Another film filled with familiar faces. Clive Owen leads the cast as Arthur. Ioan Gruffudd (a Welshman I know best as Horatio Hornblower [blame my brother], but also Mr. Fantastic in the slightly older Fantastic Four movies) is Lancelot, the primary narrator. Mads Mikklesen (later to be Rochefort in 2011’s Three Musketeers) is Tristan, joined by Ray Stevenson (Porthos in the same movie and Volstagg in the Thor movies) as Dagonet. Joel Edgerton (young Owen Lars in Star Wars) is Gawain, Hugh Dancy (Prince Char in Ella Enchanted) is Galahad, and Ray Winstone (Mac in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and voices Mr. Beaver in Chronicles of Narnia) is Bors. Keira Knightley is Guinevere, Stellan Skarsgård is Cedric, the leader of the Saxons, Ken Stott (he’s Balin in Hobbit and voices Trufflehunter the Badger in Prince Caspian) appears as Roman Marius. It came out in the wake of Gladiator‘s success and about the same time as Troy, Kingdom of Heaven, and Alexander; also big historical battle movies that attempt to “tell the real story” of popular myths. Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer (of Pirates of the Caribbean, which might be why some of the soundtrack is reminiscent; that, and written by the same composer).
This interpretation, like Last Legion, examines the Roman influence in Arthur. The opening screenshot states “Historians agree that the classical 15th century tale of King Arthur and his Knights rose from a real hero who lived a thousand years earlier in a period often called the Dark Ages. Recently discovered archeological evidence sheds light on his true identity.” Richard Barber’s King Arthur: Hero and Legend states “Arthur…was assigned the historical role of last defender of Britain before the Welsh were pushed back into the western hills (pg. 17).” In The World of King Arthur by Christopher Snyder “a new, independent Britain faced the overwhelming task of deafening its citizens and cities from barbarian invasions. Because he is the most famous of the British defends, the period has come to be known as the Age of Arthur (pg. 35),” roughly 400 AD. A British member of the clergy wrote in the sixth century that the Picts posed a serious threat to Britain and it was decided to hire Saxon mercenaries. The mercenaries were not loyal (surprise) and instead raided Britain, “until a Romano-Briton named Ambrosius Aurelianus assumed military leadership (pg. 38),” and victory at Badon Hill. Obviously, Arthur did not live during the chivalric age that he is so often associated with; there would be more written records. So this film is not far off in its assumptions, but still runs rampant with Hollywood History…eh, these things happened, let’s put them together.
Carrying on…Ioan narrates the beginning that as the Roman empire expanded, it came to conqueror the land of Sarmatia (present day Ukraine area). At the end of the battle, only five of the cavalry were left standing. They were spared, on the condition that they were incorporated into the Roman military, and their sons down the line would serve as well. “Better they died,” Lancelot remarks. He and the other Sarmatian knights would serve under Arthur. Fast forward fifteen years and the knights have a run in with the Woads (based on the Picts, but named after the woad paint they used). They escort the Romans to Hadrian’s wall, where the rest of the Romans are beginning to pack up and leave Britain. Arthur and his knights should be discharged, but the Roman bishop they rescued has one last mission for them before they can claim their papers. He wants the men to go north of the wall, into Woad territory and rescue a Roman family. Oh, and the Saxons are invading since the Romans are leaving.
The knights are angry at the deception; they have fought for a cause not their own for fifteen years, they want out. But they will follow Arthur. Lancelot is still the knight closest to Arthur and overhears Arthur pray to God to spare his knights. They argue over faith and belief; Lancelot does force Arthur to promise that if he should fall in battle, Arthur will burn him like the old customs.
The Saxons have heard of Arthur and are already planning on making their way to the Roman estate to take on the legend. At the Roman estate, Arthur demonstrates his strong sense of justice; he frees several pagans from being stoned in and left to die, including a young boy – Lucan, and a young woman – Guinevere, a Woad. Arthur insists on taking everyone who is able with them to escape the Saxons, knowing that it will slow them down. That evening, Merlin (the leader of the Woads, a bit different position than he normally has) instructs his men to trap Arthur, but not kill him. Merlin hopes to form an alliance with Arthur against the Saxons. Arthur is not keen on the notion, blaming the Woads for the death of his mother, a Briton. Merlin argues that based on that fact, Arthur is part Briton as well; these people left are as much his people as the Romans. They part for the evening. Guinevere ends up shooting and killing Marius when he tries to kill Lucan, leaving Marius’s son, Olecto in charge (a godson of the Pope and due to enter the church). Olecto reveals to Arthur along their journey that the man’s mentor was killed; the Rome Arthur has dreamt of doesn’t exist anymore.
The Saxons catch up to them at a frozen lake. Arthur sends the civilians away, standing with just his knights and Guinevere against a small army. Their bows can hit the Saxons, but the Saxons can’t hit them, so the Saxons move closer. Their combined weight cracks the ice (though why they insist on simply moving forward while the knights pick them off and don’t fire back; I don’t understand the tactics). Dagonet rushes forward and breaks the ice further, dumping a portion of the army. He falls in as well, but Arthur pulls him out. He’s been struck by an arrow and does not survive the battle. The knights return to Hadrian’s wall and are not exactly leaping for joy to finally receive their discharges. They should have never been sent on the mission and then Dagonet would never have died. The Romans still leave even when the Saxons camp out in front of the wall. The knights intend to leave as well; they finally have their freedom and want to return home. Arthur will stay and fight, bringing about another argument with Lancelot, who insists that this is not Arthur’s fight. Arthur pushes for his friend to take his freedom and live it for both of them. Guinevere comes to him that evening.
Cedric, after a meeting with Arthur, is excited to finally have an opponent worthy to kill. But he sends the battered infantry in first. The knights return to help Arthur and the Woads fire from the trees, decimating the Saxon force. Then the rest of the army rushes through the wall. The Woads have trebuchets (for some reason; I don’t think they were used in battle at that time period) and a full battle breaks out. Tristan faces off against Cedric and Guinevere goes after Cedric’s son. Lancelot sees her in trouble and takes over the fight. He’s shot by an arrow, but manages to throw his sword, killing his opponent. Arthur watches Tristan die at Cedric’s hand and fights the leader himself. A backwards stab does the Saxon in and through the haze, Arthur sees Guinevere beside a fallen Lancelot. Arthur cries to the heavens that it should have been his life. He feels he failed his knights; he never led them off the island nor did he share their fate. He holds to his promise to burn Lancelot. Ioan narrates the end that the knights gave their lives in service to a greater cause; freedom. Guinevere and Arthur marry; Merlin declaring him King Arthur. Arthur tells the masses that they are all Britons, united in a common cause. In the background, three horses run by, recalling a notion that Lancelot had grown up with that the souls of great warriors who died in battle are reborn as horses. The knights and King Arthur live forever in the legends told through the generations.
This has never been my favorite version of the Arthurian legend. It took several watchings for me to completely understand the story. The Roman influence threw me the first few times and deviating from the typical legend. I don’t quite understand how Arthur and Guinevere so quickly fell together. There’s really no love triangle (aside from long glances), but I’m okay with that. Arthur is the only character really developed. We get glimpses at the other knights. All of Guinevere’s costumes are impractical. Overall, not impressed. Never fear, we will get to some versions I actually like.
Up Next: First Knight