King Arthur: The True Story That Wasn’t

Originally written for a college course and published on Letterboxd in 2016

Looking at 2004’s King Arthur, it’s hard not to think of a pop culture phenomenon from around the same time, The Da Vinci Code (which would be adapted into a movie itself the following year). Both works take a central piece of Western mythology and revise it for the modern secular world, all while claiming (not altogether convincingly) that this was the original and factual version of the story all along, in this case with a title that practically demands it be accepted as the definitive take.

But while Dan Brown’s novel became a cultural touchstone and sold millions upon millions of copies, King Arthur was a major flop, and it was no success on the artistic level either. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a historical epic with so much naked contempt for the time it takes place in, the way people thought then, and the whole concept of history. If nothing else, anyone with even a passing knowledge of how the Round Table myth was cobbled together from dozens of unrelated ones is gonna give some serious side-eye to the idea that the real Arthur somehow knew the real Lancelot, the real Guenivere, the real Merlin, the real Tristan, and so on. At least they didn’t try to shove Prince Valiant in there.

I’m not arguing, of course, that all period pieces need to be overly reverent to the beliefs of our ancestors. After all, our ancestors tended to be racist, sexist, closeminded, and violent. Artists have a right, and even a responsibility to question those values; but there is a better way to go about it. Truly great works of historical literature (like, for instance, 12 Years a Slave) deconstruct outdated ideas from a place of understanding and a concern for the ways they persist in modern society, instead of taking the easier route of making the audience feel superior to the characters being portrayed.

Director, Antoine Fuqua goes all in for the latter approach, which, combined with all the hype about this being the “real” Arthur, seems almost Orwellian. The religious bigotry in the original texts can be disturbing. Wolfram von Eschenbach in his Parzifal, for instance, interrupts the Passion Narrative to talk about “the wicked Jews, whom we should kill like dogs.” It’s a real challenge to deal with this in an intellectually honest way, and it’s not one Fuqua is up to. Instead, his heroes are just as divorced from the ideas of their contemporaries as we are, and historically accurate religion is distorted into murdering, torturing strawmen.

Instead of implicating viewers in the sins of their forefathers, Fuqua gives them an easy way out, assuring them that, of course, if they had been around, things would be different. Lancelot, especially, seems like a refugee from a Reddit atheist forum, taking every opportunity he can to scoff at the backwards ways of religious people. These heroes fight not for the ideals they were brought up with, but that we were brought up with, reduced here to vague platitudes about freedom (we won’t even get into how the script has to attach a bunch of ideas to Pelagius that he never actually held to justify all this).

Still, this film was never intended as a coherent historical document, whatever the hype mught have said. It’d be unfair to judge it except as a work of light entertainment. Too bad it fails by those standards as well. The battles are interchangeable messes of flying mud (but no blood) and whirling cameras. Despite a few spectacular establishing shots, the world of the film is ugly and dull, both in the visuals and the script. Arthur’s bosses are so clearly despicable that it’s hard to care about the mission they send him on.

Arthur himself is comes off the neverending assembly line of bland heroes who deal with generic torment that’s never interesting enough to be tragic but just just tragic enough to keep him from being and darned fun. Clive Owen does far better with the role than it deserves, which only made me wish he could have been cast as a better version of Arthur. Ray Winstone as Bors is also the kind of character who’s pleasant just to be around, but he gets lost in the sea of interchangeable knights who all carry the names of legendary heroes without any of their personalities.

Keira Knightley also manages to at least not embarrass herself as Guinevere, even though the script does everything it can to embarrass her. In this version, Guenevere is a wild warrior woman, which cannot help but make the rail-thin and impeccably made-up Knightley look out of place. That’s not even getting into the movie’s most lasting legacy, the controversy over promotional art like the poster above, where Knightley was airbrushed to fit more closely into standardized ideas of ideal womanhood without her knowledge. Clearly, old-tymey misogyny isn’t as far in the past as the movie would have you believe. And then there’s her awkward romance subplot, which is less a subplot than a soft-focus sex scene lifted from an eighties action movie, plus a wedding scene lifted from a nineties Disney movie, all without any sense of people in any kind of relationship.

The last actor to make any real impression is Stellan Skarsgård as an appropriately nasty Saxon warlord, flavoring his line reading with dashes of Ron Perlman and Tom Waits. The film does manage to have a little fun with the standard elements of the legend. Even though it uses every possible beat from a million other tragic backstories (slow motion and everything!), the scene of Arthur pulling Excalibur from his father’s grave is both a clever update and actually kind of moving. It also calls attention to the biggest of the movie’s problems: everything that happens in it was predestined by Hollywood formulas. This is never more true than when it tries to be subversive, since every element of it deconstruction has become more cliche than the cliches it’s deconstructing. Of course the church and state are corrupt, of course the knights are loose cannons who don’t play by the rules.

Byt then, they say if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Thing is, the Arthurian legend itself has been chugging along pretty smoothly for the last thousand years, and in trying to fix it, Fuqua ended up creating a badly broken movie.

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