" Nobody goes into the valley of death. That’s why they call it the valley of death. "
— Grant Heslov, The Scorpion King

MRQE Top Critic

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King Arthur, the new movie about the leader of the Knights of the Round Table, is being touted as “the untold true story that inspired the legend.” Unfortunately, if it is indeed true, it’s a story that is best left untold.

Born Free

A regal table, too nice for this pack of thugs and roughnecks
A regal table, too nice for this pack of thugs and roughnecks

The King Arthur familiar to most of the world was immortalized in 1485 when William Caxton published Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, a complete telling of Arthur’s many adventures. This film, set in 452, starts with the disclaimer that “recent archeological evidence sheds light on the real story.”

Ironically, there is still some question as to the true identity of Malory himself, but at least Hollywood’s mega-producer, Jerry Bruckheimer (Pearl Harbor), is confident he has his tabs on the true identity of Arthur.

At first it’s fun to see a few of the famous places and names get introduced. The knights’ medieval conference room features a table made round to ensure equality among those in attendance, among them: Gawain, Tristan, Galahad, and Lancelot.

But then the story starts and it’s a lame one, proving that “reality” isn’t always the best source material.

Having been promised their freedom from the Roman Empire if they will serve one last tour of duty, Arthur and his knights set off for Hadrian’s Wall, in northern England, to rescue a Roman family about to be attacked by the Saxons.

As it turns out, the family’s father isn’t worth saving. He’s a corrupt church man unduly exerting his position of power over the village citizenry. That gets Arthur ticked off.

Band of Brothers and Sisters

In retrospect, thank goodness Arthur made the trip. It gives him the opportunity to espouse, as he does time and again throughout the film, equality and the inherent right of every human being to free will. It also gives him the chance to rescue Guinevere (Keira Knightley, Bend it Like Beckham) from the dungeons. Parched, hungry, and with disjointed fingers, at first Guinevere isn’t sure what to make of her rescuer. Soon enough, though, she’s one of the boys, slinging arrows and kicking butt, a pre-cursor to Joan of Arc.

Also aiding and abetting Arthur is the leader of the Woads, Merlin (Stephen Dillane, The Truth About Charlie). This Merlin isn’t the mystical man of lore, instead he’s a master strategist and man of the earth who looks like he just got back from Woodstock with a chip on his shoulder after the doobies ran out.

The incident up north yields to an anti-climatic battle on an ice-covered river. Gritty realism bows out to ho-hum action that snowballs into a series of uninvolving fight scenes, battles, and imagery that struggles to be iconic.

This tale of “my god versus your god” and human equality could have been timely and enlightening. All the elements are there for an invigorating, inspirational tale. Instead, it’s a tedious bore with a story better told by the History Channel.

Of Legends and Flesh Wounds

The Arthur of 452 is incarnated by Clive Owen (Beyond Borders). Owen’s a good actor, but as Arthur he lacks charisma and sometimes he looks downright uncomfortable in his minimalist armor. He’s overly serious and it’s questionable as to why his gallant crew would follow him anywhere. It would be interesting to see the “archeological evidence” that dictates Arthur was a straight-laced dullard.

As for those knights, they’re a shabby, dirty lot. Noble, perhaps, but they’re not the stuff of legend. And the Saxons? They’re the Dark Ages’ edition of white trash.

This is a heavy-handed, humorless take on history that desperately needs a single wink, a simple Monty Python reference to lighten up the proceedings.

Here, there is no quest for the Holy Grail. There is no Lady of the Lake. No reference to the name Camelot. Even the challenge of retrieving Excalibur, the legendary sword in the stone, is relegated to a quick flashback serving up the far less romantic notion that the sword was, as per tradition in those days, buried hilt up as part of the grave of Arthur’s father.

At least the Round Table makes a brief appearance. It’s a regal table, but the room that houses it is actually too nice a place for this rendition’s pack of thugs and roughnecks.

Stonehenge Sur Mer

King Arthur desperately wants to be a sweeping epic. Hans Zimmer’s score is a great device to clue viewers in to the exciting, dramatic, and romantic moments. The cinematography by Slawomir Idziak (Black Hawk Down) also tries to be epic in scope, particularly when a silhouetted Arthur sits astride his horse on a mountain top.

Curiously, though, putting the two elements together yields only stifled yawns.

The biggest problem is David Franzoni’s epically dull screenplay. Maybe on paper it reads like another Gladiator (which he co-wrote) or Braveheart, but it plays out like an also-ran trying to ride on the coat tails of those far superior films.

There’s plenty of blame to spread around this mess. Also guilty of murder by reason of boredom is director Antoine Fuqua (Tears of The Sun). It’s highly unlikely a director further removed from the material and unprepared to helm an epic could have been found.

Here, Fuqua’s romance between Guinevere and Arthur is all thumbs. There’s no chemistry in their relationship and, despite all the talk of passion, valor, and freedom, there’s no passion in the film’s execution.

As for the cast, Knightley is the only one who manages to be spot on. Arthur is bland and the rest of his knights are generic, unshaven pretty boys from Central Casting. They, like this entire movie, have no identity and leave no lasting impression.

After seeing King Arthur, it’s clear that Malory, whoever he may be, embellished for a reason.