Why Hollywood’s new ‘true story’ of King Arthur won’t stand up to the legend.
Plenty of sword, precious little sorcery or at least cinematic magic. The general response to the new screen version of King Arthur has left fans of the eternally popular legend justly perplexed. What’s with all the Roman soldiers and Russian horsemen? Where’s the epic romance? What happened to the Holy Grail? Nobody expected Camelot-style show tunes or knights who say ‘Ni’ but when Merlin emerges not as a wizard but as a forest-dwelling warlord the spitting image of Tom Hanks in Cast Away, one can see how the spell cast by previous versions of the tale might have been broken.
According to the filmmakers, however, what we’re finally seeing is ‘the untold true story’ behind the myth. Years ago screenwriter David Franzoni came across the story of one Lucius Artorius Castus, a Roman commander in 175 A.D, who led a group of Sarmatian (think modern Georgia) cavalry around annexed Britain, along with references to one or possibly more soldiers named Arthur who led the island’s native people to victory against the invading Saxons. Armed with this research, Franzoni pitched it to ueber-producer Jerry Bruckheimer as ‘King Arthur as The Wild Bunch’.
Bruckheimer was instantly sold. I remember meeting him last year for Pirates of the Caribbean, to find him already enthusing about this next project, how he’d hired Training Day director Antoine Fuqua to keep the Dark Ages, well, dark. His Pirates leading lady Keira Knightley, thrilled to play a warrior Guinevere far from the traditional damsel-in-distress, warned against expecting medieval chivalry, advising, ‘Think more Braveheart, the first twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan but at the end of the Roman Empire.’ The exclusion of A-list American stars also looked promising no Kevin Costner-style hijacking of Robin Hood here, rather a solid Eurocentric cast, Clive Owen, Ray Winstone, Stellan Skarsgard and co. Hardly a Hollywood fairytale.
Which may explain why, to date, King Arthur isn’t heading for a happy ending. Its modest US opening week gross of $24 million (Spider-Man 2 took $147 million) is the third lowest ever for a Jerry Bruckheimer film, beating only the dreadful Bad Company and sleeper hit Dangerous Minds. Critical reaction has been equally subdued: ‘a blunt, glowering B-picture…full of silly-sounding pomposity and swollen music,’ sniffed the New York Times. ‘Joyless’ declared Time. As Arthurian insults go it’s not quite Monty Python’s ‘I fart in your general direction’, but still far from a coronation.
Naturally the inquest into what went wrong has started before the film even opens across the rest of the world. But first things first. The film isn’t the disaster some would claim (no movie with credited parts like ‘Mangled Saxon’ and ‘Obnoxious Monk’ can be all bad). Though lacking the majesty of Middle Earth battlefields in the Lord of the Rings trilogy or the pulpy fun of a Pirates of the Caribbean, Fuqua marshals his down and dirty fight scenes with style, particularly a standout showdown on an ice-bound lake. The production design, with minimal CGI, is meticulous and there’s a grittiness often lacking in Bruckheimer’s slick packages.
It’s when you realize that writer Franzoni also scripted Gladiator that the film’s true heritage becomes apparent. Since that film’s Oscar-winning success, Hollywood studios have been holding a non-stop toga party. With Troy and the upcoming Alexander and Ridley Scott’s Crusades saga Kingdom of Heaven, it’s like the 1950s all over again. The filmmakers sought to take this renewed appetite for historical epics, add Mel Gibson’s William Wallace-style brutal tribal tussles and hail a new King. Brave-Art, if you will.
Neither Braveheart nor Gladiator, however, had such truncated third acts as Fuqua’s film. Nor a lead actor who seems so awkward delivering lofty period speeches (Owen’s a fine screen brooder but for a future king he always sounds more Romford geezer than Roman noble). Nor was their uncompromising view of combat watered down. Despite Bruckheimer earlier promises to deliver an R-rated picture, King Arthur was indeed severely trimmed to get a PG-13 rating stateside (and 12A certificate here) and though well shot, the bloodless battle scenes pale in comparison.
Of course now the official line is a little more sanguine. ‘’We've always felt it was advantageous to go for as wide an appeal as possible with a big summer film like this,’ assured Disney spokesman Dennis Rice. Bruckheimer’s backtracking is also pretty special. ‘If I were sitting here and this picture was R, everybody would be saying, “Why do you need the gratuitous violence? Do you have to chop off people's heads?” he told a US press conference. ‘So, you know, whatever I do is wrong.’
In this case, quite possibly. The old credo ‘When the legend becomes fact, print the legend’ was used to justify Hollywood’s often-tenuous grasp of history long before it was uttered in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Reality is rarely allowed to get in the way of a good story and provided the story is good, most audiences are happy to play along. Ironically the King Arthur fable, with its rolling centuries of myth upon counter-myth, through Thomas Malory's Le Morte D’Arthur, Edmund Spencer's The Faerie Queen and Tennyson's The Idylls of the King, never needed to be grounded in historical truth (Franzoni fudges the facts by a few hundred years in any event). And certainly not one that does away with so much of its inherent appeal.
With only the most perfunctory lip service paid to the Arthur Guinevere romance, there’s barely a love angle, let alone a love triangle; poor Lancelot only gets a couple of troubled glances in her direction. No lady in a lake, no sword in a stone, no magic-wielding Merlin or scheming Morgan Le Fay… It was instructive to note at the London press conference that all present Fuqua, Bruckheimer, Franzoni, Owen, Winstone and Ioan Gruffudd - cited John Boorman’s fantastical Excalibur as their favourite version of the Arthur legend. It’s hard to argue with them; even harder to credit that if so, they didn’t ask themselves why.
* * * * (four stars)
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