Leigh Singer explains why Hollywood’s new ‘true story’ of King Arthur won’t stand up to the legend.
lenty of sword. precious little sorcery — or at least cinematic magic. The general response to the new screen version of King Arthur has left fans of the eternally popular legend justly perplexed. What's with all the Roman soldiers and Russian horsemen? Where's the epic romance‘.’ What happened to the Holy Grail‘.’ Nobody expected Camelot-style show tunes or knights who say ‘Ni’ but when Merlin emerges not as a wizard but as a forest- dwelling warlord. the spitting image of Tom Hanks in Cast
Away. one can see how the spell cast by previous versions of
the tale might have been broken.
According to the filmmakers. however. what we’re finally seeing is ‘the untold true story' behind the myth. Years ago screenwriter David Franzoni catne across the story of one Lucius Attorius Castus. a Roman commander in I75 Al). who led a group of Sarmatian (think modern Georgia) cavalry around annexed Britain. along with references to one or possibly more soldiers named Arthur who led the island‘s native people to victory against the invading Saxons. Armed with this research. Franzoni pitched it to fiber-producer Jerry Bntckheimer as ’King Arthur as The Wild Bane/1‘.
Bruckheimer was instantly sold. I remember meeting him last year for Pirates oft/1e Caribbean. to find him already cnthusing about this next project. how he‘d hired 'I'mining l)a_v director Antoine Fuqua to keep the Dark Ages. well. dark. His Pirates leading lady Keira Knightley. thrilled to play a warrior Guinevere far from the traditional damsel—in-distress. warned against expecting medieval chivalry. advising: ‘Think more Bmvebeart. the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan but at the end of the Roman limpire.‘ The exclusion of A—list American stars also looked promising — no Kevin Costner— style hijacking of Robin Hood here. rather a solid liurocentric cast: Clive 0an. Ray Winstone. Stellan Skarsgard and co. Hardly a Hollywood fairytale.
Which may explain why. to date. King Arthur isn’t heading
for a happy ending. lts modest US opening week gross of
22 THE LIST 22 .Jul 5 Aug 2004
Slim (.S'pider-il/Ian 2 took Sl47m) is the third lowest ever for a Bruckheimer film. beating only the dreadful Bad Company
and sleeper hit Dangerous Minds. Critical reaction has been equally subdued: ‘a blunt. glowering B-picture . . silly-sounding pomposity and swollen music.‘ sniffed The New York 'Iiines. ‘Joylcssf declared 'Iime. As Arthurian insults go it’s not quite Monty Python’s ‘1 fan in your general direction‘. but still far from a coronation.
Naturally. the inquest into what went wrong has started before the film even opens across the rest of the world. But first things first. lt isn't the disaster some would claim (no movie with parts like ‘Mangled Saxon’ and ‘()bnoxious Monk‘ can be all bad). Though it lacks the majesty of Middle lianh battlefields in the Lord of the Rings trilogy or the pulpy fun of Pirates oft/1e Caribbean. l’uqua marshals his down and dirty fight scenes with style. particularly a standout showdown on an ice-bound lake. The production design. with minimal CGL is meticulous and there's a grittiness often lacking in Bruckheimer‘s slick packages.
11’s when you realise that writer liranzoni also scripted Gladiator that the film’s true heritage becomes apparent. Since that film’s Oscar-winning success. Hollywood studios have been holding a non-stop toga patty. With Troy and the upcoming Alexander and Ridley Scott’s Crusades saga Kingdom of Heaven. it‘s like the 1950s all over again. The filmmakers sought to take this renewed appetite for historical epics. add Mel Gibson's William Wallace—style brutal tribal tussles and hail a new king. Brave-An. if you will.
Neither Brave/wart nor Gladiator. however. had such truncated third acts as l‘uqua's film. Nor a lead actor who seems so awkward delivering lofty period speeches (Owen‘s a line screen brooder but for a future king he always sounds more Romford geezer than Roman noble). Nor was their uncompromising view of combat watered down. Despite Bruckheimer‘s earlier promises to deliver an R-rated picture. King Arthur was indeed severely trimmed to get a l’G-l3
. full of
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Clive Owen (above left) and Keira Knightley (right) head up the story of King Arthur. But why no blood in the battle scenes?