Hilariously, Touchstone Pictures has promoted King Arthur as a fresh tale, not a clone, and one or two smart publications have taken the bait. Still, it plays like a remake - not of Knights of the Round Table (1953) but of director Antoine Fuqua's previous Tears of the Sun (2003).
To name the most pertinent similarities: A commando unit treks through war-torn territory on a perilous snatch-and-grab mission (in contemporary Nigeria there, antique northern Britain here). Its chief (Bruce Willis as a top Navy SEAL, Clive Owen as King Arthur) stretches orders to evacuate endangered refugees despite the risks to his men. He wins the tender loving care of a real babe (Monica Bellucci as a missionary doctor, Keira Knightley as Guinevere) but loses several warrior brothers (SEALs, knights).
Tears of the Sun even has its own hero named Arthur: the only member of Nigeria's ruling family to survive a coup. And both pictures exploit an ethnic cleansing theme - Christians are the victims in Tears of the Sun, Britons and pagans in King Arthur - with a similar glowering hype.
The imaginative failure of King Arthur proves (as Troy did) that if directors and writers are going to strip a myth of outsized romance and magic, they'd better do it with some mother wit. Otherwise all we get is a glum, bastardized mix of pseudo-history and legendry.
This film's Arthur is a man without a country who at last helps found his country, a half-Roman, half-Briton general who unites the indigenous population and saves it from a Saxon onslaught during the falling years of the Roman Empire. Drawing on fringe areas of Arthurian scholarship, screenwriter David Franzoni (Gladiator) portrays Arthur's knights as Roman conscripts from the Eastern European country of Sarmatia (Arthur, too, has Sarmatian roots.) They think they're on the final day of their 15-year term of service when they're sent on one last mission - to evacuate a Roman family from the region north of Hadrian's Wall.
In a feeble attempt at injecting humor into this ticked-off crew, Franzoni and director Fuqua (Training Day) portray Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd) as a saucy fellow who needles the bull-like Bors (Ray Winstone) about being the real father to Bors' illegitimate kids. These self-conscious hearty scenes so lack real vitality that they never make it to the realm of macho camp.
By the time Guinevere appears as a native pagan called a Woad - Merlin is the Woads' seer-like leader, Guinevere is a Woad warrior - viewers are starved for a semi-decent joke. The one big laugh in King Arthur comes when Lancelot glances at Guinevere as they scan the approaching Saxon army. "You look worried. That is a great number of very lonely men out there," this pretty Lancelot tells her. With lethal bow in hand, Guinevere replies, "Do not be afraid - I will not let any of them rape you."
Guinevere also wins some inadvertent chuckles. Although Arthur's men pluck her from a dungeon, she boasts the sparkling mouth of a model in a toothpaste ad. At the climactic battle she wears an innovative outfit: a chest thong.
King Arthur provides many odd touches that never meld into anything genuinely piquant. For example, Arthur bases his beliefs in human equality and free will on the teachings of Pelagius - which makes this movie the first time I've run across Pelagius in a piece of popular fiction since Anthony Burgess' The Wanting Seed, his companion novel to A Clockwork Orange.
All this pretension does is weigh poor Owen down. Owen has the dash, intelligence and emotional heft to be a great King Arthur, but after the director is done with him, he can project only valiant angst. Make that Prince Valiant angst, because despite its intellectual hemming and hawing, this movie is still a big-screen comic strip, complete with a Saxon heavy (Stellan Skarsgard) who literally beats his chest and pronounces Arthur a man worth killing. (After that chestnut, you wait for someone to say, "It's quiet ... too quiet.")
As in Tears of the Sun, Fuqua displays a visual addiction to smokiness. He stages action vigorously and clearly, but at best it rises to the level of "cool stuff." Before they join forces, the Woads encircle the knights with tangled vines that resemble Dark Ages barbed wire. Arthur and his men (in the umpteenth homage to Alexander Nevsky) pick a fight with the Saxons on a frozen lake. The Saxons, enveloped in the fog of war, engage in friendly (crossbow) fire.
Hungry for emotion, even teenage boys might swap one of those elements for the classic love triangle of Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere. But in this version, she stays pure for Arthur. For Lancelot, she remains the Woad not taken.
Starring Clive Owen, Keira Knightley, Ioan Gruffudd
Directed by Antoine Fuqua
Released by Touchstone Pictures
Time 127 minutes