THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"KING ARTHUR"

There have been countless film versions of the legend of King Arthur. There have been musicals, comedies, romances, dramas, and historical epics. If there’s anyone who hasn’t seen some form of the story, I don’t know that person. Yet here comes another one. King Arthur is a Jerry Bruckheimer production that has been directed by Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, Tears of the Sun). Their version opens with a title card informing us that recent evidence has been discovered suggesting to scholars that King Arthur may have been based on a real person – a Roman knight. Their film, they promise, will be a more accurate version of the story. Where did this evidence come from and who are the scholars who have studied it? We’re never told that, but it doesn’t really matter. Quite surprisingly, King Arthur works simply because it reinvents the legend. What seemed like yet another slog through an oft-told tale is actually an entertaining little movie.

Clive Owen plays Arthur, a knight who does in fact sit at a round table with his fellow knights, including right-hand man Lancelot (Ioan Gruffud). This keeps them from feeling like any one person is more important or influential than another. Arthur and his gang have spent the last 15 years fighting battles at the behest of the Catholic Church. They eagerly await their impending freedom, but there’s a hitch: they are asked to perform one last, very dangerous mission. Initially, everyone is pretty angry. However, the only way to finally be free to is to evacuate an important family from their castle before the merciless Saxons arrive to take over. (The young man in the family is one day expected to be important within the Church, so his safety is of the utmost importance.)

The knights complete the task and even manage to liberate some pagans who are being held captive and tortured. One of them is Guinevere (Keira Knightley), who turns out to be something of a warrior herself. She helps the knights when they are outnumbered by the Saxons. Eventually, through some plot twists I won’t reveal, the knights must band together with the wizard Merlin and his fighters to face down the Saxons once and for all.

Wait a minute! Where’s the singing and dancing? Where’s the romantic triangle between Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere? Where’s Robert Goulet? All gone. King Arthur takes a lot of things we’ve seen before and chucks them right out the window. The last version of this story I remember seeing was 1995’s First Knight in which Sean Connery and Richard Gere fought it out over Julia Ormond. In other words, it was very traditional, aside from the fact that Guinevere was being romanced by a man old enough to be her grandpa. This new version focuses more on the violence and war of the time, proving to be a more brutal telling than we usually get. It also goes into issues such as the conflicting religious views of the characters, as well as themes of friendship and loyalty. This might not sit well with purists, but I for one was glad to see a new spin put on the story.

Take the character of Guinevere. Traditionally, she’s portrayed as a damsel in a big pointy hat. Here, she’s a warrior, covered in war paint and fiercely wielding a bow and arrow. (Bruckheimer was reportedly so impressed by the ab muscles that Knightley developed during training that he ordered her a battle uniform that would show them off. This outfit certainly would have been a no-no during the era, but it works for the character shown here.) I also like the fact that we see Arthur and Lancelot as friends - who sometimes disagree strongly – instead of simply as romantic rivals. Arthur in particular has a heavy load to bear in this story. He regrets having to lead his men into such a potentially deadly situation when they should be enjoying their freedom by now. At one point, he even prays that his own life be taken so that others may be sacrificed. The idea of a leader’s loyalty to his men is very effective.

This being a big summer movie, you are correct to assume there will be some major action sequences. The best of them takes place on a frozen lake, as the knights strategize to make the Saxons – who outnumber them - fall through the ice. There’s a cleverness in the scene that has been missing from some of the other action movies this summer. It’s a really great sequence. The battle scene at the end isn’t quite as effective, simply because it looks similar to scenes from pictures like Braveheart and Troy. By now, images of arrows flying through the air and shielded warriors engaged in swordplay have become old hat.

King Arthur doesn’t teach us anything new about its subject, despite its claims of newfound historical accuracy. Still, it’s a fresh take on material that we all know by heart. I expected to be bored silly, but the movie is well done and entertaining for those who want a new twist on an old tale.

( out of four)


King Arthur is rated PG-13 for intense battle sequences, a scene of sensuality and some language. The running time is 2 hours and 10 minutes.

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