by Gabriel Valdez
1. Ah, King Arthur. It takes a special dedication to make a movie so inaccurate when it’s based on events no one can agree on because they never happened. This is what Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, The Equalizer) made when his Strangers on a Train remake fell through. It’s too bad. Denzel would’ve killed that. Instead, Fuqua took over for King Arthur after Michael Bay left. How well does a film designed for Michael Bay marry with the sensibilities of the guy who directed Training Day? Pretty much how you’d expect.
2. Look, writer David Franzoni had to cash in on his Gladiator cred somehow after Gladiator 2 failed to get off the ground. King Arthur would be his last screenplay, however. Of Gladiator‘s two other writers, William Nicholson would hit a dry spell until 2007’s Elizabeth: The Golden Age.
John Logan, who essentially reworked the Gladiator screenplay into the film we know and love, would be the only writer to build his career off the Oscar-winning film. After a bumpy run through The Time Machine and Star Trek: Nemesis, he hit his stride with The Last Samurai, The Aviator, Sweeney Todd, Rango (I’d argue his best work), and Hugo. He’d then regress (all the way to the bank) on Skyfall and is now the go-to James Bond writer.
3. The cast here is ridiculous, especially in retrospect. Clive Owen is King Arthur, Ioan Gruffudd is Lancelot, Keira Knightley is Guinevere. Also featured are Mads Mikkelsen, Joel Edgerton, Hugh Dancy, Ray Winstone, Ray Stevenson, and Stellan Skarsgard. Unfortunately, how they’re used is also ridiculous. Arthur and his knights are enslaved Roman soldiers. Knightley is a Boudica analogue who will slice your throat unless there’s a handsome protagonist nearby, at which point she gets awful short of breath and goes all Wuthering Heights on you. Merlin’s her Celtic chieftain, and everyone’s running from Ray Winstone and his army of Saxons.
4. Poor Ray Winstone. Always the villain leading an evil army. I like to think that he has a real life army devoted solely to him, and even when he’s not playing an evil general, they follow him onto set in homemade costumes anyway. They watch Noah and cheer for him, and hang photos of Winstone above their fireplace so they can pray for vengeance on fools and knaves every night. You know what I’d like to see? A buddy comedy starring Ray Winstone, Sean Bean, Mark Strong, and Ben Kingsley. You know, like Wild Hogs, only good. Jack McBrayer plays the villain.
5. That’s pretty annoying, Ioan Gruffudd, I’m fairly certain Keira Knightley could’ve axed that guy in the face all on her own. King Arthur likes to pretend it’s on the side of Guinivere being a badass, but really, she only gets to be a badass when she’s in flowing, idyllic robes or in her Celtic stripper uniform (all the men wear anachronistic, full plate armor). Her costuming subscribes to a virgin/whore dichotomy and she ends up marrying whoever lives out of the Arthur/Lancelot duo. At least Camelot is about an affair Guinevere can enjoy. Here, Guinevere’s just a prize for the victor.
6. Knightley’s always been intriguing to me. King Arthur may include her worst performance, but that can be said for much of its cast. The very first Pirates of the Caribbean had come out a year earlier, and when she was engaged for the sequel in 2006, she insisted that the film include swordfighting scenes for her Elizabeth Swann. Hence, she got a barfight and was as crucial (and capable) a part of the climactic beach battle as Orlando Bloom and Johnny Depp.
7. Some of these shots are ridiculous. Clive Owen comes riding out on his mighty steed, from the gate of Hadrian’s Wall. Never mind that it’s a pretty thin wall when it comes to military fortifications, and since the Romans have abandoned the whole thing, the Saxons could just avoid what they know is a trap, trot a few miles down the road, and bind up a few ladders to cross over it.
8. One more thing on this dumb wall: when Owen comes riding out, you can’t see the fields and buildings that are supposed to be beyond the gate. No greenery, no matte backdrop. There’s no existence, no sign of all the Roman facilities we saw earlier. I get that the wall set is built in a completely different place than the Roman settlement set is, but not having what would’ve been ten feet worth of backdrop to connect the two is just lazy. Through the gate you can only see very artificial blackness and fog. It’s like Gandalf recollecting a Saruman warning: “Hadrian’s Wall…You fear to go into England. The Romans delved too greedily and too deep. You know what they awoke in the darkness of Bowness-on-Solway…blackness and fog.”
9. The fight choreography in this leaves much to be desired. The stunt coordination of larger battle scenes isn’t bad, but when it gets to the one-on-one fights, half of the Celt choreography is to spin 360 degrees for no reason whatsoever. The Saxons, meanwhile, never bother to take advantage of their enemies’ unprotected backsides. They wait for the Celts to get done spinning, at which point the Celt swings his axe willy-nilly, the Saxon kind of stands there looking at it, and everyone’s suddenly surprised it’s buried in his lung. “We are defeated, my lord. The Celts – we had no idea they might spin!”
10. If you’re looking for a better version of this, go with Neil Marshall’s far more badass Centurion, which stars Michael Fassbender and Olga Kurylenko. It has nothing to do with King Arthur, but it’s a better movie about Roman soldiers in ancient Britain who are abandoned beyond the wall by an untrustworthy empire. It’s more focused, has spots of gorgeous cinematography that stick in my head, and includes a rather poignant twist – which is rare in an historical action movie:
Neil Marshall also made this educational documentary about life in Scotland starring Rhona Mitra.
EDIT: It’s been brought to my attention that Stellan Skarsgard actually played the leader of the villainous Saxons, and Ray Winstone played one of Arthur’s knights. My mistake. I maintain everything else I say about Ray Winstone cult worship. Skarsgard probably just got the Ray Winstone Army as a loan by promising some sort of blood oath or firstborn or Daniel Craig’s autograph.