King Arthur (2004)


It’s always been a mystery to me why the 2004 King Arthur seemed to fade away without a great deal of attention. But given the growing excitement over the upcoming Guy Ritchie film Knights Of The Round Table, it seemed like a good time to recap it. King Arthur earned only a 30% critic rating at Rotten Tomatoes, but was more or less approved of by the general public (60% of viewers gave it the thumbs-up). Part of the reason for the split opinion might have been just how atypical the film was as an Arthurian legend.

King Arthur starred Clive Owen in the title role, presenting a decidedly different take on ancient Britain’s mythical hero; in fact, this take was that the hero might not be mythical at all. The film introduces a curious backstory (which is somewhat based in real history) involving a Roman named Artorius charged with commanding a group of soldiers who owe their lives to the Roman Empire as a result of a previous conflict. Specifically, the group must serve a predetermined sentence protecting the remote Roman outpost of Brittania, a land divided between Romans, Saxons, and native tribes.

That basic setup is introduced with a boy Artorius being told about his future, and we’re next introduced to the grown version, commanding a dwindling population of men who have become a sort of gruff version of the knights of the round table. Most of the big names are there: Lancelot, Gallahad, Gawain, and Bors, but instead of focusing on protecting the land with knightly honor, the group is primarily focused on earning its freedom by completing its sentence. Upon the very day they’re to do so, the Roman Empire charges them with a final task: retrieving a prominent heir in the Catholic church from a northern settlement under threat from a massive Saxon invasion.

It’s not exactly the quest for the Holy Grail, right? And yet, King Arthur does become a sort of quest film. The group must travel north, retrieve the heir, and escape back to the south. All the while Arthur displays, in a very different way, the same qualities we know from old stories and myths: he’s honorable to a fault, skilled with a blade but more admirable for his compassion, and he values the lives of his knights above all else. It’s these characteristics that drive the film as Arthur seeks to achieve a near-impossible task without sacrificing his men, and almost accidentally begins to form the beginnings of a British nation in the process.

Despite being a largely forgotten 2004 adventure flick, King Arthur actually holds up pretty well today. Antoine Fuqua’s direction carries hints of influence from Gladiator (which is never a bad thing), and while the film arguably takes itself a little too seriously, it’s also not afraid to present an Arthur devoid of cheesiness. But what interests me now about it is how it’s determinedly unique takes on a few key characters will differ from what we’re about to see in Guy Ritchie’s new adaptation. Three characters in particular, besides Arthur, are almost bizarrely presented in King Arthur: Lancelot, Merlin, and Guinevere.

For his part, Lancelot (played by Ioan Gruffudd) is angry and vengeful. Lancelot is often designed as an edgier character than Arthur, but this version is more bitter and selfish, furious over his life of servitude and willing to go the extra mile for his King only when absolutely necessary. So far, it’s impossible to guess whether or not this take will be upheld at all in Knights Of The Round Table, because the film’s IMDB page shows no Lancelot having been cast, and none of the rumors surrounding the plot include Arthur’s most famous knight. It appears that he may be saved for a later version in what’s expected to be a lengthy series.

Merlin was also presented very oddly in King Arthur as a sort of woodland mystic in charge of the good-hearted, but barbarian, native Brits. This is a far different take than perhaps the most traditional image of Arthur’s wizard, which is more in the vein of a wizened Dumbledore type. Then again, we’ve also seen Merlin as a sort of all-powerful demi-god. InterCasino presents the famous wizard in this light in its “Merlin’s Millions” game, which may be familiar to those who explore fiction through gaming, and indeed it is one of the few modern examples of games based on Arthurian legend. And then there’s the younger version of Merlin seen in the show on BBC One! But as for Ritchie’s upcoming series, Merlin, too, is anybody’s guess. A report by CinemaBlend claimed that Djimon Honsou wou
ld take up the role of a wise advisor to the King, though Honsou is listed now as playing Sir Bedevere. It could be that it’s a Merlin-like role not imparted to an actual wizard, perhaps in an attempt to keep the series more grounded.

And then there’s Guinevere, arguably the role that King Arthur strayed the most with. Keira Knightley turned the part on its head, depicting a fearsome warrior princess roaring into the thick of battle, as opposed to the gentle, beautiful queen of lore. Enchanting young Spanish actress Astrid Berges-Frisbey is set to play Guinevere for Guy Ritchie. While it seems like a breakout role for her, it’s also an unknown. Given her naturally gentle appearance and the more traditional look of Charlie Hunnam (who’s playing Arthur), we could be in for a more familiar Guinevere.

At any rate, I recommend a re-watch of the 2004 King Arthur whether or not you’re excited for the upcoming Guy Ritchie version. My take is that while it has its ridiculous moments, it’s an underrated film and a welcome fresh take. Oh, and Stellan Skarsgard as a Saxon warlord is one of the more under-appreciated villains in recent history!

Rating: 80/100

Any higher would be taking a little too much personal preference into account (I love Clive Owen and grew up on King Arthur stories), but I still believe this is a rock solid battle epic with strong performances all around.

Guest Review by George Riley

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