It is possibly this half-Roman, half-British soldier Artorius (or a man very much like him) who first germinated the very idea of carving a free and civilized England from the continental chaos of Dark Ages Europe. Only "possibly" because historians know so little about the historical figure. The world is considerably better versed, it turns out, in his enduring and intoxicating legend, for before long the centuries turned Artorius into Arthur, king of the knights of the Round Table.
That Arthur is a constant in literature and film. But it's the more elusive Artorius that Fuqua (Training Day) and screenwriter David Franzoni (Gladiator) seek in King Arthur. No legend, no Camelot, no magic and certainly no singing -- just a weary warrior in the service of Rome who wields an Excalibur stained with blood and a religious conscience awakening to the brutalities of his empire. The search for such an Artorius is a quest almost as noble as Camelot's utopian ideal -- and in the hands of Fuqua and Franzoni, it fails almost as miserably.
Franzoni's explication-heavy script possesses only a superficial smartness. The set-up for Artorius' evolution from Roman lackey to freedom crusader is sufficiently complicated enough, if only a mishmash of derivative constructs from about a thousand pre-existing action-adventure movies. (Gun for hire with a heart of gold used ruthlessly by the merciless rich and powerful, gun for hire gets a clue, gun for hire and his band of expendable brothers sent on fool's errand against all odds to certain death, and so on.)
Still, Franzoni's re-envisioned Arthurian iconography is, at times, satisfying. The Round Table's many empty chairs are a realistic far cry from the salon atmosphere of Camelot. The script rightly removes Arthur and his knights from the tidier medieval world of chivalry and courtly love and places them in Artorius' more savage time; King Arthur's knights live down in the dirt, Gawain and Galahad's hair braided and matted, Lancelot and Bors' humor jocular and ribald. As a young boy, Artorius pulls the sword Excalibur not from its magical prison of stone, but from the soil atop his father's fresh grave. A painted Pict princess, Guinevere is one damsel who certainly causes more distress than she ever falls into herself.
The life of each of these characters, though, luckily springs not so much from any script development but from the film's superior casting. Assuming our familiarity with the legendary characters he's so intent on demythologizing, Franzoni gives us really only glimpses of connections, shorthand scenes between Arthur and Guinevere, Guinevere and Lancelot, Lancelot and Arthur. In this vacuum, Clive Owen (Croupier) proffers a brawny, brainy, utterly believable Artorius. With arched eyebrow and innate intelligence, Keira Knightley masters this Guinevere's manipulative streak, perching on the back of a wagon and goading her future husband. "Where do you belong?" she asks the servant of Rome, seeing the answer he hasn't reached yet. As Lancelot the realist, Ioan Gruffud ably employs the expressions of exasperation, resignation and determination that he mastered on the decks of the Indefatigable as A&E's Horatio Hornblower. And bit players like Ray Winstone (the bawdy Bors) and Stellan Skarsgard (the wicked Saxon warrior Cerdic) create a solid second layer of craft.
Such wasted potential saddens. The film is visually flat and uninspiring, surprising from director of photography Slawomir Idziak (Black Hawk Down, Trois Couleurs) but perhaps not from the overrated Fuqua. When Artorius rides out in full armor, black smoke billowing behind him, the audience can't help but see the shot Fuqua wanted but couldn't get. (Mel Gibson could have; Ridley Scott, too, with his eyes closed.) The countryside is beautiful, but villages and outposts look like sets. Some costuming appears fresh from the tailor. Brutal battle scenes were edited to ensure that all-important, money-magnet PG-13 rating, and it shows; TV's hokey Highlander regularly boasted more realistic, close-quarters sword fights. There is a surprising resonance to the quandaries Artorius faces; he is a man caught between his God and his war, a believer who sees his Christian compatriots torture pagans, a democrat fighting for the ideal behind the current corruption. (Relevant much?) If only Fuqua and Franzoni had something, anything, to say. But they don't seem interested in building anything new, only in pissing on an ancient, cherished myth. Two-plus hours of sub-par filmmaking and one unspeakable blasphemy later, they take Excalibur's storied steel and drive it right through the heart of Arthurian legend, leaving only ephemera in its place.