King Arthur - The Director's Cut (2004) by Antoine Fuqua

DVD Review by Ursus

It has been over six years since King Arthur first premiered in the theaters. Given its generally negative reviews I was in no hurry to see it. But I recently found a rather cheap copy of the "Director's Cut" DVD on Amazon and decided to give it a try. Yeah, it sucked just about as much as I thought it would. It is neither especially historical nor entertaining, and comes across as little more than a vehicle for the lead actor and actress to chew some scenery with their speech making.

First, let's talk about the Arthurian legend. The story of a special hero with a big weapon goes back at least to the time of Greek mythology with Hercules and his club. But the Arthurian legend is a particularly British spin on this old tale, arising out of the twilight transition between Roman Britannia and Anglo-Saxon England. Debates rage across time and space as to what amount of historical veracity are contained within the legends. While not being an expert on this field, my own pet theory is that there must have been a Dark Age warlord who won a temporary victory against encroaching Saxon hordes. The rest is pure embellishment which no doubt incorporates various semi-historical persons and events, Celtic mythology and Christian lore.

I am open to every generation reinterpreting Arthur and his knights as they see fit. But two criteria are needed to be successful. One, any rewrite should be more entertaining than the last era's version of the story. If you cannot improve on what came before, then don't bother. Second, any version claiming to portray the "real" (i.e. historical) Arthur needs to back that up against the known academic record. King Arthur fails on both accounts.

The over-the-top introduction to the movie states that the film is based on new historical findings related to the Arthurian mythos. But it never states what these findings are and who found them. From there we are launched suddenly into an anachronistic Roman Britain in the late fifth century. Lucius Artorius Castus is the Roman commander of a group of Sarmatian cavalry auxilia, charged with patrolling Britain's defenses along Hadrian's Wall against the encroaching Picts. There really was a Castus and his Sarmatian cavalry, but they lived at least two centuries prior to this timeline. (The movie sidesteps this by stating that Castus received his name from a legendary ancestor, but this is really stretching it).

Furthermore, the legions had been evacuated and the wall abandoned several generations earlier. I'm not sure if the Picts were still a concern at this point. Meanwhile, Castus becomes a pawn of the Pope in this story, but the Pope did not become an especially powerful figure until later in Western history. And finally, while Merlin has become an integral part of the Arthurian mythos, the first mention of a historical Merlin doesn't happen until after the Arthurian timeline.

Supposedly the movie used a historical consultant, John Matthews. I can't seem to find Matthews' academic credentials anywhere. I do know that Matthews happens to write a lot of New Age books on the Celts. "New Age" and "historical" rarely inhabit the same reality. Matthews could have several degrees from Oxford for all I know, but someone whose focus is New Age spirituality is simply not the best person to use as a historical consultant.

Well, so much for the "historical" Arthur. How about entertainment? It fails there, too.

This Arthur is a student of Pelagius, a "heretical" Christian who did away with Original Sin and believed in free will. This is a halfway interesting idea. But Arthur's many speeches on free will and equality get old really fast. I'm no great supporter of The Church, but the other Christians in the movie are nothing but evil cardboard cut outs which are meant to serve as a thin foil to Arthur's benevolent ideas. Most of Arthur's Sarmatian knights are also two dimensional characters meant to do little more than look good while swinging a sword.

Then there is Guinevere. This Pictish princess who speaks in a cultured British accent makes some speeches on how fellow natives die to liberate their country from evil oppressors. Yawn. Given post modern feminist sensibilities, they couldn't make her the typical damsel in distress. So they made her a warrior queen, deft with a bow and arrow, and lethal with a sword. And, oh, I had heard so much about the leather BDSM bikini she wore in the movie. Odes have been written about how great she looked in it, while others have derided it as sexual exploitation and cheap marketing. She only wears it in the final twenty minutes of the movie and it is nothing spectacular. Big deal.

For an action movie, the fight scenes are pretty boring. People swing their swords. People lose their heads. We have seen this before. In the final battle scene, Our Heroes start some fires to give themselves a smoke screen. But the smoke cover (and subsequent editing) makes the battle more confusing than interesting. The only half way entertaining scene was a fight over a frozen lake, but even that was fairly predictable. (By the way, why did the Saxons invade the north of Britain, just to burn down a few worthless Pict villages?)

The only bright spots in this film are owed to two characters. First, there is Cerdic, the Saxon chieftain. Instead of a bloodthirsty, bug eyed villain foaming at the mouth, he is played as a taciturn and low key military commander. This was an unusual depiction and strangely it worked, especially after suffering through Arthur's long winded speeches. Then there is Bors, one of Arthur's knights whose passionate embrace of both violence and women make him the only knight worth remembering (the rest were mere scenery).

I had never seen the theatrical release, so I can't tell you if the director's cut improves upon it. I believe the fight scenes have been extended, but as has been noted that is not exactly a point in its favor. The DVD does come with the usual extras, like behind-the-scenes production, and interviews with the cast and crew. But this is the usual "We made such a great movie!" commentary that you can safely skip it.

I started watching the director's audio commentary. Antoine Fuqua is an African-American director who, before coming to cinema, directed music videos for Toni Braxton, Coolio and Prince. In the opening moments of the commentary, Fuqua states he feels his experiences as an African-American are equivalent to what the Sarmatian knights must have felt; people removed from their homeland and their ancestry, forced to fight and work for a country not theirs. I have no place and no qualifications to speak on the African-American experience, but I am incredulous that a movie on Dark Age Britain is the best parallel for it. At this point I turned the DVD off; I could simply not sit through the movie a second time, especially if this was the line that the director was taking.

King Arthur is a movie that will appeal neither to Romanophiles nor to fans of the Arthurian legend. I am still waiting for a historical King Arthur to grace the cinema.

But at this point, I'd settle for one that is just entertaining. And on that note, if you want a better Lucius Artorious Castus than the one depicted in this film, you can read about his adventures against the zombie hordes.

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Union Jack King Arthur for the UK