Antoine Fuqua’s “King Arthur” is in many ways similar to this summer’s most disappointing movie, “Troy,” in that both films get bogged down by messy action scenes, contrived character conflicts, and the burden of faithfully retelling a famous tale. Yet somehow Fuqua manages to overcome most of the obstacles and is perhaps the last action director to realize that audiences would rather watch nameless, costumed extras in battle than nameless computer images.
The story centers around our half-British and half-Roman hero, Arthur (Clive Owen), leading his band of warriors in an involuntary draft to protect Britain from the barbarous Saxons from the North. Inherently stuck in a 15-year required tour of duty for the sparing of their ancestors long ago by the dominating Romans, Arthur and his men have no choice but to fight Rome’s battles if they ever want to return home as free men.
And just when they are about put down their swords and shields indefinitely after 15 long years of battle and bloodshed, an emissary from Rome withholds their discharge papers and commands them to one final fight; perhaps the most challenging and dangerous of their decade-and-a-half-long campaign.
The seven knights, which includes Arthur’s best friend Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd) are to travel north and rescue a Roman family from the invading Saxons led by Cerdic (Stellan Skarsgard). Along the way they trot through dense forests and face impending danger from the mysterious Woad race led by Merlin (Stephen Dillane), who in this film is not at all like the mystical supernatural being we’ve all read about in previous legends. But the Woads have higher priorities than disrupting Arthur and his knights. They share a common goal in defeating the Saxons, and with the help of Guinevere (Keira Knightley), an injured Woad warrior, an unlikely alliance is formed.
We first meet Guinevere well into the second half of the film when Arthur arrives to liberate her and other oppressed Woads held captive by the Roman family they are supposed to protect. Seeing how the family tortured these people in the name of the church, we begin to wonder -- as well as Arthur I suspect -- if this family is worth the trouble.
After a quick recovery, Guinevere joins Arthur’s rank and becomes a prominent warrior in the fight against Cerdic’s Saxons. Her archery skills are impeccable and we get to witness her talents in the most stunning battle scene of the movie...a fight that easily beats out anything from “Troy.” When the knights no longer wish to constantly “look over their shoulders” at the pursuing Saxons they decide to duel it out on a thinly frozen lake.
It’s unfortunate that the best battle scene takes place before the climactic fight; a messy montage of Saxons, Brits and Romans clashing swords. The film is rated PG-13 meaning Slawomir Idziak’s camera is restricted to only showing us blows that don’t result in bloodshed...which is most of them. Only through the rich valleys of the Ireland landscape and underwater shots of the cracking lake are we reminded of Idziak’s ability to bring the scenery to the forefront as he did masterfully in “Black Hawk Down.” But here the camera cuts away frequently meaning most of the kills are off-screen and less emotional. To be sure, some of the subject matter is plenty graphic but it’s still a movie whose genre is no friend of the family-friendly PG-13 rating.
As I mentioned earlier, I believe Fuqua is one of the last action directors to prefer using actors over Apple and has been successful with films like the great “Training Day” and the one I didn’t care much for, “Tears of the Sun.” Both rely on the characters and Fuqua’s experience has helped make “King Arthur” much more interesting than it might have been had it went down the more expensive, CGI-dependent route that “Troy” traveled.
Not to say that the characters are completely spot-free. Twice Fuqua uses the Hollywood approach to spin the story by making Guinevere's lover Arthur, not Lancelot. And the obligatory sex scene is not at all necessary to advance the story, but what’s a movie with beautiful people like Clive Owen and Keira Knightley if you aren’t going to have them engage in a little PG-13-rated sex?
The film grants plenty of screen time to Cerdic and his horde of Saxons, so much time that we almost sympathize with his cause. Most war movies don’t allow us to spend a good deal of time with the enemy, but before we can become too attached to the nomadic long-haired tribe, David Franzoni’s story has them burning every village they invade to the point where we just wait for their inevitable slaughter at the final showdown.
“King Arthur” is no “Gladiator,” and no “Braveheart,” but it is this year’s epic to beat and the best Jerry Bruckheimer production since 2001’s “Black Hawk Down.” Crisp cinematography and exotic locations landscaping an intense middle-film fight scene make “King Arthur” a worth while endeavor, even if the story doesn’t relish the mystical elements that made the tale so fascinating in the first place. Perhaps that will be saved for a sequel.