King Arthur hearkens back to Hollywood of a bygone era, and not just in the ways you might initially expect.
Sure, it marks the most recent of Hollywood's many visits to the ancient land of Camelot. But more importantly, it's sense of efficiency and its unpretentiousness recall a time when big studios turned out lots of what you might call assembly-line epics; historic action-adventures that aimed lower than the lofty ambitions of a David Lean or Stanley Kubrick, yet still gave audiences a larger-than-life period experience and a popcorn-popping good time. You'd never label them as masterpieces of the form, but assembly-line epics provided good (sometimes great) fun. Richard Fleischer's The Vikings (reviewed in this here Blog in February) fell quite neatly into this category, and King Arthur proves that assembly-line epics can still find financing (if not a gigantic audience) today.
The Jerry Bruckheimer-financed King Arthur plants Arthur and his knights into fifth-century Europe. This revisionist version of the fable portrays The Once and Future King (played by Clive Owen) and his Round Table Warriors as soldiers in indentured service to the Roman Empire. Their final assignment as servants to the Emperor--returning an important Imperial official and his family to Rome in one piece--becomes complicated by an invading horde of Saxons, and by a mysterious tribe of pagans led by a hirsute shaman named Merlin (Stephen Dillane).
Ironically enough, the strongest influence on King Arthur isn't Camelot, Excalibur, or the definitive Arthurian tome The Once and Future King--it's Ridley Scott's assembly-line epic par excellance, Gladiator. Both Gladiator and King Arthur serve up morally-tested but essentially noble heroes, viscerally effective battle scenes, slow-mo montages punctuated by Celtic-sounding female vocalists ululating wordlessly, and lots of artfully-kicked-up mud and dirt (both movies also share screenwriter David Franzoni and composer Hans Zimmer). King Arthur lacks Gladiator's bracing simplicity and assured direction--Franzoni seems to have put more effort into sketching out a novel chronological retelling of the Arthurian legend than he did into fleshing out it's characters, and director Antoine Fuqua isn't nearly as distinctive a visual stylist as Scott.
That said, Gladiator Jr.--oops, King Arthur--kept me solidly entertained. Fuqua has no patience for the script's convoluted narrative (sorta can't blame him, either), so he engineers some damn cool action scenes (the Saxons vs. the Knights on an iced-over river blew me away), and cultivates a strong sense of cameraderie amongst his Knights of the Round Table to compensate. He's well-served by his cast; Ioan Griffud makes for a charismatic and charming Lancelot, Ray Winstone's knight Bors upholds the blustery-but-loveable-blowhard tradition admirably, and Stellan Skarsgard's Saxon chief combines Clint Eastwood and The Hillbilly Bears' Pa Bear to entertaining (if anachronistic) effect.
But like Gladiator, much of King Arthur rests on the shoulders of its lead. Clive Owen possesses one great movie-star mug--his ruggedly handsome features are compellingly offset by that prizefighter's nose--and he's got the acting chops to make Arthur credible as a warrior, diplomat, and romantic idol. No wonder my wife's crushin' on the guy a little after seeing the movie.
King Arthur flopped pretty soundly upon its initial release in the summer of 2004, getting lost amongst that season's pack of bigger (and, let's face it, sometimes better) blockbusters. Too bad; it's no masterpiece, but unlike most Hollywood popcorn flicks, it entertains without playing its audience for total suckers. In this davalued world, even that modest achievement deserves a small hurrah.