KING ARTHUR, Clive Owen, Keira Knightley, Ioan Gruffud, 139 minutes
I can't believe this movie wasn't better received than it was. There was a strong heroic figure of Clive Owen as the Romanized Britian, Arturius Castis. There's 17-year-old Keira Knightley as Guinevere, a Pict or "woad" as the filmmakers prefer, the half-mystical Merlin who leads the Picts, and the last of Arthur's surviving Sarmatian knights, holding the line against the barbarians. Only this time, the Romans are leaving and behind them are coming a massive, ruthless, murderous Saxon invasion force.
You start with a great hero...a legendary figure who is holding back the night. There's swords and axes, a great cause, a little guile, Roman arrogance, and an epic battle for the future on Britain. It's a great movie about loyalty, friendship, duty, and responsibility.
As a movie topic, Arthur has been done to death -- people find the charcater endlessly appealing, and why not? The various Disney versions from A Spaceman in King Arthur's Court up through Whoopi Goldberg in the Connecticut Yankee role, Sean Connery as Arthur in First Knight, John Boorman's superlative distillation of "La Morte d'Arthur" in Excalibur, and many more. There's something to be said for all of them (especially Boorman's work) but this recent version has become one of my all-time favorites. (I'll admit it, I'm caught up as much as anyone in the scope, strength, and struggle by Arthur to maintain against the slavering hordes who would destroy all.)
Before some joker says it is revisionist, just remember, the origins of King Arthur are, at the very best, as murky as peat-filled Loch Ness. In fact, if there's any offensive revisionism involved, it is with Mallory recasting Arthur as a 15th Century armored knight in "La Morte d'Arthur." King Arthur is as likely to have been drawn from 15th century chivalry as from Stonewall Jackson's Stonewall Brigade.
The fact is, the real source of the ancient Arthurian tales, on which Mallory based his own story with contemporary trappings, likely fell in the last half of the first millenium.
The real Arthur, whoever he is, is most often associated with Wales. The tales of Arthur probably originated with a warrior king, perhaps the last war duke of Roman Britain and inheritor of what the departing Romans left behind or a post-Roman leaders, two or three generations removed. As this movie suggests, the legend may even originate near Hadrian's Wall in the north, separating Roman Britain from the Scottish wilds. The theory is that the legends could conceivably have followed the Britians as they were driven south by Saxon incursions, until they wound up in their last bastion in Wales where the legends took root.
And it's not that this movie is dripping with accuracy. The Saxons didn't invade in a huge army as depicted, but arrived as small family and clan groups of settlers, a few at a time, until they dominated the lands they had settled. Picts carrying trebuchets about with them, crossbows long before their time, and other details are wrong.
The extras in the DVD set include a Making Of documentary that discusses the actual construction of a portion of Hadrian's Wall at the Irish shooting site, the training of the actors, the costumes, weaponry, score, use of computer graphics, and other interesting background details. There's also a grimmer alternate ending that didn't make the final cut and other features.
A first-rate entertainment.