slaves. And it demands absolute service without giving anything in return. 

As Arthur is rudely awakened from his Roman dream, he learns to appreciate his mother’s country. He chooses the well-being of the Britons over Rome’s orders and decides to start protecting Britons over Roman citizens. Faced with a Saxon invasion, he finally joins forces with the painted people from beyond the wall whom, until then, he has spent his life fighting. 

So why does this film not work for me?  

Well, for starters, when a film’s big claim is to be historical, then I expect the makers to have paid some attention to history. I am not talking about the fact that the fifth-century Romans and Sarmatians use stirrups, to be sure, because I don’t think it is all that reasonable to expect actors not only to ride horses, but to ride them without stirrups. I can be reasonable. Really. However, when the early medieval Roman Empire appears to be ruled by the Pope, I frown. When the Saxons use crossbows and the Picts have barbed wire, I frown. When the Saxons attack from north of Hadrian’s Wall, I frown. When an important Roman family turns out to live north of the Wall, I frown. 

These last two elements touch upon another major problem: sometimes the film is simply stupid. What sort of a Roman family thinks it is a good idea to go and live on the other side of a wall the Empire has built because it couldn’t deal with northern raiders? What idiots! And those Saxons: why would they disembark north of the wall and then wish to pass it towards the south, when they could just sail south and land on the right side of the wall? Then again, nothing ought to surprise when it comes to this film’s Saxons. They stomp cheerily onto a frozen lake with half their army and are shocked when they fall through the ice. And when they finally come to the wall, they pass neatly through the gate two by two instead of thinking to scale it. That is very obliging of them, because in fact, by the time they arrive, the Roman legions have already left and Arthur is defending the wall by his lonesome. But wait! His knights soon decide not to abandon him after all and return to lend a hand, so that there are all of seven cavalrymen to stop the entire Saxon army! 

Yes indeed, when the film begins, all that is really standing between Rome and the “barbarians” is Arthur and seven Sarmatians (one dies before the final battle). Several medieval romances mention hundreds of knights of the Round Table, a number that is clearly impossible to seat. But Arthur and seven knights keeping off an invasion? That is ludicrous. Granted, they receive a helping hand from the painted people (the "Woads" - I have no idea why our Romana-British friends don't call them Picts like everybody else) in the final battle. Granted, warbands would have been smaller than we often tend to imagine. But the number of these knights remains too small to make any difference in a battle. 

Again, I can see why the script writer should choose to limit the number of knights. You cannot hope for much character development in a feature film if your cast is too large. Sadly, despite the small number of knights in this film, there is still not much character development. I couldn’t care much about these characters. Worst of all, I couldn’t care much about Arthur. I haven’t seen a lot of films with Clive Owen, so I have no idea what his acting is normally like, but his Arthur has absolutely no charisma. He does not inspire, he does not fascinate, he does nothing to me whatsoever. He cannot even convince me of the fact that he has earned the loyalty of his Sarmatians. There is no chemistry between Arthur and his men – not even between Arthur and his “best friend” Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd). 

In fact, a few good actors are quite wasted on this film. They don’t get much to do except suffer the bland dialogue. Mads Mikkelsen can be the cool killer as Tristan and Ken Stott gets to be stupid and nasty as an Evil Roman. Stellan Skarsgard’s lazy, ironic performance almost makes you root for the Saxon chief Cerdic. The only one who receives some material to play with, I guess, is Keira Knightly as Guinevere. 

One of the core things that make the film not work for me is the Sarmatian angle – or rather, the way in which the Sarmatian angle is treated. Maybe it is just me, but as they were constantly moping about going back to their homeland and marrying Sarmatian women, I did not sense any connection between the knights and Britain, the land where they have spent most of their life. The fact that they are foreign is constantly, and quite purposefully, stressed in order to show that they are forced to fight for a cause that isn’t theirs. Their actions in the film are supposed to be purely inspired by their admiration for Arthur. But Arthur is so bland that this never becomes credible. 

I have a feeling that if the film as a whole had been stronger and a little more sensible, I would not have been fretting about the fact that it presents us with “historical” Sarmatians who have terribly un-Sarmatian names like Lancelot, Tristan, Gawain and Galahad, or ask myself why on earth anyone would include Dagonet in their paltry list of seven Round Table Knights. To add insult to injury, my DVD has a different ending from the one I saw in the cinema. All of a sudden, there is a wedding, Britain is united in a matter of seconds, and Arthur is declared king. What the -?! Apparently, that is the official ending in the States, where the test audience did not like the more open ending that we saw in European cinemas and demanded a wedding. *sigh* Sometimes, Mr Fuqua, a director ought not to listen to the audience. 

On the Gawain-o-meter: 

The good news is, there is a Gawain in this film and he is not even stupid or evil! He is played by Joel Edgerton, whom I saw recently as Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby. Thanks to Gatsby, I know Edgerton is a decent actor, but in King Arthur he just does not have a lot to do. All I can tell you about this Gawain is that he dreams of having a family, has to suffer Lancelot’s silly taunts, and survives the general Saxon idiocy.


Endakil said...

Well, at least the OST is quite good.

I must point there were romans living between Hadrian's and Antonine's walls. It was an important commercial area.

Take a look on Rosemary Sutcliff's "Frontier Wolf". It's a nice novel about the life in the "interwalls" land.

ampersand said...

I think that must be one of the few Sutcliffes I haven't read yet... Will definitely take a look! Thanks for the tip :).

(A review of Sword at Sunset is up next...)