King Arthur (2004)

Rated PG-13 Our content rating: V-7; L-2; S/N-3.
I am not afraid of ten thousands of people who have set themselves against me round about. Arise, O LORD! Deliver me, O my God! For thou dost smite all my enemies on the cheek, thou dost break the teeth of the wicked.
Psalm 3:6-7a

King Arthur

Starring Clive Owen (Arthur) and Keira Knightley (Guinevere), this is not your usual take on King Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable. Director Antoine Fuqua and writer David Franzoni claim at the beginning of their film that this is the true story of the King Arthur behind the legend, supposedly based on “archaeological evidence.” We see nothing of this supposed “evidence,” so to me it was evident to me that the filmmakers owe more to the great Sunday comic strip artist Hal Foster, than to any hard evidence of when the “real” Arthur lived. Foster’s great Prince Valiant series was set in the days of the declining power of the Roman Empire, and not in the Middle Ages, as all those films that have sprung from Thomas Mallory’s great 15th Century epic Le Morte d’Arthur would have it—and so is this film, the year being 452, just 24 years away from the date that many historians regard as the fall of the Roman Empire.

Arthur is the half Roman, half Briton Lucius Artorius Castus, who, along with his men, is at the end of his 15-year term of serving as an officer in the Roman army. His devoted soldiers, from Sarmatia and other Roman provinces, include Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd), Tristan (Mads Mikkelsen), Gawain (Joel Edgerton), Galahad (Hugh Dancy), Dagonet (Ray Stevenson), and Bors (Ray Winstone). He is Christian, a member of the Pelagian sect (declared to be heretical), and thus not happy with either the church or the government in Rome. His knights are pagan, and they are understandably upset when a high churchman is sent from Rome ordering them to embark on one more mission before he will sign and turn over their discharge papers. If they refuse to go on what looks like a suicide mission—they are to go north beyond the safety of Hadrian’s Wall and bring back a Roman family before the savage Saxons massacre them—Arthur and his men will be branded outlaws and be hunted down by the Romans.

And so, like a Dark Ages Dirty Dozen, Arthur and his reluctant men set forth to bring back a family that does not want to abandon their prosperous estate. Arthur is highly upset, not by the pater familias’s reluctance to move, but by his cruel enslavement of the peasants. Supported by his priests and monks, the man has imprisoned and tortured the Britons for reasons of religion. One of these Britons turns out to be Guinevere, a member of a group called the Woads. (Don’t bother to look them up in a history book, they’re a made up tribe of Britons.) The Woads, Arthur discovers when he has freed Guinevere and her fellow prisoners, are follow the mysterious spiritual leader Merlin (Stephen Dillane), who has been searching for the right warrior to lead his people against the encroaching Saxons. The latter, destroying everyone and everything in their path are on the march, intending even to breach Hadrian’s Wall—and the Romans themselves are in the process of withdrawing all their forces from Britannia because they are need in other areas to defend the Empire. Guess who will become the leader of the defense against the Saxons, despite his deep desire to seek a peaceful life back in Rome?

Though sketchy in character development, and even far-fetched in its depiction of Guinevere as an archer and warrior dolled up in skimpy S & M leather garb, the film is refreshing in that it does depart from the usual Hollywood version of the Arthurian legend. The battle scenes are spectacular, and grisly, with the one fought on a frozen lake just before the climactic clash at Hadrian’s Wall owing a lot to Sergei Eisenstein’s great silent epic Alexandra Nevsky. Commissioned in 1937 to create a patriotic film to prepare the Soviet people for a war with Germany, Eisenstein set his film in the 13th Century when the hero of the film’s title rallied the Russian people to thwart an invasion by the Teutons. His captivating depiction of “The Battle on the Ice,” during which the armor of the charging Teutonic Knights proved too heavy for the ice, causing it to crack and break, obviously inspired the one in King Arthur.

Though Arthur is depicted as a soldier turned chieftain who leads the Britons to a temporary victory over the invading Saxons (led by an appropriate evil Cerdic [Stellan Skarsgard] and his son Cynric [Til Schweiger]), some of the other details of the traditional legend are retained. We already have seen some familiar names—though the relationship between Guinevere and Lancelot has not yet developed. There is a large roundtable, but half occupied—it serves admirably to deflate the pompous legate from Rome, who thinks that he will be sitting at the head of the table when he negotiates with Arthur, there being no “head” at a round table.

Arthur’s adherence to the Pelagian form of Christianity is intriguing, though not fully explored. This makes him even more of an outsider, with the dominant Roman Catholic* faith having condemned Pelagianism just 21 years earlier. Pelagius had been a British or Irish monk who, settling in Rome late in life, was appalled at the low moral level there. Setting out to reform the church, his emphasis upon the freedom of the human will led him to deny original sin. Adam’s sin led to his fall, but not to all of humanity. The North African Bishop of Hippo, Augustine, argued strongly against Pelagius so that eventually, in 431 (a year after Augustine’s death) the church agreed with an earlier decree of the Western emperor that Pelagius stood condemned as a heretic. However, his teachings continued to be held by many, of which Arthur is one. Had he returned to Rome, as he had long dreamt of, he would have landed in deep trouble.

*Orthodox might be a better term than Roman Catholic, as the See of Rome was striving for a primacy not yet universally accepted by other bishops.