Thursday, February 24, 2005

King Arthur: Director’s Cut / ** (UR)

Arthur: Clive Owen
Guinevere: Keira Knightley
Lancelot: Ioan Gruffudd
Bors: Ray Winstone
Cerdic: Stellan Skarsgard
Tristan: Mads Mikkelsen
Gawain: Joel Edgerton
Galahad: Hugh Dancy
Dagonet: Ray Stevenson
Cynric: Til Schweiger
Merlin: Stephen Dillane

Touchstone Pictures presents a film directed by Antoine Fuqua. Written by David Franzoni. Running time: 137 minutes. Unrated director’s cut (contains intense battle sequences, a scene of sensuality and some language).

King Arthur is one of those movies that looks good and feels good, so it must be good, right? Wrong. This movie ticked me off. I rarely get mad at a movie, even those I don’t like, but there is something wrong with an industry that pays the screenwriter, director and producer as much money as these big names pull down to make mistakes that an undergraduate film student wouldn’t be allowed to get away with in their first year. The problem isn’t that King Arthur is so bad as much as it is that the mistakes made here make it glaringly obvious you are watching a contrivance of story that is supposed to have a desired effect by the filmmakers of which I don’t think they even know what it is.

The filmmakers promise that this is the story of the real people the Medieval British myth is based on. Arturius (Clive Owen, Closer) is a Roman warlord who has been stationed in the Roman occupied land of Britannia during the latter days of the Roman Empire. He captains a group of knights whose ancestors were brought to Britannia from their homeland of Sarmatia to serve as slaves to the empire. Taken from their families as children, these slave knights serve the Romans for fifteen years to win their freedom. During that period these knights have forged a strong bond with Arthur, as they call their leader, whose just idealism no longer fits the outlook of the crumbling Roman Empire. Arthur insists upon total equality with his men, even to the point of employing a round table for their gatherings so not even he can be seen as their superior. Huh! So that’s why it’s round.

Upon the eve of their freedom, Arthur’s as well as his knights’ as the end of their charge will allow him to return to Rome, these round table knights receive one final mission. Rome has decided to abandon Britannia, as the cost of defending it against invading forces has become a burden during these harder times. Arthur’s knights must rescue a Roman priest and his family from the invading Saxons, lead by the sinister Cedric (Stellan Skarsgard, Dogville).

It is here that one of the primary problems of this film arises. The knights, first having been forced into service by the Romans, have been betrayed and had their freedom denied after it was earned. Arthur is obviously separate from the group of knights in this betrayal despite the fact that he must also delay returning to Rome, yet the script by David Franzoni (Gladiator) makes such a point about Arthur standing as an equal among the knights. In the situation given, it is impossible for the knights to perceive Arthur as an equal among them.

Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd, the Horatio Hornblower series) is supposed to be Arthur’s “best friend,” yet he lives in service to Arthur and he seems well aware of that. There is no sense throughout the film that these two are friends. Near the end of the film Arthur says to Lancelot, “You know me better than anyone,” yet Lancelot spends the entire film disagreeing with Arthur and acting as if Arthur is a superior he would prefer not to work for. The lack of apparent friendship and comradery between the two takes their relationship in a direction contradictory to the story and makes the inevitable love triangle with Guinevere a much weaker dramatic development.

Guinevere (Keira Knightley, Pirates of the Caribbean) is not the fairy tale princess of legend in this tale; rather she is a member of the Woads tribe, a clan native to Britannia who put up a strong resistance against the Romans claiming the land as their own. When the Woads and Arthur determine that the Saxons pose a stronger threat to the island than they do to each other, they form a tenuous alliance.

I suppose there is a romance between Guinevere and Arthur, and I suppose Lancelot plays a slight factor coming between the two, but these aspects of the Arthur legend are so scarcely touched upon that it seems Guinevere and Arthur find themselves together simply because their names are Guinevere and Arthur. As for Lancelot, he seems plenty interested in Guinevere, but Guinevere barely seems to notice him until the events of the final battle with the Saxons and then her reaction to Lancelot seems to come from nowhere.

Clive Owen is an interesting choice to play Arthur, as he doesn’t seem to have that superhero quality about him as most leads in epics such as this. His unassuming manner fits the role well, allowing him to convince the audience of his pure intentions and somewhat naïve outlook on his world. He is a servant of Rome and serves his nation unquestioningly, even when he feels he must right certain atrocities committed by the very people he has sworn to protect. His idealistic vision of Rome comes crashing down during a conversation with Alecto (Lorenzo de Angelis), the son of the Roman priest he is sent to rescue. Alecto informs him that Rome is no longer the place Arthur knew as a boy and the philosopher, whose teaching has formed the core of Arthur’s beliefs, has been branded an outlaw for his emphasis on man’s need for freedom.
I hope Franzoni put a “Thank You” in the credits to Mel Gibson and Randall Wallace for his larcenous use of the word “freedom” as the ultimate motivating tool for these slave knights. Every time a character needs some motivation to fight, director Antoine Fuqua (Tears of the Sun) might as well have just inserted a clip of that rousing speech delivered by Gibson’s William Wallace in Braveheart. But Arthur’s realization that the “freedom” he so nobly fought for in the name of Rome would not be forthcoming is not the problem with this particular scene. This scene is a victim of bad story structure.

In the previous scene Arthur is still quite committed to the charge of the Roman Empire when, in an action of “it’s about time someone did that”, Guinevere kills the very Roman priest Arthur was sent to protect. Why Arthur didn’t turn and strike her down in retaliation for the Roman Empire, I couldn’t tell you beyond the fact that it just wouldn’t do to have Arthur murdering his love to be. Now if Arthur’s disillusionment with Rome occurred before this scene, the fact that Guinevere’s action instigated no punishment would have been understandable; but since Arthur’s resolve as a soldier of Rome had yet to be shaken, his acceptance of the priest’s execution makes little sense. A simple transposition of the two scenes would have easily fixed the problem.

Because Arthur now feels Rome has betrayed him, he has good reasons to join with the Woads and become the champion of Britannia that would inspire the Arthur legend, but the same cannot be said for his knights. The Sarmatian knights are never given a good reason to fight for Britannia along side Arthur other than they really like the guy. After returning the surviving members of the priest’s family to the Romans, their freedom is finally granted. They no longer have any reason to fight for anybody. They can go home now. But in Hollywood good spirit they do stay to fight the Saxons -- all of them against eight knights. Yes, the Woads do help after hanging out in the woods for a while to make sure these knights are the real deal, but most of the Saxons take on the eight knights.

It is actually the high quality of the battle scenes that makes this movie so frustrating to watch. It is here the true potential of this material shines through. The filmmakers have done a wonderful job giving each knight his own unique fighting style and the fight choreographers utilize them as a team, supporting each other and employing each warrior’s strengths to progress the fights into their favor. Tristan (Mads Mikkelsen, Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself), in particular, really stands out during the battle sequences, with his almost samurai fighting style. The way each member has his own specialty and how they work together as a team brings to mind such classics as The Magnificent Seven and its predecessor Seven Samurai.

But then, in the end, the film stumbles right onto its face with an unforgivable blunder. The mistake does not really involve the plot of the film, but discussing it will reveal one of the final developments of the plot, so those still wishing to see the film with at least a partially objective outlook should read no further.

Narration has always been a point of contention with filmmakers. Some believe that no good film could ever use narration. I have seen far too many great films that utilize a narrator’s voice over to adhere to this school of thought. There are some boundaries that can be drawn with narration, however. Again some filmmakers believe a film should never be narrated by a dead person, but exceptions can be made to this rule. For instance if the story can only be told by a dead person, such as in the classic film noir Double Indemnity, it is perfectly acceptable. The narration also serves as a sort of purgatory in that old gem, but if the story can be told by a person who actually survived the events depicted, then it should be. There seems to be no good reason why a dead man is telling this story of King Arthur. There are several survivors who would have plenty of reason to tell the story themselves. As a movie that claims to be historically accurate it would be possible to have someone who lived ages after the events tell it, but the only reason I can fathom that a dead man would be telling this story, is the filmmakers didn’t want the audience to know that the narrator died in the end. And that is simply jerking the audience around.

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