Need graphic; on review page: promo
(Antoine Fuqua, 2004)
Review by Deborah Monroy, (c) 2004 Deborah Monroy
Beware: Spoilers may be in the review
Wicked Nipples, Able Arthur: notes in quest of King Arthur
The nipples above refer to those found ferociously defending the iron door of the Roman compound that preserves "civilization" in the film King Arthur. They may be an arbitrary decorative detail but then myth is a mess by definition and King Arthur pastes together a pointedly variant view of Arthurian mythology.
The impassioned inventiveness of this film is unmistakable (unless of course I am mistaken after watching the movie several times). The myth remains the same while the story changes and changes again during each generation. Both ragged and keen King Arthur is cutting edge myth-work for our own time. Clive Owen smolders admirably in the title role while Keira Knightley, like any proper warrior princess, does look pretty in blood. Arthur becomes king in Britain and rules the land. Myth is functional anarchy and cannot be ruled benignly or otherwise. Myth is true fiction.
This movie tells the tale differently than other Arthurian riffs because it is a new story cut together from elements including (but not limited to) The Seven Samurai through Gladiator alongside recent historical research.
King Arthur presents an able speculative tale working early myths together with recent historical theory concerning this king but there is some tension, if not outright warfare, between myth and history. The voice-over narration introducing 'The Fellowship of the Ring' makes this claim: "History became legend, and legend became myth". History is the progenitor, myth the more or less legitimate offspring. Myth happened here because "things were forgotten". Or, some things were forgotten, and other things, perhaps made up, took their place.
King Arthur is a minority report unlike that usual Grail business we have seen before. The vision here is wholly altered: we view the Round Table largely unoccupied as the story opens after many knights have died in battle for here is a story largely of loss. This realm is not Camelot-lite.
Later we see the story of when Arthur met Guinevere. The movie ends with their wedding. Although into every rain a little life must fall, this happy ending pales alongside the brute tragedy of so much loss endured earlier. For there are fault-lines in this film which strayed from the director's uncompromising vision of an R-related movie into a PG-13 romp. A happy ending is not a bad thing. Here it feels just slightly made-up.
Tragedy abounds in the wretched weather of cruel Britannia. Guinevere's knight-moves include turning berserk during combat. Heroes die in dire battle. Images linger, mapping wonder and dismay: Tristan, most madly handsome and humblest of all the knights, falls in battle; beaten, he struggles to crawl across the scorched earth, face downward, armor clotted with dead grass, anonymous in his agony.
This film glistens darkly with grit and many a grisly misdeed. The land itself is lethal. Knights must battle while beleaguered by rain or fog or snow. Many a man perishes on a field of ice during a brutal escapade hacked out between the Saxons and Arthur's heroes.
The good guys are pagans and the film provokes speculation regarding the relationship of the margin to the main. "You can stop praying, boy. Your god doesn't live here." The heroic anti-Christian knight mocks the Roman further since in this story Christianity is a suspect minority religion. Yet Arthur, also Christian, does not waver in his faith, neither to his god nor his men. He is true. In fact the dominating love triangle this time around is among Arthur, his god, and Lancelot.
I believe in the IRS theory of film and television. Each story must command a substantial margin of insight/revelation/speculation (or, even salvation). This is the way. Even if a feeling of cut-and-paste troubles the viewer from time to time King Arthur shows a journey full of revelation. Here thrives a brutal cohort of dark vision in service to a ferociously new story.