October 28, 2004 -- “King Arthur” is the latest version of the oft-filmed Arthurian legend to hit the screen. Some say it is revisionist, but it is a pretty good action yarn with solid performances and interesting characters. Some say the Arthurian legend isn't even English in origin, but French. This film would have you believe it portrays the “truth” behind the legend. No such thing. It is just another legend, but without the supernatural elements of the old one. It isn't even historically accurate, but then, neither were the original legends. It seems there are few facts anchoring the legend to anything historic, so the the screenwriter for this film, David Franzoni (“Gladiator”) was free to come up with a whole new story for this film. There's nothing at all wrong with that.
Arthur (full name is Lucius Artorius Castus), is a half-Roman (played by Clive Owen of “The Bourne Identity”) who heads up an elite Roman Army unit known as the Sarmatian cavalry in this version of the story. Arthur and his fellow knights of the round table, Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd of “This Girl's Life”), Tristan (Mads Mikkelsen), Gawain (Joel Edgerton of “Ned Kelly”), Galahad (Hugh Dancy of “Ella Enchanted”), Bors (Ray Winstone of “Cold Mountain”) and Dagonet (Ray Stevenson of “The Theory of Flight”), have nearly completed their 15-year tour of duty and are due to retire. In the last days of their service to Rome, they are ordered on one last mission, to rescue a Roman family living in the far northern reaches of England.
This last mission is viewed as a useless suicide mission by Lancelot, the cynic of the group, because it will put them in the path of a huge army of Saxons invading from the north. It will be a desperate race to get the family out of the north before the invading army gets to them. The Saxon leader, Cerdic (Stellan Skarsgård of “Ronin”), knowing the family is important, plans to take them hostage and demand a ransom from Rome.
The plot is similar in some ways to “Saving Private Ryan” and countless cop buddy movies, but the screenplay uses this basic plot very cleverly to enable Arthur and his men a chance to reflect on the meaning of their lives. Because this is their last mission for Rome, and the Roman Empire is withdrawing their forces from England, Arthur and his men find themselves in a position to establish their own kingdom, to establish their own brand of justice and freedom. They seize the moment to fight, not only for their own freedom, but that of their fellow Brits, including the Woads, a forest people led by the mysterious Merlin (Stephen Dillane) and the warrior princess, Guinevere (Keira Knightley of “Pirates of the Caribbean”). This existential storyline, where Arthur imposes his will on a reluctant world, makes all the difference. The film is dense with meaning, despite its surface appearance as an action film.
In addition to the richly symbolic story line, several of the main characters are interesting, particularly Arthur, Lancelot, Bors, and Cerdic, a marvelous, malevolent villain. Bors, the blustery, swaggering hero, also provides some much-needed comic relief in the film. Any story is only as good as its villains, and there are two in this film, each representing the anitpodal extremes of civilization and barbarism. On the one hand, you have the Roman official who must be rescued. He represents a corrupt civilization. At the other extreme, stands Cerdic, a warrior king who spreads chaos, death and destruction. He is the opposite of the kind of order imposed by the Roman Empire. Representatives of the Catholic Church in the film also appear to be corrupt.
Arthur represents a new order, pure and uncorrupt. He stands against both the corruption of Rome and the barbarism of the Saxon invaders. In true Nietzschean fashion, Arthur is an “overman” who creates his own kind of order, defying both traditional values and chaos. Cerdic is much the same as Arthur, but he is much more devoted to death and destruction. While Arthur would preserve people and institutions, Cerdic would sweep civilization aside and use genocide to create a new order. This film rates a B.
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