clive owen in this film though

I want Bernard Cornwell’s Arthurian books to be turned into movies. Get a King Arthur movie with a gripping plot and a solid historical basis, not that Clive Owen nonsense that still for some reason included Lancelot. I’m still salty about that like

If you say your film is historical Arthuriana set in 500 AD, for God’s sake don’t include fictional characters that were invented by a medieval French poet six hundred years later

… even though technically none of the characters may have existed IRL due to being hodgepodge composites of ancient figures and gods, and Cornwell still included Lancelot and Galahad in his books for some reason (why, Cornwell? why) BUT STILL

King Arthur

Considering that I am entirely unfamiliar with Arthurian legend, the fact that this apparently has no resemblance to its source material is hardly a concern. Unfortunately, however, it seems as though the film has received quite the unfair shake because of its inaccuracy. Many reviews upon its release and to this day lament the fact that King Arthur (Clive Owen) was a Roman officer in the film stationed in Britain, though he was born a Brit. It is this historical inaccuracy that seems to have led many people to write it off and, unfortunately, it is not helped by the fact that it is directed by Antoine Fuqua and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, who are certainly not names that inspire hope. Yet, somehow, King Arthur turns out alright in the end if you approach it will a clear mind. Featuring excellent cinematography, terrific battles, and good performances all around, the film may have an occasionally clunky script, but it remains a terrifically structured action film.

The film’s greatest weakness has to be its characters. As with many action films of this type, King Arthur suffers from not developing its characters nearly enough on an individual level. Yet, it makes up for this with great group dynamics. The brotherhood between Arthur and his knights - Lancelot (Ioan Gruffuld), Tristan (Mads Mikkelsen), Gawain (Joel Edgerton), Galahad (Hugh Dancy), Bors (Ray Winstone), and Dagonet (Ray Stevenson) - is always top-notch. The friendship flows readily and any jokes play well due to the chemistry shared between the men. Yet, where this group development really works is in the action scenes as we see one of them engaging in battle. No matter who it is, we want to see them win or be rescued just before their certain demise due to the impact their death would have on their others. This film is much about the Knights of the Roundtable as it is about Arthur as there is no Arthur with his Knights and no Knights without Arthur. Together, they combine to form an excellent group of people that begin to falter when looked at on an individual level.

The film’s dialogue can also be quite clunky and its narrative is not always the best, particularly the awful narration at the beginning and end delivered by Lancelot that tries to communicate the legend of King Arthur because the rest of the film missed the mark on the topic. If there is any fault of the film it is the attempt to try and make it appear like a legend, even if the film itself is incredibly gritty and dirty. It tries to doll up a film not built to be dolled up and winds up missing the mark on the magical side of things entirely, while worsening the gritty side. This narration is the source of the issue and tries to tie the events we have and will witness into some overall legend that, during many sequences in the film, seems to be complete background noise compared to this gritty tale.

That said, where this film truly soars is in the visuals. Fuqua’s go to move here is to juxtapose the cold blues, greens, whites, and grays, of Britain with gorgeous bright orange fires or skies completely absorbed by a yellow ray of sunlight. Shots of Arthur and his men walking through the forest with snow falling and everything in the forest washed out in blue with just a hint of yellow peaking out from above is one such highlight. By the time they reach the camp, shots of the camp from a hill as it burns or of the Saxon army led by Cedric (Stellan Skarsgard) shown trampling around the green hills or entering the burning village with smoke billowing all around them, also create a sense of awe as we see not just beautiful images, but the size of the attacking army. Finally, shots of Woads, as led by Guinevere (Keira Knightley), shooting flaming arrows that, juxtaposed against the blue sky, seem to be falling from the sky itself, is incredibly striking. King Arthur’s knack of stirring imagery, emphasized by an excellent blending of warm and cold colors, is what cements it is as a gorgeous film that really captures the eye.

The film also greatly benefits from excellent action set pieces that make great use of Fuqua’s astute eye for gorgeous images, while also crafting unique battles that entertain terrifically. Such scenes as the battle on the frozen lake show a keen sense of strategy and how to make a battle tense and well-staged. Taking its time to get everybody in position and not rushing through the scenes, the battles show a lot of attention to detail, even if they can get a bit absurd (breaking the ice with an axe). Where it gets silly, King Arthur manages to still entertain via excellent special effects and that aforementioned choreography, which simultaneous highlights the brutality of war, but also shows the grace and odd beauty of watching two armies clash.

The film’s thematic consideration are also quite compelling. With Arthur a Christian who fights for Roman Catholicism and their final mission being one to save a future Pope, the film plays out a crisis of faith for Arthur. With all of Christendom changing from one that celebrates free will to one that celebrates obedience, his worldview is shaken when he rescues Alecto (Lorenzo De Angelis) and discovers the horrors going on in God’s name in the camp. From torturing old men who question the leader, Marius (Ken Stott), to locking up pagans and leaving them to starve, the film is quite brutal in its depiction of the underbelly of Christianity. Yet, through Arthur, we see the power of beliefs. Though God and His word can be used for evil, it can simultaneously be used for good and this is the reality that Arthur must accept. However, to do so, he must fight the Saxons and give his life meaning after having defended such a repugnant display of Christianity that the Romans displayed quite proudly.

The film should also receive some props for how it develops Guinevere throughout the film. Though she is rescued from this hellish pagan purgatory by Arthur, throughout the rest of the film, she is no helpless girl. Participating in every battle with her trusty bow-and-arrow, Guinevere is a woman who can hold her own and is a killer with a bow in her hand. She is tough, strong, and completely empowered. For the climactic battle scene, she is rescued by Lancelot after getting knocked down, but many men have been rescued in the battlefield before. No shame in being knocked down, especially since it follows up her being knocked down by a different Saxon and getting up to kill him with the help of her other female Woad warriors. For a film released in 2004, King Arthur seems to be mostly ahead of the curve on introducing a badass female character who knows her way around a battlefield and deserves credit for creating a female character with far more personality than many of her male counterparts. Though the men - especially Mads Mikkelsen and Ray Winstone - do an excellent job in their roles, Keira Knightley consistently threatens to steal the show from Clive Owen’s Arthur due to her well-formed character and ability to make the most out of the depth she is given to work with.

Certainly not a cinematic masterpiece, Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur is apparently an awful take on Arthurian legend, but as a Gladiator-inspired action film about men wearing big armor and shields while jousting with one another, it is damn entertaining. Though its characters falter on an individual level and its inability to make the film feel legendary and rise above its action cliche trapping is frustrating, the film still has plenty going for it to make it an overall success. From excellent fight choreography, great acting, and an excellent use of color and composition in its cinematography, King Arthur is hardly as bad as its reputation would suggest.